By Iain McWilliam
The barracks near Clarkestown, on the Martian moon Phobos, seemed perpetually in a state of confusion: shouts, screams and oaths filled the air; men ran around in circles, and officers yelled themselves hoarse with streams of contradictory commands. Yet the apparent confusion masked an order that is strict, a discipline that is never questioned. Everywhere there are eyes that watch and ears that listen. The sentries who lounged in the sun, apparently asleep, were in reality very much awake and ready for action at the least sign of trouble.
For the moment the barracks were quiet. They seemed half deserted. A heat haze hung over the large courtyard which dominated the military detention centre, and from one corner comes the muted sound of some sort of radio sports commentator working himself into a frenzy. Over the far side of the square courtyard a company of sweating recruits was being put through their paces by an evil-tempered officer. In general he followed the school of thought that states that the longer a man shouts the more he is likely to achieve results. But today it was too hot even for the birds to start singing, and he conducted the exercises in a grim and sullen silence.
On the whole, in spite of the harsh discipline, it is a fairly cushy place for any Sol Confederacy soldier to be posted to. The duties weren't too strenuous, and as for executions, in which they were required to participate every three days - well, a man becomes used to it after a while. When all is said and done, there isn't so very much difference between pressing the trigger as member of a firing squad and pressing the trigger when you are fighting on the battlefields of Mars or Alpha Centauri. Either way it spells death for some poor devil.
"That's war," said Private Davies's comrade in arms Shane Taylor, every time it happened.
Private Kurt Davies is a soldier in the Sol Confederacy army. Along with Corporal Taylor and another old soldier, Private Igor Dobrovolski, they were on guard duty outside the courthouse where all suspected rebel fighters were brought for questioning. Those unfortunate enough to be brought had to form a queue outside it and wait their turn, as if on a visit to the Virtualcinema. Inevitably one or two of them begged cigarettes from them to calm their nerves, and inevitably the war weary Davies and his two friends provided them.
"I went to see Doc Thomson the other day," said Taylor. "I aint been feelin too good lately."
"Yeah, we know," Davies wearily replied. For the past three weeks, ever since they had arrived from an East Martian city named Riedsville, the worst bloodbath yet in the long Martian independence war, Taylor had been constantly complaining about his chest. As if to emphasise the point, he always coughed moistly after saying so. It was hardly surprising to his friends that he had ended up in such a poor state. They had watched him smoke at least forty un-filtered cigarettes for the four years that they had fought together.
"I told him my chest was bad, you see, so had a quick look at me. When he finished using one of those big scanner things to look at my insides he sat down behind his desk then lit up a cigarette for himself and offered one to me. I was more than willing to accept it, of course."
"Of course," Igor sarcastically said as he removed dirt from his fingernails.
"They were expensive cigarettes too, so I took a long drag and relaxed back in my chair.As I slowly exhaled the Doc cleared his throat then told me, matter of factly, that my lungs are falling to bits and I only have six months to live."
The sandwich Davies was busily munching came to a halt in front of his 'o' shaped mouth. "Jesus, Taylor. Why didn't you tell us?"
Even Igor looked up from his nails, with concern etched across his face.
Taylor shruged self-conciously and then continued. "I didn't think you'd be bothered."
"Of course we are," Davies angrily replied. "What did you say to him? Did you ask him about a transplant? You can get anything replaced these days."
"Well, first of all I was a bit angry at the fact that he had offered me a cigarette. So, I asked why he had done so when he knew how ill I was."
"What did he say," asked Igor.
"He just smiled and told me that one more cigarette won't make much difference to saving my life. I asked isn't there anything I can do? Well, he said, if you've got the money you can do what I did and buy yourself a new set of lungs. I could arrange a date for a transplant operation. Great, I said, where do I get them? Just go down to the pharmacist and buy some, the Doc said."
"Easy as that?" Igor said.
"Yep. I popped down to the biggest Megamarket in Clarkestown; walked in, found the pharmacist section then asked for a set of lungs, size three, just like the Doc told me to. A nice looking red-head behind the counter said that will be two thousand solars, please."
"Two thousand!" Davies screeched. He remembered once buying a brand new lower left leg, complete with an auto-repair module, for less than that. His original leg was mangled when his retro rocket failed to ignite properly during an air drop on Mars.
Taylor raised his small hands in exasperation. "What could I do? If I didn't get the new lungs I would die."
"Should 'ave shown 'em your fusion rifle," grumbled Igor.
"Ha! Have you seen those CCTV systems these places have now? Dangerous bits of equipment they are. Next to those little moving cameras are short, stubby tubes and I know for a fact that they don't squirt water." Taylor paused and reached inside his uniform. He produced a cigarette and lit it up. Igor and Davies watch in disbelieving amusement as Taylor takes obvious pleasure from the very thing that was threatening his life. "Reluctantly I agreed to the payment and the red-head started to goe through the formalities. As I waited patiently, she finished typing my credit details into her computer and then passed me the receipt."
Igor sighed with annoyed relief. "So what are you telling us this for? You've got you're new lungs, when is the operation?"
Taylor looked at him and smiled. "Why, I do detect a certain amount of concern for me."
"Huh," replied Igor, "I'm just worried that they'll replace you with some young upstart from Europa. I once had a sergeant from there, a real sadist he was."
"Go on then, Taylor," Davies impatiently demanded, "tell us what happened." He could tell that his story was not yet over.
"Well." He sighs. "As I accepted the receipt I ask her when I can expect the new set of lungs to be ready. She paused for a moment, then checked her computer before telling me that due to the poor crop this year, the lungs won't be available for another eight months!"
"I stood there for a moment in shock then I told her I only had six months to live. I couldn't hang around for an extra two months even if I wanted to. The red head's hand flew to her mouth as she realised the predicament I was in. She said she sympathised with me but explained that there was nothing she could do. All the other pharmacies were in the same position as well. My body just felt like a lump of lead, just like the first time we landed on Mars. But eventually I started to move my lips and asked for my money back then caught a lift back here."
Taylor shrugged helplessly then flicked away his half finished cigarette. An uneasy silence settles over the three of them. Igor gazed blank eyed at the ground then after a few moments raised his finger as if to say something but decided not to. Like Igor, Davies didn't know what to say. The three of them sat in morbid silence, fighting to come to terms with the fact that together the had fought through three years of war only for one of them to be denied life because of a bad crop.
"Here you are, mate."
Taylor handed over a half full packet of cigarettes to one of the prisoners slowly passing by. The accompanying guard turned to glare at him.
"Don't give anything to that bastard! He killed one of our boys!"
The prisoner is only a boy himself. Taylor, suddenly afflicted with acute deafness, holds out a light and grins compassionately. The guard starts to turn crimson.
"Just make the most of it," he said, between his teeth. "You won't be alive to enjoy it this time tomorrow."
The boy hunched an arrogantly indifferent shoulder.
"You're mighty proud," Igor said, with a shake of his head.
"You think I care? The whole damned lot of you can go to hell!"
"Why us?" demands Taylor, with a grin. "Why not your fellow separatists in your poxy little Capital, Moshoeu. Honestly, it beats me what a kid like you sees in 'em!"
"I happen to be a Separatist," said the boy, very stiffly. "Freedom for the Martian people is what I want. Freedom from the oppression of the Earth dominated confederacy government is the only thing that interests me."
"Oh sure," agreed Taylor, soothingly. "And tomorrow you'll be dead and where will that have got you? You'll have a stone slab over your head, if that's any comfort....but they'll still go on persecuting the damn Martians. Anyway, do you think it's any better back on Earth?" Taylor started to violently cough. Igor and Davies looked on with concern. Eventually he stoped coughing before turning away and spitting. "It's the same for all of us. It not just Martians who are treated badly. Terrans, Jovians, Venusians we're all in the same boat."
The boy just grunted.
"Here on Mars and its moons you've got it better than most, and you'd see it if you only stopped to think about it. You want to speak out against authority - right? You do it - right? Because you're on Mars, and you can do things like that over here. You try doing it on Earth and I wouldn't give you a couple of lousy solars for your chances."
"That's beside the point. I'm fighting for the people."
"Come off it!" Taylor said. "You know what you've done, don't you? You've gone and killed one of your own fellow Solarians that you're fighting so damned hard to free! He may have been a Terran, I grant you that, but he was still an average Solarian. Before the war, he was a Solarian. And you've gone and wasted him. For what?"
"For freedom! I'm fighting for freedom like any other good Martian!"
"Well, make your mind up," says Taylor, disgustedly.
"And just see where it gets you, in any case," adds Igor. "That's what comes of carrying out orders given by the opportunists you call your leaders. They tell you to go out and kill someone or go out and blow up a bridge, or go out and put a bullet through your head, and you all run about bleating like a flock of sheep, falling over yourselves to do what they say."
"That is not true! I'm fighting for liberty!"
"Liberty? Or is it just Mars?"
"Once Mars is free then we will help the rest of Sol's people become free.!"
"Is that what your leaders have told you?" says Igor. "Don't kind yourself, son. They're only in it for themselves. You need to wake up. Why don't you get yourself sent to Terra where you can work in one of those huge military production complexes. Save yourself from the firing squad and learn a bit of truth about life for ALL Solarian citizens."
The boy turned sullenly away. From somewhere further down the line of prisoners a melancholy voice wailed out a question.
"What is it they're accusing me of?" A paper-thin man in tattered Martian clothes spread out appealing hands. "I haven't done anything!"
"Well for God's sake," warned Igor, "whatever you say to them when you get in there don't keep repeating that you haven't done anything. They won't believe you and you'll just make 'em mad."
"But I haven't done anything!"
"Maybe not, but there's no place for innocents in this world, believe me.....Confess whatever they want you to confess. Tell 'em anything you like, if it'll keep you from the firing squad."
"But what am I to confess? I haven't done anything! It's all a mistake!"
One of the guards came out with a sound piece of advice.
"Invent something - something small, something they'll believe in. But make sure it's not something that'll carry the death sentence. For instance, firearms. Don't even mention the subject. They'll all go berserk if they think you've been nicking guns. You'll be condemned out of hand if you so much as hint at it."
"But what have I done?" bleated the melancholy man.
"Oh." The guard's face screwed up in thought. "You bashed a soldier over the head with an iron bar?"
"What for?" said the man, bewildered.
"Oh Christ, how the hell should I know? Because you felt like it, I suppose!"
"But I wouldn't - I mean, I couldn't - ."
A fellow prisoner came to his aid.
"My group pinched a truck. Don't know if that's any use to you. You can come in on the job if you like....Only trouble is, the bastards are bound to check up on it. They always do. That's their whole trouble, they're too damned thorough!"
"How about the black market?" suggested Taylor. "That's always a good one."
"But I don't know anyone - anyone who does that sort of thing - ."
"Of course you don't know anyone!" agreed the guard. "That's one of the first rules of the game: never admit to knowing anyone, or they'll keep you in prison till you rot."
"Trying to drag names and addresses out of you," explained Taylor. "Best to say you were alone."
Helplessly, the man shook his head. Davies watched him walk past into the building, his chances of leaving were slim. Minutes later he reappeared. To everyone's amazement, he was full of smiles.
"I did it! They believed it!"
"Did what?" Davies asked.
"Believed what?" demanded Igor.
"I'm a black marketeer," the man happily said. "Three months in prison!"
They watched him walk off to serve his unjust sentence with tears of gratitude in his eyes. Davies discussed this phenomenon with the others for a few minutes until one of the guards appeared with the young Separatist. Whilst poking and pushing him around like a rag doll the guard told them that all the interrogation rooms are currently full so they must wait outside. The guard seemed quite pleased with the extra time he had to torment the boy.
"If I had my way, I'd hang you! Hang the lot of you! Bloody Reds! You killed my brother back in 2022 and you're just as guilty of his murder as the one that killed him! You're all bloody murderer's, aren't you?"
"Let him be," growled Taylor. "He's only got a few hours left, for God's sake! Leave him in peace, can't you?"
"He's a Martian," said the guard, doggedly. "The worse kind of them too, from the south. I can tell from his colour."
The boy tilted his head.
"I am from the south," he acknowledged.
"Good! That's good! They'll be pulling your eyes out this time tomorrow, and I'll be right there, helping 'em."
Seconds later, the guard was ordered to take the boy back inside the building. The young Separatist did not reappear for a full half hour, and when he did he had no cause for smiles: he'd been sentenced to death, as they had foreseen. The Sol Secuirity Service agents even added an extra bit on his sentence stating that there was to be no right of appeal.
"You see?" said Taylor, sadly, as they accompanied the boy back to his prison block. "It doesn't do to be so proud. Why the hell did you get mixed up in all this Separatist business? You probably mean well, but people like you aren't going to gain Martian independence - not a bit of it. And it just aint worth it."
"How old are you, son?" demanded Igor, gently.
"I shall be eighteen tomorrow." He shook his head. "I would have been eighteen tomorrow. Maybe I still shall. It depends upon when they decide to murder me."
"Too young to die," grumbled Taylor. Davies got the impression he is speaking as much for himself as for the boy. "Why didn't someone beat some sense into him while there was still a chance?"
"Eighteen?" Davies said, thoughtfully. He turned to the guard, who was not the Red hating one from before. "Who's on guard duty tonight, Kramer? Is it you?"
"Ah-Huh," Kramer noded. "It's me all right. Twenty four hours of bloody boredom....." He suddenly jerked his head up and looked at Davies. The light of suspicion dawned in his eyes. "Why? What's it to you who's on guard duty? Listen, you damn Terran" he leaned forward earnestly - "don't try getting mixed up in this business. I don't want any trouble."
Davies remained silent and just rubbed his finger up and down his nose a few times. Politicians never do anything for the people. Only for themselves. Taylor, Igor and Davies had seen enough of their friends killed over the last few years to last a lifetime and to see this young boy about to be executed because of the lies told to him by his leaders is too much to take. It was time for some intervention.
At 18.00 hours Standard Sol Time they relieved the guard on prisoner cell Block 4. At that time of the day a prison is always at its busiest. The evening meal is being dished up, prisoners have to be escorted to and from dining rooms, cells and lavatories. The Officer in Command, Colonel Jamieson, took his usual evening tour of inspection. Taylor, Igor and Davies followed him around like fearful servants using heavy keys in rusting locks, causing hinges to squeak, and doors to rattle and slam. The place became a madhouse of activity.
They all sighed with relief when the inspection was over and the Colonel left for his own private quarters. Davies stuck close behind the large door at the end of the main corridor, peering out through the grille. Close by, Igor finished off a game of cards in a cell of three condemned men, at the other end of the corridor, under the cover of all the general six o'clock activity, Taylor has took the opportunity of gaining illegal entry to the Colonel's office.
He ushered Davies into the room with him and closed the door behind him. Very calmly and casually he sat down at the Colonel's desk, and with the Colonel's pen, signed the Colonel's signature upon an exit permit for the young Martian who has been sentenced to death. The exit permit is granted on the grounds of 'further interrogation by the Sol Security Service at 19.00 hours'.
"Sounds good?" asked Taylor.
"Sounds fine to me," Davies replied.
As a house-breaking and forgery team, Taylor and Davies almost certainly had no equals in the Solarian Army. A lock had not been discovered, be it electronic or mechanical, that Taylor could not pick; a signature had not been written that Taylor could not reproduce. The firm, upright hand that flourished so boldly at the foot of the exit permit was indistinguishable from the Colonel's.
Taylor tossed the square of paper across to Igor, who had quietly arrived to see how they were doing, and leaned back with his feet on the polished desk.
"I never realised it was this comfortable, being a Colonel.....What a cushy number those lazy bastards have! Look at this - ."
He prods the soft seat of the swivel chair, but Taylor was more interested in testing the qualities of the sofa, while Davies hovered nervously by the door with sweat starting to pour down his face.
"For Christ's sake, Igor! Who's on lookout?" He asked.
"Oh, don't worry. I asked the three blokes in the cell to keep a lookout for us." He looked at the paper. "Hey, this is quite good. No one will notice anything unusual when the boy is not in his cell. According to this, the Colonel has given permission for him to be released."
"You've got no more nerves than a pair of Neptunian sheep! Get off your fat backside and get out of here, come on!"
"What's all the fuss about?" protested Igor. "We're only carrying out orders, aren't we?"
"That's what bugs him," said Taylor, idly opening a drawer and peering inside it. "I gave the order to break into the Colonel's office and forge his name on a bit of paper, but it was you, Kurt, who was telling me to do so. Then when we get to do it, you get cold feet. Never happy, some people aren't."
"I didn't say lounge about in his flaming chair and ransack his desk!" Davies snarled.
Slowly, and with maddening precision, Taylor and Igor went about the room eliminating all possible trace of fingerprints, while Davies stood watching with his brow ploughed into furrows. He noticed Igor stuff a fistful of black Andromedan cigars into his pocket.
"Come on, for Christ's sake, that's enough!"
Igor jerked his head viciously at me and then flung the door wide open. Taylor reluctantly replaced the Colonel's pen and ushered Davies out into the corridor. Taylor followed last and carefully replaced a piece of broken matchstick into the lock of the door.
"What the hell are you doing?" Davies hissed.
"Saving your scrawny neck for you!" Taylor retorted. "Never open a door without examining the lock first, see? I only did that once in my life and it got me nine months in jail: the bastard that owned the door had stuck a bit of wood into it and I hadn't noticed. So now I always have a quick look before I do the job. You can bet your insignificant little life that if the Colonel got back and found his precious matchstick missing there'd be hell to pay. As it is, he won't know a thing about it, will he?"
Davies shook his head, reluctantly admiring his professionalism.
"All right, you win! You know what you're doing, I'll grant you that."
Igor walked off back to his card game, while Taylor and Davies pay a visit to the young Martian in his cell.
"Here." Taylor flung his coat towards him. "Get that on and come with us."
"Why?" The boy leapt up, white-faced. "I thought it wasn't till tomorrow?"
"It's been put off indefinitely," Davies informed him.
"I don't believe you! Why should they?"
"Oh Christ," said Taylor. "Get a move on, can't you? We've come to get you out of this place, we haven't got time for idle chat. You'd think the least you could do would be co-operate."
"But - ."
"But nothing! Belt up and listen! I'm only going to tell you once, so make sure you take it all in. Soon as we've gone, get the hell out of here and make for the stairs. If anyone stops you, say you're going to the crapper. If you don't see anyone, get down to the ground floor as quick as you can, and don't make any bloody noise about it. OK? When you reach the ground floor take the first door on your left. That'll bring you out behind the toilets. Stay there, out of sight, until the lights go out. As soon as that happens, make a dash for the far side of the courtyard. Got it?"
"Yes, but - ."
"Unless peace breaks out in the meantime," continued Taylor, ignoring the interruption, "we reckon you'll have about two minutes to do it in. They'll have the lights back on again by then, and the guards will just about have reached you. The officer in charge will be expecting you. Fall into line with him and his mates, then it's up to them to do the rest. OK? Just do what they tell you and you can't go wrong."
"It's a piece of cake," Davies said, not believing it.
"Course," said Taylor, "if anything does go wrong it's only right to warn you that we will have to shoot you. Know what I mean? You get caught in the act, so to speak, we can't risk our skins more than what we're already doing."
"Best of luck, anyway," Davies added.
Taylor and Davies returned to the guard-room to follow the course of events. Taylor said he couldn't care less, anyhow, he didn't hold any feelings for Martians even if they are only kids of eighteen. But when Davies pointed out that he could in that case have refused any part in tonight's proceedings he replied by threatening to push Davies's teeth down his throat for him if he didn't shut up, and after that the conversation petered out.
From their vantage point they watched the boy sneak past the room and head off down the stairs. They listened anxiously and looked out of the windows to see if anyone was coming. The boys footsteps slowly receded into the distance until they were suddenly replaced by the squeal of the door at the bottom opening. It squealed like a cat, causing Taylor to put his hands over his ears.
"Jesus! If anyone hears that we've had it!"
Igor, who had been hanging about outside, pushed open the door of the guard-room and noded towards them.
"OK, he's out there."
According to plan, Taylor and Davies walk off to lock up the trail of doors that had been left open. As they reached the guard-room again, all the searchlights went out in the courtyard. That was Kramer's doing. He had reluctantly told them to leave it to him, and it seemed that they had left it in safe hands.
The searchlight was out for just over two minutes, and then once more they began sweeping the grounds from corner to corner. But the silhouette of the fugitive was no longer to be seen hiding between the toilets and the walls of the prison. He had put the two minutes to good use and was now out of sight, lying on his stomach near the far wall.
Davies poked his head out of the window and listened as heavy footsteps walked in the direction of the fugitive's escape route. Taylor who was also looking out of the window with his infra red goggles anxiously grabbed Davies's shoulder and pointed into the dark. The goggles were not standard issue and they only had them because they recently had returned from the battlefields of Mars. Davies pulled down his infra red goggles from his helmet and looked where Taylor was pointing. He could just make out the tips of the fugitives feet, hiding behind the corner of the courthouse on the far side. Marching towards him was the portly figure of a guard. He looked around.
Taylor's grip on Davies's shoulder became almost painful and he swore nervously under his breath. "Is that Kramer?" he enquired.
It is. Kramer finally became aware of the fugitives presence and beckoned his small group of men to join him. He swore and muttered to himself. This was the second time he had been to assist in a break-out, and after the first he had vigorously told them that he would never take part in such a act again.
"It just isn't worth it," he had said. "Nothing's worth anything in this war, least of all risking your life for a worthless prisoner."
Davies watched the guards draw level with Kramer and the young boy, crouched down in the shadows. Silently he rose to his feet and merged with the line of men following Kramer, marching in step. Their rhythm doesn't falter. They smoothly swallowed him up and hid him in their midst. They marched to the rear end of the courthouse, where it turns sharply to the left, they halt. Kramer whispered some quick instructions to the fugitive and pointed to the rope that Igor had secured to the perimeter wall. "As soon as the searchlight has passed overhead, get moving. You have thirty seconds to get over the wall and down the other side."
The searchlight passed across the men who managed to quickly huddle together and hide the fugitive.
As soon as the light passed over the fugitve ran to the wall and started to clamber up.
"If he can get away from here in time," whispered Taylor, "he's got about two hours to daylight. I hope he can look after himself."
Davies remained silent and watched Kramer and his men, who were now nervously glancing around and fidgeting with their fusion guns. If the searchlight found the fugitive they would have to kill him.
The light swung back over them and across the wall. They began to train their guns upon the spot where the fugitive was fumbling for the rope. At the precise moment that the light reached him, the boy disappeared from sight, landing safely on the other side. The guards lower their guns and walk away.
A few minutes later Kramer and Igor appear in the room.
"Well, are you pleased?" Igor asks Davies. "It was a lunatic idea."
"Lunatic's the word," grumbles Kramer. "What's the point of it all?"
"I'm not sure that there is any," Davies replies.
"So why the hell did we do it?"
"I think you know why we did it." says Taylor, with a grim smile. They all remained silent with their own private thoughts until Taylor suddenly clapped his hands and rubbed them together. "Anyway," he said as he headed for the door, "I'm off to have a chat with one of the prisoners."
"What for?" Davies asked.
Taylor stoped in the doorway and turned around.
"While we were in the Colonel's office, I happened to see a file on one of the latest intake."
"Well, it just so happens that he is a black marketeer."
"Let me guess," Davies says as he tiredly rubs his brow, "his speciality is medical supplies."
Taylor feigns mock surprise. "How did you guess?"
"Oh no!" moans Kramer as Taylor left the room. "Not another one."
Iain McWilliam is British and was born in a city called Chester in 1972. He
has recently graduated from University and is now fighting his way through
the mundane world of the IT industry.
Although he has always been interested in Sci Fi, particularly the work of
Philip K. Dick, he has ony recently plucked up the courage to get his work published. But already he has had work published in a number of Ezines, including Cosmic Visions and Aphelion. He has now finished his first novel and is hoping a publisher will offer him lots of money. He currently lives near Liverpool and can be contacted at the following emaiil address: Iain_Mac@compuserve.com
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