Copyright 2017 Jack Stornoway
Published by the Jack Stornoway at at Shakespir
The dust-storm that had raged across the planet was finally reaching the northern icecap, although it seemed to have lost most of its power. The cold of the icecap seemed to be sapping the strength of the storm, and the leading edge was fracturing into tornadoes and dust-devils. Sandra Pritchard banked the Lockheed abruptly to avoid a low-pressure point the sensors showed forming in her flight path, and continued scanning the ice below.
It was night down there, the twelve month-long night had fallen, and without sensors she wouldn’t have been able to see a thing. The display showed the frozen carbon-dioxide glacier as if it were naturally lit by the Sun, but it would be almost a year before that ice saw the light of day again. From the altitude they were flying it looked like it could just be mountainous terrain, but Sandra knew those peaks and valleys were frozen death to anyone crashing down there, and apparently someone had.
It was warm enough in the Lockheed’s cabin, the aerospace transport was designed to operate in space, which could be lot colder than the glacier below. It was only Sandra’s consciousness that recognized the danger her and Cheng were in. Bombardier An Cheng was asleep in the cabin behind the cockpit, a local gunner assigned by the Arean Army when they retrofitted the Lockheed a week earlier. They had been flying patrols south of the icecap since then, but had now been pulled back north to search the glaciers for a missing airship.
In Sandra’s view, the mission was a waste of time. The odds of finding the missing airship were low, and at this time of year the glaciers were quickly expanding, so if they’d crashed down there they’d be frozen until the glacier shrank the next summer. Still, a job’s a job, and orders are orders. At least no one would be shooting at them this far north. Then suddenly the sensors detected it, a strato-freighter down on the ice below. It was still intact, anchored in a valley, and looked like it had been intentionally landed.
“Cheng!” Sandra called over her shoulder. “Come have a look at this!”
“It landed,” Cheng observed half awake. “What are they doing?”
“Let’s drop down and have a look,” Sandra said, and rolled the Lockheed into a tight circle, dropping quickly towards the parked strato-freighter.
“The sensors show the temperature in the valley is warmer than the peaks, maybe they are having mechanical problems,” Cheng suggested. “I will call them.”
“They aren’t transmitting an emergency beacon,” Sandra observed.
“They are not transmitting their ID beacon either,” Cheng added. He was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat next to Sandra, and brought up the com display, but there was no response on the other end. “I will try the emergency radio. Arean Aerospace Transport BEI-001 to Strato-Freighter AUS Cacophony, do you require assistance? Arean Aerospace Transport BEI-001 to Strato-Freighter AUS Cacophony, please respond.”
Cheng repeated the call in Mandarin as the Lockheed skimmed above the strato-freighter’s canopy, and then looked over at Sandra. “Want to head back to Hangtian? We could come back with a salvage crew tomorrow.”
“I’d rather know what the problem is before we head back,” Sandra answered. “I’d hate to get the crew out here and find we need to fly all the way back for a part. “I’m going to land up here, and walk back to the airship.”
“Are you sure you want to land down there?” Cheng asked. “If the ice expands around the wheels, this will be our grave.”
“The heat from the jets should be able to melt us out,” Sandra said as she switched the Lockheed into VTOL mode and lowered it gently onto the ice. Around them steam shot out of the ice as pockets of water vapour evaporated. Sandra cut the engines as soon as the sensors showed all four wheels on the ground and held her breath. The sensors showed the ice reforming around the wheels. She watched for about a minute before deciding it was safe to stay; the ice hadn’t fully encased the wheels.
“Five clicks back to the airship… rough terrain, so give me a couple of hours to get there and see what’s happening,” Sandra ordered. “If you don’t hear from me, call for reinforcements.”
“What? I am coming with you,” Cheng objected as he followed her down to the ground doors.
“Someone has to stay with the plane,” Sandra stated, pulling a thermal-suit over her still-suit.
“This is my country Earther,” Cheng objected again. “You are the pilot, I am the soldier. You don’t have any authority on that freighter.”
“Check the registry again, Martian, it’s an American strato-freighter, flying out of American Utopia.” Sandra replied. “Who do you think they’re more likely to welcome onto their ship? I’m a Captain in the American Aero-Space Force, and you’re a Martian rebel.”
The Martian bombardier paused considering. It was obvious he took offence to being called a rebel. The Confederacy had been functionally independent for a decade, even if America had only formally recognized its independence two weeks ago. Finally he conceded, “Okay you go, but can’t you land closer?”
“I didn’t want to risk destabilizing to ice around the freighter,” Sandra stated, and then pulled the respirator-mask over her face. “Brace yourself!”
Sandra opened the door and a gust of frozen air rushed in, freezing the moisture in the Lockheed’s interior, forming in instant ice-fog. A couple of seconds later she was outside on the ice, surrounded by a thin ice-fog that had formed when they touched down. She quickly checked the wheels again before heading off towards the strato-freighter.
She hadn’t told Cheng the truth. It was true that she was concerned about destabilizing the ice around the freighter, but in truth she had landed this far away because she didn’t know the situation on board the airship. Her old training had kicked in, and she’d landed far enough away that no one on the airship should be able to see the Lockheed, just in case.
She had fought for the old U.S. Space Corps during the Martian Uprising as the American Loyalist had called it. Now the U.S. was no more, and the new American government had loaned her to the Confederacy, and she was wearing the uniform of what had been, until two weeks ago, the enemy. Fate was a fickle bitch sometimes.
She wondered if the Americans on the airship would even believe her when she said she was American too. She was wearing a Confederate Army still-suit under a Beihai Army Division thermal-suit. Not the blue circle and red bars of an American flag anywhere on her, not even one of the old stars and stripes that most Loyalists still carried. Hopefully they felt more optimistic about the new alliance than she did. She was making good time, at least the Baihai government made sure their troops had sharp cleats. This ice would have been impossible without the jagged little spikes that dug in under foot as she jogged towards the airship.
The insulation of the thermal-suit was good as well, she couldn’t feel the icy air touching any part of her skin, but after an hour or so, a cold ache set into her arms, and then her feet, and then legs. By the time she reached the airship the ache had spread up her back, and the Cyber Heads-Up Display implanted in her eyes was reporting mild hypothermia. She suddenly realized she had been running through the darkness, and wondered if Cheng could have even made the journey without waving around a light that would have let everyone on the airship know he was coming. Did the Confederacy implant its troops this CHUDs?
She knew she should have just flown back to Hangtian with Cheng. That was all that was required. Find the missing strato-freighter and report its location. But this was an American airship, and she was going to be damned if she let a bunch of rebels rescue it. America might have lost the war against these Eco-Rebels on Mars, and America might have fallen to its own Eco-Revolution back home, but damned it, America could still rescue its own ships!
Starring up at the strato-freighter she wondered briefly if that was true, how was she going to get up there? The airship was held in place by two anchors that had been fired into the ice-sheet like harpoons, but it was still floating ten meters above her. The lights were on, she searched her CHUD for the make of airship, Odyssey Mars Research LLC Strato-Freighter model Z-224. She checked to see if she had the security over-ride codes. She did. She interfaced with the ship’s wireless network and sent the code, and a few seconds later a wire-ladder dropped from the side of the ship. Less than a minute later she was stepping though the emergency hatch into the ship’s gondola.
The gondola wasn’t very large, a freighter like this one usually only carried a crew of five. Everything was quiet. There were no signs of the crew. It was possible to get back into the freight area from the gondola, the crew might be back there for some reason.
She quietly made her way to the bridge, where she found the captain, dead at the controls. His neck had been cut from behind with a plasma-blade. The spine was severed, but the rest of the neck was intact. This was personal, Sandra had heard of people remaining conscious for up to a minute after having their spine cut like this. Someone he had known and trusted had been standing behind his seat, and then killed him. Someone who wanted him to know who had killed him. Someone who wanted gloat.
A mutiny on an American ship? It had been years since the Eco-Revolution had turned the Army Airforce against the Navy and Space Corps. Many Naval and Space Corps ships had experienced mutinies then, but this didn’t make sense. This was a cargo freighter, and where could the mutineers go with a stolen airship? Maybe that was why they were parked here in the icecap. They had nowhere to go to. She checked the controls, everything seemed in working order, but the outer edge of the dust-storm was getting closer.
Sandra quietly pulled off the bulky thermal-suit, and slipped her handgun from its holster. There was a murderer on board, a cold sadistic one, who taunted his victims, and she didn’t want to be next. At least the gun was American, a standard issue Remington solid-state laser pistol. Of course the rebels had seized thousands during the Uprising, so it probably wouldn’t convince anyone on board that she was an American ASF officer.
She moved silently down the passageway to the crew quarters, for the first time wishing the Rebels had stealth technology. She reached the hatch to the mess, and listened, nothing. She opened the hatch as quietly as possible and peered inside. One of the crew was dead on the floor, slashed deeply across the chest with a plasma blade. There was no one else in the mess so she quietly walked over to the dead crewman and checked her insignia for rank, executive officer. She realized it might not be a mutiny, someone could be killing the entire crew. It could just be a heist.
She crept back out into the hallway, and down to the next hatch, and listened, nothing. She quietly slid the hatch open, and found herself face to face with woman aiming a particle beam rifle right at her. The woman was black, and not one of these faded-Martian blacks that had never been in real sunlight, the woman was from Earth. Sandra hoped her tanned skin would also be recognized as being Earth-born, the Mars-born always recognized it.
“Come in,” the woman ordered in a Southern accent quietly but sternly. “Close the hatch, and don’t make any sudden moves or I’ll shoot you.”
“Trying to keep someone out?” Sandra asked as she shut the hatch. “Do you know who the murderer is?”
“Murderer?” the woman asked with the sound of panic in her voice. “Who’s dead?”
“The captain and executive officer,” Sandra answered, and saw the woman’s soul shatter. She was holding back her tears, trying to be harder than she really was. Sandra decided this couldn’t be the killer. “Someone sliced them up with a plasma blade. Which is a much better weapon to use in here than that thing. Do you know what will happen if you fire that thing in here?”
“You’ll be vaporized, as will a chunk of the ship behind you, and I’ll probably be blown out into the freezing cold,” the black woman answered calmly. “But if you think I’m taking it off you, or that I won’t fire you’re dead wrong. Now did you see anyone else dead out there? A black man, Earth-born, but lighter than me… mid-twenties?”
“No, just the dead captain on the bridge, and the dead XO in the mess,” Sandra answered. “Whoever did it knew the captain and didn’t like him.”
“How’d you know that?” the woman asked.
“He let them get real close, and they kept him alive long enough to know who did it,” Sandra answered. “Someone sadistic, probably a crewman. Are you in the crew?”
The question got the woman’s attention, but she didn’t answer. She seemed to be considering what to make of Sandra. Sandra realized the uniform probably wasn’t helping, and decided to explain herself. “I’m an American. Captain Sandra A. Pritchard, originally from New Jersey. I’m stationed with the American Aero-Space Forces out of American Utopia. I’m currently on loan to the Arean Army, and have been patrolling the southern border of Beihai for the past week. I was redirected up here to find you.”
“Me?” the woman asked.
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The insulation of the thermal-suit was good as well, she couldn't feel the icy air touching any part of her skin, but after an hour or so, a cold ache set into her arms, and then her feet, and then legs. By the time she reached the airship the ache had spread up her back, and the Cyber Heads-Up Display implanted in her eyes was reporting mild hypothermia. She suddenly realized she had been running through the darkness, and wondered if Cheng could have even made the journey without waving around a light that would have let everyone on the airship know he was coming. Did the Confederacy implant its troops this CHUDs? She knew she should have just flown back to Hangtian with Cheng. That was all that was required. Find the missing strato-freighter and report its location. But this was an American airship, and she was going to be damned if she let a bunch of rebels rescue it. America might have lost the war against these Eco-Rebels on Mars, and America might have fallen to its own Eco-Revolution back home, but damned it, America could still rescue its own ships!