Start writing... Chapter One: Survivors
Denzel sat by the lake's edge. He washed his face off with the water. He knew he should test it for parasites, radiation, etc… He knew that he was breaking protocol. But at least he wasn't drinking it.
He looked up and could see the fiery inferno of the USFS across the lake in the reflection of the water before him. They were trapped. The Phoenix didn't have long-range space-faring capabilities. It didn't even have long-range communication abilities. And it probably didn't have enough fuel on its own right now to properly survey the whole valley.
They were alone. Just the four of them in a world where savages roamed by the hundreds on the backs of wicked, hooved beasts. The Smoke cloud began to drift with the wind and blot out the sun.
What had the cloaked figure used to cause the explosion on the leg of that ship? Why the Comm had’s gone down? How could Command's reports have been so wrong?
There were so many things he didn't know. That he needed to know.
Denzel picked at a small flower from the grass and held it up. He wasn't familiar with this particular Genus. That thought puzzled him. It made him want to break down and start crying.
How could he not know?
But he held it together. He thought about it. It was Yellow, the petals small and numerous. The stem, structurally weak, but the leaves... they reminded him of the Eruca Vesicaria... A Taraxacum! That was it. He remembered.
This was an interesting plant. It would transform, crystalizing its petals into delicate, Airborn filaments that carried its seed off into the wind. Little flying messengers, using the thick, lush atmosphere to propel its DNA off, sometimes hundreds of miles into the unknown. Apparently, the old world humans would make wishes, proclamations, or prayers before blowing the filaments off the bud when it came time. "Dandelions" they used to call them.
He wondered if the one he held now was the result of some such union. Had some savage made a wish on this planet sometime last year during the plant maturation cycle, and blown it into the ether? Just for it to fly and land and grow here, for him to pick? Or was it just the atmosphere, the shifting wind that blew it away? Did it matter?
And suddenly he felt as if he himself were one of those filaments. A small representative for a larger goal that was not his own, blown from Mars across the cosmos, only to land among the fire.
"Hey, Den..." Brianna's voice chimed into Denzel's headset. "Umm... Chief's getting pretty pissed right now. He says we should move the location while it's still light. He's threatening to mark you as a deserter and leave soon."
"I'll be there in a minute. Tell him to adapt."
On the line, he could hear her snort despite herself and try to make it sound like a cough. Then she pivoted again and turned it into a fake-sneezing fit. He could hear Chief growl in the background before she cut the Comm's.
That woman was fearless.
He eyed the flower again. Maybe he should give it to her. Apparently, that's what they did in the old world. But In the Caves beneath mars... they were far too rare to use so frivolously. Reserved for labs underground, attempting to clone replicas for food, seed, material, or otherwise. It wasn't that you couldn't acquire one with enough money, it was more that it simply wasn't on the list of priorities. And it would take a whole lot of money.
He was only really allowed to have plants in his Cot back on mars as part of his Botany studies.
That was probably the biggest saving grace of his whole extracurricular, is that he got to take home plants to study. He found that women were thrilled by them when he brought them back to his cot and showed them. They probably thought of it as a sign of status or wealth, and he wasn't inclined to correct them. Plus the plants really did add a nice touch to his room.
Denzel placed the flower delicately in one of his many empty specimen pockets. The first sample he had taken from this cruel, beautiful world. But before he did, he made a wish. Just like the denizens of old supposedly had.
After a long moment, he turned to walk away. But something caught his attention.
Something stirred and surfaced on the lake, maybe 50 feet in front of him. It started splashing awkwardly, heading slowly towards the shore. Denzel leveled his phase rifle. Wait... it was someone in an Exo suit. Another survivor? They were trying to swim. And badly. The heavy heaps of rolling smoke made it hard to make anything out.
Denzel switched his rifle to stun and waited patiently.
"Den!? Is that you!?"
"Tucker?" Denzel lowered his rifle.
"Thank god!" Tucker, covered in weeds and mud, splashed onto shore moments later and collapsed on his back breathing heavily.
"Are you ok? Tuck! Did you go to the Lake? Smart... Are there any others?"
"What?! Yeah! No! I just read your lips... I don't know about any others! I surfaced to get a look without my helmet cuz the comms were down and that's when the rocket went off. BOOM! Can you hear me?! Fuck! My eardrums are shot!"
Denzel was so relieved, tears came to his eyes, blurring his vision. He grabbed Tucker's head with both hands and gave him a kiss on the forehead. He couldn't help himself. Out of all his teammates, Tucker was the easiest for Denzel to call a true friend. He was one of the few members who hadn't given him shit for his botany specialty. Probably because Tucker himself had a Mycology specialty somewhere on his belt. He was smart, too. They would often stay up into the long hours of the night, debating this or that in the Mess Hall. And, he grew the best mushrooms.
"Fuck! My Comm's are shot and my eardrums are blasted?"
Denzel put his finger to his lips and silenced him. He moved his hands up and down the sides of his belly, indicating to do his breathing exercises.
Tucker began inhaling and exhaling slowly. Getting his heart rate back to normal. Remembering his training. He nodded to Denzel.
Denzel gave him the thumbs-up sign. Then he put his finger to his ear and opened his Comm line to the unit again.
"This is Denzel do you read"
"YES I fucking read. Where are you Denzel" Chief's was the first voice he heard
"Returning from the first round of rescue protocol Chief. I've got our language specialist in tow safe and sound. We'll see you in 10 min, Over and out."
Denzel looked Tucker over. His comm unit was damaged, by an arrow, from the looks of it. And one of his fingers was definitely broken. He could tell that just by looking at it. So he threw Tucker's good arm around his shoulder, propped him up, and they slowly made their way back to the Phoenix, just as the ash from the fires began to fall.
That was disorienting.
On mars, there was no real atmosphere. Outside, objects always dropped like lead balls in straight lines down to the ground. Feathers or stone, everything dropped directly and quickly down. Nothing fluttered in the wind, because there was no wind.
Denzel stumbled, almost dropping tucker. It was so dizzying... Here, the ash fell in slow motion, effortlessly, drifting with the air like it was alive. It fluttered, moved, and swayed, messing with his frame of reference. It reminded him of spinning around in circles, stopping suddenly, then trying to move forward while your brain still shifts.
It made him nauseous. He had to stop for a moment. There was no argument from Tucker. Just the sound of his heavy breathing.
He closed his eyes.
Denzel felt his body. Felt his weight. Felt the motionlessness of it. He Breathed deeply. He was strangely lightheaded, but it passed quickly. His body was probably adapting to increased amounts of oxygen. That's right. Adapt. Adapt and live.
He re-calibrated his inner compass. Found his equilibrium. Breathed deeply. He was still. He opened his eyes. And with one foot in front of the other, they made their way back towards the Phoenix. Step by step.
10 minutes later, Chief's first question took Denzel by surprise.
"Did you get a hold of Command when you were still aboard the U.S.F.S? Denzel?"
Denzel sighed. Fuck. That's right. He hadn't updated them about anything. Not the greenery, the natives, nothing. He suddenly felt immense guilt for not initiating proper command procedures. He had been acting childish.
He was a representative of humanity, it was his job to establish areas fit for possible colonization, to explore and expand the reach of Mankind. And within minutes of Earthfall, the most important mission of the century, he had failed.
"I radioed confirming we had landed and that was all. They radioed back during the attack, but I never got a chance to reply."
Denzel was expecting insults and yelling, but instead, Chief went white. All the blood left his face.
"I was afraid of this." Chief pivoted to Tucker, changing the subject. We have to move quickly. Tucker, Are you the only survivor?"
"I think so, I don't know. My Comm's busted. But thank god you guys found me! I spent forever just walking across the bottom of the lake. Gravity wasn't so bad but the water resistance was... taxing. I used my nitrogen thrusters to surface and get a visual when I was halfway across the lake. I pulled my visor down for just a second... Anyways that's when the USFS went BOOM. I put my helmet back up, sank back down, and continued to retreat. My visor sensors told me it wasn't that far to the other side, but I still think I hyperventilated most of my suits' oxygen supply. It was dark down there. Anyways I was almost out of stamina when I got to the other side of the lake. If Denzel hadn't been there... why were you there anyway!?"
Chief eyed Denzel at this. Denzel shrugged.
"Well it's good you were! My Comm unit's busted. Assuming you're going with protocol on this one... you'll be leaving the warzone as soon as possible right? And finishing the investigation with the phoenix on the other side of the mountain... I might never have seen you guys again! Anyways, Chief, before we go let's see if we can't go salvage another Comm unit from one of the fallen. We'll need to collect name tags as well. I know it's against mission priority protocol but... it shouldn't take long. And I for one don't want to go home to Tinker's boyfriend and not have anything to show for him. From what she says he's one mean son of a bitch."
Chief said nothing, nodding slowly.
"Anything on the USFS is as good as done for. With the intense heat! FUCK! Can't you warn a guy first?"
Tucker screamed in pain as Brianna pulled on his broken finger, popping it into place.
Denzel plopped down into the pilot's chair.
"What do you think you're doing Cadet?" Chief asked him.
"Do you disagree with anything Cadet Tucker has said so far?" Denzel asked innocently.
"Then let's not waste any more time. The sun is setting soon. Those savages could still be out there on foot. Our priority should be to conserve fuel. That means pulling nametags, charge cells, and anything else we can salvage off the field and retreat to a defendable position within a distance of the disturbance."
"Agreed Denzel. However, I believe Cornelius's 2nd ranking specialty was piloting. He can take us over."
Everyone looked at Cornelius. There was an awkward silence.
"Sir.." Cornelius started gently "With all due respect... I believe Denzel is more than fit for piloting the phoenix. You should have seen him. He flew tactically, dispersing and eliminating the enemy with the thrusters, quickly and efficiently compensating for Earth's gravity... He picked both me and Cadet Brianna up in the middle of open combat. It's not easy to maneuver this thing as he did."
Chief stared at Cornelius silently for a short moment before making his mind up.
"Fine. Take us up and over, Denzel."
"Yes sir." They landed a few moments later.
The beautiful grass field was wrecked with blood and bodies... it reminded Denzel of someone spilling chili on an inordinate and detailed rug or tapestry, and he desperately wanted to clean it. To rinse it off. It was somehow dirty to him. Wrong.
They marched through the wreckage, picking through the bodies.
Suddenly something wet slapped against his nose.
"What the--" He flung his helmet up and crouched, rifle leveled. But he could see nothing.
A drop of water splattered across his visor. What the... Denzel looked up. It was hard to make out because the sun was setting, but he thought he saw something glinting. A cylindrical, silver object orbiting high, high above.
Suddenly the rain clouds stormed over and concealed it from view. Lightning cracked through the sky. He saw Cornelius jump when the thunder hit Just like the textbooks said it would. They had mentioned it was loud. They had not mentioned how terrifying it was.
"Hey Corn!" Denzel Comm'd him. "Didn't you always say you wanted your first kiss to be in the rain?"
Cornelius turned so Denzel could see his expression. He was not amused.
But then he looked down at himself. The rain had begun to wash away the blood caking his Exo suit, and it was beginning to show its dark black exterior again.
Denzel watched as Cornelius started to say something, but instead turned away and looked up into the sky.
Denzel decided to do the same. He retracted his visor and helmet into his collar and felt the rain on his face. It was literally a miracle.
Water had always been scarce in the caves, you were allowed 1 liter for showers and cleaning, once a day. That was it. Most people saved shower water for extra drinking water. Denzel occasionally skipped the bath unless he had a date and simply watered his plants with it.
And now, millions.. millions of gallons poured out of the sky... It felt impossible.
The feeling of awe lasted until he came across Cadet Tinker. As soon as he saw her his stomach dropped. It looked like the savages had twisted and broken her neck.
He went on the Comm's. "Denzel over, I found Tinker... She didn't make it. Over and out." Everyone gathered around to pay their respects.
Tinker was the ship's Navigator and everyone generally liked her. She had big blue eyes and curly brown hair, and although she and Denzel didn't always get along or see eye to eye, she had never directly belittled him. And sometimes she would sing for the crew after a few beers in the recreation cockpit, as long as Chief was nowhere to be found.
It hurt Denzel deeply to see her like this. But it was the Chief, surprisingly, who took it the worst.
"I should have... I shouldn't have signaled a retreat flare. I Panicked. I should have gone for the ship. She did... Of course, she did. The ship is the priority. How could I forget that... But the comms went down, and we were losing so many.. so fast... But the comms.. why... why did the comms go down..." Chief started to sputter.
"Tal... I know what she meant to you... But you have to know she would have wanted--" Brianna gently reached for him.
"Don't you dare 'Tal' me right now Cadet Brianna Parson Laywhelm! It is Chief Talson, Chief, Sir, Or nothing at all! DO you hear me?" He barked furiously.
Brianna flinched back from his violent outburst.
"This is still a military operation, or have you all forgotten?!" No one spoke. Chief wiped his eyes.
"Finish up and reconvene. Strip the fallen of their exo-suits. Reseal them and drop them at the bottom of the lake. We don't need these savages to get their hands on any of our techs. Stay close to each other. Move out Cadets, that's an order."
"Chief, I didn't mean.." Brianna started
"That. Is. An. Order." Chief glared at her down. She sighed, nodded, and then reached down for Tinker's nametag.
"No," Chief said gently. "...I'll do it."
They left him there, kneeling beside her broken body in the pouring rain.
Chapter Two: The plan
It took them an hour and a half to recover all 13 of their teammates' name tags, Exo suits, some extra grenades that hadn't been detonated, a few charged cells and rifles, and a new Comm unit for Tucker. Although they had to turn down the volume on it because he kept yelling.
They now soared in the Phoenix over the dark side of the mountain. Denzel had spotted what he thought was a good landing spot on the side of the mountain. It was close enough to scout the source of the disturbance and was easy to defend. Easy to escape.
"I think it's getting better! I think I can almost hear stuff again!"
Denzel smiled and nodded his head reassuringly when in reality, he was louder than Chief now.
"What do you think of right there?" Denzel asked, pulling up the holo map and zooming in on their destination.
Chief didn't even spare a glance.
"Hmm.. looks good Denzel."
Chief had been... bleak, the past few hours while they were scouting. He hadn't given any orders, just granted permission. It was beyond unsettling.
"Yes sir. We'll be there in 10."
"Chief? Permission to make a recommendation."
The chief sighed. "Yes, Denzel?"
"I think we should stay in-helmet for the remainder of our inflight journey. The HUD stem-buffed air should help get us all into equilibrium. Especially since we're moving to a heightened elevation. It'll also help our lungs recycle any potential contagions."
The Chief eyed Denzel for a quick second, then he closed his eyes and leaned back in his seat. Then, with a sigh he pulled his collar up, activating the advisor that pulled his helmet across his face.
Chief's voice was over the headset, then went silent as he cut the links. And that was that. That was the beauty of the Deepspace headset. Once on, if you turned off your external mic, you could hear nothing, and nothing could hear you, no matter how hard you screamed. It shut all the noise out, fully insulated from heat and radiation, and for the most part, sound. It was soothing.
Everyone pulled their collars up, slung built-in helmets over their heads, and then their faces vanished from view entirely as the smart-visor slid slowly around their eyes.
Denzel opened up a direct link to everyone but the Chief.
"Ok, what was that?" Cornelius asked.
"Yea, what's going on?" Brianna agreed.
A text from Tucker popped up. It read: "Are you guys talking right now?"
"Alright," Denzel sighed. "Switch on your speech-to-text apps and open up a group chat for tucker. We need to talk."
Tuck: Did you see how Chief was back there, Do you think he and Tinker were a thing
Brianna: Yes. Tucker. They were. And Chief's taking it pretty badly
Denzel: Which is why we need to come up with a plan
Cornelius: I can't believe it
Tuck: What did she possibly see in him I wonder
Brianna: Guys. Seriously. Ok Denzel, what is the plan?
Denzel: You're not gonna like it
25 minutes later, they had landed. There was a large flat rock halfway down a 100-foot waterfall on the Southside of the mountain. It extended outwards on the southeast side and was just big enough to set the Phoenix down on. Easily defendable. Easily escapable.
Denzel lowered the ramp and walked out onto the ledge.
The sun had finally begun to set over the jungle below, and the sky was turning a deep purple. There was a faint mist from the waterfall that swept over and around him. It formed small, brief rainbows as it refracted the last of the setting light.
He had to force himself to turn away. I was too beautiful. It wasn't fair his fallen teammates couldn't share the experience.
"Ok Chief, permission to set up camp? We'll need to lick our wounds and rest, then formulate a plan of attack" Denzel said
"I already have a plan of attack, Denzel."
Everyone stopped moving.
"You think I can't read your private link messages?" The Chief asked.
Tucker froze like a statue.
Cornelius dropped his rifle.
Chief then turned and addressed everyone. "You don't think there are some perks to having the Chief's command headset?" he continued.
"SIR! That is gross misconduct of privacy act section 3! Sir!" Brianna belted at him.
"Do you really think I care, Cadet Brianna?? And Cadet Tucker. Do you really think I gave a shit about the illegal mushroom tank under your bed? And Cornelius, do you really think I cared that much when you would cheat at poker?" Chief eyed Cornelius solemnly, as did everyone else now.
"And cadet Denzel... " He continued, spinning around to face him again. Now Denzel grew afraid. The Chief hadn't yelled once in like... 45 seconds. But he was beginning to sink a striking amount of malice into his words.
"Do you... do you really think... For one second..." He stepped closer. "That I... would be tricked... into watching the ship?"
Denzel responded immediately:
"It's a very important responsibility sir, and you would also be providing Cadet Brianna with backup and assistance in the case of any emergency. There's no shame in--"
The Chief stepped very, very close to him. Denzel was suddenly acutely aware of the towering cliff behind him. Would his parachute activate in time? Chief leaned in and whispered.
"I should throw you off this ledge, Denzel."
Denzel was silent.
The Chief leaned back. He gritted his teeth and sighed.
"...But that would constitute a gross breach of protocol."
Denzel eyeballed him. Was that a joke? Chief turned around and began walking back towards the others. Wait.. had the Chief just told a joke?
"NOW!" The chief began. Denzel breathed a sigh of relief.
"Gather round! And let's all make sure we're in agreement before we set up camp and get some sleep. We can wake up and make any new suggestions then." Chief paused. And then, a little more softly, he added "I am, after all... Open to suggestions, Cadets."
Brianna opened her mouth but before she could speak Chief carried on.
"HOWEVER! One thing is not open to discussion. This excursion is going to take 4-6 hours at least. Someone will have to watch the phoenix, however, Brianna will have to do it by herself. Meanwhile, Denzel, Tucker, Cornelius, and I will go on--"
"Wait what?!" Brianna interrupted. "How dare you! We don't get to draw straws? What about my specialty set makes me more qualified to watch the ship then Cornelius?"
"Listen. I don't care about specialty sets right now Brianna. I care about keeping people alive. Call it sexism. Call it Chauvinism. Call it a breach of Ethics. Call it whatever you please. We need you. We need... A woman's touch right now. And that means you stay safe. That means watching the ship."
Brianna stared at him open-mouthed.
"Fuck. You. Sir." She stormed off towards the waterfall.
"You were right. She didn't like that plan at all." Chief said, turning to Denzel.
"Can you really read our private texts?" Denzel asked. Thinking back in his head all the hundreds of times Chief had been the butt of a joke of his.
Denzel opened his mouth to protest but the Chief cut him off.
"But I'm impressed. We do need someone to man the ship. And we need a ground crew to move without drawing attention. You picked the location extremely well. Highly defensible. Short trek to the source. Right next to a freshwater source, no less. I agree with you on everything so far Denzel, except one thing."
"What's that sir?"
"My ability to Lead, Cadet."
"How do you mean, sir?"
"Don't pussyfoot with me. You know what I mean. Yes. I was unresponsive back there. Maybe I was in shock. Maybe that's what happens when someone you love dies. But now, I can assure you I AM operating at the peak of my abilities. I AM adapted. And I AM still in charge here. Am I understood?"
"Good. CADETS! Stretch your legs, take a piss, and try to get some sleep. We leave at dawn."
Denzel went off to find Brianna. She had hated the plan from the beginning because it involved her staying on the ship and getting Chief to stay with her. Now at least, he thought she would be receptive to it... He found her leaning against the rear side of the phoenix.
"And fuck you too Denzel! You're just like Chief! That's why I was chosen to get him to stay, wasn't it! Do you think I can't hold my own out there? Is that it?"
"No! Brianna, no. I'd feel a lot better having you watching my back."
"Then let me watch your back! Not only will I have the most boring job in the world... I'll have to do it... alone." She glared up at him.
That's what this was about? He paused. His hand went to her cheek. "Flower... if anything were to happen to you..." Denzel stopped for a moment to think and answer honestly.
"If anything were to happen to you--"
"Oh shut up Cadet." She pulled him in for a long, passionate kiss. Denzel pulled away.
"Cadet Brianna Laywhelm... That was wildly against protocol..."
She growled and kissed him again. But they were interrupted when they heard Cornelius belting out a battle cry.
Hands-on their rifles, They peered around the ship and saw him furiously slicing the air in front of him with his Phase blades. He appeared to be fending off a large flying insect of some kind that was doing circles around him.
After a few seconds of wildly swinging, he finally made contact and cleaved it in two. He breathed a sigh of relief, then bent over to pick up the pieces. "What's this?" he asked, holding out 2 bright orange wings towards Tucker.
Tucker shrugged and looked at Denzel. Cornelius held the insect out at arm's length for Denzel to identify.
"That, Cornelius.... was a Danaus Plexippus, of the Rhopalocera family." Then after a quick second, he added "It's a butterfly."
"Is it poisonous?" Cornelius asked.
"I don't believe so," Denzel responded.
"Well, better safe than sorry."
"Couldn't agree more..." Denzel said with the cadence of a professional poker player.
Later that night.
After everyone had fallen to sleep, Bri shuffled up close to Denzel in her sleeping bag on the floor. Tucker's snoring drowned out her whispers.
"I'm sorry you didn't get your surprise tonight as I promised."
"It's ok sweety."
"How many other savages do you think there are on this planet? Do you think Command will really send a rescue ship by next year? We cant even contact them anymore..."
"I don't know. I'm sure command will come through."
"What are you thinking about?"
He was thinking about the bright, silver object he saw in the sky moments before the rain clouds rolled in.
"It was a clear day today wasn't it? In the beginning, I mean?" Denzel asked her.
"Yeah... sure, why?"
"Didn't that rain seem to come out of nowhere?"
She thought about it a moment. "Yeah.. but that's just how the atmosphere works I guess. Stuff shifts and swirls miles and miles above us, and before you know it, you have rain. You remember the basic weather class doesn't you?"
"Yeah... I know." Denzel replied. "It's just... The vegetation. There's no way it should be this abundant. I mean the radiation levels... The clean water.. the earth shouldn't have recovered like this for another what... 600 years? at least. Either we've been lied to or something else is going on... And why did our Comm's go down at the worst time possible? There have been no signs of malfunction since."
Brianna thought for a moment. "The only time I've seen that was when Chief uses it while going through the pirate territory. Remember the second leg of our trip? When you couldn't send any cute notes or wish me goodnight for a week straight? Because he had the damn comm's blocked?"
That was the week that he ended up sneaking off to her bunk to tell her in person.
"I remember." Denzel smiled. He remembered it in vivid detail. Then he frowned. "But do you really think Chief Jammed the Comm's?"
"I don't think so it's just..." Brianna paused for a long moment.
"What if we're not the only ones?"
"what do you mean?"
Brianna flipped onto her stomach and looked him in the eye. "What if we're not the first Martian expedition to make Earthfall?"
Denzel's heart skipped a beat. It was too crazy. He knew what she meant. But he couldn't, wouldn't follow the logic down the rabbit hole. If she was right, that could only mean Command had been lying to the Citizens of Mars all these years... Editing photographs to blot out the green on the continents, fudging Luna's reports. But why?
"Go to bed, my Flower. We'll figure it out. But we can't do that without a good night's sleep." Brianna sighed and leaned her forehead against his.
"Don't 'Flower' me, Cadet Denzel." She whispered. Then she kissed him on the lips and rolled over in her bag.
"Oh and no more sexy texts. Apparently." Was the last thing she said. A few moments later he could hear her softly snoring.
Denzel stared at the ceiling, remembering his talk with the Doc.
"You're not like the others," Isn't that what he said? There was something he just wasn't seeing. Something that wasn't right... Something... Did he say something about "the last few missions"? What missions? What was he missing...?
Sleep took him, and he dreamed.
He dreamed of his fallen comrades. He dreamed he was stomped into the mud by a thousand angry hooves. He dreamed Brianna turned towards him, extending her hand with an arrow through her eye socket. He dreamed of fire and death.