Spoiler warning: This is the beginning of a sequel to Dun Ringill
Though he was no stranger to pain, Aberlade had never felt pure agony before.
The pain was the first thing to enter his conscious mind, as he lay sprawled out, face down, on the stone floor of the church’s vestibule. Next was the ringing in his ears, and the acrid smell of smoke. Though briefly knocked out, he hadn’t forgotten the urgency of the situation, and willed himself to move. He felt the stock of the shotgun still clenched in his right hand, and kept ahold of it as he rolled over onto his back. The only thing he could see was the bright sunlight streaming through the open doorway in front of him, until a misshapen form appeared and cast a shadow over him.
He raised himself to a seated position, and his left hand found the handguard of his weapon. Aiming from the hip, he squeezed off a round toward the doorway. The nine pellets of 00-buckshot found something important, and the creature slumped forward. He clambered to his feet, shucking another round into the chamber, and looked at his companion. Lying next to the heavy oak door, Seamus was clearly dead, having been torn almost in half by the grenade he tried to throw. As his hearing slowly returned, Aberlade tried not to look at his friend’s corpse, nor the one of the monster at his doorstep. Not without effort, he pushed the door closed.
Though pockmarked and seared by the grenade, the door and its lock were still functional. He secured the door, casting the room into almost complete darkness. He wanted to check himself for injuries, but first he would have to make his way to the bell tower, a place where he had spent most of every day for the last two months. Grabbing his rucksack, he headed for the stairs. Arriving there without passing out was a good sign, and with sunlight entering on all four sides, he looked at his body. Despite the pain of the initial concussion, the grenade seemed to have spared him from any penetrating or lacerating wounds.
He leaned over the edge of the tower and looked at the street. The remaining creatures seemed to be losing interest in his location. Visible at this distance as only a shuffling mass of red tentacles, they began to wander back toward the swamps. He sighed in relief. Later, when he was sure they were gone, he would have to go back for Seamus’ weapon. If there was any sadness at the loss of his friend, it might come later. Right now, all he could think about was the fact that his supply of provisions had just doubled. This was a comfort, however fleeting, as their forays further into the outskirts of the city were becoming more dangerous. Today’s assault could have been avoided if they simply had more food.
Still, he would run out eventually, leaving him the unenviable choices of starvation, eating one of the monsters, or suicide. As the last resident of the hell that Edinburgh had become, he knew he should have never expected any less.
If there was a sketchier side of Mars, Carthage hadn’t seen it yet. Arcadia, the slums of the otherwise glittering gem of Alba Mons City, was capable of supporting life, if you could call it that. Nestled on the northern plateau, Arcadia would probably end up underwater if the Planetary Union ever succeeded with their terraforming plans, but for now it was a refuge for anyone who needed to operate outside of the law. Beyond the protective electromagnetic dome, which shielded the city proper from solar radiation, one could find anything for sale or barter. At least, so he’d been told.
His presence there, along with his commander, Logan, was to buy a thousand liters of uranium hexafluoride gas. The good news was that it would fuel their ship for months, the bad news was that the substance was only authorized as fodder for military stardrives. Anyone attempting to purchase that much through proper channels would doubtlessly gain the attention of the authorities. That was the drawback of their ship, the Fawn. Logan was able to purchase it for a song because, as military surplus, it was assumed one would have to completely retrofit the drive reactor with one that used an unrestricted fuel. Since any other combination would have resulted in the transformation of a fast, nimble ship into a lethargic snail, Logan opted to keep the original stardrive.
Assuming their procurement was successful, this would only be Carthage’s second crime. For Logan, it was a first. Neither of them were used to negotiating with underworld types, not on Mars or anywhere else, but Logan wasn’t particularly worried. Carthage’s negotiation skills with a firearm made up for a lot that might be lacking in diplomacy. So, having landed the Fawn outside of town and donned their EVA suits, they made their way inside. The suits were overkill, as at this time of night they really only needed warm clothing and an oxygen supply, but if for some reason they were delayed until sunrise, they would radiation protection as well.
Arcadia had begun its life as the spaceport for Alba Mons City, with the surplus population of undesirables building up residences and storefronts later. While it still served this purpose, the warehouse district had for the most part moved under the EM dome, leaving several large complexes vacant. They didn’t stay that way for long. The disadvantage, as an ad hoc bazaar, was the distance between buildings. One could not venture far without exposure to the sun, so most business was conducted at night. Carthage and Logan had done as much research on the area as possible, and found themselves poking around in the gloom, following their PDAs, looking for a particular spot that did not want to be found.
So far they were being ignored by the locals. They had distressed their otherwise new EVA suits to look as beat-up as possible without actually damaging them, which probably helped avoid scrutiny. At last, they stopped in front of a side entrance to a massive warehouse, labeled only with the old-fashioned pictogram of an ancient gas pump, of a kind not seen on Earth in almost 80 years, though the icon had remained the standard until much more recently. Carthage and Logan nodded at each other, and finding the door unlocked, they went inside.
To their surprise, the expansive indoor space was bright and clean. Gas cylinders and drums were stacked neatly on shelving as high as ten meters, and everything appeared to be properly marked and labeled. Along the ceiling was mounted a fire suppression system. There was even an evacuation plan prominently posted on the wall. Immediately to their right was a large, caged-in area, which contained a reception desk, a point-of-sale device, and a middle-aged woman dressed in orange coveralls. A hardhat sat next to her computer. She looked at the new arrivals expectantly. The pair flipped up the visors on their helmets. Although only remaining in the Martian atmosphere in trace amounts, the odor of ammonia was impossible to ignore. The woman behind the desk must have noticed their expressions.
“New here?” she asked. “You’ll get used to it.”
Logan produced a Crypto-Coin and placed the medallion-sized object on the counter, the 2D barcode facing up. The woman scanned it, then verified its contents on her computer. She raised an eyebrow at the balance.
“Looking to make a bulk purchase?”
Logan shook her head. “Nothing more than a thousand liters of Hex.”
“Can I assume the remainder is for us to lose the paperwork?”
“Or fluctuations in the market.”
“I’ll have to run this by my boss.”
Logan smiled. “Of course.”
The woman pulled out her PDA, and began a text conversation. Carthage and Logan removed their helmets and waited.
“What’s the name of your vessel?”
“The Fawn, registration number HD-34411.”
Carthage gave Logan a sideways glance, to which she nodded slightly.
“Enceladus class? You must have some connections.”
“Anybody can bid on old Fleet ships. Having to swap out a Cooper Mark Four for something else is usually a deal-breaker.”
“Curious. You want to go fast, but you’ll be hard pressed to find more fuel outside the solar system. And yet, an Enceladus class ship isn’t going to outrun or outgun a Tethys or Dione.”
“It’s not going to outgun anything at all, since the Fleet stripped her weapons. You seem to know a lot about the CSF. Prior service?”
She smiled. “I turned some wrenches in my day. Oh, my boss approved the deal. Do you need to purchase a dolly or did you bring your own?”
“We’ll need one.”
“There’s also a deposit for the cylinder.”
“Okay, then. I’ve sent the order to our warehouse guy. He’ll bring it out momentarily.”
Thirty minutes later, Carthage and Logan had secured the fuel in the cargo bay of the Fawn. Actually putting it in the engine’s storage tanks could wait until they were elsewhere in the solar system. That done, they removed their EVA suits and returned them to their wall lockers. Still on Earth local time, both were up well past their normal bedtimes. Making their way back to the bridge, Logan yawned.
“I figure we’ll camp out somewhere in the asteroid belt to wait out the rest of tonight,” she said. “That will give us a few hours of sack time before we load the fuel. I suggest you use it, whether you feel you need it or not.”
“I’ve never been one to pass on a night’s rest for no reason,” replied Carthage, “but first I want to inspect the rest of the pistols we bought.”
The pair arrived on the bridge. The room was a single level, with a pilot station in the middle and four others around the periphery. It was identical to that on the Calypso, Logan’s previous command, though overall the Fawn was smaller. In the pilot seat was Lieutenant Raven Cervantes, a younger woman of Costa Rican descent. Like Carthage and Logan, she had recently separated from the fleet and was more than happy to be hired on with the Fawn.
“Report,” said Logan.
“No unusual activity while you were gone, Cap,” replied Cervantes. “There was little ship traffic in this vicinity and no indication anyone took an interest in us.”
“Good. Get us in the air. Once we break atmo, pick a random spot on the ecliptic plane in one of the Kirkwood gaps. Then I’ll send Morgan up to relieve you. First thing in the morning, we’ll load the fuel and be on our way.”
Logan and Carthage exited the bridge, and headed down the main corridor. Logan’s quarters were just a few steps aft, and she stopped before entering.
“So, Carthage,” she began, “I was wondering how you were planning on spending your time during our trip.”
Carthage gave her a half-smile. “How do Advanced Infantrymen spend their free time?”
“I guess that’s part of my question, but what I really meant is that I don’t know you very well personally.”
“It’s been several years since I read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, I thought I’d read it again.”
“Was that part of your initial education?”
“Yes. It fit perfectly into the AI program.”
“That has to do with Stoic philosophy, right? It was an option on our academy reading list, too, but I never chose to read it.”
“I will, then. Good night, Carthage. Don’t stay up too late.”
Logan entered her quarters and shut the door. Carthage made his way to the armory, where six crates containing seventy-two H&K USP .45-caliber pistols had been stored. He had already inspected one crate, and six of the pistols had been claimed by himself and the rest of the crew, but the rest remained. Though the pistols were considered obsolete by current standards, they were still quite deadly, and unlike something more exotic, still legal for civilian purchase. The plan was to keep twelve, and trade the rest for better firepower once they arrived on Skye.
He opened the next crate. The odor of the preservative oil strongly reminded him of Siobhan’s shop back in Romanby. The feeling of missing someone was a new emotion for him, and the scent from the crates brought back his memories of their adventures together like it was yesterday. He suddenly found himself wishing the trip to Skye would take fewer than five weeks. It would be good to see Siobhan again, however briefly. They would soon be moving on to V538 Aurigae.
No human had ever been to that star. An unmanned probe had been sent some years earlier, but its mission was limited to cataloging the star and the largest planets in the solar system, before it sling-shot itself toward the next lonely star. One planet, the fourth from the star, had been noted for its similarity to Earth, and it was likely the SUF would want to establish a foothold there soon. For now, it remained a mystery, of little interest to anyone but Logan and her crew. It was on this planet that they rested their hope, that the final piece of the Lagrange Project could at last be put to rest.
Ninety minutes later, Carthage scrubbed his hands in the lavatory in his quarters, satisfied that all of the pistols were serviceable. He headed for bed, wondering what his dreams held for him. Perhaps Siobhan, or perhaps the nightmarish creatures that they believed called V538 home.