By Matthew R. Doherty
T minus 90 Days
“My Great-Great-Great-Great-Great Grandfather Willis bought his first acre on Mars in the summer of 1993. Behind, there’s a picture of him on the wall. What does that face say to you?”
The MTC man turned to look. The frame held a photograph of a big man in his thirties, muscled arms folded across his chest and a stern but knowing expression on his large, long face. Family resemblance was remarkable after all these years.
“He looks like a strong individual, the old breed of Aussie. But frankly Jim, we at the Mars Terraforming Corporation are offering…”
“Don’t call me Jim, I’m not your mate. It’s Mr Bryant to you.”
The MTC man smiled. “Very well, Mr Bryant. The offer is good, extremely good. I’d take it.”
Jim Bryant folded his arms. “You’re not me. Christ, just because they send an Australian to negotiate, does that make them think I’ll sell? They’re dumber than I gave them credit for. Come with me.”
They stepped outside onto the retro wooden slats of the porch.
“See that hill over there?”
The MTC man nodded. “Yep, that’s Ridge 141A, rich in platinum and rare-earth metals. That’s where the mine is going.”
“Well that’s Bryant’s Hill. It’s on my land, see? And there’ll be no MTC mine going in. And there’s something else…”
Jim Bryant pointed his finger at one end of the ridge, where it peaked to a cliff edge. “Can you see it?”
The MTC man strained his eyes but could just make it out. “That little metal maker?”
“Yes, that little metal marker. That’s where my wife is buried. And now it’s time for you to fuck off… mate.”
T minus 77 Days
“Just feel I ought to warn you, Jim.”
Kellerman, the base surgeon, seemed genuine.
“Fair enough. Why did they send you?”
“No-one sent me. They would not have told you at all.”
Bryant smiled. “Thanks mate, but don’t worry about me.”
“As a doctor interested in your health, I’m concerned. This can only end badly, you know?”
“Bollocks, let the bastards do it. I’ve still got a hydroponics bay if the outside crops die. In fact, take this message back to your bosses. Tell them thank you very much for the heat they’ve provided in the dome, but it will no longer be necessary. That ought to piss ‘em off.”
T minus 24Days
Jim Bryant fastened the velcro on his thermal suit. The inside of the house was still warm. He turned the heaters off to conserve energy.
Satisfied, he lay down on the left side of the double bed and was confronted by a flashing voice-mail symbol on the ceiling screen.
It was Doctor Cai, the head of MTC Operations on Mars. He was grinning. This made Bryant uneasy.
“Good evening Mister Bryant, we hope you are keeping well? This is to let you know that, due to resource constraints, we will be unable to supply oxygen to your part of the dome in the future. We have consulted our lawyers and they require us to give you seven days’ notice. If you would care to move into the main compound, a guest suite has been prepared for you. Thank you for your time.”
After a few seconds the screen entered standby.
He grabbed a metallic case from under his bed marked “OX”. The instruction leaflet assured him each vial, when placed in the mask, would last twenty-four hours.
He had to be absolutely certain.
Bryant placed the oxy-mask over his face, scratched off another day on the calendar, and closed his eyes.
T minus 2Days
Jim Bryant wiped the dust off his mask and knelt at the water condenser. He wondered which felt worse, the sores on his face where the rubber had worn at the skin, or the sores on his body.
Two and a half today would mean he could have a party tomorrow night and drink four full glasses of water. There would be enough left for a drink the following morning, and some spare for emergency rations.
He had become expert at removing the mask to drink and slipping it on again before the need to take another breath.
Content, he set off on his daily patrol route. This took him on a circular tour of his land, culminating in a visit to his wife’s grave.
As he marched, he supposed it was silly, sweating and using up vital water. But it was better this way. To sit in the house all the time simply surviving was not enough.
He supposed it was stupid to say all this out loud. It would have seemed peculiar to anyone else – if there were anyone else. The last person he spoke to was Kellerman over two months ago.
He came to the gravesite and took a moment to catch his breath.
“Well Dumpling, let’s see… what’s been happening? Not much really. The hydroponics are coming along well. That splinter I got yesterday is healing nicely. Your marker is looking a little grimy, I ought to clean it. I’ll do it tomorrow… Fine, you win, I’ll do it now.”
He took out a cloth and began rubbing. “Honestly, you never let me have a moments fuckin’ peace, alive or dead. Yes, I’m sorry for swearing…”
Standing, he looked over his land, lit by a dim Sol through the glass of the dome. The farm was caked in red Martian dust. Rusted metal patches showed in places. In the distance stood the MTC complex, a neat block of glass towers surrounded by a dozen mini-domes, each filled with eye-catching green plant-life.
“Not long to go now…”
He pat the marker a few times and started back home.
Jim Bryant unleashed such a stream of expletives, the visor of his mask fogged up.
Windows broken, hydroponic cases smashed, and the water condenser outside was missing. Worst of all was his horde of oxy-vials – all stolen. He estimated around two hours of air left.
Then he noticed a thin film of dark blue liquid lapping at his boots. They had purposefully blocked the chemical toilet and pressed flush.
Fifty metres west of his porch lay a discoloured patch of ground. Using gloved hands to frantically dig, he eventually unearthed what he was looking for.
After checking the ammo readout, Bryant swung a rifle round his shoulder and went to seek restitution.
“You may enter now, Mr Bryant.”
The airlock compressors bellowed out a wave of cool steam. He waited until the inner doors slid open before removing his mask.
The Scandinavian sounding secretary seemed unconcerned with his grim expression, or the rail-rifle in his hand. “Please sit in the reception area. Doctor Cai will be with you shortly.”
He caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror. Many of the sores on his face were pustulating, some bleeding. His hair was unkempt and matted with grease. A quick sniff under his shirt made him fight back a gag.
The chair was soft and luxurious. He placed the rifle across his knees and checked the safety was off.
Taking long, luxurious breaths of air was a godsend to his overworked lungs. It felt soup-like-he could almost taste it.
A lift bell pinged behind him. Bryant stood and held the rifle by its muzzle like a walking-stick. To his untrained eye, there were no obvious anti-personnel defences, save for the secretary who looked busy working on an info-pad behind his desk.
The lift-doors slipped open.
The figure who stepped out rose a good three inches above Bryant. His slender frame and tight-skinned, bony face gave him the appearance of a stick-man. On his left breast, above the fine stitching of his expensive suit was his nametag: Doctor Cai.
“Good morning Mr Bryant,” he said as he approached. “Please forgive our simple reception, only we did not expect to see you. Poul! Bring something for Mr Bryant to drink. I’m afraid alcohol is banned in the complex. Will green tea suffice?”
Bryant remained silent.
“Two green teas with plenty of honey crystals. I believe I will join you, should you not object?”
The secretary rose and scampered off to a drinks machine in the corner.
“They won’t be a moment.” Doctor Cai smiled. “I must say I’ve been looking forward to meeting you, face to face. Speaking of faces, would you like some medical attention for yours, only some of those sores look to be turning septic. Doctor Kellerman is our base physician. He is very good…”
“About an hour ago my house was ransacked and some of my things stolen. I believe you are ultimately responsible.”
Cai continued to smile. “That is a very serious allegation. Very serious indeed. You understand I will have to launch an investigation. The MTC does not tolerate criminal behaviour of any kind. Are you sure of this?”
Bryant rubbed the grease out of his beard. “Well, seen as, besides the MTC, I’m the only person who lives on the planet, and I didn’t rob my own place…” Bryant thumbed the muzzle of the rail-rifle.
Doctor Cai’s smile grew a little wider. “What is it you hope to achieve here?”
“Compensation for my possessions.”
“No, I mean more generally. What do you hope to achieve on Mars?”
“That’s not your business.”
“Mars is our business, Mr Bryant. It’s in the name. Anything that happens on this planet is important to us. Anybody we deal with is also important. We are not monsters. We look after our people. Friction is bad for the Corporation. We only want a smooth operation.”
“I’m not interested in what you want. Only in the return of my stolen goods.”
“…And you have been living under our dome, rent free.” There was now a hint of supressed anger in Cai’s voice. “Surely this has fostered in you some goodwill towards the Corporation?”
Bryant snapped back. “The land is mine, and so is the airspace. I won’t lie, that dome has been very useful to me over the past year, with its warmth, radiation deflection, air and so on. But it is you who should be thankful for me quietly allowing you to put part of it over my land in the first place.”
Doctor Cai’s fake smile turned into a grim, though real, frown. “I can see things are going to be difficult with you, Mr Bryant, so I’ll make a deal. Ah, here is the tea.”
The secretary brought over two small cups of steaming liquid. Cai blew on his for a second, before taking a half-sip and moving his gaze to Bryant.
Throat dry with thirst, Bryant took an equally small sip. “Not bad.”
Cai’s smile returned. “I am pleased that you are pleased.” He placed the cup down. “This incident you report. It won’t do. Like I said, I am quite willing to launch an investigation. Perhaps some underling took it upon themselves to pay you a visit… without my permission of course. The matter will be resolved quickly. In the meantime, it is obvious you cannot go back to your shack…”
“Very well, home. Now I insist you remain here tonight. Or until your property can be identified and returned.”
Bryant took up the cup and downed the hot liquid. “Ok.”
Cai was positively beaming. “Excellent! Excellent news. You will not regret this decision, Mr Bryant. After all, it is not every day we have our neighbour come to visit.”
The night passed without incident. Bryant was given a large room, complete with built in shower and a magnificent view of the eastern hydroponics bay. The MTC staff did not even bother to relieve him of his weapon. It was on the bed, ready to be used at a second’s notice.
After washing, shaving and changing into a decent suit, Bryant felt human again. He requested, and received, a copy of The Australian, and turned immediately to the sports pages. It did not matter the news was three months out of date.
Kellerman even came up to apply anti-septic on his sores. Bryant was happy to see him again, despite an interminable lecture on taking proper care of his body, culminating in a prescription of rest. He decided to take the advice. Cai had promised to give him a full tour of the complex in the morning and in a strange way he was looking forward to it.
T Minus 1Day
The breakfast they laid on for him in the canteen was superb. Fried eggs, heaps of bacon, potfuls of grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, and a mountain of hash browns. All the staff were watching and seemed fascinated with his every action, and the loaded rail-rifle that lay on the table next to him. After he was done, Cai’s smiling face appeared.
“I hope everything was to your satisfaction. You do look a lot better, Mr Bryant. I didn’t want to say anything yesterday but the smell was quite overpowering.”
For the first time in a long time, Bryant gave out a short, sharp laugh. The puzzled expression on Cai’s face showed he had not meant it as humour.
The tour took most of the morning. Bryant said little. When it was over Cai turned to him. “What do you think of our little community?”
“It’s a nice operation. Very organised.”
“Mr Bryant, I won’t insult your intelligence. The Corporation is constantly seeking to control its monopoly on Mars. The driving force is of course profit – keeping our shareholders back home happy. But there is so much more. Kellerman, for example, is performing ground-breaking research into the medical aspects of living here. We have a hundred other specialists, all doing fantastic things for the benefit of humanity. Our guiding belief is that one day we can turn this planet into a New Earth.”
He continued. “You are a capable man. Before you laugh, I’m not just saying that. I really do believe it. You have survived where the majority would have given up. You have most likely formed an emotional attachment to Mars and to your home. Keep it. All we want is Ridge 141A.”
The Australian’s eyes narrowed. “Bryant’s Hill.”
“Very well, Bryant’s Hill it is then. The name is not as important as what is in there. You don’t have the resources to mine such a project. Oh, perhaps in a few years, using primitive equipment, you might be able to scrape enough rare metals together to make decent credits. But why bother? Why waste time and effort? The Corporation will offer you 5% of any finds, enough to drink, drug or fornicate yourself to death. Or, even better – stay on Mars. Work for us as a scout or surveyor. You’ll be contributing to humanity’s future in space. We will give you full access to the facility; perhaps even quietly ship some beer over, erm… Fosters, yes?”
Bryant gritted his teeth. “Well, let me think it over tonight.”
Cai hesitantly patted his shoulder. He could see the rail-gun was still armed and set on automatic. “Good. Excellent. Ha, take all the time you need. I thought the beer might convince you.”
They walked back to the accommodation block.
“There sir. It’s definitely a craft of some kind. Perhaps a transport vessel.”
Cai held aside his menthol cigarette whilst bending down to the screen. He had grown increasingly fond of them over the past year and made a mental note to quit. Though they were designed to do his body no harm, he hated the thought of subordinates seeing he was dependant on anything.
“Well? Who is it, man?”
“The trajectory makes it from… Earth, sir.”
“I wasn’t about to suggest extra-terrestrials. I mean which organisation does it belong to?”
“Hard to say at this distance. Telescopic sights will be able to give more detail soon.”
Cai took a long drag. MTC supply vessels were on a strict schedule. There were none due for months. It could be a science probe of some kind. But surely he would have been informed? Perhaps it was the UN, come to check up on the facility. For one horrible moment he thought it might be External Revenue. He fumbled in panic for another cigarette, before recalling that all financial issues were dealt with on Earth.
All he could do was watch and wait.
A message flashed through on the intercom. It was Poul, the secretary, whose eyes bulged out of taught skin. “Mr Bryant has left.”
“He walked out of here in his thermal suit and mask. I was going to call you immediately but he threatened me with that weapon when I wouldn’t open the airlock. I’m sorry.”
“Has he left just now?”
“No, no. Maybe five or ten minutes ago. I was scared he might come back.”
The mask readout put his air supply at just under an hour. As he marched, he tried taking shallow breaths, all the time looking over his shoulder for signs of pursuit. They had buggies and scout vehicles; he knew that. But would they dare come after him? Possibly. Could he kill? He had never killed before. If forced…
Bryant quickened his pace and gripped the rifle tighter.
The navi-PS in his hand told Jameson this was the southeast airlock, bordering Bryant’s land. “Bryant should’ve been here to meet us,” he told his work gang. “I’ll go through first and check it out. One of you stays here. The other goes back to the ship. If those MTC bastards try anything, I don’t want us all in the same place. Clear?”
There were nods of approval.
For safety reasons, the airlock was not centrally controlled. In case of emergency, it could be accessed by anyone. Jameson gingerly stepped in. When he emerged, to his surprise, his suit readout remained red. The air was not breathable, even inside the dome. He kept his mask on. Before him stood the blood-red ridge. His heart fluttered. Shimmering metals of different shapes and hues protruded out of the surface. He did a quick mental calculation, estimating the size and depth.
“A miner’s wet dream.”
“What was that?” shot back over the intercom.
Jameson forgot he was still in radio-contact with his men. “…Just to say that in a few months we’ll be running this planet.”
At the top, the MTC complex became visible. The photo-postcards made it seem bigger than it was. Bryant’s house was at the bottom. There was something odd. He switched his visor to magnification mode. Sprawled half in the doorway was a body lying on its stomach and caked in dust. He ran down the ridge, carving up great arcs of red dirt with his legs.
The body was that of a man. It did not move. Expecting to see a half-rotten face, he wiped a sheet of grime off the mask.
There was no doubting who it was. He had seen the man often enough on long distance communiqués in countless planning sessions.
“Boss. Boss. I hope to Christ you’re not dead.”
“What about her grave, hmm? What will you do about that?” Cai’s anger seethed over the comm.
“That’s not your concern, mate. She wouldn’t mind being moved under the circumstances. Besides, she’s not exactly in a position to complain.”
“…You will not get away with this, Bryant. I will have the Corporation lodge a formal protest with the UN.”
“It’s simple enough. My land, my mineral rights. I’ll be glad to wait for their response.”
Though he tried to, the Doctor could not hold back a snarl. “We are here for the future benefit of humanity. All you want to do is exploit this planet.”
“And let me guess, you were going to donate all the money from the rare-Earths you dug up to children’s charities, were you?”
Cai moved disturbingly close to the screen. “This is not over.”
“I’m afraid it is. I have a mine to dig.”
It was satisfying to cut Cai off for a change.
Bryant strolled out onto his porch. He held a small foil pouch full of warm coffee. The MTC still refused to turn on the air, so it had to be drunk through the oxy-mask with a specially adapted straw. It did not bother him.
Half the ridge had been exposed by hydraulic mining. Jameson was doing a fine job of collecting the billion-credit harvest which came down in the slurry. A dirt-track had been formed by the constant trips out to the transport ship. In a month or so it would be fully loaded and making its first trip back to Earth.
A paved road would be more efficient. His house could use some work too. Maybe an extension, more hydroponics bays and a small garden if space and time allowed. Certainly an extra accommodation block for the miners was essential, perhaps even a bar.
And eventually there would be laws and councils and commissions and every other fucking thing. But that was the future.
He thought of how the metallic sign in front of his house contrasted the glass towers of the MTC complex. At least the writing it bore, scrawled in red paint, was clear and not impersonal. The Bryant Mining Company was here to stay.
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