King of Mars, p.1Jack Stornoway
King of Mars
Copyright 2016 Jack Stornoway
The twenty-odd red concrete houses that formed the colony of Milanković Crater huddled, dwarfed and miserable, below the towering sand-dunes at the centre of the crater. The lofty circle of ruddy mountains far in the distance, with their sand-choked ravines and massive outcroppings of rust-red rocks, formed an enclosing wall as impassable as any Eve Johns had ever seen. There was only one road out of the crater, a ten kilometre long dust trail that ran up one of those ravines. They'd spotted it on approach, they always looked for exits when heading into a colony they didn't know. Even so, those crater walls were over sixty kilometres from the colony, and hundreds of kilometres from the next colony.
Eve Johns had run it through her mind many times in the past couple weeks, and each time she had come to the same conclusion, it was hopeless. There was no way to escape on foot, even if she made her way to the rim, and up to the surface, she was still hundreds of kilometres from civilization. There was only one way to escape, by air.
There were three aircraft in the crater, and all of these belonged to Tadeusz Warszawski. One was the airship that he used for occasional trips to Ciudad de Arcadia, to carry out ore and bring in supplies. There were also two prospector auto-gyros, but they were far too small to reach much beyond the crater rim. Yet she had to escape, and immediately.
Returning to the bedside, she looked down at her dying husband. Lovable, impractical, and a dreamer with an always restless heart, Ozzy Mac an Bhaird had never been able to remain still. Now, this isolated crater in a remote region of Mars had trapped him, and once there he could not leave.
Two things were trapping them there. The first was his health, which failed rapidly in the cold, dreary world of Milanković Crater, where the long winter had set in, and the heat of the distant Sun was hardly felt. If it been his health alone, Eve could have managed. The other problem was Tadeusz Warszawski.
From the moment they disembarked their airship at the old Milanković Colony landing pad, and Eve turned to look into the tiny hazel eyes of the short yet very muscular man, she had been frightened. Right then she asked her husband to leave, knowing that this was not a place they should stay.
He didn't see it. "Why, Eve? We just got here, and this is hundreds of kilometres from anywhere else! We can meet the locals, can't we?"
"No Ozzy, please! Let's go find somewhere else."
Her husband had turned to face Tadeusz, and his pale face smiled under the respirator mask. "I'm afraid my wife doesn't like it here," he stated.
"Well," Tadeusz replied. "It is not so much a good place for women, that is true. But there is gadolinium here, and so we are living here."
"Gadolinium?" Eve's heart sank at the eagerness in her husband's voice. She wondered what he'd do if he found it. Nobody ever cared less for the idea of getting rich, but to her husband the concept of finding any precious metal was so much more than credit. It was history, destiny, fate, the reward that would somehow repair the life that lady luck had abandoned. "There's gadolinium here?"
"Yeah, a whole lot!" Tadeusz turned and waved a hand at the crater around them. "This crater was made by a gadolinium rich asteroid! It is the best source of gadolinium on Mars, maybe in the entire system! Was that why you came here? You can prospect if you want to, but KGHM Polska Mars has exclusive rights to mine the ore."
Was there anxiety in the short man's voice? Eve looked at him again, and felt such revulsion that she could barely stand to be near him. Stalking along beside her husband, Tadeusz had been dwarfed by Ozzy's huge body. Tadeusz face was thin and hawk-like under his thin brown beard. Wrinkles ran out in a network of tiny lines from the corners of both eyes, eyes that were small and cruel. His gloves were filthy, and his black thermal-still-suit and duster were covered with red dusty grime. Then she saw it, holstered to his right hip, a laser pistol.
It wasn't until later that Eve wondered why none of the other people in the small colony had come out to greet the visitors. They couldn't get that many visitors out here. It would've made sense for them to want to trade, but no one came out. Eve did notice one pale emaciated woman looking out the window of one of the red concrete houses, and then immediately closed the shutter when she saw Eve looking at her. Eve assumed the woman was shy, she should have known better.
At midnight they were still at the bar with Tadeusz. The bar was the only restaurant in the colony, although it looked like it had started out as a company cafeteria, and deteriorated into a bar over the decades. The bar was in the only large building at the colony, the old corporate station. Once it has been used for everything from a control tower to direct shuttles down from orbit, to a store house. Now it was called Warszawski's Station, home to Warszawski's Bar, and Suleiman's Trading Shop. Suleiman was the only other person they met that first night, an Arabian trader that lived with the colonists. He rarely spoke, but when Tadeusz and Suleiman shared a look, Eve realized there was more being said silently than out loud. After the sun set, lights appeared in some of the red concrete buildings, but no one seemed to be interested in visiting the bar.
Ozzy got unusually drunk on Colmbian aguardiente, which seemed to be the only alcohol in the bar, and then Tadeusz offered the station's one and only hotel room above the bar to them for the night. Eve wanted to return to their bedroom in the airship, but Ozzy was having a difficult time figuring out which way was up, so she thanked Tadeusz for his generosity, and helped Ozzy up the stairs. In retrospect that should have been her second clue, Ozzy was known to drink, but never to get completely wasted. Perhaps if she hadn't been drinking too it would have occurred to her that Tadeusz might have spiked the aguardiente with something stronger than alcohol.
In the morning, their airship was gone.
Eve had just woken up, when she looked out the window at the landing pad where the airship had been docked the night before and saw it wasn't there. Terror ripped through her like lightning. She jumped on Ozzy and started shaking him awake. Ozzy Mac an Bhaird's face went paler that usual when he saw landing pad with just Tadeusz's airship docked on it, and for the first time in a long time, he was afraid.
They pulled on their still-suits and respirator masks without bothering to grab their dusters and ran out to the landing pad looking frantically around in case the airship had drifted off. If it wasn't docked correctly it could have drifted off, but in over ten years of owning the airship Ozzy and Eve had never failed to dock it correctly. Tadeusz came out of the station, rubbing his red eyes. "What is wrong? Why are you running around out here?"
"Our airship's gone!" Ozzy yelled. "My God man! What'll we do? What could've happened?"
"Wind, maybe. If it was not docked right, maybe it drifted," Tadeusz suggested. "Or maybe a thief stole it. I will go see if anyone is missing from the colony. It is no good standing out here. Come in and we will eat. Then we go look for your airship one of my auto-gyros."
It sounded right, but when Eve's eyes met Tadeusz's she saw something else, something that looked like victory.
Despite his obsession with precious metals, her husband was genuinely worried. Ozzy knew the rim-walls were virtually impassable, and the lowlands beyond were treacherous. Walking to the next colony was impossible. By the end of the day, they realized that the airship was gone, and they were not going to find it. None of the colonist were missing, and so Tadeusz surmised it must have drifted off. The wind had been blowing to the southeast, and they surveyed the crater to the southeast as far as the rim-wall. The auto-gyros weren't able to scout further, and Tadeusz insisted that if it drifted out of the crater it could be hundreds of kilometres away. There was no chance of finding it even if they searched in his airship, which he did not have time to do.
"Could you fly us down to Ciudad de Arcadia?" Ozzy suggested that evening. "You have an airship, and we can't stay here. I have credit at my bank in Sirenum, I could get access to it in Ciudad de Arcadia. Get us there and I'll pay you well."
"All right," Tadeusz replied thoughtfully. "But you will have to wait until I go for supplies. A couple weeks, maybe."
The weeks passed and Tadeusz said nothing about leaving. Ozzy had lost track of the days, prospecting in the region south of the dunes. Tadeusz had said the region north of the dunes was thoroughly mined out during Corporate Era, but if Ozzy found any deposits to the south of the dunes, Tadeusz would see that KGHM Polska Mars gave him a 5% royalty.
Ozzy and Eve had moved into one of the old abandoned red concrete houses, as it turned out only about half the houses in the small village were still inhabited. The solar panels installed in the roof still worked, so they just needed to jump start the house's oxygen recycler with some algae from their respirator masks. It took
King of Mars by Jack Stornoway / Science Fiction have rating 3.8 out of 5 / Based on34 votes