When everything collapses, swept away in an angry red dust, what makes you hang on, cling to life?
Other people get paid for this, I thought, over and over. Why am I here?
You hear all about it, you know, service. Duty. Devotion. For a higher cause. But it doesn't quite prepare you or insulate you for what you end up doing.
Three hellish days, crossing the Martian waste on foot because Guan Yu was screwing with any ship in the hemisphere, let alone inside a stone's throw of the city. Our bright, shining white suits had long since turned pink with the dust. We were strung out in a line, tied together so the wind or dust wouldn't send one of us into the desert to die. You could feel the wind, even if you couldn't hear it through the helmet. Fortunately, by the time we got within sight of the valley, there wasn't much dust left to be kicked up and we could see.
It was about three in the afternoon, at least that's what it would've been on Earth. The sky was an angry purplish, like blood on the inside of your helmet, and it was ripping around, trying to kill us. The worst was behind, but the destruction lay ahead.
The bones of the old Martian city of Zhengwe reared up before us, a blasted mess. Shattered teapot domes, gulping depressions where tunnels had collapsed, and an entire face of the valley just ripped away. We'd called the storm Beelzebub; they called it Guan Yu. Both guys are huge, red, and angry. Mars can be like that.
And then there were the bodies. They were bleached white against the red and dark afternoon sky, no flies, no maggots. No, these people were dead and still. And not just people, their carefully laid gardens were ripped open, torn out of the walls and scattered around like dry leaves.
The big companies would get some contracts to help rebuild, and the men on the Security Council could say they'd done something to help...but before that, we were there, trying to save the remains. The people who were getting paid weren't showing up for a while, and by then the hardscrabble Chinese might all be dead.
Still didn't answer my question. Those people had reasons to be here.
In front of me, I could make out the faded suit of Sub-Comandante Correa, pockmarked pink by the winds.
"Okay, men, halt." He said. "This used to be the lip of Zheng-we Shan Ling, Zhengwe Ridge. The retaining wall looks like it's fallen away, and the power's definitely cut...that means rappel. We're just doing shallow-surface today, no wandering down the shafts. I want you guys to buddy up, check out sites as you can find 'em. Keep an eye out for someplace to pitch HQ, and remember north, west, east, south: time, team, hazards, survivors."
People had grouped together in pairs as soon as the word came, but people are like that. I looked around and found only Harris, the tall, dark Martian from Olympia North. He'd been with the service for some years.
"I guess you've seen a lot of places like this." I started, trying to make conversation. "I mean, I'd think, with all the storms..."
"It's not as bad as people think," he said, clapping his pouch. "At least, not...like this."
He took out his rope while I got my hammer and rappel. A few swift bangs...if this was earth, and my hair was sliding in the breeze instead of plastered to my brow, I'd be hearing the sound of it ringing. As it was, I just felt it, a shudder up my arm with each strike.
"I guess you're used to this, huh," I said, radio chatter. "Not hearing anything outside."
"Depends on how you hear," he said, running the ends through the rappel. "If just your ears, yeah. But your whole body..."
"Sympathetic vibration, all that?"
"I guess," he said, "Rope!"
Down into the valley below, in front of the twisted metal front doors of Zhengwe. We were taking out our figure-eights when the radio crackled to life.
"Sub-Comandante! We found some! Family of four, camped in a crawler. Nihao ma?" That'd be Johnson, near the other end of the hutong, the neighborhood. And his voice echoed, like he'd taken off his helmet.
So there's survivors, I thought. That's why you're here...to make sure they survive. You're here for the greater good.
Not that there were anywhere we were headed. I looked around, as well as I could through the three-direction visor. And while Johnson's territory might not have been hit quite so hard, this part of town was gone. The Chinese colonies were notoriously populous, and for all the wrong reasons. Right under the lip had been some kind of coffin hotel, the raw girders now poking out into the sky. It looked almost like one of those chocolate wafer cookies I used to eat as a kid, except it was red instead of brown, and there were legs and arms sticking out of it. I wanted to retch, I didn't know what I was doing, what could be done for these people?
"Do we mark this place?" I asked Harris, trying not to taste metallic bile for practical reasons. Vomit in your helmet is no fun.
"Not until we've looked through it," Harris said. "Come on, Marquez. It don't mean nothing...sometimes, things just happen."
My hand shook as I took a gloveful of rock, got my footing.
"You going to be okay?" Harris asked, unlatching his harness almost as his boot touched the ground.
"Yeah, I think so," I said, fumbling with mine. The sun was blasting inside, but in there it was dark and cold as...well, you know. Most of the flimsy interior walls got taken out, but the roofbeams were holding on for dear life. As my eyes came to grips, I saw the first bodies. One old man had tried to claw his way out and got caught in the lee side of a wall.
"Looks like suffocation," Harris said, dispassionately shining a light on it. "Fair to say for the rest, too."
I started apologizing to the old man's body in every language I knew. I was crying. What the hell was I doing? I couldn't help these people; I couldn't help anyone here. The scavengers and the builders and the rest could at least console themselves with those thick bills lining their pockets.
I was jostling around inside my helmet.
"Come on, niño. It's part of life. It just happens. No point, it just happens." The soft touch wasn't working so well. "Marquez! Think of the nice, fluffy nirvana he's gone off to."
"What the hell, Harris?" I said. "Martians are supposed to be so damn cold but, damn it, what'd Old Man Lee here ever do to you to be so damn insulting? What the hell are you doing here if you can't—"
"Marquez, shut up for a second. I'm here for the living, same as you. Now, you speak Chinese, I don't, but I sure as hell can handle a body and I can handle Mars." Harris took a look around. The wind was still howling, in there, thudding through our suits, but everything that could splinter had been, and the splinters were long gone. "I don't see any closed capsules where Sleeping Beauty could be resting, and we aren't going far in anyway. I think we're done here."
We spraypainted our names, the local time, zero and zero on the ridge wall next to the former window. Under the burning sun, my malaise boiled off.
"Thanks," I said, finally.
"Got me my first time, too," Harris replied.
I tried not to think about them, lying where they died. The children they'd had. The jobs they'd worked. The friends they'd made.
As we made our long, slow way down, level by level, it was just the same: A small shopping complex on the next floor, the signs sandblasted until Dr. Chan's Great Martian Pharmaceutical Company looked like Wong Greengrocer, and nothing inside to tell the difference. The storm had ripped out the wood balconies, so to check inside the upper storefronts I had to stand in Harris's hands. Each storefront could've only been maybe a hundred foot square, each nearly cleaned out except for the biggest and heaviest furniture, some of it rock.
One owner had barricaded himself in his shop, keeping an eye on the merchandise, before the angry dust had torn away his door, his body, his goods, and his name. In there, I found a bit of carved jade, on a string wrapped around a desk leg in the corner. Three colors in the jade, one each for longevity, health, and prosperity.
Then down to the next floor, where Dr. Chan and Mrs. Wong went home at night, an apartment complex that'd been so horribly hit the roof and floor were both sagging in different places, and the floor near the mouth had just given up and slid into the next story down. But at least it wasn't as populated as that first hotel, at the top of canyon, when Guan Yu's wrath came down. Both floors were horribly empty, and I'd assumed that the great storm had taken the bodies as its rightful due.
I was still at the mouth of the entrance, near the collapsed floor by the time Harris was level with the lower story.
"Hey, niño," he called. "No entrance from the outside. I think it's a complex, the outer entrance along down the way. See what you can find down there."
I hammered in a rappel, and had tossed down the rope almost before I noticed. I took firm hold, switching on my helmet light, and made my way down.
In that gloom, I didn't know what I stepped on until I slipped off. My head jerked around impulsively, trying to see, but the light was staring straight ahead in front of me, on a pile of boxes marked "RICE." Finally, I managed to get my flashlight on.
I found the sealed doors, and the chairs stacked up against one wall, and I felt hope. This place had weathered the storm, in the womb of the rock. And then my light fell.
I can't...I think they'd all huddled together for warmth...they looked a little like a pile of beans, about that color, too. The old city hall, where the mayor had called in the council and the pillars of the community and the...you could tell by the cut of the clothes, the nice trim on the matted, stringy hair.
I started to lose it right about then.
They had food. They had water. They'd sealed the place up tight as a drum.
Then the roof caved in. They died gasping, holding fast to each other.
What the hell could I do? The mayor, the cadre, the Party apparatus had seen to their needs, tried to save as many as they could...and Guan Yu had come down and destroyed them anyway. If the men with more sources than our scraggly team could carry on our backs couldn't help themselves, what help could we give them? No reason, no reason at all, just shuffling onto and off of the mortal coil, living lives over endlessly...that's all there was. I was sobbing, staining my radio.
"Marquez!" Harris's voice crackled. "What's going on in there?"
I took a deep breath of heavily recycled air. It smelled like stale sweat.
"Don't come in here," I said. "I'm all right, just shook. I'm coming back up."
Next to the entrance, we sprayed the news, our names, and zero survivors. Based on the chatter, everyone else was having the same luck, except for one or two more garage-campers.
The sky was getting darker, as night was approaching, and we were nearing the first ridge that really jutted out from the canyon wall. It looked like, before Guan Yu, it could've been a garden, but every last grain of topsoil had been sucked east. I touched down, tested the rock, and unhooked my harness from the rope.
"Looks like this was somebody's covered garden...the anchors for the canvas are still here," Harris said, pointing to rust stains I couldn't make out against the rusty color of the rock. There was a huge pile of rubble between the two anchors.
"I think this is the entrance," I said, helpfully. "Cave-in."
"...it looks sealed...," Harris said, his face slack and unfocused. In a wink, he became a moving force. "Get out the pup-bubble. We'll hook it to the awning anchors. Move, niño!"
About an hour later, we had the plastic bubble around the door and the air up to Earthman-spec. After we had our helmets off and our filter-masks on, we picked away what rocks we could with our hands, before resorting to crowbars and elbow grease to crack the cave-in proper.
"Wait," I said, panting. "Stop."
"I think I can wriggle inside."
Harris looked at that hole we'd dug out together, and then at me.
"Alright, niño. Don't wander far." He nodded at me. I checked my equipment and scrambled up over the remaining detritus.
I couldn't help coughing inside. The air in there was thinner than in the dome, and hadn't had a chance to mingle yet. But it wasn't Martian carbon dioxide, either. I lit a match to make double sure, and it burned. The light helped, too, in the dark winey foyer. From the match's brief blaze, I could see paintings on the wall, a deity...or a demon. It almost danced in the trembling light that burnt my fingers.
"Ow!" I said, dropping it. I pulled out the flashlight, clicked it on...and the ghost on the wall stopped dancing. I could breathe a little better. A temple, very traditional, littered with fallen beams, pieces of crockery, and utensils. I made my way forward, lighting matches on occasion to check the air.
My flashlight was dying, and sometimes the matches were the best light I had. It got to be a ritual, every few breaths, I'd light a match and there's be flashes of fangs, dripping in the red light, or horns and the brow that supports them. Or the muscles tensing on some demon of the Buddhist underworld stepping out of the wall.
In one room, I slapped my flashlight and there they were, the mummified remains of three monks, dead three days ago or three thousand years ago, the dusty offerings overturned. The only witnesses were the vibrant-hued figures glaring out of the rock face.
I swear to you, that was...if I'd been a superstitious man, I'd have turned tail then and there. At one turn, I even saw Guan Yu, large as life, splattered all over one wall, his eyes gleaming and his beard flowing out behind him. What was going on? Was this the angry god that had destroyed the whole city? What I saw lied to me; how long had I been there? By that time, I could hear the rattle and wheeze of my mask trying to filter what little oxygen was left in the air, so deep in. The sound of my own breath, the only track of time in that rocky womb.
I rounded a corner into a dome-shaped chamber, lit by a little sliver of light from somewhere far above. In the center was a man's body, wizened and almost mummified like the others. He looked downright ancient and frail, but he'd been swaddled in an old muddy-brown blanket. Training turned to ritual, took over. I reached out to check the old man's throat. His skin was dry, and still, and...a pulse! A weak, tiny twitch in his neck. What was real snapped into focus, I pulled out the handheld with one hand.
"Harris, we gotta live one!" I cried.
At the noise, he started reviving, of his own. I tore the mask off the and put it to his, trading breaths with him like divers. His brown, almond eyes meandered open. The expression, or lack of expression, is something I'd never seen before or seen since.
"Who are you?" he asked in Mandarin.
"Old man, how did you...I mean...there hasn't been air in here since..."
"Ah ha. You rescue," he said, before waiting patiently for the mask.
"You've been here three days! Without enough oxygen to light a match!"
"Mr. Rescue, maybe you think I am old and weak." Another pause for the mask. "But my body is still strong. I think, when you have right mind, when you have ecstasy, maybe time is nothing, weakness is nothing."
"I'm going to carry you," I said.
Past the angry, red guardian, into the waiting air. Harris met me halfway with another mask. The old monk thanked us as soon as he could get a full breath in his lungs.
"How did you do it?" was the question on Harris's lips, and mine, once I'd translated.
"Sometimes, you give yourself to a higher nature...weakness, not so important, distraction, not so strong...sometimes, you serve. You give yourself, you serve, then many things are possible," he said, taking sips of air. I translated for Harris.
"Slow, shallow breath." Harris noted the monk's air intake on his pad. He turned to me, the dark Martian eyes almost the color of earth. "That must be it. Without moving, semi-conscious, he almost could..."
"Right focus, right practice, right intent...you serve, you learn to control desires, control distraction...you are free," the monk said.
Over the pup-bubble, we spraypainted "one." Surviving so long...I'd heard of things like this, how in the old days they used to bury mystics alive and they'd say there, in a trance...but never for three days. I'd thought it was a magic trick, but maybe not. Who was I to say what could or couldn't be done, when I'd just sworn by dancing paintings and gave air to a man just back from death?
You just want to say you did something, something important. That you were there, somewhere, wherever "there" was. Meaning, I guess. That's why you write your name on the slip, why you sign on, why you volunteer without pay or recognition. You just want to say you did something useful.
That's why you serve.
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Copyright 2008, R. Jean Mathieu. All rights reserved.
Jean Mathieu, 22 years of age, spends his time writing, learning new languages, and traveling the world in search of adventure.