Story by Geoff Tuffli
++++ DATE 12.5.2469
++++ TIME 06:22 Borealis Basin North Polar Standard Time
++++ LOCATION Hecatia Terminus Mining Collaborative, in the Borealis Basin of Mars
It had all gone incredibly, terribly wrong.
Havildar 2nd Class Astrid Narayan, Phoenicis Regiment, Company D, Force Section Alpha of the Mars Republic forced herself to relax her death-grip on her flechette pistol.
Holstering her sidearm, Astrid turned her head to get a good look at the entry wound on her left shoulder, but the camo-brown combat suit had already auto-sealed itself, only the sticky puce of the blood and the pounding fire below her collar bone betraying exactly how close she had almost come to dying before the micros in her bloodstream had kicked in to clot the wound.
Astrid pushed herself to her feet, collecting a handful of flechette cartridges from what had remained of her force section.
She tried not to look at their faces, but couldn't quite manage it. That was still better than looking at the faces of the others. The kids were the worst.
As far as her regiment was concerned, she was already dead. With the way things had gone, rescue was impossible, and the moment she tried to signal her location, Free State partisans would undoubtedly pick up the signal and trace it back to her. Hell, Astrid thought. That was probably how they had known where to hit us in the first place.
What had begun as a carefully planned occupation of the subterranean facilities of the Hecatia Terminus Mining Collaborative in the Borealis Basin had quickly turned into a proper cluster fuck almost as soon as her regiment made its insertion. They had gained access via a hastily rehabilitated mining tunnel that ran directly under the main compound, forward teams - including Astrid's own force section - securing the advance of the main force.
It had been impossible to tell who was a bystander and who was a partisan, so as her force section advanced they had had to neutralize absolutely everyone they came across rather than risk the entire operation being put at risk. They'd moved fast and with lethal efficiency, exactly as they'd been trained, taking half a dozen junction points before they felt, rather than heard, the blasts from the mining explosives that brought down the tunnel on half of Astrid's regiment.
The ambush had been exquisitely executed, Astrid thought bitterly.
The com had gone absolutely crazy, as each force section in turn was burned down by Free State partisans, improvised explosives and chemically-treated flechettes tearing through combat suits that could only reduce rather than stop the high-velocity carbon-fiber needles. This last firefight had happened as they had stopped for a moment to catch their breath; a grenade rolled into the room, spitting shrapnel and flechettes over it all. The only thing that had saved Astrid was the partisans getting cocky and moving too quickly into the room, allowing her to pick off both of them with her own weapon.
Her options were all bad. Some were just more bad than others.
She could try to find a terminal with a satellite link, but she knew perfectly well that policy in this kind of situation was to not send good money after bad, and right now, she was bad money. The other alternative would be to find a hardtop and use that to race across the surface and maybe make it back to the forward base below Aeolis Point. It was, actually, a terrible shot, but it wasn't completely implausible.
Astrid knew they had to be hunting right now exactly for people like her, survivors from the ambush. Her Mars Republic camo-brown combat suit made her stick out like a sore thumb, but it was also the only thing protecting her from exposure or weapons fire. Doffing it probably wouldn't help much anyways, as a thirty-something year old woman darting around in her underwear would likely be just as conspicuous. A sign for a transport tube caught her eye, and she made a line for it. Where there's a transport tube station, there's likely to be an airlock and a hardtop.
She turned a corner, came face to face with a couple. They weren't obviously armed, but that didn't mean they weren't partisans, and even so-called innocents could give alarm and give her away. She was in no mood to take stupid chances. Two shots. An older man with a com unit to his ear. One shot.
Her breath started coming quickly, and she wasn't sure how much longer adrenaline was going to carry her. Ahead, the corridor opened into a tube station. Nobody was in sight, but...yes, there were voices. Shit. Astrid saw another sign, this one for the public bathroom, and ducked into it, securing the door behind her as the voices grew louder. She moved to the back of the empty bathroom, sliding to the floor along the wall as she tried to calm her heartbeat.
Another noise; this time inside the bathroom.
A man stepped out of one of the stalls. They both froze, her flechette pistol already lifting in her hand. The voices were growing louder outside the bathroom. She considered shooting the man, but her side arm wasn't quiet, and there was no way the men outside wouldn't hear it. Someone outside tried the door, found it was locked from the inside. They started banging on the door, yelling something she couldn't make out.
Astrid and the man stared at each other. She lowered the flechette pistol to the floor and leaned back against the cool tile of the wall. Shit.
The man glanced at her pistol, then at the door. His eyes still on Astrid, he stepped over to the door, flipped the lock and stuck his head out. "I would appreciate some privacy."
"Where the fuck have you been, Rudraigh? Didn't you hear the general alarm? We are still clearing the area of corporates. There are still a few on the loose, been going through killing anyone they can. It's not safe here."
"I assure you there has been no indiscriminate murder here in this bathroom. Excepting, perhaps, of the digestive kind." The man paused. "Anyways, with all this going on, why do you think I locked the door?"
"Fine. But get clear of here. Do you have a weapon? I picked one off one of the corporates, so I can lend you mine if you want."
The man shook his head. "Thanks for the offer, but no thanks. You go kill some corporates for me, okay?" The other man grunted his assent, and he and the other partisans crowding behind him moved on. The man - Rudraigh - glanced at Astrid, then shut the door, re-securing it.
They said nothing for a long moment. "Well," Astrid said finally. "I suppose I should thank you."
She knew it was a bad idea, but couldn't help herself asking, "So why didn't you turn me over to those goons?"
He lifted an eyebrow. "I know I am supposed to support the troops and all, but, well, if we're being honest with each other, they're mostly a bunch of goons. I don't think I would have liked seeing what they would have done with you."
He cleared his throat. "I am sure you have pressing business elsewhere, but if you need a place to catch your breath, I could arrange a private tube car back to somewhere safe you can rest."
He smiled. "Are all corporates as eloquent as you?"
"Usually I speak only in grunts, but I decided to make a special effort just for you."
"That was very considerate."
"I'm Astrid. Astrid Narayan." She reflexively started to give her rank, then stopped herself. There was no point.
He held out his hand to help her up. She looked at it suspiciously, then took it, lifting herself to her feet. "Rudraigh Mitchell."
"And you're really not going to turn me in?"
He blinked. "Not unless you really have your heart set on it."
"Um, I'd rather find some way to get home, if it's all the same to you."
"I can probably help with that. You may have to suffer my company for a while longer, though."
Well, isn't this just like something out of an idiot holo-drama, Astrid thought. "I hope you treat your prisoners of war well."
"Traditionally, the Free State isn't known for the healthy treatment of those corporates unfortunate enough to fall into its hands. Fortunately for you, however, the Republic of Rudraigh - of which I am its sole and tyrannical sovereign - is by far a more benevolent polity." He took off his coat and handed it to her to help cover her combat suit, then unlocked the door and glanced outside. "Looks quiet. We should go now."
Astrid started to follow him out when he cleared his throat. "What?" she asked.
He nodded to her flechette pistol where it still lay on the floor. "You probably should take that."
Astrid glanced at the pistol. "Yeah. Probably." She turned and followed him outside instead.