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Fri, 31 Oct 2008

Beta Sigma (Chapter 4)

I learned the details of Jiabao's ill fated hunting trip during the investigation we held prior to Mundi's trial. The only human witness to the events that transpired, if you could call him human, was Mundi himself, but it was hard to doubt his factual account of events, an account that was detailed and consistent. Virtually all the facts of his story were confirmed by the data loggers in the skimmer, gear truck, Segways, and other smart-gear later recovered from the scene.

Jiabao, Mundi, and two of Jiabao's long time cronies that he deemed worthy of the honor of accompanying him on a hunting trip, met in front of the UNASA agency early Saturday "morning". Valles Marineris was on the far side of Mars, not facing the sun, but for some reason we earth-born still reckon time based on the sun angle that theoretically would exist in at the royal observatory in Greenwich, England back on terra – theoretically because the inconvenience of accepting an endless and accelerating accumulation of leap seconds in the 2050's finally forced UIST to disconnect the rigid relationship between actual sun angle and universal time anywhere on any planet in the solar system.

Nearby, Jiabao had parked a large, cargo transport skimmer loaded with their gear. One of Jiabao's men, the heavy set gang boss Vince, was sitting at the controls in the cab. The other, Jiabao's first pick for any dirty job, the drill foreman, Fred, was loading supplies in the back.

Jiabao, clad in a new hunting smart-suit of 1E12 nanodown that bristled with gear, eyed Mundi curiously. All the Highlander had in the way of hunting kit was a nylon climbing pack, pulse rifle, and clothes that were little more than a crude PTFE shell over a polyester base layer. A small ice liquefier thermos was fastened at his hip.

"That all you bringing?" asked Jiabao.

"Enough for me," replied Mundi.

The ride from Marineris City to the base of the north rim of Ophir took about an hour.

The northern section of Ophir is similar to many of the chasm walls, a spur and gully formation, this one shaped like a lower case "m" that had been seen by telescopes from Earth since the 20th century. Smooth wall rock sits at roughly a 30 degree slope, with gullied mounds of rubble from ancient landslides moderating the slope to just under 15 degrees in spots.

Skimmers aren't particularly well suited for climbing scree covered slopes like that, but Jiabao had no patience for the plodding of a rock crawler. Pushing the skimmer drive into red-line and traversing up in long zig-zags, it took another six hours for the machine to ratchet up the rocky mess, finally reaching the smooth basalt wall that forms the uppermost rim of the chasm. Beginning almost 9000 meters higher in elevation than the Marineris City, this cliff is very steep and exposed, rising another kilometer to the airless Juventae Dorsa. It was at the cliff base that they looked for a place to park the skimmer.

"Can't go much further, boss. The flash converter is hotter than hell," said the driver. "I can reverse it for a while, but I've never seen the temperature gage so high.

"It wouldn't be so hot if you'd taken the trail up the West Marlboro like I told you too," he said, "but yeah, sure, shut her down. I want a working skimmer here when we get back," snarled Jiabao.

They found a relatively flat section to set down. When I visited the site during the investigation, I noticed signs that the location had been used as a sigma campsite one time in the past. Although the site was much higher on the chasm wall, it reminded me of Beta Sigma's old home. I wondered if Mundi thought of his lost family when he helped the men unload the skimmers cargo first on to the bare rock, and then into the ascender truck they unloaded afterward.

The view from this spot was incredible. To the south, and several t-miles below, lay the vast Ophir Chasmata valley, six times deeper than the Grand Canyon of Earth. In the distance they could see the deep cut in the plateau leading to Candor and Melas and the faint blue lights of Marineris City. To the east sunrise was beginning to glow above the canyon rim.

All in all it was a glorious day. The temperature was a chilly fourty below, Celsius. A brisk 50 kph wind knifed in from the west. The barometric pressure was a quarter earth sea level, at 250 millibars. Despite their supplemental oxygen masks and nanodown, the earth born men gasped for air. They shivered and stamped their feet, still cold even after unloading the skimmer. Mundi, breathing normally, bare faced, calm, watched the sunrise as he sipped casually from his steaming thermos.

"You there, shitma, I ain't paying you to stand there and admire the view. Get up that damn wall and fix us some cable anchors for the truck," Jiabao shouted. "And be quiet about it. It won't do for the TFBs to hear us after we've gone to the trouble of climbing at this god forsaken place."

Service roads and even some major trails up the chasm rim had cog railways, induction guides, or other permanent means to get land vehicles up the escarpment. But if they used any of those routes they would find the Juventae Dorsa devoid of game as the TFB herds "knew" these spots and undoubtedly had sensors deployed near each of them. Jiabao wanted easy hunting and Mundi had suggested they climb a fresh spot so as to avoid detection by the cagey robots. Jiabao didn't like bushwhacking, but he hated more the thought of sitting around in a blind for weeks waiting for the herds to return.

The Highlander dropped is climbing pack and replaced it with a coil of rope and a satchel of anchor studs, massing over 40 kilos. He slung a stud driver gun over his other shoulder and began to free climb. Mundi scampered effortlessly up the layered wall material, following a landslide scar that would serve as a smooth path for the cargo truck to ascend. In not 5 minutes he had gained 50 meters on the wall, using tenuous footholds that were invisible to the men below.

"That shitma looks like a goddamn spider climbing up there," commented Jiabao, who may have never seen a real spider in his life. He had shipped to Mars straight from the antiseptic mining company school he attended till the age of 12, and for some reason arachnids were unable to adapt to the Martian environment.

"Ain't human, boss," added Vince, "some kind of bug you called him?"

When he had reached an appropriate spot, Mundi stopped. Balanced on a ledge hardly wider than his small feet, he reached back for an anchor and loaded it into the driver. Jamming one fist into a crack, with his other hand he fired the driver, shooting the anchor into the wall. The safety tether at the muzzle of the driver pulled taut with the recoil. If the line had snapped, or if the anchor had not been firmly into the rock, despite his fist jam the Highlander may very well have been propelled far off the rock face. He might have fallen for almost a minute before crashing to his death on the sloping rubble far below.

Instead, the anchor was solid, perfectly placed and true. With practiced ease, Mundi slung the driver back over his shoulder, twisted the head of the anchor to activate the beacon, and resumed his climb without a second thought. In five more minutes he stopped to place another anchor. The men could barely hear the distant thud of the driver. Mundi continued on upward.

"I hope the TFBs can't hear that. Who's anchor driver is that anyway? It sounds loud. I expect one of you fools let the shitma use any piece of crap laying around," said Jiabao. The other men we silent, knowing better than to disagree. The driver was a new model, fresh from the company tool shed.

"He's taking forever, but I expect he'll stay ahead of us. Send the cable up," Jiabao commanded.

One of the men unlocked the winch line on the front of the ascender truck, attached a seeker, inflated and activated it, and tossed it upward. Rising like a balloon on the end of a string, which in fact it was, the seeker pulled line out of the winch, spooling upward toward the first anchor. Before long, the indicator on the truck showed the seeker was locked to the anchor.

"OK, let's go," said Jiabao.

The men climbed into the truck and hit the control that started reeling in the line to pull themselves, and their gear, up the cliff in a reverse rappel. The ride was rough as the truck bounced upward. The rounded plastic truck base slid smoothly and quietly over much of the rock on the fairly smooth landslide scar – the base was isolated from the container by shocks designed to cushion most of the bumps – but there were occasional wide swings caused by unusually shaped ledges and outcrops that severely jostled and shook the container. When the cable was fully retracted and the truck reached the first anchor, one of the men opened an access hatch and hitched the container directly. The anchor seeker then rose to the next anchor and the process was repeated.

Through a view port they could see the tiny figure clinging to the cliff that was Mundi climbing above them, still setting anchors. He was 500 meters further up the face but they were quickly gaining on him. They also watched diligently out the upward port looking for overhangs of just the right shape that would hook the front of the container. Occasionally they would see some particular rock formation that looked threatening and Jiabao would slow the winch and order one of his men to climb out the hatch to lever them around the snag – a rather hazardous task even with the safety harness the man wore.

One of these times, Jiabao's man was a little too slow with the pry bar, or Jiabao had the winch still running too fast. Whatever the reason, the truck base hooked under a fold of rock face and the container came to a jarring halt with the cable over-tension alarm screaming. Somehow the outside man held fast to the grips on the container, but through the view port the others could see his eyes were wide with fear behind his goggles.

"You stupid bastard," Jiabao cursed, "Why is it when I want something done right, I have to do it myself?"

Jiabao released his restraints and, without bothering to put on his O2 tank yet, went to the door. He opened it, swung one foot out onto the rock, shifted his weight, and was just about to clip in a safety line and grab his supplemental breather so he could go outside and help the other man when something in the rock fold gave way. As the excess tension in the cable released, the container leaped upward and away from the cliff.

Few earth side laws are legally enforcable on Mars, but a rare bit of universal legislation that is strictly enforced is Newton's first law. An object at rest tending to stay at rest, Jiabao, being the object in this case, remained at rest on the rock face, while the container with the two other men flew up and to his right, landing with a dull thud about 10 meters away.

Jiabao's foot was placed solidly enough before the departure of the truck that he had a leg to stand on, so to speak. Even so, he cried a brief yelp of panic as he clawed desperately for a handhold to consolidate his grip and balance. A fifty story drop to the steep rubble slope of Ophir Chasm yawned below him.

"Get me out of here you sons of bitches," he yelled, the edge of panic beginning to be replaced by his more usual anger at being inconvenienced.

There was no immediate response to Jiabao's plea. Vince, the man who was outside the truck when it sprang up and away also had to obey Newton's first law. Unlike Jiabao, he didn't have a firm foothold at that exact moment – not that this would have mattered much – as his 3 meter safety tether would have pulled him off anyway. Jiabao saw the outside man, now a limp, motionless form dangling at the end of that tether. It was twisting slowly below the truck.

"You still alive inside there, Fred, you bastard? Get me the fuck off this rock," Jiabao yelled toward the open hatch of the container.

"Tell Vince to go for you, boss," a voice yelled back. "He has the only safety harness. Where the hell is he, anyway?" Fred nervously glanced toward the taut safety line arrowing downward from its attachment loop near the door.

Jiabao was just about to berate the man for his lack of analytical acumen when suddenly he felt something slithering around him and encircling his chest. It was a rope, and standing next to him on the ledge, arranging and knotting that rope, was Mundi. The shock of seeing the leathery creature up close and so unexpectedly sent a jolt through Jiabao that almost knocked him off the cliff wall a second time. Mundi's mars red eyes, so alien, yet in some way deeply intelligent and curious, scrutinized and studied Jiabao like he was some sort of mineral deposit on the rock that might be valuable to haul back to town.

"What the hell are you doing here? And what are you looking at? Get me the hell off this ledge," Jiabao demanded.

Without a word, Mundi's turned his gaze toward the container. His hunchback form moved off the ledge and up toward the container, dancing up what seemed to be a glass-smooth rock wall with no more apparent effort or difficulty that one would expect from a an Olympic gymnast climbing an ordinary step ladder. Upon reaching the container, Mundi looped the end of the rope in a Munter hitch through a ring near the hatch and handed the slack end to the other man.

"Belay on," Mundi shouted.

"What the hell do you mean, belay on? I ain't climbing over there, you shit for brains shitma," Jiabao grumbled, "I'm no goddamn spider. Pull that container over here to me."

Mundi pulled, but it was the rope to Jiabao he pulled on. In a testament to Newton's second law, which also is applicable on Mars, the force of his pull didn't move the far more massive container at all. And by the third and most universally inviolable of Newton's laws, Mundi's action led to the reaction that yanked Jiabao off his tenuous ledge and send him tumbling and skidding across the rock face in an accelerating pendulum arc down under the container. Because the rock in the area was so smooth, Jiabao wasn't physically injured, although his pride took a bit of a beating till he got his swings arrested and his feet set firmly against the wall under him. Grumbling, cussing and gasping for breath in the thin air, he started abseiling up the wall. Mundi's powerful arms hauled in the rope as Jiabao's man took up the slack through the hitch.

When Jiabao got to the level of the dangling man, he paused to look the body over. The vacant eyes behind the goggles and the odd angle of the neck led him to the only diagnosis.

"I expect Vince ain't coming back," said Jiabao between gasps for breath, and continued his climb up.

When Jiabao reached the container, he was almost blacked out and his pulse was pounding a hammer on his skull. In the oxygen poor atmosphere, the short 10 meter climb had totally exhausted him. The mining boss lay on the deck, dazed and panting inside his O2 mask. Gradually he regained his strength and sat up. As his vision cleared, Jiabao stared at Mundi, who looked back with those pitiless eyes that held some faint familiarity.

"You OK boss," asked Fred.

"Give me your hand pulser," said Jiabao.

"What, boss?" said Fred, puzzled by the request.

"Hand me the fucking gun, I said," Jiabao commanded.

Fred unholstered the weapon and handed it to Jiabao who immediately raised it to point at Mundi. Its laser indicator dot glowed between Mundi's eyes.

"Listen, shitma, if you ever pull a stunt like that again, I expect I'll make that third red eye a permanent in your head."

"Boss, he pretty much saved your life," whispered Fred with uncharacteristic objectivity. Jiabao ignored the comment for the moment.

"I said to pull the container over to me, not the other way around you stupid ape. Maybe you thought it was cute to humiliate me like that. Is that what you thought?" Jiabao asked.

Mundi didn't answer. The Highlander stared back for a moment, then slowly turned and stepped out the open hatch to resume his climb back up the rock face. Jiabao's pistol target followed the departing form for a moment, then it tracked over to Fred, settling on the man's chest.

"And I don't remember asking your opinion about a goddamn thing," said Jiabao. "Now, get off your ass and do something useful for a change. Vince's dead. Go cut his tether and get us moving up the cliff again."

Fred hesitated, but he eventually found his nerve again. He pulled a large blade out from one of the gear bags, unsheathed it, and slashed the rope near the lock ring.

There was a brief "k-swish" as the rope end vanished over the container edge. For what seemed like an eternity, there was no sound other than the wind. Then maybe they heard the faintest of thuds as Vince's body hit the rock below.

From above, cold ruby eyes looked on approvingly as the corpse brutally bounced down the rubble slope and disappeared deep into the Chasmata below.

Posted Oct 31, 2008 at 20:39 UTC, 3051 words,  [/danPermalink