RED DUST – BLUE BLOOD
TABLE OF CONTENTS
01 Beautiful Chaos
02 Blood Relations
03 Lovers of the Past
04 Smoke and Sand
05 Accidents and Acquaintances
18th December, 3082
Helen watched the world escape beneath her, shrinking into a hazy ball of blue. Milk white clouds lulled by, apparently unaware of the seas shimmering beneath, plotting to transform their casual clusters into cyclones. It was always like this during the sun’s peak solar cycle – a beautiful catastrophe.
Another of the passengers roughly deposited a file into her lap. She startled, glancing up for the culprit but all she found was a bored looking bureaucrat doing the exact same thing to the next person. Raising an eyebrow, Helen Magnus flipped open the top sheet and started skimming.
It was a summary, detailing the purpose the team’s mission. She rolled her tied eyes and threw the folder onto the spare seat beside her, returning her gaze to the window. The shuttle skimmed out of the atmosphere and followed the curve of the Earth until it escaped the sun’s bombardment. In the shadow of her home planet, Helen saw the cities come alight, trailing along the coasts of continents like lonely stars.
She smiled, letting her eyelids fall closed. A moment later she was peaceful, finally asleep after a long day.
The man staggered backwards, holding onto the handle of the knife embedded in his stomach. Pain blurred his thoughts as his eyes searched feverishly around the room for the safe. He had dragged himself halfway through the building like this – gasping for air. Finally his hand found the keypad beside the silver box. He fumbled his pass code, slipping over the keys.
The door unlocked slowly, sliding across as the man coughed up another gush of blood. He was dying and knew it.
As soon as the safe was open, he reached into the small box and withdrew an old paper manuscript. There were footsteps coming down behind. They were tracking him, following the trail of blood straight towards him.
Panicked, the man threw the manuscript into the small, mesh wastepaper bin. He poured the remainder of his vodka over it and set the whole thing alight. The combination burned fiercely, blackening into ash as he watched.
“Found you…” announced a sinister voice, slipping into the small office behind the man. The pursuer carried a set of knives around his belt identical to the one in the man’s stomach. With an air of fascination, they withdrew another, slowly turning it between their fingers.
Flames reflected off the metal edge, dancing over the blade as it cut through the air.
The scientist, still on his feet, rested against his desk as he waited for the inevitable.
Mars wasn’t half as impressive as the brochures led you to believe. It wasn’t so much red, as pastel orange up close. Rust, by its very nature, was not particularly attractive. Neither was traipsing through it. There were reasons Helen rarely visited the new city and this topped them – miles and miles of sand getting into the air and over her skin. She couldn’t see what John and Ashley found so appealing.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said another member of the team, falling into step beside her. He was a young gentlemen dressed specifically for the walk rather than the orientation afterwards. Despite it all, he seemed to be enjoying himself as evidenced by the enormous grin hogging his face.
Helen didn’t respond. She shifted her shoulder bag, wondering if there’d be time to change when they reached the outer building.
“Really a marvellous feat,” the irritating man continued. “A terriformed planet, habitable to humans. Extraordinary.”
Hardly, thought Helen. Despite their best efforts, apart from breathable air, Mars was still the same lump of iron oxide it had always been. The ‘city’ held as the pride of the human race’s achievements was a smattering of buildings huddled together inside a small crater. In the beginning, when the promotional photos had been taken, they were stunning white pillars, capped in polished sheets of limestone. They glittered in the soft light, going pink at dawn and dusk. Granted, they had been beautiful then. Now the dust had got to them, reddening their edges and smudging into their facades.
Despite its three thousand permanent inhabitants, Prosperity appeared a ruin in the sand.
It was twilight before they reached the first building. The sun, a weak mew at best, had dipped behind the wall of the crater casting a shadow over the city.
The team of fourteen led by a tall man in green, filed into a squat building at the edge of the city. It was warm inside, a pleasant change from the freezing winds on the surface. Helen ditched her coat, stuffing it into her bag. She whipped her head forward, trying to shake her hair free of dust.
“Welcome to Mars,” said the leader of the group. His ginger hair was straight to his ears where it took on a light curl. “No time for sightseeing I’m afraid, we have a lot of work to do and no time to do it. Break into your teams and follow me.”
The scorched wreck was still smouldering when the first team approached. Level 4 of the Ecological sciences building had been badly damaged by the fire as it raged most of the night. A cloud of ash could still be seen on the horizon as the last of the light faded from the sky, revealing a glittering sky of stars. With no moon, it was their light that cast shadows after the sun was gone.
Helen was the last into the room, slinking around the burnt out doorway.
“Nice of you to join us, Magnus,” the team leader lifted his eyes to hers. Her inclusion on the team was not his choice. As far as Smith was concerned, Helen Magnus was nothing but a red flag for trouble. No-one knew anything about her except for ridiculous rumours.
The other five had lined themselves along where the windows had once been. Behind their feet was a sharp fall to the city streets. Helen joined them, waiting for the leader to continue.
“Two days ago this level was burnt to a shell. The forensic scientists have found a set of remains belonging to Dr. T. Edwards. He was of course, Mars’s chief climate engineer. This knife,” Smith withdrew a plastic bag with a blackened knife, “along with another like it, were found in the victim. It is your job, ladies and gentlemen, to find and bring this murderer to justice. Now, we have reason to believe that they are not working alone and that their ultimate goal is to destroy the terriforming equipment, making Mars uninhabitable. This must not happen. Work fast and diligently. Dismissed.”
Helen immediately made for the exit. She was stopped by a hand latching onto her coat sleeve.
“What are you doing? There’s work to do,” said Smith.
“I have contacts here,” replied Helen, tugging herself free. “You’ll have your answer inside the week.”
With that, Helen Magnus vanished out the door, descending the flight of stairs to the building’s foyer and out the double glass doors into the night.
Nikola adored this century.
It was a fresh, uncomplicated bed of corruption. He smiled, a thick moustache accentuating his grin. It was not so much that he loved corruption, more that all the major organisations were so busy watching each other that they left him in peace – a peace that he used to his advantage designing ever greater technology.
He sold patents whenever he needed money. Most of them ended up on space ships or Martian technologies and indeed, had he not blown the last wad of cash on this machine, he would be quite the wealthy gentlemen. Instead, he was as impoverished as he had ever been. But that was okay.
This was the main reason that he was surprised one night by the sound of the locks on his door thumping to the ground. There was another loud bang, bringing him to his feet just in time to see his door fly from its hinges and a group of people file in, covered from head to combat boot in black.
She ran her hand along the sand that lapped at the destroyed building’s edge. Helen felt the night through her coat – it was bitterly cold as if on the edge nothing. Martian life clung to existence by silken threads of atmosphere constantly ripped away by solar winds. The artificial magnetic shielding set up to protect the planet was fragile and in constant need of attention.
The street ahead of her led directly to a set of tall apartment buildings on the outskirts of the city. Behind them, the rim of the crater rose up, cutting a silhouette against the sky. Laneways criss-crossed in front of her, but they were all empty. She had to keep to the road as the footpaths had been consumed by unstable mounds of red sand, blown there in the recent storm. It was a constant battle against a planet that seemed set on burying them all.
More than a thousand years had passed since Oxford – since that night. It was a dream to her, a faint set of memories of times past and feelings lost to history. The only thing still sharp was the moment the needle had pierced her skin – it hurt, even now.
Helen spun silently, raising a sleek gun to the night air.
Something had darted behind her, rushing into the shadows. She eyed the parked cars nestled against the line of buildings. Helen could hear heavy breathing and the frantic heartbeats of the person cowering against a rise of sand.
“Come out if you want to live,” she took a step forward, backlit by an ocean of stars.
Whoever it was scurried around the cars and vanished into a side street.
“Or you could just run away,” Helen sighed, lowering her weapon. “Everybody else does…”
The black-clothed people in Tesla’s lab caught sight of the imposing scientist and froze, watching as Nikola buttoned his jacket calmly. There was an ever-present menacing air circling Nikola and the intruders could feel it tense.
“Do you have any idea,” began Nikola, his voice rising just shy of subdued fury, “whose Sanctuary you are breaking into?” He gave a cord dangling above his head a tug and the room was engulfed in a bright light which crackled, rife with scattered lightening.
Usually, this party trick was enough to startle would be thieves into leaving, but the team of whatever they were simply pulled a set of goggles over their eyes and converged on Nikola.
They were keen, he would give them that.
“I tried to be fair,” he sighed, sharpening his claws. Nikola’s eyes blackened into smooth domes as a set of sharp teeth grew from his jaw. He cocked his head, clicking several vertebras back into position as his vampirish form stirred.
The closest attacker quickly pulled out a small gun, aiming it at Tesla’s heart. Nikola raised his eyebrow. Would they ever learn?
He had expected the bullet to hurt – they always did, but this one was different. Instead of burning through his flesh, it was cold as ice, shocking his torn skin into uncontrollable shivers. He staggered backwards, inspecting the trivial hole in his coat before his knees buckled and he crumpled to the floor in human form.
“Clever little birds…” he gasped.
Nikola was paralysed, hardly able to breathe as the unknown group began emptying his draws of documents into bags, smashing anything they could reach in the process. His masterpiece, a delicate system of copper disks, met its demise at the hand the group’s leader.
When they were finished, one of them strode over to Nikola. Seeing that the scientist was conscious, he knelt down.
Nikola’s eyes caught a flicker of silver where a set of ornate knives hid along their waist.
“It has been a pleasure doing business with you,” they said. One of the others had a bottle of flammable liquid and was busy splashing it over the room.
A moment later a match was struck and Nikola was left to watch as his life’s work caught alight and burnt furiously before him. Even though he couldn’t move, a tear slipped down his cheek and onto the dusty floorboards.
“By God, you look exactly the same.” John stepped aside, allowing Helen into the small apartment.
He didn’t. Time had taken its toll on John in the form of scars networked across his face and neck. His hair had started to silver in patches behind his ears whilst his nose was slightly larger and his eyebrows – a little longer. He was still alluring though, in ways Helen had always struggled to understand. All she knew was that she had missed him, these last years.
“It’s been a long time,” she said, still with a very British accent, as he closed the door gently.
They stood in silence, observing one another until John broke a shaky smile and said, “I called you, twelve years ago when I was back on Earth. You were in the papers again and I –”
“I know,” Helen cut him off. “We were very busy then.”
The silence returned. She didn’t mean to be harsh, there was just a lot of things that needed to be said – centuries to recover but as it so often turned out, she didn’t have the time.
“Is Ashley here?” she asked, catching sight of a female coat hanging on the back of the door. Ashley had been offered a job with a Martian security firm, so they shared an apartment.
“She went out earlier, hunting a petty thief. I shall tell her that you’re in town. Do you have a number that I can contact you on?”
“Ecological Science Building – Level 4. I’ll be there tomorrow morning. John?” John lifted his eyes from the floor, a place that they had chosen to settle to avoid Helen’s cold demeanour. “Is there anything that I need to know about the city?” she asked. “Nasty surprises that wouldn’t have been included in my briefing? I don’t have long for this job and I can’t afford diversions.”
He smiled, ever so slightly. This place has been his home for a long time, and he knew it well. He’s never grown particularly fond of it, but he can feel its blood rising and soul stirring with every new day.
“The food shipments have been delayed two months,” he began. “I help to distribute it, what little there is left. You might also want to keep an eye on the hydrogardens, they’re in poor condition after a rupture in the main water pipe. The firm Ashley works for suspects sabotage but I don’t know Helen, whoever did it lives here as well, and if the gardens go, then they’ll die like the rest of us.”
So basically, thought Helen, chaos as usual. He opened the door for her, and she slipped out, lingering in the hallway. “Give my love to Ashley,” she said, wanting to say more. “Tell her to write again.”
“No one writes any more, Helen,” he replied, closing the door.
She was knee deep in water and not happy about it. The thick pipe running along the roof of the tunnel took up most of the space leaving just enough room for her to walk below, scanning it for damage.
Ashley found cause of the problem a third of the way through the tunnel. The rivets holding each section of pipe together had been half unscrewed and then hit by something, smashing them back into the pipe at strange angles. Water leaked from each one in a process that would eventually flood the whole tunnel.
“Great,” she whispered, taking out her camera and snapping away for her employer. “All I need is sabotage…”
“Progress?” Her caddy, for lack of a better description, had finally made it to her position carrying the rest of her equipment. He was a young boy new to the concept of hormones, and seemed content in his job of trailing Ashley.
“Your father’s tunnel’s buggered,” she said, focusing her flashlight on the torrents of water pouring out. “He’ll have to turn the water off and replace the whole section unless he wants to start an underwater colony…”
“Was it like he said – on purpose?”
Ashley nodded. “I reckon so. Rivets don’t usually bash each other to pieces after a late night party. Not that you’ve ever been to one of those. Bad parenting tip.”
The boy took her camera from her and stowed it away. “It’s starting then, just like they said it would.”
“I hope not,” replied Ashley, sloshing through the water back toward the exit.
LOVERS OF THE PAST
It started with a ‘click’. A sharp, sudden snapping of metal as one of the rivets holding the pipe in place dislodged and hit the water. Ashley froze mid conversation when the pipe above her head groaned. She could hear the thousands of litres of water gushing through the pipe, swirling, trapped in endless currents. It was begging to be free and as a second ‘click’ rang out, it might just be about to get its chance.
Ashley closed her eyes as the entire line of rivets popped, flung out into the tunnel with the enormous force of the water pressure. She stumbled forward, taking the young boy with her as the pipe shuddered and cracked, unleashing a torrent of freezing water over them.
They plunged into the water, submerged by the pressure above them. The boy’s arms flailed wildly, his feet finding the bottom of the tunnel and kicking off, propelling him back toward the surface. He emerged in a nightmare of white spray.
“Ash!” he screamed, convulsing as water stuck in his throat. He coughed it out, treading water as he spun endlessly. The air was indiscernible from the water, heavy and thick in his lungs. His eyes stung, pierced by the saline edge of the unrefined liquid pumped out of the Martian crust. The lights above were blurred into a monotonous, disorienting glow.
He couldn’t see her. All he could hear was the great roar of the fractured pipe and the pounds of another series of rivets hitting the walls of the tunnel as they exploded from their holdings.
The water was rising around him, developing a current as it searched for an exit. He was no match for it, tugged and thrown about as the dark waters gathered speed. Eventually he slipped under, no longer able to fight the drag.
The boy opened his eyes in the water, madly searching for escape. He found a thousand tiny creatures, aglow in the murky water. Their limbs were delicate, notched by several joints and feelers. They drifted peacefully by him as the last of his breath bubbled away, rising in perfect spheres through the creatures.
Helen felt the city rumble beneath her. It was a soft shudder, rattling a tray of refreshments servicing the huddle of investigating officers. She hung back from them, strolling in and out of the morning light coming through broken windows.
“Five minutes…” Smith reminded her, pointing at his watch. The mysterious woman wouldn’t tell him what or whom she was waiting for, but he couldn’t keep the team waiting on her behalf – well, not for much longer anyway.
She nodded back, running a hand nervously through her hair. Helen had not seen her daughter for decades, ever since she moved to this horrid planet.
The building rumbled again, hard enough for the others to glance around in confusion. Mars was supposedly geologically dead. No plates, no continents grinding against one another – no reason at all to shiver its skin.
“What is that?” Helen asked Smith, as he joined her at the window. They kept back from the edge, out of reach of the wind kicking along the edge of the building.
“No idea,” he replied, as the trembling ceased. “But it feels like it’s right below us.”
Helen’s eyebrows furrowed, peaking out under a mass of unrestrained dark hair. “Do I need to worry?”
“Shouldn’t think so. Been here five times now and on every single occasion this place throws us a curve. You can’t get settled. She’s got life left in her yet, this world.”
“Are my five minutes up?” she craned her head to get a look at his watch.
“I can’t let you stay. The company wants you out examining the shield.”
“I know,” she folded her arms and turned back to the room. Two of the team had moved towards the door, waiting. Helen and Smith joined them with a sigh audible on her lips as she spied the red haired enthusiast from orientation.
“So beautiful,” he grinned. The wind buffeted his red hair as the dune buggy bounced and skidded over the sand hills. The dirt was coarse and slippery, falling away from the tires as the rickety piece of machinery navigated its way to a metal outcrop on the horizon.
There were eight shield generators placed equally around the rim of the dome-shaped enclose keeping the city safe from Mars’ vacuous atmosphere. This one was nestled between a low rise of ironstone, gnarled and ghastly as it poked through the ground in melted columns.
The buggy dipped over the last of the wandering dunes and found a gravelly expanse. It wasn’t like the rolled whitestone of estates back on Earth; this stuff was a razor sharp mixture of boulders and daggers from a mountain range that no-longer existed.
“God. Damn.” Helen gripped the metal bar over their heads harder, doing her best to remain inside the vehicle as it bounced again.
All of a sudden they were stopped. Smith swore, slamming the wheel with his hand in disgust. It wasn’t the wheel’s fault that the buggy had stopped, rather the exceedingly flat tire drooped over the gravel. He ordered everybody out and they went ahead on foot while he laid himself down on the painful gravel and began jacking the tire off.
As Helen had feared, the gingerbot was tracking her, striding up through the others so that he could not so subtly fall in step with her.
“Mike,” he introduced himself. Helen muttered her name half-heartedly at him. “Oh, I know,” Mike seemed amused. “You really don’t know who I am, do you?”
Helen couldn’t help but wonder if this was a trick question to get her attention.
“Most people say I look just like him – my grandfather.”
That made her take a second look.
Pale skin mottled with blemishes, thick eyebrows with loosely curled edges forming a permanent expression of wonder, scrawny disposition made worse by well-worn attire, disarming eyes – Helen tilted her head.
Maurice Newton. Through and through. How could she have not seen it?
“Now you see him,” he said. “The rumours about you are true I see.”
Her eyes snapped away defensibly.
“If it makes any difference at all, it was my grandfather who told me about you. He thought very highly of a Ms Helen Magnus, perhaps he was even a little in love.”
Helen picked up the pace, almost falling on the uneven ground.
“She couldn’t help her curiosity – that was half the thrill of a lifetime with Helen,” as his grandfather used to say with a sad smile. “He died a happy man because of you.”
Her breath caught. She swallowed a sob, brushing away the beginnings of a tear. Of course he was dead. She knew that. Hearing it though – having it confirmed as an absolute certainty, that was something else.
Nikola coughed. A thick layer of black smoke oozed around him full of singed paper. He couldn’t move, forced to lie there on the floor and wait for the encroaching flames. Vampires were hardly creatures with exceptional healing power, but even the most resilient of them could not survive an inferno. Nikola was only half-vampire, if that. He could see the end of his life coming – taste it in the smoke and for the first time since that night in Oxford he realised how much he wanted to live.
They had been young then, a thousand years ago hidden away in their ad-hoc laboratory. The terror he had felt then as the needle’s contents spilled into his veins had returned to him. He could see auras of red inside the smoke and feel fronts of heat creeping toward him. This is not how the great Nikola Tesla wanted to die – helpless and alone.
His work bench collapsed. He heard it slam into the ground and snap in half taking what remained of its contents with it.
“Not like this!” he screamed out.
“So this is the one of the famous shield generators,” she ignored Mike’s previous comment as they reached the metal cone. It stuck out from the ground, angrily pointing at the sky with its sharp tip.
“Clever little thing,” said Mike, kneeling down beside it. As it turned out, Mike was the shield specialist, taking after both his father and grandfather. Technology was in love with him, obeying his most gentle touch.
He traced his finger over the machine’s sinister tip, carving out an intricate pattern on its cone. It was a form of code – unlocking the outer shell of the device. Helen watched closely should she need to mimic him later.
“It really shouldn’t do that,” he commented, frowning in concern as the usually invisible shielding above them flickered.
Helen looked up, catching a ripple of purple ride along the roof of the dome, showing her its contours for the first time.
“Power fluctuations,” he said, inspecting a readout on the machine’s screen. “It’s been going on for months now. I’m not talking about slight changes in output,” he shook his head at her. “Just then we lost 87% of the power required to keep the roof up, the module shifted to its backup batteries to maintain the shield which is what caused the flicker.”
“How long do the batteries last?”
“A hour, maybe. It depends on how often they’re used.”
“But we’re back on mains now,” Helen looked up to where she knew the shield was. It was back to being an invisible curtain against the morning sky.
“Yes. For the moment we’re back on the main power supply but I hate to think what would happen if it failed for any great length of time.”
“It was only this unit that was affected,” Helen noted.
“On this occasion. I have a live feed back to my lab on Earth. Nearly every unit has reported similar power fluctuations. It’s why they called me. Why did they call you?”
Helen was taken aback for a moment. Mike wasn’t nearly as pleasant as she had summarised. “They need me,” she answered, “for all the things you can’t predict.”
“I thought it was because of him,” replied Mike. “They say that you’re the only one he listens to. The only one that can control him. No one would ensure this operation without you along to babysit.”
“What on –” she was about to say, ‘Earth’ but stopped herself. “What are you talking about?”
“Him. The man who built these this system in the first place. Nikola Tesla.”
Helen stopped dead. “You have got to be kidding me.”
“He should have been here to meet us,” said Mike. “As I was to understand it, the man’s never late.”
SMOKE AND SAND
“God, you’re an absolute mess. You’ll have to lose that moustache, singed to bloody oath.”
“Yes, thank you for your – ” Nikola rolled over, coughing violently. The smoke had worked its way deep within his lungs, blackening them. “Assistance…” he finished. Nikola’s long suffering neighbour had dragged him from the burning laboratory, down the stairs and out into the freezing snow.
Rome never changed. Millennia had passed it by calmly, as if wandering in and out of its marble streets while the rest of the world dug its feet in and battened down the hatches. Nikola buried his hands in the white powder. This was not the first time his life’s work had burned to the ground, reduced to a pile of smouldering rubble. It certainly wasn’t something that got easier to watch.
“Is there any good news?” he asked, ignoring the painful burns on his hand. They would heal.
His neighbour shook his head in amazement, “You really are an optimist.” Nikola assured him that he was just crazy. “Well, aside from the obvious fact that you’re alive – still. I swear I’ve known you for forty years and you never look any different. Yeah I know, don’t ask,” he caught himself, “the only other positive thing I can think of is the letter left for you this morning. I was on my way to deliver it to you when I found the whole place ablaze.”
“A letter?” Nikola lifted his head from the ground. Flecks of ash drifted over, spiralling with the snowflakes.
The neighbour eyed Nikola’s burnt hands, “Would you like me to open it?” Nikola glared, snatching the letter before growling, dropping it in the snow. “That’d be a yes then.” He unfolded the letter carefully, holding it up to the glow of the burning building.
“To Mr Tesla, owner of patent 3029A0,
Your presence is required for immediate repairs…”
“That’d be right,” hissed Nikola. “They never pay me for anything, skimp on materials, make drastic changes to design, and then want help when it breaks.”
“Are you going to be quiet so I can read this?”
The shuttle dropped him roughly in the desert, miles from anywhere. Nikola eyed the landscape. It was eerily quiet and choked by peripatetic dunes. Sol was at its brightest, shining high above but at this distance it was more like a light bulb than a star. Had it not been for the shield encapsulating the area he would have frozen to death very quickly in the faint milieu of light.
He waved sardonically at the awkward craft as it rose back into atmosphere with a storm of sand. The red particles embedded themselves in every nook of Nikola, staining him a general red. He hadn’t been on Mars five minutes before he decided against it.
“Horrid planet…” he muttered, attempting to dust himself off.
The rendezvous appeared to have failed as there was nothing to ‘rendezvous’ with other than a curious rock which Nikola approached, tilting his head in curiosity. It was a vaguely round protrusion, weathered on one side by the endless grinding of sand storms. Tesla had seen a lot of rocks in his time. During those few decades he’d spent seducing a geologist, identifying rocks had become an unwanted skill. This was no rock.
He got within a nose of it, rubbing away at its surface with the sleeve of his Victorian style jacket. Underneath all the grit was an ochre colour – naturally smooth. Nikola stretched out his tongue, resting its tip on the strange surface. Instantly he felt the pull as the surface tried to suck all the moisture in. Bone – a very large lump of ancient bone.
“These doors ain’t gonna hold the water,” an engineer hurried through the unground facility, upsetting piles of paper scattered over the office desks. “We closed them as soon as the pressure spiked but we’re losing integrity in the tunnel. It’s going to bleed out into the surrounding rock and when it can’t do that…” He came to a halt in front of the senior engineer. Professor Robert Hill was newly appointed after the sudden death of Dr. T. Edwards and currently having the worst possible day.
“We’re going to have a very pretty water feature in the middle of town…” Robert rubbed the vein between his eyebrows. By, ‘very pretty water feature’ he mean that the entire city would be drowned in thousands of litres of raw Martian water and they would lose the food gardens, essentially bringing an end to humankind’s attempts at colonisation. “What about the expert we sent in to assess the damage?”
“Ashley Magnus,” the engineer shook his head. “We had to close the tunnel doors. She didn’t make it.”
“What aren’t you telling me?” Robert took a step closer to the rattled man. “Come on, I don’t have time to be subtle.”
“It’s the boss’s kid. Video footage shows him following Magnus into the tunnel just before the accident. He didn’t come out either.”
Robert felt ill. “The force of the artesian basin will eventually break our pumps. Get those drills working on an evacuation tunnel for the water – I don’t care how rough it is, as long as the water has another option. At least we won’t all drown.”
The dune buggy skidded over the sand in a crazy curve, nearly tipping over before coming to rest beside Tesla. Lowering their sunglasses, the driver eyed the man running his hands over a rock. It appeared that the rumours were true – the man was a complete nutter/eccentric –whatever.
“You Tesla?” the buzz-cut Major asked, well aware that the possibility of it being anybody else was slim.
Nikola spun around with his eyes agleam, “Did you know that there was life on Mars?”
The Major did away with his shades completely. “Yeah…” he replied slowly, as if it were the most obvious thing ever said. “Get in.”
“Fascinating,” said Nikola, as he slipped into the passenger seat.
“Someone wants you dead.” The Major shifted the car back into gear, racing down the side of the dune. They were headed for one of the shield generators on the outskirts of the liveable area, a good ten minute drive.
“I would be offended if they didn’t.”
“The government has taken extra precautions, changed most of your arrangements since the incident at your laboratory. We, your security, would prefer it if you didn’t lean out over the door like that whilst the vehicle is moving…” The Major grabbed the back of Tesla’s coat with one of his enormous hands and yanked the man back into his seat. “Appreciated.”
“You should be more worried,” said Tesla, preening himself, “about what you’ve already got in the car.”
That made him laugh. “They warned me you’d be trouble.” Nikola stretched out, resting his feet on the dash. “It’s a rough ride,” he cautioned.
“And so is life,” Nikola replied, closing his eyes.
Helen was not pleased by the news and had set to pacing around the shield generator as Mike sieved through its error log.
“I’m going to make a catastrophic error if you keep that up,” Mike lifted his eyes to the distressed woman. “They said that he was a colleague of yours – your reaction suggests that there is more to that story.”
“Got a thousand years?” she hissed back. Mike mistakenly took that as a joke.
“Oh, here he is now – or is that our car… no, it’s definitely him.” They both stood as the buggy approached with a red trail of dust swept up behind, stalking it.
As the car stuttered to stop, Helen couldn’t help but think about a similar scene back in Egypt, 1929. Humans may have moved to another planet, but they didn’t change.
“You’re going to regret this,” Helen whispered to Mike, as she caught sight of Nikola sporting a moustache.
John Druitt took the stairs three at a time, gliding down toward the depths of the Ecological Science Building. He was trailed by a security team two flights above, doing their best to catch him.
“Oy!” one of the grey-suited men yelled, puffing as turned and began the next set. “I said stop!”
He could see the final emergency door. John hit the landing and pushed into the engineer’s level. Half a dozen shocked scientists froze at the sight of the imposing man who was scanning the room.
“Where is she?” John growled.
One of the men, dressed in white pants and matching lab coat, shifted to the front. He was wearing a bright red hard hat, clutching a clipboard. “I am Professor Hill,” the man said.
The pursuing security team finally caught up, piling in through the door behind John in a grey blur. Several of them grasped onto John, pretending to have him captured.
“No, no…” Robert raised his hands, trying to calm the security detail. “Let him go. I was about to call him anyway.”
They did – but very reluctantly.
“Please, my office is this way.”
With the news Robert was about to deliver it wasn’t going to make a difference whether or not he had protection. Druitt was either going to help him – or kill him. It was as simple as that.
ACCIDENTS AND ACQUAINTANCES
The dust swirled in front of the buggy, temporarily enveloping it in a red blur which stung Helen’s eyes as its edges wafted out. She heard two doors slam. Mike straightened up beside her, wiping his greasy hands on his shirt as they both watched the dust.
A tall silhouette was the first to emerge. Like a slender shadow, it slinked toward them with a confident air. There was no mistaking that strut – the way each foot seemed to glide before landing or the rigid line of his shoulders greeting the world like a wall.
“Nikola Tesla,” said Helen, self-consciously fixing her hair.
A gentle wind kicked the dust away revealing Nikola, his escort and the buggy that was parked crookedly on the embankment. Helen had to do a double take – sporting a thick moustache and attired in an early 20th Century suit, he appeared as a distant reverie – a shadow from her past merging with the present. It was the same feeling others must experience upon seeing her.
“Did you know,” he announced as soon as he had come to a stop in front of them, “that there was life on Mars?” Nikola seemed genuinely taken with the concept, eagerly awaiting her answer.
Helen couldn’t quite believe it – three-hundred years and that was the first thing that he chose to say to her. She frowned and briefly looked away, running her eyes of the desolate border between the sky and dirt.
“Do you,” she inquired, whipping her head suddenly back with a storm of hair flying over her shoulder, “participate in television, newspapers, radio?”
Nikola ran a finger thoughtfully over his moustache. “You mean, other than inventing it?”
“It’s a worry…” Helen trailed off. Nikola took a few steps closer, dipping his head in.
“What is?” he asked, menacingly.
He went quiet. Yes, he was the first to admit that he led a solitary life, often cutting himself off from the rest of the world for exceptional lengths of time but he had always figured that that had something to do with the world ignoring him. Mutual apathy. Thus, the world’s events were often lost on him and the passage of time made trivial.
“But you still love me,” he ventured quietly, almost too privately for this very public meeting.
Helen couldn’t help it – she rolled her eyes dramatically and let a grin slip over her lips. “A thousand years,” she began, “and you think I’m going to admit to that in the middle of a god-awful Martian desert?”
He matched her grin with a line of sharp teeth. “It really is awful, isn’t it? I thought that Mars would be more pleasant, like a beach in the southern ocean.”
The far-too-cool-to-be-standing-here-ignored Major stepped forward and slapped Nikola on the back. “Introductions are over, time to work.”
Helen twinged, aware of Nikola’s dislike of physical contact. The military officer was just lucky that Nikola’s attention had already roamed to the field generator behind them.
“Look what they did to it…” Nikola exclaimed, pushing past Helen and Mike (whom he was yet to acknowledge). He ran his hands along the outer casings of the machine, stroking it like a favourite pet. “What a disaster.”
The rest of them assembled in a semicircle around him. “Can you fix it, Nikola?” Helen knelt beside him.
“I could re-design it,” he muttered. “But this needs to be put out of its misery.”
“We can’t do that, Nikola,” she replied. “The life support for the planet would fail – thousands of lives.”
“What did they do?” he asked himself out loud. “Scrounge up the cheapest, flippant excuse for an engineer and let him violate this beautiful design.”
Mike cleared his throat loudly. “That would be my grandfather.”
Tesla snapped his head up and narrowed his eyes madly at the scrawny, red haired individual. He looked vaguely familiar, like a bad scent that had embedded itself in the fabric. “You’re a Newton,” he hissed, as if the very words left a sour taste.
“Nikola…” Helen cautioned, sensing trouble. “Fate of the planet…”
Mike and Nikola took an instant, violent dislike of one another.
“Fine,” Nikola said at last. “It will take me a while to determine what’s wrong. You will have to leave me with it.”
Mike snarled, unhappy with the thought of his machine being left in the hands of this horrid person. “I don’t trust him.”
“Thank you,” snapped Nikola, “for the vote of confidence. I might just destroy it to spite you.”
“Please take a seat, Dr Druitt,” the Professor extended his arm in the direction of the minimalistic chair, half pulled out from the desk. Hill’s office was brightly lit and lined with one way glass . At its most basic, it was a corner of the lab that had been sectioned off, pretending to be an office but really, Robert Hill had only been here a few days and none of the items inside the room were his. Mostly he felt like a trespasser, borrowing his superior’s office.
John sidled into the office, ducking under the low doorway. The scientist ducked around the other side of the desk and sat awkwardly in the chair, hinting for him to do the same. John didn’t sit. He knew that something very serious had gone amiss and he was going to find out.
“As you wish,” said Robert, folding his hands nervously in his lap. “I have just been informed that the water pipes connecting the underground water with the gardens has ruptured. We are taking measures to avert damage to the city but we’re still not sure if we will succeed. The danger to the Martian colony is quite real.”
“The whole city felt the rumble,” said John simply.
“For some time now – several months, we have suspected foul play on our technologies. Someone has been sabotaging our basic services. The last case was anomalous damage to the water pipe. A Ms. Ashley Magnus was called in under contract to assess this damage.” The man opposite shifted uneasily as his dark eyes glossed in unsettled fear. “She was doing this when the first pipe ruptured. We waited, as long as we could,” Robert protested, as John turned and went to leave, already understanding that his daughter must be dead, “but we had to close the doors to save the city.”
Unchallenged, John raged out of the office and back up the stairs to the main building’s foyer. It was large and sleek, with granite walls and twisted columns with no purpose but honouring the early human architecture. The sun had risen high now – its pathetic light streamed in the heavy glass doors betraying the emptiness of the building. Everything seemed hollow on this planet. It had about every feature a loneliness. Though a few inhabitants tried to makes homes out of it, Mars had lost its life long ago and it spent its time in mourning, crying through its red tides.
As he pushed out the doors and into the street, John made a vow to the planet itself – he would find who was responsible for his daughter’s death, and he would make them suffer the unimaginable loss.
“Do you think he’ll be all right – out there alone?” Mike tried not to squash Helen into the opposing door of the vehicle as they turned the corner sharply. They hadn’t left Nikola entirely alone – the Major was there, watching over the landscape like some kind of predatory bird keeping its prey.
“You mean,” said Helen, over the noise of the engine, “do I think that your precious shield generator will be okay left alone in his company?” Mike shrugged in the affirmative. “Yes. You may not like him,” she continued, clinging onto the head rail for dear life as their driver came too near a protruding rock, “but there is no soul in the human race better at what he does.”
“Yet still I worry,” he sighed. “Is he really the man that –”
He was stopped by Helen’s vivid eyes, glaring at him. “Yes. But don’t say anything. There is one thing that the man’s ego doesn’t need, and that’s stroking.”
“I wanted to ask you something else –” Mike began, but he did not get to finish for the buggy was thrown sharply to the side where it reared up on two wheels and threw its two passengers onto the sand. After this, it flipped entirely with the driver still fighting the wheel. It careened along the side of a mound until burying its bonnet and pivoting upright. The driver toppled limply from his seat, snapped his back on the bars protecting the seats, and then hit the ground.
Helen stirred first. She had not lost consciousness, but her vision was blurring and several parts of her body throbbed with the impact. Something had happened, but she couldn’t recall anything but the frightening rush of sand next to her.
There was a black shuttle hastening toward them, gliding silently over the broken landscape. Helen lay there, watching it approach – unable to move.