I LOWERED THE VISOR OF MY HELMET, BUT IT wouldn’t lock into place. I fiddled with the latch, then finally used a fist to knock it into position. A new helmet would be wise, but this was the helmet my grandfather gave me when I was a little girl. The helmet he gave me the day he died.
I cycled the airlock and stepped out into a long, sloped tunnel leading to the surface. My boots left deep prints in the sand the color of a dried bloodstain. That was how most chose to describe the color of Mars. Bloodstained. Me, I couldn’t see color. Call it a disability if you like, but I call it a gift. A gift that has kept me sane since taking the case. The things I’d seen, the carnage, the gore…
People I’d known all my life reduced to scraps scattered sloppily about like bits and pieces in a slaughterhouse.
Scene after scene, horror after horror, I thanked my lying eyes for taking the edge off so much murder and death. It might not be much considering that, even in monochrome, the crime scenes were plenty vivid. Vivid enough to provide for several lifetimes worth of nightmares.
But at least it was something.
It was something.
At the end of the tunnel, I pushed my way through a series of heavy plastic flaps designed to keep out the worst of the dust and grit from Mars’ constant sand storms. Shoving the last of the flaps aside, I was greeted by a gust of wind that made me adjust my footing to keep balance. Sand peppered my faceplate, and for the first time in a long time I was outside. The view was just how I remembered it. Dusty. Gloomy. Claustrophobic.
An arrow blinked brightly on the glass of my face-plate, and I angled in its direction. Stats flashed on screen, my eyes locking onto the distance to the habitat: 375.5 meters.
<Call them again, Smith.>
<I haven’t stopped calling,> said my AI, his voice speaking directly into my mind. <They’re not answering, Denver.>
Trusting my navigation system, I started into a slow loping jog, each step carrying me several feet thanks to the planet’s weak gravity. My breath echoed loudly inside my helmet as the distance to the habitat ticked quickly downward.
<I hope they’re okay,> said Smith. <You were like a daughter to them, you know?>
I knew. Yaozu and Aiwa Chen were among the very first group of settlers, a hundred of them in all, including my grandfather, who led the expedition along with Cole Hennessey. They were the reason I took the case—I couldn’t trust another eye to stop the killer before this nightmare got to the Chens. I had to get to them first.
Smith said, <My sensors tell me there’s a builder up ahead. You see it?>
Looking up, I could barely make the hulking outline of machinery through the haze of dust. Smith didn’t live in my head, but he could see through my eyes. His vision was better in most ways than mine. I’d made a few enhancements since purchasing him, but not too many. He saw things down to the microscopic level, and if I were willing to spend the credits, Smith’s vision could go submicroscopic. He could see colors, too, even though everything I saw remained one degree of gray or another. I’d tried neural devices and lenses, but none of them worked. Smith had the ability to colorize my vision, and on occasion I had the opportunity to view the world like everyone else, but thanks to the time lags, it came with a price: nausea, dizziness and Mars’ worst migraine.
I veered to get around the space freighter-sized derelict, one of many littering the surface. Once used to carve a livable colony underground, builders like this one had been retired decades ago. Mars colony was as complete as it would ever be. At least until Jericho, the terraforming project, made the surface habitable...but that wouldn’t be for another century or two.
I checked the display, less than fifteen meters to go. I stared straight ahead. Through the thick haze of the sandstorm, I could just make out the glow of a neon sign: Marseum
. Under it was the word Closed
I headed toward the light, and behind it, a flat surface began to emerge. A wall. Then, a roof. Finally, an airlock.
I pushed through the plastic flaps and didn’t bother ringing the intercom before letting myself through the outer door. Shutting it behind me, I stabbed buttons with my gloved fingers until I heard the hiss of air filling the chamber and felt artificial gravity pushing down all around me. A minute later, the light turned on, and I popped my visor before spinning the hatch wheel until I heard the lock click.
<Be careful, Denver.>
Slowly, I pushed the door open and peeked my head through. “Yaozu? Aiwa?”
The museum was empty of people, the lights turned off except for those inside display cases. Cautiously, I moved through the room, past framed photos, and plaques, and mannequins in spacesuits. The next room was circular, the entire area painted a foreboding black. Detecting my presence, the holo-chamber lit, and I was on the surface thirty-five years ago when the sky was clear, and from what others used to tell me, the color of butterscotch.
I made for a holographic exit sign that led me out into a corridor. I passed through the lecture hall and glimpsed a tall figure moving quickly along the polished metal walls beside me. I reached for the weapon in the bag over my shoulder, but after a second look, I recognized the fringe of bleached-white hair swooping over Japanese features inside my enviro-helmet. Just my own reflection. I exhaled and made a quick check of the hall that yielded nobody. Up the stairs, I knocked on the door. “Yaozu? Aiwa?”
I pulled off my gloves and palmed the lockscreen. A light flashed, their home system still remembering me.
The living room was empty. Same for the bedroom and bathroom. But not the kitchen. There, on the table, centered on a plate, was an ear. A human ear.
<Here we go again,> said Smith.
My heart sank, and my eyes began to water. Not again. Eleven of the original settlers were already dead. All eleven in the last two days, and none closer to me and my long-deceased grandfather than Yaozu and Aiwa.
A trail of blood led to the back door. Beyond it, I knew, was the first habitat, the very first structure built on Mars. Part concrete bunker and part circus tent, it housed the original colony until the first of the tunnels were ready.
I slowly passed through the door, stepping into a warehouse-sized structure that now protected and preserved the original habitat.
<You should be armed, Denver.>
<I am armed.>
<You know what I mean.>
<I won’t draw until I have to. Like you said, Yaozu and Aiwa were like parents to me.>
<If they have the feve, you better be ready to draw fast.>
I moved toward the habitat. Overhead lights blinked in and out, causing ghostly shadows to flicker about. The blood spotted path pulled me forward. I passed a severed thumb without stopping to look. Stepped over the front half of a foot.
The habitat loomed large ahead of me. Two stories of concrete and steel. To the right stood the attached greenhouse tent, pitched of canvas and plastic that flapped slowly in the breeze created by giant ventilation fans in the warehouse ceiling.
The habitat airlock was open. Inside, a donation jar containing a handful of credits sat on a pedestal.
<I’m picking up a biological heat signature,> Smith said.
<In the habitat. Near my old office.>
<You know I hate when you call it your office.>
<Sorry, Denver, but you know that’s how I think of it.>
I gritted my teeth. If he wanted to believe he really was my grandfather instead of an AI who had simply been updated to include my grandfather’s memories, now wasn’t the time to argue.
I turned left, then right, and stopped in my tracks. A body lay on the ground. Naked. The head was missing, and his gut had been split, organs yanked free and left in a pile. He was male, and the tattoo on his shoulder — a simple gray circle representing Mars — told me this was Yaozu.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and blinked away the tears forming in my eyes before moving past. Smith had detected a heat signature in the next room. Aiwa was still alive. Maybe it wasn’t too late.
The door was cracked and I used a boot to push it open. Aiwa was inside, standing in the corner, her platinum hair matted with blood. In her hands was her husband’s head, one of his cheeks marred by teeth marks, the other cheek missing as if eaten.
“Aiwa,” I said, “it’s me, Denver.”
Her eyes didn’t register my presence. Instead, they darted madly about the room.
“Red fever has you,” I said. “I can help. Let’s get you to a doctor, understand?”
She lifted the head like she was going to take another bite, but then she let it drop from her hands. Yaozu’s head landed with a thud and rolled a few inches to the side.
“That’s right,” I said. I reached into the bag strapped over my shoulder and pushed past my gun to the syringe underneath. “Let me give you this shot, and we’ll get you the care you need.”
She didn’t look my way. Instead, her eyes landed on a bloody butcher knife resting on the floor.
“Stay with me,” I said before I bit off the cap of the syringe and spit it to the floor. “Whatever’s in your head, it’s just the feve talking. I’m going to take it all away, okay?” I reached back into my bag and pulled out a small vial of charcoal liquid. “This is just a sedative. It’s going to take all your pain away.”
I filled the syringe. Aiwa’s head cocked to the side like an animal watching something it couldn’t understand. I took a slow step toward her, my hands raised to not appear threatening. She was just two meters away. “You’re doing good, Aiwa, just stay still.”
<Um, Denver,> said Smith, <I hate to interrupt.>
<But I just got a message, one I think you’re going to want to hear.>
I took another step forward. <The message can wait.>
<But it’s from your grandfather.>
For a split-second, I froze. Then I shook off the ridiculous comment and continued toward Aiwa.
<He’s dead, Smith.>
<I know, but the message was buried in my...his memories. I thought it was garbage code, but it just unen-crypted itself.>
I stepped closer, keeping Aiwa trapped in the corner. <I’m a little busy right now.>
<But your grand—>
<Shut up, dammit!>
Aiwa scratched her head. I winced at the sound of her fingernails rasping against her skull. A trickle of blood leaked from her hairline to a forehead wrinkle and flowed toward her ear.
“That’s right,” I said. “Just relax, and it will all be over soon.”
A chime sounded, and a hologram lit above Aiwa’s desk. As if by reflex, she turned to it. I glanced at the image myself, my jaw dropping at what I saw. It was Ojiisan. My grandfather who died twenty years ago.
<See?> said Smith. <It looks like Aiwa got the same message you did.>
My grandfather was dead. Yet there he was, clear as day. Ojiisan hadn’t aged a bit since I’d last seen him when I was a girl. The black hair by his temples was still shot with gray. His chin stood proud and his eyes held a firm gaze. His mouth began to move, but I couldn’t hear his voice. The volume was too low.
How could he have sent a message after all these years? It didn’t make any sense. I took a tentative step toward the desk, and like a flash, Aiwa slipped out from the corner, an elbow catching me as she darted past my position. I spun around, but she already had the knife. She charged, her eyes seized by madness. I dodged, but not fast enough, and felt the blade penetrate my suit and bite into my side.
I stuck her with the needle, sinking it hard into her shoulder, and stabbed the plunger down.
She took another swing. I ducked low, managing to avoid the blow. I ran for cover behind the desk, but she came over the top, her weight slamming me across the chest. I fell into the wall and lost my balance, landing painfully on my hip. She dropped on top of me, a knee pinning me to the floor.
I grabbed the wrist holding the knife with both of my hands and tried to turn the blade away from my chest but, despite Aiwa’s age, I was powerless to stop the edge from slowly sinking closer to my body. I let out a long breath in hopes of compressing my chest, but it wasn’t enough and the blade’s tip dug painfully into my breastbone.
“Aiwa! Please! It’s me. It’s Denver!”
She couldn’t hear me. My words were just background noise in a head overcome with the feve. Her face was flushed, veins straining under her skin. Her lips were stretched wide to bare every single tooth in her mouth. The blade sunk deeper. My arms shook under the pressure.
I heard a bone snap in her wrist, but still, the feve wouldn’t release its hold on her. She raked me with her other hand, nails digging into my cheek like a cat’s claws.
I managed to stabilize the knife, and with a concerted push, moved it upward and away from my body. I was winning the battle now as the drug took effect. Summoning what little energy I had left, I rolled her off me. The knife fell from her hand and she finally went slack.
I stood on wobbly knees. Blood ran from my gouged cheek. My suit was wet from the wounds in my side and chest.
I looked at the desk, at the hologram of Ojiisan, his mouth still moving as he impossibly delivered a message from the grave.
I walked to the desk and turned up the volume. Mars is in grave danger. You must find me.
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