Copyright 2016 Jack Stornoway
Published by the Jack Stornoway at at Shakespir
The second Gabriel Esparza saw the riders in the chasma below, his heart-rate increased knowing what was about to happen. That had to be Ferderand Afuyog riding the green Italika bike, surrounded by the three other bikes.
Gabriel twisted the throttle on his green Italika and the air-bike lurched forward over the edge of the chasma wall, and down towards Ferderand at near free-fall. The chasma was over five kilometres deep, and the walls were almost vertical the first two kilometres before slanting down to the small lakes at the centre of the chasma. A few minutes later Gabriel was pulling up next to Ferderand. The other three riders had seen him coming and converged in front of Ferderand. As Gabriel pulled up next to Ferderand he recognized Elías Medina, and the man looked annoyed to see Gabriel show up.
“Okay hombres,” Gabriel shouted over the sound of the bikes’ turbofans. “Vamos!”
The situation changed radically when Gabriel arrived, and Elías Medina’s expression showed his uncertainty. The odds were still on his side, but Gabriel was a good shot, and Elías couldn’t risk a witness surviving to inform the sheriff.
“If they pull their guns,” Ferderand shouted to Gabriel loud enough for everyone to hear, “I want to shoot Elías!”
Elías’ face jolted up towards Ferderand, but he hesitated pulling his gun. He’d seen Ferderand shoot a man in Rotterdam; a tweaked-out Colombian junkie who’d flipped out and went on a shooting spree. Ferderand was a good shot and didn’t flinch, the signs of a former soldier.
Elías had never seen Gabriel Esparza in a gunfight, but the foreman of the Nueva Sirian crew had a reputation in Echus Territory, dating back to the war, long before he moved to Nueva Siria and somehow become the head of the Desert Ranger. The rumour was he’d been a Colombian Army sniper that had defected to the Eco revolutionaries after being sent to take out their leadership.
“Your ranger’s over-stepping his authority Esparza,” Elías shouted over the sound of the turbo-fans. “He ordered us out of the lake-lands.”
“Why are you here?” Gabriel demanded.
Justine Aalfs seemed to realize her position was precarious and started backing away from Gabriel.
“Stay where your are Justine,” Gabriel barked, “or I’ll blow your bike out from under you!”
Justine stopped her retreat and Elías looked back at Gabriel, “She can ride anywhere she wants!”
“No, she can’t!” Gabriel wasn’t going to back down. If he hadn’t come along Ferderand could already been dead. “You’re not rangers, Medina. You have no business in the Lake-lands. We’re working here, and we don’t like poachers. Largarse!”
Elías’ hands began trembled he was so angry, “This isn’t going to end well, Gabriel!”
“Bring it anytime!” Gabriel answered quickly. “Want to do this now?”
Elías Medina wasn’t used to backing down, but he didn’t think he could win this one. He didn’t usually have to deal with men like Gabriel Esparza and Ferderand Afuyog.
“Alright, we’ll leave!” Elías shouted suddenly. He turned his bike flew off, with both his people quickly following.
The two ranger watched until the were almost out of site, then Ferderand asked, “Want me to follow them?”
“No. Let’s head back. There’s a lot of work.”
“You showed up at the right time,” Ferderand glanced over at Gabriel with a grin. “A few more minutes and I would’ve had to kill them.”
“They were here to kill you,” Gabriel agreed. “I don’t get it. Had trouble with them before?”
“Not til I ordered them out of the Lake-lands,” Ferderand answered equally confused. “There’s something strange about that group. Doesn’t make sense to pick a fight with a group of rangers.”
They rode away, heading east back to the base-camp. The base-camp wasn’t very large, just a few airship gondolas with their hydrogen envelops folded down, and an odd collection of air-bikes and auto-gyros, all painted the same shade of forest green. When Gabriel and Ferderand arrived at the camp-site they paused at the edge of the patch of green plants, with their white and yellow flowers. Gabriel adjusted his respirator mask, looking down at the patch of flowering plants growing around the temporally thawed lake in front of them.
When the Nueva Sirian government had bought the plants from Arreola Biotics Unlimited, it looked like a win-fall. Long ago, Gabriel had fought along side the owner of the company Cecilia Arreola. That was long before the Nueva Sirian government had decided to setup the Desert Rangers, and hired Gabriel to lead them.
In all the years he’d known her Cecilia had seemed honest and reliable, so when she showed Gabriel her accounts, claiming over 50,000 plants, Gabriel had vouched for her with the Nueva Sirian Terraforming Office. The price was reasonable, but now the number of plants was coming up far below 50,000, and Gabriel could not understand it. He couldn’t believed that Cecilia’s count was fraudulent, it wasn’t in her nature.
“The count’s short, isn’t it?” Ferderand asked. He knew Gabriel was worried. “You think Medina knows anything about that?”
“How could he? Our people are doing the count. Medina hasn’t even been in the Lake-lands until today.” Gabriel answered.
His vouching for Cecilia had allowed the Nueva Sirian Terraforming Office to move forward with the purchase before the audit, and begin the transplanting the biota to the Noctis Labyrinthus before the end of the three month thawed period. If the plants didn’t take in their new home before the beginning of the eighteen month frozen period, the investment would be a waste. Now the count was off, and it could cost Gabriel more than his job.
The project to transplant some of the plants from the Hebes Chasma to the Noctis Labyrinthus was controversial enough. Only one plant species was known to grow out in the thin freezing Martian atmosphere, the Ranunculus glacialis from Greenland. It only grew in a few locations around the equator at the bottom of the chasmas, where the atmosphere was thick enough to trap sufficient heat that the frozen lakes were able to thaw for a few months each year. There were no lakes or plants in the Noctis Labyrinthus, but during the last thawed period in the Lake-lands, prospectors in the Noctis Labyrinthus found a stream of liquid water. That was nineteen months earlier, and the debate had raged in the Nueva Sirian senate for most of that time. The government of Echus Territory wasn’t excited about loosing the plants, however their attempt to block the sale was was vetoed by the Confederate senate, who didn’t want the territorial governments interfering with the global terraforming mission.
Now tens of thousands of the plants were missing, and someone would need to be blamed. Gabriel was feeling that weight coming down on him. Roelof Van Den Andel and Hai Ruan looked up as Gabriel and Ferderand rode into the base-camp. Roelof was from Hebes Chasma, a pail-skinned descendant of one of the old mining families that had been in the chasma since the Corporate Era. Hai Ruan was born in Nueva Siria, also a descendant of miners from the Corporate Era, in the old Chinese colony in Arsia Mons. She had been recruited to the Nueva Sirian Desert Rangers by Ferderand, who had fought beside her in the war. Ferderand was also born in Nueva Siria, at the old Filipino mining colony in Noctis Labyrinthus.
The two mining colonies had ended up in the Colombian Colonial Zone after the Mars Treaty, and Colombia united them into the Colony of Nueva Siria, named after the Syria Planum. The deep Hebes Chasma and the vast but shallow Echus Chasma to the north of it had fallen under the Colombians as well, who established their own colony in Echus, and placed the old Dutch mining colony in Hebes under Echus’ authority. Nueva Siria and Echus were two of the five Colombian colonies to revolt from Colombian authority during the war, and join the Arean Confederacy. To the north, the rest of Colombia’s colonies remained firmly under Bogotá’s control.
“What did you find?” Gabriel asked after landing his bike at their base camp.
“Four thousand in that last patch,” Roelof answered.
“Any unmarked plants?” Ferderand asked.
“Not one,” Ruan answered.
“That’s strange,” Ferderand observed. “There should still be first generation plants growing in the chasma.”
“The bio companies could have pulled them up to use the spot for seedlings,” Ruan suggested. “It would be the best locations to place their plants.”
“Still, there should be some unmarked plants,” Ferderand argued.
“Still, there should be 50,000 plants with Arreola’s bio-marker in them,” Gabriel interjected. “What are we at?”
“We’re still short 15,000,” Ruan answered.
“Has that Nibhanupudi Biotics guy been around?” Gabriel asked.
“Ashok? No, he went back to Rotterdam a few hours ago,” Roelof answered. “Said he had some business.”
Nibhanupudi Biotics Unlimited was the chief competitor of Arreola Biotias Unlimited. Around a dozen companies owned plants in the chasma, Arreola and Nibhanupudi were the two biggest. Since the second year of planting, each company’s plants were genetically modified with hereditary markers that allowed the Echusian Desert Rangers to audit the Lake-land biota. The bio-markers were registered with the government of Echus Territory in Nijmegen, the territorial capital. The companies were paid by the Confederacy for each plant they owned that successfully flowered at the end of the thawed period. Ashok Nibhanupudi had been visiting the Nueva Sirian Desert Rangers every day since they’d arrived in the chasma. Most of the other companies hadn’t bothered to send observers. Ashok Nibhanupudi lived in Rotterdam, the closest town, so he rode out regularly to check no one was disturbing his plants.
“Ashok’s never here for more than an hour,” Ruan stated.
“I think we chose the wrong job,” Ferderand said. “I wouldn’t mind working an hour a day!”
“His people do enough,” Gabriel observed. “They own a lot of the plants growing out here. Did you guys find any plants belonging to Arreola in that bog out west?”
“I couldn’t get close enough to scan some of them,” Ferderand answered. “The bog is really treacherous. But only about ten to twenty.”
“Ten to twenty aren’t important enough to risk your life,” Gabriel stated. “We need to find thousands.”
“I’ve been thinking about Ashok,” Ferderand said thoughtfully. “He comes out here for an hour or so everyday, as if he’s checking up on us. Then he says he’s heading back to Rotterdam, but you rarely see him there. Rotterdam isn’t that big.”
“Maybe he just works in his office,” Ruan suggested.
“This job doesn’t require much office work,” Roelof dismissed the idea.
“It doesn’t matter what he’s doing. It’s none of our business,” Gabriel dismissed the question, wandering off towards to patch of plants that had already been worked. More than half the plants were still in the ground, divided by small holes where Arreola’s plants had been dug up. In a few hours Gabriel would be riding in to Rotterdam, where he’d have to explain to Furaha Tip that the number of plants was going to be considerably smaller than expected. He stood there glaring at the plants, and tried to remember if there were any other bodies of water they had somehow missed. Hugo, Adoración, Philibert, and Jessika were still out there checking the eastern lakes. Maybe they’d find something.
The other rangers returned late in the afternoon, and they had only found a few hundred Arreola plants.
“Headed into Rotterdam?” Roelof asked as Gabriel climbed onto is bike.
“Yeah, got to let Furaha know the count’s short,” Gabriel answered.
“I’ll ride along,” Ferderand offered climbing on his bike. “In case we encounter something interesting.”
Gabriel grinned. Few men he’d worked with we’re as understated as Ferderand Afuyog. The ranger was a expert survivalist, he could be dropped anywhere on the planet and survive, but what he really liked was a good fight. Gabriel knew Ferderand was heading to Rotterdam to find Elías Medina.
“No trouble,” Gabriel ordered. “You know how Furaha is.”
Ferderand glanced at Gabriel. “Think this’ll blow back on her?”
Gabriel glanced back at Ferderand. “How couldn’t it? It’s her project, and she’s the one who recommended me to head up the rangers.”
“Yeah, it doesn’t look good,” Ferderand agreed. “You ever think that maybe Arreola faked their records? They do get paid per plant.”
Gabriel considered the question for a couple minutes before answering. It was something he didn’t like to think about. “The Echusian Desert Rangers audited over 45,000 Arreola plants last season. I can’t see how there could be over 10,000 less this year.”
Ferderand wasn’t quick to respond either, he hadn’t thought about the blow back on the Echusian Desert Rangers. “I hadn’t consider that,” he finally stated. The meaning was clear enough to both of them. Gabriel had been an Echusian Desert Ranger last season, and now he was responsible for a purchase that ended up falling short by 15,000 plants. To someone that didn’t know him, it could look like a scam. He could be charged with capitalism, one of the few capital crimes in the Confederacy.
Furaha Tib was waiting for Gabriel in the lobby of the hotel when he got to Rotterdam. She smiled when he joined her, but he solemnly pointed to the bar without a word. Rotterdam was a small colony of a few thousand people, in the northern lowlands of the Hebes Chasma. It had started as an ESA research outpost, that had become an AkzoMars mining colony after the discovery of a protactinium rich uranium deposit. The colony had languished under Colombian rule after the Mars Treaty, resulting in a large independence faction that had been in revolt for almost a decade before the the war that had created the Ares Confederacy.
The core of the colony was pressurized dome that had been erected by the ESA. It was only one kilometre across, but had a small park in the centre that had become the heart of the town. Around the park the ESA engineers had built a ring of dorms and labs that had become offices and shops during the Corporate Era. Apartment buildings and processing facilities had been built up around the dome, all connected via pressurized catwalks, so once inside people could move around without respirator masks. Gabriel and Ferderand had parked their Italikas in the garage that Nueva Siria had leased for the mission, and then headed into the dome, where the La Bergère Mars hotel was located over looking the park. The La Bergère Mars’ bar was built on a deck overlooking the park, and above them the sky was darkening beyond the glass of the dome. Gabriel and Furaha sat down at a table overlooking the park, Gabriel ordered a calvado, Furaha ordered a hot apple cider. Then Gabriel looked at Furaha somberly. “The count is short.”
“How short?” Furaha asked realizing it couldn’t be a small number.
“About 15,000,” Gabriel answered. Around them the bar as noisy, but for them the entire universe was suddenly silent. They were both contemplating the ramification. Furaha was heading up the Nueva Sirian Terraforming Office, and therefore Gabriel’s boss. She was also his wife, and the main reason the NSTO had hired ex-military to serve as rangers instead of environmental scientists. Furaha was an environmental scientist, a planetary engineer from Africa, who had defected to the Arean Confederacy right after the war in order to be part of the Eco-Revolutionary’s promise to terraform Mars.
Furaha and Gabriel had met in Echus, an unlikely couple of Earth-borns in the post-independence region of Mars. Gabriel was a Colombian from Mexico, with coffee-coloured skin, and Furaha was from East Africa, with even darker skin. They stood out, the shades of their skin were too brown. After a generation or two on Mars, the natural shades of human skin had faded into greyer tones, as no one ever went outside without being fully clothed. Most of the Earth-born had left or been killed during the war. Afterwards the Mars-born had briefly become highly xenophobic, especially those that hadn’t fought. For two years Gabriel had worn his uniform whenever he went out in public so people would know which side he’d served on. When they met, Furaha had almost given up on her dream of being a terraformer, as she just couldn’t take the xenophobia and was trying to figure out how to get back to Earth from the embargoed Ares Confederacy. When he found out she was an environmental scientist he called a friend in the Echusian government, who hired her to work in the Terraforming Office they were setting up.
The xenophobic wave had passed by the time the Nueva Sirian government had decided to setup their own Terraforming Office, and they hired Furaha to head it up. She had recommended the ex-military personal for the Nueva Sirian Desert Rangers because she’d found them far more reliable than the scientists they’d sent out. She also recommended Gabriel to head-up the ranger group. Now their first project was hitting a major road-block, one that smacked of capitalism.
“I was afraid of something like that,” she finally said. “I’m reasonably sure some of the rangers were taking bribes.”
“Cecilia’s not the type that would pay a bribe,” Gabriel replied. “She’s both too honest, and too cheap. I’m having a hard time believing Cecilia could have been involved.”
“Speak of the devil,” Furaha stated, nodding her head towards Cecilia, who had just entered the bar and was heading to their table. Following her were four of her crew, led by her foreman Ale Rodríguez. All of her crew were former military, mostly Colombian troops that had been left behind when the region fell to the Eco-Revolutionaries. Most of the Earth troops that survived the war had nothing to return to on Earth, and limited skills beyond combat. Few could find employment, and crime had run rampant throughout the former Earth colonies for over a decade, fuelling the xenophobia that had briefly engulfed the Confederacy. Cecilia had fought for the Eco-Revolutionaries during the war, but didn’t discriminate which soldiers she hired.
“Esparza!” Cecilia’s voice echo across the room, and the other patrons began vacating the bar. “I’ve heard you claiming our numbers are off! You think I’m an embezzler!”
As Gabriel Esparza carefully got to his feet, Ferderand Afuyog entered the bar and started quietly towards the Arreola crew.
“The numbers are off Cecilia, but I didn’t say you were involved,” Gabriel replied calmly.
“No that’s bullshit boss!” Ale Rodríguez sneered from behind Cecilia.
“I wasn’t talking to your bitch Cecilia, and it isn’t bullshit. I’ve known you too long to accuse you of something like this,” Gabriel continued calmly. “You sold us over 50,000 plants. I accepted your numbers without question, and vouched for them and you to the NSTO.”
Cecilia stared at him, waiting for him to get to the point, and then after a few seconds demanded, “What’s the problem?”
“We’ve only found around 35,000 plants with your bio-marker,” Gabriel reported.
“35,000?” Cecilia stared speechless for a few seconds. “You puto! If you only found 35,000 plants, it’s because you hid 15,000 plants!”
Gabriel wasn’t expecting that response, it wasn’t rational. There was no reason for Gabriel to under report the number, let alone hide the plants. He didn’t know whether to be angry at the suggestion, or to laugh. He decided to remain claim, and stated, “We need 50,000 plants Cecilia.”
“He’s trying to jam you up, Cecilia,” Ale declared. “Let me take care of this maricón for you.”
“I wouldn’t do anything stupid,” Ferderand said from behind the Cecilia crew. He had his handgun pointed at Ale. “Of course, I’m smarter than you are so, we’ll see if you do something stupid.”
“Ferderand! Back down,” Gabriel barked and then turned to Ale. “And you need to shut up before you get yourself and a bunch of other people killed.”
Cecilia’s anger left her as she realized that things were about to go sideways. Furaha Tib was there; a government scientist that didn’t carry a gun. If she got shot there would be no way anyone could claim self-defence.
“Shut up Ale!” Arreola ordered. “Sorry Gabriel, this is getting out of hand. But you know me. I never stole anything from anyone. You know that better than anybody.”
“Ms. Arreola,” Furaha interjected quietly, “Just before you came in Gabriel was saying that you couldn’t be responsible for the discrepancy.”
Cecilia paused considering and then decided to take a different approach. She pull a chair over from the next table and sat down, “I guess I over reacted then. The idea that you were accusing me of grift really pissed me off.”
“Lets move on then,” Gabriel suggested and then looked over to Ferderand. “We don’t want any trouble here, do we?”
“I agree,” Cecilia turned to her crew. “You guys take off, I’ll handle this from here.”
As the Arreola crew left the table, patrons began to return, and with them came Ashok Nibhanupudi, the owner of Nibhanupudi Biotics Unlimited. Ashok was Mars-born, his ancestors were Colonial Era miners in the old Indian colony on Pavonis Mons. His family had been hydroponic engineers for more than a century, so when Ranunculus glacialis was proven to grow outside, Ashok moved to Hebes Chasma to found a Biotics company. In the past six years it had grown to be one of the largest biotics companies in the chasma, owning tens of thousands of plants and employing dozens of staff.
“Hello, Ms. Tib!” Ashok interjected himself into their conversation at the table. “The NSTO office suggested I might meet you here. Could I have a few minutes of your time?”
Gabriel looked up at Ashok and was surprised to see him dressed in a business suit. Gabriel had only seen Ashok in a dust covered still-suit before.
“Why, yes, Mr. Nibhanupudi, just one minute,” Furaha turned quickly back to Gabriel and Cecilia, “Do you think you can find a solution to this without me here?”
“I’m sure we can give it a shot,” Gabriel said.
“Sure,” Cecilia agreed. She pulled her com from her pocket and projected a map of the chasma above the table. “Let’s figure out were the plants are. Where did you find your plants?”
Gabriel and Cecilia compared their numbers for a few hours but were not able to find any large unaudited patches. All of the numbers in Gabriel’s audit were smaller than the numbers reported in the Arreola records. In each patch of plants Arreola claimed there were more plants than the Nueva Sirian Rangers had found. The numbers looked inflated, yet Gabriel still couldn’t bring himself to believe that Cecilia was providing fake numbers.
Eventually Cecilia gave up and left. The sky was dark overhead, and far off stars shone as blurry splotches of light in the plexiglass dome. Most of the patrons had left the bar. Near the far end of the bar Ale Rodríguez and the Arreola crew were still at a table. Across from them Ferderand sat at a table, watching. He was playing a game on the tabletop display screen, but kept glancing up at Ale’s crew. After Cecilia had left Gabriel walk over and joined Ferderand. On the tabletop display Ferderand was playing one of those games with sword-fighting and magic-carpets. He nodded to Ale as Gabriel sat down. “Rodríguez has a lot of credit. He been buying drinks for the whole table all night.”
As they spoke Elías Medina entered the bar, along with Justine Aalfs and Chidimma Aniakor, the two people that were with him earlier in the chasma. Justine averted her eyes from Gabriel and Ferderand. At least one of the three was willing to let well enough alone. The three walked over to the Arreola crew and joined their table. It was the first time Gabriel realized Elías and Ale knew each other. He wondered when they’d met. Both were Earth-born Colombians, they could have served together in the war.
“Let’s head out,” Gabriel suggested to Ferderand. “We’ve got a lot to do tomorrow.”
They got up to leave, and walked past Furaha and Ashok, who appeared to be discussing the sale of Nibhanupudi’s plants to the NSTO. That was odd, as far as Gabriel knew the NSTO wasn’t looking to buy any additional plants. Even the Arean Senate wouldn’t let them buy Nibhanupudi’s plants, it would mean they’d be taking most of the plants in the chasma. Maybe they were discussing a purchase for next season.
There was too much that didn’t add up. Elías’ unemployed crew ambushing Ferderand. The missing plants. Ale having a lot of credit. Ashok offering his plants for sale. They walked back to the garage silently. Around them the town was quiet. The shops were closed, the lights dimmed. Gabriel had something to ask Ferderand, but not in public, he waited until they got to the garage. “Ferderand, have you done a count of the plants with other companies’ bio-markers?”
Ferderand looked over, half awake. “No, why would I? We’re not buying them.”
There must be at least a hundred thousand plants in the chasma belonging to Nibhanupudi, Christin, Napoleon, Zachariah, Isaak, Cavanah, and the rest. That’s a lot of plants. Gabriel wondered if any of those other companies had 15,000 more plants than audited.
It was almost noon the next day when Gabriel joined the ranger group. Gabriel had been checking the audit numbers of the other companies’ plants. The rangers had been scanning the plant patches in order to determine which plants belonged to Arreola Biotics, and then collecting the Arreola plants. The total number of plants scanned was close to the number expected from the Echusian Desert Rangers audit last season. It would be another month before they started this year’s audit, but the Nueva Sirian Desert Rangers had effectively conducted their own audit by scanning the patches looking for Arreola’s plants. The problem was the numbers for the other company’s plants looked right, none of them had an extra 15,000 plants.
Gabriel was frustrated, he had been in one of the airships working at a desk, which he didn’t enjoy. It would have been alright if he found the missing plants, but that wasn’t the case. He had been up late considering the possibilities. He hadn’t gotten much sleep, and was frustrated as he heard the rangers enter the airship. They were coming in for lunch. Ferderand, Roelof, Adoración and Jessika had just entered the airship, the others would be along soon. Gabriel met them in the cafeteria, where they were taking hot meals from the vending machine.
Gabriel sat down across from to Jessika. “Jessika, what time did you get in last night?”
Jessika hesitated. “Around midnight.” Jessika was an Earth-born former Canadian from Lunae Territory. Gabriel had only known her since she was hired a couple months earlier. He knew she had been the Canadian Army during the war, but that wasn’t something he could hold against her given his war record.
“Midnight?” Roelof looked at her in surprise. “I’d hardly call 3 AM to be midnight. You woke me up.”
“I saw you come back at about 3.” Gabriel stated, the rest of the rangers were silent. “I know I saw you here at 11, so where did you go for 4 hours?”
“I just went out for a walk,” Jessika’s eyes shifted right and left. “I couldn’t sleep.”
“Me neither,” Gabriel stated candidly. “So I went for a walk. Which was when I saw you return on one of the Italikas.”
“You’re meeting with someone!” Roelof snapped. “Who do you know in the chasma?”
“Four hours was more than enough time to ride out to the work-site we worked this morning, work it and come back,” Ferderand stated, and drew his handgun, pointing it at Jessika. “You been injecting the plants with a masking agent?”
“What about it Jessica?” Gabriel looked the Canadian in the face, she suddenly looked sick. “Jessika, who are you working for? Tell me and I’ll let you go, otherwise I’m arresting you on suspicion of capitalism.”
“Let’s just arrest her!” Adoración pulled out her own handgun. “We can’t trust anything she says!”
“Shut-up!” Gabriel snapped. “You’re her partner! You haven’t noticed anything? That doesn’t seem likely.”
Adoración suddenly turned raising her gun towards Gabriel. “Oh, you think so, you puto? I’ll kill-” her sentence ended as Roelof cut a hole through her heart with his handgun. The laser beam cut a through the airship’s fuselage behind Jessika, and air started blowing out through the hole.
“Stop!” Gabriel yelled, but it was too late, Jessika was lifting her handgun from her holster. Gabriel reached for his own handgun, but Ferderand burnt a hole through Jessika before Gabriel got his gun from its holster. Then there were two holes in the fuselage. Roelof and Ferderand. ran to plug the holes with the emergency repair kit while Gabriel checked the bodies for signs of life. There was none. This isn’t what he’d wanted.
“I think we should skip the rest of today’s work-site, and head out to tomorrow’s work-site,” Roelof suggested after the holes were plugged. “If she was injecting a masking agent, then she might not have gotten to tomorrow’s patch.”
“We’re not involved in whatever they were doing,” Philibert said. “You can ask Cecilia Arreola. I worked for her for years before joining the NSDR.”
Gabriel glanced around at the rangers, who were now all in the cafeteria. The bodies of the two dead rangers had been dragged outside. “Has anybody seen them meeting with anyone in the chasma? Anybody know who they met in Rotterdam?”
Philibert hesitated and then answered, “Jessika worked for Arreola Biotics a few years ago, when I was there. Ale Rodríguez is the only one still working there from back then. They were lovers back then. She also was involved with Chidimma Aniakor. She used to worked for Arreola for a while, I don’t know where she works now, but I’ve seen her riding with Elías Medina.”
“That makes sense,” Ferderand stated. “They’re all working for the same company. How are we going to figure out which one?”
Gabriel Esparza hesitated. Figuring out who they were working for was one thing, but finding the plants came first. “No, we’ll finish the work-site we’re working.”
“What do you want to do with the bodies?” Roelof suggested. “Should we call the sheriff’s office?”
“No,” Gabriel answered. “Leave them outside. We can call the sheriff in a few days. We have the video recording from the cafeteria as well as witnesses. It’s better whoever they’re working with doesn’t know they’re dead.”
“Ashok hasn’t been out yet today,” Ferderand observed. “He might come by here this afternoon if he doesn’t go out to the work-site.”
“Right, make sure to cover the bodies,” Gabriel turned to Roelof. “I like your idea about skipping to tomorrows work-site, but with them neutralized there’s no reason to skip ahead. We’ll see what we find there tomorrow. Today we’ll finish up the work-site we’ve already started. Tonight we’ll post a guard by tomorrow’s work-site. If anybody else goes out there I want to know.”
The day drew on, windy and dusty. Gabriel nervously watched the sky. There was a massive storm to the south, and Gabriel was concerned it could spread to the north. Martian dust storms had been known to last for years, and if it spread as far north as Noctis Labyrinthus they might not be able to get the plants in the ground this season.
A cloud of dust swirled above the work site, where the rangers were working in teams of two. Ferderand was handling the scanner, and Roelof was digging the plants out of the ground. Ashok arrived shortly after lunch to watch.
“Nibhanupudi, male plant,” Ferderand read off the scanner. “Christin, female plant.”
Ashok checked the number of Nibhanupudi plants the rangers had found at that site, and compared it to the numbers from the previous year’s audit. Gabriel Esparza was diligently avoiding the annoying owner of Nibhanupudi Biotics. Roelof was still reading from the scanner, “Nibhanupudi, female plant.”
Ashok put his com back in his pocket. “Guess I’ll head back, Esparza. I’ve got business in Rotterdam.”
Gabriel glanced over to Ashok and muttered, “Sound’s good. You aren’t needed here.”
Ashok chucked returning to his bike. “Maybe I’m needed somewhere else then.”
Gabriel’s looked back at Ashok somewhat confused. “Hopefully someone needs you for something.”
“That wife of yours look like she has some needs,” Ashok said. “Maybe I’ll visit her.”
Ashok turned one his bike and lifted into the air, his bike quickly becoming a blurry blue streak back towards Rotterdam. Gabriel Esparza’s face went red, and he grabbed a shovel ran for his bike and after Ashok.
“Damn, Ashok’s in for it now!” Roelof said ruing for his Italika. “It takes a lot to get Gabriel worked up. I wondered if Ashok’s ever been in a fight before!”
“Lets go!” Ferderand yelled jumping on to his air-bike. “This is going to be good!”
By the time Ashok realized Gabriel was chasing him it was too late to out run him. It was also too late to by a faster bike. Gabriel’s Italika had covered most of the ground between them in a couple minutes, and Ashok’s imported and much more expensive Bajaj was designed for Earth’s thicker atmosphere, and its turbofans couldn’t propel it nearly as fast as the Italika Gabriel was riding. Gabriel pulled up along side the Bajaj and thrust the shovel through one of the Bajaj’s turbofans.
It was a move commonly used back in the war, but rarely used since as it ruined the bike, and often the rider. The turbofan’s blades ripped off and the bike spun out of control, throwing Ashok, and blowing up when it hit the ground. Ashok’s impact sent out a cloud of dust, luckily he didn’t land on a rock. He staggered to his feet and pulled his gun, then stopped. Gabriel’s bike was floating above him, and Gabriel’s gun was aimed at him. Ashok had never been in a gunfight, and his gun was barely from the hostler. Several other rangers also floated nearby.
“Roelof, take his gun,” Gabriel shouted over the sound from his Italika. “I’m going to teach him a lesson in manors!”
“What do you mean?” Ashok snarled. “You planning to shoot an unarmed man?”
“No, you son of a bitch,” Gabriel replied harshly, “I’m going to beat some manors into you with my bare fists.”
Ashok grinned. “You want to go hand to hand with me? I’ll kill you!”
Roelof landed near Ashok and took the gun from his hand, then stepped back to his bike. Gabriel landed next to Roelof and handed him his own gun before turning to Ashok.
Ashok was the bigger man, not taller but muscular. Gabriel was a thin wiry man, and didn’t look like he should be able to take Ashok. Ashok was smiling confidently, and then jumped at Gabriel.
Ashok came fast lashing out with his left that caught Gabriel by surprise, but failed to knock him down. Gabriel moved in on Ashok and thrust a short open left into Ashok’s abdomen. It jolted Ashok, but he jerked away and smashed both hands to Gabriel’s respirator mask. Gabriel tried to duck a left, but caught a right. Then he closed in and threw Ashok with a body drop. Ashok came up fast and dived at Gabriel’s knees and they both went down, and then they were up and fighting, throwing punches with everything they had.
Ashok sprang close, swinging with both hands. The dust rose from around them in a thick cloud, and it became difficult to see the fight after a couple minutes. Neither man would back down and they fought bitterly, brutally, at close quarters. Blood trickled from a cut in his forehead where the mask had been smashed against his head, leaving the taste of blood in his mouth. Gabriel set his feet and slammed a right fist into Ashok’s solar plexus. Ashok was winded and knocked back and few feet, and Gabriel moved in throwing his right and his left. Ashok’s hands came down and Gabriel lunged, swinging high and hard with both fists. Ashok went down into the dust and rolled over.
Ashok staggered to his feet and stood there weaving, then he suddenly lunged. Gabriel met him with a stiff left, followed by a right. It caught Ashok above the ear, and he fell to his knees, his head spinning. Gabriel moved in, and pulled Ashok to his feet and, holding him with his left, struck him twice in the solar plexus, and then three shots right in the respirator mask. Then he shoved the man backwards, and Ashok staggered and fell back into the dust.
Gabriel walked back to his bike and leaned against it for a minute, then climbed on to it.
“It’s time to get back to work,” he said to the rangers, and then turned back to Ashok. “And don’t talk about my wife again!”
“You better go back to the base-camp and cleanup,” Roelof suggested looking at Gabriel’s mask. “You’ve got a lot of blood inside there.”
Ashok was still laying on his back, and Ferderand motioned at him. “Should we help him back to Rotterdam?”
“Let him walk!” Roelof said.
As he showered and then sprayed band aid in his forehead, Gabriel’s mind returned to their situation. It was a mistake to have let Ashok goad him into a fight. He was probably going to charge Gabriel with assault. But Ashok was not his problem. He knew that Adoración and Jessika had been working with someone, probably Elías’ group, and possibly with Ale, which led back to Arreola Biotics. He needed to find evidence, something concrete. He got a coffee and went to the airship’s cockpit, he dropped to a seat, which gave him a view of the chasma.
Ferderand and Roelof had a good idea, to watch the work-site at night. Cecilia might even be in on it, but Gabriel still could not bring himself to accept that. He also could not accept that Elías could be the mastermind in any scheme, he just didn’t seem smart enough. Ferderand had suggested that Ashok didn’t always return to Rotterdam when he left their work-site. If not, where did he go? A place somewhere in the chasma? Or was he, injecting the plants with a masking agent himself?
Gabriel decided to return to the work-site. Roelof waved him over as he approached.
“Ruan and Philibert say they didn’t find much at the site they worked in that canyon to the southwest,” Roelof reported. “Also, Ruan saw Cecilia Arreola in there.”
“Cecilia? In the canyon?” Gabriel repeated. “What was she doing? Did Ruan talk to her?”
“No, she found a few more Arreola plants and was bringing them back when he saw her. She said she was deep down into the canyon, beyond where they were working.”
“Right after you kicked the shit out of Ashok. She’s probably still down there because we heard a shot from down that way about an hour ago.”
“A shot? Sonic?”
Roelof nodded. “Yeah, want me to ride down and have a look?”
“Yeah, I think I’ll ride down there. You come along.”
“Ferderand mentioned your confrontation with Elías, and then Ale. Figure they are in on whatever this is?”
“Could be,” Gabriel shrugged. “Jessika and Adoración weren’t working alone.”
The ground was silty brown dust as they crossed the chasma floor, a seafloor that had been dry for half a billion years. The canyon was carved into the chasma’s southern face. There was a lake near the mouth of the canyon where Philibert was still scanning plants.
“Did you see Cecilia here?” Gabriel demanded.
“No, Ruan said she saw her near the end of the canyon, but I didn’t see her pass by here.” Philibert answered. “I heard a shot from down the canyon about an hour ago, so she’s probably still there.”
“Take the plants you’ve collected back to the base-camp then come find us,” Gabriel ordered.
Gabriel Esparza’s hazel coloured eyes swept the canyon before them. It was over five kilometres deep, and they couldn’t see the end, finding a single person wouldn’t be easy. Nevertheless if Cecilia did come here, she had a reason.
The wind was picking up, gusts of dust were blowing through the canyon. Gabriel knew they were running out of time, at best they could spend another week in the Hebes Chasma. If the storm kept rising they’d have to leave sooner. They found the small lake Ruan had worked earlier, and headed farther back into the canyon, hugging the ground as there were no plants anywhere else.
“Wait a minute!” Gabriel lifted a hand. “There’s something over here.”
He flew his bike over to the black object laying on the ground. “It’s a body.”
He landed the Italika and dropped to the ground. He rolled over the body and looked down into the face, and recognized Cecilia Arreola. Someone had burned two holes into her with a laser gun. Gabriel checked for signs of life but the body was already cooling. “Dead. That’s unfortunate, she was one of the good ones.”
“What this?” Roelof asked after joining Gabriel, there were several items laying around Cecilia’s body. “A hand scanner, and a jet-injector. She was injecting a masking agent!”
Gabriel scowled. “There are no plants around here.” He looked around but there was nothing there except a sonic blaster laying in the dirt, and Cecilia’s footprints leading into a gorge. “Let’s see where her footprints lead.”
“You have to admit it looks suspicious,” Roelof said. “Why is she out here with a jet-injector if she isn’t masking the bio-markers?”
Gabriel looked around thoughtfully, “Whoever shot her could have left them here to incriminate her.”
They followed the footprints for a few minutes up the gorge to where Cecilia’s bike was parked. It was the end of the path of footprints, and there were still no plants. They walked back to the body. Gabriel examined the way the body had fallen. There were no other footprints, and Cecilia’s footprints hadn’t been disturbed, so whoever shot her had been a ways off. Her sonic blaster would have been useless. He looked around at the gorge walls, and could only spot one place that would be a good vantage point for a sniper.
“Roelof, take Cecilia’s body back to the base-camp,” he said, and started towards the potential sniper nest.
“You think this was a murder?” Roeloff asked. “If it was, we’d better find out who did it. She had a lot of friends in Rotterdam.”
Who had the opportunity? Philibert, of course. And Ruan too. Both of them had been working in the canyon, and there were probably a couple other rangers who had been close enough. But it made no sense for any of them to kill Cecilia. Someone else must have been in the area, and somehow they had to be connected to Ale, Elías, Jessika, and Adoración.
Gabriel climbed his way up the canyon wall. He’d climbed rock walls before and this one wasn’t particularly difficult. From the suspected sniper nest, he could see where Cecilia’s body had been laying. He looked around, and behind the rocky ledge was larger sand covered ledge, with traces of footprints blown away by a bike taking off. There was nothing else, so he climbed back down.
Philibert met him en route back to his bike. “Find anything interesting?”
“Tracks. Looks like someone sniped her. Did it from up high, but that doesn’t tell us anything.”
Philibert scratched his ear. “It does tell you a little. It tells you that whoever killed her was probably following her. Nobody comes out here by accident, and two people out here coincidentally, one with a reason to snipe the other? No way that’s by chance.”
“You’re probably right.” Gabriel agreed as they arrive back at the bikes. “The thing is, the sniper had a reason, and that’s what we’ve got to figure out. The sniper must have seen Cecilia down here, shot her, and I guess dropped the jet-injector as he flew out.”
“Well, the sniper wasn’t up there poaching plants, there wouldn’t be any up there,” Philibert stated. “I’ll never believe Cecilia was using a bio-masker, but it does look like she was, being found with the injector the way she was.”
“It had to be something else. She was out here. Maybe she was auditing plants in the canyon, and then came up the gorge to see if there were any plants in it,” Gabriel thought out-loud.
Philibert agreed dubiously. “Could be. But what was she looking for?”
Ferderand flew up as they stood at the bike discussing the situation. “There’s a crown forming at the base-camp. The sheriff’s there, too.”
“The sheriff? Already?” Gabriel shrugged. “The law always gets there faster when you don’t want it. Alright, I’ll head back.”
Gabriel rode back to the ranch followed by Ferderand and Philibert. Ashok was at the base-camp when they got back, talking to Furaha Tib and the Rotterdam Sheriff Ria Van Amersvoort. Gabriel glanced quickly at Furaha, but she was looking a different direction and he couldn’t get her attention. Others had also arrived at the base-camp including Elías, Chidimma, and Ale. Justine was nowhere to be seen. Most of the rangers were also back at the base-camp, preforming general maintenance. Gabriel knew it was busy work, but he was glad to see them there given the presence of some of the others.
“Ola,” Gabriel said walking up to Furaha and the sheriff. “What’s the situation, Sheriff?”
“Well that depends on who killed Cecilia Arreola,” Sheriff Van Amersvoort stated.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out,” Gabriel answered. “We heard a shot, and when we found her she was already dead. Two laser burns through the torso. Look like sniper shots from around 120 metres up.”
Sheriff Van Amersvoort paused to consider then asked. “You had a very public disagreement with her in town.”
“A disagreement yes, but that’s all. We’re old friends, and it was nothing serious. There is a discrepancy between the number of plants we bought and number we’re finding in the chasma.”
“Then what happened, between you and Cecilia?” Van Amersvoort eyed him cautiously. Gabriel met her eyes and shrugged.
“We discussed the audits for a couple hours, then went our separate ways. I didn’t see Cecilia again until we found her dead.”
“We also found a scanner and a jet-injector laying next to her,” Roelof added.
Van Amersvoort glanced at Roeloff, then back at Gabriel. “The murderer could have planted the jet-injector, or you could have.”
“I could have, but I didn’t,” Gabriel stated. “I never knew Cecilia to be dishonest in my life, so I suspect the sniper planted it.”
“You’re telling us you and Cecilia parted on good terms the other night!” Ashok demanded, “You had 15,000 missing plants and you parted on good terms?”
Gabriel glanced at Ashok, and then turned back to the Sheriff. “How’s he involved in this, Sheriff? It’s fairly obvious we don’t get like each other, so why’d he here?”
“I’m a witness,” Ashok announced proudly. “I’ll saw you two arguing the other night.”
“Want me to get rid of him?” Ferderand asked. “I figure that’ll be fun.”
“I’m assuming authority here,” the sheriff stated, looked over at Ferderand. “I’ll let you know if I want you to get rid of anyone.”
Ferderand straightened up. “Captain Esparza is my C.O. I don’t take orders from you.”
“You putting up with that, Sheriff?” Elías Medina demanded. “There have been at least three murders out here! Adoración and Jessika are both dead as well, thrown out in the dirt like garbage! Did these rangers even report that to you?”
“Yes, there is that. Who shot Adoración and Jessika?” the sheriff enquired calmly. Gabriel decided he liking the woman. Obviously, Sheriff Van Amersvoort wasn’t going to be rushed into a conclusion by Elías.
“There was a gunfight,” Gabriel answered. “I accused Jessika of leaving the base-camp at night. Adoración interfered, and when I called her on it, she went for her gun. I tried to stop them, but couldn’t, so they fell.”
“I was there, Sheriff,” Philibert announced. “They drew first. It was self-defence.”
“What about the missing plants?” Sheriff Van Amersvoort asked. “Have you found them yet?”
“I expect we did,” Gabriel bluffed, and his eyes swung over to lock with Ashok’s. “I expect we’ve found them alright!”
The expression in Ashok’s eyes said it all, Gabriel knew he had guessed right. Ashok was the brains behind this thing, now Gabriel just had to figure out the rest of it, whatever it was.
“We’ve got 15,000 missing plants, Sheriff,” Gabriel stated. “Poachers might steal a few dozen, ship them off to private buyers as novelties, but 15,000? Only a government would buy that bulk, so the plants can’t have been taken by poachers.”
“Sheriff,” Furaha Tib interrupted quietly. “Have you had many issues with poachers in the chasma?”
“Yes, but not 15,000 plants worth. Maybe a dozen or so plants disappear in a season, and like Gabriel said, we expect they’re going to private buyers,” the sheriff answered.
“If the plants weren’t taken by poachers then they’re still in the ground,” Furaha continued. “Gabriel did you find any unmarked plants?”
“No, every plant has had a bio-marker,” Gabriel answered. “We though it was a bit odd. There should be some first gen still in the ground.”
“Then the masking agent is disguising the Arreola plants to look like another bio-marker,” Furaha continued rationally. “I noticed that you just registered a new bio-marker earlier this season Ashok, what was wrong with your existing bio-marker?”
Gabriel glanced at Ashok as Furaha had said his name, and saw the man flinch when Furaha mentioned that second bio-marked. His head jerked around to look at Furaha with a look of rage in his eyes, which quickly turned to terror as he looked over to the sheriff.
“A second bio-marker?” Sheriff Van Amersvoort asked, frowning. “Why do you need a second bio-marker?”
“And how did you get 20,000 plants into the ground already using this new bio-marker?” Furaha continued. “I checked with the registry office in Nijmegen. He’s placed an estimate of 20,000 plants for this year’s audit using this new bio-marker.
“Are you accusing me of being an embezzler?” Ashok yelled at Furaha. Then he looked back at the sheriff. “You can see through this, Sheriff. These rangers are a bunch of capitalists. Gabriel was a Desert Ranger here last year and inflated the numbers so Cecilia would get over paid for her plants! They are conspiring to blame me for all this. Gabriel is a known sniper, and all of his crew are ex-military! And they all work for Ms. Tib. Anyone of them could have shot Cecilia!”
Van Amersvoort continued to stare at Ashok without responding to anything he said and then repeated the question. “Why do you need a second bio-marker?”
Ashok’s eyes shifted, and the he sputtered out, “I need a second marker, because, ah, I’m, planning ahead, yes to sell the plants in batches. That’s what I’m doing. Just good business sense!”
“When did you plant these new seedlings?” the sheriff asked.
“Earlier this season,” Ashok answered. “About a month ago.”
Van Amersvoort continued to calmly stare at Ashok, “You managed to plant 20,000 seedlings in the last month without anyone knowing? That doesn’t sound too likely.”
“I had a lucky season,” Ashok argued. “It happens sometimes.”
“You register the estimate when you registered the bio-marker,” Furaha interjected. “You knew ahead of time you would have this good luck.”
“The whole thing sounds unlikely,” Sheriff Van Amersvoort observed. “How’s about you tell me where you were this afternoon?”
“Hold up sheriff,” Elías Medina protested. “Just because this scientist thinks Ashok is an embezzler, it doesn’t follow that Cecilia did. How would she know about this second bio-marker?”
“Cecilia wasn’t an idiot, and she knew her business,” the sheriff observed. “If this scientist can find out Ashok has a second bio-marker, I’m positive that Cecilia could.”
Ashok was sweating under his respirator-mask. “This doesn’t prove anything! All you have is conjecture! Having a second bio-marker isn’t illegal, and neither is having good luck!”
Elías Medina had moved close to Ashok, while Chidimma had moved toward her bike. A slight movement by Ale Rodríguez drew Gabriel’s attention, and he saw that the former Colombian soldier was moving toward his bike, with held his rifle. Gabriel Esparza shifted his position so he had both Elías and Ashok in view. Glancing around he noticed that most of the rangers were alert to the changing scene. Only the sheriff and Furaha seemed unaware of what was about to happen.
“Furaha, get ready to drop,” Gabriel whispered. “It’s about to go down.”
He had whispered, but he noticed the sheriff’s subtle reaction. The sheriff’s eyes shifted from Ashok toward Ale, and then to Elías. Ashok drew first, quickly, but Gabriel was faster. Even as Ashok’s gun started to lift, Gabriel’s first laser bolt burned through Ashok, and seconds later he crumpled to the ground. Gabriel was swinging his gun around towards Elías when a laser bolt passed through him as well, fired by Ferderand. He turned just in time to see Ale Rodríguez fall as well, the sheriff had dropped him. Chidimma was on to a bike and gone as soon as the fighting had started, leaving everyone else standing in a gust of dust.
Gabriel Esparza holstered his gun and then grabbed for support. Something was wrong. He realize he had been shot. It must have been Ale, before the sheriff shot him. Furaha rushed to Gabriel’s side. “Mpendwa! You’ve been shot!”
“Just a little bit,” he put his hand on her shoulder and grinned, “Looks like a flesh-wound.”
He woke up several days later in the Rotterdam medical clinic. Ale’s laser had ruptured an artery causing Gabriel to bleed out rapidly in the the thin Martian atmosphere. While he was unconsciousness Sheriff Van Amersvoort had determined that Ashok’s 20,000 new plants were all Arreola plants with a masking agent distorting the bio-marker, and the rangers had started harvesting the plants. The dust storm to the south was expanding, and Gabriel ordered half of the rangers to stay in the chasma under Ferderand’s command to complete the plant collection, while he took the other half of the rangers to southeast to Noctis Labyrinthus to begin the planting their new biome.
Gabriel considered the question for a couple minutes before answering. It was something he didn't like to think about. "The Echusian Desert Rangers audited over 45,000 Arreola plants last season. I can't see how there could be over 10,000 less this year.” Ferderand wasn't quick to respond either, he hadn't thought about the blow back on the Echusian Desert Rangers. "I hadn't consider that," he finally stated. The meaning was clear enough to both of them. Gabriel had been an Echusian Desert Ranger last season, and now he was responsible for a purchase that ended up falling short by 15,000 plants. To someone that didn't know him, it could look like a scam. He could be charged with capitalism, one of the few capital crimes in the Confederacy.