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GREAT WALL OF MARS
“You realise you might die down there,” said Warren.
Nevil Clavain looked into his brother’s one good eye; the one the Conjoiners had left him with after the Battle of Tharsis Bulge. “Yes, I know,” he said. “But if there’s another war, we might all die. I’d rather take that risk, if there’s a chance for peace.”
Warren shook his head, slowly and patiently. “No matter how many times we’ve been over this, you just don’t seem to get it, do you? There can’t ever be any kind of peace while they’re still down there. That’s what you don’t understand, Nevil. The only long-term solution here is…” he trailed off.
“Go on,” Clavain goaded. “Say it. Genocide.”
Warren might have been about to answer when there was a bustle of activity along the docking tube, at the far end from the waiting spacecraft. Through the door Clavain saw a throng of media people, then someone gliding through them, fielding questions with only the curtest of answers. That was Sandra Voi, the Demarchist woman who would be accompanying him to Mars.
“It’s not genocide when they’re just a faction, not an ethnically distinct race,” Warren said, before Voi was within earshot.
“What is it, then?”
“I don’t know. Prudence?”
Voi approached. She carried herself stiffly, her face a mask of quiet resignation. Her ship had only just docked from Circum-Jove after a three-week transit at maximum burn. During that time the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the current crisis had steadily deteriorated.
“Welcome to Deimos,” Warren said.
“Marshals,” she said, addressing them both. “I wish the circumstances were better. Let’s get straight to business. Warren—how long do you think we have to find a solution?”
“Not long. If Galiana maintains the pattern she’s been following for the last six months, we’re due another escape attempt in…” Warren glanced at a read-out buried in his cuff. “About three days. If she does try to get another shuttle off Mars, we’ll really have no option but to escalate.”
They all knew what that would mean: a military strike against the Conjoiner nest.
“You’ve tolerated her attempts so far,” Voi said, “and each time you’ve successfully destroyed her ship with all the people in it. The net risk of a successful breakout hasn’t increased. So why retaliate now?”
“It’s very simple,” Warren said. “After each violation we issued Galiana a stronger warning than the one before. Our last was absolute and final.”
“You’ll be in violation of treaty if you attack.”
Warren’s smile was one of quiet triumph. “Not quite, Sandra. You may not be completely conversant with the treaty’s fine print, but we’ve discovered that it allows us to storm Galiana’s nest without breaking any terms. The technical phrase is a ‘police action,’ I believe.”
Clavain saw that Voi was momentarily lost for words. That was hardly surprising. The treaty between the Coalition and the Conjoiners—which Voi’s neutral Demarchists had helped draft—was the longest document in existence, apart from some obscure, computer-generated mathematical proofs. It was supposed to be watertight, though only machines had ever read it from beginning to end, and only machines had ever stood a chance of finding the kind of loophole Warren was now brandishing.
“No…” she said. “There’s some mistake.”
“I’m afraid he’s right,” Clavain said. “I’ve seen the natural-language summaries, and there’s no doubt about the legality of a police action. But it needn’t come to that. I’m sure I can persuade Galiana not to make another escape attempt.”
“But if we should fail?” Voi looked at Warren now. “Nevil and I could still be on Mars in three days.”
“Don’t be, is my advice.”
Disgusted, Voi turned and stepped into the green cool of the shuttle. Clavain was left alone with his brother for a moment. Warren fingered the leathery patch over his ruined eye with the chrome gauntlet of his prosthetic arm, as if to remind Clavain of what the war had cost him; how little love he had for the enemy, even now.
“We haven’t got a chance of succeeding, have we?” Clavain said. “We’re only going down there so you can say you explored all avenues of negotiation before sending in the troops. You actually want another damned war.”
“Don’t be so defeatist,” Warren said, shaking his head sadly, forever the older brother disappointed at his sibling’s failings. “It really doesn’t become you.”
“It’s not me who’s defeatist,” Clavain said.
“No, of course not. Just do your best, little brother.”
Warren extended his hand for his brother to shake. Hesitating, Clavain looked again into his brother’s good eye. What he saw there was an interrogator’s eye: as pale, colourless and cold as a midwinter sun. There was hatred in it. Warren despised Clavain’s pacifism; Clavain’s belief that any kind of peace, even a peace that consisted only of stumbling episodes of mistrust between crises, was always better than war. That schism had fractured any lingering fraternal feelings they might have retained. Now, when Warren reminded Clavain that they were brothers, he never entirely concealed the disgust in his voice.
“You misjudge me,” Clavain whispered, before quietly shaking Warren’s hand.
“No. I honestly don’t think I do.”
Clavain stepped through the airlock just before it sphinctered shut. Voi had already buckled herself in; she had a glazed look now, as if staring into infinity. Clavain guessed she was uploading a copy of the treaty through her implants, scrolling it across her visual field, trying to find the loophole; probably running a global search for any references to police actions.
The ship recognised Clavain, its interior shivering to his preferences. The green was closer to turquoise now, the readouts and controls minimalist in layout, displaying only the most mission-critical systems. Though the shuttle was the tiniest peacetime vessel Clavain had been in, it was a cathedral compared to the dropships he had flown during the war: vessels so small that they were assembled around their occupants like medieval armour before a joust.
“Don’t worry about the treaty,” Clavain said. “I promise you, Warren won’t get his chance to exploit that loophole.”
Voi snapped out of her trance irritatedly. “You’d better be right, Nevil. Is it me, or is your brother hoping we fail?” She was speaking Quebecois French now, Clavain shifting mental gears to follow her. “If my people discover there’s a hidden agenda here, there’ll be hell to pay.”
“The Conjoiners gave Warren plenty of reasons to hate them after the Battle of the Bulge,” Clavain said. “And he’s a tactician, not a field specialist. After the ceasefire, my knowledge of worms was even more valuable than before, so I had a role. But Warren’s skills were a lot less transferable.”
“So that gives him a right to edge us closer to another war?” The way Voi spoke, it was as if her own side had not been neutral during the last exchange. But Clavain knew she was right. If hostilities between the Conjoiners and the Coalition reignited, the Demarchy would not be able to stand on the sidelines as they had fifteen years ago. And it was anyone’s guess how they would align themselves this time around.
“There won’t be war.”
“And if you can’t reason with Galiana? Or are you going to play on your personal connection?”
“I was just her prisoner, that’s all.” Clavain took the controls—Voi said piloting was a bore—and unlatched the shuttle from Deimos. They dropped away at a tangent to the rotation of the equatorial ring that girdled the moon, instantly in free fall. Clavain sketched a porthole in the wall with his fingertip, outlining a rectangle that instantly became transparent.
For a moment he saw his reflection in the glass: older than he felt he had any right to look, the grey beard and hair making him appear ancient rather than patriarchal; a man deeply wearied by recent circumstance. With some relief, he darkened the cabin so that he could see Deimos, dwindling at surprising speed. The higher of the two Martian moons was a dark, bristling lump infested with armaments, belted by the bright, window-studded band of the moving ring. For the last nine years, Deimos was all he had known, but now he could encompass it within the arc of his fist.
“Not just her prisoner,” Voi said. “No one else came back sane from the Conjoiners. She never even tried to infect you with her machines.”
“No, she didn’t, but only because the timing was on my side.” Clavain was reciting an old argument now, as much for his own benefit as Voi’s. “I was the only prisoner she had. She was losing the war by then; one more recruit to her side wouldn’t have made any real difference. The terms of ceasefire were being thrashed out and she knew she could buy herself favours by releasing me unharmed. There was something else, too: Conjoiners weren’t supposed to be capable of anything so primitive as mercy. They were Spiders, as far as we were concerned. Galiana’s act threw a wrench into our thinking. It divided alliances within high command. If she hadn’t released me, they might well have nuked her out of existence.”
“So there was absolutely nothing personal?”
“No,” Clavain said. “There was nothing personal about it at all.”
Voi nodded, without in any way suggesting that she actually believed him. It was a skill some women had honed to perfection, Clavain reflected.
Of course, he respected Voi completely. She had been one of the first human beings to enter Europa’s ocean, decades back. Now they were planning fabulous cities under the ice, efforts she had spearheaded. Demarchist society was supposedly flat in structure, non-hierarchical; but someone of Voi’s brilliance ascended through echelons of her own making. She had been instrumental in brokering the peace between the Conjoiners and Clavain’s own Coalition. That was why she was coming along now: Galiana had only agreed to Clavain’s mission provided he was accompanied by a neutral observer, and Voi had been the obvious choice. Respect was easy. Trust, however, was more difficult: it required that Clavain ignore the fact that, with her head dotted with implants, the Demarchist woman’s condition was not very far removed from that of the enemy.
The descent to Mars was hard and steep.
Once or twice they were queried by the automated tracking systems of the Satellite Interdiction Network. Dark weapons hovering in Mars-synchronous orbit above the nest locked on to the ship for a few instants, magnetic railguns powering up, before the shuttle’s diplomatic nature was established and it was allowed to proceed. The Interdiction was very efficient; as well it might be, given that Clavain had designed much of it himself. In fifteen years no ship had entered or left the Martian atmosphere, nor had any surface vehicle ever escaped from Galiana’s nest.
“There she is,” Clavain said, as the Great Wall rose over the horizon.
“Why do you call ‘it’ a ‘she’?” Voi asked. “I never felt the urge to personalise it, and I designed it. Besides… even if it was alive once, it’s dead now.”
She was right, but the Wall was still awesome to behold. Seen from orbit, it was a pale, circular ring on the surface of Mars, two thousand kilometres wide. Like a coral atoll, it entrapped its own weather system: a disc of bluer air flecked with creamy white clouds that stopped abruptly at the boundary.
Once, hundreds of communities had sheltered inside that cell of warm, thick, oxygen-rich atmosphere. The Wall was the most audacious and visible of Voi’s projects. The logic had been inescapable: a means to avoid the millennia-long timescales needed to terraform Mars via such conventional schemes as cometary bombardment or ice-cap thawing. Instead of modifying the whole atmosphere at once, the Wall allowed the initial effort to be concentrated in a relatively small region, at first only a thousand kilometres across. There were no craters deep enough, so the Wall had been completely artificial: a vast ring-shaped atmospheric dam designed to move slowly outward, encompassing ever more surface area at a rate of twenty kilometres per year. The Wall needed to be very tall because the low Martian gravity meant that the column of atmosphere was higher for a fixed surface pressure than on Earth. The ramparts were hundreds of metres thick, dark as glacial ice, sinking great taproots deep into the lithosphere to harvest the ores needed for the Wall’s continual growth. Yet two hundred kilometres higher, the wall was a diaphanously thin membrane only microns wide, completely invisible except when rare optical effects made it hang like a frozen aurora against the stars. Eco-engineers had seeded the livable area circumscribed by the Wall with terran genestocks, deftly altered in orbital labs. Flora and fauna had moved out in vivacious waves, lapping eagerly against the constraints of the Wall.
But the Wall was dead.
It had stopped growing during the war, hit by some sort of viral weapon that crippled its replicating subsystems, and now even the ecosystem within it was failing; the atmosphere cooling, oxygen bleeding into space, pressure declining inevitably towards the Martian norm of one seven-thousandth of an atmosphere.
He wondered how it must look to Voi; whether in any sense she saw it as her murdered child.
“I’m sorry we had to kill it,” Clavain said. He was about to add that it had been the kind of act that war normalised, but decided the statement would have sounded hopelessly defensive.
“You needn’t apologise,” Voi said. “It was only machinery. I’m surprised it’s lasted as long as it has, frankly. There must still be some residual damage-repair capability. We Demarchists build for posterity, you know.”
Yes, and it worried Clavain’s own side. There was talk of challenging the Demarchist supremacy in the outer solar system; perhaps even an attempt to gain a Coalition foothold around Jupiter.
They skimmed the top of the Wall and punched through the thickening layers of atmosphere within it, the shuttle’s hull morphing to an arrowhead shape. The ground had an arid, bleached look to it, dotted here and there with ruined shacks, broken domes, gutted vehicles and shot-down shuttles. There were patches of shallow-rooted, mainly dark-red tundra vegetation: cotton grass, saxifrage, arctic poppies and lichen. Clavain knew each species by its distinct infrared signature, but many of the plants were in recession now that the imported bird species had died. Ice lay in great silver swathes, and what few expanses of open water remained were warmed by buried thermopiles. Elsewhere, whole zones had reverted to almost sterile permafrost. It could have been a kind of paradise, Clavain thought, had the war not ruined everything. Yet what had happened here could only be a foretaste of the devastation that would follow across the system, on Earth as well as Mars, if another war was allowed to happen.
“Do you see the nest yet?” Voi said.
“Wait a second,” Clavain said, requesting a head-up display that boxed the nest. “That’s it. A nice fat thermal signature, too. Nothing else for kilometres around—nothing inhabited, anyway.”
“Yes. I see it now.”
The Conjoiner nest lay a third of the way from the Wall’s edge, not far from the footslopes of Arsia Mons. The entire encampment was only a kilometre across, circled by a dyke piled high with regolith dust on one side. The area within the Great Wall was large enough to have an appreciable weather system: spanning enough Martian latitude for significant Coriolis effects; enough longitude for diurnal warming and cooling to cause thermal currents.
He could see the nest much more clearly now, details leaping out of the haze.
Its external layout was crushingly familiar. Clavain’s side had been studying the nest from the vantage point of Deimos ever since the ceasefire. Phobos, with its lower orbit, would have been even better, of course—but there was no helping that, and perhaps the Phobos problem might actually prove useful in his negotiations with Galiana. She was somewhere in the nest, he knew: somewhere beneath the twenty varyingly sized domes emplaced within the rim, linked together by pressurised tunnels or merged at their boundaries like soap bubbles. The nest extended several tens of levels beneath the Martian surface, maybe deeper.
“How many people do you think are inside?” Voi said.
“Nine hundred or so,” said Clavain. “That’s an estimate based on my experiences as a prisoner, and the hundred or so who’ve died trying to escape since. The rest, I have to say, is pretty much guesswork.”
“Our estimates aren’t dissimilar. A thousand or less here, and perhaps another three or four spread across the system in smaller nests. I know your side thinks we have better intelligence than that, but it happens not to be the case.”
“Actually, I believe you.” The shuttle’s airframe was flexing around them, morphing to a low-altitude profile with wide, bat-like wings. “I was just hoping you might have some clue as to why Galiana keeps wasting valuable lives on pointless escape attempts.”
Voi shrugged. “Maybe to her the lives aren’t anywhere near as valuable as you’d like to think.”
“Do you honestly believe that?”
“I’m not sure we can even begin to guess the thinking of a true hive-mind society, Clavain. Even from a Demarchist standpoint.”
There was a chirp from the console: Galiana signalling them. Clavain opened the channel allocated for Coalition-Conjoiner diplomacy.
“Nevil Clavain?” he heard.
“Yes.” He tried to sound as calm as possible. “I’m with Sandra Voi. We’re ready to land as soon as you show us where.”
“Okay,” Galiana said. “Vector your ship towards the westerly rim wall. And please, be careful.”
“Thank you. Any particular reason for the caution?”
“Just be quick about it, Nevil.”
They banked over the nest, shedding height until they were skimming only a few tens of metres above the weatherworn Martian surface. A wide rectangular door had opened in the concrete dyke revealing a hangar bay aglow with yellow lights.
“That must be where Galiana launches her shuttles from,” Clavain whispered. “We always thought there had to be some kind of opening on the western side of the rim, but we never had a good view of it before.”
“Which still doesn’t tell us why she does it,” Voi said.
The console chirped again—the link poor, even though they were so close. “Nose up,” Galiana said. “You’re too low and slow. Get some altitude or the worms will lock on to you.”
“You’re telling me there are worms here?” Clavain said.
“I thought you were the worm expert, Nevil.”
He nosed the shuttle up, but fractionally too late. Ahead of them something coiled out of the ground with lightning speed, metallic jaws opening in its blunt, armoured head. He recognised the type immediately: Ouroborus class. Worms of this form still infested a hundred niches across the system. Not quite as smart as the type infesting Phobos, but still adequately dangerous.
“Shit,” Voi said, her veneer of Demarchist cool cracking for an instant.
“You said it,” Clavain answered.
The Ouroborus passed underneath them and then there was a spine-jarring series of bumps as the jaws tore into the shuttle’s belly. Clavain felt the shuttle lurch down sickeningly; no longer a flying thing but an exercise in ballistics. The cool, minimalist, turquoise interior shifted liquidly into an emergency configuration, damage readouts competing for attention with weapons-status options. Their seats ballooned around them.
“Hold on,” he said. “We’re going down.”
Voi’s calm returned. “Do you think we can reach the rim in time?”
“Not a cat in hell’s chance.” He wrestled with the controls all the same, but it was no good. The ground was coming up fast and hard. “I wish Galiana had warned us a bit sooner—”
“I think she thought we already knew.”
They hit. The impact was harder than Clavain had been expecting, but the shuttle stayed in one piece and the seat cushioned him from the worst of it. They skidded for a few metres and then nosed up against a sandbank. Through the window Clavain saw the white worm racing towards them with undulating waves of its segmented robot body.
“I think we’re finished,” Voi said.
“Not quite,” Clavain said. “You’re not going to like this, but…” Biting his tongue, he brought the shuttle’s hidden weapons online. An aiming scope plunged down from the ceiling; he brought his eyes to it and locked crosshairs onto the Ouroborus. Just like old times…
“Damn you,” Voi said. “This was meant to be an unarmed mission!”
“You’re welcome to lodge a formal complaint.”
Clavain fired, the hull shaking from the recoil. Through the side window they watched the white worm blow apart into stubby segments. The parts wriggled beneath the dust.
“Good shooting,” Voi said, almost grudgingly. “Is it dead?”
“For now,” Clavain said. “It’ll take several hours for the segments to fuse back into a functional worm.”
“Good,” Voi said, pushing herself out of her seat. “But there will be a formal complaint, take my word.”
“Maybe you’d rather the worm had eaten us?”
“I just hate duplicity, Clavain.”
He tried the radio again. “Galiana? We’re down—the ship’s history, but we’re both unharmed.”
“Thank God.” Old verbal mannerisms died hard, even amongst the Conjoined. “But you can’t stay where you are. There are more worms in the area. Do you think you can make it overland to the nest?”
“It’s only two hundred metres,” Voi said. “It shouldn’t be a problem.”
Two hundred metres, yes, Clavain thought—but two hundred metres across treacherous, potholed ground riddled with enough soft depressions to hide a dozen worms. And then they would have to climb up the rim’s side to reach the entrance to the hangar bay—ten or fifteen metres above the soil, at least.
“Let’s hope it isn’t,” Clavain said.
He unbuckled, feeling light-headed as he stood for the first time in Martian gravity. He had adapted entirely too well to the one gee of the Deimos ring, constructed for the comfort of Earth-side tacticians. He went to the emergency locker and found a mask, which slithered eagerly across his face; another for Voi. They plugged in air-tanks and went to the shuttle’s door. This time, when it sphinctered open there was a glistening membrane stretched across the doorway, a recently licensed item of Demarchist technology. Clavain pushed through the membrane and the stuff enveloped him with a wet, sucking sound. By the time he hit the dirt, the membrane had hardened itself around his soles and had begun to contour around his body, forming ribs and accordioned joints while remaining transparent.
Voi exited behind him, gaining her own m-suit.
They loped away from the crashed shuttle, towards the dyke. The worms would be locking on to their seismic patterns already, if there were any nearby. They might be more interested in the shuttle for now, but they couldn’t count on it. Clavain knew the behaviour of worms intimately, knew the major routines that drove them; but that expertise did not guarantee his survival. It had almost failed him in Phobos.
The mask felt clammy against his face. The air at the base of the Great Wall was technically breathable, even now, but there was no point in taking chances when speed was of the essence. His feet scuffed through the topsoil, and while he felt as if he was crossing ground, the dyke obstinately refused to come any closer. It was larger than it had looked from the crash site; the distance further.
“Another worm,” Voi said.
White coils erupted through sand to the west. The Ouroborus was making undulating progress towards them, zigzagging with predatory calm, knowing that it could afford to take its time. In the tunnels of Phobos, they had never had the luxury of knowing when a worm was close. They struck from ambush, quick as pythons.
“Run,” Clavain said.
Dark figures appeared in the opening high in the rim wall. A rope ladder unfurled down the side of the structure. Clavain, making for the base of it, made no effort to quieten his footfalls. He knew that the worm almost certainly had a lock on him by now.
He looked back.
The worm paused by the downed shuttle, then smashed its diamond-jawed head into the ship, impaling the hull on its body. The worm reared up, wearing the ship like a garland. Then it shivered and the ship flew apart like a rotten carcass. The worm returned its attention to Clavain and Voi. Like a sidewinder, it pulled its thirty-metre-long body from the sand and rolled towards them on wheeling coils.
Clavain reached the base of the ladder.
Once, he could have ascended the ladder with his arms alone, in one gee, but now the ladder felt alive beneath his feet. He began to climb, then realised that the ground was dropping away much faster than he was passing rungs. The Conjoiners were hauling him aloft.
He looked back in time to see Voi stumble.
She made to stand up, but it was too late by then. As the worm descended on her, Clavain could do nothing but turn his gaze away and pray for her death to be quick. If it had to be meaningless, he thought, at least let it be swift.
Then he started thinking about his own survival. “Faster!” he shouted, but the mask reduced his voice to a panicked muffle. He had forgotten to assign the ship’s radio frequency to the suit.
The worm thrashed against the base of the wall, then began to rear up, its maw opening beneath him: a diamond-ringed orifice like the drill of a tunnelling machine. Then something eye-hurtingly bright cut into the worm’s hide. Craning his neck, Clavain saw a group of Conjoiners leaning over the lip of the opening, aiming guns downward. The worm writhed in intense robotic irritation. Across the sand, he could see the coils of other worms coming closer. There must have been dozens ringing the nest. No wonder Galiana’s people had made so few attempts to leave by land.
They had hauled him within ten metres of safety. The injured worm showed cybernetic workings where its hide had been flensed away by weapons impacts. Enraged, it flung itself against the rim wall, chipping off scabs of concrete the size of boulders. Clavain felt the vibration of each impact through the wall as he was dragged upwards.
- "A bracing read, a cold shower for the mind."—Time Out London on Galactic North
- "Reveals [Reynolds's] essential approach to the whole notion of future history."—Locus on Galactic North
- On Sale
- Apr 21, 2020
- Page Count
- 352 pages