The wasteland came and went. I grew tired of the ride, of the waiting, and I nodded off. I was only half asleep; my body would not let me go fully unaware, as the adrenaline of my soon-to-come doom was ever present.
Jim ignored the world for most of the trip. He was scared, or at least severely thoughtful, and I could not get a word out of him.
Rigel, too, was thoughtful, though of what I could not say. He did not appear particularly interested in the situation.
The Sun fell through the sky until the world was pale blue and hazy. It was evening, dusk, and still we drove on. I wondered how many kilometres we had traveled, and where on the surface we could possibly be. I had lost my sense of direction despite the Sun’s rays, and I had given up trying.
I turned to Rigel. I noticed his hand habitually stroking the outline of the birthmark that traced down from his face beneath his collar. I wondered whether it had embarrassed him as a child, or if he had embraced his uniqueness and fought for it.
I assumed that if one were to mock the mark, they would pay dearly.
These thoughts were filed away in the recesses of my mind, ready to be dusted off and used for the article I would write.
At that time, of course, I did not know whether I would live to write the piece—but my mind sought to ignore the possibilities and focus on my living through whatever ordeal I came to.
“Where are you taking us?” I asked, quietly. It was a question almost to myself, as if questioning the decisions that had led me here. Why Mars? Why not the Moon? The Belt? Titan, even? Something about the red tint of this planet, the first real colony of people beyond Earth, had drawn me.
But Rigel answered. I was surprised; before he seemed more than willing to dance about the subject, and even turn away my threats of interested parties finding him and his troupe. Now, it appeared he was willing to speak.
“Mars,” he said, “is a big place. The wasteland is nearly infinite: one could travel days in a direction and only meet more dust, colder dust.
“It is the same colour everywhere; the only biomes are the cities and the craters. It is like nowhere else; there is no change. No varying clime.”
He took his eyes from the window and gazed into mine. I could see he was tired. The mantle of King did not fit him well. There were lines on his face, deep creases where stress had eaten into the skin. He continued:
“I am taking you, and your deserter companion, into that wasteland. I am taking you where you will not be found, and where you will not escape. I will share your story with the members of the Resistance—even the denizens of Mars herself—and show them we will not negotiate.
“You will become martyrs for my cause. Your deaths will be broadcasted and revered as a punishment for those who fight me.”
I was quiet. I had had a feeling he would leave us, desert us as Jim had deserted him. But—
“Why not just kill us?”
“Oh, I am,” he said, and smiled. The corners of his mouth pulled back and he looked to be in pain, rather than pleasure.
“I am taking you to Hellas,” he said, “or the area near it. Your choice will be to die in the desert, in the cold, dry, wasteland, or to suffocate on the bilge of the cities and Colonists.
“Hellas is a bad place,” he said, and I could hear the distaste in the words. “Hellas is filth, it is contempt, it is the waste produced by Colonists.
“I do not envy you,” he said, and turned back to the window.
I was in two camps, then. I wanted to point out the inconsistencies in his argument, the incorrect description of the Hellas basin. But I also knew that, while we were in great danger, that danger could be escaped.
We had a chance.
Unfortunately, for all the plans we make, they seldom go unmolested.
I looked at Jim, and saw he had finally fallen asleep. His head lay against the glass, and his eyes fluttered as he dreamt. I hoped he was dreaming of peace, of an escape, of anything other than our predicament. He would have to face it soon enough.
I saw Brigette turn back to Rigel. Her large form hardly fit into her clothes, and her square face was set into a grimace. “Nearly there,” she said.
The long-haired driver grunted a distance reading; I did not catch it. I could see the terminal glowing gently beneath his face. His hands gripped the controls firmly, navigating the unmarked wasteland with skill.
I looked out the window again, and gasped.
In front of us, how far I could not tell, I could see Hellas.
Or, rather, I could see the edge of that dark place. The ground ended too soon—the horizon would have been more distant if it could be seen. For after the edge of the land, was cloud.
It was nighttime, so the cloud was dark, but I could see it moving. It undulated, twisting in on itself, ominous and foreboding. It looked, truly, worthy of its name.
I saw flashes in those clouds, few and far between, and guessed they were the spidery webs of lightning running through the charged gas. The clouds were polluted beyond all recognition, and I was not surprised to see strange reactions take place within them.
And, as I realized the danger ahead of me, I felt my stomach drop and my heart thud in my chest. I would be asked to walk into that?
No. I could not do it. But my alternative was to sit in the freezing wasteland until my skin shrivelled and I gasped for water.
The reality of the situation gripped me then, and I began to move erratically. My eyes couldn’t focus, my hands would not remain where I put them. I sought for something familiar, something steady, and found Jim.
I shook his shoulder, rudely waking him, and gripped his arm. I looked out the window and his gaze followed mine. He shook his head, and moved his eyes between his feet, at the bottom of the craft.
We came closer, so close, to that abysmal pit. The craft slowed to a halt, lurching on its suspension, and the hatch opened.
A roar filled my ears, low and persistent. It was the hum of the heavy equipment within Hellas, the low-frequency movement of the molecules in the air. It was like a constant, whispering, thunder.
“Up,” Brigette said, and heaved us by our bonds. We stumbled out of the craft and my legs gave out under me. I had not moved in hours; I could hardly stand.
My face hit the dirt, and it felt strangely soft on my cheek. I did not mind the dust then.