We have always been here...
Traumatized by the effects of Compression travel, soldier Darren Loughlin holds the key to the fate of Earth’s Martian colonies. With his Battalion decimated, his fractured memory holds the only clues to the colony-wide communications blackout.
With time running out, Darren pieces together his year-long tour of duty with the Mars Occupation Force. Stationed in the Nazi-founded New Berlin colony, ruled by the brutal MARSCORP, he recounts his part in the vicious, genocidal war against the hostile alien natives and all who question Terran supremacy.
But as his memories return, Darren suspects he is at the centre of a plot spanning forty years. He has one last mission to carry out. And his alien enemies may be more human than he is…
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|Publisher:||Dancing Lemur Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.68(d)|
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At first, I thought the piercing white light that bore down on me flowed from the sparks of an electric buzz saw. A relentless slicing agony carved through my brain, tearing through flesh and bone, mind and memory. My skull felt as though it was being split in half. But I heard no high-pitched scream of a saw, and, from an involuntary muscle spasm in my arm, I found I wasn't restrained.
It took a moment for me to realise that sparks weren't raining fiery kisses onto my face and the light above me remained as constant as a laser. I hadn't blinked in what felt like an eternity, so upon forcing my eyelids shut and reopening them again, my senses burst to life. I rolled over and lifted a shaking hand to rub my throbbing temples. My vision was blurry, but I could make out the polished marble floors of the room. Beside the leg of the folding cot I spied cracks on the floor and vaguely recalled noting those same cracks the first time I had climbed onto this hard mattress a year before.
Dazed, I perceived another needle of fire being strategically inserted into my brain, causing incomprehensible pain. I let out a roar as my eyes teared up, and I struggled for breath. I gasped, trying to suck in sweet, unrecycled air, and another harsh pain surged through my chest, temporarily forcing me to forget the buzz saw slicing its way through my skull.
In response, a firm, gloved hand gripped my shoulder and eased me back onto the mattress. A masked figure blocked the painful light glaring down on me, and cold, gloved hands prodded at my head and body. I tried to speak, but screams and whimpers escaped. I sensed the cool tears running down my face and squeezed my eyes closed to stop them.
That only made things worse.
In the darkness of my mind, figures emerged and disappeared. They looked like faded silhouettes of people I had known and grown to like — or at least endured — but I couldn't see their faces. It started slow at first, just one or two shadows emerging long enough to mimic a humorous incident from long hours of training, but as the pain in my chest intensified, the silhouettes rushed faster and faster, eager to reach their climax. Days, weeks, and months sped past in a heartbeat, each image more vivid and detailed than the last, until that final moment and I knew why I was screaming.
I bolted upright in the cot, knocking the doctor away from me. With eyes wide open, I remembered my wound. I saw the stunned doctors shouting for an orderly over the high-pitched ringing in my eardrums. Panicking, I grabbed at my chest to stop the blood from oozing out of my wound. My trembling hand touched the dark green T-shirt that we all wore, but, to my surprise, I didn't feel the gaping hole that should have been there. I pulled up my T-shirt to see my pale, hairless skin untouched by blood, not burned flesh. I prodded at myself in disbelief, expecting a barb of pain to shoot through the area where I thought had been operated on, but I felt nothing. The pain in my head and chest retreated, as did the ringing in my ears. It was then that I noted the screaming and shouting around me.
Two pairs of sturdy hands eased me back onto the cot mattress again, and, still struggling to make sense of my jumbled thoughts, I offered no resistance. Lying back on the soft pillow, I moved my head from side to side as the doctor completed her checks. She looked vaguely familiar, even behind the mask, and something told me she was trustworthy.
All around me were rows of cots with dozens of uniformed soldiers in various states of agonised shock. Some fought with the orderlies, roaring and screaming incoherently, and others were curled up in the foetal position, numb from what they had experienced. Cries of pain and bitter sobs of regret echoed throughout the room, a testament to the horror we had survived.
A light shone into my eyes. Looking up, I saw the red- haired doctor standing over me, studying me in-depth. This time, the light caused no pain, so I let her do what she needed to. After a moment, she pulled down her face mask and, with a clinical expression, spoke to me.
"Do you remember where you are?"
I didn't. The room was familiar. I knew I had been here a year before, but a fog draped itself over my memory. I was positive I could navigate the halls of this place but had no idea what its purpose was or what we were doing here.
"Yes," I lied, surprised to hear my voice so hoarse.
I must have been screaming non-stop from the moment I regained consciousness. As if reading my mind, she reached behind her to a small, metallic trolley and pulling out a plastic container with a flexible straw, uncapped it, and handed it to me. My quivering hands accepted it. Parched, I sucked on the straw. The cool water made its way down my aching throat to spread instant relief throughout my body.
"What's the last thing you remember happening?" she asked, scrutinising my every movement.
Although it sounded like a typical question to be ticked off a medical checklist, I got the impression that the doctor had no idea what we'd been through and was genuinely confounded by our pain-filled outbursts.
"I got shot," I groaned and tapped at my chest.
For a moment, the pain was real again. Searing, hot flames engulfed my torso and ate away at my innards, but as soon as I patted myself, it faded. A part of me wondered if it had really happened, if it was part of a twisted nightmare or a side effect of the treatment, but the memory felt so real. I couldn't remember the exact circumstances, but I remembered being lodged into a shaft or confined space with two or three others when I got hit.
"I need you to focus your mind and try to remember. Did anyone else make it? Is anyone else alive up there?"
I could see snippets of a firefight and older memories of training and patrols but nothing else sprang to mind. Sensing the urgency of her question, I focused on that image of the shaft and studied it for tell-tale clues. At least three others were there, but from the shouts and sounds of explosions that hung outside the boundaries of my memory, there had to be more. I remembered being terrified to the core. Although the adrenaline kept me moving, my hands had trembled as I held my weapon. The sound of intense hand-to-hand combat echoed from all around us, and the screams of the dying grew closer as an unseen enemy approached.
"Think," she said, rubbing my shoulder gently with a cold hand. "Did anyone else make it out alive?"
Trying to focus, I shifted in the cot and looked around. Surely there had to be someone in the room who could answer that better than me. To my right, I thought the soldier occupying the cot had been comatose, but then I saw his eyes. They were huge and mesmerising and drew me in. He had a vague familiarity about him. His feet dangled, unmoving, off the edge of the cot, and his large hands rested on his chest. His smooth, ebony skin betrayed not a single scratch or mark, but those dark eyes gazed deep into mine, as if to communicate with me. His lips moved slowly as he mouthed something. Too drained and disorientated to make the effort of whispering back, I furrowed my brow and shook my head at him to show that I didn't understand. Without blinking, he moved his lips more concisely and whispered something with a raspy voice that terrified me to the core.
"Kill them all."
The doctor turned at the sudden utterance. While waving for another orderly, she began checking the traumatised soldier.
"We have another one," she shouted over the din of cries and screams.
Once she made sure he was being tended to, she returned her attention to me. She signalled for a drip and, without any warning, jabbed a needle into my arm. Unable to resist, I watched the transparent fluid flow from the drip into my body. Behind me there was a clash and clang of a trolley being knocked over and the grunts and shouts of what sounded like a scuffle.
"We need security in here now," a harsh voice shouted from somewhere in the room. "They've totally lost it. They need to be restrained and sedated until we know exactly what happened."
"They need compassion," the red-haired doctor above me fired back in anger. "They're our girls and boys, and God only knows what they've gone through. Restrain them if you have to, sedate them if necessary, but don't treat them like the enemy."
It was good to know someone was on our side, whoever they were. Whoever we were for that matter. The doctor returned her attention to me and, placing a hand on my wrist, checked my pulse.
"Feeling better?" she asked.
I was. Whatever was in that drip was making me float. All the pain and fear that had crashed through my skull evaporated. The screams of agony became soft background noise. It was like being back in a womb.
"Focus on my voice," she said, and I did. "I need you to think very, very hard. I know whatever you experienced was traumatic, but there are people still up there. Your people. I need you to remember exactly what happened. You said you got shot. Who shot you?"
I replayed the memory in my head again, but I couldn't see anyone. I was doing something with my left hand while holding a rifle or a gun in my right.
"I don't know. I didn't see them."
"Were you on the base when you got shot?"
I thought about it as hard as I could.
She patted me on the arm again and looked around her. Raising her right hand, she shook it vigorously at someone. After a few moments, a bearded man, with his face mask wrapped around his chin approached. He ignored me as he spoke with the red-haired doctor.
"I don't know how to explain it," she whispered, turning her back on me as if that would drown out her words. "Something must have happened during the transfer procedure. All of the simulations we ran never indicated the possibility of this level of memory fragmentation."
The bearded man turned to look at me and saw me staring up at him. He forced a smile before returning his attention to the doctor.
"It may be a temporary side-effect from them coming back so soon. This one seems far more lucid than the rest. Maybe they need time to recuperate. Check the records. They've been through a lot in the last year. That would take its toll even on veteran soldiers."
"Maybe," the red-haired doctor continued, "but right now, we don't have time. We need to find out what happened. I want you to supervise the rest. I'll take this one and see if we can jog his memory. Call Doctor Ling and get her down here, too."
"Okay, Doctor," the bearded man said. Without another word, he turned and walked away.
"Orderlies," the doctor called out and beckoned them over. She must have signalled something to them when I wasn't watching because one of the orderlies made his way to the side of the room to an empty patient trolley, which he dragged to my cot.
"We're going to move you, Corporal Luglin."
That didn't sound like my name.
Two hands eased themselves under my head and back, and another pair of hands gripped under my combat boots. With a three count, they hoisted me onto the trolley. One of the orderlies grabbed the drip and attached it to the trolley. Without warning, they strapped restraints around my wrists, ankles and waist, pulling them tight to confirm they were secure. Then they began manoeuvring me between the rows of distressed soldiers. Confused at the name, I reached a weak hand under my T-shirt and pulled out a pair of dog tags resting on my chest.
"Loughlin," I said, correcting the doctor as she led the trolley towards our destination, "pronounced Lock-Linn. I'm Irish."
"My apologies," she said, half turning her head as she led the way.
My fingers continued toying with the dog tags.
"Darren Loughlin," I said aloud to no one in particular. That sounded familiar. The dog tags also confirmed my serial number, blood type, religion, and nationality.
The orderlies wheeled me past another two-dozen screaming, shouting, and horrified soldiers before pushing me through double doors into a side room. They inserted my trolley carefully between two rows of computer screens and strange-looking medical equipment. Without prompting, one of them hoisted my head rest as the orderlies prepared me for whatever was to come next.
The taller of the two male orderlies rubbed a cool gel onto my temples before sticking on some sort of miniature suction cups, and the smaller one attached what looked like a blood pressure cuff tightly around my right arm. While he did it, the smaller orderly kept glancing at me strangely. Like the soldier who had lain in the cot to my right, he looked as if he was trying to communicate something to me, but I had no idea of what.
The doctor called the taller orderly over to the monitors, and the moment their backs were turned, the smaller orderly leaned forward, pretending to check my drip. As quick as a flash, he pressed something small and cold into the palm of my right hand. I instinctively wrapped my hand around it to conceal the object from view and shifted my weight to hide it underneath my right thigh. Even though I only held it for a few seconds, a part of me already knew what it was. I had held it a hundred times before and knew it was dangerous.
"Stall them for as long as possible," he muttered under his breath. "When it's time, you'll know. Salient."
I opened my mouth to speak, but he had already turned and headed towards the doctor.
"Wait outside," the doctor said to the orderlies when the double doors swung open again.
A tall Asian woman burst through the doors with a look of concern plastered over her face. She wore a long, neatly pressed black skirt and a white blouse. Several long beady ornaments dangled from her neck. She greeted the doctor with a nod before looking towards me. Smoothing her skirt and being careful not to bump into the nearby computer monitors glaring down at me, she took a seat and pulled out paper files and a tablet device from her bag.
"Mr. Loughlin, how are you today?" she asked, trying to maintain eye contact as she leafed through several pages.
"I've been better," I groaned back. My throat still hurt, but I was glad I didn't sound as hoarse as I did earlier.
"My name is Doctor Ling," she said, extending a friendly hand to shake mine. I raised my right hand and waggled it against the restraints to show I was unable to reciprocate. Undeterred, she stood, leaned over me at an awkward angle, and gripped my hand. Resisting the urge to break eye contact and take advantage of the view that her loose blouse would undoubtedly present, I smiled back politely.
"I'm the head psychologist for the program, and I'd like to touch base with you about your condition."
"My schedule's clear."
"Great," she said, and flashed her wrist as she pushed a few renegade strands of hair behind her ear. "You've probably witnessed a lot of alarming things here since you've returned. It must be confusing for you, but rest assured, you're in good hands."
I felt safe, but then again, that could have been the drugs they were pumping into me.
"Do you know where you are?"
I thought hard about it. Although I recognised the room I woke up in and a few of the faces, I couldn't place myself. I shook my head.
"That's okay. It's normal considering what you've been through. I have full confidence that your memories will return in due process. We just need to give them a jump start."
She picked up the tablet device and became engrossed by something of interest. Distracted, she forced herself back to the present and placed the tablet on the chair beside her.
"We're going to try something a bit different, if that's okay with you?" Doctor Ling asked. I nodded my consent to proceed. "I'm sure it must be frustrating trying to remember where you are and what's happened to you and your colleagues, so I want you to push all of that from your mind. For the moment, we'll push aside the MOF, EISEN, Mars, and the program, and start with the basics."
I looked at her as if she had two heads.
"Yes, Mars. We'll focus on that later. To start: Can you tell me what today's date is?"
I was still baffled by that "Mars" utterance but decided to play along. I tried to focus my jumbled mind to find any record or reminder of what the date could be.
"Twenty-fourth of ... March ..."
"Very good," Doctor Ling said, and smiled as she made a note on her tablet. "Do you remember what year it is?"
That didn't sound right, but a voice inside me told me it was.
"Correct again," she said, scribbling. "And how long has your assignment lasted?"
A voice on the inside told me this was a trick question. A voice that protected me when danger was near.
"From your perspective or mine?" I asked, unable to mask a victorious smile at spotting her trick question.
"Your perspective is the one that matters," she said with a wink.
"Thirteen months from my point of view."
"Great. This is great, Darren. Your ability to recall these details shows that you haven't suffered any permanent damage. It may take time, but if we start slow, it won't be long before you'll feel as right as rain."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Big Red"
Copyright © 2019 Damien Larkin.
Excerpted by permission of Dancing Lemur Press, L.L.C..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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