Part 6 of the 8 part A Man Called Mister Brown serial by A.R. Yngve finds Vaino “Green” Fingers, Mister Brown, and Ms. Hitt as they arrive on Mars to find the missing plutonium. — ed, N.E. Lilly
A Man Called Mister Brown: Mars in Winter
by A.R. Yngve ©2008
The Babykiller left Adonis eleven hours later with three passengers, its weapons functional and the cloaking system working — Mister Brown, Mr. Vaino “Green” Fingers and Ms. Armini Hitt.
Ten minutes after the departure, Commander Lyme began to realize that Hitt might have made a fool of him. But he could not alert the Fleet or the Agency without implicating himself in the plot. So nobody followed the Babykiller.
Green piloted the ship, muttering wordless promises of revenge against Lyme, Hitt, Brown and the United Planets. Only when the ship had accelerated to 2G and the course to Mars had been set, did he seem to unwind.
Green checked his face in a pocket mirror and felt his sore jaw. “Son of a bot busted my jaw. Thank the Constant I heal fast. Those teeth will have grown back when we get there.” From a compartment in the cockpit, he produced a small sunlamp and rigged it on top of his skull. Simulated sunlight fed his skin with energy and he relaxed. Green peered at the other two passengers. “I’m going to stay awake the whole trip so I’ll be at full strength when we arrive. And I’m going to keep an eye on you two. Even when I sleep.”
In a passenger bunk behind the cockpit, Brown lay and rested on his coat. The coat released drugs into his skin to diminish the nausea and dizziness. One of the circular floor hatches slid open and Hitt climbed in. The acceleration did not seem to bother her. She tossed him a food pack.
“Space-sick?” She climbed into her own bunk and regarded him with silver-colored eyes.
“I prefer to deep-sleep through my space trips. A person can go crazy on the long routes. Just look at Green.”
Hitt’s eyes narrowed. “I didn’t go crazy.”
“Of course you didn’t.”
“Do you think you’re better than me, Brown? Better than a Cybe?”
Brown scowled at her. “I’m not going to spend this whole trip arguing with you.” The scowl went away. “Besides, there are nicer ways to spend the time.”
“You don’t seem up to it,” she said. “I wore you out on Adonis.”
The look on his face as he moved over to Hitt’s bunk was ruthless. “I’ve learned to pace myself.”
After a while, he had her convinced.
During the journey through space, the three passengers grew increasingly suspicious of each other. They made sure not to leave anyone else unguarded. Whenever anyone of them moved into the cockpit, the others checked that he or she wasn’t trying to send a secret message to Mars or Earth.
Green asked the greatest number of questions; every waking minute he tried to think of any way he might be double-crossed.
At one point, Hitt said: “If you have to stare at me all the time, Green, at least stare at my ass or my tits, not at my eyes. It’s less annoying.”
“What?” Despite his bushy eyebrows, Green’s eyes appeared large and quite insane. “Are you worried I might see what you’re thinking? Maybe I can. There’s no telling what abilities NeoMartians were born with. But you’ve got nothing to hide... do you? Do you?”
She turned to Brown, who was checking the ship screens for news on the war. “Tell me again, Brown, why I shouldn’t toss him out the airlock.”
“Because you can’t afford to be wrong about what he knows.” He put a second toothpick in his mouth. “Looks like the war is escalating. The Terran Fleet just intercepted and blew up several ice convoys from Saturn. The Venusians are hopping mad and threaten to retaliate.”
“The Stinkers got nothing to hit back with,” Green said. “They can’t blockade and they can’t get through the Terran defense ring. They’re going to give in.”
Ms. Hitt pointed to the front viewscreen. It showed stars, and three bright dots: Mars and its moons. “That’s space, Green. It’s got no borders. No walls. The Terrans are acting tough, but it’s they who are vulnerable. It’s easier to drop things down the well, than up the well. It’s Mars and all the Outer Planets against Old Earth. The others think she’s too powerful, they’ll gang up on her. She’s had it coming for a long, long time.”
Both Green and Brown stopped what they were doing and glanced at each other, then the Cybe. Hitt sounded... odd. They said nothing for a while, and behaved more cautiously around Hitt for the remainder of the journey.
It occurred to Green that underneath her controlled, synthetic surface, Hitt might be crazier than himself.
The Babykiller received clearance to enter the Martian atmosphere. Hitt only had to show her “special letter” from the influential Agency, and she could pass almost anywhere, except enemy territory. For the time being, Mars stayed neutral in the war.
Hitt grew visibly tense. “So we’re in the atmosphere. For the last time, I’m not going to jettison you. Where is the graveyard? It’s somewhere on Mars, right? Didn’t take a brain-grid to figure that out.”
“I thought you’d never ask,” Brown said with a wry grin.
Green searched his map display for the site the fugitive had described to him. He gave the map program a search command, adjusted it again, but got no result. “I don’t understand. It’s gotta be there! An ice crescent shaped like the silhouette of a face! It can’t be gone! It’s the right time of the year!”
“I see.” Hitt worked the controls, and an airlock door opened behind the cockpit. The air rushed out of the ship with a howl. Through the transparent interior wall, they could glimpse the wispy clouds of Mars speed by, and the parched reddish-brown landscape a thousand meters below. “Can you fly, Green?”
Brown said: “Wait. When was the shipment declared missing?”
“Fo-forty-one standard years ago,” said Green.
“And when was the last time you were on Mars?”
“Umm... when I was eight years old?”
“Mars is warmer and wetter now. The terraforming program is still running. Several landmarks have changed, new lakes and rivers have been dug out.” Brown told the map program to show them large-scale changes in the landscape during the last forty years.
Hitt studied the display, and shut the airlock. “Can you see it now?”
The NeoMartian’s skin had turned a lighter green. “Yes. Land first, and I’ll show you the exact location. Land near that tiny crater in the southern sector.”
He pointed out a small, ancient crater in the southern highlands. Forty years ago, at the same time in the Martian year, ice and frost had formed a bright white crescent on the inside of the bowl-shaped crater. It had been visible from high altitude and on satellite maps. The inside of the crescent formed the silhouette of an old crone’s chin, nose and lips.
Now that crater had become a lake, three hundred meters wide, its surface covered by a circular sheet of ice. It was only one of hundreds of crater lakes where the Martians stored their water.
Hitt smiled at Green. “Clever,” she said. “You’ll live to see the treasure after all.”
She took the ship on a course toward the southern hemisphere. Then, unexpectedly, she switched on a panel in the palm of her hand, and said to it: “Meet me at Lake Carter, these coordinates.” She punched in a string of data with her fingertips, and finished; the panel faded from the skin.
“Who did you talk to? Who was that?” Green’s eyes went wide and frightened.
The Cybe focused on the ship controls. “The hired help.”
The Lake Carter pumping station lay unmanned; drifts of snow and sand had gathered along its walls. Hitt landed the Babykiller on the side of the crater facing away from the pumping station, and went out first. She wore an overcoat and a power pack for her sidearm, and scouted out the area.
Green and Brown had been on an aerosol drug regimen during their space travel, to get in shape for walking upright. Biosensors monitored their hearts and bodies for a few hours, before they received medical permission to go outside.
Green couldn’t wait to get into his suit and breathing mask. He ran down the exit ramp and onto the frosty ground; the air temperature lay around -60 degrees Centigrade. Green merely sniffed the thin atmosphere and put his face-covering mask back on. Brown saw the NeoMartian’s ribcage swell visibly underneath the coat; they switched off the radio and spoke directly, in case someone might overhear.
“Smell that fresh air, Brownie! That refreshing spice of iron! It’s great to be home.”
“Look,” said Brown, indicating Hitt. She came walking toward the ship without a breathing mask. Condensed vapor steamed from her nostrils. “So she’s got some real flesh inside after all. She didn’t breathe on me just for show.”
“You’re putting me on,” muttered Green. To Hitt he said: “Now, my friend, comes the tricky part... the exact location of the graveyard. The man told me, ‘In one crater to the south lies a white crescent, shaped as the face of an old crone... on the crone’s nose lies a graveyard. Only one grave, one name holds the Lost Ton.’”
Hitt and Green looked to Brown for the next clue.
“I’m not saying the name until we get there.” Out of old habit, Brown dug in his pockets for a toothpick but remembered the breathing mask on his face. “How do we get through the ice sheet? On the radar it was at least ten meters thick. There’s a pocket of liquid water near the bottom, narrower than the ice. It is sectioned off in the middle by a wall that supports the pipes, -- each section about fifty, sixty meters wide. The pumping station keeps the bottom minimally heated so the pipes won’t crack. There’s got to be mud too.”
“Easy!” said Green, patting the ship’s landing gear with his gloved hands. “My baby’s cannons can melt a hole right through the ice...”
“Can we use the pressure-suits from Venus underwater?” asked Hitt.
“We’ll only get stuck in the mud,” Brown insisted. “Check the pumping station. Maybe we can pump out the liquid water and get a dry area to work in.”
“No, no!” Green became animated. “You touch that station, you set off alarms and we’ll have the entire MSF on our tails. We have to be discreet.”
“If we wait until spring...”
“... the station will get manned again,” said Green. He kicked a rock and muttered curses.
Brown ignored Green’s anger and moved close behind Hitt. “You’ve prepared something,” he said softly. “I can’t believe you were going to dig up the treasure with just us for help. Did you strike a deal with Mendez?”
“Close, but no prize.” She gestured casually toward the east.
In the sky, seemingly out of thin air, appeared an airship, then another. Two huge saucer shapes with solar panels on top and gondolas underneath. The gas-filled airships lacked insignia, but their design was unmistakably Jovian. Green gaped at the sight; Brown made an angry grimace that passed for worry. The airships passed in front of the sun and cast shadows across the entire Lake Carter.
“Say hello to my little friends,” said Hitt.
A.R. Yngve started out as a cartoonist, but soon turned to writing. Published works include the Swedish TERRA HEXA book trilogy and short stories in Swedish, British and Chinese magazines. He has recently written a script for Scandinavian radio. Dislikes: Cats, fan fiction. Likes: Philip K. Dick, MST3K.