A belief was once prevalent in “modern” societies that the killer of humans, the murderer, is an aberration. At least this was what the rulers wished their subjects to believe, though, as they ordered their soldiers to war, they knew that the veneer called “civilization” was as thin as whatever ideology they themselves espoused. The truth is that an aversion to killing anyone outside of immediate family is a product of societal indoctrination (and then only in that slightly more than half the population who are not sociopaths), whilst within immediate family it is merely the product of that contradiction in terms called “genetic altruism.” It is in fact a harsh reality that he who believes killers are an aberration is also he who has the boot planted firmly on his neck; whilst amongst those who rule the aberration is the one who is not a sociopath, and therefore reluctant to kill.
Some cams had survived the grenades, but when she saw the extent of the wreckage through them, she almost wished they hadn’t. All that valuable equipment destroyed: computers, hardware, infrastructure, and items like the crawler lying wrecked out there—all of it vital to their future survival here on Mars. Through the cams she’d also seen an enforcer crawl out of that same crawler, issuing vapour trails from his breached suit. She watched as he managed about three metres away from the wreck, before he started suffocating and desperately clawing at the ground.
Using what cover he could, one of the three enforcers risked loping out to his fallen comrade, and gently turning him over on to his back. What he then saw through the man’s visor told him all he needed to know, and he scurried back to join his fellows as they entered the garage through the open crawler lock. It was crucial that they enter the garage, for Var now needed it open to the Martian atmosphere for all of her plan to work. She had expected them to go in through one of the adjacent bulkhead doors, but of course there was no need now.
Once inside the garage, they didn’t resort to grenades, because here there were so few opportunities for an ambush. Soon they were out again and moving round close to the wall, towards the next window. From her perch up beside the roof hatch, Var felt another blast as they destroyed the window, then through a roof cam she observed a further plume of wasted air. More explosions as the enforcers secured that section too, then appeared outside again, edging up to the last exterior window.
“Okay,” she said, “they’re now going into the final bit.”
“I’m not sure I can do this,” Carol protested abruptly.
Var peered across at her, but could think of nothing useful to say.
Minutes ticked away as the enforcers searched this last section, then one of the snipers waiting outside the base stood up and loped in. Obviously, now that the enforcers had searched all the outer sections, Ricard thought it safe to send in Silberman as his deputy, though apparently it still wasn’t safe enough for Ricard himself. From inside the hex, a fuzzy cam view showed the three enforcers on the move. Var tried tracking them for a moment, then gave up and switched to a workable view of the corridor leading straight towards the reactor room below her. About a minute later the first of the enforcers stepped into sight, with the other two close behind. At the door they hesitated, and turned as Silberman joined them, waving a hand to complement whatever instructions he was giving them over com.
“This is it,” said Var. “They’re right outside.” Her stomach felt tight as a rock. “Carol, I want you to crawl over to the edge—up there.” She pointed to that side of the hex beyond which Ricard had positioned himself. “Silberman is now with our three enforcers, but Ricard himself is still outside. He’s got a scoped rifle on a tripod, so has every chance of killing you if you show yourself, so don’t take a shot at him unless he actually stands up and starts heading in.”
That put Carol safely out of the way, since if she was not sure she could do this, she might be a liability in the coming fire fight.
“Okay.” Carol’s jerky nod of agreement set her swaying on her rope.
Firing erupted: the chatter of an assault rifle accompanied by the sounds of ricochets inside the reactor room. Var glanced down and saw five bullet holes stitched across the door. Air began screaming through them, and the corridor outside began fogging up, those in there lost from view.
He was peering up at the electronic control panel alongside the roof hatch.
“Not yet,” he said.
The shrieking continued, slowly reducing in intensity, until it became like the wailing of wind over a desolate landscape. In the corridor the fog began to clear, and Var could now see the enforcers poised by the bulkhead door. They had laid their assault rifles on the floor and were now holding machine pistols. Plastic ammo, just as predicted. Var momentarily wondered if those assessing her in her childhood had chosen right about her education. Perhaps they should have trained her for the Inspectorate military instead. She felt some gratification in having got it right every time, yet her thinking all just seemed like the logical working of a machine, so there was no joy in it.
“Now,” said Lopomac.
He keyed something into the control panel, waited a moment, then tried again. Outside, at that instant, one of the enforcers was handing his grenades over to Silberman. Var did not understand the reason until the same enforcer picked up one of the assault rifles, removed its ammunition clip and ejected the shell from the breech, then stepped over to the bulkhead door and balanced the tip of the barrel against the floor. Letting it go, he leapt back so the weapon toppled against the door. They’d obviously assumed this door might be electrified too.
“Fuckit,” growled Lopomac. “Fuckit!”
“What is it?” she asked.
He started working a handle back and forth till the hatch doors began to bulge downwards and, with a clonk, the seam opened. He tried the panel again, and this time was rewarded with the familiar hum of a hydraulic pump in action. Slowly the doors continued hingeing downwards.
Immediately outside the bulkhead door below, the same enforcer tentatively stepped forward and tried the manual handle. The handle crunched over but, with the weight of the forklift pressing against it, the door would not lift from its seals, and therefore could not swing aside on its upper pivot. The enforcer drove his boot against it, but the door moved not at all.
Var turned her attention elsewhere—time to move.
She reached up around the rim of the hatch and, aided by the low Martian gravity, easily hauled herself up on to the roof. Carol pulled herself up almost simultaneously, with Lopomac immediately behind her. After they unclipped their climbing motors, Lopomac reattached the piton gun to the length of rope he had hung from and flicked over a switch on one side of it. This transmitted a low current to the pitons, operating micromotors inside them so as to withdraw their barbs. After a couple of tugs, he hauled up the ensuing tangle of rope and pitons. Meanwhile Var rechecked her visor screen, seeing all but one of the enforcers retreating along the corridor. The remaining one placed a grenade beside the lower rim of the door, then retreated too.
“Hurry!” she urged.
Already at the external console, Lopomac first keyed in the instruction to close the hatch doors, then grabbed the external manual pump handle and started to work that too. Slowly they began to close up—just as the grenade detonated below, causing the roof to jerk up underneath them. Smoke instantly filled the corridor, so it took a moment for Var to check if the grenade had been successful. Fortunately it had not, and though the door itself was bent inwards at the bottom, there was not enough room for anyone to slip through.
“That’s got it,” said Lopomac, as the hatch finally sealed shut.
“You go on,” said Var, gesturing Carol over to the dust cowling along the edge of the roof. She herself began crawling on her belly towards another section of roof.
“I’ll deal with the hatch,” she said to Lopomac. “You put a piton in and give us a line.”
The hatch above the reactor room was not the only access to the roof. A small vertical airlock sat directly over the garage, built in its previous incarnation when it had simply been a major storeroom. The hatch had allowed personnel access to the roof in order to make repairs to cams, lights and radio dishes, but it hadn’t been used in years, and even the ladder descending from it had been removed. On reaching it, Var thumbed its console whilst Lopomac drove in another piton. The console screen instantly warned her of a pressure differential, but she ran a reboot and it corrected the error to show no differential at all. Finding the manual lever stiff and the seal stuck, she cautiously got up on her knees to provide herself with more leverage, and heaved. The outer hatch eventually came up with a thin tearing sound, strips of torn seal hanging from it. She dropped down inside, and clinging to the upper section of ladder that had been left inside the airlock, she released the lever of the lower hatch, then paused to check image feed.
Another grenade detonated by the bulkhead door leading into the reactor room. The blast sent the forklift skittering over to one side, and the door tumbling into the room beyond, where it slammed against one side of the reactor itself. Var winced—she’d have to check for damage—but at least Silberman and the others were still where she wanted them.
“Any movement from Ricard?” she asked.
“Nothing,” said Carol. “He’s keeping his head down.”
“Lopomac, where’s that line?”
“Coming.” He dropped a coil of rope over the edge, then peered down towards her. She attached her climbing motor, then kicked down on the hatch, once, twice, until it fell open, then as fast as she could she lowered herself into the garage underneath. After a moment, Lopomac joined her.
“They’re in the reactor room,” she explained, unshouldering her assault rifle and knocking off the safety. The enforcer who seemed always to get the shit jobs had been sent in first, the other two rapidly following.
“Come on,” said Var.
She quickly opened a bulkhead door, leading into the next outer section, then in towards the reactor room beyond. Lopomac unshouldered his assault rifle and held it ready. By now Silberman himself was entering the reactor room. Of course, he would be puzzled: how had they sealed the door like that and yet apparently disappeared? As she reached the junction from which the corridor led up to the reactor room door, she waved Lopomac ahead. “When I give the word.”
He still looked a bit sick, but nodded and moved over to the opposite side of the corridor entrance, resting his back against the wall, with his assault rifle braced before him.
“The reactor?” he queried.
“Not in line of sight,” she replied.
That was true enough, but a stray round might still hit it. She just had to hope the imminent fire fight damaged nothing vital, but it was a risk they had to take. Also backing against the wall with her rifle ready, she once more studied her visor screen.
Silberman sat himself at the control console to work through the menu. After a second, she realized he must be turning the power back on to the rest of base. This accomplished, he stood, gestured to the other three and headed back towards the door. What would he now be thinking? He must realize that there were few places they could be hiding in the outer section, yet would assume they hadn’t been stupid enough to seal themselves inside one of the less vital inner sections.
“Ricard’s on the move,” announced Carol.
Var briefly switched to an exterior cam view. Ricard was now in a crouch, his rifle up against his shoulder as he swung it about to check the screen view through its telescopic sight. This told her all she needed. Silberman had just informed Ricard of the situation, and now Ricard was worried; he thought they must be somewhere outside the hex.
“Kill him, if you can,” she instructed, flicking back to the previous view inside the hex.
Waving Mr Shit Job ahead, Silberman stepped out of the reactor room, the other two enforcers emerging behind him. Let them get halfway down the corridor…
They were a few paces away from the room when Silberman abruptly halted and gestured behind him. One of the enforcers turned, and started to head back. Silberman had clearly decided to leave a guard.
“Lopomac,” she said, “now!”
As one, they swung round, facing along the corridor, rifles up against their shoulders. Lopomac went down on one knee, but Var remained standing. She opened up on full automatic, whilst Lopomac fired in short bursts. The lead enforcer was slammed back into Silberman, but the spray of blood and escaping vapour showed that his body had not been sufficient protection, for the bullets had gone straight through him and struck Silberman too. One of the enforcers behind spun against the wall, smearing bits of himself across it, steaming like raw meat dropped onto a hot stove. The last enforcer managed to stumble a few paces towards the reactor room, before shots stitched across his back and he went down.
Var took her finger off the trigger. “We got them,” she said, for Carol’s benefit.
“I missed Ricard,” said Carol. “He’s back down in his hollow.”
“Keep your head down,” said Var as she advanced.
None of the four scattered on the floor showed any signs of life. Simple as that: extinguished in just over ten seconds of gunfire. Var called up a menu on her visor screen, and keyed into a com icon that was presently dormant. It started flashing, down in the bottom right corner of her visor as the rest of the menu faded. Then it blinked out, and her helmet speakers beeped to let her know the new channel had been opened from the other end.
“You’re alone now, Ricard,” she said.
After a moment, he asked, “What do you mean, alone?”
“I mean Silberman and the last of your enforcers are dead.”
“Then you’ve won.”
Var turned and began heading back the way she had come, leaving Lopomac standing behind her, seemingly horrified by what they had just done. He wouldn’t be strong enough, she realized, he wouldn’t be able to carry this through to its inevitable and necessary conclusion.
“Surrender yourself now, Ricard, and you get to live until the base personnel decide what to do with you,” she said. “If you don’t surrender, then that’s fine. You can stay out there until your air runs out.”
Into an outer section now, blast damage evident all up the walls beside her, the broken window ahead where the enforcers had entered.
“Someone was shooting at me from the roof,” he protested.
“I hear you.”
“You can come down now.”
“Okay, on my way,” the woman replied, relief obvious in her voice.
“I need some sort of guarantee,” insisted Ricard, but his decision was already made. She could hear it in his voice—he was all out of choices.
“I give you my word that no one here will try to kill you, Ricard. I need you alive, and telling the people here what instructions you received from Earth. I need them to know.”
She could now see him through the window, as he stood up, holding his rifle above his head.
“Put the weapon on the ground,” she said.
By the tilt of his head, he was still gazing up at the roof, expecting shots from there. With care he lowered his rifle and did as instructed, then began walking in towards the hex. Var moved towards the window, detaching the mostly used-up clip from her rifle and slotting a new one into place. She vaulted the sill, boots thumping on to the dusty ground. His head jerked back down, seeing her now. She walked out towards him, closing the gap until they stood just five metres apart.
“Yes,” she replied, “they certainly will.”
She pulled the trigger and watched him dance for a moment, then tumble backwards through a cloud of dust. The base personnel would certainly understand that this man wasn’t worth the precious air it took to keep him breathing.
Twenty people waited in the control room. These included Langstrom, Peach and Mustafa, escorting a thin man with cropped grey hair standing hunched over in his prison overalls. There were also thirteen frightened-looking staff Saul had summoned, all of them clad in the same sort of technician’s garb worn by Chang and the twins, who were also present. Saul glanced at Hannah and nodded to the console they had used earlier. Understanding at once, she moved over to it, then turned and stood with her arms folded. Saul moved past this small crowd to gaze out across Argus Station, leaving them hovering and unsure about what they should do. He didn’t need to look round to know that the spidergun now loomed in the doorway. Even without the multiple views he could summon the sudden terrified stillness would have told him enough.
“You are Robert Le Roque,” he began, still without turning.
“I am,” the thin ex-prisoner agreed, straightening up and stepping away from Langstrom to move to the fore.
“Formerly technical director of this entire station?” Saul now turned to focus on the man.
“Until Political Director Smith decided otherwise.” Le Roque smiled nastily and glanced towards Langstrom. “But Director Smith is currently being processed into fertilizer for the Arboretum, so he has turned out to be unexpectedly useful in the end.”
“Yes, the station digesters are going to be busy for some time yet.”
Le Roque folded his arms, as if feeling cold, and continued, “So what are your intentions now, and what do you want with me?”
Saul studied the man a moment longer. Certainly, to have reached the rank of Technical Director of this station, Le Roque must have had some less than savoury aspects to his past. But, having studied the extensive data filed in the Political Office, Saul knew political manoeuvring was not the main reason for this man’s promotion. Le Roque was highly intelligent and capable; in fact if he had been less so, he would have ended up in a cell long ago, for he had been far too much of a free thinker
“I want you to resume the position you held here previously,” said Saul. “I want you, and your staff here”—he gestured to the others present—“to prepare everyone aboard Argus Station for the moment when, in twenty-three hours’ time, it swings about the Moon and I again fire up the Traveller engine to put us on a course for Mars.”
Shock registered on the man’s face, amid gasps from others in the room. Le Roque, however, recovered quickly. “And if I’m not willing?”
Saul shrugged. “I’ll find someone else, then. But you and everyone here must understand,” he surveyed the group before him, “that there’s no going back. So food, water and air cannot be wasted on those who will not work for the survival of all aboard.”
The expressions of shock were still there, but in some faces he could see the kind of cowed acceptance that resulted from a lifetime of being ground down by the Committee. There would be, he knew, some here—and throughout the rest of the station—who had loved ones down on Earth who they had expected to return to, and he had now taken that option away from them. Part of him wanted to offer them some solution but, having set himself firmly on this course, he simply could not afford to expend valuable resources such as those space planes out on the docking pillars. Also, he could not afford to show the slightest sign of weakness. What would they be returning to anyway? Even a brief inspection of the data flooding Govnet rendered the expected results. If they thought they would just disembark from those planes and return to normal lives down there, they were sadly mistaken. Perhaps he should now acquaint them with some of the facts.
“You realize, I hope,” he said, “that even if you made it down safely to one of the space-plane runways on Earth, your first port of call would be an adjustment cell—where you would be interrogated until every last detail of what has happened here was extracted from you. After that there would be no release either—whatever authority remains down there would not want you blabbing your story to anyone else. Already the Committee “press officers” are at work, and Govnet is flooded with news of a successful test run of the Argus network, and the successful repositioning of the Argus Station.”
He let that sink in for a moment, before turning back to Le Roque.
“I’ll want you to get everyone onboard the station back to work, all previous maintenance schedules adhered to, the self-sustaining programmes recommenced and the researchers in Arcoplex Two back on the job. I also want the entire station secured for space flight, strengthening made wherever required, the tubeways fully completed, and work started on a full enclosure of the inner station.”
“We will need the smelting plants back online,” observed Le Roque.
Saul nodded towards the Moon now beginning to recede behind the Argus Station. “After we swing round the Moon, the smelters can once again be extended. They will continue to function with the existing arrays of mirrors for seven months, though with declining efficiency, and we can extend that period by manufacturing more mirrors.”
“Mars?” said Le Roque.
Le Roque grimaced towards the others before refocusing on Saul. He ran a hand down his yellow overalls. “I would like to change out of these before I get to work.”
“Of course.” Saul gestured towards the door of the man’s former apartment. “I want you to move your personal effects later to Smith’s quarters in the Political Office, which I notice are more capacious than your apartment here. After that you can convert the control centre located there into a secondary version of this one.” Saul stabbed a finger down at the floor. “I’m sure you’ll find a better use for the rest of the Political Office—I note manufacturing space has been tight while valuable resources were squandered there, and also on the cell block.”
Le Roque nodded briefly, and departed.
Saul turned to Chang and the twins. “Anything you want,” he said. “Within obvious limits.”
Brigitta glanced at her sister. “We want to transfer to Robotics.” She paused as if not quite sure how far to push it. “Will you be running this place like Smith did?”
“No,” Saul replied firmly, before turning to Langstrom. “As the new head of security here, you will now find that the list of punishable offences has been substantially reduced, so reading it won’t take you long. All of the sections headed “Political Subversion” have been deleted, and you will be receiving no instructions from the Political Office. That’s because it has ceased to exist, and you answer to me alone.”
The legal system here had been merely a straight upload from Earth: unless something was actually approved, it was considered illegal—Roman law—but with the extra twist that all “offenders” were deemed guilty until proved innocent. Judgement and sentencing was delivered by an Inspectorate Executive, who would also have investigated the alleged “crime” they sat judgement upon. The catalogue of such crimes, their parameters nicely vague and open to Inspectorate interpretation, had been huge, but it took Saul less than a minute to hack it down by nearly 90 per cent. It was now not a crime, for example, to suggest that your food ration tasted “funny”—an offence that had merited being “interviewed” for five hours by an Inspectorate Exec, assisted by two enforcers and a pain inducer.
Langstrom looked thoroughly surprised as Saul continued, “Your men will only carry ionic tasers and nightsticks, and your main duty will be to ensure civilian order. However, I have some other chores for you to complete before then. First you must ensure that everyone is released from the cell block, and that all Smith’s toys there are decommissioned.”
One of those in the cell block was the food critic. His subversive criticism of the Committee had resulted in a two-day period of adjustment after his “interview.” With the right treatment he might be able to recommence his job in Atmosphere Management in a month or so, when he regained control of his bowels and stopped dribbling.
“Very well,” began Langstrom. “I’ve never really agreed—”
“I’m not interested in your opinion, Langstrom. I will judge you later by your actions.” Langstrom kept silent as Saul continued, “Your next task will be to round up the entire executive staff of the Political Office, plus certain other unpleasant individuals who work under them—I’ve already forwarded a list to your computer.”
It hadn’t been difficult to draw up this list. The Executive contained few redeemable souls at the top, and those in the lower ranks who seemed destined for promotion all demonstrated the kind of inherent nastiness and lack of empathy required for future exalted positions. Saul quickly tired of studying the records of these people, and it had been simplicity itself to create a search engine fit for the exercise.
At that, many in the room exclaimed in surprise, and he turned towards them.
“Yes,” he said, “Chairman Messina and fifty of his core delegates are currently detained in Arcoplex One until Hannah here decides their fate. They are sharing their accommodation with the two thousand corpses resulting from the nerve gas Messina’s troops employed as they boarded the station.” Saul paused, seeking the right tone. “That way our political elite can quickly acquaint themselves with digester technology.”
One of the staff let out a bark of laughter, then abruptly looked frightened. Others, too, showed shocked amusement, before dipping their heads to hide their expressions.
“Laughter is not an offence,” Saul declared mildly. He turned back to Langstrom. “Any questions?”
“None I can think of right now.”
“You and your men must adhere to the laws of this station too,” Saul warned. “Since you’ll be in a position of trust, any infringements will call for a harsher punishment than is dealt out to ordinary civilians.”
“Understood.” Langstrom would do as instructed—he had risen in the ranks rather than ended up in a digester. Saul gestured towards the door, and Langstrom set off.
“Does that answer your question?” Saul asked Brigitta.
“Some,” she replied. “But how much freedom are we going to be allowed?”
“How do you measure it?” Saul asked.
“The Arboretum?” Angela asked.
Brigitta picked up on that. “We were never allowed in there.”
“Unless there are contamination problems I don’t see why that should continue.” Saul paused for a moment. “Everyone here will have the freedom to go where they want within this station. You will all have the freedom to do whatever you want so long as the work is done and whatever else you do does not endanger others or this station.”
“I hope you’re telling the truth,” said Brigitta.
“Better living conditions would be nice. Better food too.”
“You three can take apartments in the Political Office.” He paused, checking the assignment of living accommodation and beginning to make alterations. “I have just reassigned you to Inspectorate Executive quarters. Once building recommences in Arcoplex Two, and the living accommodation is completed there, you’ll be reassigned to apartments near the robot assembly plant and the research laboratory.” Saul waited a moment for a response, and when none came, he turned to Chang. “And you?”
“I’ll stay here,” Chang replied, nodding towards the nearby consoles. “But one of those PO apartments would be nice.”
“It’s done,” said Saul, then turned to the others and gestured to the consoles lining the back of the control room. “Okay, grab your chairs and take your positions.” He beckoned to Le Roque, now returned clad in a padded overall. “Get them ready.”
As Chang, the twins and the thirteen remaining moved quickly to their various consoles, Le Roque headed over beside Hannah and gazed for a moment at the bullet-damaged console, then stepped away to select another one. They began powering up, and Saul watched them for a moment. Meanwhile he called up separate views on the three wall screens: the middle screen displaying a distant view of Earth, and those on either side relaying orbital views transmitted from the laser satellites.
“You seem to have everything well under control,” Hannah commented as he approached her.
Saul went on studying the screens. “I see no purpose in wasting resources on regimenting every detail of people’s lives, nor on trying to control how they think.”
“There’ll be problems later.”
As Saul accessed the control systems for the entire array of laser satellites spaced around the Earth, he acknowledged to himself that, yes, there would be problems. But the niggling, annoying problems of administration, of government, would perhaps be the least of them. For a start, it was by no means certain that the station could be made utterly self-sufficient, or that they could ultimately survive out here.
“The people here are used to being told what to do, and when they begin to realize that I am not instructing them all the time, that’s when the problems will start. It’s also going to be difficult for those currently redundant,” he said. “I’ll need to decide what to do with all those bureaucrats who’ve spent most of their working lives driving a desk and enforcing misery on others.”
“Do the digesters often need cleaning?”
And well she might. A glimpse into Arcoplex One revealed that the digesters had yet to be put to use. Chairman Messina, accompanied by forty-one delegates and a further twenty bodyguards, had pushed his way to the head of the queue and entered first. They had then occupied a conference hall and were currently debating the agenda, having thus far merely drawn up a list of important subjects to be considered—such as the assignment of living quarters, a resources survey, their negotiating position and who would chair the escape-assessment working group. No one had yet got round to mentioning the corpses, of which only a few had been found so far, the majority occupying private quarters or piled up at the far end of the arcoplex. The situation seemed beyond satire, and Saul wondered how long it would take before this “hard-headed organizational approach to extreme circumstances” completely fell apart.
“Most of them are guilty of murder,” Hannah suggested.
“Every single Committee delegate has been responsible, to some extent, for mass murder. They’re also ultimately responsible for every other atrocity the Inspectorate has committed.”
She turned to look at him. “Nuremberg?”
“We don’t have the resources.”
“I have to think more about this.”
She bowed her head and Saul thought she looked ashamed. He decided then that he would burden her with no further decisions of life and death. He caught hold of her shoulder and directed her across the control room, towards the door through into Le Roque’s former quarters. As they walked, he summoned the spidergun in behind him.
“You must sleep on it,” he said, as she went through the door ahead of him, then he turned to see Le Roque eyeing him curiously. “We’re not to be disturbed,” Saul declared, before closing the door behind them. He watched through the spidergun’s sensors, whilst Hannah moved over to the hammock and pulled herself down on to it, its fabric adhesion clinging to her suit. By the time the multi-limbed robot had squatted down outside the door, and raised two of its weapon-bearing limbs warningly, Hannah was already fast asleep.
Saul soon joined her, but some time still passed before he descended to a level of humanity where sleep again became possible for him.