Act I, Scene 4 of 2100 CE.
“Keep your head down, goddamnit!” the company sergeant-major was shouting over the din of small arms fire. “Give me a fucking grenade in that goddamn window!”
In reaction, a soldier dropped to a knee, took careful aim, and with a loud thoomp, sent a 40mm round streak through the air towards its intended target. The offending window disappeared behind an explosion of debris and the fireball of its incendiary round—only to be hit again and again as two more grenadiers fulfilled the sergeant-major’s demand.
“What the hell!” Alan shouted, raising his rifle and firing. “Where the fuck were they hiding?”
Nelson didn’t bother to respond. Training took over in moments like these, such that in the blink of an eye he went from being a senior intelligence officer to a faceless infantryman. Even with the chaos all around them, the 4th Peacekeeping Division operated like a single living being, its component parts moving with a precision honed through training and the more than seven months of near-continuous fighting in which they had been engaged. They knew what they were doing, and because they knew what they were doing, that meant Nelson and his team could do their job.
A silhouette appeared in a doorway to his left, but before the rebel fighter could even raise their weapon against the invading army, Nelson put two rounds in the individual’ skull, apparent from the red puff of blood which preceded the body’s sudden demise as it slumped back and out of sight. The engagement had taken less than a pair of heartbeats and done nothing to accelerate his own. Although the rebels were both stubborn and resilient, traits which made them equal parts dangerous and unpredictable—and in a detached part of his mind he even admired their tenacity—they were ultimately amateurs, unequal to the fight they had brought down upon their heads.
The company of infantrymen whom they accompanied kept up a constant barrage of automatic fire into the windows and doorways of the buildings all around them, covering the subterranean openings from which more of their red-brown camouflaged compatriots continued to disgorge like ants stirred to war from their nest. These openings to the city had been accessed through the system of underground aqueducts responsible for the distribution of Mars’ water supply among its many metropoles. With water long since shut off by his besieging army, Makobé ordered his dismounted infantry into the dank, vacated channels under Elysium. Making their way to the city center, they would blast their way from aqueducts to subway and sewer tunnels, and from there access to the surface.
Just as the first of the red-brown soldier began to emerge into the sunlight, a column of armored vehicles would come crashing over the crest of the crater to join them. During a pause in the gunfire, Nelson happened to glance eastward in their direction, out towards the crater’s distant rim. Even at this extreme distance, he could clearly make out the plumes of dust trailing behind the ten-wheeled armored vehicles of the 5th Peacekeeping Division as they descended the crater’s inner wall. He could remember seeing simulations of the descent to which those vehicles would be subjected, and once again he gave thanks to the god he did not believe existed that he had left the regular Peacekeeping Forces years before. The vehicles were descending at a slope just above forty-five degrees—much further than that and those Liberator armored fighting vehicles would flip, taking with them the lives of their crew and the soldiers they carried within their armored bowels. The streets which would have been visible at those heights must have been quite the sight to behold, highlighted as they were by the streams of soldiers in red-brown combat fatigues spreading down them. Columns of soldiers hugged the walls of the buildings around them for the cover they might afford against attack, separating then by fireteams to systematically clear buildings with the same fury as what they displayed in the street-fighting of Tharsis and Valles Marineras. Somewhere on the other side of the crater, 3rd PKD would be joining them in doing the same, enveloping the enemy from all sides at once.
There would be no escape this time.
“What’s the word, Boss?” Martin asked over the team’s encrypted channel, sounding rather impatient. They weren’t here to root out the rebellion, after all. That was the Peacekeepers’ job.
Nelson drew from a pocket what might have passed for an armored version of his personal phone and checked their coordinates. The video which the rebels transmitted had come with a very particular IP address, one which they had easily tracked to the neighborhood of Arean Ridge. “This way,” Nelson said, attaching the display to his left forearm before resuming his rifle.
The team split into a pair of columns—not unlike the Peacekeepers’ own—and followed their team leader down an alleyway and away from the rhythmic report of boots against concrete. The coordinates showed that the physical address which was attached to the IP to be a mere half klick to their west, across which they moved in total silence, covering rooftops and opportune locations along their route with the muzzles of assault rifles and gaze of laser optics. Although they themselves encountered no resistance, the bulk of it seemingly concentrated against the mass of Peacekeepers, every instance of such rebellion was marked by the sudden flareup of small arms fire and the punctuating reverberations of exploding ordnance.
“Twenty-six hours of bombardment and they’re still alive,” Dieter grumbled.
“Twenty-seven,” Nelson corrected, and glanced down at his display. “Here, to the right. Last door on the left: 422.”
The members of his team stacked to either side of the townhouse door, while the other four stood in various positions near to and around the house to provide cover and security. The nearest group of Peacekeepers were concentrated a few blocks to their rear, fighting with a pocket of resistance locked up in another such house. They would be down in their direction momentarily, which was why Nelson wanted to act now.
On the opposite side of the door to where Nelson stood with Alan, Kel gingerly placed an explosive charge on the doorknob, which itself acted as an unspoken signal. The pairs to either side of the door shuffled back a step in time to avoid the flash of fire and smoke which vaporized the doorknob and the wood around it. Without waiting to see if the charge had been a success, Martin’s massive bulk pushed past Kel to kick the door open and charge in, the Mossberg 10-gauge shotgun he carried held at the ready. Still in total silence, the rest of the team rushed in after him, separating into teams of four, one moving up the stairs to the second floor and the other clearing the ground floor.
“Clear,” came the calls from the eight operators, Nelson among them. He frowned at the result, but then Alan opened a door and called out, “Basement!”
The eight operators descended on the basement stairs. A flashbang preceded their own descent to the room below, the flashlights at the ends of their rifles illuminating a ghostly figure dressed in white robes, the basement’s lone occupant. “No, please!—God no! I don’t want to die!!” the figure screamed, dropping to his knees in supplication. “Please, God—I surrender!!”
Nelson lowered his rifle and approached the figure. The man was unkempt and emaciated, a clear product of the siege the city had suffered.
He had the look of a rebel fighter, and a high-ranking one at that. Those robes told them all they needed to know.
Nelson drew a sidearm from the holster on his chest and placed the muzzle between the man’s eyes.
The man blinked. “What?”
“He—I think he was here,” the man sputtered. “I was told he was here, but he left just before the bombing began, when I came down here—”
“Where did he go?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t believe you,” Nelson said and pressed the muzzle harder against the rebel’s forehead.
The other’s eyes went wide as he started again, “Please, please, please—”
“One more time,” Nelson repeated. “Where is Joshua?”
“I don’t know!!” he cried. “I don’t know! I don’t know! Please!! My name is Preston Dia—”
“Where did he go?” Nelson pressed the muzzle so that the rebel was pushed against the drywall behind him.
The man was truly weeping though, pent up tears from the fear of the bombardment brought bursting forth from the nightmare now revisited.
And that was when he broke.
“They’ve gone to Europa,” the man sobbed. “Europa. Europa.”
Nelson frowned, standing away from the rebel and lowering his pistol. “How?”
“I don’t know—”
This time Nelson did not bother with threatening the man—he simply slapped the rebel across the face with the hilt of his pistol, splattering blood across the floor and part of the adjacent wall. It was meant as a final warning, and its intention was clearly understood.
“HLV,” the rebel groaned.
“The fleet will capture anything that tries to cross the picket lines,” Martin said.
The rebel was shaking his head, blood dripping from his mouth and nose. “Europan secret service.”
“Here?” Nelson said, skeptical.
The rebel nodded; his sobbing all at once forgotten. He coughed. “Please…”
“How do you know it was them?” Alan said.
The rebel coughed again, spitting blood on the floor in front of him. “That’s what I was told.”
Nelson studied the figure a long moment, deciding just what to make of this individual.
“We don’t have room to take him,” Dieter prompted.
“I know,” Nelson said. He looked around the room, but if there had been anything valuable here before, it had long since been stripped out. “This fuck isn’t worth our time.”
“Please don’t kill me.”
“We’re not going to kill you,” Nelson said, motioning for two of the operators to take him. “We’re going to set you free. We’ll let the Peacekeeping Forces decide your fate.”
The man’s face shot up in sudden recognition at what had just transpired—and in the same heartbeat, realization of just who precisely he was speaking to. “NO! I can give you all kinds of information. I know Joshua—I knew Joshua and his brothers! We grew up together!”
Nelson smirked at the other’s desperation. “Convenient. But it won’t save you.”
There had been a formidable personal-armory movement on Mars prior to the outbreak of war. Many of the recent émigrés to the red planet perceived the same tensions present on Mars as those which they had hoped to leave behind on Earth. For many it was only a matter of time before tensions boiled over to armed conflict, and so in fits and spurts, individual households began amassing military-grade firearms in greater and greater quantities. The narrative had been that a grand social war was already underway among the populace, one pitting the interests of the many against the interests of a privileged few from whose hands it was believed the power of wealth must be divested. Much as the same narrative had struck societies of the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, so too did the mass appeal of upheaval and retribution with impunity resonate with the zeal of others across the red planet. A new order was expected to emerge from the upending of the old, a narrative given form in the various dialogues and discourses of populist leaders, ones such as Joshua, the so-called “Star,” who saw in the arms of violent struggle the dawning of a new era for Martial society, culture, and governance. Peace through arms, peace through destruction! he once proclaimed to the rest of the universe.
He might have remained a mere curiosity, albeit one monitored by the local intelligence agencies, had a similar rhetoric from others of his same persuasion not taken upon themselves to see his particular vision of the future come to pass. Unsatisfied with waiting for the accretion of compromise and loss—Joshua’s words—to run their natural processes towards the ignition of social war, one among their cause saw to its detonation. Carrying a duffel bag weighted with explosives, the young lady blew herself apart in the pedestrian concourse beneath the Victoria Metropolitan Building, her last words being reputedly, I give myself to the Star. The explosion took with it her life and that of another seven hundred eighty-three government employees and civilians, among them a daycare center chiefly patronized by the economic elite of Victoria. The extremists who flocked to the defense of this action were themselves the armed rebellion which soon after took grip of Victoria entirely.
The ease with which the rebellion in Victoria seemed to at once take hold of all Mars led to some sideways thinking among his peers. There were those within his service who were convinced that the explosion of armed rebellion across Mars had been orchestrated, or at least given the impetus to erupt, by a select number of individuals. There was the impression of a network operating just beneath of the surface of society on the red planet, but of this, Nelson was not so sure himself. He had worked in Central Africa and Central Asia, places where armed conflict rarely depended on the machinations of a select few. Armed rebellion, like all conflicts, were only possible if they carried some sort of larger appeal, often self-preservative in nature. Although particular individuals might be capable of tipping the proverbial balance through their own undue influence, it was his experience that rebellions began with a people provoked by their state of affairs to take matters into their own hands. It was only later that actors would take control, individuals who might always have been there, and by that particular celebrity thereby profit, but who were themselves rarely in control and therefore almost entirely reliant on coopting massed anger towards the completion of a certain agenda. It ultimately amounted to the same end result, though in how Nelson saw it, motivation for rebellion was properly placed.
With the toe of his boot, he pushed a corpse over onto its back. The face which stared back at him was that of a young woman, perhaps nineteen or twenty years old. Half her face was charred and cracked, the skin peeling away and flaking like the ash from a cigarette, no doubt the result of an encounter with a flamethrower, incendiary device, or napalm. The other half of her face was that of a child, frozen in a moment of terror, with a single bloodshot eye staring out towards the void of eternity.
Did she call out to the Star before her own death?
Nelson stared impassively down at the corpse, though rather absently he flicked the safety on his rifle while he did, cycling it back and forth as he pondered what lay before him. Besides the girl, there were dozens more corpses, all in various stages of mutilation. The vast majority were riddled with the telltale marks of small arms fire absorbed in the act of fighting, but a surprisingly large number had been found to have been self-inflicted. Better, they reasoned—and perhaps wisely—to commit suicide than to surrender.
The bodies were themselves arranged in rows of some fifty to a hundred across and perhaps an additional twenty to thirty deep, among which the red-brown figures of Peacekeepers worked to first tag and then identify each body, before then disposing of them. General Makobé would abide no burials within the city or its crater. The bodies were to be interred in a remote region on the other side of the planet, deposited in mass graves which would be covered over without physical marker and without record of their location. Then, and only then, would the general declare combat operations at an end, and from there allow the prying eyes of the public to enter the reconquered city. They would see precisely what Makobé chose to show them, and not one thing more.
Before the lines of corpses could be hauled away for disposal, however, Makobé had agreed to give Nelson and his team four hours to search among the dead. They had been sent to Mars at the outbreak of rebellion in Tharsis with instructions to capture or kill Joshua and his entourage before any of them could leave the city. A member of the Areal intelligentsia, it was this man who service analysts were convinced was the rebellion’s puppet master—or would lead them there.
The Star. Yoshua Nyota. The second coming of Zanscar.
It had been his teachings which had set off the first series of anti-Earth demonstrations in Valles Marineras a few months prior to the outbreak of violence, and when drawn away by the carnage in Victoria, Yoshua Nyota was the name used by the separatist leader in Tharsis. It was his call to continue the fight in the face of Makobé’s brutal onslaught that had driven organized resistance to choose Elysium as their final redoubt and the site of their last stand.
It was here that they expected to find him.
And yet, they had managed to turn up nothing on the man. His center of operations in Tharsis City had been bombed by Makobé’s forces, utterly destroying the complex by collapsing it in atop itself in a manner intended to mirror the destruction of the Victoria Metropolitan Building back in March. It was thought he might be found there among the among the dead, and although preliminary DNA analysis had shown a potential match with the expected genetic profile of their target, video footage subsequently posted online showed a disheveled and visibly wounded Yoshua Nyota inciting his followers to fight on, having seemingly survived the attempt on his life. There was a thought within the intelligence community that the man in the video might, in fact, be a twin brother of their target named John, since the DNA found amidst the debris at Tharsis could not be distinguished between either brother. It was for that reason Nelson and his team had taken on the role of infantrymen and come scrambling up sewer tunnels with a company of Peacekeepers.
His earpiece crackled, into which Martin said, “We have positive ID on the sister.”
Nelson looked in the direction of his teammate. Martin stood and pointed to something at his feet.
Joshua had not been alone in his undertaking. In addition to a twin brother John, there were two older siblings, James and María, and two younger siblings, Simon and Selena. Each had been in some way integral to his rise to power, and in the case of James, María, and Simon, they were among the dozen or so of his inner entourage. At Tharsis they accounted for one of the twins and had found Selena. Here, so far, they had located Simon, James, and now María.
But no Joshua.
He peered at his watch—sweat dripped down onto its crystal face with the motion. Makobé might be pressed to complete the operation and open the city to civilian eyes, but before he could do that, he would have to clean up his little mess…
A volley of rifle fire meant another dozen or so bodies would soon be added to the line.
There were to be no prisoners. Those who were captured, even the wounded, were first recorded by Makobé’s headquarters before being placed in containment. Within a few minutes of being placed there, they would be pulled out into ash-ridden air of Elysium a dozen at a time, lined before a wall, and summarily executed. There was no due process—Martial law reigned supreme. Civilians who might not obviously be affiliated with the separatist cause found themselves hard-pressed to prove they were not merely repentant combatants without means by which to make such appeal. He had heard more than one of them scream their innocence to the last, and absently he wondered just how many of those bloodcurdling screams were truly guilty.
Yet even with so many hundreds of individuals to go through, in less than two hours Makobé planned to dump every one of the bodies, whether they were presently living or dead, and regardless of whether or not Nelson and his team found their target. The general had made his case very plain to Nelson the one time they had met. He was uninterested in sensitivities or attempts at negotiation. His mission was to utterly crush the rebellion on Mars, by whatever means necessary, and leave in its wake conditions which would make future insurrections an impossibility.
Lieutenant General Makobé was himself a part of the Areal elite targeted by the leaders and rhetoric of the separatist cause. He had himself resided in Tharsis City for much of his youth, electing to place his headquarters there when promoted to the command of all Peacekeeping Field Forces on the red planet. While away quelling the violence in Victoria, both his current and childhood homes were destroyed, and his family was taken hostage. When the indomitable Makobé refused to negotiate for their release, he had watched as separatists executed his family one by one. Nelson had seen the feed at his service headquarters when the rebels cut Makobé’s daughter’s head off with a kukri over a live video stream, one which the general himself was watching. Makobé had been in the middle of assuring his daughter that everything would be resolved when the murder was carried out. Although not present himself, Nelson was told that the general watched the entirety of the horror before his eyes, before rising to his feet and departing the room in complete silence. He returned precisely forty minutes later, his composure seemingly unchanged—and the plans for the reconquest of the Tharsis plateau in hand.
Victoria, New Kingdom, Anteros, Numitor, Driana, Valles Marineras, and finally Tharsis all burned, each population suffering more than the last. Makobé asserted that anything short of unconditional surrender would be the mark of resistance, and so it would in turn be met with the full fury of the force at his disposal. Elysium would therefore suffer the greatest disaster of all the rebel cities: the total annihilation of its population.
A shadow blocked the sunlight as a dirigible airship came to hover overhead. The bodies were arranged in the middle of a soccer pitch whereupon the airship would lower to take them on as cargo, before then transporting them away to where they would never be found again.
They were running out of time.
He thought about what their prisoner had said about an HLV, but Makobé would never allow a launch into orbit while he yet controlled the surface. And any spacecraft that did attempt or succeed in reaching orbit would be intercepted immediately, either by surface-to-orbit batteries or spacecraft from the fleet in orbit. The Europan secret service were likewise out of the question—coming to the surface had been impossible now for months, and all those who did were carefully screened. They also routinely left telltale signs of their activities, ones which were nowhere here apparent.
Simply put, there was no possibly of escape.
The next few bodies he searched were field executions conducted by Peacekeepers, which allowed Nelson to instantly rule them out. They had copies of the records collected by Makobé’s headquarters on every person executed under his authority, and although that was how they had found Simon, it had not yielded James, María, or Joshua. James and María had been found by checking corpses individually—namely those killed in the fighting—and so it stood to reason that if Joshua were among the dead of Elysium, he too would be here.
But before the final airship touched down and its crew completed the process of loading the corpses aboard their makeshift hearse, Nelson and his team did indeed determine that Joshua was not among the dead.
“Probably a hoax,” Alan suggested, “maybe something prerecorded, played by followers.”
“Maybe,” Nelson said, unconvinced. “We’ll have to check with the lab to see what they think of the video.”
“It seemed authentic,” Alan replied.
“Seemed.” Nelson frowned at his teammate. “Make up your mind.”
“What if it’s the twin?” Alan shot back. “That, or it’s the twin at Tharsis.”
“Can we say for sure that a twin even exists?” Martin argued.
Nelson watched the aircrew and their accompanying cargo robots making quick work of the last of the deceased. The robot A.I. had expressed some surprise at its orders and requested clarification from the aircrew, but it complied, gingerly placing one body after another into the cargo pods along the airship’s ventral side. He wondered what the A.I. made of the situation, and whether any of their programming had prepared them for this scale of human desolation.
“No point in staying here,” Dieter prompted.
Nelson looked back from the loading operation. “Yes. Let’s go.”