Valkline Dust Plains
1850 hrs Valkline Local
Far from the nearest hints of civilisation, across a vast plain of
reddish-brown, emphasized ever so slightly by a distant sun edging its way
into the horizon, an odd contraption of a vehicle was racing on a peculiar
journey to nowhere.
Powered by a single ion-hybrid turbojet and balancing precariously on its four
corner thrusters barely a meter above the ground, the one-man low-level flyer
stole its way over small variations in the terrain, jinking its way past larger
obstacles, its course taking it on a southward journey away from Valkline
"Hmmm - ought to be far enough," mumbled Roger Simmons to nobody in
particular, swinging his ride on its tail, bringing it to a wobbly stop
just short of a rocky overhang. The formation was part of the StormShadow
Valley, which was constituted by an almost unbroken chain of high mountains
and steep sides thousands of miles long - a natural protection for Valkline
Estate and dozens of settler townships like it from the ferocious Martian
dust storms ravaging the land in unpredictable bursts of random fury.
Main jet cut off, quad thrusters reduced to a mere whisper, Roger brought the
flyer down as gently as he could manage, for he sincerely did not wish to be
witness again to a spectacular crash like he did to his previous home-built
RS Speeder II, which had happened long ago, another planet away.
The desolate landscape was a perfect setting. Roger shut off all comm systems,
not that there were many to begin with. After taking the customary walk around
the craft to ensure that everything was proper and intact, Roger settled back
into the cockpit with a datapad on his lap - and began to dream.
For Roger Simmons was a dreamer - a dreamer with the mind of a mechanical
engineer, and practical hands that shaped tools and parts, transforming his
dreams into reality. He had homework, of course - every college student has
had so-called tutorials long since time immemorial, even long-distance college
students like himself. And, it was as boring as it could usually be. Finding a
solution to the surface-effect cornering balance of a quad-thruster lift
configuration was much, much more interesting - and a lot more practical
than academic exercises, as well.
The son of a scientist and a systems programmer, Roger was no stranger to
all manner of technology. His parents had allowed him to practically tear
apart obsolete computer modules since young - and had watched him learn to
put them back together again as he got older, and helped him graduate on to
lessons in physics, mechanics, computing and even a smattering of bio-chemistry,
as his mother, Karen Simmons, was a real true-blue xeno-biologist.
Assigned by Science Division to study the development of plant and animal
life on planets in the process of undergoing terraforming, Karen was one of
the cadre of 'field scientists' - those which actually went out to get hard
data while the rest of the Earth-bound Imperial staff argued over the numbers,
produced hypotheses - and wrote lengthy papers. She had been part of that too,
until the office politics got tiresome, and the science part of the work got a
Which was why the Simmons family had ended up on Mars. Karen Simmons had
volunteered to be part of the group to relieve the returning two-year
field team. Henry Simmons had, at the time, merely shrugged, and packed up
his stuff, and that was that. With the ubiquitous OmniWeb reaching into
every corner of the inhabited 'system, a systems programmer could work from
practically anywhere. The hardest part had been to get then 14-year-old
Roger to actually tidy up his bedroom and leave most of his accumulated
belongings - and junk - behind.
Thus it ended up that Roger had to leave all his friends behind as well.
It was a sobering experience, transiting from a happy, fun-filled existence
in a nice city-side suburb on Earth to the vast, dust-choked, empty expanses
of Mars. He had tried to talk to some of them via RealChat, but comm costs
escalated, and quickly became prohibitive. And Roger ended up lonely, and
finally rejected most human company altogether, preferring to take his
high-speed, flying creations into the vast landscape, the better to soak up
the quiet surroundings, to think up newer and better designs. The rest of his
time, he spent in the garage, building, demolishing, repairing, re-building.
Then it was back to dreaming, and thinking, and calculating again.
Bernoulli equations. G-force effects. Centrifugal acceleration. Almost there.
Roger voiced, and keyed in the last of the factors to run his latest sim
model that would be the basis of RS Speeder IV - if and when he got around
to actually building it would be another matter. Roger was almost happy - here,
far from all distraction, he could work at his typical pace, which was just
two steps short of maniacal.
The tremors were almost unnoticeable at first. Hand drifting over to check the
main turbojet cutoff switch, Roger ignored the quavers, thinking it was just
the idling ion portion of the hybrid drive. The simulation model was running
through its final phase of compilation - the workstation class Delta-5.3Gx64
processors sitting in a ruggedized box at the back of Roger's Speeder III
strained hard to keep up with the dizzyingly-huge data arrays.
It was when rumble changed to thump that Roger looked sharply up - and around.
Marsquakes were unheard of, at least as far as this sector went. It wasn't
really impossible - just improbable...
It was only when bits of the rocky ceiling began to crumble under the latest
vibratory assault that startled Roger enough to quick-start all five engines
and zip out - into an impossibly-bright sky.
The phenomenon was awe-inspiring - and frightening, so much so that Roger
did not even notice the collapse of the rock under which he had been sitting
mere moments ago.
Northward, from a distant point source, thin purple staccato beams of light
radiated groundward. Every few seconds, a blindingly-bright bluish discharge
would manifest itself. Meteor showers - or were those meteors? - streaked
nearly vertically downward, in haphazard directions.
Every now and then, a flaming arrow would seem to be aiming in Roger's
direction, ending with a ground-shaking thump. Convinced that that was
a bad, very bad sign, Roger threw his craft in random directions,
until he calmed down enough to realise that the near-vertical approach
aspect made every such meteorite seem to come toward him.
Curiously drawn by the strange happenings, Roger sped northward, but that
direction seemed somewhat... wrong. It took him a full five minutes to
make the connection - the mental blow struck him worse than a direct hit
from one of those would-be meteors. Frantically keying in relative
co-ordinates and triangulations into his datapad, Roger confirmed what he
thought he was seeing. He tore himself away from the console and stared
at the sky.
It was impossible.
It couldn't be happening.
They were not supposed to - it couldn't be facing - no.
Mars Imperial Orbital Defense Platform MDP-3 was opening fire. At the ground.
Orbital bombardment - of the worst sort. The entire arsenal of an awesome
weapons array designed to ward off an opposing space-borne enemy fleet had
somehow been brought to bear on a ground target.
And it seemed painfully obvious by now that the ground target was none other
than Roger's hometown - Valkline Estate.
Mother would be at home. Preparing dinner.
Father would be at home. Working.. programming.
Screaming incoherently, Roger shunted all available power to the ion-turbojet,
ignoring the automatic alarms as Speeder III went way past its 280 km/h
The last thing he felt before the shock wave came and obliterated everything
into uniform whiteness was a kind of crazy spinning as Speeder III met with
stresses it clearly was not designed for, and flipped end over end clear
into the air.
It would be a long while before consciousness would return, but at the moment,
everything went blessedly dark.