Nothing like being one of Death’s minions, Ry Devans thought, slowing his jets to keep pace with the next orbiting body.
The livid and bruised face of Mars leered over his shoulder, as if recognizing a twin beneath the ruptured face shield. Devans unlocked and gently removed the battered helmet. The young woman’s hair cap was partially torn, allowing the escape of blonde tendrils marred by red.
A stream of droplets trailed away.
The side of her head had met more than the inward crush of the helmet, though Devans couldn’t locate the culprit among the surrounding debris band. The atomizer blasts from Mars Orbiter 2 had sheared off tons of MOS-1 structure, and they had done the same to their attacker. Any of it could have done this.
She could have perished at any point along the battle timeline. From the initial strikes of the Earth First Faction, through the ensuing explosions of the fusion engines and processing pods, to the space ejaculate orbiting at a variety of deadly speeds and directions.
Whatever the case, she had been unable to avoid her demise with the space suit’s ion jets.
She hadn’t even fired them up, from the readouts of her backpack.
Probably swept out during the early strikes, he surmised.
Good enough for now, old man. There’s more to do.
So… do the thing.
Gimme a sec.
You’re not new to this, fly boy. Seen it a hundred times, minimum. Past wars. This Mars War. Same results, different people.
Then why the stasis?
Not sure. Bounce out and I’ll deal.
Truth, this was at least his tenth young female of this salvage mission, and determining cause of death wasn’t his job right now. The documentation workers of MOS-1 were already at it, reviewing footage to match incident to loss of life.
Grinds on a mind, though, Devans thought.
He contemplated the half-crushed and blood-smeared helmet, then drew back and hurled it at the Red Planet. The helmet spun backwards as it flew, tiny and shrinking against the girth of its planetary incinerator. Though orbiting at four miles per second, as they all were, the helmet appeared to move in a slow glide toward its fiery doom.
“PS-17 co-pilot to pilot,” came through his helmet speakers.
“Devans. Go ahead, Gwen.”
“We could have melted it down, Cap.”
“We have two metal processing pods up and running again, and a…”
“Third one coming online in the next day or so,” he said. “For some reason I’m on the Leadership Council too.”
“Huh, as if you weren’t one of our ranking advisors.”
“Oh, I get rank sometimes.”
“Telling me.” This was from Alicia Hamilton, a couple hundred feet away in the debris band, stripping the space suit pants from her cadaver.
“At least our water and air processing pods are still squeezing juice from the asteroid rocks and decoupling Mars CO2 with gusto,” Trent Wagner noted, from a hundred feet beyond Hamilton and performing the same grim task.
“Freaking optimist,” Devans said. “What else, Gwen?”
“Nothing. Not trying to be a pain. This is, uh, my first battle aftermath.”
Devans grunted. “I’m the only one up for a promotion to Major Pain. The strangely silent Comm and Nav Officer behind you in the flight pit is not, nor are these other two out here in the death zone.”
“You rang, Major?” Shannon Burroughs said.
“Just checking for a pulse.”
“Still there. Always there.”
He wondered if she had invoked the motto between himself and his Army buddy Fresnopolis deliberately or not. Didn’t matter.
“Always there,” Devans said, but instead of feeling a little better, he felt a little worse.
Stow it for now, granny, he could hear Fres say. And pick up that butt.
Ghosts are supposed to be quiet, old man.
Not this one!
Devans was about to retort when flashes in near space tugged at his gaze.
Half-way around the planet’s upper orbit, laser flashes zapped in and out of existence, bright against the backdrop of space but dimmer than they would have been prior to the battle. This was the work of MOS-1’s only heavy artillery, the Cyclops Space Atomizer. Its waning beams ate into Phobos 2, decoupling molecules, reducing size.
Even in battle where anything goes, he hadn’t seen this one coming.
The Earth First Faction had deemed it necessary to spatz Phobos in two while the outgunned MOS-1 played cat and mouse on the other side of the small moon. Phobos 1 still traveled an acceptable orbit, but Phobos 2 had taken a jag toward Mars.
Even at reduced power, to Devans the cannon could have been the arm of Zeus, flinging lightning bolts into the ranks of a Titan army.
Daniel Shakuri of the Leadership Council and the Cyclops crew had their hands full, trying to atomize as much of that half moon as possible before it plunged into Mars. Impact was unavoidable; their job was to minimize the repercussions. Otherwise the unanticipated and frankly astounding gains of the newly volcanic Mars would be set back for centuries.
Nobody inside their made-made bubble had centuries to wait.
Should they have saved their damaged canon as a weapon against more EFF strikes and let Phobos 2 do its damage?
The EFF wasn’t building any more orbiters and mega spatz canons, as far as they could tell from galaxynet hacks. Billions spent on a new orbiter just didn’t link with the whole EFF-hate-space mantra.
“Status, Cap?” Navigator and Communications Officer Shannon Burroughs, prompting him to move his butt.
“Status is as status does, ShanBurr.”
“Trent and Alicia are passing you in number.”
He glanced at the other two space suits working the bodies in this area. Trent was brother to co-pilot Gwen, and Alicia Hamilton had been his engineer and security lead since his first flight of PS-9, five years ago.
Seemed like decades. Time passes strangely in space and war.
“Yeah, well, they’re younger,” he said. “They’re supposed to do more.”
“Eyes on the prize, CapD,” Trent said, trying to be light about it but still coming off somber.
“Buy you a lab beer after we dock back in Columbus Bay, Ry,” Hamilton said.
“I never got one after that MOS-2 arena fight with your ex,” Devans said.
“Truth. That’s two I owe.”
Ouch, didn’t mean to bring all that back, he thought.
“Nah. Forget it, Ham,” Devans said.
“Don’t go soft on me, toothless old man!”
“So not truth,” Devans said, clacking his teeth together.
“Yeah, which?” Hamilton peeled the upper body suit from a man roughly her own age and handed the material to her accompanying drone. Then slipped a steel cable on the man’s wrist.
Hamilton was also sounding a little like Fres these days.
“Okay, you buy yours and I’ll buy mine, got it?” Devans said.
“No. I still owe you one. But how about you ask your butt if it can get back to work sometime before the sun goes nova?”
A lot like Fres, Ry thought.
“Hold for answer.”
Hamilton grunted in disdain.
Perhaps seeking more excuses to avoid his task, Devans turned to Planetary Shuttle 17. It kept pace on ion thrusters just beyond the debris ring, the nuclear fusion engine ready but not active. At the apex of the flying-V design, the shields were pulled back to reveal the transparent panes of the flight pit. He deemed this something of a risk, with all the local debris, but Gwen and Shannon were constantly scanning. Besides, MOS-1 was close enough, should they have any trouble.
His co-pilot and past rescuer from Detonation Event stood in her faux corset and pants. Tattoos adorned her lithe arms. Her hair was shorter than when she’d hijacked a planetary shuttle and rescued him and his crew from the freshly detonated Mars.
Part of the new mother thing, he supposed.
Alongside her was Shannon Burroughs, long hair braided like some Viking queen.
“Give the helmets to the drone from now on?” Burroughs said.
She had couple more years’ experience with Ry than Gwen and Trent. Only Alicia had more.
“There’s no shortage of graphene, steel and acrylic floating around out here. The suit fabric takes us longer to weave and sew,” Devans said, turning to the deceased again. Killed In Action was more apt, but this one had never gotten close to firing a weapon at the enemy.
One of her eyes was half-lidded, but both stared into eternity.
“Maybe we should swap for a while,” Gwen Wagner said.
“Nah, all systems green here,” Devans said.
“Not really, but almost.”
Like he almost wished the three thousand KIAs floating around out here were merely celestial bodies that had drifted in to survey the damage to MOS-1.
Why not wish on it?
They had tried everything else.
The thousands of twinkling lights beyond the Red Planet provided an abundance of stars to wish upon.
Yet despite the belief among his fellow rebels that he gulped tall-boy shakes of space madness for breakfast, the truth was Ry Devans – the most wanted man in the solar system and perhaps galaxy – couldn’t atomize reality.
He couldn’t decouple the molecular bonding between reality and his mind. Not with a Space Atomizer, and not by wishing it so.
Actually, a spatz gun in a low-pressure atmosphere like Mars or the vacuum of space could decouple his mind from reality.
… but only forever.
Not optimal, of course. He’d come too far for that kind of thing.
All of these stars – all of the billions of stars in the universe – were as impotent as spent plasma rounds.
Death’s minion held far more reality than any wishing he could do.
Gallows humor was a leftover from his combat days. He had hoped those days were done.
But hoping was the little cousin of wishing.
Devans freed the floating woman’s hands from her suit gloves and handed them to the drone flying in synch alongside him. He then unfastened the doubled-layer zips and pulled one and then the other of the woman’s arms free.
Now dressed in a floating shirt and leggings while drifting through space, he took the grasping clamp offered by the drone and slipped it over her bare wrist.
She had been in her early thirties. Her identification chip was still operational, but he did not enter her name into his own memory banks. He did not want to know her as deceased. He did note her roles, however. She had been a mother and wife and she had worked on MOS-1 as a molecular scientist.
Mars offered a few winks here and there when the clouds parted enough to reveal the surface.
Devans said a brief prayer to God or the galactic spirit or anything out here in Mars space willing to listen.
“How many’s that, Burroughs?”
Gwen kept PS-19 equidistant among the three flyers.
The debris would be recovered by the drones for re-purposing.
No one on MOS-1 wanted human bodies to be stripped of their space suits by drones.
The machines would take them to Mars entry, however, for incineration.
Devans flew just past the next drifting form. He twisted into a one eighty to allow the ion jets to act as space brakes, then angled the small funnels to keep himself at the same rate and direction as the deceased.
He held an arm out and touched the suit.
The helmet had been atomized on a diagonal. He could not determine the gender of the victim inside. The identification chip was either gone or damaged.
This one’s even worse than the last one, he thought.
A glow spot grew in the corner of Devans’ eye. At first he thought it was notification of a mindtext, as they came with tiny dots in the periphery. But this was on the wrong side of his mindtext queue.
“Ry, duck and move! NOW!”
He knew Burroughs’ tones well enough to react first, ask later.
His hand blurred to hit a double max jet burst downward and sideways.
A concentrated cluster of laser beams lit up the inside of his helmet and hummed through his suit speakers.
He didn’t stop there.
He arced up and he drew the spatz pistol holstered at his side.
Another flash and he hit a jet burst upward this time. The beam went low, anticipating a maneuver similar to his first.
“Crew, back to ship!” Devans said. “Gwen, fire a volley at the origin.”
PS-17 shifted and fired, the beams trailing out into darkness.
“Shannon, where the hell is it?”
“I can’t see it!” her voice was frantic. “INCOMING, RY! Go, Go, Go!”
He zipped away on a spin, returned fire though he had yet to make visual, even with the face shield’s enhanced zoom.
“They must be cloaked,” he said, dodging two more beams.
PS-17 lit up the originating area with a barrage of streaking plasma rounds. He saw a single splatter that had appeared as nothing.
He aimed and fired at it, shouting coordinates.
“Get in the ship, Ry! They’re after you!”
If true, then PS-17’s shields were as about as impervious as human flesh to a spatz beam, and he’d be putting the crew at greater risk. However, his little suit jets were micro thrusters compared to the fusion engine of a shuttle, and the crew and all the ‘rebels’ of MOS-1 had already been hurled into the risk vortex that accompanies war.
The space crazy had an answer.
“Nah, I’m good out here.”
He ignored the curses that followed.
He barrel-rolled, ducked behind a cluster of graphene beams and fired his spatz pistol in a star pattern.
Two side panels appeared among the stars and blackness of space.
“Mark and fire, Gwen,” Devans said.
“Marked and firing!”
Yellow streaks of plasma rounds burst forward from the darkness and tore through the gap toward him.
“Gotta bail,” Ry said.
He maxed his jets and shot a thin laser beam into the cloud of oncoming rounds. Several rounds vanished, but the others streaked greedily forward.
The is an excerpt from the novel Annihilation Plan: (Mars Wars Book 3), published 2022.
Edited by Marie Ginga
John Andrew Karr (also John A. Karr) writes of the strange and spectacular. He is the author of a handful of independent and small press novels and novellas, including the latest installment in the Mars Wars trilogy: Annihilation Plan:(Mars Wars Book 3). His short stories have appeared in a variety of anthologies and online magazines.
He’s a coastal North Carolina resident, IT worker, and all-around family guy. He is also an ardent believer in the quote from Carl van Doren (1885-1950), U.S. man of letters: Yes, it's hard to write, but it's harder not to.
Visit his Amazon author page and visit his website.