Part 7 of the 8 part A Man Called Mister Brown serial by A.R. Yngve finds Vaino “Green” Fingers, Mister Brown, and Ms. Hitt going beneath the surface of Mars in search of the missing plutonium. — ed, N.E. Lilly
A Man Called Mister Brown: To the Underworld
by A.R. Yngve ©2008
Since the Deuterium War in the previous century, ending with the destruction of the E.S.S. Jefferson and the liberation of Jupiter’s colonies, the Jovians had isolated themselves from Earth. They bought immense amounts of machinery from Venus and the Asteroid Belt, and paid in water.
Lunar telescopes observed during the following eight decades, how Jovian settlements spread to all the large satellites of Jupiter and Saturn... and eventually those of Neptune and Uranus.
Scientists analyzed the scant evidence, and speculated that the Jovians had developed an entirely new human species with a methane-based metabolism — thriving in temperatures and atmospheres even deadlier to oxygen-breathing humans than Venus or Mars. Such humanoids, capable of living without oxygen for long periods, would have slower metabolisms but greatly extended lifespans.
After one too many spy probes had disappeared, the ATAF sent its best agent — Armini Hitt — in a cyborg form specially designed for the Outer Planets.
And years later, Hitt returned to Earth with amazing images from the frozen worlds, descriptions of a subterranean city on Triton... and her eyewitness account of a new species created by the original Jovian colonists. She said the new breed called themselves “New Flesh”. They could fold their arms, legs and other appendages into their bodies, and communicated primarily by electromagnetic signals instead of sound.
She also claimed to have slept with one of them. She did not explain whether the sex had been consensual or not, but she showed the scientists a genuine semen sample, as proof it actually happened.
Deemed too disturbing for public access, Hitt’s account of the New Flesh was destroyed.
Top-level Terran strategists understood that the new breed posed no immediate threat, but warned their leaders: the New Flesh would have much less difficulty migrating to other stars than Old Terrans.
Mister Brown did not know this; neither did Mr. Vaino “Green” Fingers. All they knew was that Ms. Hitt had turned traitor. Neither Brown, Green nor the Terrans knew how the Jovians could slip spies past the surveillance screens and land on Mars. Ms. Hitt knew, and she wasn’t talking.
The airships landed by the crater lake, and fired their anchors into the ground. Out of the gondolas spilled two brigades of dwarves in camouflage uniforms, dragging equipment.
Green stared. “Jovians. It’s a farking invasion.”
The Jovians did not seem to have a leader, but acted like a single unit. As the sun sank toward the highland mountains, they worked without pause to assemble vehicles, tools and weapons. Hitt accompanied the Jovians and directed them toward a large pipeline.
“Don’t say it, Green.” The scowl on Brown’s face revealed his dismay.
The NeoMartians expanded ribcage shook with laughter. He pointed at the busy Jovians, then at the Cybe woman, and leered knowingly at Brown.
“I’m warning you, Green...”
Darkness fell over the frozen desert and Brown stomped his feet to stay warm. Green danced around him, sticking out his tongue, making faces.
“Ha-ha-ha... and you thought you were the big man, who got in her bed! Look at Mr. Brown, does he feel small now! Ha-ha-ha! Mr. Brown, meet Snow White and the Seventy Dwarves!”
“You can’t prove that’s true,” Brown replied, awkwardly. “She’s only doing business with them.”
“But you’re afraid it might be true!” Green nodded. “And why not? A Cybe can bed just about anything. I’m sure it got real lonely on that long, long trip she took to the Rim...”
The dwarfish Jovians finished assembling their cargo; they quickly gathered into three low, armored vehicles and drove toward the pipeline. The floodlights from the airships dimmed down one by one, until the area was lit by nothing more than a faint blue gloom. Hitt ran for the nearest airship, where the hull opened and something lowered down to the ground.
Brown squinted but saw nothing; he and Green moved closer to the ship.
“Don’t Greenies have heat-vision? On Venus, you couldn’t see me hide in the shadow.”
“On Venus it was too farking hot. Stand aside, Pink.”
The irises of Green’s eyes shrank away, and the pupils grew to triple size. He leaned against a boulder and focused on Hitt, some 30 meters away.
“Holy Constant!” Green’s mouth fell open. “That Dummie daughter of a screwdriver... I don’t believe it! An alien! She’s hugging and talking to a space alien!”
“Are you sure? Could be a Stroider. They look pretty weird.”
“It’s not a Stroider!”
“What’s it look like?”
“Like a big ball, as tall as her... moves around on lots of itty-bitty legs... it’s wearing a shiny suit... things pop in and out of the ball, could be its arms... are those eyes?” Soft moans sounded from the spot Green was watching; he scrunched up his face and groaned. “What the fark are they doing?”
“I think we’re in over our heads. Can you send a distress signal?”
“Ms. Hitt took everything we could use to transmit. Besides, I’m not giving up my share. Go ahead and run if you want, see how far you get.”
Brown searched the pockets of his suit; he wore his coat inside, so he couldn’t reach it. Then he found something in the suit pocket labeled EMERGENCY USE ONLY. “Cover me.”
Before Green could object, Brown was running up the slope leading to Lake Carter. The Jovians ignored him, or did not dare leave their vehicles.
At the crest of the slope, he saw the 300 meter wide surface spread out before him. It seemed polished like glass; the stars and one of Mars’ moons were reflected in the ice.
Brown took out the nuclear signal flare he had found, and hesitated. The fuse had two settings: DELAY and BURN TEMP. The printed instructions were quite clear: If he set the delay too long, the sun would have time to come up and nobody would see the flare from space. If he set the burn temperature too high, the flare would burn extremely bright and hot — but might malfunction.
He had to make a quick decision.
Brown broke the flare’s seal, set the DELAY to three hours, and BURN TEMP to the maximum setting. Lying on his belly, Brown braced himself and threw the flare toward the center of the lake. The flare skidded on the ice and slid further; Brown did not stay around to see it stop, but ran down the slope as fast as he could.
When he returned to the boulder where Green stood hunched, the alien visitor had disappeared. Hitt was heading in their direction, and brushed away hair from her face.
“Did I miss anything special?” Brown asked, catching his breath.
Green had a stunned, dazed expression on his face. “You’d never believe me.”
Hitt pointed a weapon at them, mounted directly on the outside of her right arm: it resembled nothing so much as a small, flexible drill.
“Empty your pockets,” she said. “We’re going in.” She escorted them to the point where the armored vehicles were waiting: a 4-meter wide inspection port in the giant pipeline. The Jovians were cutting the port open with acids, lasers and other devices.
“But the lake is still liquid at the bottom,” said Green. “We can’t just drive in.”
From the top of the moored airships, crane arms folded out and moved drills and pumps to the edges of the lake. The drills cut through ten meters of ice in a few minutes, and pump hoses were lowered into the narrow holes. A low rumble sounded through the surface, as the bottom of Lake Carter was dredged dry.
“Impressed?” Hitt asked Brown.
“The frozen part of the lake isn’t going to hold,” he said. “It’ll crash down on our heads if we try to move in underneath.”
“The lake is shaped like a bowl, and the pipe wall underneath is going to support the weight. It’ll hold. At least until the sun rises.”
“And of course now you’ll send in Green and me with shovels to do the dirty work for you?”
Hitt let out a low, amused laughter. “You silly man. I’m on a tight schedule. Hop into the truck.”
The Jovians pulled open the inspection port, and waved at the vehicles to drive into the pipeline. Hitt, Brown and Green sat in the last truck, guarded by a dozen Jovians. The drivers did not use visible light to see ahead; darkness enveloped the passengers in the echoing tunnel.
Somebody held Brown’s hand in the dark; with his gloves on, he could not identify the person.
“Is that you, Green?” he asked.
The hand squeezed his, and he understood it belonged to Hitt.
“Keep your head down,” she said. “And put these on.” She handed Brown a pair of night-vision glasses; neither she nor Green needed any.
While the armed convoy rolled through the pipeline, Brown talked to Hitt.
“You spent a long time on that Outer Planets assignment. What happened to you?”
“You wouldn’t understand, Brown... you’re Old Flesh. Only a Cybe can survive out there... and truly appreciate the cold majesty of Saturn, Neptune or Uranus.”
Green laughed in the dark: “Uranus... cold... I’ll drink to that.”
“So why’d you come back?” Brown asked.
“I promised my new friends to help them restore the Lost Plutonium. Their plutonium. The official cover story... the Terrans made it up to keep the masses from panicking. That plutonium shipment was manufactured on Venus, at great cost... not to build a starship, but to make weapons for the Outer Planets. With those weapons, the Outer Planets would be able to defend their trade routes from Terran attacks.”
“Don’t tell me... the shipment was sabotaged by Terran agents?”
“It must’ve been. I don’t know the details. But if it was buried here, those who stole it did it. And then they disappeared. One of them was identified and went fugitive for decades, until he ran into Mr. ‘Green’ Fingers and his gang. That’s when his luck ended.”
“And now you’re going to arm the Outer Planets. And what if they use their new weapons against Earth? One ton of plutonium equals —”
“Fuel for mass-drivers to send asteroids on a fast course for Earth.” Hitt looked into thin air as she spoke in the urgent voice of a true believer. “There’s too much Old Flesh on Earth... useless fat flesh, leeching off the Solar System, keeping it from reaching the stars. It’s time to cut off the fat. The New Flesh is lean, mean and moving forward. It’s the next step in human evolution, Brown. Don’t try standing in our way.”
Brown paused for a few moments. And then he hugged her.
“I’m impressed, Armini.” He caressed her arm, and worked his way down to her hand. “You’ve become all you could be. I wish I were a part of this grand design. You know how resourceful I am... I could become an asset to your work. It’s not too late for me to turn Cybe.”
She did not return the caresses. “First you find that grave. Then we’ll discuss your future.”
From the pipeline segment ahead of them, pumps rumbled and gurgled. The convoy arrived at the valve which separated the pipeline from the lake, and slowed to a halt. A team of Jovians climbed out and went to work on the valve. A few minutes later, they could push it open. Water sloshed in from Lake Carter, and flushed away one Jovian who did not climb to safety fast enough. After a few minutes, the water level had subsided enough to let the convoy in.
With all lights turned off and the motors running in silent mode, the vehicles rolled slowly out of the pipeline’s mouth and splashed across the muddy, still wet bottom of the lake. Only a meter above the passengers’ heads, the frozen part of Lake Carter hung like a gigantic glass lid. The ice was clear enough that one could glimpse a passing moon in the night sky, and the bright lights of other planets. The concrete wall that surrounded the pipeline’s mouth jutted toward the narrow middle of the bottom.
Brown signaled silence to Green; the ice might break up at the slightest stress and bury them. Green looked up at the frozen mass, searching for cracks...
The convoy stopped; they were in the exact spot where the graveyard was supposed to be.
Green couldn’t control himself, and jumped down from the truck. Then he remembered Brown’s warning and beat himself over the head, and hushed at the others.
The passengers got off and searched the wet mud. The pumps were still at work, but the mud still reached up to the Jovians’ knees. Now also the bottom sediment was in the process of freezing up. As they dug with shovels and poked with sticks, Brown kept glancing up at the frozen lake, as if he were looking for some small detail.
Two hours had already passed since he threw the flare.
Green waded through hardening mud, growing more and more nervous, whispering under his breath. “Was it the wrong crater? Is there another one? No, he didn’t say that... it’s got to be the right one... great Constant, save me from a life in poverty...”
It did not seem to occur to Green that he might soon be poor and dead.
Time passed. Hitt scanned the ground in several wavelengths and with her built-in radiation detector. She detected nothing beyond the natural radiation of the planet, the atmosphere and space.
“Sediment froze,” one Jovian told her. “Pumping station heating ducts over there, no reach ground here center. We need to drill or blast.”
“Can’t. No time,” she whispered. She went after Brown. “Where do you think you’re going?” The weapon on her arm began to turn as she took aim at his chest. “Trying to sneak away?”
“It might be safer to stay away from the center...” he began, glancing upward every few seconds.
“Explain yourself or die. You have ten seconds. One —”
Brown removed his night-vision glasses and tried to look into the Cybe’s eyes.
Like black holes in the gloom, the eyes seemed to suck up light.
“If I were a Cybe —”
“— perhaps I’d think like you —”
“— or perhaps —”
“— I’d go far away.”
“Now hear this!”
And the timed flare went off. In the middle of the lake ice frozen to -80 Centigrade, a white-hot flame melted right through. The vapor produced a tremendous pressure which could not escape through the tiny hole melted into the surface. And the sudden temperature shift caused the ice to expand just enough to rupture its stability.
From its center, one-third of the transparent frozen lake shattered with a tremendous boom. It looked, for the people standing below, literally as if the night sky lit up and fell down on them.
Brown ducked down and ran for the open walled-in pipeline. Some survival instinct made him throw himself to the ground, and Hitt’s first shot narrowly missed. It passed over his head and blasted a hole in the valve doorway.
A huge chunk of ice crashed down between Brown and Hitt; the noise echoed across the crater and rang through the pipeline. Another, bigger block fell on top of the first one and left a small space in between, where Brown lay trembling but not crushed.
It took a few seconds for all the ice to settle on the bottom. Only then, the bright light of the flare died. The stars shone down from the crater opening, and the Milky Way glowed among them.
Brown crawled out from under the iceblocks, and went looking for the others. The vehicles had been smashed into junk. He found several dead Jovians underneath a single block, trapped like specimens under a giant microscope slide, and picked up a gun they had dropped. He could barely fit his finger into the trigger-guard.
When he came to the center of the crater, he stopped. One iceblock had crashed through the bottom, and left a hole large enough for several people to climb through. Brown leaned down and peered into the hole. Its edges were not metal, but some synthetic material that created the false image of solid rock on the scanners and radar. Underneath the one meter of camouflage lay a man-made chamber, about five meters deep.
The iceblock had shattered into thousands of pieces on the hard floor below. And on the floor lay row after row of gravestones, engraved with names.
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.