Everyone flinched when the hail began. The sound of bullets bouncing off the carrier’s hull was a deadly deluge that had the riding troopers looking nervously at each other, seeking comfort where there was none. Minute tension gripped them all as the compartment swayed and jostled. Chioma found her fingers clenching tightly around the butt of her flechette rifle until her knuckles were white with the strain. Behind tactical displays, the anxiety in her face was mirrored in equal share by the assembled men and women.
It didn’t matter that they were protected by several centimetres of the finest composites the United Nations could print.
To her left the Lieutenant was shouting something, but his throat-mic chose not to share it with the rest of them.
Then he began signing. Hands clenched, arms pumping.
The Karkanda slowed to a halt.
Time to do or die.
The charge across the savanna with the hellish red light of sunset at their backs was a floundering, shambling affair. It was spurts of frenzied movement as troopers ran up and dived down interchangeably, trading shots with the foe in the distance. Flechettes rattled away as Chioma fired blindly before throwing herself down, landing with a splash in a puddle of foetid water. The crackling screech of her geiger counter had her up again, running forward even before her tactical display had told her to.
She didn't need the counter to tell her what she already knew.
Only fissiles were worth dying for.
"Chioma? You alright?"
François was staring intently at her, pressing visor to visor. It took Chioma a moment to focus on him, another to realise that the Frenchman had crossed over the compartment to her and disabled the group-circuit. It was a personal touch that Chioma was thankful for as she glanced sideways at the rest of the Karkanda's crew seated in the compartment. Beyond the windows Mars, not Earth, continued to roll by, heedless to her problems.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm ok. Just don't like the E.T." She said, hoping he would believe her.
"That's fair. Not everyone likes riding them," François said in a tone that made it clear he didn't. He continued, "Pilot says we're about twenty minutes off now. Better check your Exo."
"Sure, I'll do that."
The Exosuits onboard were bulky, cumbersome things that remained locked in their slots in the Exo-Transport's compartment. They occasionally rattled with the movement of the Karkanda ET as it rolled over the uneven Martian ground. With practised ease, Chioma ran through the operations checklist for her suit.
She cleared through the checks, her eyes trailing down to the heavy drill the manipulator arms carried, then back up to check the connectors. It was the same and yet so very different from before. The flechette rifle was gone, replaced with the heavy industrial mining drill.
François' voice echoed in her ears as he rejoined the group-circuit.
"You all know the drill, pun intended." There was a collection of groans and a sharply accented curse that hung in the pause he left, "Let the 'suits go for the deep deposits, those without will have to make do with the surface deposits. Keep an eye on your geigers. Sabo-Kano is aiming to online a new reactor, so they're paying top for fissiles."
The blue light of sunrise flashed over distant Martian mountains as the group of them poured out of the transport, tools in hand. Chioma followed the pips on her display to the marked deposit. Though it was unnecessary, her Geiger counter's clicks told her she was in the right place, a steady reminder that to linger more than necessary would be unwise.
Her drill spooled up with a sharp-pitched squeal that rose to a roar and she began breaking up the deposit, cracking rocks with the ease afforded her by the bulky Exosuit.
The work was simple enough. She would crack the deposits highlighted on her hud and occasionally move some of the broken up rocks aside to continue. Idle chit chat was the balm of the miners as they shared jokes and stories, each growing wilder than the last. Martin was halfway through an anecdote about being run down by the long-abandoned Perseverance when a medical warning flashed on Chioma's screen. A glance was all she needed.
For a long moment, no one said anything. It was ever the trap with fissile materials. Each man and woman present was not willing to be the first to step away from the steadily growing pile of mineral wealth that continued to accumulate in chunks on the dusty red surface. The medical alert continued to flash unremittingly and without concern for their financial gain.
"We're done, unless you want a third limb." François' voice called out on the group-circuit.
A chorus of well-natured disagreement issued forth, but Chioma did not fail to notice that the drills went offline and the work turned instead to loading up the Karkanda Exo-Transport.
The enormous transport was a far cry from the warmachine that had served during what they were now calling the Struggle For Peace. It was leaner, its armour had been thinned. It was less lethal without its gun-pods, Chioma privately felt that no vehicle its size could ever truly be entirely non-lethal.
She took a moment from the loading to look up at the vehicle. It was not what it had been on Earth. She too, was not what she had been on Earth.
It was a constant reminder of the past she had left behind and the future in which she worked towards.
She looked out to her friends, her colleagues and then over to the red landscape. Some saw desolation that matched that of Earth’s, but Chioma only ever felt silent tranquillity. Earth was burdened by its history, Mars had none to shoulder.
She didn’t need to be told what she already knew.
Only Mars was worth living for.