Endless red scrolled from the distant horizon, swallowed by the bottom of the windscreen. The great six-wheeled beast clawed through the Martian dust; rocks the size of autocabs imparted the occasional sway. Risa perched in the captain’s chair, curled against the wall in the forward-left corner of the cockpit. The prowler rode nine feet off the ground, making even huge stones seem like minor bumps in the terrain. On either side of a dimmed display panel, control sticks wobbled idly. A flash of lime swept over the screen as a puff of smoke, sparks, and obscenities flew from beneath the dashboard.
Pain exploded in her head, as though someone perched behind her chair had beaned her with the pointy end of a crowbar.
“Ow!” Risa jumped, hand flying to the wire plugged into her skull behind her ear. “Watch what the hell you’re doing down there. You just cooked my damn brain.”
Waist-deep in the console, Pavo grunted. “We overpaid for this hunk of crap, even stealing it.”
“It was a gift.” She rubbed the burn out of her neck, nudging the rover around a boulder with a thought.
“More like gifted to the scrapyard.” His hand clanked onto the rim of the hatch in an effort to hold himself steady during the hard turn. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Driving. Unless you’d rather I steer straight into a stone the size of a drop building.”
Pavo’s voice echoed around the console. “I got half a feeling you wouldn’t mind that.”
“Oh?” She raised an eyebrow.
“You’re not what I was expecting. Seems like you’re not all that charged up about our job.” He reached out and grasped the edge of the portal, adjusting himself flat on his back. “I think I found the problem. Gotta replace a few connectors and a wire bundle.”
Risa picked at her fingernails, hiding her face behind a curtain of black hair. If Raziel hadn’t asked me to do this… “I’m sure you’ve heard the stories, but it’s mostly dustblow. I don’t enjoy killing.” She sighed. “Especially people who aren’t soldiers.”
“The stories got out of hand,” said Pavo. “Don’t gotta wear camo to kill civilians.”
She scowled, glancing at his crotch sticking out of the dash. “You’re hardly in a good position to piss me off.”
He banged his head on something inside. “Huh? Oh… Not you. I mean the damn politicians and scientists.”
“Yeah…” Sure. Risa turned her sour face to the left and glared out the window at the terrain.
Fifteen minutes later, a flurry of lit pixels appeared on the console screen, darting around like a swarm of luminous green gnats beneath a layer of dust.
“Looks like you licked the right contact. We got a couple dots.” She blew on the glass, lofting a cloud. “I feel like I’m driving with my eyes closed. This ancient shortrange only goes thirty-five meters.”
“Could be why they call it the shortrange.” He slid out far enough to flash her an exaggerated smirk and waved at the window. “Perhaps you could watch where we’re going? There’s nothing but flat open out here, and we’re headed for ACC territory.”
“Flat open full of giant rocks and ravines that’ll make this thing roll over. There’s too much light on the surface.” She shut her eyes, transfixed by a column of shimmering text, status readouts from her link to the prowler’s systems. So much flashing red. “Do you always worry this much? The transponder codes will work; we look friendly.”
“Yeah, real friendly.” He slid once more into the hatch, pounding on something out of sight. A metallic clank preceded a fusillade of sparks. “I’d feel better if I knew where they came from.”
The screen flickered, flashed, and bathed her in the green monochromatic glory of a three-dimensional wireframe map of the terrain ahead.
Pavo took a few loud breaths. “I don’t believe in angels bearing gifts.”
“It’s on, and you should.” Her rubbery armor creaked as she leaned forward and smeared finger trails of clean through the grime. “What century did this come from? An actual physical screen?” When the system diagnostics scrolled by, she blinked at the last firmware revision date: Feb 11, 2353. “This damn thing is sixty-five years old.”
“Not that impressive. I’m sure you’ll handle rather well at sixty-five too.”
She kicked him. I’ll be lucky to see thirty.
He let off a yowl as if it hurt, and rubbed the back of his right leg. “Easy… I’m tender.”
The display caught her attention with a bright flash. Beneath a layer of bullet-resistant resin with an embedded hairline grid, a wireframe map of the terrain scrolled along. The tiny digital prowler in the middle looked like a loaf with a pointy end and six huge wheels. It reminded her of an ancient video game on that datapad she’d found in the deep vents as a child. She stifled a laugh at the absurdity of getting misty eyed about such a thing. Nine years old, alone in a maintenance shaft, up late with a monochrome green space man blowing up aliens.
His fingers curled around the hatch. Sensing he was about to pull himself out, she gave a hard mental tap on the accelerator. He slid across the cockpit, coming to a stop halfway into the cargo area. The maneuver lined up his head with her seat. Pavo sighed at the roof and lay still, tapping his fingers on the floor. Risa smiled out over the Martian surface. The prowler’s electronics suite drew in orange spheres in the distance, settling like swollen glowing bubbles upon the horizon.
“The Cyclops came up. You’re better than you look.”
He winked. “I’ve heard that before.”
She rolled her eyes. “Basic competence surprised me.”
Wincing, he drew in a hissing breath. “Ouch. I suppose I can lay off the slacker bit now.”
“I told you this would be easy. I can avoid the effective radius of all their sensor posts. They won’t see us at all until we’re too close for it to matter.”
Pavo folded his arms over his chest. “I thought we were supposed to look friendly.”
“We do.” She put her boots up on the console, relying on the wirelink for all her sensory information. “There’s no point being careless.”
Risa steered straight into a steep incline to prevent rolling. Once they crested, she turned right again and headed for a clear path between two of the enormous bubbles. Pavo got up, grunting and groaning, and fell into the passenger seat with a whumpf. Wisps of pale blue overhead, a bubble of partial terraforming, sank out of sight as the windscreen filled with indigo and black. She didn’t need the sensors to tell her they’d left an area of breathable air. One of the ‘promises’ the government had been breaking for the past hundred years was a ‘fully terraformed Mars’ where no one would need e-suits to breathe. Whether the ongoing war caused it or just lobbying from the companies that manufactured e-suits, no one knew. Hell, half the people in Secundus City thought the terraforming machines were all broken and grinding away doing nothing.
When she glanced at him, he’d laced his fingers behind his head and closed his eyes.
“Napping?” she asked.
“I guess there’s no point doubting his claim that we won’t need suits at the site. If your invisible friend’s codes are shit, we’ll be vaped before we get that far.”
“Have a little faith, Pavo.”
“Faith won’t protect us from the ACC.”
Her face warmed with indignation, but she let it go. He couldn’t possibly know what it feels like. An angel chose me. “We’ll be fine.”
She closed her eyes and let her consciousness slip down the wire into the machine. An angel wants me to kill people. Why does that feel wrong? Cameras on the outside of the prowler became her eyes; giant wheels became her boots. The yellow spheres grew larger, sliding like gargantuan soap bubbles across the planet’s surface. Risa focused on a gap between them, where the field would be weakest and their chances of being detected lessened. With her consciousness inside the vehicle, she turned off the internal mic to spare herself Pavo’s snoring.
After an hour, they entered a canyon of shimmering virtual walls.
A drift of thirty-six inches to either side would pierce a digital bubble and set off a dozen alarms in some command bunker. She sighed in her mind, dreading a long, slow, and tedious drive.
Six hours later, waning daylight tinged violet as the sun traversed a pocket of induced atmosphere. She brought the prowler to a halt on a ridge overlooking a shallow valley, where the Allied Corporate Council had set up their ‘science outpost.’ She sat up and pulled the wire out of her head and then the console, coiling it into a loop around her fingers before stuffing it in her harness.
Raziel had told her where to look. Sure enough, even her novice skills within cyberspace led her straight to where someone had left a stack of data tiles. The hacker who stashed it there has to be fuming. Information like that would’ve been worth six times what they paid Denmark for the bomb. Data that proved a civilian research station concealed a military weapons lab would make someone very rich―or very dead.
She swung her legs off the console and stood. A few feet behind the driver’s seat and down four steps, an armored hatch offered access to the outside. A green light shone over the door, signaling breathable air. It broke seal with a loud hiss, swinging down into a ramp. The prowler’s tires, taller than her, blocked her view until she took a few steps closer to the edge of the overhang and squatted. Fading sunlight glinted in harsh tones of orange along a cluster of drop-buildings congregating in the gorge below. A ring at the corner of one roof had a length of snapped cable still dangling from it.
I wonder how many people died when they botched the air drop.
A wave of nausea crept through her stomach. How many are going to die because of us? Risa flattened herself and crawled to the edge. Pain pressed into her stomach as she slid forward, the slow, sharp drag of a stone unmuted by the impact-hardening gel in her armored bodysuit.
Pavo crouched at a distance safe from prying eyes. “How does it look?”
“Not as good as your view of my ass.” She lifted her hips enough to swat the bothersome rock aside. “This isn’t a military camp. I see only six guards with small weapons.”
“Not to bring up a stupid point, but if you had doubts like this… it’s a bit late to mention them.”
She suppressed a sigh. “I have to be sure before we do it. I… We don’t kill civilians.”
“This is Mars, Risa. Everything’s below the surface. You never see the whole picture of anything until you dig way underground.”
He crawled on his elbows to the ledge, holding binoculars. Risa intensified the zoom mode of her electronic eyes. Lines of green spread across darkness before a magnified image rendered in. Forty meters down, workers in plain maroon jumpsuits marched antlike from the rightmost pod building, dispersing among the other structures. From the looks of the windblown regolith built up around the legs, the temporary buildings had been in place for quite some time.
She leaned closer, chin touching dirt, and zoomed in farther, sweeping back and forth. “I don’t see rank insignia. This doesn’t feel right.”
“You know most people are afraid of the dark.” He offered the binoculars, glancing over after a few seconds of her not taking them. He stared at her smirking black-painted lips and then at the purple glow in her eyes. “Right. Cybereyes.” He held the binoculars back to his head, and panned side to side. “The intel you found pegged this place as a weapons facility.”
“I don’t kill civilians. We are trying to save them from their government, not hurt them.” She slid away from the edge with a contemptuous shove.
He kept watching. “There’s no way all those people are coming out of that little pod. The facility is definitely underground. I bet their bunks are in the long module over there. Most of them will survive, though they might go rolling.” He lowered the viewer.
She stared at nothing, her face a mask of guilt.
Pavo gestured with the binoculars at the camp. “They’re developing unconventional weapons the ACC will use against civilians. If I have to kill a couple of labcoats to prevent militarized nanobots from causing the horrible deaths of innocent settlers and their families, I will. You saw the file, right?”
Risa shuddered, thinking of her father’s face engulfed by fire. That memory tortured her for years; the idea of an entire settlement reduced to bones atop puddles of slime made what she had to do easier. “Yeah. Flesh degenerating nanobots.”
“Who would you rather see dead? People who’d make something like that, or a bunch of settlers’ kids that have no idea why they’re liquefying?”
Jesus, Pavo. “All right, all right.”
She rolled onto her back, gazing up at the fluttering interface of starry space and breathable air. When the sun vanished over the horizon, Pavo stooped into her vision, hand extended.
“Besides, your angel helped us. He was right about the air, so they must deserve it.” He pulled her up, but didn’t let go right away. “You okay?”
Armpits made for poor concealment of trembling hands. “I’ll be okay once we get moving, it’s the waiting… the quiet.” She looked away, then moved, wandering over to the start of a footpath she’d spotted on the ride in.
He’s mocking me. Must think I’m Cat-6. Heck, I probably look it. Sullen, hair wild in the wind, kicking at rocks like a frightened kid. She concentrated on metered breathing. This isn’t fear, but how can I feel guilt for something I haven’t done yet?
Pavo gathered the explosive and followed, seeming to find every inopportune stone and patch of soft dust on the way down. She cringed at each grunt, scrape, or muttered oath, expecting three hundred pounds of man-bomb to come barreling down on her.
“You’re as graceful as a Cydonian crab.”
He bumped into her sudden halt. “Considering they’re the size of hovercars, they are graceful. You’re more than welcome to carry this thing if I’m being too noisy, princess.”
Her eyes peeled away the darkness―brick-red ground became gradient green, weak searchlights flared into blinding orbs. At the bottom of the path, she crouched against a three-foot-high rock, waiting, watching. As soon as the expected sentry passed, she darted from cover in four silent bounds to the largest drop building. Augmented hearing alerted her of approaching boots; a guard rounded the corner a second and a half after Myofiber boosters in her legs launched her straight up, leaving behind a cloud of dust and a bewildered guard. She flipped over him, hanging upside-down for a few stretched seconds, mere inches from his head, and landed without a noise behind him. Before he could take another step, she pounced, muffling his scream with a hand over his mouth as her canine teeth extended with a motorized whirr that echoed in her skull.
She bit down on the side of his neck, injecting venom by mental command. The metallic taste of blood brushed her tongue; repulsive as it was, she held on as the struggling man pulled a pistol from his belt. His weapon slipped from his unresponsive fingers as soon as it cleared the holster. Risa guided the inert man to the ground and spat, a thin trickle of crimson running down her paper-white chin. Pavo shuffled across the clearing when the spotlight abandoned it, arriving as she rolled the guard under the elevated pod.
He lifted an eyebrow. “Tranq?”
“Yeah. I try not to load my teeth with neurotoxin.” Risa scooted into the two-foot gap between the bottom of the portable building and the ground.
“You know, most people use a spitting cobra for that. Less intimate.” He held up one finger. “Or a shock prong.”
“Spitting cobra?” She glared, shivering from the sensation of her skull vibrating as the fangs retracted. “That’s worse. I don’t want to kiss them.”
Pavo sighed. “Oh, and biting them on the neck is much less personal.”
She crawled past the sleeping guard to a maintenance hatch embedded in the ground.
“This is it.” Her claws brushed away bolts as easily as if they were loose pebbles.
After giving him a little scowl, she opened the hatch and peered in at a polished plastisteel surface glinting silver from several weak lights. Her eyes calculated the distance to the subterranean floor at forty feet. It would make for a stiff landing, but the Myofiber assists in her legs that boosted her agility would also absorb the fall.
“No ladder,” said Pavo. “Must be an emergency vent. We’ll have to look for―”
Risa glanced at him again and jumped. Ten feet of smooth metal ductwork shot by in a blink; after a short free fall, she landed in a three-point stance amid a large storage area.
「Well, okay then.」 Pavo’s voice crackled through static in her head. A little copy of his face appeared floating in the top-left of her field of vision. 「How’s it look down there?」
She panned over tarp-covered cargo boxes and canisters, freezing when something moved.
Grey metal panels lifted and turned amid the whine of actuators as one of the boxes reshaped itself into a towering humanoid figure. Glowing red eyes glared down at her from ten feet off the ground. Shit. Combat cyborg. Heavily armored. It snarled, a demonic, digital sound like two bits of metal scraping over each other. Not a scrap of living tissue remained anywhere on the body. If the thing had a living brain, it was protected by at least an inch of armor.
Risa sighed. 「It looks complicated.」