Ballad of Fallen Angels
by Equestrian Horse Wrangler
©2005 Equestrian Horse Wrangler -- all rights reserved
Mars. Shit. How did I end up back here? Stuck in this miserable little outpost doing God knows what for God knows who. Everything stunk of desperation, fear and corruption. This was Hell. And deep down I knew I loved it.
I knew exactly what I was doing here. Couldn't hack it back on Earth. The people back there, walking around with their smiling faces, dead from the neck up. Ignorant of the blood that's spilled so they can have their precious minerals. Felt like I was drowning in the bullshit. Had to break out of that madness. Had to get back to Hell where things made sense.
Didn't want to be someone else's pet.
Traveling through the desert in the back of some old truck, the maker long since out of business. God, I could taste the sand. It got in everything. Everything. I hugged my coat closer to me, the wind biting at my face and spraying dust. You have to be careful. You let it, the wind can sandblast the face right off your skull.
So could my comrades. Not like I rode with the most reputable crowd -- but then, nice people didn't end up on Mars. They stayed on Earth where it's safe. Damn, why did I have to leave there? Why couldn't I have been one of the drones, working some dead-end 30-hour workweek and enjoying it? What was it that made me wiser then everyone else? Is it even wisdom at all, or just unbridled cynicism? The latter might explain the company I kept. Hatred of humanity runs wholesale in these parts.
We pulled into town near dusk, wind still pelting us as we hopped out of the truck and into the local pub. I coughed up sand outside the door, snot running from my nose and eyes burning as I enter inside. The place was pretty active tonight, not that it wouldn't be on any other night. When you live in Hell, you can't be picky about your entertainment choices.
The workers just looked at us as we guzzled our beer, some cheap off-brand that couldn't even be given away for free back on Terra but passes for luxury in this dump. They stared at us with watchful eyes, careful eyes. Afraid we might do something nasty. Afraid that maybe we would pull the same crap they would if they had power. Nature of the beast, right?
I slung my rifle off my back, setting it down against the stool. Not close enough to make it seem like I was cradling it, but not far enough away for it to be out of sight either. The locals seemed to catch my drift. My fellow gunmen made their way around the bar. Some joined in the bar games, like playing darts or billiards, while one or two others went upstairs for a few hours of pre-paid sex.
Most of them were bums, drifters, and adventurers from every crevice that slime could ooze out of back on Earth. But mostly they had nothing. They were nothing. No hope for a better life, not buying into that bull about the colonization of Mars being necessary for the betterment of mankind. They were here because there was no other place for them. This place was freedom, a dark utopia. Hell was a very Darwinian place: It's kill or be killed, but at least you can choose how you live without the authorities breathing down your neck. That's something you don't get anywhere on Earth.
I could care less about another human being. I did what I did to survive, that's all. I didn't care about my employers and I sure as hell didn't care about the people I was paid to 'protect'. It was all the same to me whether this rock prospered or festered away.
Phobos City might as well have been on the other side of the planet. The city actually showed some promises of being a new Terran community, with a stable local government, a fairly prosperous agricultural system and best of all, high quality oxygen. Ever since we melted the polar ice cap and thickened the air, the atmosphere has been ripe for conversion. There were three processing units locating around the city, making oxygen to breathe. Of course, the good air doesn't stick around, and the rich families that live there aren't paying to air condition the entire planet. They're almost finished constructing the dome around the city, creating some sort of controllable biosphere. It's funny as hell. Mankind traveled millions of miles just to live in a damn shopping mall.
It's hard to terraform an entire planet, and the further away you get from civilization, the harder it is to breathe. That's why we're all issued oxygen masks. Thanks to the processing plants set up across Mars' surface, the air is getting more like Earth's, but "more like Earth's" is a hell of a long way from "breathable". The closest working processor to this camp is more than 25 miles away, which means you can take off your mask for a few seconds out here before you start suffocating. In an emergency, you can make a run for it, but if you run out of air, you're in a world of hurt. With all the carbon dioxide floating around, you might as well just wrap your lips around a tailpipe and suck in -- it'd be a lot quicker.
Being this far from Phobos City doesn't just mean lack of real air. Real law is hundreds of miles away, too. That's where we come in. This mining camp is owned by a fairly sizable British Corporation back home, one that wants to make sure the minerals being pulled out of this pit are going back into their ships, and not being snagged by rival companies or "independent entrepreneurs."
Seems property rights are sort of a liquid asset on Mars. You have a piece of paper claiming that what's here is yours? Might as well wipe your ass with it, because that's all it's good for out here. "On paper" is also what kind of law we got. There's a marshal stationed in the town, but he spends most of his time in the camp, where it's safe. He knows who the real law is out here.
And that's the way things had been. Before the uglies arrived.
Turned out that humans weren't the only species claiming this planet. Some other space-faring race, really gross to look at, landed on Mars just a few months ago. Started attacking settlements alongside the outer perimeters of civilization, people ended up missing, presumably dead. The company figured it'd be cheaper to ship over mercs and ammo than replacement workers; that's where I come in.
The sun was baking the surface as I fired, downing two uglies. I saw Rikker changing his clip and stretching his neck, trying to get sight of them. The boulder we were hiding behind could take a few more blasts from whatever kind of ray gun they were shooting at us, but after that it would be rubble. I told him to run for it, I'd cover him. I took up a position on the rock ready to blast, and Rikker, the idiot, accepted his role fairly quickly. He took off and I opened fire, laying down a suppressing fire on the uglies' position.
Maybe I could have tried harder. Zap-gun blast plus Rikker's scream equals one less moron breathing my air I suppose. I slid back behind the rock, weighing my options. The uglies were just laying in ambush for us, obviously having known our patrol pattern. I could still hear O'Neil screaming in the background. "Hurry up and die!" I muttered. Not-quite-dead sounds even worse through a mask. I had to do something fast, or the next one might be me. And death'd put one hell of a crimp in my plans.
That's when I heard the shrieks, and about messed my pants. The dragons. Dear God, as if we didn't have enough to worry about! I looked up and caught sight of one, its wings shadowing the ground below it as it swooped overhead. I stayed perfectly still -- didn't even breathe. I just stood there, leaning against the boulder, eyes clamped shut. I heard scuffling noises, then O'Neil finally shut up. There was a brain-searing roar, enough to shake me. I clenched my rifle in my hands, knowing it wouldn't do any good. It'd take more than small-arms fire to do any damage to that thing.
More sound: Wings unfurling and flapping -- the lizard had gone airborne. The sound of landing in the distance, more flaps, more thuds, and then things got quiet. I waited another minute before poking my head up again. Alone. The dead bodies were still there; O'Neil and the two other uglies weren't. Most likely taken for food. Come to think of it, I could use some dinner myself.
People on Earth needed their minerals. No one's debating that. Too many people back there want too many shiny toys, and not enough natural resources to keep them all happy. Who would have ever thought that China would eventually throw off Communism completely? Damn, one and a half billion capitalists screaming selfishly for the same junk as everybody else. Someone needed to fill that demand vacuum.
It's one of the reasons they're in such a big hurry to build the hyperspace gates. Cargo ships suck; yeah, they get the stuff back to Earth, but they also give two-bit thieves a few weeks' opportunity for boarding and plundering along the way. It's kind of hard for a pirate to steal your material when you send it through another dimension, and no matter how expensive the gates are, they'll be cheaper than repair and replacement for ships and crews.
They've got a prototype gate running back home, but it'll take years to scale the thing up for interplanetary duty. They need the basic materials to build the thing, and wouldn't you know it, there's a shitload of the crap they need right here. That's why our company is so eager to keep its workers safe -- they're the ones with the exclusive contract to supply the scientists back home with the materials.
When I got back to the base, the provost marshal asked me what happened. Told him everything. I valiantly tried to save Rikker while pulling O'Neil to safety. Damn monster came along and tried to eat me. Had no choice. Marshal seemed to buy my story, or he didn't care enough to find out what really happened. Said I was brave. Hell, I guess that's not exactly a lie. You have to be brave to live out here. Or stupid. Or have a death wish. It probably helps if you're a little of all of them.
What with raiders, the uglies and dragons... Mankind didn't anticipate the monsters. The uglies were one thing -- we knew there were other alien beings. Freaking Neptunians have been visiting us ever since we first made it to Mars. Said something like they were waiting for us to make that first big step before letting us know they existed. Blue-skinned bastards. They don't seem to be too happy about us making it this far.
Like I said, we knew there was other sentient life-forms out there, so wherever the uglies came from, they weren't a big shock.
But the monsters, now that was out of left field. They look like dragons, quadruped with leathery wings, covered in reptilian scales. Started attacking human settlements not so long ago. The first reports of dragons, nobody believed -- would you? Had to be hallucination from the heat, oxygen deprivation, Mars sickness, all that.
Until the creatures starting coming out more in droves. Suddenly it became an epidemic.
The dragons are smart enough to attack, and that's it. Never really concerned with anything beyond snatching up as many humans as possible. I guess we're their meal. Hell, I could care less really. By the looks of the people who populate this place, I say bon appetit.
It wasn't long before the whole group was assembled and out on patrol. We got word that dragons were hitting the workers building the nearest air processing plant. We loaded up with some of our heavier ammo, and grabbed some explosive charges as well. I slid on some body armor, not expecting it to be worth anything but wearing it anyway. The front of the armor had "Born to Kill" scrawled on it with a marker, and a serious laser scar on the right side. Obviously, it hadn't been much use to the previous owner.
Riding in the back of the truck, we looked over the scenery. It was a sea of red sand as far as the eye can see, with the occasional location marker poking up lest we take a wrong turn and end up lost in the middle of nowhere. Which is sort of a cruel joke, since everything on this rock is in the middle of nowhere.
We arrived at the plant to find it deserted -- lots of blood but no bodies. Whatever happened, we missed it. We unloaded and took defensive positions around the outside of the processor. Had to establish a perimeter so the higher-ups could survey the damage. No telling if whatever caused this was coming back. I was hoping with all my heart it was the uglies, but I doubted it. They usually don't bother carrying off human bodies.
I leaned against the outer wall of the air plant, wiping sand from my mask. This metal monstrosity really was a freak aberration out in the desert. But then, so was mankind on this planet. What right did we have to just come here, claiming this planet like our own? I suppose it's only right that some of us get killed off every now and then. Remind us that we don't run things here. At least not yet.
Minutes drag on. Man, what's taking so long? Stupid ass workers got killed -- that's all we need to know. Now let's get on with it. I looked over to some other guys. They were jittery. Hope I didn't look that bad on the outside. I exhaled, drummed my fingers on the stock. Enough with the hurry-up-and-wait: I started walking toward the construction area.
What I saw next shouldn't have surprised me. How could we have been such idiots? I ran screaming out of the site, the leathery sound of wings flapping behind me. They set a trap! How the hell could they do that? They're animals!
I took up a defensive position around a corner of the plant, my gun trained on the first creature that comes flying out. Me and a few of my buddies opened fire on the beast, not that it did much good. Bullets just bounced right off its hide as it gained altitude. They landed, wings folded against their sides, and started grabbing humans. Screw this noise: I ran.
Behind me I heard shouting, screams for mercy, and primal howls. Finding some boulders for cover, I trained my rifle on the massacre I had just abandoned. The monsters bounded across the sand, clawed at my fellow gunmen. Some tried to run, but unfortunately they didn't have the head start that I did. I just sat back and watched the show. Didn't take long, just a few minutes before the only moving bodies were scale-covered. Now all I had to do was wait it out.
No! Damn it, one spotted me! I opened up on the creature as it advanced, cursing my dumb luck. The rounds just bounced off it like pebbles, and suddenly, the damn thing was almost on me. Desperate times: I pulled a grenade off my belt for a blind throw. From behind the rocks I heard the explosion and a bestial roar. Smiling, I looked up at the smoky haze.
I was cocky. I was overconfident. I was toast.
I looked straight into the dragon's face. It was charred slightly from the grenade, no other visible damage. Hot breath blasted on me. I barely had time to register all this as a claw slashed by...
My mask! I was on the ground panting, my shredded mask lying in front of me. The air was thick; it burned to inhale. Couldn't concentrate on anything but the pain. Why didn't it just finish me off? Why was it just looking at me?
God, couldn't breathe! Felt like I was sucking in smoke. Adrenaline kicked in, my legs and arms spasmed madly. Not going to last. So this was what it feels like to drown. My brain started to short circuit. The creature unfurled its wings, and then wrapped them around me.
The masters never seem to be pleased with what we bring them. They always want more. But the masters feed us anyway. Good masters! I look at my brother Rikker. He's happy. We're all happy. Nice cave, good masters, plenty to eat.
Life is good.
The alpha male growls and everyone gets up. Time to eat. The masters give us food. It's delicious, but there's never enough. Why aren't we good enough to get more? We eat what the masters give us but there's never enough. The masters say they will feed us more when we bring them more humans. Why do they want these silly creatures so much? Humans are so weird looking. I'm hungry. We'll grab some humans and get more food.
We take to the air, gliding for a while before landing. Fun! I wish I could stay up longer, but we're too heavy. Then we smell the humans. So easy to spot them out here! We'll grab some and head back to the masters. I can taste that delicious food now! When we swoop down, the humans scatter. There's something about this human place I seem to remember. Did I live here once? No, that can't be it. I've always lived with the masters.
I grab a female. Maybe she'll be my mate, maybe not. She screams when I lift her. I try to calm her, but she keeps screaming. Such fragile little animals, afraid of anything bigger than them. Always trying to take the funny rocks out of the ground. I don't know why. Maybe they have masters that want funny rocks? The female screams, but she'll thank me. She'll have a good life with us.
Little rocks bouncing off my sides. The humans point their funny sticks at us. They keep on pointing funny sticks until some of us pounce on them. Such a fun game, but I'm too hungry to play for very long. I head back home, the female in my claws. We grab more humans, and we head back, smashing some of the human toys on the way out. A few humans get away. We can grab them later. The uglies will be happy with us for bringing them what they want.
We are such good pets!