old air blew from unseen vents in the tunnel roof overhead. Deep below the surface of Mars, the air moved in silence, the fans too far away to sense any mechanical thrum. The passageway echoed with the scuff of eight pairs of boots on a mixture of gravel and dirt. The new guy walked at her right, five escorts followed them, and one man about fifteen paces out in front led the way. Darkness wobbled in the light from the handheld e-lantern in the leader’s outstretched hand. Rough, exposed stone along the ceiling glinted wherever metal wire conduits snaked among peaks and points. Long shadow fingers stretched across the grey plastisteel walls from open panels, gouges, and the occasional abandoned bit of machinery.
This has to be a test. Risa glanced at the man Garrison insisted she bring along on the pickup. So many things seemed wrong about this job. The Martian Liberation Front had been buying explosives from a man named Denmark for years, but never in person. It seemed strange that a new recruit would be along for the ride the first time the man agreed to a transaction not by proxy. Perhaps the size of the package this time around made the difference, or maybe he didn’t trust a go-between handling that much money.
She shot a suspicious squint at the new MLF man. Too convenient.
Traces of white appeared along the ridge of his brow and nose whenever the lantern dipped to the left. She hadn’t gotten much of a read on him in the briefing room. Hard to look around when you’re staring at your boots. She gritted her teeth. Why would they send an unknown along the first time we have a face-to-face with the source? A sigh escaped her lips, loud enough for him to glance her way. Bad enough I have to plant another bomb. She put a hand over her stomach, trying to catch butterflies. How many will die this time? Why the hell did he choose me? Guilt morphed through sadness and settled on loneliness. After twenty more minutes of walking in silence, it fermented to bitterness.
Garrison knows. He’s trusting me to kill this idiot before he can get Denmark.
A glow appeared two inches above eye level to her right, bobbing in time with the clanking of boots. It brightened for the span of a deep inward breath before it vanished―a cerulean firefly in the dark. The new guy exhaled. The rhythm of his footsteps broke into a stumble.
“This is not going to happen,” she whispered. “I’ll do the job alone before I go in with you high.”
“It’s only Icewhisper.” He coughed, thick and wet. “You oughta give it a shot sometime; it’ll loosen you up.”
His breath carried the warm essence of reassembled fish and ‘shine, a sickening undercurrent below the overpowering smell of blueberry vapor. As awful as the combination was, she found it almost a welcome break from the metallic dirt flavor that had been in her mouth ever since they’d gone into the old shafts. This guy’s either arrogant or an idiot.
The silhouette ahead of her leaned left and ducked. She mimicked the motion. The new guy didn’t.
“Son of a―” The recruit staggered and put a hand to his forehead.
“Mind the pipe,” said Risa, wearing a smile he couldn’t see. “If that shit makes you hit your head on a bullet, I’m not coming back for you.”
Stifled chuckles echoed from behind. She closed her eyes and let the Wraith take over. The cybernetic implant rendered the motion of the bodies behind her in whorls of grey, traced into her brain on platinum wires: five men, five heavy rifles, ten spiderbombs, and a mix of knives. She could take them all before the leader got the pistol off his belt.
The firefly returned. “You got some pair, for a chick.”
Vapor exuded from his mouth, folding back over his cheeks as he walked through it.
“Pair, huh?” She leaned over, rubbing her breasts against his chest as they stepped past a long-dead ore carrier. “They’re natural.”
“I’m talkin’ balls.” He shoved her to arm’s length.
Risa laughed; as hard as he pushed her, she should’ve gone over sideways, but boosted agility had its benefits. She recovered her confident stride and palmed a small, rectangular object into her weapons harness.
He adjusted his dark trench coat with a sharp tug. “Gettin’ on me for the whisp and you’re the one everyone says hears voices.”
One entity did not constitute ‘hearing voices,’ but she hadn’t known this guy long enough to care about correcting him. An annoyed strut filtered into her gait. “What I hear won’t get me killed by the MDF.”
Minutes passed as the procession advanced through an abandoned section of mines sixteen hundred meters below the surface of Mars. The ore pulled from these walls had long ago been made into the rusted and tarnished ‘grand’ subterranean city of Primus far overhead. Most of the locals avoided coming down this far. All it took was one ghost story and a few unexplained deaths for grown men to refuse to enter the old shafts in groups of less than five.
“So,” said the new guy, drawing another hit off his vaporizer. “You think there’s a haunt down here?”
Risa didn’t bother to look at him, speaking in monotone. “I’m the one that talks to angels, aren’t I?”
Five grey shadows behind her stiffened.
Afraid of the dark at their age? She suppressed the urge to roll her eyes.
Their guide led them through an open chamber with six exits. Deep trenches remained in the dirt from knobby tires of drilling machines decades gone. He went for the second tunnel from the left like he’d taken this walk hundreds of times.
A few minutes later, he stopped by a shadowed grey wall. “Boss is waiting for you.”
The man’s face lit green in the cast-off light of a pre-holographic keypad on the wall.
Damn, this place is old. Risa glanced to the side, making an obvious show of not watching him. Disdain spread through her expression as she appraised the new recruit again. Garrison’s voice replayed in her thoughts, asking her to take the man along and make sure nothing went off the rails. Pavo? Is that his name? She tilted her head left and right, stretching her neck.
The man with the e-lantern huddled over the keypad, pecking at chirping buttons. She could have lifted the code if she’d bothered turning her cybernetic eyes’ night vision mode on, but that sort of information was healthier not to have. Light from an opening door split the darkness; a patch of brick red expanded through the black ground, crossed with long shadows from a scatter of fist-sized rocks.
Inside, glowing LED bulbs hung naked on loose wires, their drift sending shapes dancing through shelves of old tools, scrap metal, and junk. Industrial stink saturated the air, the sort of chemical reek a person stops noticing after months of basking in it. The five men formed a horseshoe behind her and Pavo, rifles down but ready. Electronics in her nostrils lifted atomic traces from the air, feeding data to the processor grafted somewhere on her brainstem. Neon green text slid across the underside of her vision with a series of chemical names: explosives.
Risa stepped through the door first, moving between claustrophobic shelves packed with boxy components reminiscent of driller batteries. After fifteen meters, the space opened into a small clearing where a middle-aged man waited behind a desk, clad in olive drab and dirt. He smiled through the swirling dust, his eyes going over every curve. Her glistening ebon armor left little to the imagination, the clingy material covering her from the ridge of her jaw to the top of her shin-high boots―but it would stop slugs and knives.
I was expecting someone… more military looking. She edged closer to the desk, looking around like a girl visiting her father’s office.
“You have an exquisite ass.” The chair creaked into a lean. “Who’s the new guy?”
A mile below the surface of Mars, Risa Black finally met the man called Denmark.
Denmark tensed as she approached, gaze locked upon her figure. He fixated on her swaying hips until her thighs all but touched the edge of the desk. Gloss black stretched tight over her stomach, creating a surrealist world painted in reflection. She stared down at his warped face as it danced with the glare from the overhead light. Her posture took on the aspect of a limp marionette: head forward at a rightward tilt, long black hair draping her face, arms lax at her sides, and porcelain cheeks lit by the pale violet glow of electronic eyes.
Denmark’s men tensed; the climb of rifles stalled when he raised his hand.
“Hello, Denmark,” she said without moving. “Is the gift wrapped?”
He fidgeted, leaning sideways to try and force eye contact. Good. He’s scared. I’m more than a nice ass. His chair creaked to the right as he glanced at her companion.
“You didn’t answer my question. Who’s the new guy?”
Risa shifted her weight and looked back. Pavo stood at eye level with Denmark’s men, which made him tall. His long, black coat obscured his build, but a few seconds of thermal vision gave away concealed muscles, traces of white indicated cyberware. Athletic but not ridiculous. Wiring in his arms but not legs, some metal in his skull over the right eye. Dexterity boosts. He’s a shooter. Risa let her eyes go back to normal; the bright violet flash caused Denmark’s security team to take a step back. Pavo wore his hair in a severe buzz closer to a dark stain on his scalp than hair. His posture swayed somewhere between nervous and drunk.
“Pavo Aram.” He raised his arm in an uncoordinated salute. “I’ve been with the movement a week.”
Risa let her head loll around to the front, like a broken toy. “Garrison sent him along as a special request.”
Denmark eased forward. “One week? I did not know the man to trust so quickly. Mr. Aram must have made quite an impression.”
A hint of a smile threatened to pierce her blank face. She glanced back at him, disappointed by the lack of a bruise on his forehead. “Perhaps on the pipe.”
Pavo glanced out of the corner of his eye at the snickering behind him. He squared his coat on his shoulders and grumbled. She shifted toward Denmark again, staring at his desk as if to burn holes through it. A second later, the violet glow left her cheeks as her eyes flicked up to fix upon the man.
“There a problem?” asked Risa.
The nascent mirth on his lips fell flat. “You have enemies, girl. There is much risk in bringing you here.”
Risa grinned as if she had gotten away with something. “No worse than yours. You made us wait two years to meet. I thought you’d at least have offered us coffee.”
Her hand crept toward the harness that held a pair of Hotaru-6 laser pistols, one under each arm.
Five rifles aimed at her back. Pavo took another long hit off his inhaler, exhaling a flood of blueberry vapor through his teeth. She tugged a three-inch plastic fob from the holster and leaned forward, holding it to the desk beneath her right hand. Jet hair spilled off her shoulders, a finger’s width from touching the surface. A shifting ghostly shape caught her attention in the shelves beyond the desk, someone trying to stay out of sight. Risa smiled. The Wraith picked up the motion and let her see it.
The grey shapes behind her leaned tall, craning their necks.
That’s it. Keep looking at my ass. You’ll never see me coming.
Risa spread paper-white fingers. The lime-green display on the credstick read 120,000.
“It’s a pleasure to finally see your face, Denmark. Would you be a dear and have your friend in the back retrieve the gift?”
Denmark’s guffaw rolled through the men with the force of a shockwave. Rifles rattled. Even Pavo jumped. Her grin widened.
The end of Denmark’s laugh rolled into a shout. “Krause…”
Risa straightened. Close call, old man. I don’t like sudden, loud noises. The billowy shape in the back drifted closer, growing defined until it coalesced into a large human form. Color spread over the figure as it entered the light, revealing a man, wide and square-faced, with silvering hair. To his chest, he clutched a box wrapped in a drab crimson duffel. When he stopped at the side of the desk, she reached over and pulled the bag open, caressing the top of the matte grey case within.
Pavo sidled up alongside her. “So that’s what I’m doing here. You couldn’t lift that thing.”
She swiped her fingers over the box and drew them to her nose. A wireframe of green neon lines superimposed themselves over reality, courtesy of her electronic eyes. A long formula rendered itself in virtual reality. Chemical names flashed by: nitroamine, periculum chromate, dioctyl sebacate, polyisobutylene, mineral oil, ceresium perchlorate. The cycling text stopped, flashing ‘Generation six non-Earth-element enhanced explosive.’
“NE6? Impressive, Denmark. I see your reputation is well deserved.”
She tossed the credstick onto the desk.
His hand fell upon it like a mousetrap. “As is yours.”
Krause pulled the duffel closed and handed the ponderous bundle to Pavo. Risa turned on her heel and headed for the door. Perhaps he’s not entirely useless then. She paused when the five men didn’t move out of her way. After four seconds, she lifted her head in a sharp snap.
“Is there a problem, or were you just staring at my tits?”
“Tits,” said one.
Three of them cringed.
Risa fixed the one who’d spoken with a cold glare. Lines appeared in midair around his face, pointing out features of a stress response indicative of fear.
Her hard expression shattered to laughter. “At least he’s honest.”
They backed off, and she walked out of Denmark’s ‘office.’ Without the guide leading them, she trusted the Wraith to bring the world around her into her brain. Her motion created the walls as four perspective slabs of grey with a square of black at the center. Every ten minutes, she stopped to let Pavo catch up, and everything went dark except for his wispy ghost wobbling up behind her.
The seventh time she stopped, he stomped to a halt three steps to her rear and grunted.
“Can you slow it down a bit?” He gasped for air.
“It’s just a little farther,” she half-whispered, and edged left against the wall.
“Easy for you to say,” he wheezed, still addressing the spot she’d spoken from. “You’re not carrying this damn thing.”
Good. He can’t see in the dark, and he won’t be able to fight tired.
“No night vision?” She asked.
He jumped at her full volume coming from somewhere other than where he expected her to be. “Nope. All I got is a bit of a dex tweak for shooting and an internal comm. I got a problem with putting too much shit inside. If we were meant to have wires everywhere, we’d have been born that way.”
Fuck you too. She stormed ahead. You’re really going out of your way to make this easy on me, aren’t you? Her eyelids half-closed with a mental sigh. Just go ahead and call me a monster.
With each clank, grunt, and groan Pavo made as he stumbled through the field of old machine parts, she squeezed her fists tighter, envisioning every bump causing him pain. She found herself watching his shadow out of the corner of her eye, hoping he’d trip or wipe out, but alas… something about him picked at her guilt.
“Watch your step, there’s junk on the floor up here.”
“Where is it?” he rasped.
“Thirty-six meters ahead on the far side of another junction chamber.” She didn’t stop at the ten-minute mark that time, continuing at a brisk walk another quarter mile. She stopped alongside a metal cage around an elevator shaft. “Here it is.”
Light flicked on about thirty meters behind. The source, a tiny flashlight, wobbled as Pavo struggled to orient it at the floor while keeping hold of the bomb. Risa shook her head. This guy is so clumsy, I might actually feel bad for getting rid of him. He couldn’t be any more obviously a DF officer than if he’d worn the armor. She pulled the safety bar up and dragged the gate to the side, opening the path to an elevator that hadn’t moved since before she was born.
“Sweet shit,” said Pavo, as he staggered up to where she stood. He panned the light over at least an inch of silt. “Does this thing even still work?”
“So I’ve been told.” She gestured at the platform. “After you.”
Pavo stomped in and stooped to lower the duffel. He let the explosive drop the last six inches, tamping a starburst of bare metal out of the red dust. Risa flattened against the rock wall as the clank repeated through the darkness of three tunnels leading out from the chamber.
“Heh.” He took a few breaths. “Impact alone won’t set off NE6, and leaning a little farther away won’t do a damn thing with a charge this size.”
Pavo tugged at the door on the control box housing, finding it locked.
It’s not the explosion I’m worrying about. She squinted, straightening the fingers of her right hand. Transparent claws sprouted from her fingertips―multiple segments of synthetic diamond locked together into eight-inch, triangular blades. “Pavo, how long have you been with the MDF?”
“Nano claws… that’s not a cheap part. Guess we’ve got a bigger budget than I thought.”
“The MDF, Pavo. How long?” Risa held her hands out to the sides. Droplets of blood crept down ten glinting edges, razors on the inside of a curve.
He raised his hands and eyebrows. “MDF? Where’d you get that from?” He tapped the flashlight to the side of his head. “That damn voice of yours?”
She adopted the stance of a broken marionette. Pavo leaned back.
“Icewhisper reeks of peppermint, not blueberry.” Risa ambled a step closer, moving with the jitters and jerks of a Class 1 maintenance doll in the throes of shorting out. “It also causes hypervigilance, edginess, and paranoia… not a drunken stumble. You don’t have a whisp-head’s glassy rattle in your breath, which means you’d still be on the first week of use… and should be flat on your back wondering what time tastes like.”
Pavo leapt back as she lunged, swiping past him. A faint click echoed as the claws passed through the plastisteel locking bar on the control box housing. He stared mute as the panel squeaked open. Three finger-width ingots clattered to the ground with a series of melodic pings.
“You know what I think, Pavo Aram?” She looked him in the eye. “I think Garrison sent you for me to get rid of. The only thing I don’t understand is why you didn’t make a move on Denmark.” A violet glow shimmered on his chest, sinking with downcast eyes. Damn it Garrison, you know I despise this sort of thing.
He held his left hand out, fingers apart. “Wait…” His right crept to his sidearm.
“He is testing one of us.” She turned her back on him and stared into the dark tunnel. The claws on her left hand snapped back inside her fingers with a click audible only to her enhanced ears. She tugged a three-inch rectangular object out of her harness and twirled it over her shoulder. Claws on her other hand glinted as they curled over her hip, catching the light of a weak service lamp. “You dropped your e-mag.”
“The brush-up. Cute.” He grumbled, letting go of the laser. “I faked the whisp, but it’s not what it looks like. I’m not a mole; I’m with the Pueri Verum Martis. I know I have MDF written across my forehead. I thought the drug use would calm them down.”
“I’d like to believe that.” Her voice, lifeless as her posture, trailed off. “Do you even know what that means, or did you pick it up on the police blotter?”
“True Children of Mars,” he muttered. “We who were born here and reserve the right to govern ourselves. Not beholden to a government that has never drawn one breath of Martian air.”
She jabbed the e-mag at a button and a shudder rocked through the platform. The elevator jerked up an inch and halted in a cloud of dust. “Shit.” Why do they all think I’m an assassin? Her head drooped. Probably because you never tell them no. “Well, I guess this is as good a place as any. I’m sorry, Pavo.”
He peered upward into the rolling smoke consuming distant utility lights. “Do honorem Marti, ad ei inimici dabo ira mea.”
How could he possibly… She straightened, whispering, “Ab umbris vigilemus donec exiguntur.”
Pavo drifted closer, his breath brushing her neck. “Et vae qui minentur, nam prævaleamus.”
She stood as still as a statue.
“I give honor to Mars, my wrath I give her enemies.”
Risa gazed into the dark distance. “From the shadows, we watch until required.”
“And woe to those who threaten us, for we shall prevail.”
He sounds so different… proud. Not a bumbling idiot. Slivers of synthetic diamond retreated into her fingers once more. She watched the tiny slits close, skin mended by a small army of nanobots. Does Garrison know? Was he expecting this?
She offered the e-mag over her shoulder. He grasped it, and with it her hand. His touch lingered, fingers interwoven for a moment. When he pulled away, she let her arm fall limp. I was ready to kill him. Risa scowled. Why didn’t they tell me? Maybe he’s just a good infiltrator. Behind her, the weapon chirped to life after the battery clicked into the pistol grip. She didn’t react. Metal scraped as he fussed with the panel, pulling at wires and muttering.
“I’ve been in some dirty boxes before, but this is…”
Pig. “You don’t think I’m crazy then…” She wiped droplets of blood from her fingertips.
The elevator wobbled, sending a reverberating metallic shudder echoing down the tunnels. Seconds later, it labored upward after a shower of sparks burst from the panel.
“What gave you that idea?” Pavo swatted dust from his sleeves.
She spun, hair dancing in the downdraft, and made eye contact with him. “You said―”
Out of the smoke and the darkness came a deep and lustrous sound beyond mortality. The presence embraced her in sheltering warmth. Energy tingled through every muscle fiber. Risa fell to one knee, arms wrapped about her chest as the very air vibrated with a voice only she could hear.
Pavo speaks the truth.