Genres:

Cast of Wonders 125: The Clasp by Jarod K. Anderson


The Clasp

by Jarod K. Anderson

Our tribe didn’t have a word for the huge, winged race of reptiles who shared the cliff-faces with us. They were just “The Clasp.” Same as us. One tribe. One name. One shared livelihood as old as the great butte.

When I was young boy, before I knew better, I asked my grandmother if we were pretending to be like the big, scaly tribesmen or if they were pretending to be like us. After all, we didn’t look anything alike. When I finally made her understand my question, I hated the way she looked at me, like she’d tasted something bitter.

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Cast of Wonders 124: Old People Rules by Holly Schofield


Old People Rules

by Holly Schofield

So I’ve figured it out. There are eight rules for old people.

Rule #1: Old people try too hard

I didn’t think anything was wrong until Milanda hit ‘upload’. The app’s progress bar had crept almost all the way across the hologram before I noticed the target website was Dad’s.

The icon I’d designed, a grinning 3-D dragon, began blinking its large eyes, showing my app had activated my spyware.

“Hey, it really worked. Uber-crystal, Fran.” Milanda said. She shoved back her chair and turned to face me.

I was sprawled on her bed, painting my nails. “Swing Me Hard, Girl” by BlueLulz surrounded us—Milanda’s new bedroom wall paint, with  nano-speakers embedded right in, was super-crystal. I’d love to design something like that. Some day.

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Cast of Wonders 120: Master Madrigal’s Mechanical Man by Scott C. Mikula


Master Madrigal’s Mechanical Man

by Scott C. Mikula

I tried to shut out the crowd’s roar, but the thunder of a thousand feet pounding above us in the arena stands rose until I could feel the breastplate of the mechanical swordsman vibrate beneath my touch.  Master Madrigal gestured with his palsied hand for me to replace the automaton’s helmet, but I hesitated to examine the delicate inner workings. Just one small adjustment

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Cast of Wonders 119: Pictures in Crayon by Elizabeth Shack


Pictures in Crayon

by Elizabeth Shack

At recess the Arks dot the sky like unwinking stars. Ally and her friends aren’t supposed to talk about it, eyes wide above the breathing masks that muffle their voices, but they do. Where they’ll go, what they’ll bring. Every kid Ally knows has a suitcase packed, just in case they win. Hers has photos from the zoo and a birthday card her little brother Rafe drew in red crayon. He called the scribble Mars.

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Cast of Wonders 118: Perihelion by Vajra Chandrasekera

Show Notes

Today we present Vajra Chandrasekera’s story, Perihelion.

You may know that we usually pay our authors using PayPal. We were amazed to discover that it is not possible to receive PayPal payments in Sri Lanka! There are many individuals and small businesses that provide online services like web development, graphic designing and more in Sri Lanka. But Sri Lanka not supporting PayPal has become a barrier for them to continue and progress in their careers. If you’d like more information about this and to help support creative people like this week’s author, please go to https://sites.google.com/site/ppforsrilanka/enable-receiving-money-to-sri-lanka-through-paypal.

 


Perihelion

by Vajra Chandrasekera

Hold on tight, we’re coming around again.

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Genres:

Cast of Wonders 114: Staff Pick 2013 – Now Cydonia

Show Notes

Now Cydonia ran as Episode 71 back in March of last year. One reason I’m personally so proud of our win is the story’s author, Rick Kennett. Although I’ve never met him, he’s from my home town of Melbourne, Australia and I love that a fellow countryman writes such kick-arse stuff. I narrated one of his ghost stories for Pseudopod, the immensely creepy The Dark and What It Said which is flat-out the best evocation of how spooky and lonely the Australian bush can be. Rick is a talented writer and I’m always happy to hear his stories when they appear in the pod-o-sphere.


Now Cydonia

by Rick Kennett

Cadet Cy De Gerch bounced forward into the desert darkness, raised her arms in a defensive posture and, as best as a fourteen year could, barked, “Halt! Who goes there!”

There was no one there. There never was.

Cy jumped back, a slow leap in the low gravity, to her original position on the perimeter, her vacsuit moving easy like a second skin, to watch and wait and break the boredom as best she could until relieved. Out there was the desert she had trekked the past two years with her section of Martian Star Corps cadets. Out there was the countryside of Mars – cold and red and a billion years dead, littered with rocks, pocked with craters, filled with myths and ghost stories, most of which Cy didn’t really believe. Sergeant Kreeng – Old Get-It-Right – had known what he was doing when he’d set them perimeter guard duty consisting mostly of doing nothing. It was, she knew, a discipline of the mind.

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Genres:

Episode 103: The View from Stickney Crater


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?”

“Yes, sir.”

“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.”

**Never.**.

“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.

**What?**

“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?”

**No.**

“Are you in pain?”

**No.**

“Do you have trouble breathing?”

**No.**

“You’re in the control core?”

**Yes.**

“Where exactly?”

**I don’t know.**

“What do you see?”

**Darkness.**

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?”

No answer.

“Roscoe?”

**Find me.**


“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.

**Shakespeare**

“Who?”

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.”

“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 –”

**Yes?**

“Nothing.”

**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?”

**No.**

“Do you see anything?”

**Darkness.**

“Do you feel anything?”

**No.**

“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 …”

“Impossible!”

“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.

Genres:

Episode 89: The Carmel B Crazies


The Carmel B Crazies

by Rick Kennet

On the day she turned seventeen Cy De Gerch peered through a window into rusty red desert and saw her future squatting darkly in its launch cradle.

She’d been discharged from hospital an hour before and had made her quick way to Styx City Starport. Standing now at the window into Launch Cradle 3, her bag slung over the shoulder of her new Martian Star Corps tunic, she gazed through the glass like a kid outside a toy store. Utopia Plain, her new toy, smooth, black, ellipsoid, seemed to squat in its cradle amid a patch of the red desert of Mars. Recently repaired after a battle with Xenoid warships at Rigel, the starship’s liquid lines were unbroken but for the pressure tunnel extruded from her forward hatch. A thing of space, it seemed to sit impatient to lift into the pink-brown sky and the void beyond.

All her fears and excitements came flooding back – a feeling of elation at this new beginning aboard her first ship; a scary feeling too of coming adrift, separated from her family on Phobos and the surrogate family of her space cadet section, training days ended.

Inspecting herself in the window’s reflection, Cy adjusted her tunic sporting its new lieutenant’s bars and ran a hand through her short dark hair, wondering if she’d surprise her new captain with her age. She thought that she might. She was the first of her breed – a product of the Gartino genetics experiment – to qualify for active service. It all depended on what Captain Ralph Brown was like. Would he understand and appreciate her as a purpose-built person, trained and schooled seventeen years for this purpose? Or would there be suspicion and mistrust?

Taking a last critical look at her reflection she rubbed at the scar on her left arm, a souvenir of the tragic accident in the asteroid belt twelve days ago. She’d been in hospital since then getting bone restructure and knew the scar would be a constant reminder that she was human after all and not the genetically engineered superhero she used to think she was.

Cy presented her credentials to the Lieutenant standing in Utopia Plain’s forward hatchway. He regarded her from his seven or eight year superiority in age and space experience. Maybe he too had scars, as the ship had scars. Unlike her own, though, they’d probably not be the product of a stupid accident. From the way his eyes flicked from her face to her lieutenant bars and back to her youthful, open face she could tell he was judging by appearance alone: Is this our new navigator? Is this our new gunnery officer? Is this who takes over if something happens to the Captain?

Yes, she thought in answer. I am.

“My name is Peters,” he said. “I am … I was the First Lieutenant. I suppose I better take you to see the Captain.”

In the control room she met Captain Brown, a dark-haired man, early thirties, tallish, slightly stooped. Though he didn’t regard in anything like a judgmental way, his handshake had quivered a little as he realized just how young his new First Lieutenant really was.

“Welcome aboard, Ms De Gerch,” he said nevertheless, and though she knew he meant it, Cy wondered just how welcome she was. She was too aware of being a new thing, an unknown and untried thing.

Stowing her gear in her cabin, she unfolded and hung up a hologram on the wall: a 3D image of her late friend Jos and herself in their trainee vacsuits standing amid the majesty and thin snow at the very top of the Martian volcano Mount Olympus, highest peak in the Solar System. Taken a year ago when they’d been both sixteen, it already seemed like another world a lifetime ago.

“We’re on the shores of space,” Jos had said atop the mountain that day.


 

Utopia Plain lifted an hour later, gravity rings rippling down the hull, acting on all atoms at once, causing no G forces within.

As Mars shrank on the aft view screen from a red ball to a sparkling blood diamond, and with Cy busy at Astrogation, Captain Brown opened an Intership channel. “Listen up, people. This is the Captain. Our destination is Carmel B, the secondary of a main sequence binary star system seven hundred light years distant. Our mission is to support the Terran vessels already there and to curtail Xenoid attacks on the planets of that system. Because the Martian Star Corps is a small force compared to the Terran fleet, the Eathers tend to underestimate our capabilities and potential. At Carmel B Utopia Plain will show them how incorrect that view is. That is all.”

Three hours later, now accelerated to 70% of light speed, Utopia Plain arrowed into the dimensional limbo of subspace where a short line was not necessarily the shortest path between two points and the speed of light was not the speed limit of the universe.

When not on watch in the control room Cy studied astrogation, strategies and tactics, playing simulations on the ship’s computers. Twice she played chess with the Captain and was twice defeated.

“I’m no good at stylized warfare, Captain,” she said, pushing her chair back from a second checkmate, “The real thing’s not like chess. It’s brutal, random and often unfair. It’s like someone said once, ‘It’s magnificent, but it’s not war.’”

The Captain, with his first hand knowledge of what war was like, nodded agreement as he collected the chess pieces. “Do you know who said it?”

Cy cocked her head to the side, thinking. “Duke of Wellington?”

“No, Marshall Bosquet, a French observer at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854. He was watching a brigade of British light horse charge a battery of Russian heavy artillery they mistakenly  thought they’d been ordered to attack – a gallant but useless action that ripped them apart. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.”

“So what famous remark did Wellington make?”

Captain Brown leaned back in his chair. “Ah, yes, the Iron Duke. The night before the Battle of Waterloo he said of his troops, ‘I don’t know what they do to the enemy, but by god they frighten me.’”

Having decided, like Marshall Bosquet watching the charge of the light brigade, that chess wasn’t war either, Cy instead sat in on poker games, played with other crew members in the mess deck. Its chance and dare and bluff appealed to her.

And they drilled, practising Abandon Ship and Gravity Loss, Decompression and First Aid, as well as Battle Stations and Damage Control accompanied by jolts and buffeting contrived by colliding gravity rings fired simultaneously from bow and stern. Sometimes the Captain stepped back and let Cy take charge, and sometimes he left it to Lieutenant Peters, the officer who’d met her at the hatch with that judgmental manner. She was sure he still viewed her with caution, as something a little suspect.

And the Captain … she had yet to decide what Captain Brown really thought. Despite his genuine welcome and his satisfaction in the way she carried out her assigned drills, he seemed to regard her with a vague uncertainty.

Then two torpedoes went crazy and there was no time for games and uncertainty.


 

Utopia Plain emerged from subspace at the edge of the Carmel B system, her crew at battle stations, ready, watching, finding nothing. The rippling gravity rings tilted and the ship curved toward the bright pinpoint of the star. Vanishing, she reappeared a second later millions of kilometres further in where the frozen gas giants rolled. Again and again she skipped in and out of dimension, never in one place long enough to present a target: now cruising an asteroid belt, now passing the rocky middle worlds, each time closing with the white disc of Carmel B.

Cy De Gerch turned from Astrogation and said, “Crazies?”

Captain Brown, sitting amid instruments and repeater scans, reread the message just received and nodded. “Two of the new Mark Nine-One torpedoes were launched by a Terran ship in an engagement with a Xenoid vessel. They failed to self destruct as they should after the enemy eluded them. They’re now described as ‘units tactically-cyberconceptional malfunctioning’ which is basically Command-speak for crazies.”

“That’s why it’s not a good idea to give ordnance real thought,” said Lieutenant Peters at the weapons console.

“Hardly real thought, Mr Peters,” said Cy. “Put thinking under a neutron warhead and the thing would never want to explode. Then where would we be? Once a weapon is launched it has to think for itself, so the Nine-Ones were given just enough pseudomind to do so – they were just coming on-line in the Terran Star Corps when I was doing my last ordinance classes. But where there’s mind, even artificial, there’s always the possibility of madness.”

“Interesting,” the Captain mused. “I best discuss this with our torpedo people on the Weapons Deck. Cy, you have the Com. Continue dimension skipping till we get into the inner system where the torpedoes were lost.” He glanced across at Lieutenant Peters. “Frank, once we’re stabilized in real space start a standard search pattern.”

He left and Cy slipped into the captain’s chair. Now finally she was no longer just baby-sitting in the nothingness of subspace or overseeing exercises. Now she was in command of a starship in real space. As she looked over the instrumentation she felt like saying, “Steady as she goes, Mr Peters!” But Utopia Plain was still weaving in and out of dimension, and Frank Peters, now at Astrogation, was watching her – she thought as perhaps others in the control room were watching her. This was it. The experimental test tube teenager, the new thing, the unknown and untried thing, was now in charge.

She said, “Mr Peters, check that we have correct identification override codes for the Mark Nine-Ones. No good if our weapons systems lock out because they identify the torpedoes as Not Enemy.”

Frank Peters turned to his task without acknowledgement, something he should’ve done. Cy frowned and was about to remind him of proper procedure when three things happened bang, bang, bang.

Utopia Plain dropped out of subspace on its last dimension skip – dropped almost on top of a swiftly moving white blur on the close-range scan.

The blur immediately vanished in a swell of bright light, engulfing half the screen.

The ship lurched to starboard, throwing everyone in the control room to the deck.

Scrambling back into her chair Cy snapped open a line to Environmental Control. “Report status!” she said. Their ability to continue breathing had priority over other damage reports.

To her relief she found life support systems still functioning.

However Frank Peters looked anything but relieved. “Weapons Deck’s badly damaged,” he said, adjusting the earpiece whispering him the evil news. “Damage also to the Drive … the hull’s breeched with decompression in sections 17, 18 and 20 … casualties and people missing.”

“The Captain?” said Cy.

He paused, a finger to the earpiece, then said, “Still unaccounted for.”

Before Cy could properly realize the full import of what this meant for her and for the ship a line buzzed from Scanners.

“Target bearing three-five zero by zero-one-zero. Range one point five million kilometres and closing.”

Cy looked at her repeater screen. A white blip at its edge was moving inward towards them. Even without reading the electronic tag flickering beside it she knew it for one of the crazies they’d been assigned to kill. That explosion could only have been its companion finding them first. By sheer bad luck they’d emerged from subspace right in their track, and now it looked like the hunter was now the hunted.

As Lieutenant Peters sent out a distress call to the nearest Terran base in the system, Cy said, “Helm, come to new course one-eight-zero. Crank acceleration up to 100 g. Let’s give this crazy torpedo some space.”

The crewman at the helm said, “Aye aye, ma’am,” but a moment later added, “Helm sluggish to respond. Getting power fluctuations. Acceleration rate irratic.”

“Range now one point two million and closing,” said Scans.

“Mr Peters,” said Cy, “now would be a good time to download the ID override code for that torpedo to our lasers.”

He turned to her with a look of barely controlled calm. “Computers say we don’t have that code.”

“What?”

“Seems Terran Command has not yet seen fit to pass this info on to their ex colonial ally. Our weapons system is recognizing them as friendly and won’t fire on them.”

Cy cursed. “Then why the hell were we sent to chase these crazies when we haven’t been given their ID override code?”

“Just another example of the right hand of high command not knowing what their left hand is doing. Welcome to the real world, M De Gerch.”

Cy slid him a sidewise glance, then checked Utopia Plain’s acceleration and course change. Neither was moving fast enough for her liking. And the crazy torpedo was gaining on –

She looked up sharply. Someone had begun to pray, a quiet, personal murmuring. From the helm? From one of the monitoring stations? Did it matter? She was the closest thing they had to God right now. The thought was exhilarating. The thought was frightening.

“We can’t outrun it and we can’t shoot it,” said Frank Peters stepping up beside her. “What are we going to do?”

Cy studied her screens while absently scratching the scar on her arm – and remembered promising she’d never again think herself a superhero. But now, she reflected, was not the time to be keeping such promises. “Trust me,” she said.

“Trust you to do what?”

“What I’m about to do in the next few seconds … well, just don’t think me crazier than I actually am.”

He shrugged a shrug that plainly said, “What could be crazier than the present situation?”

Cy regarded him coolly a moment, then smiled a little secret smile. “Frank, what Earthie said ‘Oppose whatever our enemies support’? Could that also mean ‘Contradict everything your enemy says’?”

“Does that matter?”

“It’ll matter in a moment. Helm, come about one eighty degrees.”

Frank glanced at the repeater screen, for the moment not registering the order she’d just given. The torpedo, larger now, closer now, showed more distinctly, showed sharper outlines and detail. “What a shit-ugly thing,” he said.

“Not at all,” she said almost admiringly. “Yeah, they’re ungainly looking, angular and blunt. But they don’t have to be aerodynamic or impress anyone. They’re handsome beasts in their way, all brutal power. That, I think, is what I like about them. They do their job with elegant efficiently.”

“The trouble is, right now this one’s elegantly efficient job is us.”

Cy made a sort of grunt as if an awkward fact had just been pointed out.

Still watching the screen and with the first notes of strain in his tone Frank said, “You’re turning us straight into it.”

“Yes,” she said. “I am. Frank, you’ve resented me from the moment I came aboard, haven’t you. You’d like to see me fall flat on my ass. It’s ironic, but if I do fail not only will you not live to have your moment, but neither I nor anyone else will have an ass to fall on.”

“What do you want me to do? Say I’m sorry? All right, I’m sorry you came aboard.”

Ignoring this insubordination Cy looked down at the image of the torpedo closing with them. “If the little bugger thinks it can think let’s give it something to think about.”

As Utopia Plain lined up on a collision course the image of the torpedo visibly quivered.

“I knew it!” said Cy triumphantly. “We’re not acting like a target. Altering towards has confused it. It wants to play the Think Game? It doesn’t have the humanity.” She laid a finger on the approaching image. “My poor crazy baby,” she murmured. “You just don’t know what it’s all about.”

Torpedo and starship rushed together.

Cy smiled at the scanner image of the torpedo, smiled at oncoming death like a child at some rare bauble.

She opened an Intership channel. “Listen up, this is the Captain.” Yes, it felt good to say that. “Secure all hatches and brace yourselves. We will soon be experiencing sidewise G forces. That is all.” Switching out she said, “Frank, program the after gyros to pivot ninety degrees to port, then the forward gyros ninety degrees to port, then engage maximum acceleration. Execute on my word.”

“Sure. Why not.” He returned to his position at Astrogation, convinced he’d been right from the start, that an experiment all gone wrong now had command of the ship and was running it headlong into an equally insane torpedo. Just the same he programmed the fore and aft gyros as instructed because he was a creature of duty. He began chanting off the falling ranges.

“Six hundred thousand … five fifty … five hundred thousand … four fifty thousand …”

“Explode,” Cy said quietly, finger on the image. “Detonate, my pretty,” for it was a pretty thing, all rough wrought beauty, the power and the glory.

“Four hundred thousand.”

“Explode,” she cooed.

“Three hundred thousand.”

“Cyleen tells you to explode.”

Two fifty thousand.”

“Go bang.”

“Two hundred thousand … it’s too close. It’ll kill us if it detonates now.”

She made a frantic shushing gesture, all the while not taking her eyes from the scan, not taking her finger from the image. “Detonate, crazy baby! Explode!”

“Cy!”

Pivot!

The swing to port on aft gyros wrenched them all against their seat straps, crushing them breathless and dizzy. The second swing wrenched them in the opposite direction. Vision greyed to monochrome with blood pushing away from the eyes. Everything swirled and jarred and rocked as Utopia Plain turned sharp about in her own length, the drive kicking in with a scream of ragged power, slamming tilted gravity rings down the hull, accelerating away on a divergent course. And within the chaos came a silvery sound Cy could not place in her moments of grey blindness, a sound musical and glittering, rising above the noise of the drive, growing louder and bursting in upon her with disbelieving recognition.

It was herself, laughing.

As vision cleared, Cy caught her breath and watched the gap between the crazy torpedo and themselves widen on the screen: one thousand, two thousand, three thousand kilometres, four thousand, five thousand, six …

“We need ten thousand,” she heard herself say as she heard Frank Peters yell, “Idiot machine, just human enough to –”

At nine thousand the torpedo image blurred and was lost in a swell of light, obliterating everything on the screen.

Instinctively Cy braced herself for the shock against the fabric of space itself she knew the blast would deliver. For half a heartbeat she saw Frank Peters similarly bracing, looking across at her with an expression that plainly said, “You were right, I was wrong.” It almost gave her comfort to think it might be the last thing she’d see.

The expanding, sparkling blur of light reached out for them … and vanished.

No killing shock came.

A dark-haired man, early thirties and tallish, stepped into the sudden silence of the control room

“Captain!” said Cy, engulfed in a flurry of emotions: surprise, happiness, confusion, realization the last few deadly minutes had been a drill, just another game.

Understanding was also dawning on the faces of Frank Peters and the rest of the control room personal

Cy stood up, not at all resentful she had been tested in this way, instead proud in the knowledge that the Captain must now have faith in her, must have his approval. She looked for it in his eyes, his face, his expression. Approval was there, yes, but so was something else, something she had not expected to replace his waver of doubt.

And as she recognized with a shock what she saw, Cy was back at the chess board those few days ago, checkmated twice over, airing her dislike of stylized warfare, hearing again Captain Brown quoting the Duke of Wellington’s opinion of his troops.

“I don’t know what they do to the enemy, but by god they frighten me.”

She frightened him. She’d frightened him in the best way possible.

“Helm, come to zero nine one,” he said, regaining his chair. “Ms De Gerch, close-up at primary fire control.”

Utopia Plain swung onto a new course, and Cy De Gerch, stepping to the weapons console, said, “Aye aye, sir!” and went to war.

Genres:

Episode 71: Now Cydonia


Now Cydonia

by Rick Kennett

Cadet Cy De Gerch bounced forward into the desert darkness, raised her arms in a defensive posture and, as best as a fourteen year could, barked, “Halt! Who goes there!”

There was no one there. There never was.

Cy jumped back, a slow leap in the low gravity, to her original position on the perimeter, her vacsuit moving easy like a second skin, to watch and wait and break the boredom as best she could until relieved. Out there was the desert she had trekked the past two years with her section of Martian Star Corps cadets. Out there was the countryside of Mars – cold and red and a billion years dead, littered with rocks, pocked with craters, filled with myths and ghost stories, most of which Cy didn’t really believe. Sergeant Kreeng – Old Get-It-Right – had known what he was doing when he’d set them perimeter guard duty consisting mostly of doing nothing. It was, she knew, a discipline of the mind.

Her watch arc was to the south, but occasionally she took long looks into the west. About five kilometres in that direction, according to her estimation, lay The City, one of the famous Cydonia formations. She’d been responsible for navigation on this leg of the exercise, a long trek up from Water Bore 36 at McLauglin Crater in the south. Despite having arrived long after dark, she was sure they were camped dead in the heart of Cydonia.

Knew it.

The night sky of Mars was deepest black, studded with vivid red blue orange yellow gleams, alien to the skies of Earth. Beneath these stars, Cy paced back and forth, trying to kill time by puzzling out a song about Cydonia, using what she knew, what she thought she knew. In short order she had:

Cydonia!

Plateau north on Acidalia Plain

Pioneers there never seen again

The City and The Fortress and Monkey Face

An ape stone head staring into space

Let me tell you people it’s a weird shit place

Cydonia!

Fruit Bowl Crater and Parallel Tracks

Natural forms or artifacts?

The Novak Group –

The lyrics faltered. What about the Novak Group? Were they the pioneers who had disappeared? Or did they just die, buried in a sand storm, uncovered in another? Too many stories, too many myths. She liked that line about ‘ape stone face staring into space’ but the rest didn’t seem to work.

Dissatisfied with her efforts, she scanned the desert again. Rust-red in the day, it lay now out to the horizon as black as the sky. Even the light-boost in her helmet visor revealed only grey rocks and grey sand. Nothing moved. Nothing showed on her scanner image.

Compelled by old instincts and empty fears, Cy turned and scanned inside the perimeter. Nothing was creeping up on her. Nothing could be. At her back were the ordered rows of inflated plastic tents, their interiors warm and full of air with a sleeping cadet in each. In another hour she’d be relieved and could crawl back into her own tent and for a while be outside of her suit, comfortably horizontal.

She stared out into the night. Nothing really ever to guard against. But don’t let old Get-It-Right catch you catching Zs as you watched the desert, red and dead a billion years, cluttered with rocks and myths and ghost stories not really believed. Just as she didn’t really believe the naked figure flickering out of the dark towards her.

Cy flinched, staring stupidly as the thing rushed in out of the grey middle distance of her light boost, narrow-bodied, red-tinted, hunched and running skipping jumping straight for her, a figure naked in this thin, freezing atmosphere.

All training, all thought fled. To either side of the oncoming vision her visor’s telemetry read-outs throbbed with sudden increases in heart and breathing. She didn’t see them, only the red figure, rushing at her in a flickering sprint, closer now, faster now, moving in a jerky series of still images, a thin leaping caricature of a human figure, now here, now there, to the left, to the right, chalk-line arms and legs red like the blowing sand swirling through its sketched-out body.

Brain and limbs came together at last, and Cy moved, jumped to intercept. Too late. The figure dodged past her in a stutter of movement, stepping, leaping, dancing, twisting in a rush of still poses, there and gone.

Catching nothing, falling forward in dream-like slow motion, she somersaulted. Landed on her feet. Turned. Just in time to see the figure flickering in and out between the tents as though moving through an intermittent existence.

Hitting the general frequency, Cy yelled words she thought she’d never hear herself say: “Guard Point South! Intruder alert! Intruder alert!”

The response from Sergeant Kreeng was instantaneous. “What do you see?”

Christ! Doesn’t he ever sleep? “De Gerch at point south. Someone just ran through the camp!” She fumbled with the scan replay.

“Ran? Can you identify?”

“Negative, Sarg. It was –“ She tried to stop herself, but the impossible word slipped out — “naked.”

“Say again?”

“Negative, Sarg. No I.D.”

Soft scraping sounds, the odd grunt in her earpiece. Cy grimaced as she tried not to picture Kreeng in his skivvies donning his vacuum suit.

“Where’s your contact now?” he said.

She boosted gain on her visor, but could no longer see the figure among the tents, some of which were already depressurizing as the occupant prepared to emerge.

“Lost it, Sergeant. Last seen running north-east through the camp.”

Kreeng opened com links to the other three guards, north, east and west. None had seen anything.

“Cadet De Gerch, pump up your best image and jump it across to me.”

“Doing it now, Sergeant.”

“Good. I’ll make a starship officer of you yet.”

But the auto-select on Cy’s scanner was coming up blank. There was no image to select. At once she started a diagnoses check, but this also came up negative.

“I’m waiting, Cadet.”

“Sergeant … there’s nothing here.”

Even as she said this, checking the system again, she braced herself for the famous Get-It-Right bawling out that was sure to come. But all that came over the general frequency was the noise of thirty cadets, male and female, preparing to defend themselves: suits zipping, air sucking back into bottles, tents deflating, muffled cursing and bitching.

A moment more and the sergeant himself was beside her, his red vacsuit a head taller than hers and much more augmented. He said nothing but only peered into the south, although she’d plainly told him the figure had been heading north-east through the camp. Sergeant Kreeng prowled off around the perimeter, his helmet swinging left and right, calling the other three sentries again. He then ordered the rest of the section to spread out, crank up their visor light boosts and report any sightings.

Eventually he returned to Cy De Gerch and made the half-twist gesture with his hand to indicate use of immediate area channel.

“Why did you say you saw a naked figure?” he asked her, not in his usual growl but in an odd, softer tone.

“Did I say naked?”

“I can play it back if you want to deny it.”

“I’m not denying it, Sarg. I dunno … it was an impression, I suppose. I got an impression he was naked.”

He?”

“Sir?”

“You said He.”

Cy shrugged, a gesture almost lost in her vacsuit. “It had no genitalia and there was no real body form to speak of.”

“So why did you call it He?”

Cy hesitated. “Perhaps it was the face.”

“Describe it.”

“I can’t, Sarg … not exactly. Just thought I glimpsed a face, you know, with a nose, a mouth, two little eyes. Sort of looked like a man, but more like a stick figure man come to life.”

“What colour was this stick figure man?”

“Red.”

“Sure?”

“This is the one thing I’m positive about. Red. It was red. Same as the sand.”

A short silence, then Kreeng said, “How did it move?”

She told him as best she could, not expecting to be believed.

Whether or not she was, all Kreeng did was open the general frequency again.

“Belay scanning! Pack your tents and get ready to move. There’s a sand storm coming. The City formation at Cydonia will provide shelter. From there we can get air-lifted if need be.”

“But, Sarg, what did I see?” said Cy.

“Something I’ve seen myself long ago, Cadet. Now get moving before you get buried!”

Bouncing back to her tent lying deflated on the sand, Cy checked her vacsuit’s computer for weather information, downloaded frequently from satellites. Up until now there’d been no indication of an approaching sand storm. What the hell was Get-It-Right worried about?

The computer confirmed clear skies. Its latest reading, only minutes old, reported no storm activity over all of the north-west of the planet. The noonday temperature tomorrow at Cydonia was expected to be -25° Celsius. It was, after all, mid-Summer in the northern hemisphere.

Martian weather patterns had never been thoroughly understood, it was true, and what terraforming was doing to it could only be guessed at. But to suddenly announce a storm in the face of scans and satellite reports saying otherwise seemed to Cy wantonly contrary.

“Single file,” Sergeant Kreeng called. “Link up!”

Drawing tethers from their suits, each cadet attached themselves to the cadet in front – standard procedure in low visibility. With their helmet lights cutting through a clear night, the section loped due west in that odd Martian march between a step and a jump. Cy, stuffing her tent into her vacsuit backpack, hurried after them, clipping her tether cable onto the tail-end’s vacsuit.

“Who’s that?” Cy asked over the immediate area channel.

“Me.” The figure ahead of her turned half about so that the name Z. CHEPTEP stencilled on the helmet above the visor came into view. The helmet lit from within, showing the long cheek bone features, aquiline nose and dark eyes of another fourteen year old girl. She smiled, pulled a face and turned off her interior light.

“Hey, Zoe,” said Cy.

“So you saw the Sandman, did you?”

“The what?”

“The Sandman. There’s a storm coming.”

“There’s no storm,” said Cy, adding a little snappish, “And what the hell’s this Sandman? You having a dig at me for waking you all up on a false alarm?”

“Not if we avoid being buried in a storm. Ain’t you never heard of the Sandman?”

“No, I ain’t never heard of the Sandman.”

“The Sandman is the stalking red thing that brings the killer sand storms and is a harbinger of death.”

“And the Easter Bunny is the hopping furry thing that brings killer chocolate and is the harbinger of acne. Breeze it, Zoe! Sounds the sort of fable parents tell their kids to teach them survival habits.”

“Then what do you think you saw just now?”

“Who knows.”

“Kreeng seems to.”

“Yeah, but nothing recorded on my scanner. I reckon I was just staring out at the desert too long, and old Get-It-Right is just getting it wrong.”

“It’s Cydonia,” said Zoe significantly.

“What do you mean?”

“If weirdness exists anywhere on Mars it exists in Cydonia. If the Sandman lives anywhere on Mars he lives in Cydonia. It’s the living heart of this dead planet. This place with its pyramids and monuments is malignant – always has been since it claimed the Novak Expedition way back. Some people only feel that, but you see the Sandman. See the Sandman! Cydonia must like you. You’re simpatico, ya know? We’ll have to call you Cy of Cydonia. Like Rutland of Jutland.”

“Who was that?”

“Some guy named Rutland … at the Battle of Jutland.”

“What did he do?”

“I dunno … stuff. We’re not studying Jutland till next semester.”

“I don’t know why they teach us old naval battles. It’s two dimensional, nothing like the real battles we’ll be fighting one day in space.”

“Probably the same reason they make us do desert navigation exercises like this. Basics, right? The way I see it, they figure that if you’re gunna get lost in a 2D landscape there’s no way they’re letting you anywhere near a starship’s 5D astrogation suite.”

“And what if you start seeing little red men leaping out at you from the desert? What won’t they let you near then?”

“Everything but the psycho ward I should think. But don’t worry about that, Cy. Check your scan. What’s that at one-seventy degrees?”

Cy brought the scan image up onto her visor. About thirty kilometres to the south a fuzziness had appeared in the last few minutes, small but growing. A switch to the latest weather information reported sudden shifts in wind patterns to the south.

“Looks like we’ve got some weather coming, Cy. Convinced now?”

“Only of the unpredictability of Martian weather, not the Martian bogeyman.” She ranged her scan west and picked up the formation known as The City — shelter of a kind from the coming sand storm.

“It’s the –“ Zoe began, but was interrupted by Sergeant Kreeng cutting through on general frequency.

“Sand storm to the south. Coming up fast! Everybody keep a check on your heat exchanges. Don’t let ‘em get clogged or you’ll be cooked in your suits before you know it.”

Within minutes the storm swept up and engulfed them like a blood-red tsunami. Even at speeds in excess of 200 kilometres per hour, the thin winds of Mars hardly buffered their bodies, though sand rattled loud against face visors.

Cy could now only make out Zoe as a red blur, while those further up the line were no longer visible at all. Static charges of moving particles disrupted communications and smudged scan images to shifting blots and disjointed lines.

Barely glimpsed, Kreeng was there and gone, checking connections, shepherding them along.

“Get it right,” Cy muttered to herself. The storm grew in intensity. Everything outside her visor went dark red, then just dark as the sand smothered out the helmet light. She turned it off. “Zoe,” she called into the darkness. “Zoe, do you hear me?”

If her friend answered it was lost in a rising, faraway howl filling Cy’s phones, sounding like but couldn’t possibly be the wind. In this ghost of an atmosphere Martian winds blew forever silent.

Nothing outside but the dark, nothing to hear but the interminable scratching of sand against her visor and helmet, and that faraway hollow howling in her phones. Nothing of reality but her feet hitting the sand in long, rhythmic lopes.

Keep going, keep going.

A feeling of isolation, all claustrophobic and suffocating, bore down on her. Only the thought that shelter was nearby – just up ahead, just a few more steps – kept her going. She dared not look at her visor clock for fear of seeing that Time had stopped, that the universe had ceased to be. It was easy to think that way.

Keep going, keep going.


There was nothing but red static on her scan, yet she kept it focused ahead. Even in all this flying sand The City should soon reappear. The landscape there was sudden and large, a hodgepodge of monoliths literally erupting out of Cydonia, three times the size of the pyramids of Earthly Egypt.

Yet for long minutes nothing showed, and the wind blew on and on. Sand blind as she was, out of communication and with no way of telling how far they’d travelled, it wasn’t long before the thought came creeping that maybe they were lost. Despite rumours to the contrary among the cadets, Sergeant Kreeng was human and as liable as anyone to errors of judgement.

Even as these thoughts were born they died. On her visor a few steady diagonal lines began to appear in the chaotic scanner image. Gradually they grew more numerous and defined as the visual echo strengthened. A few minutes later Cy passed into the lee of a monolith, seen only as a chaos of echoes on her scan, and out of the direct violence of the wind. She switched on her light and could just make out her hand waved in front of her visor. On her vacsuit’s general frequency, however, the phantom wind still howled. All around her the sand, fine as sifting dust, swirled in the air. But further along it was bound to be clearer. Zoe Cheptep would soon re-emerge ahead of her and this howling in her ears end.

Deeper into the shelter of The City, the redness outside her visor began to fall away. Within a few loped steps it was only a thin haze.

The slanting walls of The City loomed in far rosy distance either side as far as her light could reach. Her scan showed a mile wide vista, a rock-strewn valley crooked with haphazard pyramids. But Kreeng, Zoe and the other cadets had disappeared.

A quick check of her vacsuit tether cable found it unbroken. Even the clip she’d hooked onto Zoe’s suit dangled undamaged and open at the end of it.

Cy stared down at that opened clip, puzzled, frightened. Calling on all frequencies, again and again, she heard only the howl of a wind that couldn’t be. Unbidden, the words of her song came again to mind:

The City and the Fortress and Monkey Face. An ape stone head staring into space. Let me tell you people it’s a weird shit place

Cy gazed about at the vast pyramids either side, the crooked valley they formed ahead of her. “No. There is a reason,” she told herself. “Don’t give in to fancies.” Her voice loud inside her helmet was somehow comforting, gave her mind something real to hang onto.

Somehow Zoe had lost the tether connection. That was it. Zoe and Sergeant Kreeng and the rest of the cadets were elsewhere in The City.

Had to be.

Yet that ‘somehow’ about the lost tether connection bothered her. Zoe’s suit hook could have broken … well, it could’ve. But she knew how unlikely it was.

Cy swept her helmet’s light into the darkness above as if seeking her lost comrades up there, seeing only the great rock sides soaring upward at angles of between 20 and 25 degrees. Around midway they were lost among the rushing red of the storm still blasting overhead, surging in her light beam like a crazy upside down sea, crimson and angry.

3D studies and virtual plug-ins didn’t begin to give the reality of Cydonia, nor the sense of insignificance engendered by standing there alone among these immense, ancient things. Up close and real Cy felt her convictions about Cydonia shake. She began to understand now why the 20th and 21st centuries had thought The City, the massive D&M Pyramid, the three-walled Fortess and the other formations of Cydonia might be an artificial complex of monuments and structures: they stood unnatural and sudden upon the Cydonia Plateau, their angles sharp, their sides so straight, their positions almost arranged.

An echo, small and discrete, appeared on her scan, appearing to have emerged out of nowhere about half a kilometre down the pyramidal valley.

Cy advanced in slow bounds, narrowing her light, focusing it on the scan target.

A vacsuited figure stood motionless in the beam.

“Zoe?” Cy called. “Zoe! Hey!” Not trusting radio to the static, she flashed her helmet light several times as well.

No response.

Wanting answers, needing society in this empty city of giants, Cy loped toward the distant figure. At the same instant Zoe began to move away. Taking small steps at first, but gradually increasing the stride.

“Zoe! Wait!” Lengthening her jumping steps, Cy was beginning to catch up when Zoe darted right and with several long leaps reached the base of the nearest pyramid and began to climb with spring-heeled agility.

Cy bounced to a stop, uncertain what to do. Shouldn’t she find Kreeng first? That would be the proper thing to do. Get it right. But that impossible wind still howled in her phones, and Zoe seemed very disorientated, ignoring her signals and scrambling up the pyramid in such frenzied fashion. Perhaps her heat exchange was clogged and her vacsuit, unable to radiate body heat away, was frying her brain, causing erratic behavior. In which case –

Keeping Zoe in her beam, Cy took off in pursuit, hitting the sloping side, boots and gloves gripping the rock. Part of the exercise to Cydonia was to explore its pyramids, so she was prepared.

Zoe was a good way ahead and above, still climbing steadily and only a few long steps now from the churning lower edge of the storm. Once Zoe reached that Cy knew she would lose her. The sand would smother the light and all would be darkness again. Still, this was no time for making excuses.

Zoe disappeared into the racing sand without slackening pace. Too long a time afterwards – twenty seconds or more – Cy followed her in. The storm closed in again and once more blinded her. The howling in her ears turned to a muted screech. Someone briefly took her hand in a tight grasp.

“Who’s that?” Cy shouted, pulling away. The grasp lifted from her hand and the radio howl gave no answer. She continued on.

A face appeared at her visor, a naked face pushing close into hers, there and gone.

She swung an arm into the storm, touching nothing, though for an instant something once more touched her.

Telemetry read-outs either side of her visor showed sudden spikes in blood pressure, heart and pulse which were already well above normal. Somewhere in her head a thin, colourless voice was insisting, runawayrunawayrunaway. As best she could she ignored it. As a Star Corps cadet, trained in Martian survival, she knew there was nothing to fear inside a Cydonian sand storm.

Wasn’t there? Wasn’t there?

Spurred on by courage born of fear, Cy continued the ascent.

Once more her hands and arms were plucked, once more the face came, staring in at her. Then another face and another, flashing out of the dark, pulling back into it. Cy tried to catch expressions, but they were too brief, too sketchy, like the face of the Sandman, rushing up at her out of the empty Martian night, the harbinger of the storm.

The red stalking thing, Zoe had said. A harbinger of death.

Presently the darkness took on a growing rosy hue. Cy’s heart gave a leap, a sudden jag on her telemetry. She was climbing through the upper reaches of the storm. At last it was clearing. And that glow … dawn was breaking over Cydonia.

She pushed out into sunlight, gasping a deep breath as if emerging from the drowning depths. The howl in her phones faded away. She flicked on her emergency beacon. Sergeant Kreeng would hear it as soon as he too cleared the storm.

Only metres above her the pyramid came to an abrupt top. Moments more and Cy stood in early morning light streaming red-tinted across a level space, almost a perfect square several metres on a side. The ragged remains of the storm were scudding away to the north. Spread out below lay the formations of the Cydonia Plateau, long shadowed in the dawn. Twenty kilometres to the south-east towered the D&M Pyramid, five flat sides, sharp angles, twice as big as anything in The City. Eastward at the same distance stood Novak Tholus, conical and peaked like a great witch’s hat, wrapped around with its enigmatic ramp to nowhere. North of Novak, likewise twenty kilometres from The City, lay The Face mesa with the sun rising red-yellow directly above it. Upon it Cy could make out the profile of something less simian, more human, evil and ugly. The forehead bulged with an abrupt hill and the deep ravine of the mouth was an eternal grimace.

Transfixed by the view, it took her a moment to spot the figure standing at the far side of the square, obscured in the glare of the rising sun.

“Zoe!” Cy called.

Still there was no response. The figure stood perfectly motionless. At once Cy feared that her friend was unconscious or even dead, standing upright and cooked alive in her suit. Yet Cy did not rush across but advanced cautiously for reasons she could not really explain to herself. Up close now she saw Zoe’s heat exchange, located above the backpack, was clear of sand.

“Zoe?” said Cy again, and touched her on the shoulder.

Zoe turned around easier than she should have, as if lighter than she should be.

  1. CHEPTEP showed on her helmet. Below it in the visor no long cheek bone features, no aquiline nose and no dark eyes looked back at her. The visor was filled with red churning sand slowly, endlessly blowing …

Hollow howling resounded in Cy’s phones, a sound loud and lost and faraway. The figure, no longer vacsuited reality but sketchy and half finished, dodged past her in a stutter of interrupted motion, stepping, leaping, dancing, twisting in a rush of still poses, there and gone: the far side, the opposite corner, almost within reach, by the edge, in the centre, there and there and there, twitching madly down the side of the pyramid.

“Zoe,” Cy whispered, watching her friend disappear into the Cydonian landscape below. The impossible wind was her only answer, and even this soon faded into silence.

How long later that silence was broken by the harshness of Sergeant Kreeng’s voice, she could not say. The sun was much further up the sky and Kreeng was telling her to “Hold on!” Then her view of sun and desert and enigmatic structures jerked as a line clipped to her vacsuit pulled her into the belly of a rescue craft she had not even noticed hovering above.

Where was Zoe Cheptep, they asked her.

Down there, was all Cy could say, and she pointed to a viewscreen image of Cydonia and its enigmatic structures.

From the higher elevation of the rescue ship The Face, forever staring up into space, looked to Cy even more evil and ugly. There in the deep ravine of the mouth … was it just shadow? Yes, surely just shadow. It couldn’t have really been the hint of a smile.

A search party of Star Corps Rangers assembled at the airlock to be briefed by Sergeant Kreeng before their drop to the surface. Naked of his helmet, he was a young man of twenty-five, an old man of experience with a look at once grim and vulnerable.

Down on Cydonia a second storm front was approaching, sweeping in from the south in two broad bands, east and west, engulfing the region like pincers. Somewhere down there Zoe Cheptep was still missing. Somewhere down there the Sandman skipped and jumped ahead of the new storm.

That this was so Cy De Gerch no longer doubted. What form did it now take? she wondered. What face did it now wear?