The second book in an epic interstellar trilogy of war from a master of science fiction.
ICE MOON TEA
The hardest part of war is waiting. The boredom can drive you nuts. You start doing things like playing football with ordnance—I’ve seen it, lived it. Lots of casualties happen right in camp when there’s no real fighting. Days and weeks and even months filled with nothing, then more nothing—the mad ol’ ape inside starts to leer and gibber and prance—some of the best of us show signs of going trigger—
Then, WHAM! We’re called up. We cross the vac. We drop. It gets real. All the shit happens at once, in a bloody, grinding flash—and if you live through it, if you survive with enough soul left to even care, you spend the rest of your fucked-up life wondering whether you should have done it different, done it better, or not at all.
All for glory and the Corps.
The Battle of Mars is over. I hear we won. Maybe so. But when I left, seventeen months ago, we had just had our asses handed to us by the Antags.
Some new and unexpected elements had been added to the usual drop, scrap, and stain: a tall young dust widow named Teal, a fanatical clutch of settlers who called themselves Voors, and a crack Special Ops team whose orders included zeroing fellow Skyrines. And as backdrop to our finest mad scenes: a chunk of ancient moon called the Drifter, maybe the most important rock on the Red. Not our usual encounter.
When a lucky few of us made it back, we weren’t celebrated. We were hunted down and locked away.
Since returning to Earth, I’ve spent most of my time in an isolation ward at Madigan Hospital, north of Skybase Lewis-McChord, sealed like a bug in a jar while the docs wait for me to sprout wings or grow horns or whatever the fine green powder that coated the insides of the Drifter wants me to do. DJ—Corporal Dan Johnson—called the powder Ice Moon Tea. Is he here at Madigan? I know he came back. So did Joe—Lieutenant Colonel (brevet) Joseph Sanchez. Joe told us all to lie low and stay away from the doctors and not cause a fuss. I suppose I screwed that up, too.
I sent out my first packet just two weeks after I arrived at Madigan. My first and so far only report—along with a coin that I found in the pocket of some old overalls I wore in the Drifter. I have no idea whether all that got back to Joe.
There’s a lone fruit fly in the room with me. I’ve left it a piece of Washington State apple on the gray desk that serves as my writing table. He’s my buddy. Maybe he dreams about being human.
I dream about being a bug.
Ninety-seven days. That’s how long I’ve been here, with the docs filing past my window and telling me it won’t be long before the Wait Staff comes to see me, and maybe I’ll get to tell my story directly to the Gurus, really, and that will be a good thing; don’t worry. Be happy. I’ve been debriefed and inquested and examined and cross-examined, from behind thick glass—squinted at from high and low by disembodied heads until they’ve blurred into one giant, whirly-eyed wizard.
One head rises above the whirl, however: high, smooth brow, impeccable English with a South Asian lilt, Pakistani or Indian, doctor or scientist, not sure which; soft, calm voice. Precise. Reassuring. Civilian clothes. Never reveals his name, position, or rank. He’s talked to me, with me, five or six times, always with a gentle smile and sympathetic eyes.
My personal favorite. He’s the first I’ll strangle with my bare hands when I get the chance.
ONE FINE DAY IN THE BUGHOUSE
How are you today, Sergeant Venn?”
“I understand you’ve been brushing up on your Chinese. And your Hindi and Farsi.”
“Urdu, too. Also.”
“Very good. Your skill with languages is impressive. Better than it used to be.”
“I envy that.”
“No you don’t.”
Without skipping a beat, he continues, “I am indifferent at Farsi myself. If you will allow me, I’d like to ask how you are feeling, what sorts of dream you have had since returning to Earth?”
“Weird dreams. I’ve explained.”
“Yes, mostly—I have my notes. But I’d like to hear it again, in case we’ve overlooked something important.”
“Come in here with me, sir, and I’ll give you the details up close.”
“I note your frustration, Sergeant Venn. Perhaps soon.”
“You still think I’m contaminated.”
“We have yet to determine anything of the sort. Still, you have described coming into contact with nonterrestrial organisms, including Antagonists. All by itself, direct combat with our enemy mandates a period of quarantine—usually, a few weeks in Cosmoline tells the tale.
“But I am most curious about this powder you describe, which you touched, smeared on your skin, inhaled—inside the Drifter. You say it was produced by a crystal pillar that rose within a mined-out cavity that the Muskies, the human settlers, called the Void, or the Church. You tell our doctors that the powder gives you vivid dreams, dreams of living in another time, another place. Curious and interesting. Do you believe these dreams are historical, referring to real events—or delusional?”
Like that. I’m in the hands of experts.
THEY’VE GIVEN ME a paper tablet and a notebook and pen. No computer. No way to reach the outside world or do any research worth a damn, though they bring me books from the base library or a thrift store, old language textbooks and tattered paperbacks from the last century. I’m reading Elmore Leonard and Louis L’Amour and Jim Thompson, plus a few old novels. I’ve asked for Philip K. Dick. I’ve asked for Kafka. I’ve asked for T. E. Lawrence. No joy.
I’m writing again, but it’s not like I own my life or this story. Maybe the docs will come back with answers I can use. Right. Until then, here’s what I think I know, on my own terms: the brew I’ve slowly distilled from my last deployment on Mars—a sour liquor of intoxicating fact mixed with muddy water.
But here goes.
A LOCAL’S GUIDE TO THE RED
A generation before the Battle of Mars began, settlers from Earth, Muskies, discovered a huge, mostly buried chunk of ancient rock. They called it the Drifter. They did what Martian prospectors do: scoped it out, found it interesting, and started to dig.
The Drifter turned out to be a piece of ice-covered moon that fell on Mars billions of years ago. Along with deep aquifers washing around its plunging roots and abundant reserves of pure metal—nickel-iron, iridium, platinum, gold—the Muskies discovered something else, something that changed their game completely: a fractured, battered tower of crystal hundreds of meters tall, from that distant age when the old moon supported an ocean beneath its thick ice shell. A sloshing, inner sea filled with life. That pillar seems to have been part of the archives of an ancient civilization that came to an end when the moon—with all its ice, ocean, and metal-rich center—was tugged from its far orbit, fell downsun toward Mars, and broke apart in the red planet’s tidal forces. I can see it, almost, that amazing disaster. The huge fragments shaped a dusty, ice-fogged plume, then impacted around the planet like a short, loose whip—drilling through crust, mantle, even pushing down close to the molten core. The collisions happened in mere minutes but released tremendous energies, dividing the northern and southern hemispheres, sending shockwaves echoing, stirring up immense volcanoes—and adding trillions of tons of water to a formerly dry world.
The fragments of old moon brought something else to Mars. Life. And here’s a whizbang conclusion to really dream about in the dark watches of the night—
The blowback from those collisions could have fallen deeper into the solar system and seeded another world, brought another dead planet to life:
ANOTHER FINE DAY IN THE BUGHOUSE
Tell me once more, please, about the Drifter, Sergeant.”
“I’ve told all I know.”
“But I want to hear it again. Tell me about what the settlers found inside the Drifter, and what they did with it—and what you did with it when you got there.”
“We didn’t do much of anything with it. We were busy trying to stay alive.”
“You didn’t arrange to bring back samples?”
“Please. We’re on Earth now. What about your fellow Skyrines? Did they bring back materials?”
“Not that I know about. I’ve said this over and over…”
“Please be patient. We’re being patient with you.”
All behind the glass.
BUNDLES OF TROUBLE
Through their chosen human interpreters, the Gurus made it clear to the people of Earth what would happen if we let our mutual enemy, the Antags, have their way with the solar system. The Gurus told us it had happened many times before, and that the ultimate result would be the conversion of every planet, every moon, every asteroid, into raw materials out of which Antag engineers would assemble a kind of gigantic clockwork for harnessing the sun’s energy, and then would convert the sun itself—said energy to be shipped thousands of light years, through means not revealed, to power other star systems and to further promote the conquest of other planets around other suns.…
Boosting their geometrically accelerating plans for conquest of the galaxy.
Bottom line, if we do not hold them on Mars, they will drop toward the Earth and our system will quickly become a weird clockwork of rotating wire, armillary rings, vast complex mirrors redirecting the sun’s light and heat into absorption dishes wider than Jupiter… which will then beam it someplace else through I don’t know what method, maybe an opening in the fabric of space-time, maybe just shooting it at light speed to someplace special—
Could be the Gurus don’t want to explain further for fear of scaring us silly. If you know you can’t win, you don’t fight, you give up, right? We have to be able to believe that victory is possible, with a little help now and then from the Gurus. Real super-science stuff, like spent matter drives and suppressors and disruptors—even the Cosmoline in which Skyrines are packed while flying transvac, so beloved by the Corps. Most Skyrines accept this hook, line, and radar dish because it’s kind of exciting. Makes us part of a big picture, fighters in a just and necessary war.
But after a few days on the Red, and especially when our drop is fucked, questions can arise among even our densest warriors, given time to think things through. I’d like to meet an Antag someday away from a battle, on equal, unarmed terms, buy him a Romulan ale, and ask him or her, or it, friendly-like, what the fuck do they tell you to keep you climbing into your ships and shuttling down to Mars or Titan?
Because up until just recently, when we crawled into our space frames and made the long journey for this campaign, we were winning.
We were sure of that.
I’m out of the whole fucking mess. Locked in my room, going nuttier than I remember being before—and nutty on two worlds, because my other self, the self that returns when I’m asleep and keeps trying to remember that old ice moon, keeps trying to bring back a lifetime billions of years gone—that carapace-coated asshole is every bit as bored and crazy as me, with even more reason.
To add convincing detail, the bug in my dreams, he or it, comes in two parts—an ornately figured parasitic passenger riding a great big, ugly sonofabitch, hanging on just behind a triad of compound eyes. I don’t know which one does the steering. Maybe they trade off.
At any rate, just when I think I understand those amazing memories and thoughts and opinions—just when I want to tell other people the truth about that other, ancient world—
It all lifts up, turns sideways, shoots away.
I ask for—and to my surprise receive—books on planetary science. No Internet. Just books, and while books are good—some are great—I’ve got big questions about what’s really out there that the old books don’t answer.
If what’s in my head is real, then what kind of real is it? Dead and long past, or present and threatening? Am I communicating with actual intelligences, somehow still alive, still active, after billions of years? Not easy questions, and no easy answers.
My questions began about the time I returned from the Red to Skybase Lewis-McCord and hitched a ride with a colonel’s secretary, and she told me there was fighting on Titan, way out around Saturn—that she had lost a son out there—
And I felt the truth of it.
For weeks now, I’ve been curious about old moons. Especially the big moon families that circle the outer gas giants. The Saturn system is the most spectacular, but to me, all the old moons seem important if I’m going to solve the puzzles that keep me awake all night. I don’t know where I am. I mean, I know I’m back on Earth…
But I don’t know who I am.
Who is back on Earth? Just me?
There must be enough value to somebody that the wizards behind the glass pass me old textbooks and feed this particular curiosity. But they don’t seem willing to teach me more about physics. Still, it’s good to get a change in my reading—away from literature and back to science. Whether I’m curious, or my inner Bug is curious, is a question to which I have no present answer. But I want to find out.
So I’m reading up on old moons. The books, being printed and bound and from the base library, are out of date. I can fill in some of the details by listening to Bug. Bug doesn’t know anything about Titan, specifically, but it has a broader understanding of ice moons than the textbooks. I presume the inquisitors will eventually ask about my reading, what it means to me, what I’m learning, and what I’m adding all by myself. But they haven’t. Not yet. My first clue that the forces behind my detention could be in deep disarray.
They still aren’t asking the right questions.