20th June, 2432
John lingered behind the glass. Dozens of isolation beds stretched out ahead, each with an ex-worker strapped to the framework. Their hides were turning iridescent under the harsh light as they wrestled with their restraints.
"Where are the others?" Janet whispered beside him.
"You are not supposed to be here..." John made no move to dislodge her from the observation room.
"Sure I am," she replied smoothly. "I put in a request to file some of my unstable samples in the bio lab."
"The bio lab is in the next building." The stoic figure pointed out casually.
Janet shrugged. "I got lost." She tilted her head, a picture of barely-veiled innocence. Groans of muted pain from the window drew her attention. "I've told you before, anyone infected by the Martian water should be taken into the caves. They'll do better in the cool, wet air." A man paced along a similar bank of observation glass opposite. Janet frowned. "Is that Newton?" she asked. He looked older than she remembered.
"My boss," John nodded. "And beside him is yours though I do not believe you two have met. Head of the Cabal, all the way from Earth. I presume he's come to inspect the virus first hand. It's – promising."
Janet ducked away, shedding her lab coat as she fled. John followed, eventually cornering her in a small decontamination room near the edge of the facility. Mars laid beyond. He could hear her winds howling. What was once a hostile stretch of hell now seemed the safest place on this cold world.
"What has your tail between your legs?"
Janet steadied her gaze in his direction as she hung the coat up roughly. "I'm not running," she insisted. "I'm hiding."
Janet laid back against the wall, feeling the vibrations of the wind through her spine. "The Cabal bankrolled my passage to Mars – they are well aware that I have more experience with this virus than anyone alive. The last thing I want is for them to come and find me now – to find Bernard – before I understand how to tame it. You know better than anyone what these people are like. Reckless comes to mind. It's already begun with the workers in that lab. They are not simply caring for them – they are experimenting on them and soon they'll move on to creatures like me and I dare say you. Anyone that hasn't succumbed to the water."
"You can't be certain that the Cabal's scientists aren't trying to help. They're not simply, 'workers' as you so delicately phrased but friends. I know several of them myself. No one is about to idly run experiments on them without first trying to save their lives. Not everything is as dark and sinister as you like to suppose, Janet."
She eyed John carefully. "What – not like you then?"
"I'd take more care with your tone. The only chip you have to play on this world is your knowledge of the virus."
That was true. Janet had considered it the whole way back to her chasm in the earth. Once she was safely in the darkness, surrounded by he eerie swirls of glowing mist, she booted the drive John had given her and watched Dr Magnus's message again.
"Alright, Nikola..." she whispered to the empty tent. "You better be right about this woman." Her ex-lover had trusted her and now she was about to do the same. Janet took a deep breath and opened all the attached data files.
14th January, 3083
"You're looking for something." Ashley accused, watching as her mother scrolled through data left behind by the dead scientists.
There was something callous about the indifference shown to their laptops. Flecks of dried blood obscured the images captured from the black rocks as they were extracted and rearranged into lines of text. It was more of the same disjointed nonsense. Her mother was transfixed by every new line. Magnus traced the data reverently with her finger on the screen.
"Mum, we can't stay here," Ashley insisted. "We should sweep for survivors and go after Newton. If he's got a ship, he'll be headed there now. I'm not going to let that arse-hole leave with the only set of wings on this rock."
Rutherford was anxious to go, gripping onto his rifle.
"Patience," Helen whispered, crouched in front of the laptop. "Newton's not going anywhere without this."
"I never pester you or your secrets but right now they are threatening the lives of everyone left on Mars."
Rutherford shifted. He'd always been wary of Magnus. "She's been alive so long, Magnus doesn't see things the same way that we do," Rutherford whispered, entirely forgetting that Ashley was ancient too. She wasn't marred by the scars of time. "I've seen that look in my brother's eyes – when he returned from war. It drove him straight to the grave. Not you, Dr Magnus. You're channelling it into something else. An obsession."
Helen lofted her eyebrow but said nothing.
"There might be more survivors from the other buildings trapped in the tunnels," Ashley tried. "What's to stop him slaughtering them as well? We can't let him roam around murdering – if we do we are just as responsible as he is."
"You go then," Helen finally snapped. "I'm not making you stay but I have to do this."
Rutherford didn't think that was a particularly good idea either. "And if he comes after you instead?"
Helen laughed. "He won't," she replied. "And even if he did, you should be more worried about what I will do to him. I'm not afraid of Newton. I've seen countless generations of that man's family – watched every single one of them born and die. I know him more intimately than anybody possibly could because I know his genes." Helen could predict what Mike would do before his mind thought of it. Hell, she'd been lying in wait for this whole grand mess to play out. She was not about to stumble over the final hurdle. "I'm serious," she glared at them both. "If you want to find Mike, he'll have headed toward the lifts that lead to the surface."
"The surface – is he mad? Without the shield his blood will boil."
"Certainly. Let him go and lay in wait for his return."
"What are you not telling us?" Rutherford asked, stepping toward Magnus.
Helen met him with silence.
Mike Newton leaned into the wind. It was brutal – full of grit and fury as it shredded the remnants of Prosperity.
The Ecological Sciences building was mostly intact except that it was laying on its side, crushing several smaller buildings. Ironically the indulgent fountain in the heart of the city was in perfect condition. Mike smiled at it. He remembered well sitting on the edge as a teen with the glowing water rushing from its jovial figures as he set his eyes upon the hateful building behind. His grandfather wouldn't even let him take a post as a research assistant. He'd earned that role. Why did his family hate him so much? Well, he was about to find out.
He started off toward the edge of the city. He was surprised to find the dome active – Tesla's pointless shield pulsing. It was frightening, rearing up over the city in a powerful wall of high frequency energy well outside the safe bounds, sucking up power from the ruined hydrogardens. It was as though the entire system was alive. It was already finding ways around the violent overloads. It didn't matter, the doorway to the outside world was active. Mike passed through the barrier and took one of the buggies from its dock and drove toward the fossil fields.
A sharp crack from the sky made him jump. Thunder echoed toward the black hills and for a moment, it drowned out the sand storm.
"Why have you stopped?" One of the lost scientists from the air base walked into the back of another, bouncing off the leader with a frustrated growl.
"I heard something," the scientist replied.
"What did you hear this time?" the man mocked. If they proceeded like this they were going to die of thirst long before any creature of Mars got to them.
"I don't know – something up ahead. Footsteps maybe."
Half a dozen torch lights from the rest of the team instantly tilted up, drowning the path in an unnecessary amount of light. They were back in the section of tunnels built by Cascade. It was easy to tell them apart. These were poorly finished and half collapsed from the hourly earthquakes besieging them.
"I can't see anything," the second scientist replied. "No one is down this way. We're probably miles from – what is that?" The scientist scampered past his leader and moved to an ominous black stain on the rock wall. "Blood..." It was dry.
"Look..." Another pointed to the ground. "Tracks." He started following them.
"Hold up – you want to follow the bloody footprints?"
The lead scientist shrugged. "You got a better plan, then?"
"Uh – anything really, that doesn't involve following a trail of blood. We should go back and search the weird alien tunnels. At least they aren't falling apart around our ears. We'd be safer."
"In a crypt. We have to find the other scientists left over from the collapsed city. Dead or alive, they have equipment and supplies. Now come on, buck up a little. We all had some measure of courage to come to this bloody planet in the first place – don't tell me you've lost it all in a few short years of lab work?"
That seemed to guilt the others into a quiet agreement. They continued, following the smears of blood that became more frequent as the wounded human started stumbling and leaning against the cold surfaces.
"There – what is that?" the lead scientist knelt down on the ground and picked a small, sharp throwing knife out of the dust. It had been discarded by the wounded human. "Bloody hell, I know what this is..." Everyone on Mars had heard what happened over at the Ecological Sciences building.
"Everyone come closer," the other scientist hissed at the group. "Stay together now, keep your eyes open. There are lots of us – we'll be fine."
There as a murderer down there with them.
"We don't have any suits," Rutherford eyed the lift to the foundations of the destroyed building. "The airlock up there is intact but that's about all we know. He has to come back down this way. I say we wait – ambush him."
"Whatever is up there, Mike wants it desperately. I don't think we should let him get a hold of anything he wants that badly." She rattled the cage of the lift to check its stability. It was mostly in one piece. "I'm going after him."
Rutherford caught her by the arm and dragged her into the dirt. "Listen," he growled firmly, "I know how these people work. I've spent my life incarcerating them. We wait. Set a trap. If Magnus says he's comin' back then he is. There's no way out of this place save back down that tunnel and he has to use this lift shaft. We have him. You need to calm that rage and try a touch of patience."
Helen swiped her gun from the rock beside and held it to the corridor in front. The tail of a shallow earthquake set a curtain of dust falling over the darkness. She waited. She watched.
Flecks of pulverised crystal wafted across her torchlight. Another beam of light cut through the tunnel. Then another and another followed by the unruly shuffle of feet. Helen rolled her eyes and lowered her weapon as a dishevelled troop of scientists spilled out into the clearing. It took them a moment to see her and when they did they startled, fanning back against the black glass.
"Afternoon..." Helen drawled politely. The cavern yawned above, threatening to shatter at the next rumble from below. Curious, she thought, glancing at the insignia on their uniforms. You didn't see many relics of the Treasure Hunters' Guild. They must have been in the flight tower.
"Who are you?" The bravest inquired, inching forward.
"A friend," Helen replied. "You shouldn't be wandering these tunnels alone. There is a killer on the loose."
"Yes – we know," the scientist replied, gripping his torch too tightly. "Ah – is it you?"
Helen tried not to laugh at the nervous man brandishing his torch. It was painfully obvious that most of the people on this planet were civilians. Humans always explored the unknown like this – with pirates and commoners all thrown in together.
"No..." she assured them. "You lot wouldn't be the crew that navigate all the private shuttles to and from Prosperity, now – would you?"
They shifted awkwardly as a group. The legitimacy of their operations were fragile at best.
"There's no shuttles left." The scientist admitted. "The storm was – completely destructive. Our boss never came back."
"Oh there'll be a shuttle left, don't you worry about that," Helen promised them. "If you want to get off this miserable planet you need to listen to me very carefully."
"We're losing him!" Smith had Bernard clutched under his aquatic arms, hauling him onto the bank where a warm vent created welcoming pools of steam.
Nikola held his arm against his face, squinting through the fumes. This was a vampire's worst nightmare. They were desert cave creatures – not swamp imps. "I thought these things were immortal?"
"You really haven't done your research before coming here – have you?" The vampire simply huffed at him. He'd been dragged here on Helen's account. About the only research of note that he'd engaged in was her relationship status. "These things are like you – long-lived but far from infallible. You can kill them if you try. Actually," Smith looked again at the creature's body, "they seem delicate."
"Well he can't die yet," Nikola insisted. "I have to know his secrets."
"Light..." Bernard whispered. His eyes were closed but his mind was trapped in a memory. "And – something – so beautiful."
12th September, 2432
"There better be a reason for this that I will actually care about." John stood at the door, draped in his dressing gown. He used the frame as support for his weary, semi-immortal body. Janet looked like a cat on the hunt in the dead of night. Her eyes were enormous and black as she stepped past him and made herself at home.
"I do not make the trip across the sand lightly – as you well know." She'd brought him a gift which she slid into the side of his computer. The drive booted and she presented John with a sonar map of the tunnels below.
"I'm going back to bed -"
"No – wait." The map was still loading and shortly after it was overlaid with patches of light accumulated in the heart of the deepest tunnel.
"That could simply be a lava pit – tunnel that deep – it probably punched through into the mantle."
Janet averted her eyes to the window. The faint glow of fire on the horizon was a constant reminder of the rising volcanism. "It's not a heat sensor," she explained. "It's biometric. I based it on those boring sand creatures that no one has been showing any interest in. With a bit of help from Dr Magnus..."
"So you've found a hive of ugly sand worms?"
"A breeding ground, I hope."
He frowned and considered going back to bed. "And you need me because?" He didn't a double take of the map. "You don't need me, you need my security clearance..."
"I wouldn't say no to the company."
It was easy for John to spin a lie about an archaeologist exploring too far, winding up lost in the tunnels an calling for help. There was no surveillance and thus no need for Janet to disguise her presence. She carried a hefty backpack of recording equipment while he carted the grappling hooks and climbing gear.
"If it's too deep..."
"I know," she batted him away. "We have enough rope – just don't drop me."
"There are more interesting ways to kill you, of that you can take comfort."
"I've been reading up on you," she replied. "A lot of people go missing on Mars."
"They do," he agreed.
"Swallowed by sands..."
Janet stopped short of accusing him outright. Bernard was right about one thing – she'd have to watch her back.