Star Bright

One Horse Town (21st December 2158)
21st December 2158

They disembarked in a tunnel (Red, not Black)-no other passengers got off. The exit sloped down bored through the rock and ended in a room with several airlocks leading outside into a cold Martian Afternoon. A Rail Company Employee, with ‘Callum MacNee’ embroidered on his poncho approached, and pointed the half mile or so into Black Rock. He explained that the supplies they had sent on previously were stored in a small unit, and gave them a key card to use when Marcus arrived with the Rover.

Black Rock wasn’t much –an odd assemblage of buildings which seemed to have been erected at different times to form a hotch potch community which included a general store, a doctor, a hotel and even a sheriff. A few townsfolk pretended not to look in their direction, as they headed for an establishment called ‘Dusters Bar’. Clearly, Marcus had not arrived yet. The barkeep stared impassively at Spyder’s Reindeer Antlers and ‘Michael Landon Cliff Hab Militia’ T shirt.

Jonas struck up a casual conversation with a female trucker about the road to the Kaminski Spread, and after she had left they heard a polite cough behind them. A tall cadaverous young man in an incongruous (for here) suit looked mournfully down at them. He held out a card.

“Elijah Grimm

Grimm, Grimm & Grimm

Undertakers of Quality"

“Bit far from home mate?” commented Jake, noting that the Company were based on Diamondhead, Venus.

“Forgive the intrusion Sir, but that hits the nail on the head precisely” said Elijah. They offered him a seat and he told his story.

Essentially he was babysitting the casket of a wealth local called Lavinia Vladescu, who had suddenly passed away while conducting family business in Diamondhead. A representative had commissioned his firm to accompany the casket, and the medical supplies she had negotiated for on Venus, to the family mine, which was situated not far from the Kaminski Spread.

Unfortunately the local Rovers for Hire in Black Rock were doing temporary duty at a local mine, and he been marooned here for several days.

“But I have a business proposition for you Sir” continued Elijah.

“Do tell” said Spyder.

“Well Sir. As I understand it the Kaminski Spread is only a few tens of Kilometres from the Vladescu Mine” explained Elijah. “If you were to contract to deliver it there – the Delivery Code will confirm arrival, then of course I can be on my way back home, and you can make a tidy profit for a simple courier task.”

“Seems fair enough” said Jake, “Though of course the ATV belongs to Marcus, and he’ll have the final say.”

“Ok Buddy” said Jonas, “Subect to Marcus being ok with it, you got yourself a deal.”

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Black Rock by Magrail (21st December 2158)
21st December 2158

As they sat in the Magrail compartment they watched the landscape of the Mariner Valley speed past. Black Rock was a grade 2 Terminus, which essentially meant that not every train stopped there. Previously this had only been about once per week, but the service had since been upgraded. The speed of the thing was in excess of 600km/hour, and the trip would be quite short.

Outside they could occasionally glimpse the Golden Road, the trail which roughly paralleled the Magrail along which the massive Road Trains hauled ore from the mining to the processing facilities, and thence to the factories and industries of Mars.

“Another crummy mining town I guess” said Spyder, not noticing the frown from Doc. Orlov.

“I don’t get it”, he continued, “I thought Mars had turned out to be a bust mining wise, and yet there are these small mines everywhere.” Doc. Orlov stirred.

“Is not total bust – is merely not the profitable bonanza anticipated.” Spyder wondered what an old cowboy show had to do with it but said nothing.

“In the beginning, mining operations on Mars very good – produced better than anyone hoped. Jobs were plentiful and calls to Earth for more settlers brought more shuttles of people hoping to cash in on prosperity. Unfortunately, this not last. Dig sites all began to encounter a material in the ground that was incredibly hard to drill, blast, or bore through. We have seen it”. She paused.

“The material was useless to the miners and no one could find a way to profit from it. Worse still, all indications were that material was present all over planet. The big mining operations were shut down or curtailed in most locations. Mega-Corporations pull out. Unemployment rose and most of settlers trapped.”

“Planet even lose out on tourism as newer worlds colonised.”

“So why are there all these mines dotted about then Doc?” asked Jonas.

“They are mostly small operations: miners co-operatives and smaller companies. On scale they operate they can still get by and sometimes keep operations within cost. Sometimes.”

“Also they have no choice” she added.

“I still seen some Mega Corp mining offices on Mars tho” persisted Jonas, “And theres a few others like Parkfield.”

“They being blackmailed by UWC” responded Doc. Orlov. “Blackmailed to stay. Blackmailed to provide some jobs. Also incentives to non mining companies to establish research facilities and the like.”

“And so Marcus Homestead survives by feeding some of these mines huh?” asked Jonas.

“Very probably. Black Rock is sort of stop off for local mines. Even so, most of the mines you hear people mention, they probably abandoned rather than active.”

"

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Making Plans (10th December 2158)
10th December 2158

comet-over-mars-art-kim-poor.jpg

CHAPTER 2: OUT OF THE TRENCHES

“To the scientist there is the joy in pursuing truth which nearly counteracts the depressing revelations of truth.”

“Christmas?” replied Jonas. “Not thought about it. Get drunk in some Bar I guess, and some of those peanuts with a turkey and sage coating. Don’t really know anyone on Mars.”

“I may join you man” said Spyder. “Likewise.”

“Well look” said Marcus. "I’m heading back to our homestead. You’re all welcome to come: there’s usually quite a few- a couple neighbours and people we know from the mining camps. Fresh produce too. "

“Plus I want to see how Millie has settled in” he added as an afterthought.

“Where is it man?” asked Spyder.

“About 100 kliks east of Black Rock, about halfway between Black Rock and the RAP tower” said Marcus. “You can catch the Mag Rail to Black Rock and one of us will pick you up in the WTV if you arrange a date in advance. I’d suggest coming down on 21st or 22nd – I’ll be going out maybe a week earlier.”

“Sounds good to me man” said Spyder. “We need to bring anything?”

“Just your stuff and as much booze as you can carry” said Marcus. “Or arrange to deliver the stuff in advance to the rail office at Black Rock.”

“I’m in” said Jake. “What about you Doc?” Katrina shrugged and nodded.

“Hey group bonding” said Spyder. “I’ll make you all out a presents list.”

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The Second Delivery (20th November 2158)
20th November 2158

Marcus was catching up on the latest issue of ‘The Goat Magazine’ when Spyder piped up excitedly.

“Hey! Hey!” he exclaimed. “There’s another delivery for PI Partnerships waiting for us at the Drop Box office!”

“Two deliveries in six months” mused Marcus, “Well worth the Cr 250 per month we pay them.”

It was a package about the size of a suitcase. This time however, it was a series of leaflets and folders, containing a bunch of documentation, specifications and Health and Safety Legislation.

“Wow, they gave us our Security License man!” shouted Spyder.

“Gonna buy me a machine gun. You Punks all gonna pay man! " he yelled " Budda budda budda. Wham. Kapow!" He ran out into the street frightening half a dozen pedestrians and a reporter from the Mars Star.

As Spyder disappeared into the distance Katrina produced her flex screen.

“This remind me. Professor Grimaldi confirm payment of Cr 20,000 each from University.”

“Hey not bad!” said Jonas. “Need to figure what to spend it on though.”

“There something else too” she added. “Remember black syringes with Hieroglyphs?”

“The MRS guys yes?” asked Jake.

“Ah…MRS?” puzzled Katina.

“Mars Retrovirus Subject: Spyder’s name – catchy huh?”

“Ah yes. MRS guys” She shook her head. “Anyway. University of Mars, not surprisingly, does not have Egyptology department.”

“I won’t say anything obvious about pyramids then Doc.” smiled Jonas, throwing her slightly.

“It does have History Department though, and colleagues here have many contacts. Including in ancient languages.”

“We’re all waiting Doc” said Marcus.

“Well. it not Egyptian Heiroglyph – it Ancient Persian. I not expert in such things.”

“So what’s it mean?” asked Jake at last.

“Apparently it translates as Ghul : is ancient Persian Demon which eats the dead.”

“I guess those mad scientists sure had a black sense of humour” replied Jonas.

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Men in Black (9th November 2158)
9th November 2158

They arrived at first light. A sleek Strat Bat which touched down on the airstrip, and two armed VTOLS, similar to the one that had hovered above them several months previously, as they drove westwards along the Mariner Valley near Angell Rock.

“Wardens” said Doc. Orlov sullenly.

The craft disgorged a team of four Warden Investigators, and a host of armed Storm Troopers, all wearing dark grey and black. The group found themselves separated and confined, and then a series of prolonged interviews bordering on outright interrogation. They gave nothing away. Answered no questions. Answers were given and repeated, again and again.

The experience did nothing to change Jake’s views about the UWC and the Wardens. Moreover he was wary of them checking too deeply into his own background. After two days the experience was over, and the Grendal group were allowed to gather in one of the rec, area, where they were addressed by a Captain Tarkin. Presumably the other base staff would receive their own little pep talk.

“You have served the UWC well in these events” he admitted, nodding curtly, “But I must warn you that this entire affair must remain a secret. The importance of the Llewellyn Project alone is sufficient that no adverse light should be cast on it, and apart from that, the whole issue of terrorists importing nuclear devices is not something that would ease the minds of everyday citizens. A blanket must, and will, be drawn over the affair. This is not a request.”

“As to the events surrounding the Joyeuse – you will also forget these. You especially, Doctor Orlov.” Marcus glanced round at Katrina, and saw her jaw tighten. “I am sure that the University will compensate you adequately for your efforts.”

He turned to go, and then paused, drawing one of the cheap pink and purple PI Partnership cards Spyder had got printed.

“PI Partnerships” he mused. “Hmm. Seen something about these before.” He threw the card into a waste bin, and was gone.

“There’s thanks for you” mumbled Jonas.

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Murder Hole (8th November 2158)
8th November 2158

The concussion grenades had been a life saver, but even so the last Earth Firster had tried to execute the hostages.

“They should live” said Marcus, as he leaned over Rodrigo and James.

After their initial assault they had quickly taken down another terrorist, but then became pinned down the long corridor by a couple of men armed with Long Rifles. A smoke grenade from Jake had forced them to retreat as the others rushed them however, and it was here that a concussion grenade had again proved useful. Two Earth Firsters were dead, and six were unconscious. Angie had aided the situation, by closing doors on the Earth Firsters at inconvenient moments.

The prisoners were being kept in the upper level of the logistics module, in the galley/rec area. Rhys, one of the Pilots from the Mariner Airfield, was among them.

“They held me at gunpoint to fly them here " he explained, “About six days ago. There were ten of them at first.”

“One of the stupid bastards died keeping watch outside for you at night – froze to death. Another got blown off one of the towers during high winds. City boys I’d guess.”

With the prisoners secured, they waited anxiously for the comms window: it was time to inform the Authorities.

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Dancing in the Dark (8th November 2158)
8th November 2158

They waited until dark, and parked the Grendal well away from the base, with lights off. Llewellyn base and its environs was well endowed with tower and navigation lights, and these they used to steer their two kilometre trudge towards them.

While Marcus had intended to lead them towards one of the radio arrays to hopefully make contact with Angie, the base computer, the proliferation of exterior light confused him somewhat. They ended up outside the garage.

Making the best of it Jake and then Doc. Orlov crawled across and hid next to the main airlock. they waved to Marcus to come next. Jake winced as he moved directly in front of one of the door cameras; hopefully no one was watching.

The airlock cycled and Marcus saw a black clad figure and a shotgun. He fired and missed. The figure fired back, also missing, and then as Jonas and the others rushed forward, he closed the airlock again.

“Shit!” yelled Jake, “Next airlock”. Mere yards away, there was another entrance into the side of the Power Module.

Jake hit the controls and received a warning that the inner door was open. Not caring he punched the button again, and the door opened along with the sound of klaxons.

“Warning. Warning. The Base is exposed to the external atmosphere. Emergency lockdown will occur in ten seconds.”

His more immediate concern was the two Hornet armed Earth Firsters, who fired controlled bursts at him, before succumbing to a concussion grenade filched from the Joyeuse, and thrown by Doc. Orlov. Wincing in pain, he staggered inside, followed by the others.

“Is that you Marcus sweetie?”

“Angie!” yelled Marcus. “Help us!”

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Unwelcome Visitors (8th November 2158)
8th November 2158

“What I don’t understand was why Strewer took a shot of the retrovirus” said Spyder. “After all, I don’t think he was insane at that point, and why would he? Doesn’t make sense.”

“Maybe THEY forced it on him” suggested Jonas. “Make him one of them. After all, they needed a lift back to civilisation, and Strewer must have been a Godsend.”

“And what? He escaped?” asked Spyder.

“Why not? He was ex military. And hardly stupid.” replied Jonas. “Probably before the drug took full effect.”

They were close to Llewellyn now, within 30 km and making good time. Spyder reached for the comms.

“No wait” said Jonas. “Let’s be cautious. We should do a visual check first.”

It was just as well they did. As they peered through their binoculars they could see that a VTOL was parked on the landing field.

“Well guys” said Jonas. “I reckon Earth First are at the base.”

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Dead Quiet (31st October 2158)
31st October 2158

“Hands like claws. Canines definitely elongated, though might be accentuated by the changes in the lips. Maybe some self mutilation too?” suggested Doc. Orlov, as they scrutinised the only one of their attackers who had not been killed by a head shot.

“Some conditions, like the skin tone and the apparent increased night vision, might be explained by their environment. Either way, some physical changes have definitely occurred. The changes in posture not least.” Her voice was controlled. Clinical. Jake shuddered.

“I found something” said Spyder, who had been limping around in the darkness while Marcus and Jake received first aid.

“He must be mad” thought Jake.

Professor Grimaldi, Jonas and Katrina followed Spyder into one of the cabins. Here the furniture had been largely removed, barring one small table. Arranged on this were a series of small lights, almost like candles. Surrounding this were small pieces of frozen flesh. In the centre of the arrangement was a clipboard with a sheet of paper.

On this had been sketched…something. As they peered they struggled to make sense of it, but it seemed somehow disquieting despite the crudity of the execution.

“A shrine?” suggested Spyder.

“A shrine to whom?” asked Jonas.

Professor Grimaldi took some pictures, and then folded up the rough drawing.

The ship was clearly beyond repair, and they were keen to get out of it. Professor Grimaldi attached a small transponder he had brought with him.

“For the salvage claim” he explained.

After a quick discussion they decided that the best cause of action was to take the Nukes with them. They also filched a selection of guns and some Military Vacc Suits, hoping that they might somehow get them past the authorities – for they had decided that upon return to Llewellyn that would be their best course of action.

Before leaving they checked the two crates in the hold, and found that each held 100 of the black syringes – except for five that were missing. Taking one as a sample, they took the rest outside and destroyed them.

And then they closed the hatch on the tomb that the Joyeuse had become, and gratefully returned to the Grendal.

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Night Monsters (31st October 2158)
31st October 2158

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“They took something "said Spyder, “Some crazy drug from their cargo. Some kinda Mars Colonist altering drug, but with bad side effects.”

“A retrovirus, inserting modified RNA” said Doc. Orlov. “Is possible. But more likely weapon than colonist drug I would say.”

“A weapon?” queried Marcus.

“These people terrorists” said Doc. Orlov. “Create crazy cannibal people, who are good at surviving on Mars. In normal population a serial killer is …what… one person in many hundred thousands? Maybe millions. What about creating many such people in small population like Mars Colony- only 300,000? Is chaos.”

Jake was feeling a little uncomfortable, coming face to face with this ruthless face of terrorist extremism. This was all too far for his own radicalism, and he realised that people like Doc. Orlov probably wouldn’t make much distinction between the two. The political nuances he thought critical would not even be recognised by most people.

“Let’s hope they don’t have a factory producing the stuff” commented Marcus.

“If they do, they would have released more by now?” suggested Jonas.

“Maybe is some critical component. Maybe this shipment is total of resources” suggested Doc. Orlov. “Either way, taking drug was desperate act. Maybe crew not know full effect.”

“We should check the rest of this deck” said Jake, clearing his throat Slowly, the others nodded their agreement.

The door into the heart of the ship revealed a corridor extending about thirty metres: Jake’s goggles could not quite see to the end of it. A dozen doors were set both sides of the corridors. If it followed a standard pattern, these would likely be crew quarters leading to an Engine Room aft.

Nervously, with his goggles set on both IR and LI, Jake started testing the doors. Doc. Orlov followed close behind, wearing a set of LI goggles. Behind her the others scanned about in the darkness with their flashlights. All was silent.

Jake tried half a dozen rooms: all crew quarters, all cold, all desolate- though Doc. Orlov thought one had been disturbed more recently. Jake was in a cold sweat now. he didn’t like this. He clutched the trigger on his AFL -16.

In the next room, it came silently out of the darkness. Strong hands ripped the assault rifle from Jake’s hands, sending it clattering across the cabin. Claw like hands gripped his shoulders. With a feral snarl teeth bit deep into his shoulder, the high armored collar of his Duster fortunately protecting his neck. Jake screamed, and the silence was shattered.

With her goggles Katrina was the only other person with any clue as to what was happening. Moving into the doorway she glimpsed a wild figure with sparse hair wearing a ragged armoured vacc suit, minus gloves and helmet. Talon like nails gripped jake’s shoulder, wrapped in cloth or bandages. A guttural growl emerged from its throat, though she could not see its face, buried as it was in Jakes shoulder. She fired, and rushing forward Jonas too pumped bullets into the melee. Vainly, Jake struggled to escape, helplessly trapped by iron hard muscles.

“What’s happening? What’s happening?” called Spyder, at the rear of the group. He heard a growl behind him and turned just in time to glimpse another nightmare figure, which pounced on him knocking him backwards into another cabin.

“Ahhhhh…. Get if OFF mee!” he yelled, as the thing bit into his arm. Marcus ran forward, and unsure in the darkness as to which figure was which, fired his Anvil 12mm into the melee. It was a good hit, but unfortunately on Spyder. The bulled grazed his temple and knocked him senseless.

“Shit” thought Marcus, as the attacker jumped quickly to its feet, eyes glittering in the darkness facing towards him.

In his panic, and badly mauled, Jake managed to snap free at last. His shoulder burning, and feeling the warm blood trickle into the mesh in his Mars Suit, he fled back out into the corridor. Jonas and Katrina pumped several bullets into the figure, which finally spun backwards against the wall.

It was Marcus’s turn to scream now. Close combat just wasn’t his thing, and the figure snarled, raked and bit deep. Jonas and Katrina rushed back out into the corridor, Jake staying behind them. But then he shrieked as another of the attackers jumped on him, possibly having emerged from another of the rooms. This time he was luckier however, and he managed to slip out of its grasp. Jonas also managed to evade it, and it had several bullets pumped into it by himself and Katrina.

“Please get me out of this. Please get me out of this” prayed Jake silently, badly wounded, and cowering , while another of the things savaged Marcus only a few meters away. Without his rifle his nerve was crumbling.

Spyder meanwhile had recovered, and drawing his Redbird stumbled out into the corridor, minus his torch. All he could see were a few dim shapes, but he could hear a mix of confused shouting, feral snarls and screams. He aimed blindly at the melee that seemed to be occurring next to him. And then he was bundled to the ground again by yet another figure.

Finally a 12mm slug shattered the head of Jake’s second attacker. Pushing past Jonas and Katrina, Jake ran back into the cabin, trying hard not to look in the direction of the figure slumped against the wall. Frantically he scrambled around for his AFL 16.

Marcus was still screaming, when a pair of accurate shots from Jonas splattered his attackers head. Only Spyder was still screaming now, but this final attacker was clearly either weaker or clumsier than the others, as many of its attacks seemed ineffective.

Embarrassed and emboldened by recovery of his rifle, Jake pushed his way forward, and seeing clearly through his goggles, aimed a single shot at the creatures head.

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