Error: I'm afraid this is the first I've heard of a "comments" flavoured Blosxom. Try dropping the "/+comments" bit from the end of the URL.

Tue, 30 Sep 2008

Beta Sigma (part 3)

It was 8 Terran years since Beta Sigma tossed Dela Fagan's blood stained O2 mask onto my desk. In that time, the UNASA agency office in Valles Marineris city had changed very little. I still read TFB reports till my brain ached. And terraforming data was the same in the first three decimal places. Only the coffee in the office was different, as some enterprising souls in Hellas Planitia had managed to get Bolivian plants to grow in the hyper-alpine Martian environment.

The supply shuttle brought me 10 lb sacks of fresh green beans most every month. I passed the beans through a rotary kiln designed for calcinating ore, and this would just as often yield a thin gray ash as it would yield near-incinerated coffee bean clinkers almost suitable for grinding and steeping. My occasional success in modulating the heat generated a potable brew that contained ample caffeine. A taste for its unusual flavor was something worth acquiring, I thought. It was a true agricultural product of Mars and I was proud to drink it.

Al Sigma still worked for me, along with several other sigma scouts. So did Beta Sigma – in a sense. The boy that had stood before me 8 years ago no longer existed. It's a question even if he had existed that day. When his family had been killed, although the body of the boy had been spared, his child soul had died along with his parents and siblings. The spirit that animated his vacuum hardened frame today was something else. Not really a man's spirit, maybe not human at all.

He had changed his name. Now he was called Mundi. This was his Highlander name.

Shortly after shooting Fagan, and before too many inconvenient questions could be asked, Beta Sigma had disappeared. I learned later that he had left Valles Marineris on foot. That's quite a trick for a human. Somehow he scaled the 5 kilometer cliff that is the northeast rim of Candor Chasma, carried himself over the airless plains of Ophir Planum, and down another 5 km cliff into Juventae Chasma. No earth-born could make such a trip without a crawler, a team of support sigmas, and a metric ton of supplies. Beta Sigma did it on foot, with only the limited gear and food that would fit in his pack and sled. He used no supplemental oxygen, walking under his own power with a 30 kg pack, dragging his 50 kg gear sled nearly 100 km, climbing and descending with no fixed protection. He made the journey in a total of 20 t-days: crossing the two, brutal cliffs in two days each, trekking ten days over the Planum in a barely terraformed atmosphere of about 200 millibars – less air than on Everest – then across the sea of sand at the bottom of Juventae in a final six days.

He made this journey to join an independent colony of sigmas living on the flanks a 2.5 km high sulphate mountain inside Juventae. The colonists there call themselves Highlanders and live in a self sufficient society, eking out their survival unaided in the harshest conditions ever to support human life. Through some mysterious process known only to the Highlanders, they cured their skin with milk of lime and zinc sulphate, converting putrescible skin into vacuum and frostbite resistant leather.

Although Juventae is the natural area, and by UNASA regulations, no settlements are allowed there, it's never been a high priority to root out the Highlander settlement. Liberal Terran politicians were split, some considering the tribe indigenous to the region and worthy of protection on that basis. Others would argue that Juventae was a valuable natural monument that shouldn't be touched by anybody, earthborn or sigma. Conservative opinion was ambivalent rather than divided. If some pickled sigmas want to live on a brimstone cliff, let them, was the way most right wing earthborn officials thought.

If truth be told, regardless of what the bleeding heart, rock-hugger politicians back on Earth might decide about whether a barren wasteland or indigenous tribe on Mars needed to be protected from defilement by human civilization, it wouldn't be a simple matter to shoo away the Highlanders. These were a people completely at ease on the rugged yellow massif that was their adopted home of ten generations.

The Highlanders were stubborn as they were ruthless when it came to protecting their hard won independence and way of life. In the early years, some of the Terran mining companies regarded the Juventae sulphate deposits with envious eyes. They drew plans to drive off the Highlanders, and even sent some military expeditions over to the Chasm. None ever returned. It was like they vanished into the ultra-thin air. There was no visible wreckage, no signs of battle. Nothing.

In time, the companies gave up. There was some whining about UNASA's weakness in finding a final solution for the Highlanders, but I suspect it wouldn't have been possible to root out the independent sigmas by any action short of a nuclear strike – so tenacious was their hold on that spot – and detonating a nuke in the natural area obviously would be counterproductive to the preservation of its "fragile" natural environment.

Consequently, it had been decades since any earth-born mining scouts had been brave enough to venture anywhere near Juventae. The mountain home of the Highlanders, which they called Giewont, was their symbolic protector. In the Highlander tongue, Giewont has two meanings. The literal meaning is "Sleeping Night", but the more colloquial meaning is "Mountain Father". The massif has been revered by the Highlanders since they adopted its foothills as home two t-centuries earlier. It's distinctive outline has been compared to that of a sigma miner, with his humped back piled with pack, ropes, and rock ax. More practically, Giewont's labyrinthine ravines filled with red and yellow sands was both their shelter and sustenance. Its plentiful and easily gathered mineral deposits were valuable enough to provide a source for necessary trade-goods.

Transformed in body and spirit, Mundi had finally returned to Valles Marineris as a trader. He arrived on foot, pulling a load of celestite gravel in a crude cart. He traded the valuable ore for a used pulse rifle. The earth born often claimed that sigmas were poor shots and couldn't be trusted with quality, beam weapons. But I remembered the scene at Fagan's corpse. The nearest cover had been over 100 meters above, maybe 300 meters laterally. Not a trivial shot, what with the random swirling winds that always blew up these cliffs. Winds like that would wreck havoc with the trajectory of a flechette. Yet, from what the computerized ballistics analysis I had secretly run had said, only one shot had been fired, and it was perfectly aimed.

Barred from the big stuff, UNASA did allow sigmas to own pulse flechette weapons, if they obtained the necessary license. Shortly before picking up the weapon, Mundi stopped by my office for the form. So changed was his appearance that I didn't recognize him at first. Along with the Highlander skin treatments, the years of battling for survival in thin Martian air, a constant exposure to bitter cold, and an ascetic subsistence exclusively on meager nutrients carried on his back or wrestled out of the dessicated sands of Mars had transformed his body into something practically non-human. The thickly wrinkled skin around his small Mars-red eyes was tanned leathery black. His barrel chest was twice the size of the biggest earth-born chest, but he was hardly taller today than he was as a boy. When I glanced at the application I realized with a shudder who he once was. I looked up at the beast in front of me, back at the paper, and up at him again.

"Beta Sigma," I said, under my breath as the realization hit me. He looked into my widening eyes.

"Mundi my name now," he replied. "Do you have work? I scout for game. Ore. Aqua. I know all Valles Marineris. Many good spots."

"Well, umm, Mundi is it?" The shock of seeing him again, so transformed, had me temporarily tongue tied. "You've been away a long time."

"Away before. Now need work; need gear. Work here?" he asked with characteristic sigma simplicity and directness in response to my equally characteristic, for the earth-born, statement of the obvious.

"Umm... I can't say what work I have, actually," I finally managed, as I automatically put my stamp on the form. "UNASA budget's been frozen by some sort of banking crisis back on Earth. Most of the mining corps are playing wait 'n see before committing to new work. There was supposed to be a really big breaker under construction near Ophir Labes, but that's on hold now for at least a t-year."

Mundi was silent. He was waiting for me to say yes or no.

"I guess the answer is no. There's little mining work anywhere. Maybe deputy work will pick up. I usually does when the kiddies are idle for too long. Idle hands are bound to get into mischief. But for now, things have been pretty quiet."

Without saying anything else, Mundi picked up his stamped pulser permit, turned gracefully, and left. I stared at my office door for a long time afterward.

A few uneventful days went by. My coffee bean supply was dwindling and when I emailed an inquiry over to the farm in Hellas, they told me that the supply shuttle had been downsized as a result of the financial crisis. They wouldn't be able to ship coffee for another two t-months. They couldn't ship any MML (Martian Malt Liquor) either, which they had also just figured out how to make, or any other variety of marshine. Only bare essentials on the shuttle: synth rice, beans, dry milk, and of course, spare parts for the O2 and hydro converters.

No coffee. That was bad news. But at least the lack of MML would keep things relatively quiet with the boys. I was pondering this mixed news when Jiabao walked into my office. Normally I saw him once or twice a t-week on various mining business, filing a claim or other form. Recently, with most things shut down, he stopped coming by. That was just fine by me. Something about him, or the memories he stirred, made me shudder each time I saw him.

"Hey there, Billy," he said in a suspiciously friendly tone.

"Hey Ben," I replied. "Any word on the breaker?"

"Course not," he spat. "Chickenshit Terran bank bastards lost a few poker hand and now they're checking with a hand full of aces. Both labia are chock full of high grade ores. Billions to be made there, Billy. Billions."

"Sorry to hear that. Everybody's been getting fidgety. Marineris City is hardly a busy place even in the best of times. But the last few t-months it's become really dead."

"I know, Billy. That's why me and a couple of the boys are setting up a hunting trip. A little R-and-R till things get moving again. We heard about a mutant strain of TFBs sighted up near Ganges Catena. Supposed to be shitting gallium. I expect you heard something about it in your reports. Did ya?"

"No, Jiabao, I haven't," I said. "Not sure that's even possible for a TFB to process gallium."

"Gallium Arsenide PV arrays, Billy, from the old landers. That's how it's possible. The TFBs stumbled on a few of them old solar cells, got a taste, and now can't get enough. Talk is there's some meteor in Ganges that's high in gallium and the TFBs have been gnawing at it. That shit's literally worth a fortune." Jiabao broke out in an ugly laugh at his joke.

"Ganges is in the natural zone. You know that."

"What's that have to do with it? TFBs ain't natural. And hunting them is legal. Heck, it's our civic duty to protect the environment," Jiabao said, breaking out into a laugh again.

"Well, I mean it's Highlander country."

"No it ain't. It's five hundred kliks from Juventae Chasma and those rotten smelling shitmas from that yellow egg hill. Besides, the boys and I can handle ourselves," he said, motioning with his head over to the gamma ray laser slung over his shoulder. "But we could use a guide. Tricky terrain in them pit craters. Know a shitma who knows the area? Somebody who'll work cheap and keep his mouth shut."

I stared at Jiabao. I stared a little too long. My stomach had knotted.

"Well," he repeated, "do you?"

"I, umm...," I couldn't get my mouth to work.

A man lives most of his life with nothing to show for the passage of his time other than pages torn off a calendar and tossed in the trash. Especially in a place like Marineris City, nothing of consequence ever seems to happen. We are born on Earth. We arrive on Mars. We grow old. We leave. We die on Earth. That's it. Everything in between is an indistinct blur as featureless as the Arcadia Plantina. But then, maybe once in a lifetime, a moment hits a man unexpectedly, and a man's suddenly faced with making a real choice – a choice that defines the man. I imagine no one is ever prepared for this experience.

I took a deep breath. Part of me had decided to say nothing. I'd tell Jiabao I didn't know any guides and that would be that. Stay out of it. Maybe Jiabao would find Mundi on his own. Nobody could blame me then. Jiabao was no true friend of mine, and I owed him nothing. It's just that he was earth-born, like me. That made us brothers, in a sense.

Another part of me, something that acknowledged my Terran heritage, kept picking at that decision. I couldn't be quiet. The threat had increased. I needed to warn Jiabao about what the Highlander transformation may have cured and concentrated inside the sigma. But I had warned him eight years ago when Beta Sigma brought me that bloody mask. Jiabao dismissed the warning then. He would dismiss it now, just the same.

But there was a different feeling, deep inside my conscience. It was a feeling that Jiabao had to take Mundi as his guide. It would be wrong for me to stand in the way of that. I didn't know why. It just would be. Martian justice had a strange symmetry that I couldn't alter, except at my own peril. I had to step aside and let events unfold as they needed to.

In the end, I really had no choice. My innermost heart won the day and my mouth began to work again.

"...yeah, I think I know somebody," I said in a calm, even tone.

"A shitma?" he asked.

"Yeah. A Highlander, actually," I said. "Not sure if you can trust him, but he may know the area."

There it was. I warned him. My hands were clean.

"Damn, Billy, I knew I could count on you. Trust him? Hell, I don't trust anything on this stinkin' planet. A man don't get very far in life trusting, especially shitmas. Where is this son of a whore?"

I cringed a little at Jiabao's words, but I don't think he noticed.

"Not sure," I continued, getting a grip on myself. Jiabao seemed oblivious to my discomfort. "He was here a few days ago. No idea where he is now. Sigmas have their places; I don't know where they go, especially Highlanders. May not still be in town. I'll send Al to find him," I said.

It was getting easier.

"All right, there, Billy. I expect I'll be over by 3c till Thursday. Then I'll be back here with a variance for the slag pile on Ceti Mensa. If you can find your shitma, have him here. I'll take him with me and we'll head out on our trip this weekend."

"OK, Ben," I said. "I'll see what I can do."

And that was that. I saw Al later that day. I told him to find Mundi and have him here on Thursday. Jiabao wanted to hire him for a hunting trip. Al looked at me intently for a while, then turned and left without a word. He had made his choice as well.

Thursday morning, Mundi was waiting outside my office when I got in. I nodded without really managing to look at him. Highlanders were so alien. You could imagine them driving tripods around Terra, blasting screaming crowds with heat rays. And the really scary part: Highlanders didn't catch colds.

Jiabao showed up an hour after lunch. Mundi hadn't moved a muscle all morning. I introduced them.

"Ben, this one's called Mundi. He says he knows all the Valles Marineris."

Jiabao turned toward the Highlander, wincing ever so slightly when he met those alien red eyes. "Shitma, do you know the Ganges Catena?"

"Yes," said Mundi.

"I hear there's a big meteor fragment there and a herd of TFBs sucking gallium out of it. Ever seen 'em?"

"Yes. I've seen them. Many TFBs there when no earthborn skimmers there."

"I'm looking to hunt some of them. Can you get me to them?" asked Jiabao.

"No if you take skimmer or crawler. TFB radar see crawler to rim of Ophir Chasma."

"What do you expect us to do, shitma, walk across the Juventae Dorsa?"

"TFB smart. Hunt stealthy. No crawler. Maybe X9 Segways, part way. Walk last 50 kliks."

"Hmmm..., Segways," Jiabao said, thinking it over. Then he nodded. "OK, shitma. We have some of the bigger trail Segways over by N22 near the north rim of Ophir. I expect we can do that. I'll get our supplies together, and arrange for the Segways to be charged up and ready to go. We leave in two days. Meet me here Saturday."

Mundi nodded and left. When he was gone, Jiabao turned to me and said, "Something about that shitma looks familiar. They all look alike, of course, especially those ugly gorilla stinkmas from Juventae. I can't quite put my finger on it, but he reminds me of something. I expect it'll come to me eventually."

I swallowed hard. I was torn, yet I had warned Jiabao – not specifically who Mundi was, but that the beast wasn't to be trusted. Then again, Jiabao had a point about not trusting anyone. Jiabao worked around sigmas all the time. Men like him stay alive by watching their backs. I'm sure Mundi wasn't the only sigma that had a score to settle with the mining boss.