April 2828 CE, Imperial Standard Reckoning
Southern Hemisphere, MARS
Verity grabbed for a better handhold as the dustcrawler lurched sharply with a shrill whine of servos. The restraint web went taut for a second, holding her tightly against the shockfoam of her seat. Then the web relaxed as the ‘crawler regained its equilibrium. The man in front of her grinned, showing yellowed teeth as he leaned easily into his own web.
"Gets a bit rough in the spring, don’t it?" he shouted over the din. The dustcrawler lurched again and Verity felt her stomach drop for a moment. There came a sudden jolt and then the whine and rumble of the servos ceased. All sense of motion stopped. Outside, rocks banged against the armored hull of the dustcrawler with a machinegun-like speed. It was like being inside a giant rattle, Verity decided. It made her head hurt. She could feel the vibrations with her feet.
Her companion spat. "‘Crawler’s waiting out a bad gust. Lowers itself and fires anchorbarbs into the ground. Like as not it’ll only be a few shakes ‘til we get moving again." He wiped grit from his eye and spat a second time.
Verity looked about. Their surroundings were grimy and confining, a narrow corridor deep in the guts of the dustcrawler. Her knees nearly touched the shockfoam seat in front of her. Even though only she and her companion occupied the space, Verity still felt a twinge of claustrophobia. She couldn’t imagine how crowded it would be if it were full. The air was stale and cold and tasted faintly metallic. The only light came from dim amber cubes set into the ceiling every few meters. She sat directly under one such light, and it flickered unhappily. Most of the metal had a reddish cast to it. She reached out and ran a gloved hand over a support rib on her left. It felt rough and left traces of red Martian dust on her fingertips. The dust seemed to be everywhere on Mars, even after centuries of terraforming. Dust was relentless as time, the Martian saying went.
"One of the old mining transports," the man said, watching her. "Pretty much an antique, but still used to check the pipelines in the scornstorms. Like now."
Saxon. She’d spaced it when they first hit the scornstorm, but she remembered it now. His name was Saxon.
"Makes its way by buried radio beacons and an inertial navigation system," Saxon said. He hunched back and she could see his breath frost the air when he spoke. Mars was still a cold planet, compared to Mother Earth or Venus.
"It’s computer-controlled, then?" she asked.
"Yup. Simple system, not a lot of thinking room. Easy to override if you have to. Good for reacting to the signals from the beacons’ wind sensors. It knows to hunker down when the wind gets up to over seven hundred klicks. When the gust passes, it’ll start up again. Used to be, the wind got up to over a thousand klicks, they say. Back in the first days. Even a crawler en’t much use then."
Verity started and gasped as the ‘crawler shuddered under a tremendous bang. Saxon swore. The rattling grew louder for awhile, then began to decline.
When the noise finally stopped, Verity’s ears were ringing. She huddled in her dustcloak and dialed the on-board heating up another notch. Vapor puffed out of Saxon’s hood, slow and regular. Verity wondered if he were asleep. The servos took up their complaints as the dustcrawler stood up and continued its progress. Verity tried to imagine it as she jounced along, a pockmarked, dustscored centipede, like a train with legs like Hercs. Only not exactly like Hercs. More like a crab’s legs, all splayed out to the side.
"We ought to be there soon," Saxon told her.
Verity tried to smile. She didn’t really know exactly what they were doing. She just knew Terran Defense Force enforcers had killed her father in the Tharsis City riot last week. She had put out feelers about joining the rebel movement soon after, and to her surprise, Saxon had made contact almost immediately. I’m a librarian, she thought. What can I do against the Earthers?
Her father had tried, though. Verity knew she had to try too. Tears welled, but she resisted the impulse to wipe her eyes. She’d get dust all over her face. She stared at her hands and thought about nothing.
The dustcrawler jolted to a halt and lowered itself again. Everything was still. The only sound was the distant rustle of the dust sluicing over the external carapace of the ‘crawler.
Saxon ripped free of his safety web.
"We’re there. Grab your kit." He reached over and hauled up his backpack and began to make his way down the narrow space between the seats. "Move it!" Verity grabbed her pack and followed, trying not to get entangled in the pulse flares strapped to the pack’s sides. Saxon stepped through a rust encrusted airlock and set his pack down by a large iris valve on the floor. He punched some buttons on a dust-filmed control panel. Lights clicked on and off on the panel, and Verity heard a grinding sound beneath her.
"Are we going out?" she asked. Surely not! Even in dustcloaks, the scornstorm would rip them to tatters in seconds, if it didn’t .smash them into a cliff first.
Saxon just stared at her. Then he said, "Nah. We’re over one of the conduits to the Weber-Meridian mining tunnels. We’re going down." Verity flushed in embarassment. What a stupid question! The lights on the panel flashed green and the iris valve shuddered open, dislodging traces of dust into the widening blackness.
"Come on." Saxon disappeared into the hole. Verity took a deep breath and lowered herself after him. There were solid rungs, layered with some kind of rubbery material. She couldn’t see anything, but the descent was easy enough. She found herself standing with Saxon in a small round room, very much like the inside of a pipe. A standard hatchway offered the only exit. Above her, the iris valve closed, a shrinking pinwheel of light.
"The ‘crawler’s on its way. It’ll be back in a few days. We should be done by then."
Saxon rapped on the hatch door. Someone on the other side opened it and exchanged muttered words with Saxon. Verity could hear the sounds of people moving, people at work. Through the open hatchway spilled harsh light. The mining cavern inside was full of people and machinery. A grimy Herc strode slowly past. Crudely painted block letters spelled out ALLEY CAT on its side, right by a colorful depiction of a rangy cat with an eyepatch hissing and clawing at something.
"C’mon, lady, we’re clear." Saxon waved Verity through the opening. She followed him into the chamber. They threaded their way between stacks of crates, rows of pressure tents, marching people garbed pretty much like her, various light labor Hercs, and small groups huddled around heatpods sharing hot food and coffee. The faces she saw showed lines of fatigue, but also held a strangely moving excitement. Verity felt that excitement infecting her, too. Like she was ready. Like this whole place was ready. Everyone seemed to have a weapon, either on them or close at hand. Some of the gear Verity thought she recognized from adventure virtuvids. Other things didn’t even look like guns to her, but people seemed to act like that’s what they were.
Saxon shot a glance at her. "New tech. You’ll find out about it soon enough. It’s gonna win the war for us. The other stuff’s pretty standard, mostly hypervelocity rifles and candleguns, a few assault lasers when we can get dust-resistant models." She nodded quickly.
They approached a knot of people sorting themselves through plasteen benches set up in rows. A heavy Herc squatted in front of them, and a short man in a parka stood on the ledge afforded by the hip assembly. He had his hood back, and Verity caught a glimpse of blond hair before Saxon hustled her to a place in the front row.
"Saxon!" the blond man called down. "You dustdog! It’s about time you got here!" He tossed something toward them. Before Verity could think, her hand flashed out and plucked the object out of the air before Saxon could grab it.
Saxon wheeled on her, surprised. Verity cringed back. "Sorry," she said.
"You’ve damned fast hands, lady! You snapped that up faster ‘n a sandflicker snagging a brigbug."
"Sorry," she said, and offered the object to Saxon who took it with a scowl. It was a small package. Chocolate from Earth, a rare luxury on Mars. Saxon opened it and took out couple of pieces, passing one to Verity. She put it into a pouch for later, grateful for the wrapper that kept the dust out.
"‘S’okay," he said.
The blond man was laughing. Verity could see he wasn’t native. He was slightly shorter than the average Martian, and more heavily built. When he vaulted the three meters down to the ground with the kind of easy effort of someone used to a higher gravity environment, Verity knew he had to be Terran.
A Dirtborn? Here?
The blond man came over. Tall for a Dirtboy, Verity guessed, only a little shorter than her. She looked into cheerful blue eyes and a face weathered with smile lines. An expressive face.
Saxon offered back the chocolates. "Keep it, Sax. I’ve got more we liberated from Earth," the blond man said.
"Sure, Bek. Thanks." The chocolate vanished into Saxon’s dustcloak.
Bek regarded Verity with an oddly penetrating look, his smile lingering at the corners of his mouth. Verity felt her pulse pick up. It flustered her, this unexpected charisma from a Dirtboy.
"Verity Vargas," Bek said at last. "First runner-up of the Scuttlebot Biathlon at Nix Olympica in ‘22, right?"
Verity nodded, caught by Bek’s eyes, which almost seemed to catch fire as he looked at her, the cheer hardening to intensity.
"You nearly set a record on that obstacle course. You would have, if the winner hadn’t set his own record."
"Yes," she managed. How did he know all this?
"You’ve still got the reflexes. Why did you give it up?"
Verity looked from Bek to Saxon and back. She couldn’t think. "I... I couldn’t go back," she found herself saying at last. "I put everything I had into that race, and I got beat." She looked down. "I never got over losing, I guess.
Then she remembered her father and anger stirred in her. "But this is different! I’m not just in a race now!" Her passion shocked her.
Bek nodded. "You’ll get your chance to prove it." He turned to go back to the Herc, then paused for a moment. "Are you here for you, or because you think your Dad wants you to be here?"
The question threw her. Then she got angry. "I’m here for me, dust it! Dad, he ... Dad —" She choked back tears.
"I have to ask," he said. The intensity was gone now, replaced by sadness. Bek returned to the Herc, clambered back up onto the hip with the easy grace of that Terran physique. Then he turned to address the group.
Saxon’s hand pressed Verity’s shoulder. She swallowed in embarassment and sat down.
"People," Bek began, "Friends." He raised his arms. "We’re here tonight for a reason. The day when the TDF arrives isn’t far off. And when Teddy comes, he’ll come with the cream of the crop, the Imperial Knights." He emphasized the last two words and paused.
"Mars needs something to counter the Knights, who are, at the moment, the finest and best equipped warriors in the System. When the Knights come, they won’t be astride the old Mohicans and Starblades the Imperial garrisons have run out here. No, they’ll be in Basilisks and Minotaurs, Apocalypses and Gorgons. State of the art Hercs, make no mistake about it. And the Knights know how to use ‘em.
"Mars needs people to stand up to the Knights! Martian warriors to pilot Martian Hercs! Well, that’s you! And you!" He jabbed a finger out into the crowd. "And you." He pointed at Verity, who sat in shock. Her? A Herc pilot? Against Imperial Knights? Verity couldn’t wrap her brain around the concept. A Herc was a lot bigger than a scuttlebot, with real military weapons instead of the pennypot targeting laser a scuttlebot pilot used in competition.
Bek continued to talk awhile, but Verity didn’t pay close attention. She was in shock at the implications. She was going to be piloting a Herc in the rebellion? They had to be kidding! Verity tried to focus again on Bek. He was saying something about new weapons, stuff the Terrans didn’t even know about.
"... so we need to start training our warriors now. That’s why you’ve been brought out here. We’re going to put you through a rough time here. But all of you can do it. You’ve all been picked because you have natural aptitude for the kind of work you’re going to do. You’re going to be the seed of the Martian army, our heavy talent. Together, we’re going to burn the Empire and free Mars!" Bek’s arms shot up.
To her surprise, Verity was on her feet, the fear and excitement blazing up in her. "Free Mars!" she burst out. Saxon stood beside her, taking up the cry. "Free Mars!" Behind her, other voices joined in, louder and louder. "Free Mars!" The rest of the encampment picked it up, then, and the cavernous tunnel thundered around her. "Free Mars!" Verity felt tears on her cheeks, but not of grief.