Part of 2100 CE.

Keep your head down, goddamnit!” the company sergeant-major was shouting over the din of small arms fire.  “Give me a fucking grenade in that goddamn window!”

            In reaction, one of the soldiers with a grenade launcher dropped to a knee, took careful aim, and with a loud thoomp, sent a 40mm round streak through the air.  The offending window disappeared behind a fireball and cloud of dust—only to disappear again and again as two more grenadiers fulfilled the sergeant-major’s orders.

            “What the hell!” Alan shouted, raising his rifle and firing.  “Where the fuck were they hiding?”

            Nelson didn’t bother to respond.  Training took over in moments like these, and in the blink of an eye he went from senior intelligence officer to infantryman.  Even with the chaos all around them, the 4th Peacekeeping Division operated like a single living being, its component parts moving with a precision honed through hours of training and real experience on the battlefield.  The soldiers of the 4th PKD had been engaged in near-continuous combat operations since last April—they knew what they were doing.  And because they knew what they were doing, that meant Nelson and his team could do their job.

            He spotted the silhouette pop up before the rebel fighter could raise a weapon and dropped it a heartbeat later with two rounds from his rifle.  The rebels were stubborn and resilient, and in a detached part of his mind he even admired them, but they were ultimately amateurs.

            The company of infantrymen kept up a constant barrage of automatic fire as the subterranean openings behind them continued to disgorge more and more red-uniformed soldiers.  The openings had been accessed through the system of underground aqueducts which distributed Mars’ water supply to its many cities.  With the water shut off by his soldiers, Makobe ordered his dismounted infantry into the channels where they would blast their way into subway or sewer tunnels, and from there they could access the surface.

            Just as they beginning to emerge like a colony of ants stirred to war, a column of armored vehicles would come crashing over the crest of the crater.  During a pause in the gunfire, Nelson glanced eastward towards the crater rim.  Even at this extreme distance he could make out the plumes of dust trailing the ten-wheeled armored vehicles as they descended the crater’s inner wall.  He could remember seeing simulations of the descent those vehicles would take and once again thanked the god he did not believe in that he had left the regular Peacekeeping Forces years before.  The vehicles were descending at just above forty-five degrees—much further and those Liberator tanks would flip.  He did not envy the those crews.

            “Crazy fuckers,” he mumbled under his breath, and drew his attention back to the street before them.  The window that had drawn their attention before was a smoking black wreck, while the street below it streamed with columns of soldiers in red-brown uniform fatigues, advancing in concentric waves across the city.  Somewhere on the other side of the crater, 3rd PKD was doing the same, enveloping the enemy from all sides.

            Against the rhythmically report of boots against concrete and the clatter of combat gear, the members of Nelson’s team surveyed the area and managed to catch each other’s gaze.

            “What’s the word, Boss?” Martin asked.

            Nelson drew an armored version of his phone from a pocket and checked the coordinates.  The video the rebels had transmitted had come with a very particular IP address, which they had easily tracked to the Arean Heights neighborhood.  “This way,” Nelson said, attaching the display to his left forearm.

            The team split into a pair of columns and followed him into an alleyway already cleared by the Peacekeepers.  The coordinates showed that the physical address attached to the IP was only a half kilometer to the west.  They moved in total silence, covering rooftops and opportune locations along their route, their movements honed in the same manner as the soldiers who spread like water into every crevice of the city.  Pockets of resistance exploded into firefights punctuated by the explosion of rockets and grenades.

            “Twenty-six hours of bombardment and they’re still alive,” Alan commented.

            “Twenty-seven,” Nelson corrected, and glanced down at his display.  “Here, to the right.  Last door on the left: 422.”

            The members of the team stacked to either side of the townhouse door, while four others stood in various cover positions near to the house and across the street, monitoring the windows.  The Peacekeepers were concentrated a few blocks to their rear, fighting with a pocket locked up in another house.  They would be down here in a moment, which was why Nelson wanted to act now—before the building’s occupants knew they were coming.

            On the opposite side of the door, Kel placed an explosive charge on the doorknob, which acted as an unspoken signal.  The groups to either side of the door moved back.  A split second later a flash consumed the doorknob and wood around it, and a moment after that, Martin’s bulky form kicked the door open and went through.  In total silence, the rest of the team hurried in, separating into groups of four, one moving up the stairs to the second floor and the other clearing the ground floor.

            “Clear,” came the calls from the eight operators, Nelson among them.  He frowned at the result, but then Alan opened a door and called out, “Basement!”

            The eight operators descended on the basement stairs, throwing a flashbang down before following it.

            “No, please!—God no! I don’t want to die!!”  The basement’s lone occupant came running from a corner, his hands raised in surrender.  “Please, God—I surrender!!”  He dropped to his knees in supplication.

            Nelson lowered his carbine and approached the man.  The man was unkempt and emaciated, a clear product of the siege the city had suffered.

            He had the look of a rebel fighter.

            Nelson drew his sidearm and aimed it between the man’s eyes.

            “NO! PLEASE—!

            “Where’s Joshua?”

            The man blinked.  “What?”

            “Where’s Joshua?!

            “He—I think he was here,” the man sputtered, at once recognizing what he was being asked.  “I was told he was here, but he left just before the bombing began, when I came down here.  Please don’t shoot—”

            “Where did he go?”

            “I don’t know.”

            “I don’t believe you.”

            The rebel’s eyes went wide.  “Please, please, please—

            “One more time,” Nelson repeated.  “Where is Joshua?”

            “I don’t know!!” he cried.  “I don’t know!  I don’t know!  Please!!  My name is Preston Tay—

            “Where did he go?”  Nelson pressed the muzzle of the pistol against the rebel’s forehead.

            The man was truly weeping now, pent up tears from the fear of the bombardment brought bursting forth from the fear now revisited.

            And that was when he broke.

            “They’ve gone to Europa,” the man sobbed.  “Europa.  Europa.

            Nelson frowned, standing away from the rebel and lowering his pistol.  “How?”

            “I don’t know—”

            This time Nelson did not bother with threatening the man—he simply slapped the rebel operative across the face with his .45 caliber pistol, splattering blood across the floor.  It was meant as a final warning, and its intention was clearly understood.

            “HLV,” the rebel groaned.

            “The fleet will capture anything that tries to cross the picket lines,” Martin said.

            The rebel was shaking his head, blood dripping from a busted lip and possibly a broken nose.  “The Europan secret service.”

            “They were here?” Nelson said.

            The rebel nodded, his sobbing forgotten.  He coughed.  “Please…

            “How do you it was them?”

            The rebel coughed again, spitting blood onto the floor in front of him.  “That’s what I was told.”

            Nelson studied the figure a moment, leaving the room in an awkward state of silence.

            “We don’t have room to take him,” Dieter prompted.

            “I know,” Nelson said.  He looked around the room, but if there had been anything valuable here, it had long been stripped out.  “This fuck isn’t worth our time.”

            “Please don’t kill me.

            “We’re not going to kill you,” Nelson said, motioning for two of the operators to take him.  “We’re going to set you free.  We’ll let the Peacekeeping Forces decide your fate.”

            The man’s face shot up in sudden recognition at what had just transpired and who he was speaking to.  “NO!  I can’t give you all kinds of information.  I know Joshua—I knew Joshua and his brother!  We grew up together!”

            Nelson laughed.  “Did you?  Then I would know who you are.”  The smile on his face disappeared.  “But I don’t.  You’ve given me everything of value that you possess.  Now you can go free.”

There had been a powerful personal-armory movement on Mars prior to the outbreak of war.  Many of the recent émigrés to the red planet perceived the same tensions present on Mars as those which they had left behind on Earth.  For many it was only a matter of time before tensions boiled over to armed conflict, and so in fits and spurts, individual households began amassing military-grade firearms.  Instead of waiting for the class war to begin on its own, one of their number decided to take history into his own hands by detonating a pair of bombs beneath the Victoria Metropolitan Building, killing three hundred government employees and civilians.  The extremists who flocked to his defense and the armed rebellion it set off in Victoria were harbingers of a much greater calamity.

            There were those within the agency who were convinced that the explosion of armed rebellion across the rest of Mars had been orchestrated, or at least given the impetus to erupt by a select number of individuals.  Nelson was not so sure himself.  He had worked in Central Africa and Central Asia where armed conflict rarely depended on the machinations of a select few.  Armed rebellion, like all conflicts, were only possible if they carried some kind of larger appeal, often self-preservative in nature.  Although individuals might be capable of tipping the proverbial balance, it was Nelson’s experience that rebellions began with a people provoked by their state of affairs to take matters into their own hands.  It was only later that actors would take control, coopting the anger towards an agenda.  It ultimately amounted to the same result, though it placed motivation for rebellion in the proper places.

            With the toe of his boot, he pushed a corpse over onto its back.  The face on the other side was that of a young woman, perhaps nineteen or twenty years old.  Half her face was scorched black, the skin peeling away and flaking like the ash from a cigarette.  The other half was the face of a child, frozen in a moment of terror with a single bloodshot eye staring out towards eternity.

            Nelson stared impassively down at the corpse.  Absently he flicked the safety on his assault rifle, cycling it back and forth.  Besides the girl there were more corpses, all in various stages of mutilation.  The vast majority were dead from small arms fire, most killed in the fighting, but a large number from self-inflicted gunshots.  Better to commit suicide than surrender.

            The bodies were lined up in rows which the red-brown Peacekeepers first tagged, then identified, and finally disposed.  Makobe would allow no burials within the city.  The bodies were to be interred in a remote region of the planet, dumped into a mass grave and covered over without marker.  Then, and only then would the general declare combat operations at an end, and from there allow the prying eyes of the public to enter the city.  They would see precisely what Makobe chose to show them, and not a thing more.

            Before the bodies were hauled away for disposal, Makobe had agreed to give Nelson and his team four hours to search among the dead.  They had been sent to Mars at the outbreak of rebellion in Tharsis seeking a key member of the separatist resistance among the Areal intelligentsia.  It was this intellectual, the agency analysts stated, who was pushing the rebellion forward.

            They knew him only as Joshua, but he was referred to among separatists as the second coming of Zanscar.  It had been his fanatical teachings which had set off the first series of anti-Earth demonstrations in Valles Marineras, and when drawn away by the violence in Victoria, Joshua was the name by which the separatist leader in Tharsis had gone by.  It was his call to continue the fight which had driven organized resistance to choose Elysium for their retreat and last stand, and so it was here that they expected to find him.

            But so far they had turned up nothing.  Joshua’s center of operations in Tharsis City had been bombed and completely destroyed, and although preliminary DNA analysis had shown a potential match with the expected DNA profile of their objective, subsequent video footage posted online showed a disheveled and visibly wounded Joshua inciting his followers to fight on.  There was a thought within the intelligence community that the man in the video was, in fact, a twin brother by the name of John since the DNA found among the debris in Tharsis might as easily be either brother.  It was for that reason Nelson and his team had taken on the role of infantrymen and stormed into Elysium.

            His earpiece crackled and Martin said, “We have positive ID on the sister.”

            Nelson looked in the direction of his teammate.  Martin stood pointing to something at his feet.  “María?”

            Martin nodded

            Joshua had not been alone in his undertaking.  In addition to a twin brother John, there were two older siblings, a brother James and a sister María, and two younger siblings, a brother Simon and a sister Selena.  In Tharsis they found one of the twins and Selena.  Here, so far, they had located Simon, James, and now María.

            But still no Joshua.

            He peered at his watch—sweet dripped down on its crystal face with the motion.  Makobe was pressed to complete the operation and open the city to civilian eyes.  Before he could do that, he would have to quickly clean up his little mess.

            A volley of rifle fire meant another dozen or so bodies would soon be added to the pile.

            There were to be no prisoners.  Those who were captured, even the wounded, were processed by Makobe’s headquarters, placed in containment, pulled a dozen at a time, and summarily executed.  Civilians were hard-pressed to prove they were not merely repentant combatants, and Nelson wondered just how many who screamed their innocence to the last were truly guilty.

            They had less than two hours before Makobe dumped all the bodies, whether or not Nelson found his man.  The general had made his case very plain to Nelson the one time they had met.  He was uninterested in sensitivities or attempts at negotiation.  His mission was to utterly crush the rebellion on Mars by whatever means necessary such that there would never be a base for future rebellion in the future.

            Lieutenant General Makobe had taken the rebellion personally.  He was himself a part of the Areal elite and had resided in Tharsis City virtually his entire life, placing his headquarters there when promoted to field commander of the Peacekeeping Ground Forces on Mars.  While he was away quelling the violence in Victoria, both his personal and childhood homes were destroyed, and his family taken hostages, only to be executed when Makobe refused to negotiate for their release.  Nelson had seen the feed at agency headquarters when the rebels cut his daughter’s head off on a live video stream Makobe was watching.  He had been assuring his daughter that everything would be resolved when the murder took place before his very eyes.  It was said the general first watched in shock, before rising to his feet and departing the room in silence.  He returned a half-hour later, his composure unchanged and a plan for the campaign to retake the Tharsis plateau in hand.

            Victoria, New Kingdom, Anteros, Numitor, Driana, Valles Marineras, and finally Tharsis all burned, each population suffering more than the last.  Makobe considered anything short of unconditional surrender to be a sign of resistance, and so it would be met with the full fury of the force under his command.  Elysium would therefore suffer the greatest disaster of all the rebel cities: the total destruction of its population.

            A shadow blocked the sunlight as a dirigible airship slowly hovered to a stop overtop of them.  The bodies were arranged in the middle of a sports field where the airship would land and take on the bodies before transporting them out of the city, beyond the crater, and deposit them on the other side of the planet.  They were running out of time.

            He thought about what their prisoner had said about an HLV, but there was no way Makobe would allow a launch into orbit while he controlled the surface.  And any spacecraft that did reach orbit would be intercepted immediately either by surface-to-orbit missiles or other spacecraft from the fleet overhead.  There was simply no way anyone could escape.

            The next few bodies had died in field executions by the Peacekeeping Forces, which allowed Nelson to instantly rule them out.  They had copies of the records collected by Makobe’s headquarters on anyone executed by Peacekeepers, and although that was how they had found Simon, it had not yielded James, María, or Joshua.  James and María had been found by checking corpses individually, and so it stood to reason that if Joshua was among the dead in Elysium, he would be here, too.

            Before the airship touched down and began the laborious process of onloading the corpses, however, Nelson determined that Joshua was not among the dead.

            “Probably a hoax,” Alan suggested, “maybe something prerecorded, played by his siblings.

            “Maybe,” Nelson echoed.  “We’ll have to check with the lab to see what they think of the video.”

            “It seemed authentic,” Alan said.

            “Seemed.”  Nelson watched the aircrew and their accompanying cargo robots making quick work of the rows of bodies.  The robot A.I. had expressed some surprise at their orders and requested clarification, but they complied, gingerly placing one body after another into the cargo pods attached to the airship’s ventral side.  Absently Nelson flicked at the safety on his rifle, cycling it back and forth with successive clicks.  He wondered what the A.I. made of this situation and whether any of their programming had prepared them for this scale of human devastation.

            “We finished here?” Dieter prompted.

            Nelson looked back from the loading operation.  “Yes.  Let’s go.”

Continues at 8-Gitano.

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