The ice back against the base of his head seemed to just amplify the pain, the throbbing, the flashes of dizziness washing over him. Don grimaced as he opened his eyes again and glanced at Wayne sitting next to him. Wayne was clutching a cup of coffee, the steam almost billowing off the top of the mug. Don closed his eyes again, and resisted the urge to slump to the ground and allow the weariness take him. He heard, and felt, Wayne turning on his chair to face Don.
“Don, tell me again why we don’t want to arrest these assholes?” Don could hear him slurp his coffee.
Don set the rag down on the table in front of him and forced his eyes open. They were in the communal cafeteria, a space now very rarely used by the general population as more and more settlers were coming to Mars and opening restaurant and cafes. Don turned and looked at Wayne for a moment, as if to size him up. He cleared his throat, which caused his head to scream louder, “There’s more here than an idle threat to Bishop West.” Don’s mind wandered back to his quarters and the recent communique he had received from the bishop. “I know this man, Benjamin. He was a priest back on Earth.” He closed his eyes again for a moment, the flashes of memories of a war were beating against his eyes with each pound of his heart. No doubt the concussion wasn’t helping the brain.
“A priest?” Wayne shook his head, “what happened?”
Don didn’t want to do this, not today, probably not ever, but he knew that if he didn’t answer Wayne’s question that Wayne would either ask until he got an answer, or research on his own, or ask the Bishop directly. Of course there was no guarantee that he wouldn’t do those things even with Don speaking to him. Don looked Wayne over closely, Wayne looked innocent enough, clutching his coffee with hands that betrayed his age. Calloused, thick skin gripping the mug. Wayne starred at him in earnest for a moment, an eye brow slowly creeping up. Don’s eyes wanted to close, his mind wanted to sleep, he fought the urge to run, leave the cafeteria, leave Mars, go back to the jungles of South America. Sighing he looked into Wayne’s face closely, “Okay, I’ll tell you what I know.”
“The war was coming to an end. I had been assigned as a squadron leader down in Argentina, cleaning up from the invasion of Brazil through Paraguay. We were assigned to round up the last commandos and robot ground troops. We were stationed just outside of Formosa, my second in command was Benjamin. He was the sort of soldier you loved to hate. Unwavering, seeing things only in black and white, Benjamin knew how to direct his men to complete an objective. He was focused on the work he did as being “right”. He was never wrong, even though others might object, in his own mind, based on orders and his world view, Benjamin did what he believed he had to do, though that might not always be the actual orders given. In his world view, his focus, his filter, Ben would not deviate from his own interpretation of goals or objectives.
Well one afternoon we had engaged a group of ‘bots, war ‘bots actually, which were really just damn armor platted guns, programmed to shoot and kill any humanoid. Our troops, men mostly, engaged them, battled for over an hour during which time we lost 3 men, but in the end we took the ‘bots down. We hacked the core computer of one, to find its program directive and source, which lead us to Mojon de Fierro, a small village closer to the border of Paraguay. The town had been sacked the day prior by the ‘bots and the place had been burned nearly to the ground. I remember a river there, Rio Pilago or Pilaga something or another, it was thick with muck, gore, refuse.” Don shook his head at the memory, an action he regretted as it made the back of his head scream. “There were a few villagers still alive, many of whom were dazed, none of whom wanted to see us. As we pulled into the village in our rovers, a few of the villagers began to scream and protest, throwing bottles and rocks. Now our objective was, unknown to them, to track down and eliminate the faction of warriors responsible for the ‘bots, responsible for the destruction, but our ability to communicate was limited as the language translators were malfunctioning and, well, the town had just been razed. We didn’t stay long, but I remember the looks on the faces of these people, hungry, frightened, alone. Something I regret to this day is that I allowed Benjamin to take the lead on the investigation; he interrogated an old woman, who revealed a rebel faction had been in the town. Finally after hours of interrogation, the information lead us to a hog farm, just outside of town. There we encountered the rebel group, the robots programmers. A fire fight ensued, involving more of the damn ‘bots, and we lost two more men. This enraged Ben, I remember him screaming his hatred of the technology, how he screamed at the ‘bots having no souls, no conscious, and that the men who programmed the ‘bots were even more wicked, more evil.” Don took a sip of cold coffee from the cup in front of him, the liquid causing him to grimace. “Yeah, evil.” He set the cup down. “So anyway, after hours, that seemed like days, we busted through the perimeter of the compound, destroyed the ‘bots and rounded up the remaining rebels.
Look Wayne, everyone in those days had guns. I mean the warring factions relied on the ‘bots to engage our troops, but all the villagers, the locals carried guns, most of which couldn’t even penetrate our armor. They were stupid hand guns that were on average a hundred years old. War had stopped being about man to man engagement, and become man to machine engagement. It was rare we encountered men wielding weapons powerful enough to do us harm. Strange, I remember often being shot, perhaps even that day by villagers, the bullets literally less irritating than the damn mosquitos. Well as we rounded up the rebels a young boy came out of hiding, he had been in the hog pen, he was screaming something in Guaraní, which none of us spoke. It turns out he was screaming for help. The kid had been holed up in the hog pen with his dog, who had been shot by a stray round and was dying. This boy, running towards us was clutching a gun, an antique gun, more like a toy. Everyone had a gun, everyone.” For a moment Don closed his eyes.
Wayne shifted on his seat, uncomfortable in the long silence. “Don?”
Don looked at Wayne, “yeah, well anyway, Ben was still the lead. I remember him jumping down from the rover, a side ‘bot with him, for protection. He stormed up to the kid, who was crying, hysterical. The kid raised his gun, pointing back to the pen, screaming, ‘help my dog, she’s dying.’ Ben pulled his pistol, put it to the kid’s head and blew his brains out.” Don shuttered. “The ringing of the shot made time stand still, or so it seemed. When I realized what had happened I relieved Ben of command. He protested of course, screaming that this was war and anyone foolish enough to attack the Church, her priests, her people, were war criminals.” Don took another sip of the coffee. “Those days were the worst for us, rounding up the stragglers. Those last remnants of protest. Boys like the one we killed that day were everywhere. Hell, most of their families had been killed from nuclear fallout, or killed because they foolishly allowed the ‘bot’s programming kill indiscriminately. But that day, in the mud, surrounded by pigs, that boy was not a threat. After the incident, and finalizing the capture of the programmers, we returned back to main base in Asuncion. Once the recordings of Ben’s reaction to the boy had been reviewed from the observation ‘bots, well, Ben had sealed his fate. With the war tapering down, people were not about to allow the Church execute children, armed or not. But rather than deal with a long drawn out trial of a decorated and respected member of the conservative clergy, we laicized Ben, fired him from command and sent him back to Brazil. That’s when I lost touch with him. I knew he remained in the conservative factions, and everyone once in a awhile his name would pop up. I left South America though,” Don paused, thinking of Meruna, “nearly 25 years ago. I worked in Europe on the clean up, reorganization and implementation of the Holy Law. My field experience translated into where I am today I guess. As for Ben, his fanaticism translated into, well god only knows.”
Wayne signed, “Don, I didn’t know combat. I grew up in Congo, and we didn’t see conflict there, nor much affect of the nuclear war for that matter. I can’t imagine how this affected you, Ben, those people.” Wayne shook his head. “Well it’s behind us now, but here we are, this guy is back in your life, and it appears he has it out for you.”
Don glanced at Wayne, not trusting his words. “Back indeed.” Don weighed what he would say next very carefully. “What do you know of the south pole here on Mars?”
If Wayne’s face could have allowed for expression he would have shown it, but as it was, with the genetic alterations, only his eyes slightly widened. “The South Pole? What does that have to do with anything.” Don couldn’t help but notice the sweat forming on Wayne’s brow.
“Well, I received some information, classified, about the South Pole, and I can’t help but wonder if that doesn’t have a connection to Ben, to these new fanatics who arrived. Look, this Ben is capable of anything, and I’m afraid he’s really only a hydria.”
Wayne shook his head, “A hydria?”
“Yeah, you know, cut off one head and two more will appear. It’s a Greek myth that the hero Hercules had to fight. I suspect that Ben is here as the result of something else, and it’s related to Bishop West and the South Pole, of that I have no doubt.”
Wayne stood up, “Hey Don, if you’re feeling better, I’ve got to get some shut eye before the 10 a.m. briefing, this okay with you?”
Don raised an eyebrow, a painful act, but necessary, “uh, sure Wayne, get some rest.” Wayne nodded and turned out of the cafeteria. Don squinted at him as he walked away, the lights flickering on with Wayne’s forward movement, and shutting off as he left. Soon, there was just the darkness. Don looked around the cafeteria, it was still empty, of course it was early, or was it late? The robot attendant behind the counter came to life and jerked towards Don.
It beeped to life, its yellow eyes flickering on, “More coffee sir.” The voice was a modulation of a man’s voice, but lacked the pitch and tone of living voice.
Don shook his head and waved his hand, “No, go turn yourself off.”
The robotic attendant paused and replied, “Thank you sir, I cannot shut down so long as you are here.”
Don frowned, not really ever having become used to the AI driving these machines, especially after the story he just recounted. “then I’ll leave.” He stood, and regretted that immediately. He swayed and thought he would pass out and be sick at the same time. He could hear the robot hum, activated further by his movement.
“Sir, are you ill? I shall call for medical assist immediately.”
Don put his hand, “no, dammit, just go wipe down a table, I’m fine.” The machine seemed to comprehend, and took no further action. Don stumbled back down the corridor to his chamber. he wondered as he walked if the lights would be working or not, but those fears left as each panel came to light as he passed. Finally coming around the corner to the resident chambers he could see a block of light spilling out of a room, his. He growled a bit and pulled his gun from his holster, grateful that Ben and his cronies had returned it to him. He slowed his pace as he approached the room.
“Anyone here?” he called out. “This is Father Don, Priest of the Church, identify yourself.” He arrived at the doorframe, not yet able to see in the room. He couldn’t hear anything, shook his head – again regretting that motion, and jumped in front of the door frame so as to look in.
The room was empty, as he had left it before his abduction. Glancing around and not seeing anything he holstered the pistol. He ran his hand through his hair, surprised he was sweating. “Computer, full illumination.” The room grew much brighter, enabling Don to see all the nooks and crannies of the tiny space. “Computer, normal illumination.” the room dimmed slightly and Don stepped in fully.
Looking around he spied his small desk and folder there, the one he had received a few days prior. He looked back at the doorway. “Computer, seal the room.” The lights flashed and the chamber door sucked shut, the air hissing as the room was sealed. “Computer, lock the door.” He heard the lock fasten and in the same motion pulled his gun and holster off his hip, setting them down on one of two chairs at the desk. he sighed, reached over and flicked the switch to turn on the water. For a moment nothing happened, then remembering the water restrictions he cursed under his breath. “Damn.” He reached into a cabinet above the sink and pulled down a small bag of water. He tore the corner of the bag open with his teeth, plugged the sink, and poured it into the basin. He splashed the water on his face, his neck, savoring the cold wetness of it. He leaned heavily on the sink basin, exhausted, unable to move for a moment. He looked over and down at the folder and frowned.
He immediately knew it had been tampered with and he moved away from the sink and sat down at the desk with the folder in front of him. He opened it and flipped through it. At first he didn’t know what was missing, he had been looking at it and the documents in it for hours but then it hit him, the picture was gone. He stood up, like a rocket, and groaned, his head not liking the abuse. Damn it, he had been so careless. For a moment he didn’t know what to do, he looked around the room frantically. He almost smiled, maybe everyone knew about the south pole, certainly Wayne knew something, of that Don was sure. Benjamin knew, he had said as much but didn’t tell Don specifically what he knew. Who else? Why would Ben come back to his room to take only the picture? No, it couldn’t have been Benjamin. Someone else, but who?
Don glanced at the main computer terminal, right, the visual recordings might have been working here, after all, the lights in his room never went off. He began to type furiously on the touchpad, bringing up the security footage. “Computer, review hours of 3 a.m. to 4 a.m., fast forward 16 times speed of normal.” The images blurred, nothing happened, then at 3:38 she stepped into his room. There was no audio, but Don felt weak, weaker. “What….?” he muttered out loud as he watched Meruna slip into his chamber, hesitantly. But then, clearly she saw the folder on the table and seemed drawn to it, like a moth to flame. She went through it, the picture falling out of the folder and on the floor, in near slow motion. He watched her pick it up, read the materials, put them all back together and on the desk, then he watched her start to leave, turn around and come back, taking the photo and running out of his room.
Don sat back down, hard. What was she doing in his room? Was this all a set up? What the hell was happening? “Think Don” he said to himself, “think.” Well the secret in South Pole wasn’t as much of a secret as Don would have liked. He was schedule to go there in two days on the planetary flier. The flier was a small hover craft that allowed local planet travel. It was a small craft, designed only for up to five passengers, but it was incredibly fast, efficient, and most importantly, discreet. He typed at the screen to the computer console bringing up the transport schedule. Good, no new arrivals for over a week. He scrolled through then his smiled. Ah, yes, perfect. The Electrotrak went there too, but this journey generally was unmanned, though on occasion it was used to take miners to the south pole. This colony was located just south of Sinai Dorsa, the journey via Electrotrak would take several hours, but should be doable, and Don could go without anyone knowing.
He stood again, pulled off his shirt, opened the wardrobe and pulled out a fresh shirt, this one lined with environmental controls. The plan was forming quickly in his mind, he would go down there today, on the next Electrotrak transport to the South Pole. He opened another drawer and took out a small helmet, designed to survive the Martian atmosphere for a few hours. Ah, gloves and boots too he thought. He pulled out all his gear, the pounding in his head fading away, driven back by adrenaline. He could sleep on the Electrotrak, if it didn’t break down. Yes, this was his plan. The south pole, he’d see for himself what was there. As he gathered his gear, he opened one last drawer in his wall closet, it contained a small rifle. This was one of the most powerful weapons on the entire planet, only four of them were here. A nuclear gun, it fired a small nuclear charge, a contained blast that evaporated its target. They had been banned at the end of the war, but as Mars was being settled, Don had managed to smuggle the four of them on the planet. He had one, Wayne had one, Bishop West and the forth was still on planetary rover, hidden.
His environmental suit complete, the weapon carefully hidden in a large duffle, Don stood at his door. He knew he was being impulsive, but something told him in the back of his mind, he had to go to the South Pole for himself. “Computer open door.” The door hissed open, lights flashing. He paused, “Computer, delete all video and audio recordings.”
The computer spoke back, “Define parameters.”
“Computer, delete all video and audio recordings of habitat of Father Don Wesley, clearance code Samuel Alpha Seven.”
The machine spoke again, “Confirm, deleted.”
Don smiled, at least the day hadn’t been boring. He turned and ran towards the Electrotrak junction. Not one bit.