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Wed, 30 Jul 2008

Beta Sigma

When Beta Sigma was 14 Terran years old he tracked a man almost 300 kilometers from Candor to Ophir Chasmata.

He caught up with him high on the canyon wall. The man had stopped on a relatively flat section to mine vein of water ice that reached the surface there.

Beta Sigma waited motionless, peering at the man as he hid behind a ledge of volcanic ash. Beta Sigma was 100 meters above the man and his crawler. Laying on a thermal blanket, comfortably warm in his nanodown suit that his father had purchased with a t-month's wages, Beta Sigma watched as the man drilled water cores and loaded them into the crawler's oven. The Sigma's sharp eyes could see the man's chest heaving as the Earth born breathed heavily through his face mask. Despite the low Martian gravity, it was still heavy work for him, moving the 20 kilo hunks of solid water by hand in an atmosphere equivalent to 20,000 feet above sea level on Earth. Even with the supplemental oxygen the main was struggling hard to get the job done. Beta Sigma did not wear a face mask, did not have supplemental oxygen, and hadn't tasted liquid water in three days.

Soon the loading was done. A dozen 20 kilo cores in the oven and the earth man's supply of water was replenished for at least a week. The man waited impatiently till an indicator glowed green indicating that melt water was available. He filled his vacuum canteen by inserting it into a small insulated dispenser compartment that protected the hydro tap from freezing. He sat on the back bumper of the rover with the canteen. He added a splash of bourbon to the water from a flask in his coat. Then the Earth man pulled down his oxygen mask, sighed, and took a greedy drink of the steaming liquid.

Only now did Beta Sigma begin to move. Slowly and carefully he loaded his last 2 gram, hollow point flechette into the chamber of his FCA-26. He aimed at the man's head and fired without pity.

From the rover's hydro tap, Beta Sigma filled his own water reservoir, a 1 liter plastic bottle in a thick closed cell foam parka. He then put his lips directly to the rover's warm hydro tap and took a long, satisfying draft of the slightly acidic melt water.

The 10 KPS flechette had practically vaporized the head of the dead man who now lay on rocky ground -- the gravel colored somewhat redder than normal Martian talus by the frozen crystals of blood and brain splattered on it. The vacuum canteen sat in a frozen brown puddle nearby. The dead man's oxygen mask hung below where his face had been. Beta Sigma reached down and tore the mask from the supply tubing. A cloud of oxygen hissed out, enveloping them. Beta sigma breathed deeply, grinned, and stuffed the mask into his pack.


Beta Sigma stood in front of me at the UNASA agency office in Valles Marineris city. He pulled the blood stained face mask out of his pack and tossed it onto my desk.

"Dela Fagan is sorry he cause trouble. He won't cause trouble no more," he said.

"You aren't thinking of going after Jiabao, are you?" I asked.

"Dela Fagan is a bad man. He steals oh-too. He steals E-cells. He cause trouble. Now he cause no trouble," Beta Sigma replied with a grin.


I saw Jiabao a few days later and mentioned the boy and that Fagan was dead, killed by Beta. I hinted that he should watch his back. Jiabao was incredulous. Offended.

"Why should I care what some fucking shitma does? If he wants me, he knows where I am, but I figure he'll kill himself eating too much purplepaste or whatever those savages do. As for that slimeball half-breed Fagan, fuck him too. No loss. I got my batteries back and whoever done it already paid the price, or will pay if I find out something different."

I don't know why I warned Jiabao about the boy. I had much more respect for Delta Sigma than I did for the likes of Ben Jiabao. I guess it was that Jiabao was from Earth, as I was. That put us on the same side, although I wasn't sure what side that was. Maybe it was the side battling against the hardships of survival on an alien planet. We Earth born had to stick together, didn't we? Still, my conscience ached strangely.

Sigmas were on nobody's side because nobody was on their side. They weren't really from Earth any more; they weren't really Martians either. There was no native life on Mars. Sigmas were the descendants of Tibetan laborers that the Chinese had sent to Mars in 2250 to build the Kim Stanley Robinson Dam across the east end of Coprates Chasma. They had been here from the beginning, before the massive terraforming generators had filled the 7 kilometer deep ditch that was Valles Marineris with a lake of life giving air.

Four generations of Sigmas had lived and Died on Mars, working to develop the biggest canyon in the solar system, making it hospitable for human life. Because of their Himalayan heritage, they could work in the low air pressure, carrying loads that would send un-acclimated Earthlings into pulmonary edema. But the wealth and prosperity that had flooded into Valles Marineris soon after it was flooded with breathable air had been denied to the Sigmas. Although there were temperature controlled, pressurized luxury dwellings for the Earth born, the Sigmas lived in unheated nylon tents. For the children of the Earth born, even those children actually born on Mars, there were accredited schools and elaborate indoor playgrounds. Sigma children's only school was the harsh way of Martian survival. Like their ancestors on Earth had learned to survive on the flanks of Cho Oyu, Makalu, and Shisha Pangma, the Sigmas on Mars learned to survive unaided on the cold, desolate walls of the Valles Marineris.

Rich Chinese Earthside corporations controlled virtually all the land in the Canyon. The mineral wealth was vast indeed. Rare earth elements like gallium, indium, and hafnium, long ago depleted beyond profitable quantities in the Terran crust and landfill mines, were present in double digit percentages in some of the surface rock of Valles Marineris. The cost of shipping a kilo of anything back to Earth was dear, of course, but the incredibly inflated prices of these elements, driven ever upward by an endless demand for higher and higher resolution entertainment displays, made the Mars-to-Earth shipping cost for these priceless metals insignificant to the fourth decimal place.

The mining corporations prospered and their representatives were above the law. Technically, from treaties that dated back to the 20th century, Mars belonged to all the people of earth. The United Nations Aeronautic and Space Administration (UNASA) was the official law here, and I was the executive agent in charge of enforcing that law. But the riches flowing Earthside filled many pockets and there were more than a few corrupt UNASA bureaucrats. Unofficially, it was OK for UNASA to keep the Sigmas in line, but we generally couldn't touch a mining boss. A mining boss could practically get away with murder so long as he kept his cargo rockets full and heading toward earth in an endless parade.

Jiabao worked for one of the biggest mining corporations. He was responsible for one of the largest mining operations on Mars and he managed his turf with a cold blooded determination. He saw the Sigmas as sub-human. To him they were little more than pack animals. Martian Yaks with two legs that he could use and dispose of as necessary. Yet it wasn't just Jiabao's personal bigotry. This way of thinking about the Sigmas was common among most all of us Earth born on Mars. It was a habit of thought that was tough for us to break. I think this is why I warned Jiabao about Beta Sigma -- like I'd warn any man about a rabid dog.


It had begun five Terran years earlier.

The week thus far was relatively quiet at the UNASA agency. We had issued a few sandstorm warnings as the season for them ramped up. And there were reports of wild T-form 'bots raiding crawlers over in Tithonium Chasmata.

Mars could kill you so many different ways, it was ridiculous. The low air pressure was slowly killing you all the time, but that was just for starters. Then there was the cold -- temperatures colder than Antarctica in winter. And what little air there was could blow at 500 KPS when there was a sandstorm passing through. If that didn't kill you with wind chill, it could blow you off balance and knock you off a 3 kilometer high cliff.

But the T-form 'bots were the final ironic insult.

TFBs were a kind of mobile air-factory combined with self-replicating autonomous mining robot and had been released as an terraforming experiment in 2260, ten years after the KSR dam was built, and three years before large scale oxygen fusion bombs were invented. At first the TFBs did some mining and made some air, like they were intended to do, but something in their AI eventually went haywire. Somehow they "realized" that drilling in the Martian crust for veins of zinc and permanganate ore to process was a less efficient way of getting oxygen into the Valles Marineris than to simply bore a hole in a nearby city's pressure dome or oxygen storage tank and vent the gas directly into the atmosphere.

There had been a few dicey t-months when the plague of these nasty 'bots threatened to wipe out the whole Martian colony. They were small, fast, and smart. You couldn't trap them effectively. You had to shoot them. Fortunately a shipment of rail rifles arrived from Earth and the t-form 'bots were hunted down till only a small, manageable population remained, mostly outside the Valles Marineris itself. Still, a few packs of TFBs remained in the canyon, and the mining bosses especially took great pleasure in arranging safaris to hunt them down.

As I was reading one of the TFB reports, one of my older scouts, Al Sigma stepped into the office. He waited silently till I looked up from my paperwork. Sigmas have their own language, which is quite flowery and verbose. They speak English too, of course, but are much more austere when communicating in that tongue. Several seconds after I looked up, Al spoke.

"Fagan is missing," he said. "Some say he go north with a stolen crawler."

...to be continued

Posted Jul 30, 2008 at 02:24 UTC, 1795 words,  [/danPermalink

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