Naktong Vallis, Arabia Quadrangle, Mars
A dusty, orange haze filled the flight cabin. Sarah Pauly silently cursed, brushing a gloved hand across her visor. She was the only capable pilot in the blimp that had been airborne for over six hours and she was probably going to die. She didn’t fear dying as much as she dreaded a stupendously painful death – and Mars offered a variety of these. The lifeless world had no pressure, heat or breathable air. All trainees, on their first day of Martian training and long before departing Earth, internalised the mantra, “If the suck doesn’t kill you, the air will. If the air doesn’t kill you, the cold will.” The phrase had been translated into more languages than humans spoke. Draped between warm, soft tissue was the Polyskin, a powered, close-fitting, layered suit that compressed the skin and warmed the body. Sarah didn’t want to die. She was not familiar with her passengers, but she assumed that they similarly would rather cling to their lives.
There were three in the cabin, all of whom had followed her when she fled from the battle. Helmets protected heads and fed them breathable air while rendering them faceless and identical. Sarah sat in the pilot seat occasionally arching her back against the insetting aches.
‘James,’ she said, ‘anything?’
James Ogunba, one of the three passengers slouched in the back seats of the cabin, sat up and checked the PX device, a digital display looped around his wrist.
‘Nothing,’ he said. He spoke, as everyone did, through a communicator in his helmet, his voice broadcast over a local wireless channel.
‘Nothing,’ he said again, and leaned back in his seat.
‘What the hell is going on?’ said Sarah. ‘Where are the satellites?’
The pilot and passengers alike worked for the Cydonia Corporation. Six hours ago, Sarah Pauly, born Sarah Mitchell-McCandless, had been stationed in the dry riverbed of the Naktong Vallis with some eighty other Cydonia employees, most of whom built Cydonia’s latest molecule mine and the surrounding village to support it. Work was plentiful. Like any Martian village, Naktong required green houses, reactors, habitats, and a water supply. Sarah had been part of a drilling team boring to reach an ancient aquifer. Though Cydonia had claimed the territory, the iMicor Group, the largest of the Martian molecule miners, contested ownership of the rich grounds of the Naktong valley.
Earlier that sol, Sarah had counted at least twenty armed iMicor vehicles advancing in single column towards the Naktong site to press that claim. The black train of uninvited and armoured rovers spread into a menacing line as they reached the flat ground near the base. Sarah had heard panicked voices in her communicator, barked orders instructing everyone to stop working. The bases’ security contingent, a single platoon, moved to meet the threat. Guardsmen from Redbourn Security – private security mercenaries hired by Cydonia pushed passed her, conspicuous by the camouflaged body armour over heavy Polyskins they wore, and the assault rifles they carried. She ignored them, her eyes fixed on the spectacle. Then, without warning, the artillery began. Naktong had three rail guns, each of the size of a railway carriage. Through her long-distance zoom, Sarah witnessed the guardsmen, with practised composure, dragging those guns from their ports out to newly-laid gun platforms. Their blasts though muted in the thin atmosphere, sent shock waves through her bones. In the teeth of danger, mammals either fought or ran. Sarah had run. Some of her colleagues followed her, but the blimp could only carry four. Sarah didn’t know if anyone else had escaped. The blimp drifted now, leaving the battle behind her.
‘What will become of them?’ James asked. He sat behind the vacant co-pilot seat with his arms slumped over the headrest.
Another passenger, one who Sarah recognised as David Forbes spoke. ‘Ask her,’ he said meaning Sarah, ‘she knows more than any of us.’
‘We didn’t see what happened,’ the unknown passenger said. ‘Maybe we fought them off. Maybe the others got away.’
‘Not likely,’ David Forbes said, ‘I didn’t see any other blimps lifting off. No one else got away.’
‘But what do you think will happen to them?’ asked James again after a pause. ‘iMicor can’t hold them, it’s not legal.’
‘Don’t be an idiot,’ said David. ‘You’re talking about iMicor – the biggest mining concern on both planets. Legality doesn’t apply here and even if it did, who would enforce it, the UN Marshal?’
‘Our soldiers might have fought them off,’ suggested the third passenger. Sarah didn’t know her name.
‘No chance,’ said David, ‘That was an entire armoured squadron. We had only one infantry platoon and three artillery guns. No chance.’
‘Then how was this allowed to happen?’ James asked. ‘They can’t just do that.’
‘They’ve done it, mate,’ said David. ‘Someone at HQ messed up. You’re lucky you got away.’
‘We,’ said Sarah. ‘We are lucky. And we’re lucky we had this blimp or...’ She stopped, not wishing to consider closely the fate of inconvenient captives taken by a firm as powerful and with as much to lose as iMicor.
At the time of the attack, the dirigible had been docked near the construction site, its silver cigar-shaped envelope gigantic compared to the cabin attached to it. A flat surface on a scaffold raised ten metres above the deck formed the docking platform. The blimp hovered above that platform, secured to it by a tether. Sarah had run for that platform as the battle churned swells of dust clouds on the southern horizon. She had reached the dock and scrambled up the ladder, only half aware of the others following her. The blimp’s side was marked "Sparrowhawk DRG 9" alongside an angular, bird-like motif. The blimp hovered five meters above the platform, a chain ladder swung in a pendulous manner beneath the closed cabin door. Sarah had seconds to act. She leapt from the platform, impossibly high, and caught the last rung of the ladder. She silently, and for the first time, thanked Cydonia’s demanding physical training regime as she hauled herself upwards, rung by rung until her feet took their place on the ladder. As she climbed, she felt others on the ladder below her as she reached the cabin door and climbed inside. She had waited until three passengers were in the cabin before detaching the blimp from the platform and retracting the door. More of her colleagues had climbed onto the boarding platform, she saw their desperately waving figures growing smaller as the blimp ascended, leaving them behind.
‘We’re lucky,’ she said again.
The Sparrowhawk hadn’t been ready for departure, its battery cells not recharged since its last flight. Sarah was the only person aboard the blimp qualified to fly it. She had no co-pilot and she did not know where she was going. None of the craft’s instruments, including the navigation systems, were functioning. Now, hours later, Sarah could do nothing except allow the blimp to drift on the southerly breeze. David Forbes broke the silence in the cabin again. ‘Any chance we’ll be landing soon? I really need a piss.’
‘I told you, I can’t put us down, David,’ Sarah said, ‘I don’t know if she’ll be able to lift off again.’
‘Piss in your suit,’ suggested James, ‘no one will think less of you – this is not possible’
‘Damn you all, then,’ said David irritably. ‘Do you know where you are, Pauly?’
Sarah’s own simmering discomfort coupled with crushing anxiety boiled over. ‘No, I don’t know where we are. Do you? No? Then shut up.’
David stood and approached the cockpit. ‘Then do you know what happens when a Polyskin runs flat? It starts to loosen and to cool. You boil slowly from the inside while also freezing to death from the outside. I’ll take capture by iMicor before that. Why are we risking death? This is not your decision, Pauly, turn on the beacon.’
‘We risk death whatever we do,’ said Sarah.
‘You are risking death,’ David hissed, ‘and you’re dragging us into it. You’re terrified of what iMicor will do with the Director General’s niece so you’re staking our lives on a gamble. You’re selfish and a coward.’
‘I didn’t tell you to follow me,’ said Sarah, ‘now sit down before I open the hatch and throw you out.’
David went silent and no one else spoke.
‘If he hadn’t pissed his suit before, he’s done it now,’ said James, trying to break the tension. The passengers reverted to staring silently out of the craft’s large portholes. The Sparrowhawk floated a kilometre above the surface. The contours of the dry river bed beneath had given way to cratered desolation.
‘Sarah,’ said James after a while. He climbed into the co-pilot seat. ‘I don’t want to push you, but we all should agree on a plan. We will stick to a decision that we make together.’
‘I know,’ said Sarah.
James went on. ‘What are our options now?’
‘I was hoping to catch a decent southerly that could carry us most of the way to Cassini – it’s the nearest friendly base. But we haven’t caught even a breath of wind. These Sparrowhawks aren’t designed for long range, and in a few hours, it’s going to get dark. We’ll burn through what’s left of the batteries just to keep the balloon hot, and then we’re going down. Unless the wind picks up, we’re looking at spending the night out here somewhere. Our Polyskins will run out of charge next and we’ll probably die during the night.’
‘So, we turn on the tracking beacon,’ said James, ‘someone will find us before that happens.’
‘iMicor will find us,’ Sarah said. ‘We’re not even half way to friendly territory and only the enemy will be looking for us.’
‘Okay,’ said James. ‘Are there any other options?’
‘We find a place to land before nightfall and set up the survival tent,’ said Sarah. ‘We save the battery until tomorrow and hope for better wind. It gives iMicor time too, but with a decent wind, I like our chances.’
‘Good,’ said James nodding at the others in the cabin. ‘That’s a good plan. Now, what could go wrong?’
‘A hundred things could go wrong,’ said Sarah. If there’s a dust storm tomorrow, it will ground us and Cydonia’s entire fleet, and we’re not going anywhere. And, it’s going to be a rough landing – I’ve never actually landed before. Even if we had a docking platform, I’ve never docked solo. There’s also the chance that no one will find us tomorrow.’
‘But there’s no better alternative is there?’ said James. ‘We must land and camp soon. Our people, Cydonia, could be looking for us now though, right?’
‘No,’ said Sarah. ‘They think we’re still at the base.’ There was another silence. Finally, Sarah spoke. ‘You shouldn’t have followed me.’