Red Sands

A New Twist
19th July 1889

“There you go” gloated Sebastian. “Afghanistan. British military experience: it always counts in the end.” He cast a superior look at Bertie as he doled out the half dozen brown cucumber things he had found to the others.

He was still glowering about Henry, but had fended off the many questions of the others regardless, saying that he was scouting ahead.

Smith had said that these martian canals generally had a swath of fertile land for some miles either side: these areas were the basis of martian agriculture, where they were cultivated. According to what that Bounder Henry had said before sneaking off, he’d estimated that if they made decent progress today, regardless of the effort, they might actually reach such an area – and who knows, maybe a farm or camp?

With spirits risen slightly now they staggered on, and they noticed that the clumps of plants were becoming slightly more frequent: at least he hoped it was so. There was another development also.

“It is definately a rider” said Marko, lowering his spyglass. “Keeping distance perhaps, but no longer trying to hide completely.” It appeared that the rider was shadowing them at a distance. Marko passed his glass to Sebastian.

Adjusting the glass Sebastian could definately see the riding lizard – an ugly brute, though definately accoutred with saddles and other furniture. On this sat his first glimpse of an actual martian. At this distance human like and with long hair. He had heard that the martian complexion was somewhat ochre – like, but in this case seemed more like heavily tanned.

The general appearance reminded him somewhat of photographs he had seen of American indians, and he guessed that this was one of the Steppe Nomads rather than one of the more civilised Canal Martians.

As the rider came into slightly closer view – still maintaining a good distance he realised with a shock that the figure was actually female!

“Good Heavens!” he thought. “It’s a Gel !!” He took in the bare arms and thighs, and muttered to himself. He kept looking however.

The rider was armed, with a rifle or musket perhaps slung over one shoulder, and appeared to carry knives and other weapons. Occasionally the rider glanced in their direction, and he caught a glimpse of an elfin face and those strange pointed and ridged martian ears.

And then he caught the sound of gunfire ahead of them. The rider looked round, and then spurred forward and disappeared over a fold in the land. Minutes later she appeared again, and this time rode straight towards them.

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A Turn of Events
19th July 1889

“I’ll be damned if I’ll sneak off like a coward with extra water supplies when we’re short as it is” said Sebastian. He and Henry were conferring at the edge of the camp.

“Us finding water and coming back is their best chance " protested Henry.

“I won’t and that’s final.” said Sebastian. “It’s the action of an absolute Bounder. Or maybe they see things differently in the colonies.” Sebastian’s eyes were hard and there was something of a sneer in his voice.

“Sneak off if you like Henry, but you’ll not be taking any extra water” said Sebastian, his hand hovering briefly over his sabre. “You’re the survival expert and navigator. And you can abandon these others if you like: but I won’t”

“But its….”

“Get out of my sight” said Sebastian, and turned his back. He gathered the water supplies and started doling them out.

“Mr. Rothmann will be scouting ahead” he announced. “We’ll follow on as best we can.”

With no apparent way out of the situation, Henry started off.

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A Night Visitor
19th July 1889

“Waterskins” said Sebastian. “Four of ’em, pretty full. And what look like a bunch of brown rock hard cucumbers”

Henry examined one curiously, and pared at it with his knife. When he made a hole, moisture seeped out. Putting it to his lips he drank the cool liquid, which tasted slightly tepid, but like water nonetheless. He made a calculation.

“There are maybe a full days water rations for seven people here, or half rations for fourteen.”

“But who?” said Sebastian. “I never saw any blasted Fuzzies”

“Perhaps you are not observant enough Kaptan Shaw” commented Marko. Henry saw Sebastian grit his teeth.

“Whoever it is they mean us well” interrupted Lady Glossop, " So you shouldn’t be so rude Sebastian."

“After all old chap what with all your bally military experience, you haven’t found us an ice lolly’s worth yet eh? What?” snickered Bertie, Before Lady Glossop, noticing the bloom growing in Sebastian’s face, stood on his toe.

“Any tracks?” asked Esmeralda.

“Well a set of lightly booted footprints, and some way off errrr….”

“Yes?”

“Well, some sort of big toed beast, with a tail. Our visitor was riding it I’d guess.”

“A Gashant Sir” interrupted Mr. Smith. “A riding lizard. The Nomads use ’em extensively. Even the Powers do, there not being so many horses on Mars.”

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Thirst
18th July 1889

Learning the lesson of the previous day, Henry decided that they would break their march today – taking what shade they could during the hottest part of the day, and then moving a second stint afterwards. By the time of their break the strain was starting to show, and the last dregs had been drained from empty canteens.

Bertie and Lady Glossop were bearing up, but strain and fatigue was showing in the faces of the other survivors. Henry knew that tomorrow would be much worse. Henry had tried to egg them on earlier in the day, but all he received were blank stares.

Marko however seemed to have received his second wind, and as a result their pace had picked up slightly today.

Bertie was also a bit jumpy. He thought he’d caught a glimpse of something and had a feeling they were being shadowed. Off to their left – the north – more than once he thought that he saw something. Always near a low rise or perhaps a fold in the ground. A native perhaps? Or perhaps some alien predator smelling their weakness?

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The Plains of Nepenthes Thoth
17th July 1889

The Steppe was just not not dry enough to be desert, but having said that you’d said it all. There were no trees, only a few areas of scrub. Henry guessed that if there were a wet season, there would likely be a short growing season when moisture percolated through the soil, during which the flora of the steppes might bloom for a short while. For now there was some evidence of scorched grass.

They had decided to trek roughly south east, hoping to hit the canal at some point closer to Shastapsh: surely the British Garrison there would be able to offer some assistance. Water was clearly a problem: Henry doubted the capacity of some of the passengers to make it. If truth be told their best bet was to encounter some natives, assuming they were not hostile.

Information about Martians was sparse: he vaguely remembered that the more civilised natives lived along the canals in their cities, but that wilder nomadic tribes roamed the outback.

The march had been searingly hot, and much of their water supply had now been used up. They had covered maybe two dozen miles in total across the featureless plain, broken only by a few very low hills. Henry had experimented with a few prickly plants and found some to provide a limited source of moisture, but not too much.

He shook his had worriedly, and wondered how they would fare on the morrow, with their supplies all but used up.

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First View
July 16th 1889

They had been lucky mused Henry. The Glorious Dawn would clearly never fly again, snapped in two like a rotten twig as it was. But the Captain had made a decent landing of sorts. Two crew had died, along with poor Tex and Baron Von Ritter, but otherwise everyone had managed to survive.

From Henry’s best estimate they were about 70 miles west of the Nepenthes Thoth Canal, somewhere on the steppe. If they could reach the canal, they might have a chance.

Unfortunately they had only managed to salvage food and water for approximately one day, and he was dubious about the capacity of some of the passengers for this extreme situation. Then there were the nomadic tribes of course. He turned towards Sebastian.

“Well old chap” said Henry. “We’d better decide quickly.”

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Unwanted Visitors
July 16th 1889

“Sebastian old chap” said Bertie, “We’ve all been summoned to the Dining Room. By the Captain no less.”

“Something must be up no doubt” replied Sebastian. “Very well.”

The other passengers had already assembled; the Steward was also present.

“Ladies and Gentlemen” commenced the Captain. “I have no wish to alrm you but it would appear that an unidentified vessel is bearing towards us at speed, having made some attempt at concealment. I can only conclude ill intent.”

“Pirates?” suggested Henry.

“Very likely” replied the Captain. “A passenger vessel is no doubt easy pickings for them, and we carry important mail as well as passengers.”

“The ship isn’t armed I take it?” asked Sebastian.

“We are not. No doubt they are – and faster too. However they will try to board.” He paused. “I have no doubt that they will offer surrender – but there is no guarantee of their good behaviour. They may decide to silence all witnesses anyway. Our choices are: surrender or fight. I consult you, as you may no doubt be related to their intent.”

“Damned if we don’t: ye don’t put yourself at the mercy of scoundrels” said Sebastian. “Fight, I say.”

“I also vill not bow to ruffians” said Baron Von Ritter. “And I haff my own pistol. my apologies Herr Kaptain… a man in my position…..” The Captain simply frowned, and nodded.

“I have a small number of pistols I can distribute to those who can use them.”

Discussions commenced. Sebastian still had his sabre in his room, as part of his Dress Uniform, and Bertie had also concealed his Bulldog and Sword cane. Henry had a Bowie Knife in his luggage. Lady Glossop had also retained her pistol.

The unarmed passengers were crowded into the Galley, protected by the Steward at the doorway. The others concentrated around the Engine Room and stern of the ship, where the attackers were most likely to gain entry. The Captain remained on the bridge.

They waited for what seemed like a long time, when they eventually experienced a jolting shudder, and heard shouts of alarm and bustle from the crew in the Engine Room. This was followed by a loud clang, as some other body made contact. Looking out of the starboard corridor Marko could see some sort of long arm mechanism swinging down from the looming bulk above them, followed by another muffled implact as something hit the side.

Bertie was facing the starboard access door when it swung open, revealing a gaggle of surprised looking desperadoes. Reaching over his shoulder, Esmeralda immediately shot one. More rushed in from the Port access, rushing Sebastian….but the narrow corridors worked in favour of the defenders.

There were a pair of muffled explosions followed by metallic clanging: the two access corridors filled with acrid smoke. Coughing and spluttering, Marko rushed along the starboard corridor to be confronted by a door shaped hole in the hull, leading to what looked like a short metallic corridor, with a file of boarders. Without hesitating he clawed his fingers into the man’s eye sockets, and ripped, pushing him backwards screaming. As he shattered the jaw of the next the ones behind tried to fire their revolvers, fortunately without effect.

A few of the new attackers had emerged in the front dining area, and were engaged with the First Officer and Steward in an exchange of pistol shots. Rushing forward Tex whopped as he shot one of them, shortly to be followed by Henry. More attackers poured forward from the Port Corridor breach, though fortunately Marko was hampering the other. With the front area cleared Henry and Tex moved astern.

Meanwhile Markos luck had run out, and he took a shot to the shoulder. The boarders were also badly mauled however, and he heard a barked command to “Retract the bridges!”

“The boarders are retreating! " he thought to himself. “But this will expose the central area to the ether!” Pulling away he started to shout the alarm in his deep voice.

In the stern area , and with the attackers beaten off, two of the crew sealed the corridor access.

“Tex is still in there!” shouted Henry, but the Engineer shook his head. “He’s down with two bullets I’m afraid, there is nothing we can do for him now”.

In the front area Marko and the Steward sealed the front access doors, when the ship shook again, pounded by several cannon shots.

As the ship lurched Marko raced up to the Bridge, where the Captain was frantically struggling with the controls. Taking the Trimsman’s console Marko nodded at the Captain, and saw out of the Bridge Windows that Mars was lurching sickeningly into view……

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Marko Reads.
3rd May 1889

“Hmmm. Well one is enough” thought Marko, as he replaced the finished novel onto the library bookshelf. He had noticed Sebastian consuming novels by G.A.Henty during odd moments of their voyage, and had idly decided to try “By Sheer Pluck: A Tale of the Ashanti War” . One was enough.

He thumbed through the shelves for his next read and picked out “Moby Dick” , by Herman Melville. He had once read “Redburn His First Voyage” by the same author. Clearly this was a man who had been to sea himself: a man who knew the sea. He scanned the shelf and saw several other works by the same author.

“These will do” thought Marko, “For the remainder of the voyage.”

He signed out the book and placed it in his pocket, not feeling like dipping into the new novel just at this moment. Instead he ordered a pot of coffee and some sandwiches, and started to pull down a few travel guides and Gazeteers of Mars.

The basic facts regarding Mars were common knowledge of course: the planet excited more more people than any other. A vast world of mystery. Home to a decaying, ancient civilization, with treasures both natural and created scattered in the endless wastelands and cold deserts. Ever since it was visited by Thomas Edison and Jack Armstrong in 1870, it had drawn the powers of Earth like a magnet: new territory to expand empires, new resources to exploit.

They were headed for the British Crown Colony of Syrtis Major: this former state was always powerful but had not been capable to face Earth’s rapid firing guns and augmented cannons. Now the Imperial Residency of Commissioner-Regent and Colony Governor Lord Dundas oversaw this seven-canal junction. The Mars Explorer’s Society clubhouse was located in the large British Quarter.

Other points of interest included the ruins of the Old Palace (abutting the smaller Emerald Palace), the Legation Compound, the enormous Syrtis Major Shipyard, the Old and New Barracks, the Harbor District, and the crowded Syrtis Major Bazaar.

At present Syrtis Major was at war with Oenotria over three canals: scanning the newspapers it seemed that this was causing some unrest, unsettling the residents and spy scares seem to be daily fare. With the population being mostly Martian, many Earthmen were also becoming increasingly nervous.

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Cigars and Whiskey
22nd April 1889

Sebastian sighed. Only seven days into the voyage still another eighty five to go. Plenty of time for another drink then.

He had gotten his airlegs now, and the only problem now was what to do with himself. The White Star Liner Glorious Dawn was well appointed of course, with ten double occupancy passenger staterooms and a crew of ten. The steward was doing his best of course, with Bridge Tournaments, Painting classes and a host of other things which interested him not at all.

Neither did Bertie’s wheelchair races, shove h’ penny rugger tournaments or indoor cricket. Was it too much to ask for a chap to just be able to sit down in the bar or dining room with a paper and a drink to hand without a string of confounded disturbances?

The other First Class passengers provided an occasional distraction. There was a German Nobleman – Baron Von Ritter and his wife Lady Greta: these he was polite too but regarded with the utmost suspicion. He wondered if they had not been sent along to spy on their business?

The other passengers were a mixed bunch: Hiram Friendly an American Arms dealer, and a fellow called Tex who seemed to be a cowboy that had made it good and was embarked on the adventure of his life.

Then there were the two business fellows, Smith and Robards, a Bhutan spice dealer and Liftwood magnate respectively.

And finally the two civil servants off to serve the Empire by convincing the Martians to fill in dozens of forms in order to do things they had been doing for centuries probably. Witherspoon and Blenkinsop they were called. God Save the Queen.

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Dear Diary
14th April 1889

Dear Diary,

In the morning I embark for Mars, that beacon of adventure that calls to every red-blooded Englishman. To stride under strange stars, to see decadent Martians in their proud but decayed cities, to stride the deck of a swift, barbaric sky galleon — It makes my pulse race!!! Of course, Mars is about as far from those Bounders that keep fleecing me for drinks as possible, which makes it even more attractive, as you well know. My airsickness is another story however.

From The Collected Papers of Lord Sebastian Shaw, KCB, FRGS, Blackstone and Sons, London, Bombay and Syrtis Major, 1972.

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