Mars was a dry, lonely planet. The few successful human colonies were rough and ragged, the indigenous Tashan cities half abandoned, and the deserts uninhabited apart from tough-as-nails nomads who braved dehydration, dust storms, extreme temperatures, and the often predatory Martian fauna.
For Lile Brenton, a handsome, middle-aged Earthman, it was lonely in a more personal sense. He had spent his last penny on passage to Mars, with the idea of making his fortune mining the uranium and fossil fuels the strange, possibly-living Tashan technology did not use. However, it was quickly made apparent that the aliens had foregone these energy sources for a reason: they were vanishingly rare on the red planet, and, it seemed, always had been. Lile, and countless other prospectors, were up the creek, trapped millions of miles from everything and everyone they loved.
Some made the best of it. In the ragtag miner settlement New Montana, which sat in the rolling dunes of Mariner Valley, one enterprising entrepreneur had started a bar called The Homestead. It did its best to mimic an Earthly tavern, with faux-wooden furniture and blue skies visible through digitized “windows”.
Others turned to alcohol, drugs, violence, or intimacy to drown their homesickness. For Lile, it was the latter. He was handsome, with chiseled features, at six foot-seven he matched some of the Tashan in height. This, combined with his natural talent for flirting, had allowed him to bury himself in a parade of lovers. This hadn't been entirely bad, as his paramours often provided himself with a bed and a meal, sometimes even something resembling stability. But it had backfired when one of his girlfriends turned out to be married- to the local Water Boss, Bintosh Narwell.
He had broken things off immediately and prayed that would be the end of it. Narwell controlled the town’s water purifier, which cleansed the dusty water of the canal, making him a bad man to upset. At best, he would cut off your water. At worst, he would have his thugs slowly drop you piece by piece into the canal.
The next day at dawn he went to The Homestead, figuring it would be empty, or nearly so. He had gone to use the bar’s public transmitter booth to contact his old prospecting partner, Olivia Moghadam, about lying low at her place until he was sure Narwell wasn't going to kill him. After he explained to the still sleepy owner that he needed to use the transmitter, he was allowed inside. He sent the message and took a seat at the bar to await her response.
“Posso arranjar-lhe alguma coisa? A beer? Some Jabra?” The Bartender said, making the Hentinj gesture denoting polite inquiry. Hentinj, also called Hellasatic by scholars and Tashanish by the uninformed, was a remarkably efficient language. It incorporated gestures, poses, inflection, and context, so that a single utterance could accomplish what would require a paragraph in another tongue. This meant that the language and its enormously complex written counterpart had never been mastered by any human speaker. Despite this, common gestures and phrases still worked their way into the local dialect, and many settlers spoke a English-Portuguese-Hentinj blend. Lile had only ever bothered to learn enough of either to allow him to function, preferring to keep his English uncorrupted by the red planet.
“Some red wine, please.” he said, placing a water ration chip on the counter. The bartender accepted the currency and poured the drink, which wasn't wine, but in fact an imitation created from modified yeast cultures. Its grainy flavor betrayed its fakery. Just another reason to miss home.
A ding at the transmitter announced the arrival of a message, and since it was morning and Lile was alone in the bar, he assumed it must have been a response from Olivia. He stepped into the booth as The Green Hills of Earth played over the cheap radio.
“Brenton, it’s good to hear from you!” The grey hair and wrinkled visage of Olivia said from the transmission monitor. “Minha casa é sua casa . I’ll be out in the Labyrinth for the next few weeks, looking for ice, but you’re welcome to use my cabin. I’ll leave the door unlocked for ya, and I'll make sure the guardbug remembers you, too. You’ll have to get your own food though, my freezer’s empty. Hopefully Narwell’s boys won’t look for you this far west. I warned you your philandering would be the death of you. See you soon.” She made the Hentinj gesture for friendship and signed off.
Olivia lived near the decrepit Tashan city Qorla Na-Zat, at the western end of Mariner Valley. It sat right at the mouth of Noctis Labyrinthus, or the Labyrinth of Night, where Olivia said she was going ice hunting. In ancient days, a river had flowed out of the darkness of the labyrinth to feed the city, but today it survived on a trickle of water from the same canal as New Montana.
Lile thanked the bartender and made his way to the small town’s canal dock, moving quickly and keeping an eye out for followers. He didn’t know what Narwell knew, but he feared his former lover would confess their affair soon if she hadn’t already, if only to spite him for breaking things off. He was eager to put the town behind him.
On his way to the canal he stopped at the prefabricated halfway house where he had been rooming and retrieved his pack containing all his worldly possessions: some clothes, a canteen, some dried food, a stack of ration chips, a knife, and a Beretta G-9 pistol. After years spent on Mars, he felt as though there ought to be more, but he reflected that he had relied on help from one lover or another for most of the time. He left his key at the front counter and stepped back out into the barren, dusty street.
The dock was a worn sandstone slab protruding into the red-stained water, a remnant of a long-gone age when a native settlement must have stood here. Now, a few small skiffs were tied to it, their drivers just now making their way back from wherever they had stayed the night. Lile noticed that one boat, The Queen of Cydonia, was nearly ready to disembark. A burly, sun-browned woman was laboring between the ship and the dock, loading crates and packages onto the deck. Lile approached her.
“That’s a lovely boat, there.” He called. “How much for a ride down the canal?”
The woman turned from her labors to size him up. “Olá. And thanks.” she said. “What have you got to offer?”
Lile reached into his pack and handed some of his ration chips to the sailor. She inspected them for a moment, then nodded and gestured for Lile to come aboard.
The journey westward took a day and a half, during which Lile mostly sat and watched for the black dot of a trailing ship. The woman’s name had turned out to be Afia, and she served as captain and crew on most of her lonely journeys. She seemed quite glad of the company, and proved very personable even when Lile said little. He learned that she was a prospector like him, having come to Mars to work with her husband before he got lost in the Hellas Deadlands. After that, she had used their savings to buy The Queen, and now made her living moving food up and down the Mariner Canal. Lile regretted his tenseness, Afia was not unattractive, and under different circumstances he would have liked to get to know her better.
One night, as they approached their destination, Lile found himself unable to sleep. He got up from his bedroll to check the canal behind them for the umpteenth time, taking his blanket with him against the frigid climate outside the cabin. The ship’s engine churned the black water, making the reflected stars flicker as they would have in a sky with a thicker atmosphere. Like Earth, he reminisced. A Tashan canalcrab broke the surface and skittered up out of the water, depositing a load of dust from its bowels. The chemically-engineered imitation organism was designed to dredge the mud from the canal bottom, purify the water within it, and discard the remaining sand on dry land. This ensured that the waterways remained unclogged by the shifting desert sands while retaining precious water for the canal. To Lile, the thing just looked creepy, nearly alive but clearly not.
Movement on the shore caught Lile’s eye. The desert was violet in the pale light of Phobos, and the thick (for Mars) foliage at the canal's edge obscured things further, but he thought he could make out figures in the darkness. He strained his vision and then caught his breath: there were definitely people moving through the desert beside them.
His mind jumped immediately to Narwell, and he raced to his pack in a panicked rush for his Beretta.
“Everything okay?” Afia muttered from behind him. He looked up to see that she was holding a shotgun casually at her side, and eyeing the pistol in his hand. He put it down gently.
“Yeah. yeah. But there are people by the canal. I think they might have followed us.”
Afia moved to the edge of the boat, Lile following her. After a few moments, the figures reappeared.
“Ah.” The woman whispered. “Wanderers.” Lile was incredulous.
“Really? How… do you know?”
“They’re wearing Tashan desert cloaks, entende? And only Wanderers would chance attack by walking around the desert at night. Bandits, raiders, criminals, nobody'll touch 'em.”
“Right, the Wanderer’s curse.” was the sardonic reply.
Afia turned a raised eyebrow to Lile. “I had a friend in New Montana named Deke, he used to say he knew a woman who had locked a Wanderer in her shed or something overnight, and they found her dead the next day. The Wanderer hadn’t left the shed.”
“I’ve heard that one too, from my friend Olivia.”
“Humph.” murmured Afia. “Well, it's true what they say about the Wanderers not defending themselves. I once saw, with my own eyes, a water-crazy miner lift their flasks right off 'em. The damn Martians just stood there like nothing was happening. Then the rest of the town started yelling at him, telling him to give it back. They were scared of curses.”
The hooded figures were right at the canal edge now, marching silently in single file. Lile marveled, as he had many times before, at the control superstition exercised over so many settlers. It wasn't that he didn't understand, life away from the coddling of Earth was perilous, and sometimes the supernatural could be of great comfort. Especially when all that stood between a man and his maker was a patched-up spacesuit or the last drop in his canteen. But it was the comfort of the simpleton. Lile needed only his wits.
“Did he do it?”
Afia shrugged. “Don't know. I got in my boat and sailed out of there as fast as I could.” They stood silently at the boat’s railing, watching the flowing cloaks fade into the night. Suitably assured that there was no danger, Lile returned to his bunk.
Two days later they arrived at Qorla Na-Zat, or rather, the comparatively small prospector settlement lying beyond the outskirts of the city. Ponderous Tashan airships buzzed overhead, on their way to lash themselves with jerky, half-living tentacles to the city’s towering docking spires. Tashan canal barges drifted here and there, propelled by numerous pseudo-creatures fused to their bottoms. Beyond the ancient metropolis, the usually distant walls of Mariner Valley converged on the shadowy chasms that were the entrance to the Labyrinth of Night.
The prospector town, whose narrow pier The Queen was now settling beside, had sprung up on both sides of the wide canal, leading some clever resident to post a sign welcoming travellers to New Venice. Lile reflected that the real Venice would no doubt put this shantytown to shame.
He disembarked without stopping to wish Afia farewell. Ordinarily he would have stayed to chat with a woman like her, maybe even offered to help her with her business for a while, but he didn't dare risk it. He feared Narwell’s thugs might follow her to him, and he wasn't terribly eager to have her knowing where he was or where he had gone.
He took the long route to Olivia’s, weaving between prefab cabins and dusty bars, sticking to the shadows and even crossing the canal bridge and back again in an effort to bamboozle any unfriendly eyes. He found the door to Olivia’s cabin unlocked, as she had promised, and he flipped the lights on to survey his temporary safe house.
Something dropped onto him from above, and a sting on his right arm made him yelp. A bronze spider-esque creature was clinging to it, plunging a writhing, needle-thin tentacle into him. A drop of blood flowed up the tentacle and into the body of the thing. Its powerful legs gripped him tightly as it analyzed the sample, until finally it relaxed and withdrew the needle arm into its abdomen. It fell to the floor and scampered up the wall.
“Ouch.” He muttered, rubbing his sore arm. His hostess had always shown enthusiasm for adopting Tashan technology, once commenting that it was “either machines aping life, life mimicking machines, but either way its resilient stuff.” Her zastaq, or guardbug, was just one example. Lile found such devices distasteful. If the guardbug hadn’t recognized him, he would have been dead by neurotoxin within seconds. In that way, it reflected the Tashan and Mars in general: brutal and unforgiving.
Lile deposited his pack by the spare bed roll Olivia had laid out for him and did a cursory search of the cabin’s kitchenette. His old friend had been truthful when she said he would need his own food; the freezer and cabinets were bare. He would need to head down to the general store for groceries tomorrow. The food he had brought would last for today.
Aside from the kitchenette, the cabin was little more than a small main room and a tiny bathroom. The walls were decorated with photos of family and friends, as well as more than a few photos of Olympus Mons and other Marscapes. The only window was at the back of the cabin, looking out onto the canalside. A collapsing bed folded out from the wall, and a video player/transmitter sat across from it. The transmitter was a sign of Olivia’s success; evidently ice hunting in the labyrinth had been lucrative for her. He’d have to ask her how she managed to sell the ice and avoid the ire of the local water boss. In the meantime, he was tired from his days-long journey. He made himself comfortable on the bed roll and fell asleep watching the guardbug meditate quietly on the ceiling.
When the blue-white dawn of Mars broke the horizon, Lile was already awake. His intention was to make for the general store as soon as it was open, in an effort to avoid being seen by as many of the townsfolk as possible. He locked the door behind him, bringing Olivia’s key with him, adjusting his Beretta on his hip and feeling the ration chips in his pocket. He hoped he could barter the clerk into trading them for a couple weeks of protein packs.
The air outside was cold as a the dead of winter on Earth, but the morning passed as a temperate one on Mars. Lile looked east, down past where the Valley went over the horizon, to the the wispy blue sun of dawn. He noticed a dozen or so cloaked figures standing at the canal's edge. Wanderers, he realized. Probably the same ones he had seen on the way here. One of the town’s residents, a dusty young man, was also staring at them - albeit from a safe distance.
But it wasn’t the cloaked Tashan that caught Lile’s attention.. A little ways further down the canal, he noticed that The Queen was gone, its place taken by Narwell’s water speeder. In a sudden rush of panic he hurried over to the staring man and grabbed his arm.
“How long has that speeder been there?” He demanded, pointing.
“That boat- the water speeder. When did it arrive?”
“Uh, about when I got up, before dawn,” was the startled reply. Lile rushed back to the cabin, locked the door, and braced it frantically with a cheap plastic chair. If Narwell’s minions had followed him here, they’d waste no time beginning to search for him. It dawned on him suddenly that by heading toward Qorla Na-Zat he had made his enemy’s hunt easy: here at the western end of Mariner Valley, he could go no further west than “The Venice of Mars” before the canal ended in the Tashan city and the Valley itself tapered off into the Labyrinth. What’s more, Olivia was a known associate of his, and they needed only ask around to find out which cabin was hers. He had moments, at best.
He moved through the room in a whirlwind, grabbing his still-packed bag, as well as extra ammo and a Tashan glass knife he found in a kitchen drawer. He topped off his canteen, telling himself he would apologize to Olivia for draining the cabin reservoir when he saw her again. He was about to move his hasty barricade when he noticed the guardbug position itself above the door. With its sharpened “senses”, it had noticed what he was only now registering: the crunching of boots outside the door.
The world fell away, leaving only the sound of those footsteps on the path outside. Lile prayed they moved on past his door.
The sound stopped. There was a light rapping, and it took Lile a moment to think through the haze of his panic and realize that whoever was outside was knocking.
“Olivia Moghadam,” called a gruff voice from without, “We’d like a word. It’s about a mutual acquaintance who recently arrived in town.”
Lile considered shooting through the door. His hand moved slowly to his pistol, as if the murderers outside could see him.
“Olivia Moghadam?” the voice repeated, “We’re coming in whether you open the door or not.”
“She might not be home,” another voice theorized.
Lile carefully freed his Baretta from its holster. With a shaking hand he leveled it at the door.
“Mighta’ left, took Brenton with her,” the second voice continued, “Or maybe he’s somewhere else in the town. Foda-se, maybe he’s getting comfy with the Martians in one of their towers.”
“Well, we check here first,” the first retorted. “Although I don’t think she’s gonna answer. Cullen, get us in.”
Taking a deep breath, Lile pulled the trigger.
A perfect hole appeared in the door, followed by exclamations and curses from the men outside. That was when it occurred to Lile that his pursuers were likely more heavily armed than he was.
He dropped to the floor a moment before bullets started punching holes in Olivia’s cabin. The room became a tempest of tearing metal, ripped insulation and splintered plastic. The window looking onto the canal shattered. Lile covered his ears and screamed.
Finally, the storm ended. Olivia’s once neat cabin had been transfigured into a ruin, the furniture was splintered, the communicator split open, the bathroom collapsed inward. The walls were checkered with holes and the floor was coated in debris. A poster of Olympus Mons laid atop Lile’s head.
The remains of the door fell inward, and a short, muscular man followed it, casually cradling a gauss rifle. He spotted Lile under the debris and raised his weapon menacingly. He mouthed something, but the ringing in Lile’s ears kept him from understanding. As if in slow motion, Lile raised his Beretta.
The zastaq dropped from the ceiling onto the short man’s face, extending its needle-tentacle to plunge into his head like a stinger. He stumbled backward, dropping his rifle and clutching at the thing as its claws hooked into his skin. Taking the opportunity, Lile crawled to the back wall, pulled himself out the broken window, and tumbled down into the water.
He was submerged in chilled darkness, the cold drilling through his clothes into his flesh. A lungful of grimey water deepened his panic, and he thrashed wildly until his head burst through the surface and coughed and sputtered loudly. When eventually he gained control of himself, he saw that gunfire was again ravaging the cabin. Apparently Olivia’s Tashan security system was giving Narwell’s hired guns a fight. Fortunately, the slow current of the canal had already carried him a little ways away, so that he wasn’t directly in the line of fire. He swam to the edge and pulled himself unto the shore not far from where the Wanderers were still standing.
While the few townspeople who had been awake at that early hour had returned hastily to their homes, the Martians seemed unperturbed by the violence unfolding not far from them. They stood as they had been moments before, slowly filling their water casks, waiting for the pseudo-devices to excrete the sediment before before adding in more canal water.
The guardbug would occupy his attackers for a while, no doubt, but he had no idea how much neurotoxin it carried, nor even how many enemies were on his tail. He needed to get out of town, and before the guardbug was finished off and the chase recommenced. If this were Earth, he would simply lose his enemies in the hills. On Mars, running off into the desert unprepared would get a man killed as surely as a bullet.
The alien’s cloaks billowed lightly in the cold breeze of morning, and suddenly Lile knew how he would escape. Few dared disturb these enigmatic creatures, and he was about the same height as the shortest of them...
He approached the Wanderers cautiously, wary of their bedeviled reputation despite himself. In his best approximation of Hintinj he called to them in a pleading tone.
“Benign intentions to you and your water! I need clothes!” He stuttered, nearly forgetting to make the hand gesture which would give the entire statement and an urgent tense. When the aliens didn’t respond, he cursed the complexity of the Martian language and tried again.
“Benign intentions to you and your water! I need clothes… yours… danger!” this time he made the gesture vigorously, as well as the gesture for friendship and a warning of peril. Still, the Wanderers quietly went about their work. He was running out of time, and he knew he would make no progress like this. If he wanted one of their robes, he would have to take it.
He went to draw his gun, only to find it missing.
I must have dropped it when I fell in the canal!
He was furious and panicked until with relief he remembered his knife. With a quick glance over his shoulder to check that none had yet emerged from the cabin, he pulled the knife from his belt and padded still closer to the mute Martians. He told himself he didn’t believe in curses as he selected his target.
It took several thrusts to kill the frail figure nearest him, as it barely bled, although neither it nor its colleagues offered any resistance. He stripped the skeletal body of its robes, throwing them over his head and getting his arm stuck in the neck for a few terrifying seconds. Soon he had the cloak straightened and the attached mask fitted to his face. In a hasty effort to dispose of the evidence he nudged the frail corpse of his victim into the canal, making sure to rescue its precious water flask, and then he kicked his discarded clothes in after it. They bobbed dismally at the water's edge. For a second, he worried that the other Wanderers may retaliate, but they simply carried on as they had been, not acknowledging their comrade’s death nor reacting to anything at all.
The shooting had finally stopped, which meant that either the guardbug or the intruders had been vanquished. Lile began attempting to blend in with the Wanderers, gracefully stooping to filter water, while watching the cabin from the corner of his eye. From what he could tell it was all but disintegrated. After a few moments, the figure of a man ducked through one of its gaping holes. Dammit.
It was followed by another, and another. How many had Narwell sent to kill him? He couldn’t believe that they had all avoided the sting of the guardbug. He watched his attackers fan out and began searching the area around the cabin. One, apparently a young second-generation settler judging by his lanky form and confident way of carrying himself in the low gravity, spotted the floating body Lile had so haphazardly concealed in the canal.
“Ei! Olhe aqui! A Tashan in the water, dead, I think!” He yelled, his free hand fluttering in the Hentinj sign of respect for the deceased.
The other two thugs hurried over and stared at the corpse. One of them reached out with his gun and prodded the unfortunate Martian.
“Looks like it. Wonder what happened? You think it was… them?” an older man, possibly a former prospector like Lile, asked warily as he eyed the Wanderers.
The third man, standing behind them, shook his head. “No, doesn’t make sense. No Tashan would touch a Wanderer, and if they did, no Wanderer would defend itself. It’d wait for the curse to get it’s revenge.”
“It was Brenton. His clothes are floating in the canal,” the younger man pointed to a floating lump of synthetic fabric near the body. “He must have killed one of the Wanderers and taken its cloak to hide himself.”
“Bom trabalho, nice detective work, Cullen,” the older man, evidently the one in charge, said. Lile felt his heart sink.
“So, what do we do? I’m not searching the Wanderers. Hell no,” the third man took a step back and made the sign of negation.
“Nem eu. De jeito nenhum,” added the young one in agreement.
The boss seemed to come to a decision. “We'll watch ‘em, then. Closely. Brenton’ll slip.” He stood purposefully, glowering at the hooded crowd. “He can’t keep this charade up forever.”
‘If they want to wait,’ thought Lile, ‘then we’ll wait.’’
He spent all of that morning purifying water with the Wanderers. Kneel, fill the flask, stand, wait for the water within to be cleansed, kneel, over and over again, until the noonday sun was up and there was a burning sensation in his legs. For their part, his enemies seemed perfectly content to observe, one of them even departing briefly for beer.
His alien camouflage didn’t seem to be in any rush, either. The sun had already teetered past its apex, and his flask was filled to the brim with drinkable water, yet the Wanderers worked as they had all day. If they had not moved by sunset, he resolved to leap into the canal and hopefully make his escape in the dark, thick water. The leader of the thugs lit a cigarette.
Without a sound the Martians turned, one by one, and drifted off toward the distant Tashan city. So quiet was their departure that Lile completely failed to notice until the flowing cloak of the Wanderer beside him rippled out of view, and with a suddenness that betrayed his humanity he jerked his head to look after it. For a moment he feared the action might have been seen.
“Hey”, said the youngest thug to his comrades, making Lile’s blood freeze.“They’re leaving.” he continued, and Lile exhaled thankfully.
“We’ll have to follow then. Narwell said to bring this guy’s head, as a breakup present for his girl.” The leader intoned. They adjusted their rifles and water packs on their shoulders, started following Lile and the Wanderers, and as the sun sank in the west that strange parade marched into the desert.
It was dark when the party finally reached the outskirts of Qorla Na-Zat, where Lile hoped to slip into a narrow alley and make good his escape. Despite its size, the city was little brighter than the Terran settlement they had left behind. This may have been partly because the chemical lighting employed by the Tashan was slightly dimmer than electric light bulbs, but Lile suspected a good portion of the city was abandoned as well. He wondered how many Tashan still lived in it. He was never to find out. As they approached the nearest dilapidated Martian spire, the Wanderers changed direction, evidently intending to skirt the edge of the city. Lile cursed them silently for ruining his plans.
This was another notoriously frigid Martian night, and he fought to keep from shivering too much. His stolen robe provided meager insulation, but then, the Tashan who had worn it before him had wasted little body heat and need little insulation to begin with. He dared not look back at his opponents, but he heard them cracking heat-rods, a local invention appropriating Tashan chemical engineering principles. Such a device could maintain its heat for days if kept on the lowest temperature setting. The sound of the cracking made Lile furious. Dammit! Those bastards! Why are they carrying heat-rods? Did they expect to be caught out in the cold? It occurred to him that perhaps they had, that Mars was a desolate and unforgiving planet where much could go wrong, and they had adapted themselves to it. He pulled his robe tighter for warmth.
The moons were high overhead when they reached the western end of the Valley. The shadowy chasms of Noctis Labyrinthus divulged a frozen breeze, hurting Lile’s lungs and making him shake despite his efforts to resist it. Fortunately, his pursuers did not seem to notice.
“They’re heading for that dark crack, Jorn,” one of them said, “They’re going into the Labyrinth. Eu não gosto dele. ”
“Sim sim. I see,” the leader replied. He fired his gun in the air and yelled, “Brenton! Listen to me! The Labyrinth, it’s not safe in there for someone like you who doesn’t know how to survive. If you come with us now, I promise your death will be better than the death you’ll get in there!”
The first of the Wanderers was disappearing into the black maw of the Labyrinth. The breeze was now a wind, whistling coldy in Lile’s face.
“Sem uso. He’s not gonna take that offer.”
“I would, if I were him. The Labyrinth, it’s má sorte. Worse juju
than the Wanderers.”
“We’ll be waiting here, Brenton.” The older man continued. “When you decide you’d rather not leave your fate to the Labyrinth, we’ll offer you the quicker way out.” But by then, Lile was already swallowed up the darkness.
The icy piping of the wind was Lile’s only sensation for a long time. To avoid getting lost in the black, he clutched the billowing cloak of the Wanderer ahead of him. He trudged blindly, occasionally sensing a turn here, a descent there, a dune climbed in darkness or an unseen obstacle avoided. Several times he tripped on rocks and nearly lost his grip, but he held it tightly, and the nightmare march continued.
He would not go back, no matter what his hunters said about his inability to handle the rigors of the Labyrinth. Soon, the sun would rise, and he would be able to find some path to climb up and out of that maze. From there, he could work out a plan to find Olivia and get to safety. Presumably, she was still using their old rock hopper… with its heated interior. The dawn could not come soon enough.
He trudged onward, occasionally noticing a shifting in the direction of the wind. He wondered how large the Labyrinth really was, how many miles it extended in any direction. He knew there were satellite maps of it, but he had never looked at one for more than a few moments. He did not think it had ever really been completely explored, at least not by humans.
Suddenly, the chasm was illuminated with a milky glow. Through the narrow slit of sky overhead, Phobos appeared like the turning on of a light. Lile saw that all around them were branchings of passageways, smoothed and sculpted by the perpetual currents of wind so that the walls bulged and receded strangely. His guides had been moving with such apparent confidence that he had not realized the extent of the maze, but now it struck him that he could not find his way back even if he wanted to. Worse still were his chances of ever finding Olivia. It dawned on him that if he wanted to make it out alive, he needed to stay with the Wanderers. Once they made it through the Labyrinth to the Tharsis Highlands, he might stand a chance on his own.
It was then that his foot slipped on hidden ice in the regolith and he fell backward, dragging the Tashan whose cloak he held down on top of him in tangle of dust and limbs. As they struggled to stand again, Lile saw that the creature’s hood had fallen back. Though obscured by the dark and dust, he spotted a dark, thin head, a long face, eyes shining hatefully dimly in the moonlight- and teeth bared in a hiss that was more than just the wind. Soon they had resumed their trek, but the incident stuck in Lile’s mind. Tashan did not express emotions like humans, and Wanderers were not supposed to express them at all, under any circumstances- but Lile was more scared now of the friends of his victim than he had been even after he had done the killing.
By the time the strip of sky was turning from deep black to the light blue of dawn, Lile was barely conscious of it, his entire world reduced to cold and exhaustion. His water, which the flask had kept from freezing, was nearly gone, and a stream of frozen urine clung to his left leg. The wind was blowing more intensely now, kicking up dust, although he hardly noticed.
They pushed onward, one foot in front of the other, even as the cold winds began buffeting them and the dust filled the chasm like a river. The robe kept his face and lungs clear of grime, but his vision was blocked entirely. The whistling turned to howling and Lile clung fiercely to the robe ahead of him, even as sand and debris blew up his sleeve and stung his skin like hornets. Rocks fell from above and landed with thuds around him, but he walked on, even as the tempest screamed around him like a dry monsoon.
Suddenly he collided with something. Dazed and battered by the storm, he did not immediately see what it was he had run into. He still held the robe, but it no longer pulled him onward, and the sand built up around his feet as he stood there staring ahead. A lull in the fury revealed the Wanderer he clung to, no longer marching, but turning to face him. Fluidly it pulled a dark knife from its robe, extended it toward Lile’s grasping fist, and in a quick motion cut the fabric free. Hastily it turned away from him again and vanished into the shifting flurries of the storm. Lile had been so baffled and confused by what he had witnessed that its full implications did not hit him until the moment he had been left with nothing but a scrap of the Wanderers robe. He screamed in anger and terror, rushing ahead to find his unwilling guide, and in his panic he tripped on a fallen boulder. He crawled forward through chaos, slogging through the sand that fought to bury him, feeling desperately for something living to grab on to.
His hood caught on a jagged rock and his mask was torn away. The sand assaulted his eyes, nose, mouth, and ears, blinding and choking and deafening him all at once. He tried to clear his throat, but new dust kept rushing in, and soon he could no longer move. The sand rolled over him like a tide.
The morning storm passed, and then several more, until a week later a group of Wanderers emerged in the Tharsis Highlands, stopping at the small Tashan village of Varnal Pra. One of them had a tear in its robe, which it repaired quietly as its companions refilled their flasks.
Several days later, Olivia Moghadam’s spectral scanner pinpointed a high concentration of water submerged within a narrow chasm. She eagerly parked her rock hopper and lowered herself down by a rope, bringing her shovel and ice-hooks. She had had little luck since she left, and while the hit didn’t look big, it looked better than what she had so far encountered. With anticipation she cleared away the sand at the indicated spot.
“Meu Deus!” She exclaimed, and made the Hentinj gesture indicating respect for the dead.