Hope didn't complain once. The journey seemed beyond her endurance, but she pushed herself, knowing how vital it was that they get away quickly. When Snake felt her energy fading, he changed tactics from speed to slower, less direct routes. Had he been at all certain that he would be the hero PAM thought he would be at the end of the mess, he would have requisitioned a vehicle. Although, what was a little grand larceny on top of treason and four counts of murder? Five, if someone decided that Faolan's death wasn't a mercy killing. But then, vehicles were easier to track. He wasn't willing to risk that.
The rocky peninsula with its five lighthouses was in view when Hope's strength finally gave out. Snake was close to his own limit, but he wouldn't feel comfortable until they were safely tucked away in the lighthouse. Hope sat down on the ground and wrenched her shoes off. Her feet were bloody.
"I can't go any further," she said.
Snake just looked at her. The sight of human blood made him uneasy. It was so red and so thick and so unlike the blue and purple veins that ran beneath human skin.
"I'm sorry. I can't. Just leave me here."
"We're almost there."
Hope looked up at the row of lighthouses along the dark red rocks. A strange pale pink cloud was blooming on the other side of the peninsula. "What is that?" she asked.
Snake followed her gaze and watched the cloud as it slowly billowed up into the fading blue sky. "I have no idea. Enyo's about a hundred miles on the other side of the peninsula."
"It looks like a thunderstorm."
"Except we don't have storms like that here."
"Did they destroy the city?"
"They're moving a lot faster than PAM said they would if that's what it is. Come on. We're almost there."
"Snake, I can't. My feet ..."
He crouched down beside her and scooped her into his arms. "Take it easy. We'll get there."
Hope rested her head on Snake's shoulder and promptly fell asleep.
* * *
From the lantern room of the lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula, the shortest of the five at 200 meters, Snake could see the sprawl of Eris to the south and its gentle curl around the space station. The lavender light of evening on the red and brown buildings made the scene look surreal. Blue-green windows sparkled, and polished steel glimmered. He missed the way it had looked before the sky went blue, but even this, in its alien way, was beautiful. He wished he had been able to bring Faolan to the lighthouse. It was just the kind of silly, romantic thing that Faolan enjoyed -- sunsets and star gazing and cozy fires, bottles of sweet wine and sentimental poetry. Snake leaned his forehead against the glass and watched the landscape swim through his tears.
In the room below, the com began to chirp. Snake thought about ignoring it.
"Snake?" Hope asked. She sounded half asleep and scared. Waking up alone probably alarmed her.
Snake went down the stairs. "I'm here," he said.
"I got it. Go back to sleep."
She lay down again and huddled under the blankets.
Snake looked at the com while it continued to chirp at him. He wasn't sure he should risk answering it. He didn't know who he could trust but himself and Hope and maybe PAM. Then again, it probably didn't matter.
"Damn it, Snake, you had me worried," Tanith said when he switched on.
"Sorry. I ..."
"Yeah. I know. I got the report an hour ago."
"It took that long?"
"For me to get it, yeah. Owsley's got this thing cinched up tight."
"So Seeley was right. She's in with the Gurstockians."
"We can't prove it."
"Don't do anything stupid, Snake."
"Too late for that."
Tanith was silent.
"I need to know what's going on in Enyo," Snake said.
"Wish I could tell you. I'm locked out of the networks. I've been able to back into a couple of them, but I can't hang around. Anyone connected with you is being treated as suspicious."
"Great. Then I'll just have to find out for myself."
"No. Stay put until Seeley can get this fixed."
"This can't be fixed. Not that way."
Tanith sighed but said nothing. It was rare for her to be at a loss for words. Snake found himself wishing he had had a chance to meet her in person.
"Seeley's trying to convince the humans that Owsley's working with the Gurstockians," Tanith said. "Kinda hard without proof."
"I'll get you proof. Seeley needs to make sure that the humans can keep Hope safe."
"I still think it's strange she's involved in this. All these years of just being your coffee girl and now this?"
"Random series of events, I guess. There doesn't have to be logic to it."
"Suppose so. Oh, here's some news you'll wanna hear. Owsley's called an emergency congress meeting for 0800. I think you're about to start a war."
"Cool. I've always wanted to be an historical footnote."
"I need to go. I don't have a lot of time now."
"I'd say be careful, but I guess that's not an option."
"Then I'll just say thanks."
Snake wasn't quite sure what she was thanking him for. He said nothing and disconnected the com. As he stood at the bottom of the stairs, watching Hope sleep and studying PAM's faintly glowing eyes, he realized what Tanith meant. He went back up to the lantern room, sat down at the glass facing north and watched the strange pink cloud that continued to blossom over Enyo.
* * *
Hope woke up to pitch blackness. Slowly, her eyes adjusted to the faint grey glow from the windows in the lantern room above her. Details still eluded her, but shapes resolved themselves reluctantly. The block of the silent com in the corner, the heap of Snake's bag near the com, PAM inert in another corner, the sprawl of blankets around her.
Aches and pains screamed through Hope's body as she tried to stand up. Without the adrenaline of the chase pumping through her and Snake dragging her along, the simple act of standing was next to impossible. She sat where she was, silent tears dribbling down her cheeks. She felt silly for crying, but she didn't try to stop her tears. Finally, at her bladder's instance, she held her breath and got up. The pain abated after the initial surge. As long as she kept moving, it was almost tolerable.
She found the bathroom easily enough. After relieving herself and washing her hands, she pressed handfuls of cold water to her face. There was no mirror in the bathroom for her to see just how much of a mess she was, and she was glad for that. Not that it mattered how she looked, but she didn't want Snake to look at her and see a weak human female falling to pieces under pressure. That was what she had been during Erik's illness. Not this time.
She hobbled out of the bathroom and up the stairs to the lantern room. She was in agony by the time she got to the top. She sat down on the landing until the fire of pain cooled a little, and then she looked around for Snake.
He was sitting sideways beside the glass, his head resting against it. His eyes were closed, but Hope couldn't tell if he was asleep. She hoped so. He had to be beyond exhausted. His wounded arm was poorly bandaged, the gauze sagging down to reveal the top of the ragged gouge and the crust of yellow blood on his caramel colored skin. On the other side of the glass, Hope could see the cloud that engulfed Enyo. It looked like Snake was sleeping on a huge, fluffy pink pillow.
Hope decided to let Snake sleep. She stood up to head back down the stairs but immediately sat down again with a little cry of pain.
"Hope?" Snake asked.
She turned around to face him, wincing at the flare of pain. "Sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to wake you."
"I'm a light sleeper." He looked at his watch. "I should get going anyway."
"What the hell for?"
"Can't start a war from here."
"War? What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about getting the Gurstockians off our planet. They aren't gonna leave if I ask nicely."
Hope crawled over to Snake and sat with her back against the glass. She looked at him. He looked towards Enyo. "You don't have to start a war to get them to leave," she said. "Do you?"
"I don't know. Depends on what I find when I get to Enyo. Owsley's got something going on with them. Whatever it is, it's not good for the rest of us."
"Let me go with you."
He shook his head.
"I got you into this. The least I can do is see it through to the end."
"I don't plan on coming back alive, Hope. She's got to be expecting me to do something. I can try not to get caught, but it's not likely I can avoid it. She won't let me live. If you went with me, she'd kill you, too."
"What makes my life worth more than yours?"
"Nothing. It's all the same. There's no guarantee she won't have tracked us here. You're no safer than I am right now."
"Just because your lover's gone --"
Snake shook his head. "It's not that. I'd be doing this even if Faolan were alive and perfectly healthy. This is my job."
Hope knew that was true, but she couldn't help feeling that Snake was shutting her out from his grief and the Gurstockian situation. He was trying to protect her, but she didn't want to be protected any more. She put her hand on his knee. "You're not alone in this," she said.
He leaned towards her and took her hand in both of his. "I know," he said. "But I need you here. I have a plan, but it won't work if you go with me."
Hope looked into Snake's eyes. He held her gaze. The shimmer of color had returned to his eyes. She had to look hard to see any sorrow or fear in his eyes. Both were there, but he was focused on the task at hand, calm and oddly at peace with the chaos. She touched his cheek. "You're amazing," she whispered.
Snake smiled. "So are you."
Without thinking about what she was doing, Hope took hold of Snake's mask and slipped it off. He didn't protest. The faint smile was still on his lips. She put her hand on the back of his neck, pulled him closer and kissed him. She had never kissed a Martian, had never even thought about it, and it surprised her. His mouth was drier and cooler than hers, his tongue rougher and his taste so different. It wasn't just a kiss they were sharing; it was breath. She felt his thumb caress her cheek, and then he pulled away. She kept her eyes closed as he put his mask back on.
"Sorry," she mumbled.
"Don't be," he said.
For a long time, they watched the cloud over Enyo in silence, their fingers entwined. Little by little, Hope began to feel the sense of peace that Snake had already found. She wasn't ready to let him go, but she would.
* * *
As Snake sped closer to Enyo on the two-wheel vehicle he kept stashed at the lighthouse, the billowing pink cloud grew. It concerned him, but he couldn't risk pinging Tanith to try to analyze it. He didn't think it was poison. The Gurstockians needed the atmosphere the way it was, and they wouldn't try to kill off the humans and the Martians with something that subtle. The closer Snake got to the cloud, the more he thought it resembled a terraforming cloud, its hue an accident of light and atmosphere.
He had rigged PAM to record video and audio through his eyepiece. When it was all over, PAM would send the recording to every network it access via the secure line Tanith had set up for Seeley. They could analyze the cloud then. If it still mattered by that point.
At a distance of less than fifty meters, the cloud's opaqueness gave way. Snake could see the edges of the empty city. Two-man Martian patrols roved the perimeter. Snake ditched the vehicle in a crater and proceeded the rest of the way on foot. He had no way of knowing if he'd been spotted already, but he could do without the plume of dust the vehicle kicked up behind it. Either way, he knew Owsley was expecting him.
Snake picked the most unlikely entry point he could find -- a steep-sided crater rimmed with rubble and deep drifts of dust. Climbing up the crater and the ruins was a difficult and time consuming effort, but he was able to avoid the patrols. At the top of the rubble, he looked down at a massive swimming pool at the back of one of the largest mansions in Enyo. He flattened himself on top of the ruins and watched.
Gurstockian men in tight, low-slung shorts and platform sandals lounged at the poolside. Outside the stone wall that surrounded the backyard, armed Martians stood guard at fixed points. In the large glass sunroom beyond the pool, Owsley and a handful of other congress members were talking to a Gurstockian woman who only stared at them impassively from the plush armchair where she sat. More armed guards were posted at every inner doorway. Walking in would be easier than trying to sneak in.
Snake stood up and began to descend the rocky slope, unconcerned with the scree that tumbled towards the pool in his wake. Rocks bounced across the patio and splashed into the pool. Snake watched the Gurstockians trying to figure out what was going on. Not everyone was expecting him, it seemed. He wondered if Owsley had warned them. She must have counted on things moving too fast for him to do anything about it.
By the time the Gurstockians figured out that the rocks were coming from the ruins and looked up, Snake was at the edge of the patio, and the commotion had the attention of the group in the sunroom.
Four of the armed guards came out of the sunroom and swarmed towards Snake. He made no move to fight them. They were nervous and uncertain of whatever orders Owsley had given them. It wouldn't have been a very satisfying fight.
Snake walked past them and into the sunroom.
"Captain Theriot," Owsley said. "I've been expecting you."
The congress members began to murmur amongst themselves. The Gurstockian woman, maybe their leader, maybe only a delegate, watched the scene unfold just as impassively as she'd been listening to Owsley.
"You do realize, Captain, that your coming here is meaningless."
"Is it?" Snake asked. "It must mean something. You're not happy to see me."
"It's too late."
"For me maybe."
"You don't understand, do you? How could you? You're just a soldier. You can't grasp the finer points of politics."
"You know as well as I do what the Gurstockians are capable of doing to Mars. You heard PAM's warning."
"And that's why I've acted as I have. It's a compromise. We give them one city, and they will leave the rest alone."
Snake shook his head. "It won't work that way."
"You can't know that. You have nothing to base that assumption on but the assertions of a robot."
"What about when you let the humans poison our air? Is that the kind of compromise we can expect from this?"
Owsley's face was grim. "No one could have anticipated the toll it's taken on us."
"I think Dr. Iverson would beg to differ."
Owsley scowled, searching for some retort that would further justify her actions, but she found nothing.
The Gurstockian woman stood up and approached Snake. His first instinct was to draw his gun and kill her, a pointless act that would only hasten his own death, but he didn't bother to fight it.
The guards moved quicker than Snake thought they were capable of. They grabbed his arms, twisting his shoulders back and forcing him to his knees. One of them took hold of his wrist and wrenched until bones snapped and the gun clattered to the marble floor. Snake ignored the pain that burned along his arm. He glared at the Gurstockian. One of the guards pressed the barrel of a gun to the back of his head.
The Gurstockian crouched in front of him and lowered her head to look him in the eyes. "I didn't believe your congress leader when she said you would come," she said. "My people have no concept of this kind of defiance. We find this behavior intolerable."
"Get used to it. I'm not the only one who doesn't want you here," Snake said.
She laughed, took hold of his breathing mask and ripped it off.
Snake held his breath.
The Gurstockian stood up and turned to Owsley and the congress members. "Let this be a lesson to you all," she said. She dropped Snake's mask to the floor and crushed it under her heel. "Get rid of the Captain." Smiling, she settled back into her chair to watch Snake's execution.
* * *
"Captain Theriot's transmission has ended," PAM said.
Hope rubbed away the tears that dribbled from her eyes. She told herself those would be the last tears she shed for a while. "Do what he told you to," she said. "Send it to the networks."
PAM's eyes flared like supernovas. Hope listened to its humming and clicking for a minute, and then she relayed Snake's last coded message across Seeley's secured line. In the lantern room, the lamp began to pulse its signal -- three flashes in quick succession every fifteen seconds.
It wouldn't take long for someone to follow the beacon and find her. She hoped Seeley or the humans would get to her first. She didn't want to have to fight. She was tired, and she had no one to push her to keep going. She picked up one of the machine guns Snake had left with her and sat down on the stairs that lead into the watch room to wait.
-- Mel Trent