The View from Stickney Crater
by Rick Kennett
Five minutes later they were in the airlock, ready to jump. Dr Ben Norsk at a hundred and three was the oldest member of Utopia Plain’s crew, while Lieutenant Cy De Gerch at seventeen was the youngest.
“How’s the headache now, Miss De Gerch?” asked Norsk, trying to sound calm over his vacsuit’s intercom.
“Gone,” she said. “Should stay that way as long as fire control remains off-target.”
Captain Brown loud in her helmet earpiece said, “Cy, do you still hear Wiltchie’s voice?”
“Very well. Go.”
They went, the doctor first, De Gerch following, swept out of the lock on a beam of gravity. At its focus up ahead lay the dead hulk of the troop transport Mariner Valley, drifting as a gigantic, jagged shadow against the sunlit side of Cue Ball. Opposing starships had swarmed around the small white moon a day before, leaving behind such wreckage. Both Norsk and De Gerch knew, as they arrowed between ships, that the battle might soon return.
De Gerch did a half somersault to watch Utopia Plain shrink into the darkness. Too late. Black on black, the frigate was already impossible to make out, save where eclipsed stars betrayed her outline.
The voice in her head said, **Cy, are you here yet?** As always it spoke with no pain, no urgency, no fear.
“We’re travelling, Roscoe.” She had to whisper when projecting to Roscoe Wiltchie, trapped deep in the wreck, in order to override the mutterings of the subconscious, the id and the ego — a circumstance she was thankful for. Thoughts were private like a diary, not to be read by anyone, not even a fellow Gartino like Wiltchie. She twisted herself right around, as the doctor was now doing, so that they approached feet first. Mariner Valley was an ovoid, and the massive hole fringed with upflung hull made her appear like a savaged womb, bitten deep. But closer, as the hole swung big and dark beneath them, it looked more like a silently screaming mouth. They passed within, engulfed.
Their vacsuits took up the shock as they landed on what had been the bulkhead of a compartment five levels down. To left and right the slag-edged walls of the hole reached back into space like terraced hillsides. A moment of disorientation came and went as they convinced themselves everything was not sideways, that they were not about to fall off the wall. Artificial gravity had died with the lighting, the drive, the life support systems and a third of Mariner Valley’s crew and troop contingency.
“We’re in,” Doctor Norsk said and was acknowledged by Utopia Plain.
De Gerch said, “We’re in,” with a whisper that went unanswered.
An impossible figure flickered into existence before then, naked in this hard vacuum and lacking all bodily detail. Its arms and legs ended in amorphous pads, and the head was little more than a bland egg. Its pale blue glow provided the only relief to the shades of grey imaged by their visors’ light amplifiers.
“Communication … can you give it some looks?” said De Gerch aloud.
Her earpiece crackled with a long rustle of static, probably from some neutronic detonation many millions of klicks off. Then a woman’s voice overrode it, saying, “Lieutenant De Gerch … it’s a holographic guide, not your perfect match.”
“Humour me, Ingrid,” she said, recognizing the voice of Com Chief Ingrid Hong. “Blank faces on things like these give me the willies.”
Controlled by Utopia Plain’s communications team, the holo guide turned and strode off along the wall at an easy walking pace. Norsk and De Gerch crouched, leapt and floated gently in its footsteps.
“Roscoe,” said De Gerch, “keep talking to me.” He hadn’t spoken for nearly a minute. These lapses worried her.
**I feel no pain,** came that tiny mental voice. **A bad sign, I think.**
“Nothing’s a bad sign while you’re still breathing.”
**I’m not even sure that I am.**
“That’s enough of that rubbish, Lieutenant Wiltchie!”
**Insubordination, I think, Cy. I have two days seniority over you.**
“Then stop being so defeatist or you’ll never get to put me on a charge.”
**You’re so beautiful when you’re being officious.**
“Shut up. You haven’t seen me in three years. War makes us ugly.”
“Three years can make a great difference at our age.”
She thought she heard him chuckle, but couldn’t be sure because at that moment her attention became riveted to the holo. It was growing hair on the top of its head, regulation cut, black and shiny. The figure paused and half turned in a deceptively human gesture as if to check the progress of its followers. It now had eyes, nose, mouth, jaw line, cheek bones, the profile of a young man of seventeen.
De Gerch caught her breath.
“My fault. I asked the comm chief to humour me, but I should’ve known better. She’s stuck your face on the guide. Well, at least it shows Command’s finally transmitted your file to Utopia Plain.”
** How wonderful for you. How do I look?**
“Just as ugly as when you were fourteen.”
**As good as that?**
Using their suits’ propulsion systems at low power De Gerch and Norsk glided along between knives of torn and crumpled metal, over the warped and fused deck. Striding through it all like a ghost, the hologram with Roscoe Wiltchie’s face beckoned them on.
“Gartinos are strange cattle — they’re capable of strange things,” Doctor Norsk had told Captain Brown before they left Utopia Plain. “Who’s to say mental contact between them in moments of crisis isn’t one of them.”
But Brown knew it was more than that. Lieutenant De Gerch had failed to centre Mariner Valley in the weapons repeater at point blank range, and when Lieutenant Peters had taken over, sighting the forward tubes on the wreck, De Gerch had gripped her head and screamed in agony. When the sights were taken off, the pain subsided and the voice of Roscoe Wiltchie began to speak in her mind.
“We sensor swept the wreck twice and found no sign of life,” the captain had said.
“If he’s in the control core it could be shielded,” De Gerch argued. “We could probe till doomsday and still not see him.”
Doctor Norsk nodded his agreement. “Ralph, there’s no way Miss De Gerch could’ve known he was aboard at the time she started hearing him.” An answer from Command to their query about Wiltchie had only just arrived: CONFIRMED LIEUTENANT R. WILTCHIE STRATEGIC COORDINATIONS OFFICER MARINER VALLEY. NOT LISTED AS EVACUEE.
“Find Wiltchie and snap her out of this thing,” Brown said to Norsk as the doctor was entering the airlock. “The battle will come this way again soon. I need my guns and I need her on the trigger.”
The holo was now entering the central stair spiral. It began descending, never skipping a step. De Gerch and Norsk floated along after it. At each turn of the spiral were locks that had slammed shut as the levels lost atmosphere. At each lock De Gerch extended the recessed spoked wheel beside it and turned it until the lock opened enough to admit them. Each time the holo was waiting on the other side, always three steps below and smiling as if with superior patience.
They dropped past the armoury where laser powerpacks and neutronic warheads lay, then past the central store which held enough equipment to supply ten thousand soldiers.
Four levels down they found an arm.
It hung there fetched up against a buckle in the spiral, a forearm sheared off above the elbow, trailing strings and hard black globules. De Gerch averted her eyes and continued down.
“Are you cold?”
“Are you in pain?”
“Do you have trouble breathing?”
“You’re in the control core?”
**I don’t know.**
“What do you see?”
On one level where the hull had remained intact, the air had frozen out when life support failed and was now a thin veil of dirty white, falling slowly up and down and sideways. Further down where direct hits had fused and ripped and riddled, they passed through a tumbling cloud of debris comprising plastic and metal, fragments of hull, brittle frozen blood and guts.
“Where do you know Wiltchie from?” asked the doctor. No answer. “Miss De Gerch?”
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
“We’ll soon be out of it. Close your eyes. Take my arm. I’ll guide you.” Below them the holo continued to descend steps, even where steps no longer existed. The doctor said again, “Where do you know Wiltchie from? Training?’
“Before that. We’ve got the same …” She laughed, but none too brightly. “We’ve got the same batch number, decanted together, you might say. He’s the only other Gartino from Phobos. It’s a small place, Phobos. It’s like … what’s an Earth equivalent for you, Doctor? Like an ocean atoll. Small community, a little bit insular. The view from Stickney Crater … it’s always Mars, you know. Always big red Mars in the sky above Stickney Crater. That’s where we come from, Roscoe and I. We lost sight of each other not long after we went to Mars for secondary training. He went into tactical logistics and I went into navigation and ordinance –” She broke off with a yelp as something bumped softly against her helmet visor. Instinctively she opened her eyes, only to see Norsk’s hand obscuring her vision. “What is it?” she said. “What is it?”
“Just a bit of bunk bed from the barracks,” Norsk said cheerfully, pushing away the charred half torso and its dangle of stiff entrails. “Keep your eyes closed a little longer. Nearly out of it.”
“I’m not being very brave.”
“Squeamishness has nothing to do with courage.”
**You cried the day you fell over climbing the Crater wall and skinned your knee.**
“What’s that, Roscoe?” she whispered.
**We were four. We were playing war games even then.**
“I hate people with long memories.”
**Ten years later, Cy, remember? One lazy day after we finished first-stage training, just before we were to be assigned, the first time we had sex?**
“The only time. So?”
**I just wondered if you remembered.**
“I remember. It hurt.”
**I heard you later took up with another girl.**
“She died in a training accident a year ago. I was nearly killed as well.”
**Yes. I know.**
“I was two weeks in Styx Hospital while my arm was being rebuilt. You should’ve visited.”
**Perhaps by then I didn’t care anymore.**
“Did I break your heart?”
“Signal from Command, sir.”
“Let’s have it up here, Ms Hong.” Brown reached for a screen above his head, pulling it down to eye level. He’d been expecting this and now that it’d arrived he felt the tension lift, but not the worry. He wondered why he even bothered reading it; the gist couldn’t be any different from what he’d been imagining ever since sending over Norsk and De Gerch. Yet he read it all the same because he was a creature of habit and of duty. The words were as stark in their content as they were starkly white on black: LARGE GROUPING HOSTILES THREATENING WEST FLANK. IMPERATIVE CONTENTS AND HULL MARINER VALLEY BE DESTROYED. UNDERSTAND CIRCUMSTANCES BUT MUST WEIGH GREATER GOOD. IN COMPANY ELYSIUM PLAIN COVER LANDINGS THIRD PLANET OUTER MOON AS PER TIMETABLE. MESSAGE ENDS.
A glance at the deep range scanner repeater showed nothing yet. He opened a line to Lieutenant Peters down at fire control, then hastily closed it again. But Frank Peters must’ve heard. He turned and looked up at the captain with such an expression of expectancy that Brown thought he could hear the young man’s guts churning. The captain shook his head and Peters, still waiting for the worst, looked away.
A touch to Brown’s console pad evoked the skeletal hologram of Mariner Valley before him, complete with two tiny figures creeping along, winding ever down deep inside, now not far from the centre. He peered into the image, convinced he could make out the features of the grey headed doctor and the dark-haired girl who mentally heard the voice of a boy genetically engineered like herself. Strange cattle, Gartinos. All going well they would reach the control core in a few minutes and be out again in ten. Of course this hologram was constructed from structural plans of the vessel, not as it was now with possible obstructions too deep to be scanned. Still, nothing had barred them yet and only a couple of more levels were left to go.
He took a chance. According to the strategic timetable the invasion of the third planet’s outer moon, which they were to cover in company with Elysium Plain, was still a comfortable time off. Brown decided their sister ship would have to stay lonely just a little longer. He had never disobeyed an order in his life, and did not intend to do so now. He was simply going to delay the carrying out of this one. For the moment he did nothing.
It looked like catacombs waiting for corpses.
The stair spiral had bottomed into a solid lump of fused metal, plastic and miscellaneous debris, impassable, except for the holo which they had to recall via its control aboard Utopia Plain. Redirected, it guided and they followed, slipping through cracks in shattered decks, in and out of disconnected corridors and sheered spaces until they reached this practically intact stretch looking like catacombs waiting for corpses. The coffins were empty and lined the bulkheads left and right, one upon another, six deep with transparent sides. Cy De Gerch was glad they were empty; at least it showed the soldiers who had shipped out from Earth and Mars in suspended animation had had time to defreeze, perhaps even to escape. But if they did die at least they’d done so in action, not in passive frozen sleep. De Gerch was ingrained with enough of the Valkyrie to find the notion of death in sleep just a little distasteful. With the doctor beside her she floated on, following the holo who marched with an air of purpose down the centre of this gallery of glass boxes.
“Tell me about Stickney Crater,” said Doctor Norsk.
“What’s there to tell? It’s a great hole in the face of Phobos running a kilometre deep and always has Mars hanging over it. I used to love watching Mars going through its phases every seven hours or so, seeing the lights of Hesperia, Styx City and Central Hallas swing by at night. Phobos doesn’t rotate. But I suppose you know that.”
“Yes. Like Earth’s moon.”
“Yes. I’ve seen pictures of your moon. Pretty.”
**Soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the East and Cyleen is the sun. Arise fair sun and kill the envious moon that is already sick and pale with grief …**
“What?” said De Gerch.
Doctor Norsk, who had only heard the “What” and “Who”, asked, “What’s he saying? Is he all right?”
“I think he’s sinking into delirum. He said he could see lights through a broken window in the east, that I was someone’s son and wanted me to kill a moon that was sick and pale.”
There was a pause, then Norsk chuckled. “Shakespeare.”
**If you’d spent less time mooning around watching Mars and a bit more on human experience you wouldn’t be here now asking such silly questions as ‘Shakespeare?’**
“And if you –”
**You were about to catalogue my failings.**
“I was only going to say you should’ve applied yourself more to our chief purpose of being.”
**Just as you did?**
“We were bred together, Roscoe, built together gene by gene. Logistics … it’s a waste of your talents. Anyone can do logistics.”
**Normal people, you mean. What then is our chief purpose of being, Cy? As a Gartino. Why were we given the talents we have? What is our only reason for existence? Gunnery? Gunnery? Gunnery?**
“Yes!” said De Gerch. “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Doctor Norsk, surprised at the outburst, glanced at her. He thought her eyes glistened.
Wiltchie said, **I’m sorry I hurt you.**
“Forget it. Look at it this way, I’ve had no other man since you.”
**I think that’s what’s known as cold comfort, Cy. Did you ever think about me? Did you ever wonder what I was doing these days?**
“Yes, there were times,” she replied, knowing the times had been few and far between.
The holo began to flicker, losing definition, reverting to a pale blue thing. Its confident stride became a hesitant shuffle.
“It’s losing the signal from the ship,” said Norsk. “We must be moving into the shielding that prevented the sensors finding Wiltchie.”
A minute later, with radio contact with Utopia Plain little more than a sputter, they caught up with the struggling holo. It stood with its blurring arm outstretched in ushering manner before a closed door marked CONTROL CORE — AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
THREE HOSTILES BROKEN THROUGH WEST FLANK. BELIEVED BE IN VICINITY CUE BALL TEN MINUTES. THIRD PLANET OUTER MOON LANDING FORCED FORWARD TWO HOURS. CONFIRM MARINER VALLEY NEUTRALIZED. MESSAGE ENDS.
Brown cursed aloud, attracting glances from control room personnel. The damn enemy couldn’t be relied upon for anything, could they. He was hoping they’d remain contained for another hour at least. And Command thought Mariner Valley, her weapons and equipment were now a shower of metallic meteors raining down in fiery splendour upon the frozen surface of Cue Ball, safely out of enemy hands. Command made some silly assumptions sometimes.
Now Brown knew he’d topped them with a silly gamble. Time to cut the losses. He opened a line to scanner room, gave them instructions and had them contact manoeuvring and fire control.
A moment later he saw Lieutenant Peters actually jerk in his seat as scanner room began to speak through his phones. Poor Peters, Brown thought. He’s been sitting there sweating on the trigger, waiting for an order he knows he’ll have to carry out with an executioner’s hand.
Worry in the lieutenant’s face turned first to puzzlement, then relief as he heard what he was to do. His voice, still strained, came up the line. “Captain, as we’re out of radio contact with Lieutenant De Gerch and Doctor Norsk, how will they know to take appropriate action?”
“They’ll know,” said Brown, which was a lie and he knew it. This was another gamble, but he liked the odds this time. As Utopia Plain yawed on her gyros and weak eddies of generated gravity shifted her position in respect to Mariner Valley, he said, “Feed in target data from scanner room, Mister Peters. Lock in forward laser.”
“Where are you exactly?”
**In the centre.**
“Can you see our lasers cutting through?”
“Do you see anything?”
“Do you feel anything?”
“No feeling at all?” said Norsk when De Gerch passed on what Wiltchie had said. “Sounds like complete spinal paralysis. He’ll be a delicate case to move in any event.” As he said this their lasers finished cutting through the control core hatch. They pushed through and turned on their helmet spotlights, causing grotesque shadows to leap about a scene already grotesque in its devastation and carnage.
“Roscoe! Roscoe! We’re in! Do you see our lights?”
There was a long pause, then, **I can see a light.**
Their search had only just begun when Norsk heard De Gerch make an odd noise of pain. Turning, he saw her fetching up against wreckage, clutching at her helmet. “What is it?” he said.
“The ship … targeting … feel it …”
“Maybe … feels different …” De Gerch screwed up her face and clenched her jaw. “Don’t know … pain feels different …”
Norsk guided her back towards the hatch. “Well … try to float here where there’s no wreckage to tangle in. I’ll look around for Wiltchie.”
The doctor’s light swung off through the surrounding monochrome nightmare. De Gerch drifted into a corner and tried to ease the pulsing pain out of her head. It was not as intense or as sharp as when she’d originally targeted Mariner Valley, which made her think, made her hope it was not a presage of total destruction. She could no longer hear Roscoe Wiltchie. Something moved at the edge of her vision. A piece of colour, flickering pale blue.
Holo, stupid holo, she thought idly against the pain. What does it want in here?
It approached, regaining strength and definition, regaining the hair, eyes, nose, mouth, jaw line, cheek bones and profile of a young man of seventeen, the shoulders, the arms the legs, the walk of Roscoe Wiltchie. His lips moved and she heard him say plainly in the vacuum, “Shelter to the left of the hatch. Hurry.” His face pushed close into hers and seemed to fade as it came in a looming, dispersing blueness — and Cy De Gerch could’ve sworn someone had kissed her.
The pain was gone. Over her radio she heard Doctor Norsk make a strange sound deep in his throat as he hovered over the centre of the room, looking down.
“Hurry, Doctor,” she said, beckoning frantically.
He only just reached her and huddled there behind the debris to the left of the hatch when Utopia Plain’s laser sliced into the control core, showering in sparks and glaring white light. The heat seemed never to stop, coming close to baking them in their suits. Burnt, skin-blotched, semi-conscious, they were pulled up that white rimmed tunnel on a gravity beam, rushing towards a darkness outlined in stars.
The fire fight with the three incoming enemy vessels, a freighter and two warships, was a near thing. Decelerating, but still with high momentum, they slid in shooting. Utopia Plain pivoted on her gyros. Gravity rings slammed down her hull. She curved away. De Gerch, reviving in the ship’s cool air, targeted the enemy in a clear mind, spraying off two salvos of neutron torpedoes, hitting the freighter and sending its escorts swinging out in evasive manoeuvres. The third salvo she reserved for Mariner Valley. Hit full and square, the troop transport dissolved in a blazing white pulse.
In a quiet moment, after Cue Ball had disappeared astern, after the landings had been supported, the battle turned once more, the doctor asked her, “Did you know?”
“What I was talking to? What was talking to me?” She shrugged. “Maybe. Was it hope or naiveté that had me believing he really was alive in there?”
“You’re still young enough for both,” he said.
“I’d like to think we all are, Doctor.” Cy De Gerch brought her knees up on the fire control chair and, hugging them, gazed out at the stars imaged on the nearest screen.
About the Author
Rick Kennett has had horror and SF stories published in several magazines, anthologies and podcasts including Dunesteef, PseudoPod, and Cast of Wonders. He won two Parsec Awards for podcast stories in 2013, a year that also saw the publication of his novel The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. One of those Parsec Awards was for Cast of Wonders Episode 71, Now Cydonia, one of the several Martian Ranger Cy De Gerch stories.
When not toiling at the day job in the transport industry, he can be found wandering cemeteries – necrotourism – or working as the podcast reporter for the Ghosts & Scholars M R James Newsletter.
About the Narrator
Marguerite is a native Californian who has forsaken sunny paradise to live with her true love in Merrye Olde England. She frequently wears so many hats that she needs two heads. When she’s not grappling with legal conundrums as a commercial solicitor, editing Cast of Wonders, or helping behind the scenes as COO of Escape Artists, she can be found narrating audio fiction, studying popular culture (i.e. going to movies and playing video games) with her partner Alasdair Stuart, or curling up with a really good book. You can follow her adventures on Twitter.