Jack didn't sign up to be a pirate, yet here he sat on a wooden longboat, flanked by oar-wielding and shirtless prisoners of war, rowing towards a damaged cruise ship listing off the coast of Iceland. Their mission: to capture a gaggle of clone girls to use them as leverage against their mother who had threatened to blow the ITS Hiigara out of orbit.
Jack wasn't a bad guy. In fact, he thought of himself as a good and moral man, the kind of man who would never in his life do anything to endanger the lives of little children, let alone threaten to kill them; yet here he sat, Solokov Gauss-rifle in hand, clad in his grey and black armoured pressure suit, mere minutes away from boarding a damaged ship and killing anyone who stood in his way.
He didn't have a choice. His mother, sister, little brother, and pretty much the entire Martian expedition to Earth remained in cryo-stasis aboard the ITS Hiigara. They had no way to land, not with the Dragon Heavy Capsule grounded because Gabriella’s clone army had trashed the refuelling station.
Gabriella Romero, the self-proclaimed Mother of All Creation, the bitch-queen of an army of her own clones, had managed to escape the Martian assault on her underground bunker. She had flown away with an escort of vertical take-off/landing (VTOL) aircraft and had taken shelter inside another one of her bunkers somewhere in Wales. This bunker, the Martians had been told, connected to an ancient ICBM launch site, and the nuclear warheads were likely still active.
When the Martian expedition first encountered Gabriella, she took everyone by surprise. For over a century, the Martian people had assumed the Mother of Lies had long perished along with Eden Directorate, the tyrannical technocrats who ruled the Earth for over a century before nuclear Armageddon wiped them out. And so the Martians naively assumed it was safe to return to Earth to rebuild civilization anew, expecting little more than a rabble of technologically regressed natives to contend with.
Jack's father, John Hanlon, found out the hard way that the Mother of Lies was alive and well, and dangerous as hell. She had ordered Dad's execution by firing squad. As Jack recalled the brutal execution, tears threatened to roll out the corners of his eyes. Dad had been wearing an armoured pressure suit when it happened, meaning the bullets couldn't penetrate his suit, yet each blow must have felt like taking a crowbar to the knee. Jack would know. He'd been shot at least a dozen times since he landed on this planet. Thankfully, he didn't cheap out on his EVA suit, so he managed to survive the initial foray of the First Contact War.
He blinked away the moisture in his eyes, gritted his teeth and tightened his grip around the handle of his Solokov. He glared at the mussel-caked hull of the ancient cruise ship. His buddies, Erwin and Derek, sat behind him along with a dozen other Martians. A dozen other longboats, each carrying fifteen soldiers of the Mars Boys Militia, converged on the damaged cruise, which listed at a fifteen degree angle towards its port side.
The cruise had been damaged by an attempted kinetic orbital bombardment. One of the Dragonite capsules that Ellen had lobbed from orbit had crashed into the fjord next to the cruise, causing the cruise to smash into the concrete pier, thereby tearing its hull below the waterline.
There had been, and still were, women and children aboard the cruise as the ship was their last safe haven from the encroaching Martian ground force. Jack and many of his fellow Martians questioned their expedition leader's willingness to deal collateral damage, but this was war and they didn't have time to pontificate over ethics. That would come later, and Jack was certain he and every one of his comrades would be named in the Book of Debts for the role they played in the deaths of hundreds of civilians who got roasted by rocket fuel, including women and children.
He shifted his glare towards the shirtless and sweaty men rowing the longboat. He had orders to shoot them dead if they tried anything funny. These Viking-wannabes had every reason to hate the Martians as the primitives had suffered the brunt of the Martian attack on Gabriella's base. This wasn't to say that the primitives were entirely innocent. They worshipped Gabriella as a God and were partly responsible for waking her from her centuries-long slumber.
They were now within a hundred meters of the port side of the cruise ship. Jack shouldered his rifle and bent down to pick up a grappling hook launcher. He flinched when he heard a crisp crunch followed by blood splattering onto the visor of his pressurized helmet. He glanced to his right. One of the rowers just had his brain aired out. The dead man slumped over his oar, blood spraying out of the hole in his skull.
“Suppressing fire!” Erwin, who wore his trademark blood-red suit of carbon plate armour, fired his Dapao Shredder at the cruise. The electromagnetic chain gun produced a terrible buzz that sounded like a chainsaw cutting through metal.
Jack wiped the blood off his visor and listened as thunder rolled down the line formed by the longboats. The Martians lobbed such an intense storm of metal at the ship that the defenders ducked their heads and abandoned the decks.
Jack aimed his grappling hook at the railings of the closest deck and fired the hook. It struck the railings with a tinny ping and became lodged between the rails. He pulled the secondary trigger, and the battery-powered launcher reeled in the hook line, thereby pulling him up to the deck. He grabbed the railing and hopped over. He unslung his Solokov and scanned the deck for enemies. None were in sight.
He retrieved his hook, reattached it to the launcher and holstered the launcher to his utility belt. Several more hooks grappled onto the rails. Seconds later, Jack's buddies, Erwin and Derek, climbed onto the deck along with the rest of their squad.
Douglas Hugh Grant, the Mars Boys Commander, shouted over the radio, “Men, we got two hours before this ship keels over. Y'all know the plan. Sweep each deck, top to bottom. Take the girls. Kill anyone who resists our ‘rescue’ effort.”
Jack cringed to think that this was what they had to resort to. He seriously doubted that Gabriella would care one iota about the well-being of her legion of clone daughters, given that they were engineered for the sole purpose of worshipping her as a God, yet the survival of his family depended on the assumption that a psychotic woman was capable of feeling love.
What other options did the Martians have? They had just arrived on Earth, they were cut off from their supply capsules, and they had no way of reaching Gabriella as they hadn't brought any airplanes from Mars. They had to do something – anything – or everyone they cared about would perish aboard the Hiigara.
With an angry roar, Jack kicked down the door to a buffet hall and led his team down an aisle flanked by chrome food counters. He found the exit and entered the grand hall of the cruise ship. He heard the screams of the little girls echoing from the decks below. He rushed towards the railing and leaned over. Hundreds of the clone girls, dressed in white cloth, ran barefooted down the spiralling staircase to the bottom-most deck. A few black-clad clone soldiers were among them. The soldiers opened fire on Jack.
He jumped back as bullets ricocheted off the rails and the ceiling. He wasn't about to return fire, not with all those girls in harm’s way, given that he needed them alive, not to mention the fact that he wasn't a sociopath who relished in the idea of endangering little children.
And yet, Jack’s mission was to capture those girls so that Ellen could threaten to kill them. Jack had to believe that she was bluffing, yet she had already demonstrated her willingness to deal significant collateral damage to enemy civilians. Her bluff was all too credible, and this didn’t sit well with Jack and many of the others, but now was not the time to question their leader.
To his horror, a few of his fellow Martians had opened fire on the fleeing girls and their protectors. Two clone soldiers fell to a burst of gunfire, and one girl took a bullet through her back. She hit the spiralling staircase with a thud and tumbled down the steps, leaving a trail of blood all the way to the bottom. All the other girls crouched, covered their heads and screeched.
Commander Grant shouted over the radio, “Ceasefire! Who fired that shot?”
All eyes turned towards a pale-faced young man who raised his trembling left hand. “I-I think I did, sir.”
Commander Grant strolled over and grabbed the young man by the scruff. “All debts accrue to me, you hear? I fired that shot.”
All the men, including Jack, lifted their chins in response. Jack felt a warm sensation building within him. It was the feeling of pride in his commander, and also of relief. Grant truly was a good and honourable man for willingly shouldering the burden of their collective guilt.
Jack snapped his attention towards the speaker. A woman emerged from behind a half-shut door on the opposite side of the hall. She held up her hands as she slowly approached the railing. She looked like she had thorny vines laced onto her face and bare arms, but upon closer scrutiny, Jack saw that they were tattoos. Beneath all that ink, the woman bore a striking resemblance to the Mother of Lies.
He aimed his Solokov at her. “Stop. Who are you?”
She froze. “I am Sebielle, one of Mother’s daughters.”
A dozen more clones walked out of the door behind her. They stood in a line with their hands held up. Jack growled. His late father had faced a similar situation months ago. These women had banked on the fact that the Martian men wouldn't hurt them or their clone children, and because of Father’s reluctance, the clones were able to storm Gabriella's bunker and awaken the Mother of Lies from her century-long slumber.
Jack would not repeat his father's mistake. He would shoot these women if he had to, even if it meant killing a part of himself on the inside.
“Please,” Sebielle said. She wore a red dress, which made her stand out from the rest who wore earth-coloured deer hide. Jack also noticed that they each had unique tattoos, though it would take a trained eye to quickly tell them apart. “Let us off this ship before it sinks into the Atlantic.”
“We came to help,” Commander Grant said, “but your men started shooting. Tell them to lay down their arms so we can begin the evacuation.”
Sebielle gave a curt nod.
Jack heard a clattering. He peered over the railing and saw that the clone soldiers had discarded their weapons. Meanwhile, the girls congregated around the lifeless bodies of their fallen siblings. They cried as they tried in vain to shake their brothers and sisters awake.
Jack glanced at Sebielle. She had her eyes closed. The light of the hall gleamed on her damp cheeks. He gave the commander a side-glance. The commander pulled a heavy frown on his grizzled face. “She told me they were bugs in human form,” he whispered to Jack. “Do bugs cry?”
To be continued...
Link to table of content:
Red Eden: Sons of Mars is the sequel to my first book, Red Eden: Homeworld Bound. To catch up on this series, please click the following link, which will re-direct you to the table of content:
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