Today was the day. For so long he’d awaited it, had Jeffrey Porter. The Veteran’s Memorial Day celebrating the 50th anniversary of the end of the Terran/Martian Wars. An elderly man of 78, Jeff had proudly served the final five years of the sixteen year conflict, finishing up as a lieutenant in the 144th Regiment of the USNA Army.
Drying off from his morning shower, he carefully dressed in his officer’s uniform, still able to fit into it after half a century. With a sense of deep pride, he donned his battle medals. The fourteen metal and crystal awards glittered, each one marking a major battle during the invasion of the red planet and its rebellious population that had had the gall to declare war on the very planet that made their life possible.
He looked at his reflection in the full length mirror and snapped to attention, giving a crisp salute. His once black hair was years gone, and the decades had left him only wisps of gray hair. The nearly two meter height of his youth had bent and diminished. And what had once been a wiry strength that got him out of many tight spots was a shadow remnant.
There remained always, though, his blue eyes. Blue eyes that carried an inhuman spark of brittle light. Blue eyes that had seen the place that burned.
The Flying Wedge shuddered and bucked as the pilot took it straight into the thin Martian atmosphere and made its attack approach on the small city of Willoughby, located on the Tharsis Tholus, one thousand kilometers east of Enla. Lieutenant Jeff Porter looked around in satisfaction. The lead balloon that carried his company of shock troops was locked in place on the forward port side of the ship. The deployment alarm sounded, giving them ten seconds warning.
“Remember! Nothing lives!” he shouted once more to his men, all of whom were sealed in their antigravity couches. They turned quiet, deadly eyes at him, respecting his authority and presence. To a man, they were seasoned veterans, Jeff insisting his replacements having three or more engagements prior to transfer. He nodded once, feeling a tingling warmth coming over him, then eased into the couch and snapped on the anitgravity cushion.
There came a loud clang as the Flying Wedge released his pear shaped landing vessel and it plummeted directly into the heart of the small city, itself a weapon, used to bludgeon its victim before releasing its deadly cargo to prey upon the lifeblood of the defenseless city; its people. And Jeff would make certain every last drop of it would be spilled onto the Martian dust.
He ized the last ribbon in place and put on his holster. The gun inside hadn’t been fired in over 40 years, but it remained in perfect condition, ready for the next clip of exploding shells that could clear a crowded room in seconds.
The hint of a smile came to his lips. His grandchildren always enjoyed seeing him like this. He went to the small kitchen for a breakfast of toast and jam. He normally lingered over breakfast, drinking a second cup of coffee while watching the netly news. Today, however, he finished quickly and went to the living room. His son would soon be there to take him to the ceremonies.
His modest home in Chicago was ample for his simple needs; his wife having passed on eight years earlier. He missed her. Doris had been the only one who could look into his eyes and see beyond the light that came from the place that burns.
“Blow it!” he barked out. There was a terrific jolt as the explosives obliterated the apartment block’s primary airlock. In the old section of Vermilion, on the northern edge of the Hellas Impact Basin, Jeff and his men were seeing to the building by building eradication of Mars’ second largest city.
The air rushed out, causing a mind numbing howl. Fighting to hold position in the buffeting wind, his men grimly waited, their own combat suits protecting them from the bitter cold and near airless surface of Mars. This was the eleventh building they’d purged in the past two weeks, and they knew exactly what would happen. Those residents who didn’t have working surface suits would rush out first, trying to surrender before suffocating in the planet’s thin atmosphere. Afterwards, those who had surface suits but lacked either firearms or the will to use them would come out. Finally, those wanting to make it difficult would wait for the room by room search, fighting desperately to the last, knowing that an enemy who gunned down dying and helpless Martians would show no mercy to those who resisted.
The first dozen ran from the building, unsuited and gasping for air. Jeff brought up his gun and lined his sights up on the second person. The first one invariably received half the weapons fire.
The lead Martian – an older man with short, white hair – jerked and twisted, then burst into flames as the combination of projectile and energy fire tore him apart. The heat of his burning corpse – feeding off the last of the air escaping from the destroyed airlock – seemed to reach out and touch Jeff, burning away… burning away… something inside him.
He looked at his target – a young woman perhaps fourteen or fifteen years old. She was screaming a thin, high wail, the only sound that could be made in the unbreathable atmosphere. She’d miraculously not been targeted, a not unheard of phenomenon in group eradication. Jeff squeezed the trigger three times, then decided to empty the clip into her, making certain she was dead.
“Grampa!” Little Cindy squealed and jumped up into her grandfather’s arms. Jeff gladly picked her up and hugged her, knowing the day was quickly coming when she would be too big and he’d be too weak. For now, though, the squirming six year old was just the right size.
“Hey, Grampa.” Donny, his ten year old grandson, was trying to act more mature. He rolled his eyes at Cindy’s childish display and offered Jeff his hand. Jeff choked down a laugh and solemnly shook it. They were growing up so fast, he thought.
“Ready, Dad?” his son Jonathan called from the family hov, his wife Kathleen still inside, waving at him. They lived on the north side of Chicago and visited frequently, driving him where needed. Today, though, they were a little rushed.
“Coming, Jonathan,” Jeff said, carrying Cindy to the hov and climbing into the back seat with them. He helped Cindy get her seat, then settled in himself. The hov moved off to the south, toward the USNA Veterans of Interplanetary Wars Cemetery.
Once more, Jeff thought. Once more into the place that burns. It was a comforting place, though. Five years now he’d been fighting. Since before the invasion of Mars. And two years now since he’d first been to the place that burns. It made his skin tingle and his head feverish, but it protected him. Whenever he was inside the burning, he knew he’d come out alive. And for the hundredth time, maybe more, he was there. In the place that burns.
This time, though, it was the literal truth. His lead balloon was plummeting down at over 300 kilometers per hour, aimed directly at the Gangly Iron Foundry and Titanium Works located in the capital city of Enla, on the Ascraeus Mons.
The drop ship – twenty meters wide at the base and having armor nearly two meters thick, jolted heavily as it smashed through the sealed roof of the foundry. Catwalks, ramps and cranes were smashed aside as the massive ship crashed to the floor. It struck the rock surface, shattering it and creating a crater two meters deep.
But what would seem to be a tactically poor position was just the opposite. Those not killed by flying debris were knocked senseless by the shock wave. Inside the drop ship, four meters above the base of the drop ship and therefore two meters above the foundry’s floor, Lieutenant Porter and his men were safe, their Martian combat suits on and their guns ready.
The top half of the drop ship suddenly exploded, sending tons of deadly shrapnel – still hot from orbital entry – spraying out in all directions, killing any still standing and releasing the shock troops. Jeff’s couch released him and he jumped quickly to the foundry floor.
It was total chaos. In the eerie light of the pouring vats – Gangly was the last working foundry on the planet – it was a picture from the darkest of nightmares. Dead and wounded lay everywhere. Those still able to move were racing for gun positions. All were suited, so the quickly decompressing facility was not a danger except to those who’s suits were ripped. Jeff had known they’d be prepared for that. But the decompression was intended for the wounded, of which there’d be none shortly.
It was hot. Jeff noticed an employee barracks fifty meters off and he motioned two men to follow him. Tossing four sonic grenades over the roofless wall of the barracks, they charged the wide doorway, protected by an energy barrier. There came the rumble of explosions and the screams of the dying, and the energy barrier dropped. Jeff ran in, firing continuously, certain to the core of his being there was only one kind of good Martian.
A dead one.
The ceremonies were over. The banquet had ended. It was nearly 10:00 PM and it had been a long day for Jeff. Speeches, both for and by him. The playing of taps, the reenactments, the holoclips, the presentation of awards. He’d enjoyed every minute of the day – this recognition of his service to his planet – but he was glad it was over.
Or almost over. Jonathan had taken them to the shore line of the lake and they were spending a quiet hour, talking and listening, just enjoying everything he had fought to preserve.
It was a cool night, and Jeff had Cindy and Donny – who’d finally given up his mature ways to have some fun – cuddled up close to him as they sat on the sand. Though tired, they still clung to a day they hoped would never end. Cindy looked up at the night sky, brilliantly clear and dotted with countless stars.
“Were you really, really up there, Grampa?” she asked.
“I certainly was, Sweetie,” he said, chuckling. He remembered when Jonathan had first asked him that question thirty years earlier.
“Where?” she asked.
“On Mars.” He looked over to the southwest and located it, high above the horizon and shining brightly. Ever since his return to Earth, Jeff had always kept track of its position. It was just a couple months past opposition – when the two planets were closest each other – so it was especially noticeable this night. “There it is,” he said, pointing.
“I thought it was destroyed,” Cindy said.
“Not the planet, stupid,” Donny chided. “Just the people on the planet. Right, Grampa?”
“That’s right, Donny, only don’t call your sister names. There’s no one left on the planet. And no one is allowed back.”
“It’s awful red,” Cindy said, squinting at Mars and trying to imagine her old Grampa on it, leading thousands and thousands of men into battle.
“Yes, it is,” he said in a voice suddenly choked with pride. “And your Grampa helped make it that red.”
Opus In Red
Copyright ©1999 by Peter Prellwitz All Rights Reserved.