Category Archives: Science Fiction

Fiction – Follow the Monkey

By Tom Pendergrass

Illustration by Nicola L. Robinson

It was October 57th, Martian Halloween; the day we had planned to break out of prison. There were just the four of us in the machine shop: me, Blaine, Ibrahim, and the Monkey. None of us knew the Monkey’s real name. That’s what the guards had called him since they brought him in, and he never told us any different.

“Genthelmen,” the Monkey said in his thick-tongued lisp. “Ith’s thime we begin. Ibrahim, if you wouldh remove the mixthure from refrigeration.”

When I first met the Monkey I thought he was some kind of moron, what with his lisp and the coarse black hair which covered his body. Not so much hair that he didn’t look human, but still more than God had intended any man to have. And he had an enormous beaky nose, which made him look so funny I would have laughed except he was almost two feet taller than me and solid muscle. That and he seemed to be on edge all the time, like he was so filled with rage that could explode at any minute.

Ibrahim pulled the tray of white goop from the refrigerator that stood alone in the corner of the shop. He sang while he did it, some little song about a pretty girl and a horse and date palms. He was always singing. I thought it was sort of nice and would usually hum along, but Blaine would grind his teeth and yell at both of us to stop.

We had removed the spare batteries from the refrigerator to make room. No doubt Combine security would figure it out when a crawler got stranded with dead batteries on some God-forsaken stretch of the desert, but by then we wouldn’t have to worry about it, one way or another.

“Remember,” the Monkey said, “this compoundh is very sensithive to heath. Wear your gloves.”

Blaine looked at the Monkey strange, like he was pissed off at something but didn’t know what. I didn’t know Blaine any better than I knew the others, but I could tell he had an ego that resented being bossed around by a circus freak. The Monkey ignored him. I wished I could. Blaine made me nervous.

We each scooped a handful of the goop and molded it in our gloved hands like clay. The material was stiff at first, but it softened as it warmed from our body heat. The Monkey had swiped the explosives from one of the ore crawlers when he was loading supplies for the mines. We didn’t need much, and a few kilos would never be missed. In a few minutes we had a pyramid of a dozen grenades that looked like dirty snowballs.

“You sure these grenades are gonna work?” Blaine asked. There was an edge to his question, as there was to everything he did. “Cause if you’re doggin us…”

Blaine’s was always cursing in miner slang. It ticked me off. To call someone a dog was the worst of all possible curses down in the mines.

The Monkey stared back at Blaine. I could see the rage beneath his hairy exterior, but, as always, it stayed beneath the surface. For a man so angry, he had amazing self control. But then I still wasn’t sure that he was really human.

“They’ll work,” he said.

The Monkey pressed his gloved fingers into the surface of one of the snowballs. Then he held it close to his face and sniffed it. The Monkey tested the grenade with his teeth.

“They’re readhy,” he said.

Ibrahim walked to the standing tool chest and dialed in his combination. He came back with a nylon pillowcase that sagged at the bottom. He tilted the bag over the table. Thousand of razor strips that we had painstakingly removed from our daily allotment of safety razors cascaded over the table. They were no longer than my fingernail and each as thin and flexible as a sheet of paper.

“That’s a dogload of razor blades,” Blaine said.

“They look like all the stars in the sky,” Ibrahim said, “a razor blade Milky Way.”

Ibrahim was the sensitive one; the only one with any real education. When he wasn’t singing to himself he was reading books or writing in his journal. He had been an office man. Ibrahim had never been in the mines like me and Blaine and the Monkey. He carried a picture of his daughter in his shirt pocket and I used to catch him looking at it when he thought nobody was watching.

The Monkey smiled, showing off his jagged yellow teeth. I looked away because I didn’t want him to think I was staring. That sort of thing made him mad. Not that he would take it out on you. But you knew that he was mad at you for it, and you didn’t want to be the one who finally caused him to blow.

We took the grenades and rolled them in the razor blades until they sparkled like Christmas ornaments. Ibrahim pressed a homemade ten-second fuse into each and placed them into the pillowcases we had brought from our cells.

“So Blaine,” I asked, trying to make small talk to ease the tension I felt. “Which mine were you in?”

“Ice,” he said gritting his teeth.

The ice mine was really a trench dug into the wall of the Valles Marineris. It was the easiest assignment in The Combine. Open skies, light work, and little danger. I wondered why he had screwed it up and gotten thrown in prison. I had worked in the platinum mine, which was dug into the floor of the canyon, where the conditions were brutal but the pay was decent.

“What about you?” I asked the Monkey.

“Uranium,” he said.

“That’s the worst,” Ibrahim said. “Not many people live through that. You’re lucky you made it to prison.”

The uranium mine was at the foot of Olympus Mons, where the remnants of volcanism still stirred the Martian crust and cave-ins were normal. But one day’s output from the uranium mine was worth more than a month’s worth from the other mines.

The Combine owned the only known source of uranium on Mars. They sold it to the Free Base and to all the other industrials on Mars, for whatever price they wanted, since nobody was going to ship fissiles from Earth.

“All right, boys,” Blaine whooped, “It’s time to Trick or Treat. And my mind is set on Trick.”

If the breakout worked as planned we would be in Free Base in a few days, out of the reach of The Combine. But to get there we would have to travel through 200 km of the most inhospitable terrain inhabited by man.

We each picked a pillow case and made our way into the corridor. It was dimly lit and smelled of antiseptic.

It’s a funny thing about Mars. Since the years are so long, they treat every holiday like it was some major event. I guess if Christmas comes only once every 687 days, you need to make some of the other days in between special. And the crazy thing was that it even rolled over into the prison. I mean with something as money-hungry as The Combine running it you wouldn’t think that they would go in for any amenities. And they really don’t.

But even The Combine celebrates the holidays. We got Easter baskets, ate mock lamb on Eid al-Fitr, had King Cake at Mardi Gras, and celebrated New Years Day, Tet, and Rosh Hashanah. And all the convicts go trick or treating on Halloween.

We followed Blaine down the corridor to the recreation room. There was a line of fifty or so prisoners, all men. Some were haggard and worn beyond caring, but most were excited at the thought of a little candy and a skin magazine.

“Get a costume from that box behind the skee ball machines,” one of the guards said. It was Nurmi; he was a real ass. “Except for the Monkey, there. He doesn’t need one. He’s scary enough already.”

He laughed at his own pathetic joke and some of the men in the line laughed too. I noticed the Monkey looked down and clenched his jaw. Like I said, amazing self control.

Ibrahim tossed me a werewolf mask that I put over my head. It smelled like dried spit and old sweat, and I wondered if the guy who wore it last year was still alive, or if he had died in the mines. Ibrahim found a pirate hat and an eyepatch for himself. Blaine put on a crown and a long white robe. I guess it matched his ego. Ibrahim handed a clown mask to the Monkey, but he refused it.

“A definite improvement for all of you. Except for the Monkey there. He’s even uglier than in real life.” Nurmi laughed again like he was the funniest man on Mars. “All right losers, stand behind the line. When I say go, you can run down the halls to each guard post. They have some candy and magazines for you. Ready.”

Nurmi paused grinned wickedly. “Set.” A few of the men started. He hit one in the arm hard enough to raise a bruise. “I didn’t say go yet, freak. Now get back behind the line, all of you.”

Nurmi surveyed the line again. “Ready.” He paused savoring the moment. “Go.”

The men hesitated, waiting to make sure. Then some of the newer prisoners darted out while the ones who had been there before took their time. Most prisoners were repeat offenders. Whenever the mines got too depressing, or scary, some of these guys would break a piece of machinery, or smack their supervisor, or steal some extra rations. That would be good for a few months of rest time in prison where the work was light and above the surface.

The catch was you didn’t get paid while you were here. And the Combine charged the expenses to your account. So most of these guys were so in debt they could never work their way out of the mines. The Combine owned them. I knew, because it owned me.

The rec room cleared out and Nurmi yelled at us. “Get that retard out of here. What’s the matter, you don’t like candy? Maybe it’s that you don’t like to see naked girls. I don’t have any Global Geographics with pictures of apes if that’s what you’re waiting for.”

I thought that the Monkey was going to lose it, but Blaine saved him the bother. He pulled a grenade from his sack and with a speed that shocked me he stuffed it into Nurmi’s mouth and pulled the fuse. The three of us ducked real quick behind a big pool table and Blaine hit the floor. There was a muffled bang and the sound of something wet splattering the walls.

“Dog you Blaine,” I said, standing up. The rec room was scattered with blood and bits of flesh. Blaine was standing there holding Nurmi’s head, the brains dripping down his arms. With his crown and robe he looked like the Statue of Liberty, except with a severed head instead of a torch.

“I’ve been wanting to do that for months,” Blaine said, winking at me like it was just some joke he had pulled. He rolled the jawless head down the skee ball track. It stuck in the ten point tray and Blaine cursed out loud. “Where’s my tickets?” Then he burst into laughter.

“This way,” said the Monkey. I couldn’t tell if he was happy or pissed off.

We followed him into the corridor. I felt sick from the carnage, and I could tell from the look on Ibrahim’s face that he did too. The Monkey looked the same as always, a seething cauldron of controlled anger. But Blaine was happy as a doggin’ clam.

I was surprised that there weren’t any alarms, but I guess the Combine wasn’t too worried about escapes. I mean, where are you going to escape to? The only place on the planet that was safe was Free Base, and I guess they thought no one would be foolish enough to try.

Walking down the corridor I noticed that Blaine’s back and neck were covered with scratches that were bleeding horribly. “Are you all right, Blaine?” I asked.

“Yeah man, I don’t feel nothing.”

“Maybe we should tape up those cuts?”

“No time for that,” he said. “We got to kill some more of these doggin’s.”

I let him go. The Monkey led us toward the crawler bay. I thought we would be home free, but a couple of trick or treaters came round the corner surrounding one of the guards. It was Johnson, one of the nice ones.

I guess he saw Nurmi’s blood on Blaine, because he pulled out his needle gun and held it out in front of him, all shaking and nervous like. The other prisoners scrambled back down the corridor and away from us.

Blaine and the Monkey both pulled grenades from their sacks and rolled them. We ducked behind the wall and heard the explosion. I closed my eyes as we walked back around the corner, not wanting to see what the razor bombs had done. Ibrahim held on to me as we walked through the door and into the crawler bay. The Monkey shut the bay door behind us.

“Suith up, men.” He said.

I pulled off my werewolf mask and crawled into the day-suit that was hanging in my locker. It was supposed to be good for twenty-four hours on the Martian surface. The plan was to take the crawler to Free Base. At ten clicks an hour we should easily make it before the suits got foul. Still, the Monkey told us to load extra air canisters and batteries into the back of the little six man crawler.

The alarm light went off above the bay door. They must have found one of the guards. I nudged the Monkey, but he was already looking at the light.

“Everyone on boardh,” he said. “Helmeth’s on.”

I checked the seals on my suit and gave a thumbs-up sign. When all the rest had done the same, Ibrahim opened the bay door on to the red-brown Martian landscape. There was a whoosh of air as the atmosphere in the bay escaped. Ibrahim and I ran to the bay doors and set grenades on the door tracks. We pulled the fuses and ducked outside. With the explosion the doors would be jammed open, making it tough for any of the guards to come outside, unsuited, and grab a crawler to follow us. All we needed was an hour head start and they would never be able to catch us.

Blaine was driving the crawler and the Monkey was beside him in the open air seat. Ibrahim and I scrambled up into the rear seats. The crawler was slow, no more than a moderate walking pace, but with no real pursuit it could work. And we had made sure over the last several days in the repair shop that none of the crawlers left were capable of catching us. We didn’t know what the Combine would do. They didn’t have any real security, but if word got out that there had been an escape I guess they would have trouble on their hands, what with all the miners in hock to the company for several years wages. The last thing they wanted was for any of the huddled masses to know there might be a way out.

We left the bay and drove into the cold of the Martian evening. I saw in the dim light of the crawler lamps the mining track that would lead us to Free Base, which nestled on the slopes of the great rift valley. The navigator program would keep us on the road, so there really wasn’t much for us to do.

Blaine lay down in the back giggling to himself. Ibrahim seemed lost in his own thoughts. I crawled into the front next to the Monkey and stared at his grotesque face, barely visible through the faceplate of his suit, and wondered what his story was. He had been in the uranium mines, the toughest assignment here. Most people who went down there either had a death wish or a huge debt to pay. I wondered which one it was for him.

I dozed off for a while, lulled to sleep by the steady bump of the crawler treads over the loose rock. I felt a nudge and opened my eyes. It was the Monkey. He was pointing in the sky. I saw in the dim dawn light two dark specks silhouetted against the dusty butterscotch sky.

“Flyers,” I said. “How long have we been gone?”

“Abouth eighth hours, I guess.” His voice sounded tinny over the com channel, and even harder to understand than normal.

Eight hours. If we had made good time we would be just eighty kilometers from the prison, less than halfway to freedom.

“Do you think they’re armed?”

“I don’th know. Ask Ibrahim.”

I nudged Ibrahim and pointed the flyers out to him. “What do you know about them?” I asked.

“Not much,” he said. “They’re mostly used for survey work. They were designed to circle above one place, so they can stay up for long periods of time. And they’re a lot faster than we are.”

“What do you think they’ll do?” I asked.

The flyers got closer and we could see their great broad wings and long propellers as they gleamed white in the light from the distant sun. They swooped low over us, and I could see the pilot sitting at his controls.

“Turn around and return to the prison,” a voice crackled over our suit coms.

“Never, dogs,” Blaine shouted. He had one of our razor blade grenades in his hand. He threw it at the plane as it passed overhead and it exploded harmlessly about forty feet away.

“Save the grenadhes,” the Monkey hissed.

I put my hand on Blaine’s shoulder and he shrugged it off. He pulled another grenade from the pillow case and brandished it like it was Excalibur, letting off a stream of profanity that made me blush.

“Thalk to him, Ibrahim”

Ibrahim toggled the transmitter switch at his throat. “We decline your offer.” He sounded cool and like he was used to being in charge.

“You cannot escape. We have dispatched guards to catch you. Return now or I will shoot.”

“He’s bluffing,” Blaine said. “Why would the Combine give us a second chance? He’s not armed. Let’s frag the dog.”

“I think Blaine is correcth that he’s not armed,” the Monkey said. “Besidhes, the flyers have more problems than us.” He pointed to the horizon where a brick-colored haze was rising from the surface.

“Flyers, please be alert,” Ibrahim said. “There is a dust storm coming from the west. I advise you to return to base.”

“I suggesth we take shelther as well.”

I scanned the horizon. There was nothing but boulder-strewn plains to the south and west. The ground was much the same to the east and north except for a dim shadow on the northern horizon.

“The canyon,” the Monkey said.

The great Valles Marineris was ten kilometers north of us. And while it didn’t look like much from where we were, the canyon was over four miles deep. We would be able to find shelter there.

The Monkey shifted our course to due north and disabled the autonav. He would have to pick his way through the boulders manually.

I watched as the storm approached. The dust swirled the colors of dried blood and caramel. It reminded me of the guards at the prison. Nurmi was a dog, and he had it coming. But Johnson…he was like the rest of us. Just there to make a living and ship any extra cash back to his family on Earth.

The leading tendrils of the storm were grabbing the crawler as we reached the canyon wall, making the Monkey fight the controls to keep it straight. We got out of the crawler and looked below. The rock wall here was at least four hundred meters of sheer drop. There was no way we could make it down alive. Blaine looked east along the rim and pointed.

“Looks like it’s easier there,” he said.

About a kilometer from the crawler was a place where the rim had crumbled. A vertical drop of a hundred meters tumbled into a pile of dust and rocky debris.

“Looks goodh. We walk from here. We can go fasther than the crawler. Pull the oxygen canisthers and batheries. We’ll need them. The grenadhes, also. And change the canisthers you are wearing. We don’th need to run outh of air on the canyon wall.”

We walked along the crater’s edge like Sherpa porters, loaded with equipment. In Mar’s light gravity, a man can carry three times what he can on Earth, so we left nothing behind. The air around us darkened with dust and I could feel the steady pressure of wind on my back. Luckily the air was thin or it would have pushed me into the abyss below.

We were at the lip of the canyon. What from a distance had seemed to be an easy way down looked daunting up close. There were deep grooves in the canyon wall that undulated all the way to the bottom. Water had flowed here millions of years ago. But now there was just crumbling rock and dust.

“Follow the channel dhown,” the Monkey said.

I went first. Ibrahim followed me. Blaine and the Monkey came down next. I scrambled for handholds with my thick miner’s gloves. Luckily, in this gravity I could support my weight with one hand. I labored down, searching for holds with the clumsy gloves. And my dust boots, their broad flat soles designed to spread my weight on the light soil, almost tripped me up as I searched for ledges to put my feet.

I paid no attention to anything around me but the placement of my feet, the hold of my hands, and the labor of my breathing. The dust whipped around me with increasing force, obscuring my vision. The storm was getting closer. The wind gusted, blowing pebbles and small rocks against my helmet. If the storm got worse, it could throw debris with enough force to cripple a man and smash his air tanks. I had known miners that got caught in storms and they never found their remains.

We were about halfway down when Ibrahim fell. I saw the shadow of him first; then felt his body glance off my shoulder as he plummeted past me. I heard his scream over the com. It was all high pitched and seemed to go on forever. Then, all the sudden, there was nothing. I struggled to regain my balance and clung shaking to the canyon wall.

“Ibrahim,” I called once I stopped shaking.

“Whath happened?” the Monkey’s voice crackled.

“Ibrahim fell. I can’t see him in the dust.”

The Monkey and I called for Ibrahim. I knew he was gone, but I couldn’t help myself. Nobody could have survived that fall. I saw the shadow of Blaine above me.

“The storm’s getting worse,” Blaine said. “We better go. There’s nothing we can do for him while we’re hanging on the side of the cliff.”

I didn’t like his attitude, but I couldn’t argue with his logic. I continued the descent. The Monkey still had his com on and I could hear his breathing. He sounded like some wild animal panting.

When we reached the bottom, visibility was only a few meters, but we could see Ibrahim lying crumpled at the base of a big boulder. His faceplate was smashed and ice had formed on his eyelashes and beard. Dust was piling up on the windward side of him from the storm.

“He’ll be buriedh within the hour,” the Monkey said. “The storm will cover him and our thracks.”

I said a silent prayer as Blaine pulled Ibrahim’s ration packs and passed them to me. Three men dead in the space of a day and a big storm just beginning.

“Leth’s find some shelther.”

We followed the Monkey down the strewn rubble close so as not to lose him in the swirling dust and sand. The canyon ran primarily east-west, and the winds were channeled down its length. I felt the thump of larger pebbles as they hit my back and helmet. I cringed. The wind was starting to pick up rocks that could do some real damage if they struck the right place.

“It’s getting worse,” I said over the intercom.

“There’s a canyon branch justh ahead.”

I could barely see Blaine ahead of me now and hurried to catch him, careful not to trip over the rubble that lay on the uneven ground. I laid my hand on his shoulder. He shrugged it off and turned to glare at me.

“Just don’t want to lose you,” I said.

The silence in my head was eerie. All around me the wind whipped and threw dust and sand and pebbles, but here in my cocoon I heard nothing except the steady beat of grit against my helmet and my own labored breaths.

Illustration by Nicola L. Robinson

The canyon wall loomed to my right and I saw Blaine’s shadow disappear around it. In a minute, I was there too and the air turned from darkness into a rosy haze. We were in a narrow twist of the Valles, on the leeward side of the rock. I looked up and saw the dark storm hurling pebbles across the sky a few hundred meters above, but only a fine mist dropped down to us.

I sat to catch my breath. I took a few pulls from my water tube and leaned against the rock wall of the canyon.

“How long do you think it will last?” I asked.

“Somethimes ith thakes days. Maybe we’ll be lucky and ith will be clear tomorrow. I think we should resth here while we can. We’ll be safe from the flyers while the sthorm lasths.”

Blaine stretched out at the bottom of the cliff face and closed his eyes. I squatted to relieve myself in my suit. It was nasty business, but you get used to it after a while. It was one of the many charms of Mars, having to undo all those months of potty training my Mama had worked hard at. My business done, I moved to sit next to the Monkey.

He had put his ration pack to his feeding tube and was eating. I looked at my box of supplies and decided to do the same. I found a canister labeled “homemade chicken soup” and screwed it into my helmet. I gave it a minute to heat and then drank the soup from my tube. It tasted horrible, like cardboard and salt, but it warmed and revitalized me nonetheless.

The Monkey and I sat in silence for a while, watching the whirling dust fall, coating Blaine and the rocky canyon floor with a thin layer of rusty frost. The winds were picking up, and the dust was falling more heavily now. I looked up and could see rocks the size of my head flying high over us.

“So what’s your story?” I finally asked.

The Monkey waited a long while before answering. I don’t think he had ever talked to anyone about himself before.

“Have you ever heardh of a canary in a coal mine?”

“Can’t say that I have. What does that have to do with you?”

“In the old days on earth, they used to take a birdh down in the mines with the miners. The birds were more sensithive to the poisonous gases in the mines. The idea was thath the canaries would die from asphyxiation or poisoning or whathever before the men did, giving the men enough thime to get outh of the mine.”

“I was creathed here on Mars by the Combine. I am their canary. They cloned me from one of the miners, but they altered my genethic sequences to give me exthra senses. I can feel tremors that no normal man can feel. I can see infrared wavelengths. I can even smell gases down to fifthy parts in a million.”

“They creathed me because they were having too many accidents in the uranium mines. They have to be able to pay a miner’s round thrip from earth. It normally takes a year in the mines for a worker to repay that fare. In the uranium mine at Mons Olympus, workers weren’t lasting more than a few months.

“That’s why they made me. They didn’t plan on me looking like I do. Or plan on giving me a thick thongue. They didn’t plan, either that the extra senses they gave me creathed more pathways for my neurons to connect in my brain. And more connections mean more intelligence. I’m smarter than you are. Than anyone they know.”

“But everyone thinks you’re stupid.” I said. “And you seem to play that up.”

“I learned early on to hide some of my talenths. It made life easier for me.”

I brushed the dust from my facemask so that I could see him better.

“Is that why you are so angry all the time? Because of what they did to you?”

The Monkey gritted his teeth and his face turned red like I had really pissed him off. But he regained control over his emotions and talked to me in a quiet tone.

“No, I have learnedh to live with my differences. I was created to save people. And though they did it with the wrong motives, it still is a noble reason for existence. I can only suppose that my anger comes from the same place as my gifts. Some mis-wiring in the medhulla oblongatha is my guess. An accidhent, nothing more.”

He turned away from me and lay against the smooth canyon wall. I sat there for a long time next to the world’s angriest canary, just thinking, before I finally gave in to my exhaustion and fell asleep.

The next morning I awoke to see the Monkey standing over me. I looked down and saw that my legs were missing. I started to hyperventilate, then I realized they were just buried in the brick colored dust.

“Give me your hands so I can lifth you outh. Then we have to find Blaine.”

The Monkey yanked my arms with enormous strength, and my lower body slid out of the dust. I tried to guess where Blaine might be, but nothing looked familiar. The floor of the valley was smooth and featureless, like a blank canvas. The Monkey began digging out a spot about a meter away. I crawled beside him and began digging too.

I uncovered Blaine’s shoulder first. Then I started digging harder. The Monkey helped from the other side and we got his head free. I could see fog condensing on his faceplate. He was still alive.

“Blaine, wake up.” the Monkey tapped on his faceplate.

Blaine’s eyes opened and I saw him panic as he tried to move his arms and legs.

“We have to dig you out. The storm buried you in sand and dust.”

“That’s not funny, dog,” he said. He squinted at me and then at the Monkey. “Get me the hell out of here.”

“Patience,” said the Monkey. “It will only take a few minutes. I was afraid I had lost you, like Ibrahim.”

Blaine snorted. “It’s better he was dead. He was management, man. I bet he was planning to dog us all along.”

“Ibrahim was the best of all of us,” I said. I could see the anger in Monkey’s face, and then the control as he tightened his lips.

“You think your way, I’ll think mine. I say good riddance.”

“I do not thake death so lightly,” said the Monkey. “Nor do I enjoy it.”

Blaine ‘s arms were free now and he pushed me aside as he dug his legs free of the sand. He crawled to his feet, standing unsteady in the deep dust.

“Let’s cut the philosophy and get going. Anyone know the right direction?”

Monkey looked up at the sky through the narrow canyon walls. It still swirled with pink and brown sand. He held up his hand and pointed.

“Through here”

We walked out of the crevice and into the main canyon. The whole of it was covered with fine dust, and the rocks we had seen just yesterday had disappeared completely under a smooth layer of sand. I followed the Monkey and Blaine. For some reason having Blaine behind me made me nervous.

We tromped through the valley for hours. We had to limit our pace because of the deep dust drifts. Once I stepped waist deep into one and had to call for the Monkey to pull me out. At our slow pace, the majesty of the canyon walls grew monotonous in their harsh beauty.

We stopped a few times for water and food and to relieve ourselves, but everyone kept quiet. The air in my suit was getting stale as my waste compartment got full. I wouldn’t be able to stand the stench of myself for another day, I thought.

The distant sun cast long shadows across the crater floor. The air was clear now, making the shadows sharper than any I had seen on earth. Mars could really be beautiful if you looked at it right. If it weren’t for the mines and the surface suits and the unpayable debt, it just might even be pleasant.

We finally decided to stop for a dinner break. Blaine wandered up the canyon and sat apart from us. I guess he didn’t care for the Monkey’s company. I can’t say that his absence bothered me. I sat next to the Monkey and ate a canister of fish chowder. It tasted remarkably like the chicken soup.

“What’s your real name?” I asked the Monkey.

He sat and sucked on his feeding tube a long while before he spoke.

“Why do you ask?”

“Because I hate that every time I think of you I call you the Monkey in my head.”

He smiled and the anger passed from his face.

“They named me Remus, after the son of the Roman God Mars. I was the firsth to be born here.”

“Remus,” I said. “Glad to be of your acquaintance.” I held out my hand to shake his.

The Monkey smiled, his yellow crooked teeth showing. He took my hand and squeezed it.

“So Remus, why were you in prison?”

The Monkey sucked down the last of his dinner and licked his lips with his fat blue tongue.

“I was in the uranium mine. The lowesth level. I was with the men who were setting the explosive charges. They thought I was strange looking, but I think they liked me. They certainly appreciathed that I was there to help them. Besides, everyone looks the same if you have a helmet on.

“I felth the thremor and shouthed to the men. They scrambled for the safe area. It was a thithanium sphere that could withsthand the pressure of a cave in. Anyway, I heard one man call for help. I looked and I saw him. His foot was trapped under an ore crawler.

“The tremor hith us then and the rock began falling down on our heads. I heard the supervisor order me into the safety sphere. But I couldn’t go. All I could hear was the poor man crying for help.

“I ran to him when the floor of the mine dropped beneath us. A crevice had opened in the mine itself, and all the rock and debris started sliding into it. I grabbed the man before he fell in. The crawler rolled off of him and I pulled him back up. The whole world seemed to be thurned upside down after the tremor, and it took me a little while to determine which way was out.

“My supervisor kept yelling at me over the headset. I thold him everything was okay. I found the safety sphere and opened ith. The men inside were scared, but safe.

“Then I felt another tremor coming. I pushed the men back inside the sphere, but there wasn’t enough room. My supervisor ordered one of the men outh so I could get in. I ignored him and sealed the door from the outside. I scrambled back thoward the entrance of the mine when the second tremor hit.

“It was worse than the firsth one. I stopped and hunkered down, sure that ith would be the end for me. I heard a rumble behind me, and the floor of the mine opened up. The sphere fell into it and I could hear the screams of the men over my headset as they plunged into the depths of Mars.

“I lost conthrol of my anger then. The only thime in my life. I climbed back to the entrance of the mine, smashing all the equipmenth I saw, cursing the Combine for putting us all here. I knew then that my skills only helped send more people to their deaths. I hadn’t saved anyone.”

“They put me in jail for destruction of company property. I was due to geth outh on Thanksgiving.”

“So why did you want to breakout?” I asked. “I mean, you have no family on Earth like Ibrahim. You have nowhere to go.”

“I can’th stomach another day in the mines. I was reading abouth labor unions in the prison library. I could organize on of those for the miners.”

“The Combine will kill you first,” I said.

“The mines would have killed me sooner or later.” He stopped. “Besides, whath do you have to go back to?”

I shrugged and mumbled something noncommittal. He was right. I had come to Mars to make my fortune, to be something that I never could on Earth with its crowds and filth. If I made it back, I would return a failure.

“Where’s Blaine?” I asked to change the subject.

“I don’th know. He was over there before dinner,” Remus said, pointing to a spire cut into the face of the canyon wall by one of the ancient rivers.

We walked to the spire but Blaine was gone, leaving only a line of tracks in the sand that were slowly blowing away in the breeze. They disappeared into the distant shadows on a track due east.

We slept that night in shifts. The Monkey said we should be on the lookout for Combine flyers. But in truth, I think that Blaine’s disappearance had spooked him. It made me nervous. I much preferred having Blaine close where I could keep an eye on him.

In the morning, I awoke to the foul smell of my own sweat and waste. My mouth tasted like last night’s dinner and I realized I had neither bathed nor brushed my teeth in days.

We left the camp and the empty oxygen containers behind. Free Base was only a few hours hike away now, and though Remus didn’t say anything, I could tell he was feeling better about Blaine’s disappearance. I had convinced myself that he had been too impatient to wait for daylight and managed to find his way through the valley at night.

The walk was easy, with the dust thinning out here and there so that in places we could see the bedrock of the canyon floor. I felt happy for the first time in months.

We climbed a hill that rose from the canyon floor, and from the summit I saw the glint of a reflection on the canyon wall. On the North side of the canyon, built into the wall itself like a Pueblo Indian city, was Free Base.

It had been drilled into the mountain and sealed against the Martian atmosphere with dura-glass. Rising from the city was a great steel and plastic elevator that soared to the rim of the canyon.

Remus tapped the side of my helmet. I turned to look at him and could see his yellow teeth smiling back at me. I gave him a thumbs-up.

Once we got inside Free Base, the Combine held no sway. They couldn’t collect my debts or confiscate my belongings. I would be safe while I tried to raise the money for my return to Earth. And Remus would be safe to do whatever it was that he wanted.

We loped down the hill taking huge strides in the light gravity. The Monkey stopped all of a sudden, and I collided into his back.

I followed his gaze and saw a Combine crawler parked between us and the city. Beside it were two figures. I knew in my heart that one of them was Blaine.

“Do you think they caught him?” I asked.

“No,” Remus said. “Look ath the way he’s sthanding. He seems to be in control of the situation. I think he made a deal.”

The two men walked toward us. I looked to the Monkey to see what to do, but he just stood there waiting. His massive jaw was set so tight that I thought he would grind those yellow jagged teeth to dust. I looked around for something, a rock even, but all that lay at the bottom of the canyon were slowly shifting sands.

The two men left a trail on the dust as they climbed the hill toward us. All was silent until I heard the crackle of their communicators as they got within transmit range.

“Remus, this is Marshall Winston of Combine Security. Surrender yourselves now and you will be returned to prison unhurt.”

The man speaking had the two moon emblem of the Combine printed on his suit in bright blue. He was brandishing a gyro-gun the size of Phobos. He waved it at us. I knew there was no way that the combine was going to let us live. Not after we had killed two of their guards.

“What did he promise you?” I asked Blaine.

His faceplate was scratched from the sand, but I thought I could still make out Blaine squinting with his evil eyes. “A one way ticket to Earth. That’s more than I would have gotten from you losers.”

“You killed Ibrahim.”

The Monkey’s voice was controlled, but I could hear its edge even through my tinny headspeaker. And I knew that the Monkey spoke the truth.

“I did him a favor. He was a loser. I’m doing you a favor too.”

Blaine and the Combine man were about ten meters away now. They were close enough that I could see the clouds of dust that lifted up with every step of their boots.

“Enough,” said the Combine man. “Put your hands in the air.”

To have come this far and failed was more than I could bear. I thought of my mother heartbroken on Earth. No doubt she would be told that it was a mining accident.

“Do as he says,” the Monkey said, more loudly than he needed to.

I dropped my backpack and raised my arms. I saw the Monkey unsling his bundle. His pillowcase was on top. He reached in and pulled the timer on one of the grenades.

“On the ground,” he yelled.

I dove face first to the sand as Remus hurled the pillowcase full of grenades down the hill. I felt the concussion of the grenades as they exploded like a string of firecrackers. I heard the howl of wind over my headset and the sound of gasping.

When I stood, I saw a cloud of pink mist, and two dark forms inside laying still. The pillow case full of razor blade grenades had hit the Combine man square in the chest. The explosions had severed his limbs. He lay, scattered and motionless on the red sand.

Blaine lay two meters away. His face plate was covered with spiderweb cracks, and I could see that the razor blades had cut through his air hoses. The frigid Martian air now was filling his lungs, freezing the moisture there and rupturing his alveoli. It was the death we all feared most. The same slow death Ibrahim had faced.

The Monkey got up behind me and we walked down to look at Blaine. Blaine’s hands were pulling at his helmet. I helped him wrestle it off. The air that escaped from his suit fell as frost on his chest.

I half expected him to say something to me that would make sense of all this. That would justify the trail of corpses that we had left across the planet on our way to freedom. But the low air pressure was pulling at his body. His eyes bulged and he coughed blood. Then nothing. There were no last words, no sense of satisfaction. Nothing but death.

I looked away and caught my breath. I began to pull Blaine’s body into the Combine crawler.

“Leave ith,” the Monkey ordered. “The Combine can come geth them if they wanth. Let’s geth to Free Base before anyone else comes.”

I looked at the Monkey, straining to see his expression through the mist-covered face plate of his surface suit, but he saw me looking and turned away. He walked in silence toward the glimmering promise of Freebase, suspended like a dream on the canyon wall. The wind whipped the dust, erasing his footprints as he walked away.

I stood there on the valley floor, surrounded by the silence of the most desolate place that man has ever known. I looked at the corpses already frozen stiff in the dust and sand and then I looked back to the figure walking toward the city. It was an easy choice. I followed the Monkey.

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