If you haven't read the Previous Chapter, please do so before starting this new installment. If you'd like to read this installment on your favorite e-reader or would like to print it out, in order to save your eyes from strain, see the directions under "Read First" for an offline copy of this installment (and others). Happy reading!—G. Michael Rapp
Colonel Valesquez awoke from her short nap—and things felt different somehow. She'd gotten used to sleeping between shifts—a luxury she knew wouldn't last. It was something that she looked forward to, a hard reset for her system, something no street or medical product could accomplish. She'd drank the strongest coffee she had available, and she then used the twin lightning bolts of caffeine and short nap to come back refreshed, ready to do the work no one else wanted to do. Work was slow these days. Most of her work in the 508th Vanguard consisted of guard duty. She kept the peace between those wealthy members of Martian society with itchy trigger fingers. She also pulled extra shifts with the International Mars Development Corporation to keep the black-market thugs away from Hotel California's much-needed medical and hydroponics supplies and the ever-needed police gear. She played second to the Valles Marineris Prefecture, especially when it came to maintaining law and order. Her triggers, the men and women of the 508th, kept the curfews, and with extreme vigilance.
When Colonel Valesquez woke this time, she noticed that there was something different in the air. It tasted different to her. It tasted thick like a warm glass of synthmilk that had turned bad, and it reeked of the stench of liquid human waste. Her Spidey-senses were on alert. Under her uniform, the uniform she had proudly worn for nearly fifteen years, she tucked away her military-issue Glock with extra ammunition, as she couldn't be too careful. She always preferred a gun on her hip, but sometimes she had to be a bit more discrete. Hotel California, and much of the Martian Sphere, was a hot meal and cold shower away from full-blown riots—or very possibly the hangman's noose and guillotines. That meant she and her triggers needed to pretend like shit wasn't going to hit the fan. She often told new recruits, "Be polite and professional, but be prepared to kill everyone you meet." The gloves were going to come off soon. The 508th'd be there ready to square with anyone dumb enough to openly challenge MAP-1.
She wanted to believe that the IMDC and its backers wished to have the whole Valles Marineris washed out, cleaned of the grime and stench. Colonel Valesquez believed she was the woman for the job. She knew where to start. She'd use her triggers, her soldiers from the 508th, to do the dirty work. She didn't mind getting her hands dirty. Her father came to the Martian Sphere to work the hydroponics farms. He'd taught her that dirt on one's hands was a badge of honor—a sign that you could carry through. She'd put that to practice during the First Martian Political Crisis—what everyone called the Unpleasantness. She rose up through the ranks, meeting every challenge her colonel—Colonel Jaime Phoenix—gave her. Rest in peace, Colonel, she thought.
Colonel Valesquez straightened out her uniform, smoothing out the wrinkles with her hand, before donning her camouflaged beret, which matched the rest of the uniform. She holstered her sonic whip, thumbing the safety to rock 'n' roll—ready for anything that might be outside, on the streets of Hotel California, during her shift. She rolled up her sleeves, baring tattooed arms and grafted musculature, and she tucked everything else into the right places. She re-laced her boots and tied them tight, tight enough to give her feet the feeling of solid footing underneath.
Colonel Valesquez turned out the lights in her micro-apartment, only after checking where everything was located. She made mental notes of where new things were and where she dumped or moved possessions after the last shift. She exited her micro-apartment, locking the door behind her and knocking on the doorframe, engaging the internal security system within. She'd always been careful about security. It was something they drilled in you when you first joined the 508th Vanguard. Before she could manage to leave the apartment complex, Colonel Valesquez received an urgent skim from her contact within the IMDC. The message splayed out across her forearm in bright red lettering.
PRIORITY ONE SKIM. FRWRD MSSG TO COL. VALESQUEZ UPON RECEIPT: IMDC DIRECTOR WOULD LIKE TO MEET WITH YOU. MAKE ROOM IN YOUR SCHEDULE. URGENT MATTERS TO DISCUSS. END MSSG. 0800 VALLES MARINERIS TIME.
Colonel Valesquez felt herself smiling. She hadn't expected a call this soon. Last time, during the last political crisis, the IMDC took its sweet ass time getting ahead of the violence. The new director, someone promoted on and shipped from Earth, was living up to his promise to maintain law and order, even if another political stormfront came roaring through Valles Marineris. Colonel Valesquez began revising her strategy to keep the political chaos at bay. She used her private network, the 508th Vanguard's network, to access her organization's battle plans for the Second Martian Political Crisis, something she referred to as the Event. The Event was coming, it was just a matter of time, she thought. She began thinking about her grandiose plans to clean the Gutter, as Valles Marineris had been called by those with enough money and power. The Gutter, humankind's largest extraterrestrial city, needed spring cleaning, a real cleansing of its heart and soul. Colonel Valesquez believed she was the only one qualified for the job, and the IMDC knew it, too. That was why the IMDC's director, Ares, was making contact through Colonel Valesquez's connection within that organization.
The thing about Martian politics was that everyone knew everyone. People didn't have the time, the money, or the patience for slow-grinding politics. That was Colonel Valesquez's first lesson—one earned through numerous meetings with the Martian Sphere's wealthiest and its politically connected. It wasn't like Earther politics—politics her father was familiar with and had taught her to understand. Everything had a timeline on Mars. Air could run out. Clean drinking water could disappear tomorrow. An asteroid might decide to rain death on the whole of Valles Marineris. Shit had to get done. The last crisis had ratcheted up the speed with which the wealthy and politically connected did business.
Life on Mars was really a zero-sum game. Only a handful could have enough of the pie to live comfortably. That was one of the lies Earthers peddled to poor refugees looking for a land of milk and honey. Earth, and its Martian brothers and sisters, sold the poor a losing lottery ticket, on a world already claimed by less than one per cent of the population. When terraforming actually took off, if it ever did, the rich, not the poor, would be in the best position to gain from it all. Colonel Valesquez didn't hate the wealthy for what they did. In fact, she wanted to join that particular club. She knew it would accept her one day, and she was well on her way to becoming engrained within the Martian political and economic system.
The Gutter's geography was one that she'd memorized since becoming a member of the 508th Vanguard. She knew that the walls of the Gutter reached well above her head, capped off by latticework of geodesic domes, built before the First Martian Political Crisis, when international money flooded the Gutter. Splitting the Gutter in two was the IMDC's pride and joy: the VM-rail, and Mars's first, and only, family of bullet trains. It was another byproduct of free-flowing and cheap international investment monies. Colonel Valesquez produced her security pass at the ingress terminal. She knew the security detail working the terminal—they were her guys. They simply nodded and waved her through, weapons at the ready, locked and loaded, as ordered. They didn't act surprised by their colonel's appearance. That was another bit of training Colonel Valesquez had ingrained in her triggers. They were to stay alert, even if Ares himself entered their operational zones.
The geography of the Gutter was quite simple to memorize. At either end of Valles Marineris existed the expensive business districts, taken up by transnational corporations, the IMDC, and Martian indigenous corporations. Money still flowed through Mars, but investors were still wary about another political crisis. Colonel Valesquez knew that the IMDC's director wanted to kick away and bury under several metric tons of Martian rubble the rumors and fears of another Martian political crisis. The director, or Ares as the international community called him, was a new face, trying to solve old problems: self-sufficiency, growth, and terraforming.
Once aboard the VM-rail, Colonel Valesquez took her usual seat in a private cabin, something the IMDC generously paid for, using development funds that might be better spent elsewhere. The interior of the cabin was a sterile white with a blue-grey stripe bifurcating the walls horizontally. When the VM-rail began moving, her cabin door locked. This was usual, in order to ensure privacy and security.
In the middle of the cabin, a hologram of the IMDC's director, Ares, appeared. The lights in the cabin dimmed, and Colonel Valesquez could feel herself smiling. She'd been waiting for this impromptu meeting for nearly five years. Now it had come.
* * *
"This city, the Gutter, is just a news cycle or two away from total anarchy—a real settling of accounts, dog eat dog," Ares explained, his hologram's image flickering as the VM-rail made its first stop.
"I knew that already," Colonel Valesquez interjected, somewhat annoyed.
"I know you do, but the people who fund the IMDC, my superiors, don't see it that way. They don't see guillotines or roving gangs with automatic weapons. They see the rosier picture, where colonists are happy and content."
"So, what do you want me to do about that?"
"I want you to wash out the Gutter, Colonel Valesquez. I want you to rid me of these troublesome elements. If we are to survive, we must do something. We can't have a repeat of history."
"You want me to get my hands dirty, then?"
"I've been told you wouldn't have it any other way, Colonel."
"It's going to be expensive. Not exactly something the IMDC's backers are going to like seeing in the ledger."
"My dear colonel, you must remember that there are more pragmatic elements that support the IMDC, who see the writing on the wall. They are going to pay you a very generous sum to keep their pet project, Hotel California, alive—and well."
"I thought you said your superiors only saw the whole situation through rose-colored glasses?"
"I didn't say they were superiors who had an interest but rather people who support the IMDC's mission. I'm talking about the transnationals, the indigenous Martian bloc, and even a few Luna-based interests. We are, for the purposes of this conversation, working outside of the usual channels."
"The international community that funds the IMDC is slow-moving," Colonel Valesquez pointed out. "So, the good ol' boys got together to solve the problem."
"What kind of operational budget am I looking at?" Colonel Valesquez asked.
"Carte Blanche, Colonel. Nothing less."
"I do have one request, sir," Colonel Valesquez said.
"Name it, Colonel."
"I want jurisdictional control over the security of the entire Martian Sphere," Colonel Valesquez answered.
Ares shrugged and then gave a nod. "I assumed that was the case. Officially, I cannot offer something outside of the purview of MAP-1, but I have it on good authority that I can hire your organization for auxiliary security measures. That means you will have reign over the system. You won't have jurisdictional control de jure speaking."
"You'll be the toughest motherfucker on the playground, and no on is going to mess with you, especially if I have anything to say about it."
"I'd best get to work then, sir."
"You'd best, Colonel."
"One last thing, Colonel," Ares said.
"Make sure the city is cleaned of its filth."
"Will do, sir."
"Colonel," one of Colonel Valesquez's triggers said. "This way."
Colonel Valesquez walked over toward ground zero for the bombings. Four people had met their maker today, Valesquez told herself, and one of them had been a trigger. She took in the bomb site. The tarmac was melted and cracked. Nearby windows were shattered. Pieces of metal fragments and bone were lodged deep inside the nanocrete—the self-healing protocols scrambled by the blast.
"Looks like someone wanted to kill some triggers," a 508th sergeant bellowed.
"Looks that way, Sergeant," Colonel Valesquez commented.
"What're we gonna do, Colonel?" asked the sergeant.
"We're going to clean this city of its filth, Sergeant."
"Did the God of War tell ya that, Colonel?"
Colonel Valesquez smiled and said, "He sure did, Sergeant. Let your trigger know the good news."
"Yes, ma'am. We've been itching for a good fight."
"Haven't we all, Sergeant? Haven't we—"
"Why the fuck are the 508th at my crime scene?" asked a chubby prefect from the local prefecture substation.
Colonel Valesquez looked over her shoulder and then turned around to face the prefect. "My triggers were making sure your crime scene was left intact. We were just doing our jobs—"
"—Fuck off, lady."
"Watch how you talk to the colonel," the sergeant said, raising his weapon some.
"It's quite all right, Sergeant," Colonel Valesquez said. "We are just leaving."
"It's fucking useless with your people contaminating the scene," the chubby prefect said, waving his hands in a wide circle.
"They've maintained all security protocols, and they ensured your people didn't have to contend with secondary explosives or surprise attacks," Colonel Valesquez reported. "I am officially handing the scene over to your people, and I do hope you find who did this."
"Thanks a lot, lady," the chubby prefect said, itching his stomach under his body armor. "I fuckin' appreciate it."
"Triggers," Colonel Valesquez said. "Let's move out! We've got work to do."
Colonel Valesquez, and all her triggers from the 508th Vanguard, began watching the plan for cleaning up Hotel California, and beyond. The presentation was the product of Colonel Valesquez's familiar, Geronimo, who'd worked on it for the better part of three years, perfecting every little detail. When the presentation finished, Colonel Valesquez walked down the aisle that bifurcated the auditorium. Her triggers, men, women, synths, in-betweeners, and others, watched her as she moved closer to the podium. Once at the podium, the presentation screen behind her blinked black and then blinked again, showing a live video feed of Mars rotating.
"We have been chosen for something special," Colonel Valesquez began. "We've been asked by the God of War to bring the hammer down on those elements that would threaten our way of life, triggers. We're here tonight to prepare for the storm that lies ahead of us. Like good soldiers, I know you will answer the call—a call few would dare answer.
"The war is coming, whether we like it or not. You can taste it in the air. You can feel it every time you are out on patrol. Shit's about to hit the fucking fan, triggers, and we've got to be prepared. The event as I have been calling it will likely occur sooner rather than later. We need to boost our numbers, fortify our strong points, and ensure the public that we are here to protect them.
"The 508th Vanguard was born out of necessity, and it will die when the last of us have been killed—even then, I'm not so sure. The 508th has risen to every challenge, and it demands the very best out of all of you. Again, I ask that my triggers, all of you, take up the challenge once again. This time, we are playing for keeps.
"It says in our laws that the 508th Vanguard are always first and never retreats. We must be the sword and the shield of the greatest endeavor of humankind. We must be the night's watchmen, and we must not go into that good night complacent!"
Applause rippled through the triggers. It felt genuine to Colonel Valesquez, and she waited for it to subside. When it did, she began anew:
"Our oath is taken in blood. We are brothers and sisters in arms. Those who refuse our call, after sharing our blood, are worthless to us. They are traitors, and they are the first enemies we must eradicate—"
This part of the speech was interrupted by the shrill scream of a baseline human male, stripped naked. His hands were bound, and he was marched down the aisle. Colonel Valesquez's triggers stood and faced the man, offering him a menacing look as he passed each row.
"You can't do this!" the man shouted. "Please, you just can't do this."
The man was marched up to the podium. A trigger, who was a sergeant, kicked the back of the man's knees, forcing him to kneel.
"Please," the man said. "Please, don't do this, Colonel."
Colonel Valesquez didn't say anything. She nodded and grabbed her sidearm, chambered a round, and aimed it at the man's head.
"You failed to uphold your blood oath, brother," Colonel Valesquez said, before pulling the trigger.
The sharpness of the gun's sound echoed within the confines of the auditorium. The man's head snapped back, and his body slumped to the floor. Blood covered the floor nearest the first row of triggers to the right of Colonel Valesquez's podium. Two triggers grabbed arms and legs and carted the dead man's body off stage, blood still oozing from the limp body. Colonel Valesquez holstered her weapon and looked out over the auditorium full of triggers.
"Tonight," she began again. "We start our muster. Those who don't wish to rejoin the 508th must be dealt with and swiftly. Those who are brought back into the fold need to be remolded into the soldiers they once were. Remember, we must root out our internal enemies first, and then we can move forward from a position of strength."