Your display shorts out. Bank hard right; pull your joystick down hard. Keep the G-petal depressed. A shiny white and grey globule hangs in view through the sheen of your upper-right cockpit. Its barren, rocky, cratered surface looms larger in your field of vision as you point the nose of your ship towards the igneous hunk of tranquil rock. The still meteor soon spans the horizons as you engage landing thrusters, tugging hard on the depressed lever beneath your seat. With a puff of silver dust you touchdown on the sunny side of the asteroid, the terminator shadow of the moon-like rock hovers nearby as you gaze towards the dark side of the planetoid.
Dull green emergency lights hum behind your head, casting a faint, antiseptic glow across your mute instruments on the dash. Thousands of icy pinpricks of starlight dot the void as you peer at the airless sky over the black crags and crescent-backed calderas to the east.
Tap your wrist bios.
O2: 14 hours. Suit Temp: 303 Kelvin. Time: 12:43:08:19 Eastern Hellas, Martian Standard.
Your breath lightly fogs the interiors of your sealed helmet, the cold nitrogen permeating your lungs down to your toes and fingertips. Staring around at the desolate landscape, you sit quiet a moment in the soundless alluvial plain. You bang your helm back on the ripped leather headrest behind you, grinding your molars together through your seething breath. You unbuckle your useless safety cross-straps.
Closing your heavy eyelids a moment as you suck in your less than fourteen hours of life-support, you let your mind wander. Behind your closed eyes you can see your homeland. The verdant greenhouses of Memphis pulse with warmth along the windswept russet escarpment of Mars. Both snowy moons hang in tiny crescents above the jagged peaks of the Southern Highlands. A sapphire river, its aquiline banks magnified against the crimson hardscrabble, snakes through the emerald deltas within the lowlands of the settlement proper. Silver spires from the downtown assembly halls glisten under the dull copper sunshine, cobalt, ivy, and rouge homesteads radiating outward along the canyon floor beside the red sand basins that stretch in every direction.
Something beeps loudly in your ears.
Blinking your eyes open you stare at your wrist bios. 8 hours of oxygen remain. You sigh, catching your own exhalation in your chest as though it might prolong the short-span left in your suit’s small tanks. By now the listing asteroid has turned. You remain in your tiny cockpit on the dark side of the planetoid. The crystal twilight glows fiercer. The drumbeat of your pumping heart is the only sound.
Reaching under the controls you feel around at the base of the composite panel. Your glove stops on something bulky. Pausing, you withdraw it from the case. Turning a small crank on the side, the plastic box begins to emit a low, yellowish tint. You breathe heavier than you wish after several dozen rotations of cranking. A small charge bar of energy reads on the tiny device. You flick a switch on it and release it. The little item drifts before you in the vague microgravity. A sickly buzz of static echoes out from it a moment, and then dead silence. It is some time before any sounds whisper out from the speaker.
Resistance collapsing…across entire…more than half of the…26 Martian city-states have surrendered. Occupation of their confederacies is being divided amongst the coalition of Venus and Terran armed forces…storming of the last stronghold…and bastions of Martian resistance earlier this morning. Death toll still uncertain…nukes, laser platforms, and bio…resulted in large civilian casualties under the unexpected ferocity of the Venus Fleet in orbit and…large numbers of Terran shock troops…landed across the globe. Mars…is in ruins.
The radio dies and the correspondent’s baritone voice with it. You half-consciously thumb the felt badges sewn into your jump jacket, the frayed stitches of the tricolored flag of the Hellas Confederacy and the militia designation, Houston’s Carbiñeros along your arm. A spent pistol feels cold and heavy in its holster strapped to your thigh.
You begin your log, pressing the record button on your suit’s other wrist.
Stating your name, no rank, because the Martian army does not…did not, have ranks in its militias, you warble out your first few words. Then nothing. You sit there with the digital recorder going, and no more words for your thoughts. Finally, you start to ramble with some precision, gathering your thoughts together like a pebble that starts an avalanche. You talk about your birth. Growing up. Homeschooled. Your remember your friends down on the south side of town, playing sports under bleary red sunsets, and listening to the latest rhythms of local musicians during farmer’s market nights in the square.
Then you start talking about the first off-worlders you met. Blonde haired, brown skinned Venusians, always in steel-blue uniforms of the Legionary Service. Task forces of their numerous fleets would stopover in low orbit, trading for supplies with Martian Junks and sometimes spend their 48 hours passes in one of the larger Martian city-states, before shipping out to the outer rim to patrol their contested borders with Jovian or Saturn Reds. On their return journeys there were always fewer of them, usually heading to a new front, perhaps against the numerous holy warriors of Terra. Venusians were always polite, somewhat pompous in mannerisms though, and definitely shorter than your kind, but not as squat and little as the Terrans from the third planet out from the sun.
Terrans only visited Mars if they were missionaries. They came to condemn and to preach. Faithfull followers of the late Prophet Kovar, the fourth incarnation of God’s divine religion, that began all those millennia ago with the Jews, then continued with the Christians, then the Muslims, and finally fell into the form and following of the Prophet Kovar. Kovarian fanatics often preached loudly on the street corners in every Martian city-state, as Martians have almost no laws and value freedom of expression in every form. But you were also free to express yourself back.
You recall your teenage years with other local hoodlums, girls and boys who threw stones through windows or left flaming baskets of camel dung on the doorsteps of visiting Kovar proselytizers. After a few weeks of sleepless nights, they usually got the message and left our neighborhood. Then you were, usually, religion-free for another few months before another Kovar pilgrim would show up in the central square.
For some reason or another, you explain to your wrist recorder how Martians are more like the Reds of the outer solar system, being distant kin. You like little law, no government, and lots of space. The Terrans always seem to show up in their shimmering green robes, the robes of holy pilgrims, and try scaring religion into a people of atheists, Jews, Neo-Pagans, and Voodoo. But your people are a scattered people both in geography and intellectually. The Terrans, or Greens, as you sometimes call them (when not assigning them other less flattering titles), despise your kind as all religious zealots do when they encounter an indifferent people. Mainly because you neither disperse like the Jews of old, nor become extinct like the ancient Christians did, nor convert wholesale to Kovar as Islam did during the Great Upheaval all those centuries ago.
You smile mirthfully recalling such thoughts. But your smile gradually fades.
You wonder why it has all come to this. Sitting, alone on a rock in space, waiting for your air to run out. Why the Venusians ever came to Mars with their big guns and robotic fleets, why they didn’t stay on their own home world, why they needed another, why their equatorial jungles, undersea metropolises, and hydroponic alkaline lakes were not enough for them. Why the Terrans couldn’t let Mars be, why they sent endless waves of Jihadists to the red sand outback and dry grass steppe, never flinching despite their terrible losses. Was Terra too overcrowded with the over 19 billion crammed onto one world, did they need breathing space, could they not stand the heresy of their Martian neighbors who neither adhered to their religion nor cared for their somber chants?
Pause the recorder. Looking out the composite glass towards the empty cosmos you stare, slowing the respirations in your chest. The Kelvin meter on your wrist continues dropping. You shiver with the cold.
You can barely recall the day you enlisted with the Carbiñeros. Back then they were called Tsu Tang’s Carbiñeros. Tang had been a local sheriff who helped form a small militia as part of the Aegean Confederation, a loose alliance of allied city-states along the brown Hellas Sea that included the mediocre river valley of Memphis. Tang died two months later when a stray shot cracked her helm visor on patrol in the upper altitudes. She asphyxiated. Her former deputy, Kalashnikov Houston was elected chief of the militia two to one. You knew Kal well and raised your palm to nominate him in the first place.
The war was all his fault anyway.
He’d been in the north when civil unrest, instigated by crime lords and triads, was put down by a contingent of marshals. Venus and Terra used the riots that ensued from the fighting as an excuse to tie themselves up in a Martian civil war. They setup the biggest mafia of them all, the House of Orange, as a puppet government in the city-state of New Brazil in the north, claiming that they fought for independence from the other belligerent Martian confederacies. That’s when the Terrans and Venusians signed a non-aggression pact and began invading Mars proper.
For two years we resisted. Not like the Venusians with super firepower, we had none. Nor did we wage large-scale campaigns like the Terrans tried. They’d take one city-state, and we’d pull out. Within a week we’d slip back in and conduct operations as normal. We planted bombs, we released viruses into their defense grids, we used fire trucks and sprayed water over their fort walls that cracked and crumbled when the Martian winter frosted them overnight. We hid in the sandstorms and the people in the highlands fed us.
Your wrist-pad beeps again. Less than 7 hours of oxygen remain.
Check your damaged display. Fuel cells gone, propulsion useless. You barely had enough juice to get away from Martian orbit when you nabbed this old Venusian transport on the surface. Of your half-dozen compatriots that had also ascended into orbit in these single-seater deathtraps you alone evaded the gunfire from the enemy fleet. By chance or luck you sped unscathed beyond the last of the blockade and headed for open space. You peer round now at the desolate crags of the silvery asteroid. Some luck.
Both eyelids sag down over your vision, the sterile cold seeping into your joints. You shake your head a little, glancing glossy-eyed at your wrist bios. Still a proper mixture of nitrogen, CO2, and O2. Your eyes lose focus on the dropping temperature gage and ticking minutes on the digital clock. A wide yawn spreads across your cheeks.
When you shake in your chair, sitting bolt upright in the seat you can hardly feel your extremities. Biting, wretched numbness fills your veins. You almost can’t budge your neck to turn and look at your wrist. An urgent beeping sound emanates from the pad. Your wrist bios are completely iced over. You wiggle your arm, loosening some of the frost caked along the top of the tiny display.
O2: 3 minutes.
You frown up at the distant starlight stretched across your cockpit glass. Thoughtless, careless balls of gas, flaming with warmth and heat strong enough to incinerate, twinkle, and reignite with enough energy to refuse atoms in the frigid emptiness. Your shivering wanes, your breath fogging the plate glass of your own helmet. Fingertips of numbness begin to grip your slowing heart within your chest. Your head rolls onto your collar, spots of darkness creeping into the periphery of your vision.
With your last bit of strength you gaze up at the indifferent cosmos once more, spying a cool blue star blinking large in the airless void. Its vibrant blue buzz radiates faint tints of yellow, and red, and white along its circumference, reminding you of the landing lights of gliders you used to watch along the airstrip near your home. Gradually, the smallest of grins creeps across your freezing face. And you think to yourself, who knows…
A lot can happen in three minutes.