Journal of Kevin Hendricks
Day 27: Noctis Labyrinthus, 2 days SSE of Tholus County
Made camp an hour ago. Tomorrow we begin mapping the Noctis Labyrinthus, the “Labyrinth of Night”. I approach this section of the journey with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The long, winding series of deep caverns and high plateaus is aptly named. Its depths are shadowed not only by the high sheer walls, but also by a near permanent cloud cover hovering just below the level of the plateaus. None have ventured far into the Labyrinth, and a few of those who have explored the area around the opening have failed to return.
We passed a small settlement just west of Hebes Chasma yesterday, calling themselves Chasm City. ‘City’ demonstrating great optimism for the future, as right now they barely qualify as a hamlet. They have been there less than a year and already developed myths about Martian Monsters living in the Labyrinth. They report strange noises and vibrations as if the very ground was moving. Sasha informed them it was a volcanic region, but they just shook their heads and told us we would see.
1 young man told us he had explored half a day inside and would be willing to guide us if we took him the rest of the way through. We enthusiastically agreed, so now, with Vic on board, our team numbers 3.
The horses appear increasingly skittish for the last day or so. I hope they hold it together. Walking through would take much longer, even if it were an open field. I would expect it to take a day and half maybe 2 to cross the distance, on horseback, to Valles Marineris, the Mariner Valleys, but who knows how long it will take us to figure out a route that goes all the way through. If the horses rebel half way through we may be in real trouble. We have enough food for a week. Here’s hoping it takes less than that. Worse case scenario we can eat the horses.
A Fine Predicament
Sheriff Tomes’ head vibrated like a jackhammer. Through blurry eyes he attempted to determine his location. Cold concrete floor and corrugate metal walls suggested one of the pre-fab storage sheds that had been shipped here en-mass from Earth. It took several attempts to stand, as the floor continued to try and escape his feet.
“Oh, son of bitch.” A lump the size of his fist had grown on the back of his skull during the night. “I am going to kill that motherfucker.” He managed to make his way over to the doors without vomiting and tested them. Locked from the outside as he expected. He searched the shed for weaknesses. Light came in from a skylight just inside his arms’ reach. He pushed and it gave a little. He leapt to punch it, and the entire shed spun about him, tilting first 1 direction then the other. He lay on his back puking and sweating while he tried to recover from the effects of his concussion.
The door opened. Daylight poured in, cutting into his eyes like a knife. “Sheriff. How are you this beautiful morning?” Hughes stood there smiling down on him like some beatific sadist.
“You better kill me now Hughes, cuz when I heal up I’m going to carve out your heart and eat it with a side of your kidneys, fried.”
“If you insist. Herbie, Mike, take the Sheriff to the usual place, kill him and burn the body.”
Tomes thought about resisting, but knew he didn’t have it in him. So he just lay still and waited for them. Then he vomited all over the legs of both of his soon to be killers. The last thing he saw after that was Mike’s foot rapidly approaching his face.
It was still dark on Mars as Kevin bent his head and poured water across the bare flesh. Then tilted back and let it run down his bearded face. A quick wipe of the towel and he was showered for the day. Sasha’s routine was only a little more time consuming. In the lee of the tent, she took several minutes with a wet cloth and a bucket before she was willing to consider herself clean. Vic didn’t seem to care at all, throwing a breath mint in his mouth and turning to cook breakfast.
Sasha tied back her shoulder length blonde hair into pigtails as she stepped out from behind the tent. Dressed in brown boots, brown cargo pants, and a green button down blouse decorated by a red carnation print on the right shoulder she headed straight for the fire pit.
“With all the gadgets you built for this trip, was a field shower really too much to ask?”
Kevin pulled a white t-shirt over his head, contrasting starkly with the deep brown tan of his arms and face. “No, but you may have had some complaints about lugging around several hundred liters of water.”
Vic guffawed, stirring the pot. Leaning over to smell the soup-like meal, his rust colored mop of hair fell into his narrow, angular face. Dressed in white and black sneakers, a red t-shirt, jean shorts, and a blue baseball cap, he reminded Sasha of her nephew back on Earth. That thought caused a momentary pang of homesickness for all those people she’d never see again.
“Don’t worry ma’am, you’ll be getting plenty wet in the next few days.”
“All those clouds you see, hangin’ just below the plateaus, they from the water and heat inside the Labyrinth. If you ain’t get-tin’ rained on, then the mist just clings to ya, or you’re sweating enough to make your own river. And that’s just the parts I seen.”
Kevin spooned himself a bowl of breakfast, “How far have you been inside?”
“Most time I spent in there was, like, 10 hours. But I didn’t get more than a kilometer inside.”
Sasha turned to face him, “10 hours only got you 1 K?”
The warm, amber light of the fire danced across their faces. The first tendrils of dawn creeped onto the horizon, illuminating their path up to the still darkened entrance to the Labyrinth.
“Yeah, but I musta walked for like, 20K. It ain’t called the Labyrinth as a joke. That shit twists and turns back on itself ’til you don’t know where you are. That’s why we always carry spray paint, mark where we been.” He tapped his pack, the ring of a metal can inside returned.
“You ever come across any of these Martian Monsters we’ve been hearing about?” Kevin smiled around his spoonful of grul.
“Be serious honey.”
“You should be serious about this, ma’am, nobody’s ever seen them, at least none that’s lived to tell, but you’ll hear some crazy noises, and smell some nasty shit, while we in there. Stuff that can’t be explained”
Sasha shook her head, “This is a highly volcanic region. You could be hearing any number of geo-thermal activities. And if hot sulfur is being expelled… well let’s just say that would cover your disgusting smells.”
“If you say so ma’am. I ain’t no scientist but it didn’t sound natural to me.”
Kevin stood up, “Well, we’ll all know soon enough; let’s break camp. I want to be out of here no more than an hour after sunrise.”
South of Paveris Mons (Peacock Mountain)
Mike leaned forward on the ATV, taking as much advantage as he could of the windshield to protect him from the dust and rocks that perpetually hung in the air around the southern base of the mountain. Twice the size of Everest, you could rarely see the top half of the mountain due to the heavy bank of clouds surrounding it. At this hour, the sun just starting reaching over the horizon and across the plain with a few glowing tendrils of light, the mountain was just a dark, ruddy wall thrust up into the infinite.
He was more concerned about the never ending avalanches hidden in that infinity that caused the fog of dust below. Ever since they had terra-formed Mars by dropping H-bombs into the volcanoes, the entire Tholus Mountain Chain had remained unstable. Perhaps most threatening were the occasional breaches of natural damns that would allow a torrent of water melting off the glaciers to come flooding down a cliff side with the force of a tsunami. The instability made this a preferred route for smuggles and other criminal types as few tracks remained visible for long and no ‘good citizens’ ever traveled this way by choice.
The windshield did little to protect him, though. Without the red bandana tied around his face, and the goggles strapped tight to his eyes, every orafice would have been filled with reddish brown dirt. The long, black overcoat flapping behind him in the breeze had little practical use, but he loved the image.
Herbie circled above, watching for unwelcome observers. He’d promised Mike he’d keep an eye out for severe avalanches, but Mike really didn’t trust the Kentauran. He barely trusted other humans, how was he supposed to trust some red skinned, bat-thing from another world?
Sheriff Tomes bounced along behind the ATV tied down to a sled, lying atop 2 other bundled bodies. He’d been unconscious almost from the time they left. Mike was hoping he would die from his injuries along the way. It would not be his first kill, but it would be his first time killing a helpless man. An idea he didn’t relish, but he would do his job if necessary, of course. Otherwise it would be him getting dragged off to be buried in secret by some other minions of the Czar.
Herbie swooped down and floated to a gentle landing a few meters ahead of Mike. He took his hand off the throttle and let it roll to a stop. The ATV had just a little too much momentum, and the Kentauran was forced to back-fly a bit to avoid getting bumped.
He gave Mike a look that needed no translation. Then his translator activated. He wasn’t sure if dust was in the machine or it was just his imagination, but it sounded more gravely than normal. “There is a group of humans by the entrance.”
“What are they doing?”
“They appearing to be breaking camp in order to head inside. There are 3 of them, each with those tall, four legged pack-animals. I can never remember the name.”
“Horses? They must be geeks from the science teams, horses can go places vehicles can’t. We’re still a few hours away by ATV so it shouldn’t be a problem. See if you can find out which way they go after entering, so we can avoid them.”
“I’ll try, but the cloud cover is thick and I can’t fly very well in there because of all the cross currents and random updrafts.”
“Alright. Do what you can. We’ll keep pushing through.”
“How’s our traveling companion doing?”
“Who cares? He’s as dead as the others, 1 way or t’other.” Tomes lay still, only the continuous trickle of blood from his head betrayed that his heart still beat.
“True enough.” Herbie was 10 meters in the air before the wind from his takeoff had finished blowing dust into Mike’s face.
For Every Action
The intercom hummed to life. “Madam Mayor, the Kentauran representative is here.”
“Show him in.” Mayor Alicia Evans sat back in her chair, recycled from the transport they had come in. Most of her office furniture had been ‘rescued’ from the ship. The long brown, plastic desk that doubled as a conference table had been the table in the Captain’s mess. The lights, the intercom, even the toilet had been the ship’s head.
The door swung open, Erica ushered a 2 meter tall, red man-bat creature into the room. “Mayor Evans, may I present the Kentauran Security Liaison. He uses the human name of Arthur.”
“Hello Mr. …Arthur.” Alicia stood and extended her hand, trying to hide her insecurity about greeting him. The Kentauran stepped across the room in 1 massive stride and took it. She could feel the tips of its claws press against her flesh.
The translator box at the back of its throat uttered a mechanical voice, “An honor to meet you, Madam Mayor. And please, just call me Arthur.”
“Thank you, and you should call me Alicia. Please have a seat.” She waived to the backless stool set to her right just for his people.
Arthur crossed the table in a combined leaping, flying motion, turning as it crossed. With a brief flutter of massive wings, it was able to settle, perch actually, atop the stool with a grace that belied the impressive size. Alicia shuddered, just a little.
“So, Alicia, it seems we have a common problem.”
“Yes, about that, I thought you’re people didn’t deviate from the demands of your Queen?”
“We’re not insects. We seem to be more inter-dependent than humans, but we are still capable of independent choices, just like you. Which means there’s always going to be some who choose poorly, just like you.”
“Can’t argue with that. I’m not sure how Kentauran law functions, but we have jurisdictions, territories, outside of which our government has no authority.”
“Yes, I was briefed on that peculiarity. For us, the Queen Mother has jurisdiction over all of us who are descended from her. Violating a direct order from her is treasonable. It means death. These Kentauran know that, which makes them very dangerous.”
“Great. Rogue aliens. Exactly what I was hoping for.”
“No. Its called sarcasm. Its a form of humor.”
“But this isn’t funny.”
“I’m aware. We use jokes to-”
“Madam Mayor,” the intercom broke in.
“Erica, Didn’t I tell you not to interrupt.
“Yes ma’am, but Deputy Vigo is here, and he says he has important intel about your meeting.”
Alicia looked at Arthur, who nodded its head silently, “Very well, let him in.”
She had barely finished her sentence when a breathless Deputy burst through the door. “Ma’am, Sir, we have a problem.”
“Calm down, Frank. Take a breath. Now tell me what’s going on.”
“Last night the Sheriff decided to go and investigate the fights by himself-”
Arthur’s wings expanded, “By himself? Why would he do such a reckless thing?”
“Good question. Frank?”
“Apparently he got a tip that it was happening at the last minute. So he left me a note and took off. I haven’t been able to find him all morning, so I tracked down his contact. It seems he was arrested.”
“Arrested? He’s the Sheriff, who arrests the Sheriff?”
“Apparently, Conrad Hughes has claimed ownership of the old arboretum, which is outside any settlements. So he declared himself the government there. That’s all I know right now, well that and both combatants last night died from their injuries.”
Arthur’s head lowered, “That brings the total dead to 5 Kentauran and 8 humans.”
“Not that we can prove any of it.” Deputy Vigo thew up his hands, disgusted, “We haven’t found any trace of the bodies.”
“Arthur, did you bring any of your security team with you?”
“Yes, I have 2 outside. Why?”
“I want to send the Deputy here to speak with this Mr. Hughes. Since we know he is working with Kentauran, I thought you’d like to send 1 of your people along.”
“Good idea.” Reaching behind his neck, he removed the translator box then began to move his mouth as if speaking, but neither human could here a thing. After a moment he stopped and put the translator back on. “Victor is waiting for you outside.”
The deputy cocked his head slightly to 1 side. “You just held a conversation with someone outside?”
“I can hold a conversation with someone half a kilometer from here. Our voices carry.”
“Why take off the translator box?”
“I don’t know the science, but it works by somehow muting or altering our voices into your hearing range, which is a wavelength that doesn’t travel as far cohesively.”
“Interesting.” Frank redirected his attention to the Alicia, “Ma’am, You’re sending me to speak with a powerful man inside his territory. Do you have any special instructions?”
“You’re primary objective is to get the Sheriff and get out safely. Find out what you can, but give him as little info as possible. Let him think the Sheriff was acting on his own. If his defenses are up that will only make things harder.”
“And be careful, we don’t have anyone to send to rescue you.”
“You need to work on that motivational speaking.”