Battleground Mars
Author:Eric Schneider
    Chapter One

    The ship finally blasted off from New Houston Spaceport, leaving a trail of vapor in its wake, together with his old life. Rahm felt an overwhelming sense of relief as they left behind the vast complex of launch pads, hangars, and processing plants. The spaceport was a recent construction, built with just one purpose. The transport of a single substance across millions of miles of space. The ship was heading to a new horizon, to the outer limit of the solar system. He was heading away from the spectacular failure that had changed the course of his life. This mission was to mine a desperately needed mineral resource from a distant planet. To wrench the precious substance from deep beneath the hostile surface of Mars. Only the latest technological advances had made the journey possible. New discoveries, new materials and the development of a radical propulsion system had opened up new possibilities to further human exploration. To increase the knowledge of the solar system they inhabited. Some people trumpeted the benefits of colonizing distant worlds, and others planned new tourist ventures. Yet no sooner had interplanetary space travel become a practical reality than a new crisis emerged. At first it was shrugged off, warnings that had been growing for centuries. Icebergs were melting, and sea levels were rising as a consequence. That was part of the natural cycle on Earth, so some people said. Forests became farmland, and green fields surrendered to desert, yet deserts could be irrigated with the new desalination technologies. Forests could be replanted. Couldn’t they? No problem!
    Few noticed the inexorable advance of man-made destruction over nature. Governments and corporations always put the balance sheet first. It was only when people began to struggle to breathe that they became worried. Even Saul, his best and most trusted friend, had been excited about the possibilities for the new mineral when he heard about it.
    “Look at this stuff, Rahm. It’s called trevanium. They say it’s a miracle, the solution to our problems with bad air quality. I mean, Christ, it’s disgusting. I can even taste the air as I breathe it!”
    Yes, the air was foul. Worse than that, it was increasingly toxic.
    “It sure looks promising,” Rahm replied. “It’s only a pity that it’s so far away to recover it.”
    “Oh yeah? The harder and dirtier it is to mine the stuff, the more they’ll pay to get the job done. I keep telling you, where there’s shit there’s money.”
    He smiled. Saul Packer was an skilled toolpusher, one of the best in the business, and he was correct about the money. Extracting the rare and valuable resource would result in some hefty pay packets for all of them.
    “You are right, if what they say is true, trevanium will transform the Earth from a polluted hell into a paradise.”
    “It’ll transform my bank account, that’s for sure,” Saul grinned.
    Using trevanium it was possible to start a chemical reaction, whereby atmospheric pollutants bonded with the mineral catalyst to output pure, clean air. He had heard of the mineral in the early days of his career, although he’d had other priorities. After completing his doctoral degree Rahm was appointed director and chief engineer of a multi-billion dollar research station. The plant had been built in Afghanistan, near to the border with Iran. His company had discovered that the opium poppies, the great harvest of the Afghans, could produce more than heroin and morphine. New advances in biological computing required new materials, and the deadly poppy promised to deliver the complex solutions to fast processing that they sought. Rahm even had his beloved fiancée, Chrissie Blake, working at his side, and life couldn’t have been better. Until he’d scrambled out alone from the wreckage of his research station in Herat, mentally shattered by the destruction of both the station and the lives of everyone inside it.
    They’d said it wasn’t his fault, but he had done nothing to stop them. He couldn’t carry any more responsibility for people, for property and budgets, couldn’t see any more of his loved ones die agonizing deaths. He’d tried to recover from his pain by working as little more than a laborer in isolated mining operations. Then he’d taken out his fury by engaging as a mercenary, and in the process he met Saul Packer. The contracts included small-scale military operations to protect mining colonies in isolated parts of Africa and the Amazon Basin, where the natives didn’t take kindly to companies that raped their lands and left them polluted and dying. After six violent months fighting off the attacks, he was sated by the brutal violence, and he signed up with the company that mined trevanium on Mars. Extracting the mineral was hard, the most dangerous job in the universe, so they said. The fields they operated in were situated in the most hostile environment imaginable. But it suited him, for Rahm wanted as little human contact as possible. They’d made him take the crew chief position, because of his experience and doctorate. He hadn’t wanted the responsibility, but it was that or nothing. Saul had persuaded him accept and he’d given in only with great reluctance. Besides, according to Saul Packer, they were traveling to untold riches.
     “The safety light went out five minutes ago, you were miles away.”
    He looked across at his best friend. Saul had fought the vicious battles alongside him in South America. A skilled driller and miner before joining the security detail, Saul was a man he’d come to rely on. Through numerous bloody fights, he’d proved himself time and again. It was fine with him, just as long as Saul didn’t ever need to rely on him if things went wrong. Like Rahm, he’d become sickened by the violence, it was hard to pull the trigger when you sympathized with the other side. So they’d both gone back to mining, but this time with a difference. They were traveling to the most dangerous and hostile environment known to man. Mars.
    “I’m just tired. We put a few away last night.”
    Saul grinned. “We sure did. I took that girl back with me to the hotel last night, she was really something. My God, I won’t forget her in a hurry! I even brought a picture of her along with me.”
    He took out his billfold and lost himself looking at her photo, recalling the happy memories of the night before. He grinned at Rahm and pushed back his dark hair, which he wore long because some girl had told him once that it made him look like a rock star. Rahm saw him as more like a friendly grizzly bear, big, muscled, dark and potentially very dangerous. His face carried the scars of countless scrapes that he’d been involved. His career was as notable for his hard-fought victories as a fighting man as it was for his skills as a miner. Saul was a good man to have as a friend and a deadly one as an enemy, as many had found to their cost. He was also an inveterate womanizer.
    “What about you? Her friend looked pretty special.”
    Saul recalled the girl’s dismay when it became obvious that Rahm wasn’t interested in her. “I liked your friend, Saul,” she’s told him. “He’s dreamy. I go for guys like that, tall, with lovely, glossy, thick black hair, he’s a bit of a looker. Why isn’t he interested in me? Doesn’t he think I’m pretty?”
    “Of course he does,” Saul had hastened to repair any bad feeling. All he wanted to do was disappear to his hotel room with his own girl. “I’ll tell him you’re interested, don’t worry, he’s probably got a lot on his mind. He’s the crew boss for this upcoming trip.”
    His own girl was pulling him away and he left Rahm to fix himself up. He was an adult, for Christ’s sake.
     “Did you go with her? She was really keen on you.”
    Rahm did have a powerful effect on women. He looked tall and scrawny at first sight, but underneath he was tough and resourceful. He’d fought hard as a mercenary and had earned a reputation for suicidal bravery. Yes, women liked him; he was a man they could love. He was also a man to fear. He was striking to look at, with a rugged, square face that always looked faintly curious, perhaps a throwback to his academic days. It was also a face that could switch from relaxed to threatening in a fraction of a second. He had the grace of a dancer, yet there was nothing soft or weak about him, the man had demonstrated time after time that he had the strength and power of a natural athlete.
     “No, I didn’t. I went back on my own.”
    “On your own! My God, I thought you were away with that one. She was sure giving you the eye. Hooters like watermelons, pretty as hell, I can’t believe you connect with her. I’d have taken them both with me if I’d known,” he smiled slyly. Then he became serious as he realized his friend and crew boss wasn’t smiling with him. “Hey, I’m sorry, have I offended you?”
    “No, you haven’t.”
    “I mean, if you didn’t fancy her, that’s fine by me.”
    “It’s not that I didn’t fancy her, she was real pretty.”
    “Right. Well, not your type maybe.” He looked sideways. “It’s not my business, of course. I mean, your taste in women is your own affair.”
    “Shut up.”
    “And Saul.”
    “I’m not gay either. You know why?”
    “I haven’t got a clue.”
    “Because it’d mean dating an ugly bastard like you.” He smiled and punched him on the arm. “Look, she was pretty as a picture, but I’m just not in the mood right now, ok? So shut up about her.”
    “Attention everyone! My name is Tobin Ryles, and I will be the assistant base manager when we arrive on planet.” He was short, with a slight build, the original seven stone weakling. To make matters worse, he had a whining, nasally voice. He probably he had problems with his sinuses, Rahm reflected. Or maybe he was just a total nerd. Saul grinned, coming to the same assessment of the bumptious little man. He was short and weedy, with a thin face bearing the marks of a teenage acne attack, making him look rather like a speckled weasel.
    “The cabin crew is passing out your safety leaflets, please read them thoroughly. I will be available to answer any of your questions during the flight. Journey time will be slightly less than our original estimate, and our estimated landing on Mars will be in five weeks. The captain says that we’ve caught favorable conditions including the tale end of a solar storm. If you need something to read there are tablets in the library for you to borrow. I’m afraid that new movies will not be available on this flight, as the ship is due for refit when it returns to Earth. The owners were not inclined to spend additional money on pointless luxuries. For that reason the galley stoves are not working as well as they should, but I’m told the cold food is still excellent.”
    A groan went around the cabin, but the nasally voice ignored them.
    “The base manager, Jacques Fechter, will be available to answer your questions at various times during the flight. That is all.”
    Saul snorted. “So they reckon that Mars is the toughest drilling assignment around, and they send us out with an overgrown kid to do a man’s work. Did you see Ryles when we signed up?”
    Rahm shook his head.
    “He’s a jumped up little squirt. I don’t know what it’s going to be like on the planet, but they tell me it’s pretty bad. It makes some of the nastier places on earth, like Siberia and Death Canyon, look like your local park. If anything goes wrong the only thing I’d trust him to do would be to straighten out a bent paperclip.”
    “Is everything ok?”
    They looked up. A small man, thin faced. Ryles was back.
    “Yeah, all good,” Saul smiled, wondering if the man had overheard him. But he hadn’t.
    “You know what to expect when we get there?”
    Ryles managed a sickly grin. “Very funny, Mr., er,” he squinted down at the name tag. “Mr. Saul Packer. Nice to meet you, Sir.”
    He shook hands, his face attempting, and failing, to give a warm and engaging smile.
    “And you would be, Mr.,” he squinted at Rahm’s badge. “Sorry, Dr. Rahm. As I said over the intercom, the journey will be five weeks. This will be the shortest journey time on record for a commercial flight. Since the relief ships were retrofitted with VASIMR, the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket technology, it’s made a huge difference. Yes, a massive difference. I must tell you more about it at a later time, I'm sure I have all of the information on my tablet. I’m kept very busy running this show, but I’ll do my best if you want further information. Now, when we arrive...”
    “I beg your pardon?” But he’d paled. His nasally voice deteriorated to more of a squeak. “Taurons, did you say?”
    “Yes. Tell us about them.”
    Ryles looked around, as if he was to impart some great secret. “You know about the raid on the Earth facility?”
    “We heard. That was pretty stupid, to put our entire stock of trevanium in one place.”
    “How were we to know that they would attack us, Dr Rahm?”
    “You knew they were hostile, and you knew they were desperate for trevanium. Isn’t that enough? It’s a simple equation. Taking what you want from someone else has been the justification for war since the dawn of man.”
    Ryles sniffed. “I wouldn’t know about that. There are certain strategic considerations that I am not privy to.”
    “Right. They’re big bastards, aren’t they, the Taurons?”
    “Yes, they are rather tall. As you’ve noted, they have as much need for the trevanium as we do, perhaps even more. Their planetary atmosphere is failing badly, or so our astronomers say.”
    “How the hell do they manage to travel from another solar system?”
    “They’re from the Planet Tauron in Alpha Centauri. They managed to develop faster than light travel, something we’ve been unable to do so far. The voyage from Alpha Centauri to our own solar system takes them no longer than it takes us to travel from Earth to Mars at sub-light speed.”
    “A pity we couldn’t do the same and raid their planet, they’d see how it feels,” Saul muttered darkly.
    “That’s wouldn’t be a good idea, Mr. Packer. The Taurons are a very warlike race. It’s much better to leave them well alone.”
    “How do we manage that on Mars, if we’re both working the same planet?”
    Ryles looked embarrassed. “Er, well, we just have to stay out of each other’s way.”
    “And then they leave us alone, do they?” Rahm asked skeptically. “Like they left us alone when they raided our warehouse on Earth.”
    The assistant manager ignored him and walked quickly away, fuming about ‘people asking idiotic questions’. Rahm reached up and pulled off his name tag, he hadn’t noticed they’d used his title of Doctor. It was part of his past, a past that he wanted to forget. It was the reason he was on this ship. Like the old immigrants to the United States, escaping the wreckage of their lives in the poverty and inequality of the old Europe, this spacecraft was his pioneer wagon. He reflected that they faced similar problems to the old American settlers. Hostile warriors, intent on stopping them.
    “What got him all upset?” Saul asked.
    Rahm shrugged. “Alien bogeymen, he didn’t seem to like the idea of those Taurons.”
    An older man looked across from the next aisle. “Neither will you, when you see them. I’m Josh DeVries. Crew boss.” The guy was short and completely bald, his face wrinkled from too much exposure to the elements. Rahm shook hands, and discovered that Josh had a grip of steel. His gaze was honest and direct. “I’m on my second contract to Mars, so let me know if there’s anything I can help you with.”
     “Thanks, Josh. I’m Rahm, this is Saul Packer. He’s my toolpusher.”
    “Rahm, no other name?”
    “It’s no secret, my first name’s Cal, short for Caleb. They’ve called me Rahm since, well, a long time ago. What’s this about the Taurons?”
    “That useless creature Ryles described them as ‘quite tall’, did he? That’s a pile of bullshit. They’re enormous, built like tanks. The Taurons are bipeds, like us. They’re very strong, very clever, and so aggressive you wouldn’t believe it. Their hides are tough too, it’s like a kind of scale armor. And one more thing about the Taurons.”
    “Yes, what’s that?”
    “Forget that ‘live and let live’ crap. They hate us. If they take a human prisoner you wouldn’t want to know what happens next. When you get near a Tauron you get away as fast as possible. Even then, it may not be fast enough. When they see one of us it’s like a bull when it sees the matador’s red cape.”
    Saul glanced at Rahm. “They didn’t say anything about it being that bad back on Earth. The raid was hushed up, too, we only heard about it while we were waiting for the flight to leave.”
    Josh smiled. “They figure it’ll upset their recruiting figures. Look, they’re really bad news, the Taurons. If you stay away from them, you might make it back to cash in your pay.”
    “I had a six man crew on the last contract. Three of us came back, the others didn’t make it.”
    “Do they ship the bodies back?”
    Josh thought about his answer for a few moments. Then he shook his head. “No, they don’t ship the bodies back, you can forget about that.”
    “So they bury them on Mars?”
    “Something like that. You’ll find out soon enough.” He looked at the people seated in front of Saul and Rahm. “Is this the rest of your crew?”
    Rahm nodded. “Yep, that’s Brad Haakon, Kaz Yasan, and Nathan Wenders. Our technician is Kacy Lakkin. She went to the ship’s library to stock up on technical manuals.”
    He noticed that Nathan was sitting slightly apart from the others, his face morose as usual. He recalled their first meeting at the funeral service for Christine Blake. Rahm had stood at the back of the old church. The cool, dark interior was dimly lit by shafts of sunlight that penetrated the stained glass windows. Her family had packed out the front rows and he didn’t feel ready to face them, not yet. He’d noticed the guy staring at him as if he knew him. He was very thin, to the point of emaciation. His hair was cropped close to his skull and his pale, thin face accented the dark, brooding eyes, making them look huge and intense. Like an old-time religious fanatic.
    “You’re a friend of the family, aren’t you?”
    Nathan nodded curtly. “Something like that, yes.”
    “I’m Rahm, pleased to meet you.”
    “Yes.” They shook hands. Rahm shrugged off the man's coldness. He knew that some people were like that, especially at funerals. Later, when he signed up for the Mars contract and he’d been introduced to his crew, he found Nathan amongst them. At first he’d been taken aback, he was here to forget everything to do with that terrible time. Not be constantly reminded of it every time he saw Nathan. But it wasn’t the guy’s fault, and he did his job, that was what counted.
    “Well, I’ve got to get back to my own people, you’ll meet them later, I expect,” Josh smiled. “It’s a crappy way to spend the next twenty four months. An early introduction to hell.”
    Rahm realized that he’d been drifting, thinking about Nathan. “I’m sorry, what was that?”
    Josh repeated his verdict on the Martian colony.
    “Why did you come back if it’s so bad?” Rahm asked the old crew boss.
    “Money, pure and simple. I didn’t make enough on the last trip. I plan to buy a piece of land up in the mountains and set up a skiing operation, with my two sons. This is the only way to earn big money, and so here I am.”
    “Are your two sons on the ship too?”
    He looked horrified. “Bring them with me to Mars? No way, it’s a hellhole, and there’s no way I’m having my sons there. They have huge dust storms that batter the whole planet, and Tauron monsters that’ll attack us for no reason. There are a thousand and one ways to die up there if you’re not careful. I want to keep them safe. What are you here for? I assume it’s the money.”
    “That and a change of scenery.”
    Josh stood up. “It’s a hell of a change of scenery on Mars, believe me.” He walked along the aisle towards the ship’s canteen.
    “What do you reckon, these Tauron monsters, they couldn’t be that bad?” Saul looked at Rahm for an answer.
    “Probably not. They can’t be as big and ugly as you, Saul.”
    His friend grinned happily, then closed his eyes and promptly went to sleep. Rahm tried to doze, yet the crew boss’s comments kept coming back to haunt him. They’d said little about the threat from the Taurons back on Earth. The impression given was that the aliens mined one side of Mars, and the humans the other. Yet Josh had suggested that it wasn’t so clear cut. In fact, he’d made it sound not too far from open warfare. Rahm digested that thought. Surely if it was that bad they’d be recruiting soldiers, not miners. But still, now that they had the warning, they could be prepared if they did meet any Taurons.
    He sighed, thinking about the Red Planet. As if there weren’t enough difficulties to contend with. There was little atmosphere, less than one percent of that on Earth. The whole planet was intensely cold, with sheets of ice at the poles. They faced two years on a planet that was airless, freezing cold and occupied by hostile aliens. It was sure going to be interesting. He noticed that Saul was stirring. On an impulse he stood up.
    “I’m going down to the ship’s library. I want to look up a couple of things.”
    “Bring me back any monster comics you find,” Saul laughed. “This’ll be a long journey without any good movies to watch.”
    “I’ll see what I can find,” Rahm promised him. He walked through the huge cabin. It was not unlike the size of small commercial aircraft, except that the cabin was circular, with room for just over one hundred seats. There were other, smaller rooms that led off the main cabin. Most important was a tiny gym, which was necessary for any space flight of long duration, and there was a galley and canteen, as well as the ship’s library. His technician, Kacy, was scrolling through the onscreen catalogue when he entered. She brightened when she saw him walk in.
    “Hi, Rahm, are you after anything special, anything I can help you with?”
    He glanced at his technician. Kacy Lakkin was tiny, he estimated she stood about five feet in her socks. She was pretty, yet her best features were a cute snub nose and patches of freckles on her face. But she was no Barbie doll. Kacy had experience in some of the toughest sites on Earth.
    He shook his head. “I thought I’d look up some general stuff about Mars.”
    “I’ve been reading through the files, what can I tell you?”
    He smiled. He’d read her file, before becoming a technician she’d been a police detective on Earth. She was probably treating her new assignment like a crime scene investigation. She was working through the information gathering phase.
    “Go ahead, give me the big picture.”
    “Right. Well, the Martian days are very close to Earth's. The day is twenty four hours and thirty nine minutes long.”
    She was smiling, she appeared pleased to have someone interested enough to listen to her. Her blonde hair was tucked into a blue polka dot scarf fastened over the top of her head. The blue complimented her deep blue eyes. She was tough, sure, but cure.
    She stopped. “What?”
    “Why did you come, why Mars? A girl like you, I could picture you with a husband, nice house, and a couple of kids.”
    Her bright smile faded. “You know I was a cop?”
    He nodded.
    “I was married, you’re right, but I didn’t have any kids. Didn’t have time. My husband was a cop too. He was killed in a drugs bust that went wrong.”
    “I’m sorry.”
    “That’s ok, Rahm, I’m over the worst of it. Shall I carry on?”
    “Yes, please.”
    It was like turning on a switch. She spoke like a cop giving evidence in courst. “Mars is a smaller planet than Earth, less than thirty percent of our surface area. It only has one-tenth the mass, which means that it has a lower density and lower gravity, about one sixth of Earth. So we’ll be able to jump higher. Even in our pressure suits. We have to wear pressure suits, because of the low atmospheric pressure. We couldn’t survive for long without them.” She grinned. “Oh, and another thing, this Red Planet stuff? Forget it. The whole place is the color of sand and dust. The planet is divided into two hemispheres, north and south. The northern hemisphere is flat with just a few impact craters caused by asteroids. Most of it is below the determined zero elevation level. The southern hemisphere is very different, lots of mountains and highlands,”
    “Anything else I should know? What about our destination, Mars Base, what’s it like?”
    “Mars Base? Hmm, it’s a double skinned dome structure built on the planet’s surface, with...”
    He stopped her then. “Hold it! Did you say on the surface? I thought they built the Mars Base underground, so that it would be safer from the storms.”
    She nodded. “They did originally, yeah. But they outgrew it so fast that they decided they needed a bigger structure. The costs of building underground are huge, so they built the new dome on the surface. They still use the original underground cave for the air scrubbers. The new base is five miles away from the cave, it’s...”
    “Wait a minute, Kacy. I’m sorry to interrupt you again, but five miles away? You’re saying that they rely on a five mile long pipeline between the cave and the new dome for their life support?”
    “Well, yeah, that’s what it says. Why, what’s wrong with that?”
    “It doesn’t seem a good idea for the life support to be so vulnerable, five miles from your base on a hostile planet with enemy aliens running around on the warpath.”
    “I’m not sure the Taurons are that bad. But I guess you’re right, it does seem strange. Maybe they found it more convenient to build the dome closer to where the relief ships land. And the scrubbers are best protected underground, so they left them there. It makes some sense.”
    “Or maybe it was a way to save money.”
    She couldn’t see it. He thought grimly that she could be confronted with the problem sooner rather than later. Especially if the alien threat worsened and the Taurons cottoned on to the fundamental weakness in Mars Base. Five miles away!
    They had little trouble sleeping in the ship that was taking them to their new home for the next two years. The engineers who designed the ship had made efforts to deal with the problems of weightlessness. The main cabin revolved slowly to counter the worst effects of zero gravity. It wasn’t totally the same as on Earth, which was not a bad thing. Despite Kacy’s lesson about the environment of Mars, Rahm already knew that the gravity was lower than on Earth and the ship’s gravity was similar, at one sixth of the gravity they were used to. They were able to walk about normally and get used to their new home at the same time. When he awoke, he made his way to the ship’s tiny gym. Men and women were already working on the small range of exercise machines, and he found a vacant slot on a step machine that he attacked hard to work up a sweat. As slots became vacant he moved from machine to machine until he checked his watch and found that he’d spent an hour in the gym. It was enough, for he planned a similar session later. And every other day throughout the journey. He returned to the cabin he shared with Saul and took a shower. His friend was still asleep, snoring like a faulty steam engine. He began to wake as Rahm was dressing.
    “Jesus Christ, this is a weird feeling, this constant low gravity. I could sleep for another day.”
    “There’s not much else to do, Saul. Knock yourself out.”
    He spied the bottle on the floor next to the bunk. “But I’d go easy on the sauce.”
    “Don’t worry," Saul smiled. "I ration myself when I’m working in the field.”
    “Good idea. I’m going to grab some chow and then head back to the library.”
    “Yeah, I’ll get some exercise time in later. I’ll come and find you when I don’t feel so spaced out.”
    “Saul, you are spaced out. We’re already fifty thousand miles from Earth.”
    The big man grinned. “That could explain it. I’m going back to sleep.”
    He turned over and started to snore again.
    Rahm pushed half of his cold breakfast to one side, left the canteen, and went to the library. Kacy was there already, studying her technical manuals.
    “Back for another lesson about Mars?” she asked eagerly.
    “Not exactly, no.”
    “What, then?”
    “I was looking for something more about the Taurons.”
    Her face fell. “Oh, right, the aliens. I’ve been looking for materials about them, but I can’t find anything very helpful. It’s weird, you’d think that after all of the problems they’ve had, there’d be some information we could use. I mean, if we ever come across them…”
    She was interrupted.
    “They don’t want to frighten people away, so they keep it under wraps” Josh DeVries, the old crew boss exclaimed as he walked in. “Do you really want to see what they’re like?”
    Kacy shook her head uncertainly. “I’m not sure I want to, not if they’re that horrible.”
    “We need to see them,” Rahm stated firmly. “We have to know what we’re up against.”
    Josh nodded. “You’re right there, my friend. Sit down at a terminal and I’ll bring up a video clip.”
    While they watched, Josh scrolled through the media directories until he found what he was looking for. A video clip tucked into a little-used directory, labeled, ‘Mars Miscellaneous’.
    “I found this when I was looking for some better search parameters for mineral-bearing strata on the surface.”
    He hit play and the clip came to life.
    “My guess is that someone set up the camera to record a typical drilling operation, maybe for publicity purposes. Or perhaps it was for training. The rescue party found the camera afterwards, most of the data had disappeared but there’s enough to give you an idea.”
    As they watched, a drilling crew in pressure suits and helmets unloaded a rig from a buggy. They piled it on the surface and a technician monitored the remote console while the drillers wrestled the equipment into place at the spot the techie indicated. They saw the drill start to turn. Then two shadows appeared, dark and menacing. They came out of nowhere, as if they’d just materialized out of the ground. Like phantoms.
    “They’re natural warriors, these creatures, every single one of the sons of bitches,” Josh spat.
    The two creatures stood to their full height and Kacy gasped. They were monstrous, about eight feet tall, so big that they towered over the drilling crew. Heavily muscled, their bodies looked similar to some of the artist’s impressions of prehistoric velociraptors. They differed in two important characteristics. The first was their heads, which were flatter, with powerful jaws and eyes set more forward on the face, more like humans. The second was that unlike the velociraptors, they were vastly more intelligent. And they were anything but extinct. They didn’t hesitate, they were so fast. They just rushed in for the attack. Although they carried sidearms, they only used their claw-like hands to slash at the crew. Three of the men attempted to draw their pistols, but the Taurons smashed them to the ground with quick, machine-like efficiency. Two of the drillers managed to get off shots, but their laser pistols were clearly not powerful enough to penetrate the scaly, armored skin. The Taurons staggered as the shots hit them, but kept on coming forward. The clawed hands reached out to drag the last two men to the ground, and then the clip ended.
    “Oh my God,” Kacy breathed. “They’re huge.”
    “Jesus Christ!” Rahm breathed. “I’ve never seen anything like that. What about the rest of it? What happened next?”
    “Nothing very pleasant, they sure wouldn’t want you to know about the next bit. The company makes sure that the goriest parts are erased.”
    “But you know, don’t you?”
    Josh nodded. “Yeah, I do, I’ve seen it happen.”
    “What do you know, Mr. DeVries?” Tobin Ryles asked as he walked into the room.
    Josh reached forward to clear the screen, but not before Ryles saw what was on it. The man’s face darkened.
    “I thought that particular clip was restricted to management only. How did you find it?”
    “Must have been an accident,” Josh mumbled. “We were looking for something else.”
    “I see. Would you let me have the terminal for a moment, please?”
    He sat at the screen and furiously keyed in a series of commands. The ‘Mars Miscellaneous’ clip disappeared. He stood up and looked at them, his face set in a taut smile. A smile that was more of a sneer.
    “If you need to know anything about Taurons, you can ask me or Jacques Fechter. Don’t listen to gossip from some of the old ‘Mars hands’ they think they know it all. But they don’t, the Tauron threat has been neutralized. All you need to do is get down on the planet, mine the trevanium and go home in two years time with lots of money in your bank accounts. Josh, would you come with me, I need to have a word with you.”
    They left the library, and two new arrivals brushed past them in the doorway and entered the library. A man and a woman, the man of about his age, and the woman a little younger. But what a woman! She took his breath away, as she was so beautiful, so totally out of place on this ship, rubbing shoulders with the tough Mars drilling crews. Her beauty was not something she’d constructed in front of a mirror. She had a natural, glowing, outdoor beauty. He watched her walk, when she moved. It was the delicate grace of a ballet dancer. Dark haired and dark eyed, her skin was a contrast, smooth and ethereal. He swallowed, she reminded him of Christine, his fiancée. The girl he’d failed in Afghanistan, the girl who’d died when he froze. The guy greeted him and Josh.
    “I’m Grant Merkel, crew boss, this is Gabi Aaronsen. You’re crew bosses, aren’t you?”
    Josh and Rahm nodded.
    “Yeah, I thought I’d find you here. By the way, Gabi is on my crew, she’s a trainee technician. Despite the different surname, she’s also my sister, so be warned. Big brother always looks after her.”
    They smiled. Gabi shook hands with them and Rahm warmed to the friendly pair. But he was wary with the girl. She was an unwelcome reminder of something he was working hard to bury in the deepest recesses of his mind. A different surname, did that mean she was married? She seemed to read his mind.
    “Mom remarried after her first husband died, it was shortly after Grant was born. Technically he’s my half-brother, but I can tell you he’s always looked after me. I couldn’t wish for a better brother.” She smiled at him. “What were you guys looking at?”
    “A clip about the Taurons,” Kacy replied. “But Tobin Ryles, the assistant base manager, came in and wiped it.”
    Gabi laughed, it was a sound that was light, with a musical ring.
    “Who’s afraid of the big bad Taurons, is that it? That’s silly, aren't they’re supposed to have them under control on Mars. They said they’re corralled on the opposite half of the planet from where we’ll be working. Why should we be worried about them?”
    Rahm thought about the huge, bloodthirsty, slavering creatures he’d seen on the video clip.
    “I’m not sure they’re entirely corralled, so we need to be pretty careful when we land.”
    To his dismay he realized that even after such a brief meeting he didn’t want anything bad to happen to this pretty and lively girl. Not after the last disaster. Deep inside, he was thinking, ‘stay away from me, Gabi Aaronsen. I can’t protect you. I can’t look after my own people. They wind up dead’. But he couldn’t say what he felt, for he could only look at her pretty face and slim figure, until he forced his head away. She was full of optimism for her new career, and he looked back when he heard her talking.
    “We’ll be ok, I’ll bet the company takes care of all those monster things, we won’t need to worry about them.”
    Was she trying to reassure him, did she think he was scared? Or was he just too sensitive? He heard her talking again.
    “They said all we need to do is drill down and extract the trevanium, and then we’ll come home rich. End of story. That’s what Grant wants, what I want. Isn’t it what you’re going for?”
    How could he tell her he was going to Mars for a different reason? Sure, he wanted the fat pay packet. He had dreams of buying a good piece of land where he could lose himself, and hide himself away from the accusing faces. He would set up his own drilling consultancy business if there was enough money. But it wasn’t the reason he was going. First, he had to forget. To be as far away from the horror and the fear that still haunted his dreams. In the most challenging mining environment known to man, with work that was long and hard, he wouldn’t have time to think about the past. The Earth, with its ugly memories, would recede into the distance, more than a twenty million miles in the distance. Would it be enough to snap the threads that still held his soul to the terrible events of the past? He thought of the Tauron monsters he’d seen on that clip. Yes, maybe it would, there were plenty of problems to concern him, enough danger to occupy his mind. He nodded curtly to Gabi and said, “I’m sure you’re right, most of us are going there for the money.”
    He knew hadn’t been convincing. He felt their eyes on him as he walked out.

    He spent the following weeks furiously attacking the ship’s gym. For most of them, the daily sessions were a necessity, a way to stop their muscles from suffering the inevitable atrophy of weightlessness, or low-gravity space travel. For him, it was a catharsis. Day by day, the Earth receded further in the wake of the ship. He worked harder than ever, became an almost continuous occupant of the exercise room. His crew discovered that if they wanted to speak to him, they needed to go there. It became a joke, more than once he'd heard them call it, ‘Rahm’s Office’. He could live with that, as long as he left the Earth and its nightmarish reminders far in behind the hurtling ship. He had a frequent companion in the gym. Brad Haakon was a huge, tough, former marine. Something of a twin for Saul Packer, but the similarity ended there. Where Saul was clever and resourceful, Brad was a blunt instrument. A weapon that Rahm was thankful to have on his crew, given the size of the aliens. Life for Brad held no uncertainties. Women were a legitimate target, men were divided between friends and enemies, and there was nothing in between. If they weren’t friends, you punched or shot them. He’d already familiarized himself with the laser cannon, using the simulator to become expert at shooting targets as they presented themselves on the screen. The laser cannon was the heavy weapon that most Mars buggies carried high on their frames. The company had insisted that the cannon was merely a precaution. ‘You won’t meet any hostiles, because we’ve taken care of that problem. We just like to cover all the bases.’ When Brad wasn’t keeping fit and working his way around the limited females aboard the ship, with some success and some notable failures, he spent his time on the laser cannon. Each day, he went to the ship’s hold and stripped it, made sure that he was familiar with every part of the weapon. Then he re-assembled it and went through the target simulation program again. It was better than a normal computer simulation, he insisted. Almost as good as the real thing. But Brad had no expectations of him, he was a driller, Rahm was the boss. That was his situation and he was content with his lot. Kaz was another member of his crew, but he was a different kind of person. Rahm came upon him unexpectedly in the early hours of the artificial morning. He had a small mat spread upon the floor of the gym.
    “What are you up to, Kaz?”
    The man straightened. “I was praying.”
    “Oh. Is something wrong?”
    He looked puzzled. “Why should it be? Prayer is fine for any time, is it not? The good times as well as the bad.”
    “Er, yeah, I guess.”
    Kaz smiled at his embarrassment. “I am a Moslem, my friend. We pray several times a day, so I try to find somewhere quiet. I did not think I would find anyone here at this time of the morning.”
    “I’m sorry, I can come back later.”
    Kaz smiled. “Not at all, I was almost finished.”
    “Right.” Rahm went to the step machine and began his morning routine.
    “When we are troubled, God can be a great comfort to us,” he heard Kaz say. He stopped and looked at him.
    “That’s good to know, Kaz.”
    He started to exercise again.
    “Yet strangely, most men are frightened to have God look into their souls, as if they don’t wish him to see the black despair that lies within.”
    This time he didn’t stop. He kept working the machine. “I’m pleased for you, my friend. Pleased that you have your God. Have you considered that for some men God is little more than a bad joke?”
    He thought Kaz had left, but after almost a minute he heard his soft voice again.
    “It must have been bad for you, Rahm.”
    He felt his anger begin to rise, but controlled it. “Don’t try and second guess me, Kaz. Shit happens, to me, to you, to everyone. And when it does happen there isn’t any God to come around holding your hand. All you’ll see is the rest of your life waiting around the corner for you. Waiting to see how much more you can fuck up, how many more lives have to be lost.”
    Then he did stop working the machine. He whirled to face Kaz. “I’ll grant you that there may be a God. But I’ll tell you, Kaz, he’s got a damned strange sense of humor. We’re on our own, my friend, there’s no help to be had from that direction. We’re born, we live, we fuck up and we die. End of story. And if you believe in the soul, you may as well believe in the fairies. I’ll come back later.”
    He stalked out of the gym before he started a row that would begin to erode the tight relationships inside his crew. He didn’t need that kind of trouble. None of them did, for they’d have problems enough on Mars. The trouble was that Kaz was too clever, too intuitive by half. Rahm preferred the company of Brad, for him, philosophy was a brand of beer. Brad saw life as a series of absolutes. Love and hate, make friends with them or kill them. He returned to the passenger cabin. Saul was chatting with Kacy while the morose Nathan Wenders listened. An experienced driller, Nathan usually had very little to say, which suited Rahm just fine. Nathan glanced at him.
    “What’s up, Rahm?”
    “Nothing, why should it be?”
    “Your face looks red.”
    “I’ve been working out.”
    “Oh yeah, of course. Rahm’s Office.”
    He smiled at him, surprised that the normally taciturn Wenders had cracked a small joke. A pity Kaz couldn’t have left him alone in the gym. Or at leave the deep insights alone.
    “We were going over the details of our working week,” Kacy interrupted his thoughts. “It’s pretty straightforward, in fact the simplest I’ve ever seen. There're no breaks, so we work a seven day week. That’s it, we wake up, and we go to work. We finish work and we go to bed. At least there won’t be any rows about duty rosters.”
    They looked around as Jacques Fechter entered the cabin with Tobin Ryles. The manager looked competent enough, although he’d spent too much time behind a desk, judging from the size of his stomach. His face was scarred, probably the result of a mining accident. He wore his hair short in a no-nonsense crewcut. Clean shaven, he sported an immaculate white shirt and tie. Embroidered on the pocket of his shirt was MMC. Mars Mining Corporation. Rahm cautioned himself to be wary of this manager. He was a company man through and through.
    “Listen up, everyone. We’ve got a couple of announcements. First of all, the outgoing crew fell short of their output, so we’ve got to make sure that we hit the ground running. Our two year quota has been increased by twenty percent to make up for the loss.”
    There was a collective groan, but Fechter held up his hand to silence them.
    “The good news is this. The company has announced a thirty percent bonus if we hit the revised quota targets. Thirty percent!” he almost shouted the final two words. “That’s a lot of money, men. Let’s not give them any excuse not to pay us.”
    Rahm felt uncomfortable. Something wasn’t right, because companies didn’t gladly hand out money. Not without a gun at their heads. An idea was trying to force its way into his head. Then it came to him.
    “Why did the previous targets fall short, what caused the problem?”
    Fechter and Ryles both looked at him with distaste.
    “That’s not really your business,” Ryles said. “What you need to do is concentrate on the job in hand, not what mistakes the previous crews made.”
    His voice was even more nasally and nerdish, perhaps his sinuses were worse than usual after the long flight.
    “To the contrary, that is information we should have if we are to avoid previous mistakes. It’s common sense.” Kaz had walked in and stood behind them.
    They turned around and stared at him with irritation. He continued, ignoring their hostility.
    “If we are to bring out these record quotas, we should know what caused the previous relief to fail. What was the reason?”
    The two managers exchanged looks. “You may as well tell them,” Jacques muttered.
    Ryles glared around the cabin. “I expect they were just stupid. They lost one of the crews when they...”
    “Lost? What do you mean, they were lost?” Rahm interrupted. “How were they lost, was it the Martian storms?”
    They’d all heard of the legendary storms, when planet-wide dust-storms were whipped up and lasted for up to a month. The storm’s fury was due to the low density of the Martian atmosphere. Winds of forty to fifty miles per hour raised the dust from the surface, but since Mars was so dry, the dust stayed in the atmosphere for far longer than on Earth. The season following the dust storms even had lower daytime temperatures. This was attributed to the global covering of light-colored dust that settled out of the dust storm. It meant that the freezing Martian climate was even colder, even harder for humans to operate in. But Ryles was shaking his head.
    “It wasn’t the storms, no. In fact, it was the Taurons.”
    The cabin descended into silence. Kacy was muttering, “They said that problem was resolved.” Kaz was the first to recover.
    “So they killed a crew? An entire crew?”
    “Yes,” Ryles replied. “They were careless.”
    But Fechter shook his head. “That’s only part of it. Sure, the Taurons took one of the crews, and we've no idea why they went into such an isolated area. Afterwards Mars Base was running behind with the quota. They were in danger of losing their bonuses, so they took risks. They went to parts of the surface that were too dangerous, places that were known to be part of the Tauron’s operating area. So we lost a second crew.”
    There were shocked sounds of disbelief around the cabin.
    “You know as well as I do there’s more to it than that,” Josh said. He was shaking his head in disbelief. “Standing orders state that once the Taurons show up, every drilling crew has to be accompanied by a team of armed militia. Yet they sent them out without any escorts to cover them.”
    “That’s not entirely true, Josh. Some did go out without escorts, but when the second crew was hit, they killed the militia guards as well. It happened five weeks ago, they’ve been in lockdown since then.”
    Everyone had been briefed about lockdown, the emergency procedure, akin to lifting the drawbridge in a medieval castle. The base stayed sealed, no one went in, no one went out, and worst of all, the drilling stopped.
    “So they want us to make up the difference?” Kaz pressed him.
    Fechter nodded. “We’ll have to take some risks, but it’ll be worth it. The end of contract salary and bonuses will be enough for us to live like kings.”
    “Or die like kings,” Kaz replied.
    The two managers gave him a cold glance.
    “No one’s going to die. We’re going to drill for trevanium and we’re all coming back rich,” Fechter said as he walked out of the cabin.
    It was a stirring note on which to end, but none of them cheered.
    The following day they landed on Mars and had their first glimpse of Mars Base in the Chryse Gulf. The long, boring journey had ended. The flight that had seemed to drag on forever had drawn to a close. Until they returned. For many of them, the confinement of the ship had meant the confinement of their thoughts, of their souls. There were few secrets on a Mars relief ship. Many were glad to look forward to a different mirror in which to view themselves and their lives. And for a different hole in which to hide their deepest fears. They’d donned pressure suits and helmets with built in life support, so when the ship door hissed open they walked out and glimpsed for the first time the surface of the Red Planet. It wasn’t so much red but sand colored. The ground was littered with rocks, some boulders were huge, but most were no more than a foot high. The plain they’d landed on, known as Chryse Gulf, stretched away to the horizon. In the distance it flattened out to become little more than a desert. In front of them, no more than two hundred yards away, was the domed shape of Mars Base.
    “That’s our destination, folks,” Ryles shouted, like a cheap tour guide. They followed him over the sandy surface, kicking up dust as they walked. It took them only a few minutes to reach the airlock, a huge, reinforced door. It was already open, and they walked into the inner chamber and waited while the outer door closed. Air started hissing into their chamber, until a green light switched on and the inner door opened. They walked into a large, open garage, with several Mars buggies parked, some in the stages of repair. Stacks of drilling equipment lay scattered everywhere. In front of them a crowd stood watching them curiously. A man in the front walked forward to greet them. “We’re the outgoing personnel. You can take off your helmets and pressure suits now, you’re home. Welcome to Mars Base.”
    After a brief medical check they were shown to their quarters. Rahm barely had time to stow away half of his personal possessions before he heard a commotion outside. He walked out of his room and followed the noise back to the garage. The outgoing crews were already suited up. Rahm noticed that there didn't seem to be many of them. Some were clutching carry-on bags for the journey back to Earth. There was no fanfare, no shouts of joy at the prospect of going back to their fat pay checks after two years on Mars Base. It reminded him of something else. Yes, of course. A funeral party. Yet there were no bodies. He noticed Josh coming towards him and nodded at the outgoing crews.
    “They’re not very happy.”
    “No. They lost half the crews on this relief. That’s not much to celebrate.”
    Half the crews! It was no wonder they were in a somber mood.
    “What about the bodies, surely they should take them back to their families and loved ones? It doesn’t seem humane, burying them here on Mars.”
    “You’ve got it wrong, they don’t bury them. Whatever gave you that idea?”
    He shrugged. “I just assumed, I guess. So what does happen to them?”
    Josh stared around to make sure that no one else was near enough to hear. “It’s a Tauron custom. When they defeat someone in battle...”
    “They rip the bodies to pieces. Then they eat them.”

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