|Being a Patrolsentient
by Michael Bard
© Michael Bard -- all rights reserved
Galloping down the curving hallway, I felt both eagerness and terror. Doubts surged through me. Why was I here, so far away from my herd? Did I want to be here?
Did I really want to be a member of the Patrol?
The simulated gravity decreased, and I spent more and more time drifting through the air (as opposed to galloping along the rubberized floor) as the ship's rotation was slowly absorbed by the electric motor, now generator, along its spine. The repeating alert klaxon was harsh in my ears, and Captain Yancey's voice, recorded by the automatics, repeated its strident command: "All hands to battlestations! Cadets, man your blasters!"
Sweat soaked my uniform, more from nervousness than exhaustion. Back when I'd entered Hayworth Hall, fresh from Mars and full of dreams of glory, it had all seemed so easy -- so obvious! I'd passed the initial examinations, then studied and trained for four years on the PFS Anthera in geostationary orbit around Terra. Now I was on my training cruise on the PFS Triplex, a C57D class cruiser, and I was having stronger and stronger doubts as to whether the Patrol was right for me.
A bell rang, warning that all rotation had been halted, and I grabbed the handle of the port blaster station's hatch. With practiced ease I swung myself around, let my four booted hooves absorb my momentum, and then grabbed the gloves designated for my use from the nearby locker and sealed them on. Leaning forward, I snugged up the tube -- the hatch hissed shut behind me.
Patrol fusion-drive ships are designed for any station to be manned by any member race of the United Planets, but it was still a tight squeeze for me -- or anyone else of my centaur race. Skill born of long practice allowed me to pull myself up hand over hand with my four legs tightly folded against my lower chest. My pearly white cadet uniform slithered against the bulkhead, and I knew I'd have to clean it myself. Captain Yancey ran a tight ship.
The access tube opened up into a spherical cavity -- the blaster station -- and with practiced motions I buckled myself in, tightening the straps and bars so that I was part of the weapon and the weapon was part of me. Pulling down the helmet, I checked that the breathing system was working and fully charged, pulled it on and then snugged the straps as compressed air puffed into the headpiece, the inflation ensuring a tight fit to my head. I flicked my ears around until they found the earphone cups. Now if there were a hull breach, I could survive a limited exposure to vacuum, my cadet uniform doubling as a temporary space suit. A green HUD appeared on my goggles as the blaster's sensors fed me its view of the ship's surroundings. I grabbed the firing controls, snugging my lower arm and elbows into the pads of both handles.
The system ran a quick check; as the drugs were injected into me, the ready light burned green.
"Blaster 1 ready!" I called out.
Almost simultaneously the other Cadet, Mattiq Dodsthon, chimed in with, "Blaster 2 ready!"
"Hey Mattiq! What took you so long?" I called out.
"Come on, Kyros! It's not my fault I've got a wondrous fluffy tail where you've only got a scrawny one!" Mattiq was an anthro-squirrel and inordinately proud of his tail, though it always gave him problems.
"So shave it!"
"What? And end up looking like Lieutenant Brunn?"
"You're channel's still open, Cadets," barked Lieutenant Brunn, the anthro-rat Comms Officer.
"Cut the chatter, Cadets," Captain Yancey's voice hissed through our headsets. "The bogey is at 57x189x12. Paint it but don't fire until I give the order."
"Yes, Sir!" both Mattiq and I responded.
Moving my arms, my entire orientation twisted around as the blaster pivoted to aim at the unknown ship. Numbers counted down in the HUD and the primary targeting radar locked onto the unknown. The silvery hull of the Triplex filled half my view, and Mars most of the other half. The target was only a tiny dot in the distance.
My headphones relayed the feed from the bridge. "Lieutenant Brunn, hail them again."
"Aye Sir!" Lieutenant Brunn answered and spoke into the comms system. "Unknown vessel, this is the Patrol ship Triplex. You are in restricted Martian space. You are ordered to respond immediately. If you do not respond, we will fire on you."
"How long do you want to give them?" That was Commander Myllis, an anthro-equine, our executive officer and astrogator.
"Give them another minute. Cadet Imbreos!"
"Sir?" I answered.
"On my command, and not before, I want you to fire a warning shot five klicks in front of their bow. Understand?"
"Understood, Sir. Locking now." With deft movements of my hands and elbows, the turret motors whined and the blaster and I rotated to focus at a point 5 klicks in front of the unknown vessel. I didn't want to turn away, my blood burned to strike my prey -- the rage drugs were working. You've probably heard of them in history. Ever since the last World War, use by the Patrol has been the only sanctioned purpose for the lovely things.
Lieutenant Brunn's voice rasped. "Still no response... wait, there's something... I'll put it on the speakers."
A high pitched whine that oscillated in a random pattern screeched through my headphones and burned into my skull. Suddenly it went silent.
"Sorry Captain," Lieutenant Brunn apologized. "I have no idea what that was."
The Captain didn't respond, but instead barked out, "Cadet Imbreos, prepare to--"
There was a loud buzz and then Lieutenant Thurl, an anthro-badger, burst out, "Missile launch! Bogey has launched!"
My HUD changed to display a second blip. The picture zoomed and locked. Type 5 chemical explosive tipped, solid fuel, 15 minute burn time.
My prey. My kill.
There were voices -- I didn't care -- with a loving caress I clenched my triggers. Shards of energetic packets blasted across space. The ship's reactor couldn't generate that kind of power density, so it fed a superconducting coil that could squash a minute's worth of output into millisecond pulses of high energy particles. I could see their path and made slight corrections until the particle stream intercepted the missile detonating its fuel in a beautiful glorious burst of light!
Fighting free of the combat rage, I released the trigger and calmed my breathing. My ears gingerly stretched outward cupping the sound.
The Captain continued speaking: "Cadet Dodsthon, aim across their bow, five clicks in advance of their course."
"Cadet Imbreos, you will not fire until I give the order."
What!? But I--
"I repeat: Do not fire until I tell you to!"
The years of training took over. "Yes, Sir." My stomach clenched at the thought of my prey being taken by another.
Lieutenant Thurl's voice came over the headphones. "The bogey is warming up its fields and preparing for drive ignition."
Like the Triplex, the unknown had a fusion drive and needed to power up both the magnetic bottle to hold the fusion reaction and the magnetic funnel to control the jet for propulsion. The exhaust was hot enough to melt any material containment.
"Any response?" Captain Yancey asked.
"Nothing, Sir," replied Lieutenant Brunn.
"Cadet Dodsthon, fire the warning shot."
"Yes Sir!" Mattiq responded!
My fingers itched to touch the triggers as the thrill of the kill still burned through my veins.
"Cadet Imbreos, you will not fire! Understand?"
"Yes, Sir," I muttered.
The particle beam sliced through space and past the bow of my prey. Though not as bright but getting brighter, I could see the slight exhaust plume from the ignition of the target's drive.
"Lieutenant Brunn, order them to shut down their drive else we will destroy it."
"Yes Sir! Unknown ship! You are ordered to shut down your drive immediately! If you do not, under the authority of the United Planets we will be forced to fire on you. Acknowledge!"
"Anything, Lieutenant Brunn?"
"Nothing since that sound. I know we're transmitting. I guess their radio could be -"
The missile warning buzz hissed over the headset.
"Second launch detected Sir! Computer flags it as identical to the first. Bogey has begun acceleration."
"Cadet Imbreos, you will fire at the missile, and only at the missile. And only at my order!"
My body was quivering with tension but I managed to keep my voice steady. "Yes, Sir." My hands caressed the trigger and I locked the system onto the approaching missile.
"Cadet Dodsthon, lock onto their drive. Prepare to fire upon my command."
A different buzzer tone.
"Energy spike!" Lieutenant Brunn burst out.
The energetic particle packets traveled just under the speed of light; I could see them an instant before they hit. There was a visible flare as they hit the Triplex's field and lost some of their energy, but still they impacted.
Lieutenant Brunn continued his report in a calmer tone of voice. "Medium level energy burst, impacting H3 tank 8. 1.8PeV strength."
"Ship is vensing fuel capsain. Loss ressricsed sank 8," Engineering Chief Novath, a Venusian, reported from deep in the rear of the Triplex.
"Cadets, fire!" the Captain shouted.
With both hands I clenched the triggers and watched the bursts of high-energy particles speed across space. My aim was exact, and with another burst of light the missile's fuel exploded. Further away, a second stream of particles impacted the stern of my prey. The glow there momentarily brightened and then went dark.
"Got--!" Mattiq shouted.
The entire bogey detonated in what would have been a blinding burst of light that the HUD display darkened to a bearable level.
"Whassa hell?" Lieutenant Novath burst out.
"Cadet Dodsthon, I told--"
"Sir?" Command Mylls broke in. "It wasn't the Cadet's fault. I've checked the recordings and I'm certain the ship detonated after Cadet Dodsthon ceased fire. They may have initiated a self-destruct."
"Ship will stand to General Quarters and will remain at zero spin pending the arrival of the other two unknowns. Cadets stand down. Dodsthon, return to your regular duties. Imbreos, report to my cabin."
There was a spike of pain as the weapons system injected the drug antidote into my arm, and then air hissed as the pads holding my hands and lower arms, and snugging the helmet, deflated. Angrily I pulled them off and the stench of my rage and fear burst into my nostrils. I carefully unstrapped the harness and slowly pulled myself down the connecting tube into the mercifully sterile air.
Report to Captain Yancey's cabin...
It didn't take long to get there, and when I did I had to wait. Around me the ship clicked and groaned and faintly gurgled -- temperature redistribution along the outer hull and the swirl of water being pumped between inner-hull tanks to adjust the ship's mass distribution -- just barely loud enough to hear if you knew what to listen for. Hanging in the corridor I wanted to kick something. Why was I here? Maybe I should just go into private service. Any company would be eager to--
Only years of training allowed me to deftly spin around and look up at the Captain. Carefully and cleanly I gave him the open-palmed gesture of the Patrol. I always got that right, ever since I accidently gave the old Colt Scout salute when I was preparing to go up to the Anthera.
"At ease, Cadet. Follow me in and be seated. Oh, and close the hatch behind you."
The Captain cranked open the hatch and went in first; I followed, and carefully latched it shut. By the time I turned around the Captain was behind his small neat desk and even though we were still in freefall, he looked like he was seated. Pulling up the reader built into his desk, he looked at the screen I couldn't see and called something up. I knew with a sinking feeling that it was my record.
"Cadet Imbreos... Kyros... At ease. You're not on parade here."
"Yes... Thank you, Sir."
"Why do you want to be a member of the United Planets Patrol?"
"Answer the question."
I thought about it. Originally it had been for the honour and the prestige. I'd dreamed of space since I was a colt, and I'd dreamed of being a Patrolsentient. My parents had put up the bond for my trip to Terra; I couldn't fail or quit because if I did they'd lose the bond. That was almost five years ago. Now... what did it all mean? I looked at the Captain, at his vulpine muzzle and his piercing eyes. Even though he was an omnivore, he made me nervous. All sentients who could eat meat did. We'd always feared them more than most of the other races, it's why my kind had so eagerly embraced the Martian offer to immigrate.
"Kyros? The answer."
And now? I'd been looking for a better reason for the last two years. The academy taught duty, sacrifice, honour, free thought. I was caring less and less about the first three and embracing the fourth more and more.
The Captain's expression softened as he looked at me.
I let out a slight nicker. "I'm not sure any more, Sir."
He cocked his head. "That may be the first correct answer you've given to that question."
"Sir?" I looked at him, my tail whipping back and fourth.
His left ear, the scarred one, flicked at some imaginary fly. No not flicked, he was focussing on me. "We're here to enforce the peace. We control the weapons that should never be used. You have to remember that. Always!"
If I hadn't been in freefall I would have scratched the floor with one of my rear hooves. Everybody -- I mean everybody -- told me that, again and again! But this was the Captain, he'd been strict but fair, and he deserved the best answer I could give. I swallowed, my mouth dry. "Sir, Captain, I don't know if I can do that. Maybe I shouldn't be here."
He sighed and licked his teeth. "All of us think that, Kyros. I've lain awake for hours wondering if I can live up to the traditions and honour of the Patrol."
"Me -- and every Patrolsentient. Your answer gives me hope that you might yet be one of us, but only if you feel it's right for you. You need to decide, and you need to decide soon."
"Yes Sir. Thank you--"
"I'm not done yet, Cadet."
"The first time you fired before I gave the order."
I thought back, mentally wincing at the rage and hatred I'd felt. I remembered the Captain telling me to prepare to fire, and then mindless exhilaration. "I can't remember clearly, Sir. You could be right. The last clear thing I remember is you telling me to prepare to fire."
"At least you're honest." He sighed. "Kyros, I know. I've hunted and I've been under the drugs too. You have to control them, not the other way around. It's not easy, no. But it's your responsibility and duty. For all you knew, that missile could have had a passenger replacing the warhead. It's been done before."
"Fortunately, it hadn't. This time."
I didn't say anything.
"Kyros, you've done well on this cruise up to this point. You've got your astrogation up to speed, you've performed well in hydroponics. But you can't disobey orders."
"Cadet, you're confined to quarters until further notice. Cadet Dodsthon will assume your hydroponics duties."
Closing my eyes I gently snorted. "Yes, Sir."
"Kyros, think about this. Decide if the Patrol is for you."
Using a handhold I pulled myself around, unlatched the hatch, pushed myself out, caught another handle, and shut and latched the hatch. Then I started down the corridor to my quarters.
Was I right for the Patrol? Was the Patrol right for me? Could I live my life with this eternal loneliness, far away from the warmth and comfort of the herd?
I made my way to the quarters I shared with Mattiq and, after opening, closing and latching the hatch, I sighed. As usual, the air here bore light traces of Mattiq's nutty scent, and that helped me relax.
The room was neat, but then it always was. The very last thing you wanted on any spaceship were loose objects that could go flying around when the ship was under acceleration or evasive. Mattiq's bed was neatly made. Mine, well, it was folded up into the bulkhead, out of the way, as I never used it. Like all centaurs, I slept standing up.
What was I going to do? Or, more to the point, what was I going to do with my life? Captain Yancey was right. Either I had to find a reason, a need to devote myself to what the Patrol stood for, or I had to leave.
Perhaps reading might help. Pulling myself over to the reader that Mattiq and I shared, I strapped my hooves down (as that made typing far easier) and turned the system on. Now what? Probably I should be burrowing back into my astrogation studies -- they'd always been my weak point. But if I wasn't going to remain in the Patrol, then why bother?
Instead I pulled up a basic history of the Patrol. Oh, I knew it all, it was colt stuff. The whole moral issue of what it meant to be a Patrolsentient had been covered extensively on the Anthera, so I skimmed through. The end of the last World War, the development of atomic weapons, the final agreements not to use them, the terrorist nukings, the panic and near war, the resulting creation of the United Terra government and its creation of the Patrol to control the weapons and use them only when necessary to preserve the peace. Exploration, chasing the fanatic carnivores, the so-called Ultravores who'd fled first to Luna, and then to the asteroids. Other planets, first contact, DNA studies proving that all worlds' sentient races were related, the formation of the United Planets and the extension of the Patrol's duties to cover the entire Sol System...
It didn't help. It was too general -- a brief list of why the Patrol existed, of what the Patrol had done. Angry, I turned off the reader and leaned down to unstrap myself. I remembered my stint as assistant bomb officer on the PFS Noralis, before joining the Triplex. Drifting along in orbit, inspecting the bombs that were the threat to keep the nation states, the carnivores who'd stayed behind, and everybody else in line. I knew that not all carnivores were vicious, just some. Many had helped and fought against the Ultravores that had tried to take over the world... but I was never comfortable around them.
I heard the hatch open and looked up as Mattiq pulled himself into the cabin. He looked right back and tried to force the grin from his face as he handed me the zero-g containers of food.
"Hey Kyros, I heard--"
"Just be quiet."
"Shut up about it!" I glared at him and he looked away, and then I relaxed a bit as his familiar nutty scent engulfed me.
"I brought you your dinner." He tossed it at me and I caught. Long practice for both of us had made that second nature, even though I envied how quickly he adapted his toss to the loss of the ship's spin.
"Sorry about that, Mattiq. I just needed to kick something, and, well, you were there." He was my herdmate from when we'd both first arrived aboard the Anthera and, as it was my fault, it was my duty to apologize to him.
"Kyros, you worry too much! You know that. You made a mistake. All it proves is that you're a sentient like the rest of us -- imperfect -- so don't worry about it." He grinned. "And, you know what? I checked the Captain's records. He did the same thing on his Cadet cruise."
I looked at him. "He did?"
"Yup. The Commandant held him back a year, ran him through more psychological training to make sure he could control the drugs, and he got commissioned at the end of his second Cadet cruise."
I kicked my forelegs back and forth in the air as I thought about that.
"See buddy, it's not so--"
He wasn't truly my herd, but he was all I had. I missed my family, my cousins, my own kind. He deserved to know the truth. "Mattiq," I said quietly, "that's not the problem."
"It isn't?" His tail was brushing the back of his head and shedding yet more fur on his never hair-free Cadet uniform.
I sighed. "Mattiq, why do you want to be a Patrolsentient?"
He looked at me, his dark blue beady eyes unreadable. "Why do you ask?"
"You're right, mistakes happen, and I haven't failed myself out of the Patrol. I just... well..."
"Spit it out, Horsie."
"I don't know anymore if I want to be in the Patrol."
"Wha..?" Then he laughed. "That's a good one! You actually had me goin' for a second."
Mattiq had never treated life completely seriously. "Mattiq. I'm not joking."
I gently snorted. "No, I'm not. Mattiq, why do you want to be a Patrolsentient?"
"I, well, it's what I've always wanted, I guess."
"You want this?" I stretched my arms out indicating the ship all around us. "You remember when you took me to Terra to meet your family? You remember all the looks people gave us when we were in uniform?"
He buffed his knuckles on his sleeve. "Of course. It was great!" His tail fluffed up behind him.
I winced. At times like this I didn't think Mattiq would ever grow up. "Mattiq, you could see the fear in the corner of their eyes. They know we control the bombs. They remember the so-called Revolt of the Colonels. How the Patrol would have become a ruthless dictatorship except for Dahlquist."
"But Lieutenant Dahlquist helped create the tradition of the Patrol. He's the one who disarmed all the warheads at the cost of his own life!"
"Mattiq, could you do that if you had to? I don't know if I could. And if I couldn't, then why am I here?"
His tail slowly fell limp.
Commander Mylls' voice burst over the intercom: "Cadet Dodsthon, you were due in hydroponics five minutes ago."
"Great Maker! I'm late! Sorry buddy, I've got to go."
"Hey, wait! Check the pH level first! Tank E18 is never right. And--"
"I won't break anything in your precious hydroponics. Don't worry. We'll talk about this later. Don't think about it too hard till I'm back, eh?" With that he spun himself around with one hand, undogged the hatch, hurried through it, closed it and latched it, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
Sighing, I forced out pent-up frustration with my breath. Mattiq had probably already taken hypnotape #62A8134, Simplified Hydroponics for Spaceships, with Growth Charts and Additives Formulae, the same one I'd taken when we left lunar orbit. And who else could I trust to watch over my plants, if not my best friend and herdmate?
With the ease of long practice, I let myself drift with the slight current from the small fan that kept the air fresh and ate and drank. There were some chopped tomatoes (I remembered planting them), along with lettuce and assorted grains, but it was mostly spiced algae. One gets very tried of algae, but every cadet learns a thousand recipes for the stuff. The drink was pure water. When I was finished, I tossed the bags into the reclaimer.
What was I going to do?
A yawn burst out of me.
Well, if I was restricted to quarters I might as well get caught up on rest. I wasn't going to solve this problem tonight. After pulling off my boots and tossing them into the 'fresher, with a touch the static charge that molecularly bonded the seams of my uniform gave way and the waist belt loosened. I wiggled out of the upper part and rolled it off the rest of my body. I shook myself to try and loosen my hair where the uniform had pressed against me. Tossing the uniform into the 'fresher, missing, snorting, pushing myself over, grabbing it, putting it into the 'fresher directly, I then went into the sonic shower and went through its cycle. With that done I felt much better, and then flipped down the tiny sink, pulled out the brush, and went through the fine hair on my hands, arms, neck, upper chest, back, muzzle, and the front half of my rear body, or as much as I could reach. I carefully brushed my fine pointed ears, cleaned the hair off the brush and put it away. Pulling out a small sonic I cleaned my teeth. Leaving the stall I closed and latched the hatch and pulled out a tight nightshirt and put it on. I strapped each of my legs down. Pulling a strap down from the ceiling, or what would be down when the ship was under rotation, I wrapped it under my lower chest, just behind my forelegs. Grabbing a second strap I wrapped it around my upper chest under my arms. Now I was prepared in case the Triplex accelerated, or began rotating.
The lights dimmed and switched off and I stood there, my tail swishing, thinking about my future, feeling my loneliness, and trying to get to sleep. Finally I succeeded...
...I was on the bridge of the Noralis as acting Bomb Officer, neat and sharp in my midnight black officer's uniform... when had I been commissioned?
I recognized the voice as Captain Pilgur, an anthro-rabbit. He'd been the Captain of the Noralis when I'd served on her as a Cadet. "Yes, Sir?"
"Are you locked on North Penthens?"
Penthens!? I pulled my head down against the viewer (the ship wasn't spinning) and peered down at the red splotched with green surface of Mars. The green numbers along the side of the view flashed latitude, longitude and altitude and confirmed that the system was locked on North Penthens. And that it was summer in the northern hemisphere.
My home. My parents. My herd...
All I said, in a calm voice, was "Lock confirmed, Sir."
"Lieutenant Imbreos, I confirm and repeat my order for you to release bomb A15 on North Penthens. Commander, log the order and date."
"Logged, Sir." That was the voice of Commander Wanths, the anthro-cougar exec.
Outside of my control, my hand moved and turned the master bomb release key. In the viewer a blinking red dot appeared with a dotted line tracing its expected path.
"A15 released, Sir," I heard myself say. "Course on the mark. Onboard ballistics confirmed active."
"May the Great Maker have mercy on our souls," whispered the Captain...
...and then I was galloping across the commons in front of the town my family lived in during the summer. It was late in the season, I was wearing a thick jacket against the chill. Soon we'd migrate to South Penthens in the southern hemisphere. Behind me, slightly slower, were my two younger brothers, Pamoleon and Teles. We were done our work for the day, and we were galloping through patches of redweed for the fun of it. I could smell the sweetness of the air, the dust under our hoofs, the sweat on our lower backs, and I revelled in the occasional light touch of our bodies one against the other. A comforting reassurance that my herdmates were with me, but nothing more.
"Hey Kyros, what's that?" Pamoleon asked.
I slowed to a canter and turned back to where he'd stopped. Teles was standing beside him and Pamoleon was pointing upward. I looked along the path he indicated. Both their ears were perked upward and the fine fur that covered all of their bodies was dusted with dirt and scraps of redweed. Far away, its silver skin glinting with reflected sunlight, I could see the Noralis, and falling from it I could see the bomb.
All I said was, "That's a Patrol ship in orbit. They're up there to protect us."
Teles reached up and tugged at my arm and shouted out, "I want to be a Patrolsentient! I want to fly in a fusion ship and blow up all the asteroid triads!" He started making rat-tat-tat sounds.
I shook my head.
And that was when the bomb impacted and detonated, destroying me, my family, my herd, everything in a burst of fusion generated energy...
I awoke screaming, still strapped down, still in freefall. Mattiq was floating in front of me, both hands on my shoulders and his contact calmed me more than anything else.
"You were dreaming! I tried to wake you but I couldn't!"
My breath roared in and out of my lungs, I could still feel my flesh searing to the bone, still see my bones being blasted into nothingness.
"Kyros! It wasn't real!"
I focused on him and blinked tears I hadn't noticed out of my eyes, they slid beneath the short wiry fur. I could still see everything burning. "Mattiq..?"
"You were having a nightmare, I think anyway. You were mumbling, and then you shouted. I looked over and you were shakin' all over and then you went totally spastic!"
I could feel the soreness in my body, and the painfully tight grip of the straps around each of my four ankles where I'd tried to tear my hoofs away. I wiped spittle from my lips. "A dream..."
Mattiq, still gripping my shoulders, looked into my eyes. "What was it, Kyros?"
I swallowed but my mouth stayed dry. My breathing began to calm down. "I... I was on the bridge of the Noralis, the bomb officer, commissioned. I was ordered to release a fusion bomb on Mars and I obeyed." My voice was cold and emotionless.
"The Patrol has never had to drop a fusion bomb on any member planet. You know that."
"I... I bombed North Penthens..." I could tell from his expression that Mattiq didn't understand. Of course he didn't, he was from Terra. He knew I was from Mars, but the name of my home had never come up. "It was my home."
His grip tightened.
My voice was still cold and emotionless. "I dropped the bomb and killed my family, my herd. And I was there too, on the commons with my brothers when the bomb impacted... Mattiq," my voice finally broke, " I... I killed myself, my family... I killed everybody..."
I pushed his arms away with mine and turned away at the waist. The straps on the floor kept me from pushing myself further away. "Mattiq, a Patrol officer would have to do that if there was ever a need to bomb North Penthens. Any Patrol officer. Even a Patrol officer from North Penthens. Even me."
"There'll never be any reason to bomb your home--"
"You can't know that!" My voice turned into a whisper. "A Patrol officer must first be loyal to the ideas of the Patrol. That loyalty must supercede any other loyalty, or the Patrol can't work. I can't--"
Mattiq turned away and opened a cupboard.
"Mattiq. I can't do that. I can't be a Patrol officer."
Mattiq turned back to face me holding a drinking bulb and my breathing mask. "Take this and drink. It'll help you sleep. Use the mask if you need it." He looked sheepish. "At least taking a drink works for me. It was just a nightmare, right? Relax, get back to sleep -- you'll feel better in the morning." He grinned. "Trust me."
Still numb, I took the bulb and the mask from him. "What time is it?"
"Almost 3AM Standard."
"I can't do this any more." Opening my mouth I squeezed a stream of water from the bulb and swallowed it. "I'm not good enough."
"Nonsense! Sleep now, Horsie. We'll talk in the morning." Mattiq turned away, strapped himself back to his bed, and ordered the lights out.
I tried to sleep but I couldn't. I kept seeing my herd obliterated by my own hand. Finally I took the mask, checked it, and put it over my face. I hated wearing breathing masks. However, in this case, the annoyance of hearing the rasp of each breath was more than made up for by the thick comforting scent of my herd. With my eyes closed I could sense them around me, their gentle breathing, their scents, I could even feel the occasional brushes of contact. I fell back into sleep, thankfully dreamless.
By the time I awoke, my mouth was dry and my muscles sore. Pulling the mask off my face, I breathed the dull and empty air, dull except for a hint of Mattiq's nuttiness. "Lights, dim." Mattiq's bed was already made and he was gone and so were the dishes. Good for him. Well, he deserved this life -- I sure didn't.
Since the ship was still in freefall, I unstrapped myself, stretched, arcing my back and touching both sides of the cubicle with my outstretched arms, pulled off my nightshirt, used the sanitary facilities -- which consisted primarily of a long tube and a suction funnel -- and unrolled another of my Cadet uniforms and wiggled into it. Long practice allowed me to put my uniform on quickly, I was able to seal all of the seams shut except for the tail, whose seams I couldn't reach. Pulling a clean pair of boots on over my hooves, raising my rear hooves up and stretching to get them, I activated the static charge and sealed the boots on. Feeling much better, and definitely more awake, I pushed myself over to the reader. After logging in, I found I had a message:
CADET IMBREOS: KINDLY REPORT TO THE EXECUTIVE'S CABIN AT YOUR EARLIEST CONVENIENCE
For a second I panicked -- but it couldn't have been urgent; if it were, an alarm would have woken me. I entered an acknowledgement and, after confirming that it was 10:18am, asked Commander Mylls if 10:30 was convenient for him. There was an immediate response that it was.
Logging off the reader and folding it flush in the wall, I went into the sonic shower and checked myself in the mirror, ran a comb through my mane once or twice, regretting that Mattiq wasn't here to reach my tail for me, left and closed the stall, undogged the hatch, entered the hallway. There I closed the hatch, and then made my way up one deck to the Executive's room, quickly jumping from floor to wall to opposite wall, my booted hooves thudding on the rubberized floor and clacking on the plastic-lined walls. I knew the way. Commander Mylls was in charge of us cadets and both Mattiq and we'd been called to his quarters regularly for discussions of, and updates to, our studies. We'd both learned the hard way that he was a stickler for punctuality, so I couldn't dawdle no matter how much I wanted to.
Too soon I was there.
I licked the fur on my palm, ran it through my mane once or twice wishing again that I could comb my tail and seal that seam, and then knocked on the hatch.
Unlatching the hatch I pushed myself in, catching myself on the handle on the room and letting my booted rear hoofs thud against the rubberized deck. I turned, sealed the hatch and, after turning back, saluted. "Cadet Imbreos reporting as ordered."
"At ease, Cadet."
The anthro-horse Commander was behind his desk and sitting strapped in his chair. In front of him was a reader and I knew what was being displayed. There was something different about his scent though, but I couldn't place it. Fear? Nervousness? Neither of those seemed to quite match. His scent had always made me feel odd because it was so similar, centaur yet not centaur, just like his body was like my front half with my rear body chopped off. I'd had to force myself not to hate him because of that similarity and that difference. And now something else had changed...
"Cadet, your record up until this point has been solid. Not spectacular, but solid."
I said nothing, but noticed that his black tail was agitatedly moving back and forth behind him, and his gray body was oscillating a tiny bit, because of the mass difference, in opposition to its movement. That was odd -- he'd always been so calm before.
"You will become a commissioned officer if you maintain your performance, you know." He stopped and looked at me, his face telling me he expected a response.
"Thank you, Sir."
He sighed and both his ears lowered until they were pointing off to either side. "Cadet... Kyros, this can't be easy for you. You're the first centaur to be accepted into the Academy, even though many of your race serve in the Marines. It can't have been easy for you."
I just watched him.
"Sometimes I think we instill too much obedience in Cadets these days," he mumbled. "Kyros, all of us, your teachers, your physical trainers, even the crew of this vessel, have tried to be as fair with you as with any other Cadet whilst taking into account your special needs. We've done the best we can to never show favoritism either for or against you."
Account of special needs? I'd never been told anything about that. I thought things had been fair -- had everything I'd achieved been faked as part of my special needs? The sleeping straps? All other land sentients slept lying down -- had they added that to ALL ships?! I couldn't believe it! And... Why was the Commander telling me now?
"The Patrol uses the combat drugs because it has to. The Ultravores that took refuge in the asteroids would paste us if we didn't use those drugs to equalize the field. But you already knew that."
I nodded. What was he getting at? We'd had almost this same discussion shortly after my first actual gun drill. "Sir? Well, you're right. I did Sir. But... thank you for reminding me."
A whisper of a smile touched his face. "At this point we don't know if the drugs are calibrated properly for you, or if you're not handling them properly. The fact that you obeyed orders the second time suggests the former, but there's no way to be sure until we get back to Terra. Therefore I've had to place a conditional reprimand in your file. The Captain has confirmed this. Understood?"
A feeling like an electric shock stabbed through my heart. A reprimand. It would always hang over me, if it was upheld. It... I shook my head to clear my thoughts. I remembered the dream. I wasn't worthy of being a Patrolsentient. When we got back to Terra I'd resign, and then it wouldn't matter.
So why did my stomach still feel sick?
I noticed that the exec was looking at me, expecting an answer. "Yes, Sir. I understand. Is that..." I stopped. My parents had taught me never to hide things. Things hidden would fester, and it would become harder and harder to bring them out.
He looked at me expectantly, his long dark gray snout leaning towards me. There were scratches around his nose, just beginning to heal. Where'd they come from? But it wasn't my place to ask.
"Sir, I wish to resign from the Patrol upon our return to Terra." There. It was said.
He snorted, and then there was a long moment of silence before he responded. "May I ask why?"
"I don't think I can live up to the duties of a Patrolsentient."
"Kyros, I told you that the blaster firing may not have been your--"
"Sir, it's not that."
He looked at the screen, tapped it, and then looked back at me. "May I ask why?"
"Sir, what if I'm required to bomb North Penthens?"
"North... That's not likely to come up."
"But Sir, Commander, the probability is not the point. A Patrol officer is loyal to his oath. According to that oath, if there was sufficient cause, the Patrol would be required to drop a fusion warhead on North Penthens. I... I couldn't do that, Sir."
He looked at me, frowning. His tail stopped, and then began whipping back and forth far faster than it had before.
"Sir, if a Patrol officer is only loyal to his oath when being loyal does not cause him any duress, then the whole system breaks down!"
He turned away from me, shut off his reader, and folded it back down into its compartment in his desk. Clasping his hands in front of him, he started rotating his thumbs around each other. His tail was almost a blur. "Kyros, if the possibility of your bombing North Penthens didn't worry you, I'd have you off this ship and on Mars within the hour! You'd be far too dangerous to be trusted with the terrible weapons the Patrol has the burden of being forced to manage. I don't think even the Patrol shouldn't be trusted with those weapons, but what choice do we have?"
Startlement burst out of me. "Sir?"
"Kyros, the Patrol does not expect a sentient to have either the Maker's perfection, or a complete lack of freewill. Certainly the Doubt course on the Anthera proved that!"
A slight smile crossed my muzzle as I remembered my first reaction to that course. I, and the other three members, were asked to prove that the Patrol was a detriment to the advance of sentient civilization on Terra. Later I'd found out that the course was implemented to force cadets to think for themselves, and not just obey instructions.
"Cadet, since the sentients we know of are imperfect, Martians being a possible exception, the Patrol works on the principle of calculated risk. The chance of a threat to North Penthens in your lifetime, and of your being aboard the nearest Patrol vessel, is virtually nil. But if that horrible combination did occur, your commanding officer would probably lock you in your cabin rather than taking a chance on you. Now if the Captain ordered me to bomb my hometown, slight as that chance would be, I would... I would ask him to lock me in my cabin."
"Kyros, the Patrol teaches all of us everything it can about what our civilization stands for, and what the morals and ideas of the perfect Patrolsentient should be. But it does not expect miracles. We're all made by the Great Maker, and none of us are perfect. Each of us must do all that he or she can, and that is all anyone can ask.
"Being a Patrol Officer is assuming a trust. The Patrol trusts that you will do the best you can, and act as best you can, within the rules, guidelines and principals of the Patrol. We've trained you as best we can, and we've trained you to question whether your orders are right. You've been told repeatedly in class after class that each of us needs to question the orders we're given. If we cannot obey them, then it is our duty to inform our superiors and respectively refuse. We will then be confined to quarters and the next in line will be given the order. If they refuse, and everybody else refuses, than the order will not be carried out."
"But that doesn't make sense!"
"Not for a military organization, no -- but the Patrol is civilian. We are policesentients. It's a weird paradox but ultimately true. And the reason for this paradox is that the Patrol has awesome power, and there is no outside force to check them. They... we control all the weapons that nearly destroyed Terra, and we control the means to deploy them without fear of retaliation. The Patrol is the best solution to the modern technology of war, and I wish there was a counterbalance but there isn't. The Patrol could become the most unbreakable tyranny this system has ever seen. But they -- we -- haven't, yet, and part of the reason is that each of us has the right and the responsibility to refuse to obey an order.
"Each of the Four we honour by adding them to each roll call refused orders of their superiors. It turned out that they were right, and by following their heart rather than their Commander's orders, they did the right thing and saved this system from eternal horror."
I remembered Lieutenant Dahlquist.
"Cadet, are you sure you want to resign? I normally wouldn't ask, as it's always your privilege to choose, but I need to know."
I thought about it. All the Commander had really done was remove my cause for resigning right now. But, he hadn't helped me answer the real question, the question of whether I wanted, no, whether I was worthy of being a Patrolsentient. I let out a soft nicker of frustration. "Sir, I... I'm not sure."
He gave a wry grin. "You're not even 20 T-years... I still haven't found my definitive answer to that question. Maybe you shouldn't be a Patrolsentient."
"Regardless, are you up to returning to duty?"
"I..." Was I? I could sulk, think more and more, panic more and more, have more and more nightmares. Or I could work at it, experience it, and hopefully find out whether or not I was worthy. It was my choice, my responsibility. "I... I think so Sir."
"Good, because I have a task for you. How familiar are you with the equatorial region of Mars?"
The equatorial... "A little bit. I've passed through it with my herd when we migrate. I've snuck off the transports and wandered a little before being caught. But that's it, I don't think anybody other than the Martians know any more."
"I guess it'll have to do."
"May I ask why, Sir?"
"Have you heard of the Cruinni Stone?"
The Cruinni Stone? Who hadn't? It was found on Terra's Moon, shortly after the Ultravores had been driven off Luna. I managed to keep the surprise out of my voice. "I have, Sir."
"The three bogies detected by the Luna telescopes were not the reason we were sent to Mars. The burn was only to get here sooner. The real reason Triplex was diverted here was because the Martians claim to have translated the Cruinni Stone."
"By the Maker..."
"They refused to transmit any details, but instead requested a Patrol ship visit them and pick up what they discovered and transport it to Terra."
"And we're that ship... Sir?"
"Yes. The Triplex is sending a jeep down to the indicated place. I'll lead. You two Cadets will accompany me."
"We will, Sir?"
"You because of your knowledge of Mars. Like you said, it's not much, but none of the rest of us know any more than the formal survival hypnotapes. Mattiq will be along to man the turret blaster."
"The Captain believes the ship that attacked us somehow found out about the translation and was here to take the information back to the Asteroid Triads. The two remaining ships are due to arrive in three days. They're probably from another triad faction."
"Don't worry, Cadet, we'll be back long before they arrive. If we're delayed, the captain wants the best gunners on the jeep. The Triplex can take care of herself. You two aren't the only gunners."
"I... Of course, Sir."
"Be ready to leave at 14:00PM. It shouldn't take more than a day, but be prepared for a week just in case."
"I... Yes, Sir. A question, Sir?"
"Who's going to take over hydroponics with Mattiq and me gone?"
"Thank you, Sir."
"Good lad. Dismissed."
I spun around, unlatched the hatch, pulled myself through it, latched it again, and then started bounding down the passage leaping from floor to wall to wall. I had to tell Mattiq the good news.
The Cruinni Stone! I couldn't believe it! Everybody knew that there had been a previous civilization in the Sol System. Radioactive craters on all three member planets and on Terra's moon had been dated to relatively clean fusion detonations roughly 50,000 years ago. A plant very similar to Martian airweed had been found growing at the poles of Terra's moon and nobody could figure out how it had evolved there. An identical DNA marker had been identified in all sentient races, and nobody could figure out a way it could have evolved independently on three worlds. The most widely held belief was that there had been an advanced civilization on a planet that once existed where the asteroid belt is now, but that theory had never been proven. It was believed that the (obviously machined) inscriptions on the Cruinni Stone might provide some answers, but they'd never been translated.
And now I might be one of the first sentients to find out! For the first time in years I was glad to be a Patrol Cadet.
With that thought I resumed my bounding down the corridor and stopped in front of the quarters that Mattiq and I shared. I unlatched the hatch and slowly pushed it open as I still remembered the time Mattiq had rushed in and slammed the hatch into my rump, poked my head in, and shouted out "Mattiq!"
He wasn't there.
We weren't at battle stations. Mattiq would be in our quarters if he was studying. Where...?
Hydroponics. He'd taken over my duties there.
Only through the force of long training and repetition did I remember to dog the hatch before I resumed bounding towards the core of the ship and hydroponics.
As in most vessels, hydroponics was wrapped around the axis of the Triplex. The axis proper consisted entirely of the windings of the motor that would spin or unspin us, so for all intents and purposes hydroponics was the ship's core. The hatch, although vacuum-tight like all the others in the ship, was not just a simple hatch; it was the first hatch of an actual airlock. Ships are made of metal and electronics, neither of which likes the moisture that hydroponics was just full of. As the green light was on, I knew that the inner hatch was closed, and thus quickly unlatched the hatch and pulled it open and pushed myself in. The airlock was long, longer than the external airlocks, but that was because the primary water tanks were wrapped around hydroponics and the airlock had to pass through them. We needed all that water for drinking, for an emergency hydrogen and oxygen supply, for readily-mobile mass to rebalance the ship, and for shielding when the crew needed shelter from violent solar storms. Pulling my tail in to keep from getting caught in the hatch, I closed the outer hatch and pulled myself along to the inner hatch. By the time I reached it, the light at the latch of the inner hatch had turned green and I opened it.
Entering hydroponics was similar to when I'd entered the FS Tricorn, the liner I took from Mars to Terra. Before then I'd only breathed Mars' thin atmosphere, and even the 2/3rd T-standard atmosphere on the passenger ship felt to me like breathing a thick syrup.
Closing the hatch behind me, the first thing that hit me was the wall of moisture. Unlike everywhere else on the ship, the walls of hydroponics were carefully lined and sealed with plastic. No unprotected metal existed anywhere in this room. Holding the handle beside the hatch, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the second shock: The scents! Scents of greenery, of life, of pollen drifting through the air, of dampness on leaves. Faintly in the distance I could hear the soft whirr of the ventilation fans that pumped out the oxygen rich atmosphere, ran it through filters to trap excess moisture, and cycled it through the ship, and the soft whirr of the other fans that brought the ship's air back here. My ears flicked around and back and forth until finally I could make out the rustle of leaves in the distance towards the bow. Pushing myself off the handle by the hatch, I dove through the leaves and fronds enjoying their caress as I drifted by. This was as close as I could get to being with the herd off-Mars, and I luxuriated in the experience every time I came. I passed tanks of Spirulina planensis algae which made up the majority of hydroponics due to its efficiency, interspersed with tanks of various vegetables that were present primarily to vary the diet of the ship.
"Mattiq? You in here?" I was careful to stay near the wall as most of the plants were far too fragile for me to pull myself along on them.
"Hey Horsie! They let you out of solitary!"
There was a rustle in front of me and I saw Mattiq pulling himself along the side before stopping and waving. He'd stripped down to the waist, like I had. Not only was hydroponics damp, it was hot. As I'd learned the hard way, in freefall it was better for the smaller mass to move towards the larger. I waited for Mattiq and while waiting called out, "Nutty, you heard?"
"About Mars? By the Great Maker, yes! We're goin to Mars. Mars!"
I braced myself against the wall. I could smell him clearly now, even over the wall of scents around me. And his strongest smell wasn't nuts, it was wet fur. "Been there, done that. I think Venus is a far more interesting place."
Mattiq caught my shoulder and cancelled his momentum. "Especially if the bars Chief Norvath says we're too young to hear about actually exist."
"As though we'd ever be allowed to go there."
"Does it really matter though? They say they've translated the Cruinni Stone! Maybe it'll tell us how to build better drives than the one we developed out of the wreckage we found. Maybe we'll even be able to go interstellar!"
"It's probably just an inventory of food rations."
"For the Maker's sake, where's your sense of adventure, Kyros?!"
I smiled. It was hard not to when bombarded with Mattiq's enthusiasm. "We should go and get ready then." I checked the watch built into my uniform sleeve. "We've only got two hours."
"I need to get showered first."
I snorted at that. His pearly whites were stained with green, and the upper portion which was hanging down behind his waist was wet and I could see branches and leaves here and there in the folds. "You got that right. I'll lead, you follow." I was already turning around back towards the entrance.
Now behind me Mattiq tried to muffle a snicker.
"Okay, Nutty. Spit it out."
"You know Horsie, I still can't believe you need help to get dressed. Maybe I should just strap myself to you full time."
What was he--? Oh right, around my tail. But... "Mattiq? Have you seen Commander Mylls today?"
I felt Mattiq snug my uniform closed as he answered, "I saw him first thing. He told me about us going to Mars."
"What did... did you notice anything odd about him?"
He pulled himself along the wall and in front of me, twisting around to face me, tickling my chin with his tail as he did so. "Well--"
I shook my tail to settle my uniform more comfortably around it. "Mattiq. He knows about my physical limitations. I've had to see him early before to discuss my studies and every time he finished sealing my uniform just before I left."
"He was probably busy."
"Mattiq, that wasn't the only thing. He talked about special treatment of me."
"Yea. He said that everybody had done their best to never show favourtism to me yet also to take into account of my biological and psychological differences."
Mattiq hesitated before answering. "Oh. I guess that's just fair. I guess."
"Nutty, what's wrong? Out with it."
He sighed and closed his eyes. "Remember when I was called to the Commandant's office that first week and the Anthera?"
"He... well... By the Maker, forget it! It's just not right that the Commander told you! He's full of it. I... well... Kyros, just remember that I'm your friend. Nobody told me to do anything, nobody had to give me orders."
What was he talking about? "Of course you're my friend! Why would I ever doubt it?"
"I... oh, it's nothing. What else did the Commander tell you?"
"He gave me a long lecture. In parts of it, it seemed like he didn't consider himself a member of the Patrol. A couple of times he even seemed to think that the Patrol was a bad thing. And he smelled odd."
"Come to think of it, I did notice something. Not his smell, you're far better at that. Did you see his tail?"
"No..." then I remembered. "I did. It was whipping back and forth like he was angry. I've never seen it like that."
"That's it exactly." Mattiq shrugged. "I guess he's just nervous about going to Mars."
"You worry too much, buddy! Now come on, I've gotta shower and change, you can go and grab our training tapes for the next week."
I snorted. "It's not like the Commander'll let us get behind on our studies."
"Pegged it in one, little Horsie. Let's get going!"
It didn't take long to get everything together. Sub-lieutenant Clarenth had everything put aside, packed, and clearly labeled. I asked him about Sub-lieutenant Gometh and was told he was probably in the aft equipment bay pulling out parts to fully seal the damaged H3 tank.
I made my way there, and, grabbing the carefully placed handle to stop, I unlatched the hatch and stuck my head in. "Sub-lieutenant Gometh?"
I could see him inside, and could make out Lieutenant Novath's green tail behind some racks.
Sub-lieutenant Gometh turned around, his ears proceeding his head. Even though he didn't need to, he ducked far under an overhead pipe. It was standard for anthro-deer to cut off their antlers whilst in space, and Jonthon Gometh was no different; he still moved as though he had his full rack. "Oh, Mattiq, it's you. Do you need something, Cadet?"
"Well, I don't really need anything, but... you're taking over hydroponics while I'm gone, right?"
"You need to cross-pollinate those new tomato plants in three days. Bin C-12, about a 3rd of the way from the bow. You won't forget, right? Just in case I'm on Mars longer than a day that is."
He laughed, "Don't worry, Cadet. I won't forget. I'll make sure to go through the charts. You--"
"I updated them. Oh, and you need to be careful of--"
He placed his arms at his waist. "Cadet. I ran hydroponics during my Cadet cruise. Everything will be fine."
"Oh. Thank you, Sir!"
Yanking my head out I shut the hatch to the sounds of the engineer's hissing laughter and made my way to the boat bay. The Triplex carried two jeeps, the type 15JS solely for space use, and the type 12JA for landing. Both were also useable as lifeboats. We'd use the 12JA to land on Mars. After grabbing a pair of my gloves from the locker at the entrance to the bay and putting them on, I pulled my way towards it through the tightly packed equipment, fuel and charging cables. It wasn't long until I could make it out.
It was small, rated only for 10 passengers and crew along with a tonne of cargo. The tail and rudder were fixed in place; right now the main wings were folded flush against the body, and the landing gear was out and clamped to the floor. She had a hydrogen/oxygen liquid fueled rocket nozzle at the stern and two turbojets, one under each wing, along with vectored thrust that could either be from the turbojets or from smaller rockets along her belly. She was not painted, but instead polished a gleaming silver except for the plain script of her name under the cockpit window. It was too far away and at too bad an angle to read, but I knew it by heart: Triplex 2/2 - Trilethones. When I got closer I saw that Commander Mylls was already there, crouched under the port engine.
He must have heard me as, with a click, he closed the hatch and began screwing it shut. "Ah! Cadet Imbreos. You have everything you need?"
"Yes, Sir. I got the tapes, and Cadet Dodsthon should be here shortly."
"Good. Get on board, I'll join you in a moment. You can take the co-pilot's seat, Dodsthon will man the turret." There was a brief whine as the powered screwdriver sank a screw. "We're due to leave in... twenty-four minutes so I hope Dodsthon isn't late."
Pulling myself in through the open hatch, I stowed the training tapes in a padded compartment just inside the entrance and made my way towards the bow. The cockpit was small, as on most auxiliary craft, and I pulled myself over to the co-pilot's chair and started setting it up. Commander Mylls had already adjusted his so I turned to mine. Stretching out the lower portion of the seat, I pulled the back slightly up and pushed the lower portion as far down as it would go. Grabbing hold of the handles above the seat, I rotated myself around, leaned far forward, and pushed myself down so that the back of my horse half pressed against the lower part of the seat and the back of my upper half pressed against the top of the seat. As I leaned forward, I folded my legs against my lower chest, and then strapped both them and my lower chest down snugly. Leaning back I did the same for my upper half. A few final adjustments of the seat position and I began running pre-launch checks.
I was barely halfway through when I heard somebody come in and scented the distinctive scent of Commander Mylls. It still had the oddness that I'd sensed in his office.
"Everything checking out Cadet?"
Turning my head to look at him, I responded: "So far. I stashed the tapes in bin 8."
"And now, all we need--"
With my sensitive ears I heard another person pulling their way through the hatch and I recognized Mattiq's nutty scent before he spoke.
"I'm not late, am I?"
Grinning, I kept going through the checklist written above me. I had it memorized, but redundancy in critical things had been drilled into me.
"Cadet Dodsthon, you do know that we're due to depart in six minutes? Cutting it a little fine, aren't you?"
"I'm sorry Sir. I had to get cleaned up, I had to finish a couple of things in hydroponics and--"
"Well, go and strap yourself in the turret. Cadet Imbreos is almost ready here."
"Yes, Sir!" Mattiq's voice, and scent, confirmed he was happy to get off that easy.
But why was he getting off that easy? Commander Mylls had always been a stickler for punctuality and efficiency. This wasn't like him. I turned back to the systems check and tried to ignore my worries. If something was wrong, surely the Captain would have noticed. Wouldn't he have? Maybe it was just stress...
I finished off the checklist and turned to see that Commander Mylls was strapped in too. "Everything's in the green, Sir," I told him.
He spoke into the microphone: "Cadet Dodsthon? You strapped in and ready?"
"All set, Sir." His voice came out of a speaker overhead, oddly echoing from the helmet that had sealed around his head. "Everything confirms readiness."
"Acknowledged. Ready to get going, Kyros?"
"Everything's prepped and ready."
"Let's get locked in then."
I reached up and pulled down my helmet, the same style as the ones in the ship's weapon turrets. After putting it on, I snugged its straps as the compressed air tightened it around my head. The HUD popped up and I checked the system readings. Everything was green. "Onboard systems report ready for launch, Sir."
"Acknowledged, Cadet." Commander Mylls must have put his helmet on at the same time I put mine on. He toggled a switch and spoke over the radio. "Triplex, this is Jeep Trilethones reporting ready for launch."
Lieutenant Brunn's voice hissed over my headphones. "Acknowledged, Trilethones. Will download final navigation information upon your signal."
"Understood. Cadet Imbreos?"
I clicked a toggle on the board in front of me. "System ready, Commander."
"We're ready to receive, Triplex."
"Acknowledged. Sending now."
I watched the data scroll by along one side of my HUD, too fast to read. The system beeped in my ear. "Download complete and verified, Commander."
"We got it clean, Triplex. We're ready for launch."
"Achnowledged, Trilethones. Depressurizing bay."
I could dimly feel the thumping through the ship.
"Bay is clear, Trilethones. Opening bay door."
The projected view in my HUD showed the door slide open revealing the shining red and green of my home.
"System shows ready for launch, Trilethones. Removing umbilicals."
The jeep shuddered as the fuel and power lines disengaged.
"Triplex shows ready for launch. Confirm, Trilethones."
"Trilethones affirms ready, Triplex."
"Understood. Captain Yancey wishes you luck. Launching in 5... 4... 3... 2... 1... Launch!"
With that, the mechanical catapult yanked us forward, my momentum pushed me back into my seat, and we shot out of the boat bay and into orbit around Mars.
The electronically created vision in my HUD shrunk the 360o around us into a curved band within my view allowing me to effectively see all around. Below was the curving red and green blue lined sphere that was Mars. Behind us was the Triplex, her cylindrical inhabited section making up the bow, with various sensors extending on booms from the very front, and then a long support strut with the fusion drive and heat radiator fins at the stern. I could clearly see the web of conductors that would shape the magnetic exhaust funnel. The Triplex glistened polished silver in the sunlight, and I could see the ugly scar of the damage to tank 8 along the strut between the main hull and the engine. Further in the distance I could see Phobos, blackened and pocked from whatever had consumed all the radioactives that had once existed inside her.
And all around, everywhere around, the glistening stars. For a second I was back aboard the observation lounge of the Tricorn. I remembered the immeasurable joy I'd felt as I finally knew in my blood and heart that I was really on my way to be a Patrolsentient... but then I remembered where I was. Every time I went out, for a second it was like that time, full of the dreams and hopes that now, too soon, had faded into my current uncertainty.
"Cadet Imbreos, status!" the Commander's voice barked in my ears and I shook my head to focus back on my duties.
"System shows no ships other than Triplex. All reads green, Sir."
"Acknowledged, Cadet. Cadet Dodsthon, status?"
In my condensed vision I could just make out the turret along the top of the Trilethones in which Mattiq was strapped.
"My board shows green, too. No hostiles. Sir."
"Cadet Imbreos, do you see our flight path?"
"Yes, Sir." I could clearly see the line of rectangles, just under 90o to our port.
"Keep an eye on them. Flag me if we go off course by more than two degrees."
In my display I saw puffs of gas and felt the Trilethones rotate 90o to starboard until another puff of gas stopped the rotation. The rectangles were now directly to our rear, passing rapidly.
"All hands, prepare for .5 G thrust for three minutes, 11 seconds starting in 12 seconds... mark. Acknowledge."
I tightened my grip on the armrests of my chair. "Ready, Sir."
Dimly I heard Mattiq's voice state, "Braced, Sir."
I watched the chronometer in my HUD count down and listened to the Commander count off the last 5 seconds. Then, with a roar that shook my bones, the sound transmitted through the jeep to my body, the main engine ignited. In my HUD I could just make out the faint blue-yellow exhaust. My momentum pushed me back into my seat and I watched the course rectangles move past gradually slower and slower as we decelerated in our orbit along the planned flight path. The jeep shook slightly with the roar of the engine and I watched the Triplex recede behind us.
"Engine shutdown in 5 seconds... 4... 3... 2... 1... Off."
The Trilethones was suddenly silent. More puffs of gas to spin us to port and, once we'd rotated just under 180o, still more puffs of gas to stop the rotation. Mars was now noticeably closer.
"Course status, Kyros?"
"In the green, Sir."
Another pair of gas-puffs and the nose was pointed a few degrees further away from Mars.
With a whine of electric motors, the wings slowly moved out from the body towards their hypersonic re-entry position. The amber light in my HUD turned green as the wings clunked into place, a sound I felt in my bones.
"Wings show locked, Sir."
"Thanks, Kyros. All hands prepare for re-entry. Acknowledge."
"Locked and ready to go, Sir," I responded.
"All clear up here," returned Mattiq.
I loosened my right arm and gently moved my hand loosely around my control stick. If something happened to Commander Mylls, I'd be ready to bring her down and land her on her belly jets.
A faint high-pitched whistle became apparent in my ears, and the jeep began to ever-so-slightly creak and groan. I could see the cherry glow starting along the wings' leading edges as we fell downward. In my HUD, the flight path rectangles shook just a bit in opposition to the slight jerks of the jeep. I could feel the slight deceleration pulling me gently forward, but the belts kept me snugged in. We continued to descend. The underside grew hotter, the buffeting worse, the high pitched whistle deeper and louder, and our deceleration greater. We fell further, decelerating. Down to the layer of the highest clouds. By then we were through the worst of it and the wings and hull were radiating their heat, and the buffeting had subsided. I watched our speed countdown closer and closer to mach two, at which point we'd engage the jets. We reached it and, with a roar, the turbojets burst into life.
There was a loud bang -- the jeep jumped -- and half the status lights in my HUD popped to red! A harsh buzzer warned of a problem. By the Maker... and then I saw the port engine. For some reason it had suffered a catastrophic failure -- and was now nothing but a sparking mount!
"Report our status to the Triplex, Cadet! We've still got -"
I switched to the ship to ship frequency. "Trilethones to Triplex. Mayday! Mayday! Port engine has suffered total failure. Repeat, port engine--"
The whine of the starboard engine sudden zoomed to a higher and higher pitch, there was another bang and it was gone, too!
And with it went the radio and most of the rest of my lights turned to red.
And the buzzer became more strident.
"Cadets! Scan for a landing spot, anything." I heard him flicking the toggles for the rocket but nothing happened except more red lights appeared in my HUD indicating that the rocket was down too. "By the Maker, we're going to have to glide in! Kyros, did you get through to the Triplex?"
"Sorry, Sir. The second engine seems to have taken the entire external comms with it."
"Kyros! Prepare to dump fuel!" With no engines, fuel was just an explosion hazard.
Forcing down panic I felt around for the key and grabbed it. "Prepared to dump, Sir!"
"Initiate dump in 5... 4... 3... 2... 1... DUMP!"
I turned the key and self-contained motors opened emergency clamps and the fuel tanks, both rocket and jet, dropped away behind us. "Fuel dumped, Sir."
"Understood. Good job, Kyros."
My HUD still displayed our planned flight path, and I saw that we were drifting down and out of it. Nothing we could do. After the fuel dump was complete, I switched from the now-distracting 360o view to a frontal 90o cone. The world stretched and magnified into sharp relief. Below I could see reddish sand dunes scattered with dead clusters of stalks along with faint clouds of blowing sand that skirted the surface. I looked around for something, anything, and then in the distance to port I saw a glint of blue green.
"Commander, go port, there's a canal," I burst out. "We need to land--"
"In the canal--"
"No Sir! Don't! That'll wreck us for sure!"
"But, it'll be flat, best--"
"Sir, don't, please! Trust me."
I could hear sudden panic in his voice. "I... okay Cadet." He forced it down. "Alongside?"
"That'd be best, Sir, just outside the line of weed too."
"Acknowledged. All hands! We're going to be coming in awfully fast, be ready for impact."
Mattiq and I both acknowledged.
We were closer to the ground now, I could make out details of scattered rocks, ancient sinkholes, crumbled mounds of shattered flat shales. Far off to port I saw the glittering glass of a Martian city and I wondered if it was abandoned or not. Ripping my gaze from it, I concentrated on the canal and the ground nearby. It glittered blue-green and I could see the dense plantlife on either side of it. The ubiquitous airweed; small stubby bluespikes, named for their colour; long-leafed canal cabbage, their leaves rolled out across the ground to gather the sunlight. The altimeter showed us barely 500 metres above the ground. Below us the sand had given way to shattered crags of rock. If we impacted here we'd be dead.
"Nothing! Just rocks! We have to keep going, there's got to be something!"
"There'd better be or we'll have to risk the canal."
Crashing into the rocks would be only slightly less fatal, but at this point we didn't have anything to lose.
"Kyros!" it was Mattiq. "In front and port. I think I see sand, maybe half a click north of the canal!"
Looking that way I saw that there was indeed a sandy plateau.
"Landing spot, Sir! Radar makes it 4200 metres NNE."
"Got it! Dumping altitude."
I watched the sand get closer. The plateau was small, but it'd have to do. I could see our shadow now racing across the plants. Canal cabbages twitched their leaves, but the shadow passed long before they decided to roll up for the night.
"1000 metres, Sir!"
"I know, I know! Let me concentrate!"
I shut up and watched, helpless, my life in the hands of the Commander. Our height fell further, I could see the turbulence of our passage ripping leaves off the greenflowers. Our velocity was down to 100 metres per second. Our altitude fell to 100, to 50. We were over the sand. Commander Mylls suddenly jerked the nose hard up, until it was vertical and I was shoved towards the floor. Our velocity dropped, 50, 20. Our altitude rose to 100... 200... The Commander lost control as Trilethones stalled. It fell sideways, spun as one wing caught the air. With a screech of metal, the wind tore off that wing and we fell into the sand, sliding forward. I was yanked forward against my straps, suddenly unable to breathe. Sand filled my projected view. I could hear it hissing and tearing at the fuselage, my legs painfully crushed into my lower chest.
We stopped and I jerked forward, and then fell back into my cushioned seat gasping for breath.
We'd made it!
I unstrapped myself and with a sigh of relief I stretched out my legs. I could feel the pull of Mars, 1/3rd standard G. I felt a bit heavy, the Triplex had generated 1/4 standard G in flight to minimize the coriolis force.
"Kyros, what's the cabin pressure?"
"Sorry, Sir." I checked. "Still at 1/3rd T-standard atmosphere, but there's a slow drop." Patrol ships kept the air pressure at a lower level, to minimize leakage and to minimize the stress on the in-ship hatches in case of combat damage. The air pressure on Mars was still half that, so the ship's pressure had never bothered me. "The hull's probably cracked somewhere." The moisture in the air wouldn't be enough to cause disaster, thank the Maker.
"Cadet Dodsthon? You all right back there?"
"Nothing but a few bruises, Sir."
I pressed the control on my helmet. The air hissed out and I undid the straps and pulled it off. Beside me I could see Commander Mylls doing the same. The cabin air smelled stale, and I could scent a hint of burnt plastic. I stretched, and then realized that the cabin was slanted forward, and tilted about 30 degrees downwards to the right.
"A good landing, considering, Sir," I said.
"You know what they say: Any landing you can walk away from..."
I checked the navigation systems. "Commander, I show us only 100km from our target point." I pulled up a map and had the computer mark on it our destination and our estimated position. It was a long walk, but it was along the canal Mattiq had spotted which we were only a few klicks from. "We just have to walk along the canal."
"Very good. It shouldn't be too hard."
I hit the appropriate controls and printed strips that contained maps of the local area and where we had to go. After that I shut off my board -- the reek of burnt plastic was getting stronger.
"Sir, I recommend shutting down your board, too. I can smell something burning, and it's getting worse."
"Good thought, Cadet." He flicked off his board and dimmed the lights.
I heard Mattiq walking towards us from behind.
"So Mattiq," I asked, "what do you think of Mars so far?" Turning my head I saw him rubbing the back of his skull. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, it's just a bump. You know, Kyros, I don't think Mars likes me."
I snickered and Commander Mylls guffawed. "Chin up, Cadet. The sand outside looks plenty soft."
Mattiq winced. "Sand in my tail. Great. Just wonderful."
Trying to ignore my herdmate, I turned my head to the Commander. "Sir, you'll have to get out first. I'm going to have to push your seat aside to stand up."
"Do you need any help?"
More favouritism. "No Sir, I'll manage."
He got out, unlocked his seat, and pushed it sideways the short distance it would go. "Kyros, what do we need?"
Grabbing the handle overhead, I pulled my body up and around, slowly sliding off and feeling for the floor with my booted hooves. "We need water, lots of it. And the oxygen masks. The air out there isn't really thick enough for either of you. If I remember right, there're sandshoes in the survival kits somewhere. We'll need those, at least until we get closer to the canal." I got my hooves under me and heaved a sigh of relief.
"Cadet Dodsthon, you start filling our containers from the ship's tanks."
"Yes, Sir." Mattiq turned and went aft through the passenger compartment to the rear storage.
"Kyros, why do we need all that water? The canal isn't far and it'll have lots. They all do, don't they?"
"Commander, Sir, they do, but we can't get it."
"Sir, the equator is the driest part of Mars, it's why we live at the poles. It's a little cooler, but there's water. At the equator, other than inside the canals, it's dry as a bone."
"The canals keep water because there's a layer on their surface. The Martians claim it's a life form. If you break its surface without the right chemicals to neutralize its reaction, it exudes a thick, sticky sealant. The stuff is tough, unbelievably tough. If the jeep had hit the canal, the stuff would have grabbed on and ripped us apart."
"The plants guard their moisture just as well. They store in inside their roots which go deep into the soil."
"Commander!" Mattiq called out. "There's only 180 litres in the tanks. There's gotta be a leak somewhere."
"Great Maker!" I screamed.
"What is it?" the Commander asked.
"We have to get out, Sir, now! Mattiq, fill the containers as quickly as you can, use all the taps. Be fast! Sir, grab the emergency rations, jackets for the night, oxygen masks for the two of you, and the rest of the survival gear."
"But--" he began.
"Now! I'll help Mattiq. We have to get out of here now!" I shoved the fresh maps into Commander Mylls' stunned hand as I pushed my way past. The passenger compartment was empty and undamaged except for a few seats hanging at weird angles from their rails. Further back I saw Mattiq standing over one container. He didn't know, how could he know? Other empty containers were on the floor nearby.
I stopped, ripped open a first aid kit and ripped out the knife inside. I just hoped it'd work. Turning, I galloped back, shoved past Mattiq...
"Hey! What you doing you crazy 'taur?"
...skidded to a stop, and punched the knife into plastic composite near the bottom of the main tank. It cracked, but didn't break, and I shoved the knife at it again and again. Water began dribbling out and I grabbed a container, shoved it under the waterflow, and then shoved the knife in and pried the crack further open, twisting the knife to scrape a hole. Water began gurgling out and I kept making the hole bigger, stopping before it grew wide enough to splash around the nozzle of the container.
"Mattiq, we don't have time!" I handed him the knife and pointed further along the tank. "Punch a hole there."
"Do it or we're all dead!"
He took the knife, grabbed a container, pushed past me and started punching another hole.
I heard hoofs and turned my head and saw Commander Mylls with three packs bulging with equipment.
"Kyros, what are you doing!?"
I turned back to watch the water, I couldn't miss a drop. "Sir, once the water seeps into the sand beneath us, it'll get to the waterseeker seeds. This place is bone dry! The seeds'll burst into growth and rip this jeep apart because they'll sense the water. They'll rip us apart if they catch us!"
"You've got to be -"
"I'm not, Sir. Grab extra rations, grab a blaster for each of us, and don't forget those sandshoes. It'll be--"
With my other eye I saw that Mattiq had punched a hole which he was making larger. Water dribbled out, most of it missing the container.
"Mattiq! Watch your container -- you can't let any water onto the floor! None!"
He jerked around and looked at me. He must have seen the barely controlled panic in my eyes as he dropped the knife which thunked on the floor and moved the nozzle of the third container directly under the stream. Forward I could hear the Commander moving around.
The jeep creaked, loudly, and settled a little deeper into the sand. I glanced at the containers; two were half-full, Mattiq's was a third. Water was still dribbling out, and when we left it'd go on the floor and eventually into the sand.
"Commander! Do you have everything!?"
The ship groaned again.
"We're out of time, I'll meet you at the airlock -- have a mask ready for Mattiq!"
I looked around for something to plug the leak, but there wasn't anything handy. I should have grabbed the bandages...
"Mattiq! I'll watch that -- there's an open first aid kit forward, grab the bandage. Run!"
He moved past me, careful not to bump the containers. I grabbed his and tried to hold it under the dribbling water and winced at each drop that slid onto the floor.
Another groan, loud, deep, longer this time. The tilt of the ship grew larger.
Then he was beside me, handing me a roll of gauze. I grabbed it and yanked a bunch off the roll and shoved it into the hole I'd made.
"Seal the other one!"
"Already there, Kyros."
Turning my head a bit I could see that he was.
After wiping off the top of the container with it, I stuffed in almost all the gauze I'd tore off in the hole and the leak stopped. I could see the material dampening and watched a drip form on the lowest point on the bandage. Tearing my eyes away from it, I sealed the container. Reaching over I turned off the tap Mattiq had been using at first and sealed that container.
"Ready!" Mattiq called. "But it won't last long."
"It should last long enough." I hoped.
Grabbing the two containers, I lifted them and trotted forward, there wasn't room to gallop. I could hear Mattiq behind me, could scent the water, could scent the acid tinge of his fear.
The airlocks were in the middle of the passenger compartment, one on either side of the ship. Commander Mylls was at the one pointing upward, the other was probably buried in sand.
"Put your mask on, pass me Mattiq's!" I screamed, panic tinting my voice as I dropped the water containers onto the deck.
The ship groaned again, and I heard the sound of tearing metal.
I grabbed the mask the Commander was offering and shoved it towards Mattiq behind me.
"Get it on! You too, Commander!"
I realized that Commander Mylls already had his on and saw that he was holding out one for me.
"Put it on Cadet! You've been away for years, don't risk it! That's an order!"
The sense of his words sunk into my brain and I grabbed the mask and settled it over my head, strapping it down and pressing the button to inflate it snugly over my head. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that Mattiq had his on too.
"Override the lock, Sir! We don't have time to equalize the pressure!"
"Shouldn't we put on the sand--"
"There's no time! Open the hatch and run! We'll put them on when we have some distance!"
The Commander nodded, pressed the override, and pulled the lever. Hydraulics pushed both hatchs open and air roared out. The ship groaned again, but the sound was quieter but only due to the lower air pressure.
The Commander ran up the sloping deck and leapt out, one backpack in either hand and a third on his back. I grabbed the two water containers and hurried after him, thankful for the rubber souls on my boots that gave me some grip on the deck. I could faintly hear Mattiq behind me.
Leaping out I flew through the air for a moment falling gently until I landed on the sand and sunk deep into it. Mattiq landed almost on top of me.
"Run!" I screamed, forcing myself upright and pressing my legs deeper into the dry fine equatorial sand.
I could see the Commander staggering through the sand that was up to his knees. I staggered after him. Mattiq's feet were so big that he almost walked on top. He grabbed one of the containers from me and I just let go, working to move through the fine, fine bone-dry dust. My breath panted in the mask as I staggered forward, one step after the other. I heard metal tearing behind me and forced myself not to look back. Mattiq was far in front, helping the Commander. We were climbing a rise, probably a dune. My lungs heaved and, its compressor overwhelmed, the mask dispensed oxygen from its tanks. Though my head was spinning, I forced myself to concentrate. I pulled one leg out, pushed it through the sand, and shoved it down into the depths. A second leg. A third... Mattiq appeared beside me, grabbed my arm and pulled me. I could feel--
Great Maker! I stopped dead, panting for breath. Sweat was on my flanks and I didn't dare move. A Patrol uniform was designed to allow sweat to pass through for cooling for when it doubled as an emergency space suit. The sweat shouldn't be enough to set off the seeds, but I couldn't take the chance.
"I don't believe it," I heard the Commander whisper.
I turned at my waist and twisted my head and looked at the last moments of the Trilethones as the waterseekers slowly engulfed it. It wasn't like a bad TriV, the plants moved just enough for the naked eye to see and that was enough. Vines curled around the hull, clinging, prying. There were hundreds of them engulfing it. I heard a loud moan, a spark as the coil discharged, the tearing of metal. The plants slowly grew, slowly moved, and the Trilethones disintegrated beneath them.
I was still looking when I felt somebody touch me. Turning I saw that it was Mattiq.
"Hey Horsie, put these on." He was carrying two pairs of sandshoes and was wearing his own pair. "Now don't you wish you had big wide feet like mine?" I could see him grinning through his mask as I took the shoes from his hands.
"At least I won't have to carry all the sand you have in your tail everywhere." At that Mattiq turned his head and moved his tail so that the tip was almost touching his mask.
I ignored him and, knowing that my sweat had frozen and sublimated in the bone-dry air, slowly rolled onto my side, pulling my legs out of the sand. I grabbed two of the sandshoes. In their collapsed form they were three tough, parallel carbon-fibre posts in a clump. The longer two pulled out and the third was hinged perpendicularly to one of the long posts and clicked to the other as a spacer. Woven between the posts was an extremely strong carbon-fibre mesh that spread out as the two outside poles were moved apart. Any of the land based member sentients of the United Planets could use them. After I strapped the first pair onto my right two hooves, I shook each leg to make sure its shoe was secure. Then I rolled over onto my other side to strap the other two shoes to my left hooves. Rolling onto my backs, I wiggled the end of my lower back a bit to scratch the itch that dried sweat always gave me, even through the Cadet uniform, and then rolled forcibly back and struggled to get my legs under my body prior to standing. Mattiq leaned down and helped me upright.
By then the Commander had also walked up to me, he too had a pair of sandshoes on. I looked up into his masked face.
"What were those things, Kyros?" He was pointing towards what remained of the jeep.
"We call them waterseekers, Sir. Their seeds are everywhere through the deserts. They wait, passive, until there's some water and then they burst into life, grabbing all the water they can, and growing as large as they can. The water they don't immediately need, they store deep inside their roots. When all the water is absorbed, their growth slows and they slowly bloom. After a few weeks or a month, and after pollination by windborne pollen, they build up reservoirs of pressurized oxygen and then fire their seeds into the sky like rockets. The seeds can land kilometers away. When that's done, they die."
The Commander nodded. "There's a little bit in the hypnotape on them, it concentrates on ways to get oxygen out."
"I'm not surprised, Sir. They only grow in deserts around the equator, and are rare everywhere else. When we migrated, we colts played a game of urinating to watch them fight over it."
"I've never seen anything grow that fast!" Mattiq burst out.
"Nobody's figured out how they do it. The seeds are fairly large, about the size of a melon, and are under pressure. You cut one wrong, it'll blow up in your face."
"Well," the Commander said, "we'll just have to be careful. I grabbed backpacks for each of us, and all the straps I could find. We should be able to arrange something over your lower back. Each of us will take one pack and you'll take the water."
"Sir," I said, "My load should be balanced. There should be enough room in the containers so that we can empty one into the two others and discard it."
"Really carefully, and we'd better leave the container shut when we discard it," Mattiq said.
"Well then, I'll help get the straps worked out for you and Cadet Dodsthon can sort--"
"Sir, I think it'd be better if Mattiq helps me with the straps. We've done this a couple of times before. It'll go much faster."
He frowned. "Good point Kyros. I'll be at the top of this rise with the packs. Cadet Dodsthon, take it slowly and carefully, we're not in a rush here."
"Sir!?" Mattiq burst out. "The Triplex will help us, won't they? They have to know where we are. They could tell others on the planet where to send a plane."
I sighed. "Mattiq, there are no planes that can reach us. The herds have a few, but right now it's summer in the north and the herds are at least 17,000 klicks away. They have nothing with that range."
"But the Martians..?"
"The Martians could have done it centuries ago, but now they don't seem to be able to do anything other than fade away."
"Cadet Dodsthon, we'll be fine. We have lots of supplies and rations, and we don't have far to go. The Martians can supply us with food and water, and they do have radio contact with the Patrol. We'll be fine."
"I hope so Sir."
The Commander turned and walked up the rise, his sandshod hooves only sinking a few inches into the sand. He was awkward, but he'd soon get used to them. Everybody did.
Mattiq got to work on the straps and, although they were thin and we had to buckle several together, we got something that would work. The straps were thin enough that on Terra they would have dug into my flesh and opened wounds, but on Mars they'd be workable.
As I helped Mattiq empty the least full of the three containers into the other two, he asked, "The Commander is acting strange, isn't he?"
"Kyros, think about it!" he hissed. "He's formal with me, and informal with you. Before today did he ever call you by your first name? Ever?"
"Maybe he's just shook up over the crash. Or maybe he knows that I'm the most critical of all three of us for my knowledge. He might be trying to put me at ease."
"I don't think so."
A more significant and horrifying thought crossed my mind as we sealed the one container, sealed the other and moved it over to the third. "Mattiq, how much water do you think we have here?"
"I don't know... forty litres, maybe?"
"That's kind of what I thought. We've got to go 100 kilometres. I figure we can do 20 kilometres a day, maybe less. You and the Commander need 4L/day, I need 6L. Do the math."
"Great. And I thought this would be a nice easy hike."
"I hope the Commander grabbed the survival kits, and I hope they had desert equipment. We're going to have to recycle our urine and I'd prefer to filter it first."
"Oh, definitely! The last thing I want to drink is 'taur piss!"
He laughed as we finished draining the container, but it was a forced laugh and it choked off when the Commander walked back to us. He was wearing a thin jacket, but it was good even for arctic temperatures and would adjust automatically to maintain the wearer's body temperature. On his back was the largest backpack, and a blaster was holstered at his belt. He was holding two more packs, one in each hand.
"Here you go, Cadets. Let's get going. Given the plantlife we've seen, there's a blaster for each of you inside. There's also one canteen in each and it's full. If you need to piss let me know -- I've got the recycler."
"Oh, joy," Mattiq muttered.
"He handed the smaller pack to me. "There's an inertial compass in there, you should lead."
"I figure we've got about six hours of sunlight left. We should make for the canal, then march west towards the Martian city we were aiming for. See how far we can get before nightfall."
Mattiq and I nodded. I pulled out the jacket in my pack and put it on over my upper half, checked that the charge on the blaster was full (which it was), and clipped the holstered blaster to my waist belt. The backpack went over my upper back as the two of them checked the caps on all three of the water containers and secured the two with water to my back with more straps, and left the third one sitting in the sand. Mattiq clipped his blaster to his belt and put his pack on his back and we were ready to go.
Then we started walking, with me leading. I wanted to take the mask off, the sweat on my face was making it itch, but the Commander wouldn't let me. I went slow as I was a little wobbly on my hooves. Commander Mylls followed, and Mattiq brought up the rear. The inertial compass both recorded the distance and direction we traveled, and had a magnetic compass pointing to the Martian north. The march was slow and it gave me far too much time to think. I'd become the de facto leader. I knew I didn't really want it. I was afraid I didn't deserve it. Yet, I was the only native...
The land was silent, cold, and stark. There were dunes all around us, and we could see faint whirls of sand in the slight wind. Here and there in the sand were the dried out dead husks of waterseekers. In the distance we could make out the dim shapes of rock outcroppings.
We marched slowly, even in Mars' T-standard 1/3rd G, as they weren't used to moving in the sandshoes. It was still a few hours before sunset when we reached the plant growth that bordered the canal. This far out there was only scattered canal cabbage, great monstrous carpets of leaves that lay along the ground. They gained their name because at sunset they'd curl up to preserve their warmth and water overnight, and go into a semihibernation state to minimize their oxygen usage. Further in I could see oxyweed loaded with the small round balls of their fruit.
Calling a halt, I asked: "Sir, I'm going to go closer to the canal, if that's acceptable. I need to show you a couple of things. And you, too, Mattiq. In case something happens to me. Just wait here. Unless..?"
"No, Kyros, we need to see. Frankly, I'm still feeling my way through the survival hypnotape."
After taking off my packs just in case, I carefully walked around the outstretched leaves towards the nearest oxyweed. As I went I called out descriptions of the plantlife. "Make sure not to step on these big leaves -- they're canal cabbage. They'll curl up around you and they're much stronger than they look. If you get trapped inside one, you might break the odd bone, but you won't be crushed. In that case, make sure to turn on a flashlight or you'll suffocate." Hypnotapes filled your mind with facts, but they were a disorganized, meaningless pile of data. By telling them I'd help their minds reorganize the stuff they'd been taught.
It wasn't long until I reached an oxyweed: A small plant with a thick stalk, dark blue-green in colour. Small leaves stuck out and underneath each was a cluster of one or two fruit. "This is an oxyweed, and it can keep you alive." I plucked three fruits and carefully turned and made my way back. "Make sure to harvest it by the stem; don't pierce the skin of the fruit. They're actually reservoirs -- they're where the plants store the oxygen they make during the day. They use that oxygen to help them breathe at night. You can't survive on it, but on top of the oxygen in the atmosphere, it can be just enough."
I wanted to take my mask off but I had orders, and its reservoir was only good enough for inflating and sealing it two or three times. Instead I pulled off a glove, held one fruit up against the victuals-lock on the mask, pressed my fingernail into the fruit, and shoved it against the lock as oxygen started hissing out. It was cold and stunk of onion and mud, but it was breathable enough.
I tossed one fruit to each of them. "You want to press it up against the lock of the mask just before you pierce it with a fingernail or knife. Make a small hole and apply pressure gradually. When it starts hissing, shove it against the lock."
I watched as they tried it. Mattiq popped his and had to wipe the green goo off his mask, but the Commander got it right. "It stinks," he said. "You're sure it's safe?"
"Absolutely. The stench is a defense mechanism against the wildlife. It's harmless though."
"Animals!?" Mattiq burst out.
"Nothing dangerous, Nutty. Mostly small rodents which live in burrows along the canals and live off the plants. They eat the oxyweed anyway, so it's not much of a defense."
I put the pack on my upper back, and Mattiq and the Commander secured the straps and water to my lower back. Then I led the way westward, skirting the edge of the green zone alongside the canal. There wasn't much conversation. Occasionally Mattiq would grumble about the headache he'd developed. My mind kept wandering, but it was always the same thing. Should I be here? But I was the native guide. Should I just go home? The tanks in the mask hissed as they added more oxygen to supplement what I was breathing.
The Commander had to drag me out of my thoughts to set camp. Mattiq helped him set up the tents whilst I went out to cut firewood from a clump of dead waterseekers. I moved off at a ground-eating low-gravity gallop. Learning to do it in sandshoes had taken me years, but then the same applied to the rest of my herd. I quickly reached the stalks, but it took me a while to chop through them, and eventually I had all I could carry which was a lot more than you'd expect given the 1/3 T-standard G. Lifting it all in my arms I trotted back to the camp. There we made kindling and got a small slow fire burning. It was hard in the low oxygen, but the Commander's blaster on minimal setting made it seem easy. He offered us rations. Mattiq didn't think he could keep anything down, but I took my share. We drew lots for watches and I won. It was easy to stay awake because of the annoying rasp of my breath in the mask. I just watched the stars, identified the moving lights of the two radio satellites in geosynchronous orbit, traced the constellations -- the Centaur, the Rabbit, the Hungry Wolf -- and tried to comprehend the immense distance to the stars. Every so often I turned on the flashlight that'd been in the Commander's pack and shined it around. Time passed until my watch beeped and I trotted back and shook Mattiq's shoulder.
"Mattiq, your turn to watch."
"Wha -- oh, my aching head."
"The pills didn't help you?"
"If anything, it's gotten worse."
"Well it's your watch, Nutty. Your pain will help keep you awake."
"If it isn't gone by morning, we'll have to try and figured out what happened. Did you bump your head in the crash?"
"Why don't I believe you?"
"Helmet off Mattiq."
He released the pressure and pulled it off, gasping for oxygen in the thin air. Every cadet received basic first aid training, and head traumas were high on the list of causes of headaches. I carefully examined his head, looking for any signs of a wound or trauma, any bump, any bruising. Nothing.
"Guess you're telling the truth, Nutty."
He put his helmet back on and the air hissed as it inflated itself to fit. "Told you so... but thanks. I could have been wrong."
"You should be fine in the morning."
"I hope so, Horsie. Have a good rest."
And with that Mattiq strapped on his sandshoes and walked closer to the fire and sat down and watched.
I also moved closer to the fire, locked my legs, closed my eyes, and tried to sleep.
I couldn't. Each inhale rasped as the compressors worked, and each exhale hissed through the valves. I don't know how long I stood there listening to myself breathe. Finally I couldn't take it anymore. Pressing the release to let the air hiss out, I undid the straps and lifted the mask off, dropping it onto the sand. Closing my eyes, I inhaled.
Dryness filled my nostrils, a whiff of Mattiq, smoke from the fire, and below it all was what I could only consider a scent of time, immense time and age. I inhaled the thin air, and held it. Great Maker but I'd missed being home! Was the Patrol worth the sacrifice? I exhaled with a relaxed sigh. I wasn't worried, centaurs had evolved to live on a few plateaus high above the surface of Terra, in the thin cold air. Our nostrils trapped the moisture and the heat to preserve it. We were the only member race of the United Planets who could live on Mars -- other than the Martians, of course, who had welcomed us. And we'd welcomed the offer because we were made for the vast plains, even though we'd been driven from them on Terra thousands of years ago.
"You know, Horsie, Commander Mylls is going to have a fit when I wake him for his watch. You heard his orders."
I opened my eyes. "Nutty, it was a choice between this and sleeping. I have enough trouble with the mask in our cabin and only the strong herd scent makes it work. Besides, if I fall over you can wake me up and put my mask back on."
He snickered and went back to where he'd been sitting as I closed my eyes. I breathed faster than I had with the mask, but also relaxed faster. An odd contradiction, but the faster breathing was how I'd breathed the majority of my life. Closing my eyes I fell into a gentle sleep, surrounded by the comforting odour of my herdmate.
Something was wrong. I woke up, blinking my eyes in the dry, cold air. There was a dim glow from the fire, but no other light. What had awakened me? Something drew my eyes down and I saw Mattiq lying in the sand, still. His falling over must have done it! I leapt over to him and collapsed down onto my lower chest and felt his throat.
I felt his wrist.
By the Maker!
I think I screamed, I'm not sure. I ripped his mask off and started breathing into his mouth, thumping his chest, and then breathing into his mouth again. Nothing, nothing!
I heard Commander Mylls' voice in my ears, shouting. "It's too late! He's dead! He's dead!"
My face shook as I choked back tears and sobs.
My herdmate was dead.
Slowly I clambered to my hooves and turned to look at the Commander. He'd save us, he'd save Nutty. Somehow.
"Kyros, what happened? Why is your mask off?"
I swallowed and then licked my lips. My mouth was dry. I looked up at him and tried to speak. "I..."
"Kyros, you're not in trouble. Tell me what happened."
"I..." I kicked the sand. "I couldn't sleep with it, Sir."
He sighed. "And Mattiq?"
"I... I don't know Sir. I awoke him for his watch and he told me he still had his headache. He sat here by the fire and I went to sleep. I heard something, woke up, and saw him lying on the ground. There was no pulse. I.. I... tried..." My body started to shake.
"Kryos, it's all right. You did what you could."
"But it wasn't enough! He's dead! My herdmate is dead! And I let him die!"
"Kyros! It wasn't your fault!" He gently moved past me and leaned down to Mattiq's prone form and grabbed his mask where I'd thrown it. Turning it over he looked inside. "The tank pressure's fine..."
I forced myself to think. "What could have happened, Sir!?"
"I..." He stood up and walked over to his pack and rooted around. He brought out a gas sensor, unclipped the oxygen tank on Mattiq's mask, and inserted the tank to the sensor. It beeped and flashed red.
I stepped forward. "What is it, Sir?"
"It's..." He stood up and turned to me. "The tank was filled with carbon monoxide."
"It must have caused his headache. He probably didn't even know. He kept breathing it as the mask added more and more of it to supplement the oxygen it got from the atmosphere, getting more and more into his blood, until finally he suffocated. You said he was sitting?"
"He must have died and not fallen over until the wind blew him."
I closed my eyes, blinking back tears.
In the pre-dawn light Commander Mylls walked over to his pack and crouched down. Reaching in he pulled out a clip of spare tanks and started testing them one by one. I walked up beside him. Almost half the tanks were good, but the rest... Each registered as carbon monoxide. Pressing the release on his mask he pulled it off, popped out the reserve tank, put one of the confirmed oxygen ones in, and put the mask back on and breathed heavily to catch his breath. Testing the canister he'd taken out, it was confirmed as oxygen.
I couldn't speak.
He stood up and walked over to where I'd dropped my mask, picked it up, and tested its canister too. Oxygen.
Eighteen tanks -- of which nine were useless, filled with deadly carbon monoxide. Every mask other than Mattiq's had been charged with oxygen.
The one I could have handed to Mattiq on the jeep.
Closing my eyes, I swallowed, and wobbled back and forth on my legs until the Commander steadied me.
I'd killed him. I'd killed my herdmate. I--
The command in his voice made me turn and look at him.
"Kyros, it's done. It's--"
"Why!? Great Maker, why!?"
"Kyros, I don't know. But it's not your fault. It was--"
"It was my fault! I could have given him the mask I was wearing, I could have tested the oxygen, I could--"
"Kyros, you couldn't have known. None of us could have."
I looked up, his face dark in the sun rising behind him.
"Kyros, it was an accident. I wish... but we didn't have time. If we'd stayed on the Trilethones to check, we'd have been killed. You saved us. You!"
"Kyros, we need to get going. We--"
I stared at him and pursed my lips. "Sir, I am not leaving until we bury him. Properly. As he deserves."
"Sir. I...It's the best we can do. And I will do it."
I stared up at him, challenging him, until he finally turned away. He walked over to his pack and pulled out a shovel, unfolded it and handed it to me. Then he watched as I dug the hole, carefully lifted and carried Mattiq's body into it, and covered it back up with sand.
He just stood there watching, the sun rising higher, as I violently shoved the shovel into the sand as a marker. Bowing my head, I remembered Mattiq. I remembered the good times, the bad times.
"Kyros, there's... there's something I should tell you."
I spun around and stared at him in anger and sorrow. "What?"
"Kyros, he wasn't your friend."
"He was ordered to be your friend by the Commandant on the Anthera. He never liked you."
"I don't believe you!"
"Kyros, remember when I told you that the Patrol had been careful to make things possible for you, but to not show favourtism?"
"Cadet Dodsthon was part of that. We knew you needed a close companion to stay sane. When you and he ended up sharing quarters, he was ordered to be your companion. It was explained why and he grudgingly agreed."
"That's what his report said."
"Kyros, we need to get going. He's buried and you... well, you were right. He at least deserved that. But if we stay here, we'll join him. Cadet Dodsthon wouldn't want that."
"I..." My voice fell into silence and I looked at the grave. In a few hours the scent of the water in his body would seep down to the waterseeker seeds. They'd grow, and they'd consume him, and from that they'd make new life. I looked down, remembering. "Sir, Commander..., are you sure?"
"It was in the report."
"I'm sorry Sir, I don't, I can't believe you. He was a friend. More than a friend. His... his soul... Sir, his was the most...centaur..." I couldn't go on.
"Kyros, I'm sorry. It wasn't. He was doing what he was ordered to do. Nothing more."
I wiped tears out of my eyes. The Commander had to be wrong. He had to be.
"We need to get going."
"I... yes, Sir, I guess... you're right, Sir." Turning away I helped the Commander gather up the supplies and we took what we could from the pack Mattiq wore. Most of it could be fit in mine, and I lingered over some of the items, inhaling his faint nutty scent.
He'd been my friend. My herdmate. I couldn't believe...
The Commander and I both used the recycler and divided the reclaimed water between his canteen and mine, and I clipped mine to my belt opposite my blaster. I lugged on my pack and the Commander lifted the water containers onto my lower back and then motioned for me to lead.
I turned away leaving my herdmate behind me.
As I started walking, a part of my mind whispered, But what if he was just following orders?
The Commander and I walked quietly. He tried to start a conversation once or twice but I ignored him, my thoughts sad and confused. We walked all that day, and all the next. We were able to pick up our pace as the Commander learned to walk efficiently with the sandshoes in 1/3rd T-standard G. Based on the map and the inertial compass, we'd probably make it to our planned landing point late tomorrow if we were lucky, but more likely early the day after.
That whole time my mind kept going over the same things. The scramble to get out of the jeep. Mattiq's headache that I belittled, his death, the Commander's statement. Over and over again. I thought back over our time together. Meeting Mattiq at the museum on Terra, going over the Bumps for his first exposure to freefall, taking the rocket up to Anthera, becoming roommates, shuffling assignments so that we both shipped out on the Triplex...
On the second day I remembered when Mattiq was called to the Commandant. He'd changed when he came back. Or was that me creating a false memory to support what Commander Mylls had told me? The more I remembered, the more my memories became jumbled, and the less sense I had of what was true and false.
And the more I lost track of what Mattiq had meant to me, the more I decided that I wasn't ready to be a Patrolsentient. If the Patrol had to order somebody to be my friend lest I go insane, then I was not psychologically capable of being a Patrolsentient.
I had first watch on the third night and was standing by the fire. Closer to the canal, the cabbages had folded up into great balls. There was no movement; the small rodents generally stayed in their burrows as it cooled down after dusk. Again I was looking up at the constellations, the so very distant stars, when I saw a flash.
I galloped over and shook the Commander awake and pointed upward. We watched in silence as there was a second explosion, flashes of light, and a third explosion. After that there was only the stars.
"Commander, Sir, was that what I think it was?
He paused before responding. "Somebody was fighting somebody up there, Kyros."
"The Triplex, Sir?"
"They were certainly involved."
He snorted, the sound clipped through his mask. "I don't know."
I looked up into the darkness. Was the Triplex destroyed? Was everybody I knew up there dead? Were all my holos of Mattiq destroyed?
By the Maker, he'd been my friend! I knew he had! And yet...
"Kyros, go to sleep. I'll keep watch."
I shook my head to clear it of the confusion. "Thank you, Sir." Moving a bit closer to the fire, I closed my eyes and nodded off, my head full of jumbled memories.
Kyros, just remember that I'm your friend. Nobody told me to do anything, nobody had to give me orders.
I jerked awake, dawn still a ways off, though a bit of brightness could be seen over the horizon. The Commander was walking between the canal cabbages, I could see the bobbing of his flashlight.
My memory was sharp and crystal clear. I heard Mattiq's voice in hydroponics. He hadn't wanted to tell me about his meeting with the Commander. Mattiq must have known what would happen if he did. What did happen when Commander Mylls did. And he'd told me that he was my friend, no matter what. And that nobody had to give him orders.
I'd been right and the Commander had been wrong! Well, not exactly, but he knew only the official record, not what Mattiq and I had really had.
Tears glimmered in my eyes as I closed them fell into dreams of the good times Mattiq and I had shared.
The Commander nudged me awake in the early dawn, his scent full of impatience -- and that odd overtone. We did our business with the recycler, put on our packs, loaded the remaining water on my back, and started on our way. I'd been so deep in mourning that I hadn't been fully awake in days. It wasn't until we were skipping through the desert beside the canal that I did fully wake up, my sorrow manageable.
And that was when I solved the puzzle: The Commander and I, and Mattiq, were all the victims of a saboteur. There was no other possibility. The explosion on the Trilethones, the failure of the second engine and the radio, the sabotage of the oxygen canisters for the masks. There was no way that could all have been an accident. No way!
I stopped. "Sir?"
Who could have done it?
Commander Mylls had selected the masks. He'd piloted the jeep. He'd had the access hatch open under the port engine--
It can't be Commander Mylls. It can't! And yet...
I looked at him, at his eyes and snout through the mask. The gray hide, the bare flesh around his mouth. The big eyes. He'd been acting strangely on the ship and ever since we landed...
No! I refused to believe it. And ye--.
"What is it, Kyros."
I pushed my panicked thoughts back. If Commander Mylls is the saboteur... I swallowed. "Nothing, Sir. I, err, thought I saw something. It was nothing."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm... yes, Sir."
"How much longer do you think it'll take?"
I looked the inertial compass and compared it to the map and did some quick calculations. "Sir, if we maintain our current rate of travel, we should get there tomorrow."
"Good, good! Good job, Cadet."
"You're welcome, Sir."
He turned away and I accelerated into a ground-eating 1/3 T-standard-G canter, the fastest speed the Commander could reach.
If the Commander was the traitor, then why was I still alive? It didn't make sense, but the clues suggesting the Commander was the saboteur were too convincing. Or were they? If the Commander had sabotaged the Trilethones, then he had willingly put his own life in grave danger, and that didn't make sense. Unless he thought he could land in the canal? That'd been his plan until I'd told him not to. That was when he'd panicked... But the risk!
Nothing made sense about any of this.
My mind wandered, all the pieces crashing off each other. His attitude, his smell, the events... I just couldn't believe it. And yet it seemed more and more likely. Aboard the Triplex, he'd told me that it was a Patrolsentient's right to refuse to obey an order. Did the same not hold true if the Patrolsentient in question had broken Patrol law? I remembered back to the Anthera. There'd been some discussion of the same thing, and yes, it was the individual Patrolsentient's duty to stop others and uphold the law. Even if the other was a fellow Patrolsentient.
And yet... I couldn't believe that the Commander could have done it! I just couldn't.
That night we again set camp. I had second watch, so I tried to sleep while the Commander watched. I couldn't. If the Commander was a traitor I daren't. I think I nodded off eventually for a bit but then the Commander shook me awake for my watch and went to bed.
I couldn't stand still so I wandered back and forth by the fire, my sandshoes making a soft hiss which each step. Then I stopped as a horrible thought novaed into my mind.
If the Commander was a traitor and the saboteur, then did my blaster actually work? I pulled it out and confirmed that the charge still read full. And yet... The Commander had always used his blaster to start the fire, I'd never used mine, nor had Mattiq. I moved a distance away from the camp, switched my blaster to its minimum setting and fired at the ground.
My throat was suddenly dry.
I switched my blaster to its maximum charge and fired.
Commander Mylls had to be the traitor! And yet, I still doubted. And I couldn't shoot him as he slept!
I trotted back to the fire, lay down beside my pack and pulled out the toolkit that was part of the standard equipment. Holding it under one arm so that it illuminated what I was doing, I removed the power cell and then unscrewed the access panel to scan for obvious faults. It didn't take long to discover that the charge metre, which still read full, was simply wired directly to a microbattery. As to the sabotage to the actual blaster, it was so simple I almost laughed: The fuse had been removed! The fuse wasn't needed for arming or anything, but was a safety measure, given that the power cell had more than enough stored energy to make a fair-sized bomb. You really didn't want your gun to blow you to bits when you fired it. I took a fuse from the kit's spares and slipped it in, sealed the case, and re-inserted the power cell. Setting the blaster to its minimum setting I stumbled up to my hooves, walked away from the camp, and fired at the ground.
This time it worked.
Setting it to maximum, I holstered my blaster, and went back to stand on watch, feeling at least somewhat more confident. And more horrified. If the Commander was the traitor, what was I going to do about it? He was sleeping... I could kill him... I couldn't kill him!
When the sun was rising across the horizon I still hadn't decided. The only thing I had decided was to keep my speculations to myself.
Together we quickly took the camp down and went on our way at a quick pace. It wasn't long until the Commander called out, "Look!"
Glancing back I saw his outstretched arm, and following it I could just make out the glistening green glass of a Martian city. "That could be it, Sir."
We continued on our way and it wasn't long until the hive was clearly visible. It was a large one, and unlike most it was not abandoned. Every surface glistened in the sunlight. No dust nor dirt could be seen. Sentries stood at the entrances, their tall insectoidal forms still. Dim shapes could be seen moving behind the glass.
I stopped, and the Commander stopped beside me. I'd visited hundreds of hives, most abandoned, a few not, and they always affected me the same way. Martian hives are old. Inconceivably, monumentally old. Standing in one you realize how tiny your life is, how short a stretch within the immensities of history. A Martian hive has seen everything, done everything, and you can feel its jealousy of your youth.
Commander Mylls stopped only a second, and then he marched on and I wrenched myself free of the spell and hurried after him.
The sentries watched us as we walked up to the green glass pathway. After taking off our sandshoes and putting them our packs, we walked along the pathway between the plants beside the canal, and then over the canal via a curved bridge of thin green glass that looked far to weak to hold us. Glancing to the left I could see another canal branching off beside the hive. Even with my boots on, I could hear the ring of my hooves on the glass, and feel the bridge shake just a little.
The Commander stopped and looked around nervously.
"Sir," I whispered. "It won't break. Ever. Not even in an abandoned city."
We walked the rest of the way across and up the pathway to the nearest entrance. The towers grew higher overhead and the sunlight reflected off them and bathed us in a pale green. Our hooves tinked against the glass and the sound echoed and bounced from tower to tower.
"Commander, let me go first. I know their customs," I whispered.
"Yes, that's a good idea, Kyros."
He stopped and I walked past him, held my hands up before me empty, made my way up the ramp, and stopped at the entrance before the guards. They were warriors, different from the nobles. Each had six legs and their bodies were covered in heavy chininous plates that were dark green with mottled patches of lighter green. Each held a long bladed weapon, a staff with a long curved axe on top, but I knew that it was also an energy weapon. The pair never moved as I approached, but I knew they were watching me through the glittering black orbs which served as their eyes.
I stopped and bowed before the left one, the senior one due to his position. He returned my bow and gently touched my forehead with his antenna. We both unbowed.
"This soft guest comes at the request of thy queen. I serve the Queen of Queens of the Guardians of Peace," I hissed and clicked in the pidgin Martian that had been developed since the early days of first contact.
The Martian cocked its head, and then responded, "The Queen of Queens hath been expecting ye. Follow, I will take ye to her."
Queen of Queens? The Martian ruler was here!? Thank the Maker the Martians hadn't taken offense! "Thy service will be rewarded."
Again we bowed, he touched his antenna to my forehead, and then we unbowed. Turning, he started walking into the hive and I followed. I heard Commander Myll's hooves tinking on the glass behind me and then a loud hiss, and a crackle of electricity. Stopping, I spun around.
The other guard had lowered his weapon and was aiming it straight at the Commander's chest and he was reaching for his blaster.
He stopped and looked at me, the other Martian remained motionless.
"Why doth the Queen of Queens dishonour my Queen of Queen's servant?"
"That one is with ye?" the Martian I'd been following asked.
"Commander, stay very still. He is my Queen."
"He is not of the Guardians of Peace."
Huh? Maybe I'd mispronounced something. I tried again, slower: "But he is my Queen."
"He is not of the Guardians of Peace."
I looked at the Commander. I couldn't believe it, but I had evidence, and the Martians somehow knew. "Sir, the Martians are saying that you're not a member of the Patrol."
"Of course I am, Kyros! Tell them that!"
I looked at him and shivered. I could feel myself sweating, I could smell his fear, I could smell my fear. How could Commander Mylls be a traitor? He'd been in the Patrol for almost 30 years! It simply wasn't possible. And yet...
"Sir. I tried to tell them. They... they won't listen."
I looked from Commander Mylls to the Martian who'd been guiding me, and then back. "Sir, Commander, why did you kill Mattiq?"
"Kill Mattiq!? It was an accident!"
"Was it, Sir? Was the sabotage to the Trilethones an accident?" I struggled to hold back tears.
He stared at me.
"You killed my herdmate!!"
"Kyros, I... Kyros, it had to be done."
"The Patrol is dangerous. They have total power and no counterbalancing force. One day somebody will decide to use the bombs to take control, and there will be no Dahlquist to stop him."
I stared at him.
"The Martians have translated the Cruinni Stone. What if it's a weapon? A drive? If we can get that information out to the triads they can become equal to the Patrol, a countervailing force!"
"The triads..." I whispered.
"Kyros, do you remember what I told you? About the bombs? The Patrol controls them all. What if the Patrol goes bad, Kyros? What happens then? Who'll be able to stop it?"
I could barely make him out through the tears in my eyes. He'd killed Mattiq.
My reaction was instinctive. "Sir?"
"Do you remember your Doubt course? The Patrol consists only of mortal sentients. What if enough go bad to take over? What'll happen then?"
I licked my lips and swallowed and sniffed. The Martians smelled the same as they ever did, but Command Mylls' scent was getting angry and frustrated.
"Kyros, the Patrol needs to be counterbalanced. There has to be a second power that can react if the Patrol goes bad. We can't risk not having one!"
"Sir... Commander... how can you believe that? How could you kill Mattiq!?"
"Mattiq was only your friend because he was ordered to be, Kyros."
I heard Mattiq's voice in my mind as though he was standing beside me. Maybe his soul was. Kyros, just remember that I'm your friend. Nobody told me to do anything, nobody had to give me orders.
"Kyros, I'm your real friend. My body is like yours, my soul is like yours. Help me, come with me. I have a ship waiting."
A ship... Great Maker! "One of the ships destroyed the Triplex! It killed everybody aboard her!"
"It had to be done. I'm sorry. Kyros, help me get what the Martians have, help me take it, and we'll keep the Sol System safe for a thousand year! Come with me Kyros, we need more sentients like you!"
I clenched my fists and closed my eyes. My herdmate was dead and this... this... Ultravore was asking me to betray everything! To betray my herd, to betray the United Planets, and to betray everything the Patrol stood for!
"Sir... I can't..."
His voice turned gentle, "Kyros, it's the only way."
"Sir... Commander..." I swallowed and blinked back tears; forced the memories of Mattiq back because I knew I needed a clear head. The Patrol was depending on me. "No..."
"Cadet Kyros! I order you to come with me!"
I sucked in air through my nostrils and snorted. "Sir... No. I can't. What gives you the right to order me? I...I am a Patrolsentient!"
"On your head be it." Before I could react, before the Martians could react, his blaster was in his hands and there was a burst of light and a hiss of energy, and the other Martian at the gate was dead, his chest blown into dust.
Before I had time to think, I was drawing my blaster and galloping to interpose my body between the Commander and the Martian who was beside me. Commander Mylls was aiming for me. My training kept my hand steady. I could smell his confidence and arrogance and that filled my scent with anger. Mattiq had just been a tool for him! He saw that I was aiming my pistol at him and a smile crossed his face. He didn't know! A zephyr of dust spun between us, but his smile made it easier for me to aim and I fired, the charged particles hissing through the air. I saw Commander Mylls go down just as I felt a burning pain in my upper chest. Everything went blurry and then darkness consumed me.
I woke up inside a brightly lit room. All around me was yellow-tinged green, the floor, the walls, the ceiling. There was no source of illumination, no sound, no hum, no crackle. The floor and the ceiling was smooth, but the walls rippled. No, that's not right. Their surface was folded in what might have been designs, but there was no logic to them. It was not art, but it was like nothing I'd ever seen before. Not even in the ruined hives I'd explored.
Looking around I realized that other than myself the room was empty. And I was clean and neatly groomed. My tail hung straight and smooth, and my Cadet's uniform was a pure pearly white. None of the dust and grime from almost a week spent in it could be seen. Even my blaster was still on my belt.
I heard the sliding of feet and the rustle of cloth in the distance, and then a Martian appeared in the room. She was not like the Martians at the entrance, not one of the warriors. Her flesh was soft and dark green in colour. She had no antenna, but instead a ring of thick soft spikes, almost like a crown, around the top of her forehead. Her solid black eyes were sharply tilted, and her smooth hands ended in long fingers tipped with long claws. She was clothed, wearing a pale green headdress and a flowing dress of the same colour that left her chest bare.
"Our Queen of Queens is glad that ye have recovered."
Recovered. I remembered Commander Mylls, the blaster shot... "I was dead!"
"The Queen of Queens told us to heal ye."
Great Maker! "Ye mean ye have the power of life and death?"
"No, not that. We cannot revive thy friend Mattiq. There hath been too much time. Ye we reached in time. Now follow, our Queen of Queens wishes to speak to ye."
"I..." My voice paused and then I bowed and the noble bowed with me. We both unbowed and she turned and led the way and I followed.
One instant I was still in the room, then the world wavered, and then I was in a passageway. I followed her, my booted hooves tinking on the glass floor in a sound loud and harsh in the silence. The only sound the noble made was the hiss of her bare feet and the rustle of her dress. We passed others who stood aside and bowed. We rose higher and higher, and suddenly the dim light changed to bright sunlight tinted jade through the glass; I realized we were in one of the central towers. The passage curved sharply to the left and angled more steeply upward and I could do nothing but follow. Through the glass I could see the city spreading out below. We climbed higher and higher, and as I saw more and more of the city I realized that we must be in the central tower, the nest of the Queen of Queens. The smooth walls became rippled, and soon they had the same kind of texturing that had been on the walls of the room I'd awoken in.
Abruptly the ramp ended and the two of us stood in a room.
It was dark, far darker than the ramp in the tower. The walls were no longer translucent, but were embossed in what looked like dark red panels. Light glistened over everything, and I looked up and saw that the doomed roof was transparent and clear, and I could see a few wispy clouds high in the sky. At the far end of the room was a massive chair made of what looked to be some kind of dark wood covered in deep red cushions. How old was that throne? Trees had not grown on Mars in millennia! And on the throne was the Martian Queen of Queens.
She was far paler than the noble who'd led me, and dressed all in gold. A gilt headdress draped from her head between the tall rows of spikes at the front and rear. Gloves (if that was the right word?) of the same material, covered each arm, from the elbow to the wrist. Her hands, like the noble's, were bare, but they were hard and wrinkled and I wasn't sure she could even bend them. From her waist down was a voluminous dress of the same golden material, that draped over the chair and spilled onto the floor. Around her neck was a fine filigreed necklace which supported three gems in a column. The topmost was a deep purple, the second purple-blue, and the third green. Like the noble, her chest was bare.
And in her arms she held a naked form like none I had ever seen.
The noble had already prostrated herself and I lowered my lower body onto my lower chest and bowed my upper body forward until my upper chest was also touching the floor.
The Queen of Queens clicked and hissed something in the pure Martian tongue. The noble stood up, turned, and left in a rustle of cloth and hiss of feet.
"Ye may rise, Kyros of the Centaurus of Mars."
I slowly and carefully stood up, or as slowly and carefully as a quadruped can. "Queen of Queens, ye honour me."
"Be thee easy, Kyros of the Centaurus of Mars. Thee hath honoured the Guardians of Peace with thy deeds."
"I... I thank ye, Queen of Queens."
"Approach, Kyros of the Centaurus of Mars."
Slowly I walked forward, the sound of my hooves echoing from the walls. I stopped in front of her.
"Take our gift to the Queen of Queens of the Guardians of Peace." She leaned forward and the creature cradled in her arms turned its head and looked at me. The figure was naked, completely, no hair anywhere except for a pale brown tuft on top of its head. "Take this child, Kyros of the Centaurus of Mars."
Carefully, hesitantly, I reached out and gently lifted the creature from the Queen of Queen's arms. It weighed almost nothing, but its scent was rich. It smelled like a fresh spring day; it smelled like hope; it smelled like dreams; it smelled like my mother smelled when she licked the afterbirth off of me. Gentle I cradled it in my arms. It was warm and soft. Then it cooed like a bird, and stuck its thumb in its mouth.
"Kyros of the Centaurus of Mars, thee hold the meaning of the Cruinni Stone. The writing is not technology or a weapon, but the genetic code of this being. It was made by the last humans, to preserve a legacy of what they hath been."
"What, what is this?"
"Kyros of the Centaurus of Mars, thee knows that all of the races come from a single root, a Terran root. Even the Venusians, even us. We were the first to be made, and we remember. The being thee holds is of the race of humans, the race that created us all in their wisdom and their arrogance, just as they made Mars and Venus into the image of their own world of Terra."
Great Maker! I looked at the creature. Was it one of the Makers!?
"They were not divinities, but as mortal as thee or I. They made us stronger than they were, tougher, more adaptable. They made us servants, workers, slaves. But, in the end they destroyed themselves, leaving us to find our own way. We of Mars remember where all else have forgotten."
"Wha... What do I do with it?"
"Kyros of the Centaurus of Mars, thee are young to ask such questions. This human, this man, is just a baby. Take him to the Queen of Queens, raise him in the traditions and honour of the Patrol."
"He is not as his race once were. We changed him so that he could survive in the blasted worlds they left behind. He can survive on Mars, he can survive on Venus, and he can survive on Terra. Take him, raise him. The Patrol has kept the peace for over a hundred years and we believe it is time for this gift."
I looked down and the human looked up and smiled, a smile that filled its face with a golden radiance.
"Go now, Kyros of the Centaurus of Mars. Thy Captain awaits thy return."
Captain Yancey!? But...
I nodded my head, afraid to bow due to the gift I was holding, and the noble who'd led me here was beside me. "Follow." She turned, and I followed her. Back down the ramp, back through the winding corridors of the Martian hive now empty, and finally back to the entrance I'd come in by. There was no sign of Commander Mylls' body, but standing there was Captain Yancey in a breathing mask and beside him the small form of Lieutenant Brunn.
"Cadet Imbreos. Where are Commander Mylls and Cadet Dodsthon?" the Captain asked.
"Sir. I..." I blinked back tears. My herdmate was dead. Commander Mylls was dead at my hand. Mattiq... "Sir, I'm not sure how to exp--"
"We know Commander Mylls had been compromised."
Huh? "Sir? You do, Sir?"
"After you left, we were attacked by another Triad vessel. We captured it, and their computers told us all kinds of things. It seems that Commander Mylls was a deep cover agent -- the personality we knew was a synthetic overlay. The real personality was released when the first ship transmitted that tone."
"I'm glad to know you survived, Sir. I was afraid..."
"It's done." He pointed at the child: "So that's what we came here for."
"Hmph. All this over a bald kit. A bald kit in the form of those that made us." The Captain looked away for a moment, cleared his throat, and then turned back to me. "Cadet, where are Commander Mylls and Cadet Dodsthon?"
I looked away, and then down at the human child. His face radiated hope and dreams, and from it I drew the strength I needed. "Sir, Commander Mylls is dead. I shot him after he killed a Martian. Mat..." I gulped; the next bit was going to be hard, very, very hard. "Ca... Mattiq, " Mattiq, my best friend and herdmate, "Cadet Dodsthon is dead also, due to a breathing mask I believe Commander Mylls sabotaged." I'll never forget you Mattiq.
The Captain's voice turned tender and he paused before continuing. "Cadet... I can't comprehend what Mattiq meant to you, but... if you want, I can drop you off with your herd. Give you time to heal. To... think about your life. Give you time to remember Mattiq as he deserves to be remembered. The Patrol will be here whenever you're ready."
"Sir... I..." I caroled my thoughts as the human child grabbed my chin in his warm soft hand. Looking at him, I suddenly knew my proper place, what I wanted to do with my life. "Captain Yancey, I'd prefer to return to the Triplex."
The captain peered into my eyes intently. "Are you quite certain, Kyros?"
"Sir... yes, Sir, I am. Do you remember when you asked me why I wanted to be a Patrolsentient?"
"I want to be a Patrolsentient because I can be a Patrolsentient. Because somebody has to, and I believe and hope that I can live up to the honour and requirements of the position. Somebody has to do it, Sir, and it is my responsibility to civilization to do it if I am proven able." Besides, I knew deep down in my heart, where the Truth lay darkest and heaviest in every centaur, it was my duty to Mattiq.
The Captain nodded. "Come along then, Cadet. After we return to the Triplex, I want a full report on what happened. Take your time with it; I need all the details. And I want you to care for this... gift. And bring it to my cabin once it's settled."
"Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir."
The Captain turned away. Lieutenant Brunn and I followed after. The human child giggled as Lieutenant Brunn's long thin tail danced before him.
Anger pierced my sorrow... after all I'd done, the Captain just dismissed it?! But then it hit me, and a warm glow pierced the sorrow, enhancing and echoing it and helping me begin to heal. The Captain hadn't commented on the job I did. He'd not complemented it; in fact, he'd just tossed it off.
He hadn't made anything of it because he hadn't expected anything less than what I'd done.
He hadn't expected anything less. Because, in his mind, and now in mine, I was a Patrolsentient.
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