Black Night

Excerpts from the Logbooks of Captain Lars Johannsen (Ed. Maudling, Oxford University Press, 2281, ISBN 1124 9780099515265).Introduction
A New Year, A New Start

6th January 2158:

I have decided to start this New Year by setting down my thoughts and experiences; if things go well I will be acquiring a new ship and starting a new life. My great-great-great grandfather was a merchant captain during the early years of the twentieth century, and his diaries and memoires became something of a reference to the life of a ships’ captain during that turbulent period. I cannot hope to emulate him but I hope that my poor scribblings may be of interest to some future scholar or reader, in piecing together the jigsaw of our own times as we expand through the Solar System.
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10th January 2158
A New Ship

Today should be the day! At three o’ clock I am meeting with Hiro Lothrain of the Lothrain Free Company to settle purchase of the Louis Bleriot; what with arranging the mortgage, the break imposed by the holiday period and the internal complications within LFC this whole thing has been a nightmare in arranging. I have been up into orbit to view the ship however and she is not in bad condition for a 20 year old vessel. The only problems are with the sensor suite; while I can probably get them to function in a rudimentary sense the sooner I can afford to replace them the better. The vessel also has two hard points but these have not been fitted with weaponry: if I intend to visit the Kuiper belt, or maybe even the Asteroid Belt, I will need to think about acquiring some Rail guns or Missile Launchers. Other than that she is fairly shipshape, and for each crewman there should be an individual stateroom which is important in avoiding driving one another crazy. I’ve put together a list of minor supplies we’ll need to make it home, and once the deal is set I’ll put everything in motion.

……
A strange afternoon. I was looking out the view platform overlooking Mariner City drinking a coffee: I was a bit nervous-waiting for my appointment, but I like that viewing spot. The smells of the Chinese and Korean Food vendors nearby in the Little Asia market send all sorts of strange aromas through the air before they’re snatched away by conditioning system, and add a bit of spice and a whiff of something exotic to the standard colony prefabricated blandness.

As I was looking I was tapped on the elbow. When I looked round, and then down, there was a small and neat oriental woman-very pretty- who introduced herself as Laura Chen. It was a bit odd but she seemed to have heard that I was acquiring a ship and she wanted a placement. I got the feeling she was interviewing me to see if I was an appropriate enough employer to merit the use of her talents. Her qualifications seemed useful enough-I will need a good Astrogator and backup Pilots are always useful, but I have to admit there is something very strange about her. Probably I am just terrible at reading women. Maria was standing ordering at a nearby coffee stall, and she came over when she noticed the conversation. I don’t think she managed to get much more out of her but Laura did accept a drink – two drinks in fact- in the twenty minutes left before my appointment. Hmm.

…..
The LFC offices were of reasonable quality but didn’t appear to be particularly staff heavy: I got the impression of a small tightly knit firm. After negotiating a fearsome PA I was introduced to Hiro Lothrain (CEO)-I’d not met him face to face before, and his two principal business associates Jenna Marcuro (Finance XO) and Desna Greer (Operations Manager). Hiro was late 40s/ early 50s-grey hair in fashionable ponytail and expensive suit; Jenna your early 40s attractive Corporate type and Desna-well, built like a Martian Outhouse, with looks to match. I got the feeling she had been slipped some doped meat before the meeting and tied on a leash.

There was a But regarding the ship purchase; there always is.
Hiro explained that LFC originated and grew as a Mars Mining Company, but several years ago had realised that they needed to diversify off world to survive. To this end they have acquired an obsolete Mining Platform situated in the Mhajestic Cluster of the Asteroid belt, which they have purchased from Mucho Maas. This deal has been in the offing for some years, but the disasters associated with the Phobos incident last year (which of course lost them their Phobos outpost) meant that LFC have had to do some emergency downsizing to refocus their operations. This has included the sale of the Louis Bleriot in their revised business model, and it would seem that there are actually some tax advantages to them in reducing their fleet as quickly as possible.

However they still need, from a day to day point of view, an additional ship-at least for the near future. Thus if they sell me the Bleriot they gain their revised tax advantages, but offer me a short term contract to serve their interests for the near future and everybody wins. They have offered a three month retainer contract if I go through with the purchase, which will effectively sort out my ship payments for the first quarter of the year-a good deal.

Their first task is to take their Chief Engineer-one Derik Xeren to the new rig to conduct a survey with a view to relocation of the rig and necessary refurbishment. Unfortunately he’s gone missing on his annual inspection tour of LFC’s Martian Outback facilities, and is now a week overdue. Without Derik, everything is in abeyance, and so he has asked me, and my crew if they are willing, for a CR 3000 fee to go and collect him in case he’s had some sort of accident.

Hiro offered me a guide for this- a Martian Colonist called Sylvie Gerard: she seems quite likeable and is a former employee of the MMC-the Mars Medical Corps which is a sort of Flying (or driving) Doctor Service which serves both the Mars Orbital Facilities and the Martian Outback. She has apparently operated in both capacities and is a qualified Paramedic and Nurse; more to the point her outback patch was approximately the area we are heading for- which is the LFC Miryam Mining Outpost situated near the Candor Chasma.

Also introduced was one Vincent Blake- some sort of IT specialist who has been contracted to assist with the Mining Rig survey. He is at a loose end till we start so he has agreed to accompany us to search for Derik. He seems a likeable enough chap.

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11th January 2158
Welcome To Black Rock

We needed to be at the Magrail Station for 10 am. Our destination was the small settlement of Black Rock, which is apparently a grade 2 Terminus, meaning that you have to book onto a special train which only runs once per week in either direction, in order to board or alight there. This was it. Laura turned up at the last minute-I wasn’t sure she would-and we settled onto the automated train. The speed of the thing is amazing, and the Martian landscape shoots by at about 600km/hour: our journey would take about an hour. Outside we occasionally glimpsed the famous ‘Golden Road’, the trail which roughly parallels the Magrail along which the massive Road Trains haul ore from the mining to the processing facilities, and thence to the factories and industries of Mars.

The trains stopped in a tunnel (Red, not Black)-no other passengers got off. We emerged down a tunnel and through an airlock into a cold Martian Afternoon, where we were met by a Rail Company Employee called Callum. He knew about our arrival and had a Mars Rover ready for us, which we drove the half mile or so into Black Rock.

Black Rock wasn’t much –an odd assemblage of buildings which seem to have been erected at different times to form a hotch potch community which does include a general store, a doctor, a hotel and even a sheriff. I expected Walt Brennan or Robert Mitchum to come and greet us as we alighted, but all we encountered were half a dozen curious townsfolk who pretended not to be looking in our direction.

Laura surmised that Derik had filed a copy of his intended route with the General Store, where he had also bought a few supplies a couple of weeks before. The Sherriff, who appeared to have a broken leg, didn’t have much to add, but did advise us not to advertise the fact that we were LFC employees-the local Mining Company-the independently owned Ryan Holdings- might be a bit suspicious at LFC officials poking around what they saw as their own territory (Ryan have a facility about 6 km out of town). We didn’t stay long as we wanted to get some driving in before dusk.
…..
My first experience of Martian Rover driving was not a great success. It seemed easy enough at first, as the wheels are huge and the suspension amazing on these vehicles. It’s also about reading the landscape however, as I discovered when I drove over a 6 foot obstacle and emerged into a 20 foot gulley. There was an almighty creak and we decided to stop early in a sheltered spot. We had made maybe 60 km. We checked the vehicle over and discovered that one of the suspension rods seemed to have bent: we improvised it well enough by hammering it back into shape, welding a brace either side and then encasing the whole into a split sheath of tubular steel from one of the bunk beds, and then binding the whole together. Apparently that is to be my bunk bed.

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12th January 2158
Dust, Dust and more Dust

Before we set off we tried to raise Miriam Base but without success. Sylvie took over the driving this morning and I’m glad she did- we made good time covering maybe 80 km before a dust storm forced us to hole up for several hours. As we were driving Vincent was fiddling the Comms trying to raise Miryam- without success but he did discover something odd which he picked up for a few minutes: a simple signal transmitting what we finally worked out was an old Morse Code SOS; unfortunately he was unable to work out direction before the signal faded, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t coming from the direction of Miryam.

…..
As we waited out the dust storm Maria decided to climb partly up the bluff we were sheltering behind. As the storm cleared she was able to see the glare of the domes at Miryam maybe 40 km to the north. She also spotted something really strange-two dust trails heading abruptly for the base and then stopping. We had no idea what could have caused it. The SOS was also discussed, and we mooted the possibility of Derik being marooned somewhere, and possibly rigging a transponder to send out a continuous distress signal.
…..
Laura picked up the final stretch covering the final 50 or 60 km just before dusk; we are parked not far from Miryam base now and are having a discussion. We are parked behind a bluff situated only 1-2 km from the base.

Maria and Vincent crawled up the slope and with her binoculars she has spotted two people stood outside the Hanger Bay, which is a bit odd when you consider that the total staffing of Miryam is only 4 people. There is also a bundle situated on the floor a few meters in front of them, of man-size or larger.

Sylvie apparently knows the Raider Gangs who operate within the vicinity of Black Rock, and her comment is that an out-of-the-place facility like this is just not worth their effort or attention- there is just too much physical effort involved in getting to and from here. Much easier to lurk near the Golden Road, hijack a truck and then sell the cargo and truck back via a go-between.

Vincent has also now picked up the SOS signal again, and this time has put a transect on Sylvie’s map which passes through a weather monitoring station situated about 30km to the north-east.

So now we’re eating an early supper and deciding what we should do: it’ll be dark soon and we need to make sense of this whole business. I’m sure nothing could possibly go wrong.

Vincent said what everyone else was thinking: “What’s to discuss? SOS has been the International distress signal since I don’t know when- even Pirates answer it. We should head to the weather station.”

I looked at Sylvie, as our best driver and resident Mars expert; she shrugged “There is one hour of daylight left: thirty clicks I could make in maybe two hours with a bit of luck, so that’s only one hour driving in the dark. As we’ll be homing on a signal I’ll chance it if you will.”

So it was. We packed up quickly and drove off, Sylvie keeping behind the dunes and out of site of Miryam base. She made good time, and just before sundown Maria, who had been scanning ahead out of the hatch called to stop. She jumped out and looked at the ground. “Tracks. 2 Q Bikes and 2 buggies, like they use on the bigger mining sites. Not protected vehicles so they need to operate close to a base. They‘ve headed up and down here several times over the last few days.”

Sylvie explained that some of the bigger rovers carry Q Bikes as scout vehicles, and bike sand racing is a sport among some of the wilder elements outside Mariner City boundaries. Either way it set us thinking, and we thought that some sort of gang Activity maybe was involved, but for the life of us we couldn’t figure out Why, in this isolated location.

In fact Sylvie made the journey in just less than 90 minutes, and it wasn’t long after sundown that the canyon opened out and we could see the lights on top of a stubby tower nestled into the side of a Redstone Butte. Maria switched her fancy binoculars onto Darksight and saw a shape up on a cliff over to our right, situated maybe a kilometre from the Weather Station but maybe with a good view of it. ‘Lookout’ was everyone’s thought.

The best explanation we could come up with was this: for whatever reason a Gang had attacked Miryam base. Someone had escaped to this weather station and altered the transponder to transmit an SOS. Meanwhile some of the Gangs vehicles harassed the weather station and left a lookout to keep an eye on them. It was the best we could come up with.

Sylvie drove around the tower to the left in a wide semicircle: if the lookout didn’t have Night capability we might just get away with it; after we’d spotted the tracks she had been driving with lights off and the Light Intensifier view anyway, which was ok at typical Rover speeds, which are not much above running. It seemed to go without incident and she parked behind the weather station. Nestled into the cliff.

Maria, Vincent and myself crept forward, and round the base of the tower to its ground level entrance. A Rover was parked outside, which had seemingly taken some heavy bullet impacts. Conveniently the position of the vehicle would immediately screen the door itself from the lookout we had spotted.

I tried the intercom and tried to explain that we were friends. The response wasn’t good: a voice I recognised as Derik’s (I’d seen him about the LFC offices a few times in the three months that my ship purchase deal had been dragging on) told me to ‘Fuck off Miles you turncoat bastard’, which sounded a bit odd in his nasal monotone voice. No joy there then.

Plan B: Vincent called Laura, and between them they opened the electronic lock and bypassed the access codes without triggering the security programme: where they learned to do that I don’t know. Vincent and I snuck in, followed by Maria. Derik hadn’t noticed us and we surprised him trying to move around the surviving security cameras-to see us I suppose. With two guns pointing at him he saw reason.

‘I suppose you are the official rescue team then’ he smirked. ‘I am so glad someone received my signal.’ Derik was a tallish saturnine man dressed all in black-a good indication of severe character defects in my experience. A young woman called Denise was called down from the roof-a base technician ; she is a year out student on a placement at Miryam apparently-lucky her.

Their story was as we supposed. Derik was using Miryam as a temporary base to check several facilities, mostly remote, in the area, including this one. Shortly after they arrived they were bottled in by two buggies and bikes, one with a machine gun mounted on the back. Their own vehicle was damaged and is currently inoperable. Various lewd suggestions had been made to Denise and himself, and the attackers appeared to know their names. Derik shot one of them with his long rifle, and they pulled off a bit. Probably wisely, Derik decided that it wasn’t a good idea to put themselves at the mercy of the Gangers, and they have secured the tower (which has a lot of supplies), and sent out the SOS we had picked up. With its upper floor and some corridors built into the rock, the tower makes a reasonable fortress-unless you are good at bypassing electronic security systems- which fortunately the attackers weren’t presumably.

Sylvie frowned as Derik was describing his experiences. “It doesn’t make sense all this. Raider Gangs, despite what you might see on the Vid Movies, are usually pretty temporary affairs. What you usually get are a few pissed off miners-who work under crap conditions for lousy pay under often corrupt managers- making a deal and supplying inside information to some of the local scavengers or ‘neer-do-wells. They then hijack a truck, ransom or sell it through a go-between, split the proceeds and then keep a low profile or vanish till the two week investigation is over. They operate near mining settlements along the Golden Road- not out here in the wilderness. This just doesn’t fit the Raider Ecology.’

Either way, we needed to get out of there. Presumably the buggies would be back in daylight, which meant we had to leave at once, night-driving or no: another stint for Sylvie. There were also three other staff possibly being held at Miryam- though Denise volunteered that she thinks that one of them-Miles-was in league with the raiders, as he had tried to convince them to surrender-or else-before the radio contact with Miryam was suddenly lost.

Sylvie drove though the night, taking much longer this time. It was 2am before we positioned the vehicle behind some dunes near Miryam. As she fell asleep I agreed to take watch till dawn-with the dreams I keep having it’s not as if I look forward to sleeping anymore.

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13th January 2158
Mando

Despite its bleakness I like the Martian Night. The cold and the wind, and the hissing of the sand being blown about. Sometimes the rush of air though the canyons make eerie noises and your imagination starts to play tricks on you. You feel completely isolated and it gives you time to think.

As the others slept on I was thinking alright-thinking about what we would do at dawn. Hopefully the buggies and bikes would ride off to the weather station, leaving a reduced number of Raiders at the base, and maybe a minimum 4 hour window for us to enter it and see if the other staff could be rescued.

My musings vaporised when I turned round and saw a silhouetted figure watching me from the dune behind us, a pair of binoculars raised to his eyes. He saw me and ducked out of sight. As I rushed down the dune I was calling in my comms to the others, and Vincent and Maria were first out. We raced to the top of the other dune and saw a pair of tracks heading down into a series of gullies and canyons nearby.

Maria tracked the fellow; our one consolation was that this was all heading away from Miryam base. Unfortunately if the fellow decided to snipe this was an excellent place for an ambush.

After ten minutes we were about to give up when we spotted a parked rover up ahead, concealed at a ravine junction. It had apparently been there for some time, as camo netting and an extended small camp had been made around the vehicle, which was a pickup-type rover.

Maria was all for flushing him out, but it occurred to me that it might be best to try talking-after all if we approached with weapons he would be well placed to take a few shots at us. I left my rifle with Vincent and approached with open hands saying we didn’t mean any harm.

A Mars-clad figure holding a rifle emerged from cover, and after a few more explanations he motioned me forward. My gamble paid off as fortunately the man wasn’t hostile. He invited me into a Pressure Tent and offered me coffee in a thick Spanish accent. The others were invited forward.

Our Host took his breather and hood off revealing a silver –haired weather beaten man in his 40s, with a gold ring in one ear. He introduced himself as Mando Luis Esteve, and he is a Scrap Merchant.

About a week ago he approached Miryam Base, which he occasionally trades with for supplies, but was attacked by the Raiders. A chase ensued during which he eluded his pursuers in rough terrain, but not until his vehicle had been damaged: the engine gave out about half an hour later. He has been marooned since then with two choices-to make the risky 150km trek on foot to Black Rock, or to make an even riskier night-time venture to steal parts from one of the raider vehicles which are apparently parked outside the base. He has supplies for several weeks so he is waiting in the hope that they simply move on, in which case they might simply leave one of the Base Rovers for him to scavenge.

He is prepared to help us enter the base if he can scavenge to fix his Rover, to which we have readily agreed. Mando seems pretty confident in the Outback and I am sure his knowledge will be a useful asset. He has a low opinion of the Raider’s outdoor skills, and seems to think it pitifully easy to avoid them-I hope his confidence is not misplaced. He says that apart from the two bikes and buggies the Raiders have another Buggy, and two giant rovers which they have parked and secured outside the base. He judges that one of these they move around and live in, and the other is a sort of vehicle transporter for the scout vehicles.

Like ourselves he is completely at a loss with regard to what these Raiders are doing at Miryam, but he did repeat a story we have heard so many times on Mars, and is attributed to the so-called ‘Beast of Black Rock’ or some similar urban myth.

Mando claims that a year ago he actually DID come across a homestead he occasionally visited: the colonists (a family of 8 and a couple of workers) had all vanished. Much of the buildings were still intact, and although some things may have been taken (he is evasive about what) the place had not been completely looted or destroyed. He has ventured that perhaps this gang, or a Gang like it, might have been responsible for this and the other reputed disappearances? I don’t know.

So what to do? Mando indicated that the Raiders (for want of a better term) were late risers, and that if any vehicles went off to harass the weather station, this could be any time between 8am and 10am: I grabbed some shuteye.

Around 9.30 am Maria woke me- two buggies and 2 Q Bikes had headed off toward the weather station. We gave them a good half hour and moved the Rover clockwise around the base, keeping all the time in cover of dunes: the intention was to circle away from the guarded hanger, and get as close as possible to the warehouse entrance.

Derik had indicated that there are security cameras inside the base-two in each large module and two in each main corridor-for safety monitoring rather than for intrusion alert really. For emergencies there was also a lockdown programme which could seal all the electronic doors.

The plan was as follows: Sylvie and Denise would stay with the Rover. Laura and Maria would attempt to sneak toward the warehouse module, on the opposite side of the complex from the two (very lax) guards, and attempt to gain entrance. If they got there without incident the rest of us would creep through the boulder field and join them.

Laura, who frankly I still wasn’t sure about, crept closer with Maria-they had a close call when the spotted one of the hab unit view ports was open but managed to adjust their route accordingly. In they went- Derik’s access codes worked fine. After a few minutes we crept in, following the same route they had taken.

The circular mod had a concentric arrangement of storage units, and Maria motioned us behind one of them to avoid the two security cameras positioned over the two internal exits. On the floor was an-almost decapitated man, quite dead. Maria looked a little shocked. He was armed with one of those homebrew martian revolvers that are so popular here, but was otherwise dressed only in a scruffy black vest, boots and combat trousers. His face was strangely tattooed (or painted) with odd lettering that might have been Arabic-then again it might have been something else.

Vincent squirmed out of his mars suit, and with his padded over trousers and T shirt, with a baseball cap from a hanger pulled onto his head he didn’t look wildly dissimilar to the dead man. He avoided the camera over the door leading to the Power Module, and activated his scrambler device. He and Derik then snipped the power feeds to the cameras on either side of the door and Vincent walked off along the corridor, across the intersection and toward the Power Module door. After scrambling the cameras at this end he signalled All Clear, and in ones and twos we flitted across the intersection towards the Power Module.

One thing stuck me as pretty odd about the place: as I sneaked across the intersection down the right corridor was the central Rec. Module, and the peculiar aromatic stale smell we had experienced ever since we entered the base, seemed to emanate most strongly from there. I could hear several voices, and what’s more the door was actually open, and a peculiar red light seeped out, in contrast to the functional pale whiteness of the rest of the base lighting.

At the backup terminal Vincent had been busy; with Derik’s login he had managed to hack in and upgrade his access, terminating the user rights of everyone else in the base. Luckily no-one seemed to be manning the main Lab Terminal. It was only a matter of minutes before he had worked out, with Maria’s help, the security camera monitors and displayed them as a matrix on the screen.

From what we could see there was one person in the lab area (‘That weasel Miles’ interjected Derik), apparently busy eating. In the garage area another individual was working and as we watched two other individuals came from one of the Hab. modules and entered the central Rec. area, from which we had already heard voices. We saw one other individual moving between the Galley and Storage mods and he was a bit odd: male I think, but something of a pretty boy-it makes me wonder about these people. One thing odd about him was his hair, which was blonde and spectacularly wild, and he was decidedly effeminate, and swished around as if he owned the place. Another bit of wierdness was the Rec. Area-the camera view was useless because large drapes or curtains had been hung across the room limiting their view.

With control of the computer access and computer we could now lockdown the electronic doors at will: now we needed to figure out what to do next-and where were the captives?

In the end we decided against initiating a lockdown and alerting the base inhabitants; while Vincent and I watched the screens, Laura, Maria and Mando scouted out the habitation units to the west and south. Fortunately they were not spotted by two Raiders heading from the western Habs towards the central Rec area- all of the Hab units were empty, though showed indications of being used by 3-4 very untidy inhabitants.

While Mando and Laura checked the units to the south Maria, who was guarding the corridor north towards the central Rec module heard a sharp female cry from that direction: we knew that one of the unaccounted for scientists-Dr. Anderson was female, and so we took this as an indication of where she was being held.

As they retraced their steps back towards us in the Power Module Vincent noted that Miles had finished his breakfast, and was moving back towards the central computer to resume whatever he had been doing. He frowned as he saw that he had been logged out, and started the login process. If he realised he had been locked out he might twig something was up. I took a chance and raced west from the Power Module to the Lab module-luckily I encountered no-one else, and Miles didn’t look round when I keyed open the electronic door. He did look round when I stuck my AFL-4 into the side of his neck. He gave a weak smile.

“Hey man thank God you’re here to rescue me- I thought I was done for.”

“Miles you pathetic little Turd”, interjected Derik, who had followed me, “Don’t try to bullshit us about your cosy new chums.”

“Hey what could I do? I could send you that radio message or I could let them shoot me. What was I supposed to do? Die nobly?”

He looked about as trustworthy as he smelled; the safest thing was to shut him up for now, and the lab fume cupboard looked handy, if a bit cramped; I jammed a suspension bar through the catch, making a primitive but effective latch.

“We’ve got to act quickly now-they could rumble us at any time. Derik and me will enter by the north door-you come in at the west. 30 seconds. Go.”

I opened the keypad into the Rec. Room and Derik, who frankly I didn’t think would be up to much, stepped through the curtain and coolly shot down one of the Raiders stood in the middle of the room; I hadn’t realised just how pissed off he was.

At the same time Laura, Maria and Mando stepped through the west door. We had gotten the drop on them, and some lucky shooting put two or three of them down before they had time to react. As I moved in I saw a naked woman tied down with leather straps-the source of the scream-I didn’t think twice as I shot down the scumbag fiddling with his trousers standing over her. Payback.

There were a few nasty moments as a particularly big brute took Laura’s pistol shot on his armor and blasted away with his shotgun, but overall the speed and surprise of our attack-and the fact that we still wore our Mars Suits and had Flak jackets against the Raiders T shirts and unhygienic underwear, made the outcome pretty certain. Derik received a slight wound, and Maria’s flak jacket needed a patch, but otherwise we were ok. There were maybe ten of the raiders all told.

With the fighting apparently over I took my knife to cut loose the woman-she was in a pretty bad way and I could see a lot of bruising; it was fairly obvious that she had been fairly heavily sexually abused. Derik confirmed that this was Dr. Greta Anderson, the base mineralogist. She just covered herself with her hands and cowered once I’d released her, and I’m not sure she was listening to my clumsy attempts to reassure her.

As we had entered the Rec. Room, Sylvie had started the Rover moving toward Miryam, and at this point she reported that the two outside guards had spotted the vehicle, and were moving towards her waving their hands. I was about to caution her when we heard a muffled report and then a cry, followed by more gunshots, much louder this time. We waited for a time which was probably only seconds, but seemed much longer.

“Denise she is down” came Sylvie’s thick French accent.

“And the Guards?” I asked, motioning towards Maria.

“They are down too. I must see to her.” Another pause. “She will be ok I think; but I must re-pressurize the cab and stop the bleeding. Is anyone badly hurt there?”

“Derik is wounded but he’ll live. See to Denise and then come here-we’ve another patient for you”

About ten minutes later Sylvie entered the Rec Mod, and whistled as she looked round. I showed her Dr. Anderson- Maria had pushed her into the shower, and was now trying to dress her with some clothes I had pulled from her room. “Hmm” she said, looking at the terrified and cowering woman. “Sleep is best I think.” She administered what I assumed was a sedative, and I gave orders to get her out and evacuate the base.

There was something very odd in the north-western portion of the Rec module. Some tables had been pushed against the wall and covered with cloths. On this was a wooden statue-more like a tableau or diorama really- about three feet high. “Wood”, said Mando, “Is valuable.” I don’t know much about Art but it looked like some sort of Roman or Greek reproduction to me: the central figure was a naked man wielding a staff or rod, sat on a stone plinth with plants growing round it. Around the plinth drinking and fornicating were naked and almost naked men and women, some of them looking and reaching up to the central figure. Two of these appeared to be wild looking women with crazy hair, and sat at the side of the central figure (God?) was a goat-footed figure playing some pipes.

“Some sort of weird sex/ booze cult?” suggested Vincent. I had no idea, but if we took it with us someone in Mariner City might know-and we might be able to sell it. Around the statue were candles and bowls with meat of some indeterminate type in- I didn’t want to look that closely.

Mando said he would take one of the base Rovers, and take it to his own vehicle. He suggested we take the second base Rover- after all, the Raiders probably would if we didn’t. Outside the Hanger was the frozen corpse of Dr.Jones-the final member of the base staff.

A few minutes later we had all piled into the two rovers-including Miles, who Sylvie also sedated. The Sheriff at Black Rock could sort out his story.

We drove for a couple of hours, at which point Mando caught us up in his own vehicle: obviously his jury rigging had been successful. We continued on, three vehicles in convoy, until maybe 2.00 pm, at which point Sylvie pulled the lead Rover to a halt. The reason was easy to see. Behind the sloping dunes the air was thick with dust, and we could see at least a dozen tall columns of wind moving across the valley floor towards us. Mando and Sylvie pulled the three vehicles side by side, and brought out instruments which I later learned fired super-heated bolts down through the regolith and permafrost, to a depth of a couple of metres. To these were attached the ends of metal fibre lanyards, and after the bolts were fired anchors were triggered out from the sides. Minutes later the ground around the bolt head refroze, providing very secure anchor points. These lanyards were then used to tie the vehicles to the floor. Into our cabins we got, playing cards and eating precooked meals-and lots of coffee. There was nothing else we could do: it was a long night.

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14th January 2158
A King Walks Among Us

I stayed awake as long as I could, reading while the others dozed off-I am getting to the stage where I don’t want to sleep sometimes. I finally dropped off again after midnight, but once again it was a restless slumber, and when I woke it was like I hardly slept at all. As usual the dreams were vague but disconcerting-all I can remember was walking through something very big. Maybe some sedatives would help.

The storm had blown over during the night without incident, and fortunately the twisters seemed to have passed us by. The storm had slowed down our journey home, but it had also erased our tracks and immobilised the Raiders had they chosen to follow us, so that was a good thing.

We shared the driving and this time I didn’t cause any accidents, but it was early evening as we drove into Black Rock, Vincent having announced an hour to two before that the web was back up, probably due to our proximity to the land link running from Black Rock to the magrail.

As I wasn’t driving at the time I reported in to Hiro. “Ah Good Evening-everything settled then?” I briefly explained what had happened- he looked horrified when I told him what had happened to Dr. Anderson. “I see. Well spare no expense with the local Doctor. Get an assessment and if there is a real emergency I’ll charter an MMC collection. There’s a lot to think about here and I need to consider what to do. You missed the return train earlier today, so I’m afraid you’re marooned in Black Rock for six days yet. Check in and get settled at the Hotel, and then contact me again with your report and we’ll chat in more detail.”

The first thing we did in Black Rock was drop Dr. Anderson at the local quack. He had a small dispensary out back with a couple of beds, and after checking her over came to have a word. “She’s been badly beaten, and there’s a lot of bruising and a couple of cracked ribs. I’ll also be running some blood tests to see if there are any long term issues. It’s not the physical damage I’m so worried about though, it’s the long term effects of her experience. She’s been badly treated and, I’d say, frequently sexually abused. Almost certainly she’s going to need psychiatric counselling, and even then it will scar her for the rest of her life I’d say. I’ll post my report through to the company Doc at LFC when I’m done-in the meanwhile I’m going to try heal her physically and keep her under sedation. I have a couple of local women who do nursing duties for me sometimes; I’m assuming LFC will pick up the tab, and they’ll be glad of a little extra income.” Seeing my look he said “It’s probably wisest not to leave her alone at this stage.”

Our final stop before the hotel was the Sheriff-still in his plaster cast. “Evenin’ Folks. Anything I can do for you?” I explained that Miryam had been raided and what had happened to Dr. Anderson, and that Miles role in all this was a bit suspect. “Ok I’ll hold him and send word to the Territorial Marshal’s Office; they’ll want to know about this if there’s an outback gang operating somewhere. Just like the movies eh?”

With Miles safely incarcerated we finally headed to the hotel. As usual, at least it seemed to us, there were a crowd of gawkers outside looking in through the window. “Maybe someone else arrived in Town” suggested Vincent. The crowd pretended not to be there as we entered the hotel.

In we walked again, and the owner was serving a dish of food (chilli, beans and rice with a hunk of bread) to a man sat alone at one of the tables, over which a chequered cloth had been arranged I noticed. The man had his back to us, but was sipping from a cup of coffee, the strong aroma wafting through the room.

I booked us our rooms-unsurprisingly there were sufficient vacancies- and we dumped our stuff on the one side and asked for the same. The owner shuffled out to the kitchen, and we sat down on the table next to the eating man. He looked up, and stood up as Maria, Laura and Sylvie went to sit down “After you Ma’am” he said, in a peculiar old-fashioned type of drawl. Maria looked a bit nonplussed-I’m not sure they have manners on Venus. I nudged her and she sat down.

“Good evening Sir”, I offered, “My name is Lars Johannssen, and you are…?”

“Uh Presley, my name is Elvis Presley. Pleased to meet ya’ all.” He shook hands with me, and with the others as I introduced them. He seemed a nice young chap and very polite. I could see the local nosy parkers were still looking in. Elvis looked a bit embarrassed.

“I’d hoped to come here all quiet like, but I had a run in with one of the local mining boys and had to send him out with a bit of a flea in his pants. Unfortunately it sparked quite a bit of interest I guess. I just wanted to be treated like a regular customer, but I guess that plan’s gone out the window.”

Our food arrived and we pitched in. Thankfully it wasn’t micro waved, which was a real pleasure after the last few days. “I guess I’ll see you all in the morning” said Elvis, “I got some stuff to do before I turn in, and I need to think about what to do now. I can’t stay here I ain’t got that much time. Goodnight all. Ladies.” He bowed and went upstairs.

“He looks kind of familiar” said Vincent “His name mean anything to you?”. Shakings of the head all round.

“His manners were kind of strange” said Maria, “What was all that stuff about waiting for me to sit down?”

“He was being the gentleman” said Sylvie, “It was a pleasure to see-sometimes you meet some of the older miners and settlers who speak to you like that. It is odd yes, but it is respectful I think. He perhaps comes from an old fashioned family, yes?”

After food we broke up and went to our rooms. Everyone needed a shower and rest, and I guessed there would be a rush for the gym the next day as we all needed to catch up: in fact Sylvie was determined to put in a couple of hours before bedtime-but then again I gather she is some sort of Martial Arts enthusiast from the books she leaves lying around.

I had a shower and then logged on using the old fashioned room terminal and typed up my report of the last few days events: best to get it over and done with. I was pouring some coffee after I’d finished just before midnight, when I received a screen link from Hiro.

“Read your report- good work but worrying stuff. So the current status of the base?”

“Full of damaged/ dead bad guys, plus the ones who went off in the buggies before we attacked” I replied. “We left Miles with the local Sheriff because I’m not convinced he wasn’t involved in whatever was going on here, and he said he’d send a report in to the area Marshal.”

“He’s already done it, and there is more to it than that. I’ve been contacted by the UWC Wardens who’ve asked for base plans and all personnel details on Miles. I was going to hire a couple of ArmTec APC Rovers to check out and secure the base, but they’ve put a hold on that. Presumably they have their own ideas but we’ll have to wait and see.” I was surprised the Sheriff had already sent in his report quite frankly; I hadn’t tagged him as the efficient type.

“They’ll want to talk to Derik, Denise and the rest of you when you return to Mariner too. In the meantime they’ve instructed me, to instruct you all, that you’re not to talk about this incident to anyone: I’ve attached their D Notice, which has all your names on it. My advice is to abide by it-the wardens have extreme legal powers. My understanding is also that you all have an appointment in their Mars Bureau office within three hours of the Magrail arrival, six days from now.”

He shrugged, “Why the wardens are interested in a bunch of backwoods rapists and murderers is beyond me-it looks like a local problem to me. But there it is…”

“Anyway, you’re due back in six days. Poor Derik has been traipsing around the wilderness on LFC’s behalf for over two months, so he’s due a week leave when he gets back. We will sign the papers as soon as you wish to on your return, and I’ll allow an extra 3 days for setting the ship and cargo in order. My projected ETA for your departure to the platform is 16 days from now on 2158-031 (SET 31.1.2158) if that’s ok, and I’ll make arrangements for preparation of the cargos. Either way you’ll have a bit of free time when you get back-so take some time and relax. Maybe you can get tickets for the big Elvis concert in Founder’s Square next week?. Anyway I’ll let you get some rest.”

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15th January 2158
Out On The Road Again

I woke early after another restless night. On my way to the shower I bumped into Vincent and told him about Hiro’s comment regarding an Elvis concert. He looked intrigued and when we all met at the breakfast table he indicated that he’d done some quick net research.

“Elvis Presley was a big music entertainer in the 20th Century-he died in the 1970’s sometime. Look here– I printed this off from a wiki entry: “The Church of the Living Elvis is a successor Cult to The Church of Elvis the King and the Second Sway. The second coming of Elvis was officially deemed to have occurred on January 8th 2085, and during his Reign the King, amongst other pronouncements indicated that he would never again leave the Faithful. The Church was re-organised as The Church of the Living Elvis in 2114, and since that time there has always been a Living Elvis. The current Elvis has apparently reigned since 2155. It is speculated that The Living Elvis may be a surgically altered impersonator, or more esoterically a clone, or even a clone with memory transfer of one or all of the original Elvis’s. The Church isn’t saying, and the speculation helps to maintain interest in The Living Elvis.” ”

“But get this”, said Vincent “The original guy was prolific. You’ve heard of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’?”

“A classic” piped up Sylvie, “ It was the system-wide hit by Vanilla Bob and the Blue Nymphettes in Christmas 2148: we all had posters up of Bob in our school-that hair…” She looked at Maria who in turn looked completely blank.

“Yeah”, said Vincent, “But that was a COVER- apparently this Elvis did the original back in the 1950’s.

“In fact loads of the stuff we know is covers of Elvis material. Naughty Ninja Nuns doing ‘It’s Now or Never”-that’s an old Elvis number too.”

I found this hard to believe and I’d been a fan of the NNN’s in my teens-I still have the Holo Vid of Sister Cerise dancing in her Wimple and bondage gear in my Travelling Chest, but I didn’t want to own up to it.

“He can’t be a clone” suggested Sylvie ”While we can re-grow body parts-the full body growth and memory transfer stuff-it is science- fiction.”

“Maybe- unless you’re vastly wealthy of course. Who knows? My bet is on some sort of coaching and surgical alteration, but either way the Church is a very rich organisation-it’s acquired most of the licensing rights of the originals over the years- so it must earn a packet. The Living Elvis tours as well-apparently he is in the middle of one now, and is on his way to the inner worlds. Hence the Mariner concert next week. The upside is they appear fairly harmless- this Elvis guy doesn’t claim divine provenance or to be the holder of universal truths or anything- he just claims to be The Living Elvis .”

At that moment Elvis appeared at the breakfast table and bid us good morning. We ate and chatted generally, but he seemed to be holding back on something. Eventually he spat it out.

“Look man I got a problem-you have a Rover don’t you?”

I replied in the affirmative and he explained his position. Essentially he was on the run from his management, his army of hangers-on and the Church People: not permanently, but he wanted a few days to himself to get his head together before the big Mariner Concert next week. His officials had provided an endless list of excuses and appointments as to why he couldn’t do this, so he had slipped off, boarded a train, arranged with the magrail company to drop him off at Black Rock (1 million credits apparently to stop the train-because he’d read about the Black Rock once in a Mars guide…) and come to the hotel. Unfortunately he’d had a run-in with one of the mining boys yesterday, and had basically “kicked his butt out the door”, and he now realised that there was intense interest in him. It was only a matter of time before the Church people appeared in Black Rock and so he needed to disappear-he wanted us to help with our Rover. I looked at Sylvie.

“There are some farms and homesteads dotted around the Outback-I could ask one of them to put us up a few days-especially if Elvis could make it worth their while- it is the tough life for these small farms and homesteads.”

To this Elvis readily agreed, and Sylvie was able to contact a family called the Godalmings, who ran some sort of vegetable growing business in the Outback-about 50 km from Black Rock-far enough out to be isolated and difficult to find, but not too far. Elvis primed the Hotel Owner to bamboozle and mislead the Church Searchers when they turned up, and we got our stuff and loaded up the Rover-Maria, Vincent, Sylvie, Elvis and myself. Laura wasn’t feeling too well, and Derik and Denise were recovering at the hotel.

The drive wasn’t very long; we headed the mile or so out of town towards the Golden Road, and then headed west for about an hour. Sylvie then headed off to the north west following a transponder beacon, and in less than two hours we approached the homestead- consisting of a couple of dome units and some outbuildings, and two very large greenhouses. Beyond one of the greenhouses was a jumble of chaotic terrain leading towards a large spine of rock, on which we could see mounted yet again one of the ubiquitous Outback Weather stations.

As we entered the module we were greeted by a middle aged man and woman who introduced themselves as Tom and Mary. They lived here with their daughters Anna (19) and Louise (10), and their son Mike (14); there were also two hired hands-Manuel and Achmed . They made their living growing vegetables which were supplied on a regular basis to the three or four mines which operated within a 100km vicinity-in fact they were busy preparing for a collection which was to take place in a couple of days time. They let us get settled in before lunch in an hour; I shared a bunkroom with Vincent, Sylvie with Maria and Elvis got a room to himself.

Elvis was all charm over lunch, and held the Godalmings in the palm of his hand I think-his simple manners struck a chord with them. I noticed Anna cast more than a single look in his direction. Tom explained that he was sorry he couldn’t offer us much to do in the way of entertainment-but if we wanted to help with the packing and general jobs about the place we were more than welcome. I for one was more than glad to do some manual work for a change- I was paired with Achmed- a quiet young man with a scar on his face, of Arab origin I think.

The food at least was fresh and very good, and after an afternoon’s labour and a session in the gym, I was ready for a shower and bed. In the main room I could hear Elvis gently strumming his guitar and singing what sounded like old folk and religious tunes, for the entertainment of the household

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16th January 2158
An Impressive View.

Today we had agreed to accompany Tom up to the weather station-he held a caretaker/ maintenance contract for the MWA, and it was time for his monthly inspection. He explained he had noted there were some power fluctuations and so he would need to run a diagnostic on the system. There were also some issues he’d noted last month, including the replacement of solar panels on the main mast. Elvis came with us-he is a bit of an electrician and had helped with some wiring of the Greenhouse on the previous day-assisted doggedly by Anna.

Maria was familiar with the operating system, and with Vincent went through the laborious process of tracking down the fault. Meanwhile I climbed 100 m up the instrument mast, and the wind howled as I climbed up the metal ladder, protected only by the loose tubular cage which surrounded it. At the designated place I stopped and looked down-the bluff with the weather station 200m above the valley floor-and me another 100m above that. Wonderful. The spare panels were sent up in the mini elevator, and I keyed the controls to swing the panels in. I spent the next four hours in the freezing wind replacing them-I was glad to get down.

As we ate our sandwiches Elvis looked round at the bunkroom which constituted one half of this mini-complex and asked if he could move in here for the duration of his stay. There were cooking facilities and so on,and he could look after himself for a few days. Tom readily agreed-we would need to return the next day to replace the circuits Maria had isolated as the cause of the power fluctuations, and he could move in then.

As we drove back we heard the unusual noise of a VTOL off toward the direction of the Magrail; a pretty rare and unusual sound on Mars-the quantities of fuel burned are astronomical: a very expensive business.

That evening I called Maria, Vincent and Sylvie together and explained the D Notice and the conditions imposed on us by the wardens. We all agreed to gloss over any mention of the valuable statue. I didn’t want any entanglements with the system’s most secretive Legal Enforcement Agency-I just wanted to collect my new ship and be gone. I gather Vincent has had some dealings with the Wardens in the past: his verdict was that they were pretty ruthless in achieving what they wanted, but overall he probably thought they were on the side of the Angels: if that was meant to reassure me it didn’t succeed. We all agreed that there was something very odd going on-why their interest in this-a few Raiders on the rampage? As for once I slept soundly I turned it all over in my head.

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17th January 2158
An Unknown Visitor.

Next morning we went up to the weather station in two vehicles; we took two rovers, so we could leave one with Elvis. He assisted Vincent and Maria in replacing the circuit boards, and after a couple of hours we left him to it.

After lunch Maria went out to assist Tom with some damage to one of the Greenhouse Panels, when in the early afternoon I got a quiet call from Vincent to come urgently. I arrived to find Sylvie and Maria had already arrived. Young Mike was standing around, on one leg as it happens.

“Young Mike was messing around in the shallow flows out back there. Look what he found.”

What he had found was the skeleton of a human arm, to a point snapped just above the elbow. There were still bits of sinew on it. Sylvie picked it up.

“The finger ends they have been split-and this looks like gnawing. Wait-there are gnawing marks all along it.”

“I went and had a look where he found it”, said Vincent. "The flows are like a labyrinth of shallow canyons only 1-2 m deep, with sand blown in the bottoms. I photographed this.”

It certainly looked like a footprint of some sort-three toes and a rear toe, like a reptile or bird. Or maybe it was just one of those odd marks you get sometimes.

We went through the usual catalogue of conspiracy theories and myths: secret geneered corporate experiments gone wrong, Beast of Black Rock, alien life etc etc but with nothing else to go on it was a bit pointless. The most disturbing possibility was that it was someone human-and nearby; if someone had simply ‘lost’ an arm via an accident it would have frozen solid like a block of ice. We showed the arm to Tom and he was a little confused by it. No-one has gone missing it would appear-the nearest settlement is another Mine some 20km distant. He wrapped the arm in a cloth and locked it in a container- we will take it in to the Sherriff at Black Rock when we return

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18th January 2158
The Last Temptation of Elvis.

This morning two trucks from the Ryan Mine arrived –two large rovers with rear containment areas-to collect their monthly produce order from Tom and Mary. It seemed something of a social occasion for them-I guess they don’t get that many visitors, and the four crew joined us for lunch.

One of the drivers said that a VTOL had landed at Black Rock a couple of days ago, which certainly got me thinking.

After lunch the trucks drove off, and we started thinking about our return journey on the morrow. At the evening meal I noticed that Maria was casting odd glances at Anna, but I didn’t twig why- she looked rather pretty in fact. I decided to head to bed early with a journey the next day.

I was awoken by Vincent close to ten o’clock. “Get up, get your Mars Suit-Maria is in trouble.” I noticed he had his pistol. As I got dressed he explained.

“Maria was checking the Rover over in the Hanger when she saw someone slip out of the greenhouse, and down into the Flows. She followed and started tracking them. Thing is she sounds scared-she says she didn’t take a gun, and she thinks she’s being stalked by someone-or something.”

Without disturbing anyone else we went into the Greenhouse, and left by the end door. It was pitch black outside, though we could see lights on the Weather Station and antenna mounted atop the large rocky spur a couple of km or so ahead. We cast around for a couple of sets of footprints which led down into the sand filled crevices, and followed as best we could.

The walls of the crevices varied only between about one and two metres, but after going for a few minutes we could no longer see the Greenhouses. Vincent had Maria’s suit transponder on his wrist comp, and she was maybe a km or so ahead, somewhere in the tangle of the Flows. She appeared to be stationary.

The wind was making eerie noises as it pushed through the ravines and mini-canyons-but this is the sort of noise I’ve heard before. What wasn’t expected was a strange whistling noise-high then low-coming from somewhere ahead of us. This was answered somewhere off to our left by another whistling noise, this time pitched differently, piercing the thin Martian air. We looked at one another.

We were maybe only a couple of hundred metres from Maria at this point, and I crept up onto a rock, and scanned over the head of the boulders using my electronic sight-and caught a glimpse of movement. What I thought I saw was a rear shot of a head and shoulder-tall enough to still be visible while I scanned over the topmost level of the flows. There was something odd about the head, but the IR painter only shows a black/ greenish grey image, and I couldn’t really make out any detail. We crept closer, but the head, or whatever it was, disappeared out of sight.At this point we were quite close to Maria, and she hissed to us from a small cul-de-sac in which she had been hiding.

At this point we heard another noise-which I can only describe as chittering or tittering-this time from behind us, back towards the greenhouse. None of us were in the mood for further night-time adventures, but Maria was tracking who she thought might be Anna. She had noticed at dinner that she had made herself up slightly (neither Vincent nor myself had noticed), and it was her guess that she was sneaking out to see Elvis; Maria thought she might have a crush on him.

That settled it- with whatever it was out there, we couldn’t leave Anna wandering about alone. I handed Maria her rifle and she and Vincent walked ahead; we were all pretty jittery at this point and I backed up behind them, covering our rear as we negotiated the narrow passages. Ahead the rocky spur loomed.

Fortunately we reached it without further incident, and as we scrambled up onto the rover track I looked back across the Flows. Just for a microsecond I thought I spotted two greenish pin-pricks of light, and then it was pitch dark again. There is definitely something down there.

The spine of the spur was a hard walk, but there was little chance of ambush here. Eventually we walked underneath the bridge between the instrumentation block and the hab block, and emerged into the small vehicle park, with one of Tom’s Rovers parked outside. We walked up the steps to the Hab Unit, and keyed the access codes.

Inside we could hear Elvis playing his guitar and singing “Are You Lonesome Tonight”. I knocked, diplomatically paused and then entered. Inside Elvis was sat on a hard chair with his guitar; across from him was a slightly bewildered looking Anna; the top half of her Mars Suit, was rolled down, but beneath she was fully clothed. “Hi man I was just playing Anna some tunes. I’ll make you some coffee and then you can join in too.” As he walked behind Anna he motioned me to follow him into the canteen area.

“You got to get her back to her Daddy. Take the Rover. This happens to me all the time.”

We stayed and listened for an hour or so, and then started to make leaving noises. Anna had no excuse not to come with us. Before we left I warned Elvis to lock the doors and told him what had happened. He looked puzzled, but said he’d be ok as he had his rifle with him. He’s been in the army apparently.

We drove back down in silence, and headed back in without disturbing anyone. No point in embarrassing Anna with her parents.

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