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Sat, 30 Aug 2008

Beta Sigma (chapter 2)

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

"Hmmm... A little too much Marshine?" I asked.

"No."

Al's reticence could be downright infuriating at times, but his silence sometimes spoke volumes. In this case it was clear that Dela Fagan had been involved in something more significant than a ethanol binge and a joyride on somebody else's crawler. I waited. If there was more, it would come.

There wasn't. Al turned and walked out, careful to seal the pressure curtain behind him. He knew more, of course. He probably knew the whole story, actually: Al probably knew exactly what crawler had been taken, exactly where Fagan was with it, and what he was doing. But the gulf between the earth-born and the sigmas was wide. Sometimes it was even a wider gulf when it came to half-breeds like Al. They were careful to maintain face in both worlds – to betray each side, yet not betray.

I wasn't too concerned about the news. Fagan was a known grifter, one of my "regular customers" who hadn't ever caused serious harm. If Al hadn't gone into more detail, it was because he either didn't know or judged the details irrelevant to his understanding of the goals of the earth-born. Probably we'd get a report of some water core holes drilled in the natural zone, or a container of dex lifted from dock at the hospital. More than likely Fagan would turn up drunk, sitting on the goods and I'd lock him up once again.

But it didn't work out like that.

Aided by three cups of Marineris Mocha, the only remaining coffee flavor in our depleted supply, I had finished scanning the TFBs and had moved on to reviewing the new terraforming measurement data. In less than a hundred years, one report predicted, most of the lower chasm would reach air pressures equivalent to Denver, Colorado. I wonder when they'll build the first football stadium and start holding political conventions for president of the United Planets.

Al returned about two hours later. This time Al was much more agitated. He didn't wait for me to look up. He spoke immediately with a terse urgency.

"Come now. Trouble. Jiabao. Beta," he said.

This couldn't be good. The last time Al called me out with such uncharacteristic promptness, a cubic kilometer of rock had broken off Ray's Face Rock on Melas Chasma rim and was racing down the slope, not five minutes away from town.

Without a word, I stood immediately. Behind my chair lay my nanodown suit and hydox pack. I slipped into them with the same practiced efficiency a Terran would put on his favorite sweatshirt for a stroll outside on a fall day. I took an extra moment to unlock a pulse rifle from the wall rack and sling the weapon over my shoulder. In less than a minute found myself in the skimmer with Al at its stick rocketing us at 200 KPH toward Beta's camp. Neither of us had said anything beyond the five words Al had used to summoned me.

Beta's homestead was about twenty kilometers north east of my office. It was also about 2 kilometers higher in elevation. It wasn't quite the "death zone" of the upper rim, but earth-born had considerable trouble with the air – or lack thereof – at that level. Sigmas, on the other hand, seemed to thrive up there. They were born at this level and lived most of their lives at this level, or even higher.

Not much more than a ledge, maybe 50 meters deep and 200 meters across, moderately sloped down toward the abyss, gravel and talus covered, and with a pronounced undercut, Beta's camp wasn't anything an earth-born would be comfortable merely standing on, let alone calling home. As we approached, the first thing I noticed were two, bright yellow tents – presumably one for Beta and his wife, and one for the children, I figured. The tents were pitched toward the western end of the ledge, next to a blue desiccator privy, and a medium sized 'bot deployment container. Sigmas commonly used the intact containers as a living space, and scrounged parts from the busted-up containers as a source of raw materials. There were thousands of these containers littered everywhere, discarded by the initial wave of T'bots. Now, how Sigma had managed to get the bulky thing up on this thin edge of loose rock and keep it here, preventing it from sliding down off the ledge in a windstorm, was deep mystery.

As we approached, I could see that another skimmer was already parked on the ledge. Two large figures in red insulated suits stood nearby. They were looking down at something below the edge that was dangling at the end of a rope. Toward the tents I could see a Sigma woman huddled with two small children, babies really, wrapped in a thermal blanket. Near where the rope went over the edge of rock was another, older Sigma; he was a boy that appeared to be about 10 years old.

Al dipped the skimmer in low, revealing to our horror what the men were standing above. Hanging over the 1500 meter deep abyss at the end of a whisker thin, white polyester rope was a man. After a moment, I recognized him as Beta Sigma, but my recognition was impeded by the state he was in. Wearing only his safety harness, which was clipped to the end of the line, he was naked. His hands were tied behind his back with some utility cord. He writhed slowly as he twisted in the harsh wind and looked to still be very much alive. But he couldn't be in good shape. Even Sigma skin would quickly freeze if left exposed to the wind at this temperature.

As we hovered for a moment, the two men looked up at us. They had their O2 masks pulled down and we could see their ugly grins. I recognized one of the men as Jiabao. I wasn't sure about the other man.

We quickly made our final approach with the skimmer. Al was a good skimmer pilot, but the swirling air currents near the cliff made close in navigation a bit too "interesting". In his first attempt to land on the remaining space on the ledge, Al dropped the skimmer precariously close to the edge of the outcropping and it teetered dizzyingly at a fourty-five degree angle till he pulled the craft up and slid in a little closer to the other craft. Still, the slope outside my hatch was steeper that I would have liked. When I took my first tentative steps outside, my throat gagged. The view down the drop-off was stunning as it was nauseating. How could Sigmas live in places like this?

Controlling my rebellious stomach, I made my way carefully over the loose talus toward the two men. Al followed a few steps behind.

I could see the taut white rope leading over the edge, and the boy nearby, but I couldn't see Beta hanging from its end without moving too near the edge for comfort. The other end of the rope was wound into a small portable winch anchored by a sling around a large boulder.

I pulled down my O2 mask and shouted, "What's going on?"

The wind was relatively moderate, maybe about 40 KPH, but it still necessitated shouting to be heard. Jiabao looked up at me and his grin widened.

"Hi Billy. We found ourselves a thief and thought we'd teach him a little lesson," he shouted.

"A thief? This Beta? This Beta's no thief. I know him. He works at the permanganate mine, 3C. Never been in trouble. Why do you say he's a thief?" I asked.

"I expect he's a thief all right," Jiabao said, then he covered his mouth with his mask for a few seconds, breathing in deeply before he continued. "Yesterday a whole skid of O2 bottles went missing. Look over their by his shed. I expect you'll find a bottle with a lot number that matches my missing ones."

Following Jiabao's gesture, I see a green cylinder next to some equipment in front of the shed.

"Just one cylinder?" I asked, skeptical.

"I'm missing 500. I don't know where he hid the rest, but I expect to learn that little fact from him soon enough. Bastard shitmas have more hiding places in these canyon than T'bot pack rats, but I expect he'll be telling me. I've been asking him the question pretty hard."

Jiabao then turned to the other man. "Vince, pull him up. Let's ask him again. See if he's become more cooperative."

Vince stepped over to the winch and pressed a button. The rope wound up into the device and before long I could see the body of Beta Sigma appear at the edge of the precipice. Because Beta's hands were tied, there was little he could do to ease himself up safely over the edge. The boy tried to help his father, but the son was too small and his father was too heavy. The boy couldn't do much other than guiding his father over some of the less jagged areas.

Beta writhed in agony, gasping in pain as the force of the rope wedging against gravity cruelly dragged his naked body over the lip of sharp igneous rock, tearing open bloody wounds on his shoulders and chest. I could see frozen blood all along the edge and the boy's blue gloves were stained black with his father's blood. They had been at this for a while.

When Beta was about halfway up over the edge, Vince stopped the winch. Jiabao turned toward Beta.

"Where's my O2 you little shitma?" he yelled.

With some effort, Beta looked up. His face held an expression of hopelessness and pain. It showed little damage from the rocks, but I could see the black of frostbite starting to show on his cheeks. First he looked toward Jiabao, but then Beta noticed Al and I. A glimmer of hope appeared in Beta's eyes and his voice was surprisingly strong when he shouted back.

"I buy O2 bottle from man. No steal," he pleaded.

I looked over at Jiabao, who just shrugged. Turning back to Beta I yelled, "What man?"

"Buy from man. Big man. Smell like Marshine. Have crawler. Fifty bucks for O2. Many bottles in crawler," Beta replied.

I glanced up again at Jiabao. He had his mask back on and seemed to be admiring the stunning vista off toward the city with no apparent interest in the conversation I was having with Beta.

Addressing Beta's son, I asked, "Did you see the crawler? What kind was it?"

The boy looked at me. I could see a rime of frozen tears around his eyes. "Yellow Crawler," he said.

Most of the crawlers in the chasm were Komatsu and they were green. I turned back to Al. "What kind of crawler did Fagan grab?"

"Broyt D800 taken from West 4 mine," Al answered. Broyt crawlers were always yellow.

"What's your name, son?" I asked.

"Beta," he replied after a moment.

Sigmas have a tradition where they name their children with Greek letter names based on the phase the Martian moons are in when the child is born. Somehow they are able to distinguish each other adequately with only 8 different names. "Why did your father need the O2? You Sigmas never use supplemental oxygen. Why did he need it?"

"Run torch. Fix shed. Fix mine tools," the boy Beta said.

I looked back toward Jiabao and saw him staring back at me with impatience and growing anger. He tore down his mask and his voice had a threatening edge.

"One lies, the others swear to it. Shitmas are all liars. You gotta' expect that from them, Billy," he growled.

Jiabao then glanced at Vince who reversed the winch, lowering Beta back down. Beta's son tried to hold his father up on the ledge, but Vince picked up a few fist sized stones and pelted the kid with them. Unable to defend himself from the rocks, hold his Dad, and keep himself from plummeting into the chasm all at the same time, young Beta was forced to scramble up the slope in retreat away from his father, who without the young Beta holding him, soon slid sickeningly off the edge leaving a fresh set of blood stained rocks. The rope pulled taut with a thud as Beta's weight hit it. We could faintly hear a cry of anguish coming up from the void.

"Listen Jiabao, we had a report of a stolen Broyt crawler at West 4. Dela Fagan is supposedly the one who nabbed it and was last seen heading up this way. Your 3C mine is between here and West 4. I'm thinking it was Fagan stole your O2, not this Sigma," I shouted. I had connected some of the dots in the story I had heard so far.

Jiabao was really starting to lose patience now.

"No, you listen, Billy boy, I'm getting tired of all this sigma-loving bullshit. Who cares which color the crawler was. I expect they're all thieves and they need to learn there's a price to pay when they fuck with the earth-born." Jiabao lowered his voice a little, as if he was confiding a secret. "They're not like us Billy. This is the only way to deal with them. If you have no stomach for it, I suggest you get right back in your skimmer there, go back to town, sit at your desk, and read T'bot reports. Find out where the heards are. Hunting season will soon be open."

Jiabao then looked menacingly at Al. "O'course, I expect you might want to stay here so your own lying half-breed shitma can learn a lesson too. Watch your back, Billy boy. You can train 'em to do some work, but they'll turn on you sure as anything."

Al looked down at the dark, volcanic talus at his feet and said nothing.

"Go, don't go, I don't care," Jiabao shouted to me with finality. "But if you know what's good for you, stay out of our way as we deal with this lying sack of shit." Then to his crony, "Pull the shitma up again, Vince."

I turned away from the angry Jiabao and stepped oven to the boy as close as I dared. The kid was standing on a crumbly gravel slope in a stiff, icy cold wind, less than a half meter from the edge of a 1500 meter drop off, but no vertigo appeared touch him. Not that he wasn't shaking. His personal horror was watching the rope drag erratically up and I could see him shake perceptably at every jerk of that rope.

Soon he saw the blood stains on the white polyester indicating that his battered and frostbitten father would soon need to be eased up over the edge as best as he could manage. The young Beta moved even more impossibly close to the edge and there was another struggle as the boy risked his own life on the tenuous footing in an effort to minimize his father's injury. Again, Vince stopped the winch as with the man's lower body still down over the edge.

"Last chance, shitma. Where's my O2 hid," Jiabao shouted with true menace.

"I buy O2 bottle from man. No steal. Man go up trail," he gasped.

Beta's eyes didn't focus on anyone this time. The black frostbite had spread to his brow. His ears were probably lost. The hands tied behind his back looked gray, probably frozen solid by now.

"You lying bastard," Jiabao said, adding some additional profanity that I couldn't quite hear. "Drop him again, Vince."

The wind was picking up. Despite my nanodown, boot and glove heaters, I was starting to feel a chill. I could only imagine what it was like to be up here hanging on a rope and dragged naked across volcanic rock.

Again the winch was reversed, again the boy struggled to keep his father up, and again the child was pelted with rocks till he let his father slide off the edge.

"Pull the Sigma back up," I yelled. "Let me take him back to town. I'll lock him in jail. Give him a proper trial. If he stole your O2, he'll pay the price. But it looks to me like your killing an innocent man."

"Fuck that. This saves everyone time," Jiabao replied.

"You know you are making a mistake, Jiabao," I said, taking a step toward the winch as I thought about reaching over my shoulder for my pulse rifle. "I'm in charge of Sigma law enforcement and I'm bringing Beta in with me."

I could see Jiabao's evil grin behind his O2 mask as I approached the winch. Casually, his eyes glanced over toward his skimmer. I followed his gaze and saw three more of his men. They were behind a wall of boulders that had hidden their presence from us when we landed. Two of them had their pulse rifles trained on me and Al. The third was covering the Sigma woman and her younger children.

"You're the one who's about to make a mistake, Billy Boy," Jiabao shouted without bothering to remove his mask. "Just stand there and watch the show." Jiabao pointed a gloved finger at the Sigma woman. I heard the stutter of flechettes as she and her babies fell dead on to the scree in a pink cloud.

Young Beta gasped and started up the slope toward his mother's corpse with fresh tears freezing on his cheeks, but stopped short as he saw the blade of a knife flash in Jiabao's hand. With smooth, irrevocable ease, Jiabao reached down and cut the rope. There was a brief "k-swish" as the rope end vanished over the cliff edge. Then, for what seemed like an eternity, there was no sound other than the wind. Then I heard a long, low howl, like a wounded animal, burst from the young Beta. His very soul had been torn from his chest and cast into the void with his parents, but the boy's face didn't show the crushing pain of loss he must have been feeling. His face was as opaque as a ravine wall in Ophir Chasma. Cold, obsidian eyes rimmed by frozen crystals of ice tears.

A vague, steep rocky trail led down the chasm wall off the west end of Beta's homestead ledge. This was probably Beta's route down to the mine he worked, and probably the way Fagan's crawler had come up. Another trail, far more indistinct, led up the sheer rock face to the East. Suddenly the young boy Beta lit off in a rapid scramble up that eastward trail traversing up the chasm wall. No earth-born could climb at that rate. Especially not at this altitude, on that tenuous a trail, and with no ropes for protection. Jiabao's men glanced over to their boss implicitly asking if they should shoot the boy. Jiabao gave no indication one way or the other. Instead, he just pulled down his O2 mask and bellowed in hysterical laughter. Soon the young Beta disappeared out of sight as he reached the summit of the chasm wall more than a kilometer above us.

Posted Aug 30, 2008 at 17:51 UTC, 3253 words,  [/danPermalink

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