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"The Hitchbury Zone"


Chapter 1
The Hitchbury Zone Chapter 1

By Thomas Blanks

Hitchbury Zone – Chapter One – 3:10 to Ganymede

2058, C.E.

A rocky object called Quaoar, 1,100 miles (1,800km) across, bumped into two asteroids among the multitude in the Oort Cloud beyond Pluto. It began to tumble toward the Sun. Pluto, named for the lord of the underworld, and its moon Charon, the ferryman to Hades, spun around each other like a pair of figure skaters. The lord of the underworld was right in the path of cosmic destruction. As Quaoar blasted into Pluto, Charon was flung out of Pluto’s hold like a discus thrown by Hercules toward the Sun.

Usually, the gas giant planets protect their four rocky neighbors from such invaders. However, Jupiter and Saturn were on the other side of the Sun, completing their long orbital journeys, twelve years for Jupiter and twenty-nine for Saturn. So, Charon had a clear shot at Mars, coming in at a seventeen-degree angle, it would squeak by the asteroid belt, but NASA scientists didn’t know that yet.

Earth, Ten Years Earlier, 2048 C.E.

“The northern and southern hemispheres of Mars are vastly different from one another,” the NASA planetary geologist explained to a group. “Separated by a ridge of mountains around the planet’s middle. The highest peak is more than twice as high as Mount Everest. The Martian topography is the most critical factor in selecting a site for colonization, and there are three criteria.” He had a presentation on the wall that set out the criteria:

PRACTICAL: The spot must have a sustainable water supply and allow for efficient energy generation.

SAFE: The spot has to be safe to land and protected from planet-wide dust storms.

FUNCTIONAL: The spot has to be scientifically interesting for an extended mission.

“Based on the criteria you see on the screen, the computer chose the top three potential landing sites: 1) The outer edge of Mars’ North polar ice cap, which has plenty of water. 2) The deep canyon of Valles Marineris, as long as the United States with a frozen underground lake. 3) Martian glaciers in the Hellas Impact Basin, the lowest area on Mars.”

Scientists couldn’t decide between numbers two and three, so six-person colony domes went up at both locations - after nineteen years of designing and building the habitat structures, ferrying workers to and from Mars, and constructing solar arrays large enough to meet the power needs with wind turbine backup for periods of sand storms, inserting heated probes into ice to tap water supplies and establishing oxygen generators that broke down atmospheric CO2 into carbon and oxygen. Most of the oxygen would be for breathing, but by combining some with nitrogen, they could make fertilizer for the hydroponic growing system for fruits and vegetables. Finally, NASA had to recruit and train the crew.

April 1, 2068, C. E. Ten years after the destruction of Pluto

The colonists had been in the two domes less than a year when NASA informed them of the slight possibility that Pluto’s moon might hit Mars.

“If that is an April fool’s joke, Houston, it’s not funny,” said Mission Commander Kevin Styles, the leader at Dome One, located in the Hellas Impact Basin.

“No, joke, Kevin,” Paul Livingston, Mission Control Executive, said. “We have been watching Charon since Pluto’s destruction ten years ago and expected it to either go into solar orbit or perhaps hit the Sun. We never expected it to have a near impact situation with Mars, but now it looks like that’s what will happen.”

“How near?”

“It might cause quakes or slow the rotation of the planet.”

“Holy crap! That’s close, Houston! Are you 100% sure it won’t hit us?”

“We are 99.8% sure.”

“That is not good enough,” Commander Styles said.

“We have two months. Let us work on it.”

“That’s not enough time to get us out of here, Houston.”

“We know that. We’ll let you know when we are sure it won’t hit you.”

#

Two months later, Charon went past Mars within 3,000 miles (4,830 km), obliterating the small moon Phobos, only fourteen miles across. Pluto’s rouge moon had passed in the opposite direction of Mars’ rotation, acting as a gravitational brake, slowing the red planet’s rotation to almost nothing.

With the rotational momentum lost forever, Martian days got longer, lasting two hundred hours instead of twenty-four. This alone created havoc, but some crew members believed strange things bored themselves out of the Martian crust onto the surface in this new extended darkness.

“I think you two have lost your minds,” Kevin Styles said. “If you tell Houston you think subterranean mole-Martians are creeping around in the dark, they’ll pick you up in a padded shuttle for a Section Eight discharge!”

“I saw something moving out there and found footprints the next day,” Mike Malone said. He was short, five foot six, with blond hair and a beard.

“Did you photograph them?”

“By the time I got back with a camera, the wind had obliterated them.”

“Mike, that sounds like ‘the dog ate my homework.’”

“I know it does.”

“I saw them too, Kevin. Something is moving around when it’s dark,” said Malek Coleman, a tall, thin, thirty-year-old African-American engineer.

“Why weren’t they out there before?” Kevin asked.

“The days used to be a little over twenty-four hours, like Earth. Now they are eight times longer with the slower rotation. Those things, whatever they are, can stay ahead of the daylight now. They don’t have to live underground anymore,” Malone said.

“I’ve done some calculations. The rotation is getting slower, so slow that tidal locking is inevitable soon.” Malek said.

“How soon?” Styles asked.

“Within a month.”

“The big question is will we end up on the sunny side or the dark side?” Styles said.

“Are you saying Mars is going to be like the Moon?” Malone asked, “rotating only once each time it orbits the Earth, having one side always dark?” 

“Yes, we just don't know where the line of darkness will be yet. Our dome is 70 degrees east, and the other is 75 degrees west of the Martian prime meridian. In other words, they're 145 degrees apart. Half the planet is 180 degrees, meaning that both domes could end up on the dark side of Mars, both on the Sun side, or one on each side. It's a massive game of roulette.”

In the end, the red planetary roulette wheel that humankind watched came up double zero, and twenty years of work and billions of dollars went down the drain. When Mars stopped rotating, both domes were on the dark side of Mars, with the creatures lurking in the darkness. Attempts to study them resulted in slaughtered scientists – the entire team from Dome Two dead.

#

“We have to abandon the dome, or they’re going to kill us as well,” Malek said.

“All we have is a shuttle designed to go to Phobos, which isn’t even there anymore!” Malone said.

“The sunny side of Mars is there,” Malek said.

“What about air? Or heat? How long can we survive without the dome?” Malone asked.

“At least those little beasties won’t get us, and they’ll be swarming the dome any day now,” Styles said. “I agree with Malek. We should go.”

“We’ll die!”

“The ship from Earth is on the way,” Styles said.

“Eleven, fucking months, man! We’re screwed!”

“Stand down, Malone. That’s an order!” Styles said.

“Commander, I’m getting a message from a ship,” Linh Ton said, sticking her head through the doorway.

“Not the ship from Earth?” Styles said.

“No, Ganymede.”

“Ganymede? Who do we have on Ganymede?” Styles asked no one in particular.

“Beats me,” Malek said.

“The Marines, Sir!” Linh said, “and they’re waiting to talk to you.”

“Coming.” Styles maneuvered the passage expertly in the increased gravity and sat beside Linh. “Am I on?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“This is Commander Styles Martian Colony Project. Who am I speaking with, please?”

“A pleasure Commander Styles. My name is Colonel Diamond, Special Missions Battalion, United States Marine Corp.”

“We have a special mission on Ganymede?”

“No comment.”

“Are you offering us a ride?”

“With one condition.”

“I’m listening.”

“We want one of those things,” Colonel Diamond said. Styles signaled to Linh to cut off the sound, and she did.

“He wants us to capture one of the dark crawlies to buy a ride. What do you say? Can we do it?”

“Well, that’s a hell of a better deal than freezing to death or asphyxiating on the other side of Mars,” Malone said.

“I have to agree, Sir,” Malek said.

“Linh?

“I’m not going hunting for a crawly, so I’m not voting!” she said.

“Open the line,” Styles said. Linh signaled him.

“Okay, Diamond, you have a deal. What is your ETA?”

“Tomorrow. Diamond-out.”

“Linh, where are Barrett and Horton?” Styles asked.

“They went out to see why the wind turbines were not working.”

“Just the two of them? How long ago?” Styles was aggravated.

“Less than an hour, more than half an hour.”

“Malek!”

“I’m suiting up.”

“How long will the batteries last without the turbines turning?” Styles asked. As if to answer him, all the lights and computers went dead. It was pitch black. In one swift move, the commander raked his Zippo across the top of his thigh, at once flipping the cap open and turning the flint-striker wheel to ignite a steady flame.

“I’m coming with you, Malek,” Styles said.

“Where are the flashlights?” Malone asked.

“Storage bin A up there,” Linh said. Malone reached them, and Styles closed his lighter.

“You smoke?” Linh asked as if it were worse than torturing puppies.

“Not recently.” He went to get his space suit and the emergency sealer for dome punctures.

#

Outside, it was a short walk to the wind turbines. The problem with the first one was immediately apparent as it was lying on the ground. The other turbine had something inside it. As Styles and Malek approached, they saw the bodies of Barrett and Horton with their environmental suits shredded. Determined not to be distracted, Styles kept his eyes on the second turbine, a metal cylinder with screw-shaped blades to catch the wind. He was sure there was something inside it. Perhaps this is how it ambushed Barrett and Horton. Styles raised the caulking gun-like dome sealer, pointing the jet nozzle at the turbine. In the darkness, he could only see as far as the light on his suit illuminated. “CRAUGHH!” It was ugly! It had teeth! Styles fired the gun and held the trigger.

Dome sealer was the stickiest substance known to man. In an emergency, you could plug a hole the size of a softball by coating the bottom of a lunch tray and sticking it over the hole. The stuff stuck to whatever it touched. The more the crawly struggled, the more entangled it became. Soon all four of its limbs were stuck in a ball with only the head free. Styles wrapped the goo in mylar to contain the stickiness, making sure to avoid the teeth.

Malek got the turbine moving, then set the other one back up. As he walked toward the dome, he activated his radio.

“Commander, you’re not taking that thing inside the dome, are you?”

“What do you suggest we do with it until tomorrow?”

“Put it in the shuttle – in the cargo hold?”

“You might have an idea there, Malek.” Styles turned and headed for the shuttle with his mylar-wrapped package. The crawly weighed eighty pounds (36 kg) on Earth, and also now on Mars with the increased gravity due to no rotation. After placing the crawly, he turned on the intercom in the hold to listen for trouble.

#

“All we have to do now is live until Colonel Diamond arrives,” Styles said.

“I hope it will be okay in there until tomorrow without food or water,” Malek said.

“I don’t know what it eats; water would freeze.”

“Are we doing the right thing, Commander?”

“I don’t know. If we don’t give Diamond the thing in the shuttle, we will be stuck here and die. We don’t have a choice if we want to get off this planet.”

“It won’t go well for that crawly being in the hands of the military.”

“I know,” Styles said. “They probably want to make an army of stealth soldiers who can see in the dark.”

“If the crawlies have any intelligence, they will attack when we move from the dome to the shuttle. I think they are watching and waiting for their chance, like with Barrett and Horton,” Malek said.

“Why didn’t NASA let us bring weapons?” Malone said.

“Nine out of ten times, the crew would use them on each other,” Styles said.

#

Not that you could tell by anything but numbers on a computer screen, but a day had passed.

“When is that Colonel Diamond going to call us back?” Malone asked. “I feel like the fox at the Billsdale Hunt.”

“Commander,” Linh said. “Colonel Diamond is hailing.”

“Put it on the speaker, please.”

“Okay, ready.”

“Colonel Diamond, Commander Styles here.”

“Greetings, I suggest we rendezvous at Deimos.”

“Should we take off now?”

“I think so.”

“We’re on our way.”

“Diamond-out.”

“Suit up, people!”

#

As four space-suited figures bounce-walked toward the shuttle, three crawlies executed a coordinated attack, hitting the trailing human simultaneously, one high, one low, and the other ripping off the life support unit from the back of the suit. Linh never had a chance to press her talk button.

When the other three reached the shuttle, Styles realized Linh was gone and started back. A hand grabbed his arm.

“She’s gone, Sir. We need to go,” Malek said. He had opened the shuttle door.

“You and Malone go in first.” They looked at Malone precisely when crawlies pulled him down, ripping his suit.

“Get inside!” Styles yelled. Malek didn’t hesitate, and the commander followed. Before Malek hit the button that closed the door, a crawly grabbed the opening, pulled itself up, and held the door at bay. The black demon screamed at Malek when he tried to kick it loose, biting at his boot. Malek retreated, the crawly slipped inside, and the door slammed shut. Instead of attacking, it turned, went to the cargo hold door, and listened.

“Wauh nog gin satopa wentu,” it said.

“They talk?” Malek said.

“It’s talking to the one in the hold,” Styles said. “Open the door.”

Malek walked to the control panel and opened the door for the crawly. It went inside, and Malek reclosed the door.

“Take off and pressurize the ship,” Malek said. “I’ll get the oxygen flowing.”

#

Styles landed the shuttle on Deimos and walked back to the cargo hold. He was surprised to find Malek inside talking with the sticky balled-up crawly.

“Commander, you aren’t going to believe this.”

“Try me.”

“You turned on the intercom for a day in the cargo hold to ensure there was no trouble. The crawly could hear everything we said, and he even learned some English.”

“No way.”

“Yes,” the crawly said. Styles was stunned.

“Talk to me,” Styles said.

“I no more attack,” it said.

“Name? My name is Styles. What is your name?” The crawly didn’t seem to know the word. “Me-Styles,” he pointed to himself. “You?” he pointed at the crawly.

“Zingi.”

“Why Zingi no attack?”

“I want go Diamond.”

“Malek, Parlez vous Francais?” (Do you speak French?)

“Oui.” (Yes.)

“Il est mauvais.” (He is evil.)

“Je suis d’accord.” (I agree.)

“Okay, Zingi. How can you live on Mars?”

“Mars?”

“No good air,” Styles said.

“You…” he drew a six in the air.

“Six,” Malek said.

“Me…” he drew a fourteen.

“Fourteen. Six and fourteen? Carbon and silicon on the periodic table are six and fourteen,” Malek said.

“Silicon-based life. That would explain why they can survive in harsh conditions,” Styles said. “Mais pas dans le vide.” (But not in a vacuum.)

“Compris, mais il est notre billet.” (Understood, but he is our ticket.)

“Nous attendons.” (We wait.)

“Code,” Zingi said.

Commander Styles walked to the cockpit.

“Martian Colony Shuttle, Commander Styles to Houston,” he said.

“This is Houston. We read you."

“Shuttle is on Deimos awaiting pickup by Special Missions Battalion, United States Marine Corp Colonel Diamond. We have lost four more crew to attack from hostile lifeforms on the planet. Someone with authority to do it needs to declare Mars off limits – a full quarantine to prevent someone from taking one of the little black beasts that kill silently in the dark.”

“Roger Mars Shuttle. What will be your destination after pickup?”

“Ganymede.”

“Did you say Ganymede?”

“Yeah, I didn’t know we had anything there either. Mars Shuttle out.” Styles could see the Marine ship approaching.

“I guess that’s our ride,” Malek said.

“Yeah. Now, we must get to Ganymede and find a way to flush those two crawlies out of an airlock and not get killed.”

“Salvation and martyrdom are equally possible outcomes,” Malek said.

“Sometimes they’re the same thing.” Styles said. “I wish I had a cigarette.”

“Colonel Diamond to Mars Shuttle.”

“Styles here, Diamond, go ahead.”

“I am just above you. Bring it on up and dock.”

“Roger that.” Styles tapped the thrusters, and they rose from the moon, maneuvering using the fuselage cameras. The docking was uneventful. The clock on the cockpit control panel read 3:10.

“All aboard for the 3:10 to Ganymede!” Styles said.


Chapter 2
A Deal is a Deal (Hitchbury 2)

By Thomas Blanks

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of language.

In Chapter One, a wayward planetoid from the Oort Cloud destroys Pluto, catapulting its moon, Charon, into the inner solar system. Charon passes very close to Mars, slowing the red planet’s rotation to almost nothing. Eventually, Mars becomes tidally locked with dark and sunny sides. The two domes of Earth colonists end up on the dark side of Mars, where strange subterranean creatures emerge into the darkness and attack the colonists. Rescue from Earth takes too long, so the last two surviving colonists, Commander Kevin Styles and engineer Malek Coleman are rescued by a Marine Colonel. He promises the rescue and passage to Ganymede (a moon of Jupiter) in exchange for a captured creature. Commander Styles agrees but learns that the crawlies are very intelligent and that the one they caught wants to go with Colonel Diamond. Styles and Malek realize they have to get to Ganymede to survive, and the crawly is their ticket, but they also need to destroy the crawly along with another one that got in the door when they left the planet. Styles has already advised NASA of the danger on Mars and told them to quarantine it, knowing that Colonel Diamond could hear his message.

The Hitchbury Zone CHAPTER 2 – A Deal is a Deal

Paul Livingston, Mission Control Executive at NASA in Houston, was almost fifty but stayed in shape by running a mile daily. He used a product to make his hair not look as grey and watched what he ate. Paul believed he looked forty between all that and the eye surgery to get rid of glasses.

Livingston played the message again…

“Martian Colony Shuttle, Commander Styles to Houston.”

“This is Houston. We read you.”

“Shuttle is on Deimos awaiting pickup by Special Missions Battalion, United States Marine Corp Colonel Diamond. We have lost four more crew to attack from hostile lifeforms on the planet. Someone with authority to do it needs to declare Mars off limits – a full quarantine to prevent someone from taking one of the little black beasts that kill silently in the dark.”

“Roger Mars Shuttle. What will be your destination after pickup?”

“Ganymede.”

“Did you say Ganymede?”

“Yeah, I didn’t know we had anything there either. Mars Shuttle out.” Livingston stopped the recording.

“Did you hear the tapping?” Livingston asked.

“Yes,” the sound engineer said, “in the background.”

“That’s Morse code,” Livingstone said. “Can you clean up the audio? Strip out the conversation?”

“Sure.”

“How long will it take?”

“Ten minutes.”

“Then get on it!” Livingston said. Something was wrong, and Styles was trying to warn him.

#

In Paul Livingston’s office, fifteen minutes later, “I’ve separated the tapping, and it’s Morse code alright.” The engineer played the audio of long and short taps, “-…  .-.  ---  -.-  . -.  / .-  .-.  .-.  ---  .--”

“Broken arrow,” Livingston said.

“Yeah, that’s what I got, but I don’t understand.”

“It’s military intelligence code for a situation where a nuclear weapon is lost or stolen.”

“Why would Styles be tapping that?” the engineer asked.

“Because one of those monsters is on its way to Ganymede.” Livingston picked up his desk phone receiver and punched four keys.

“Jason, it’s Paul. I need everything on a Marine Colonel named Diamond, Special Missions, and a base on Ganymede... I didn’t either until today... I don’t know, that’s why I’m calling you... Thanks.” He hung up and thought. Shit! My ship is still six months from Mars, and Styles has no way to contact me discreetly. There’s no way to help him. I hope he comes up with something!

#

“What exactly are you going to do with the crawlies, Diamond?” Styles asked.

“I think you realize their potential. I need to determine their suitability and how easy or difficult they will be to control and maintain at sufficient levels.”

“As soldiers,” Styles said.

“The few, the proud-”

“The monsters.”

“You disapprove? Why did you bring them to me?”

“It was blackmail. I had two choices: this one or die. The crawlies killed the other ten Martian colonists.”

“They don’t seem very dangerous to me,” Diamond said.

“They want to go with you.”

“How do you know that?”

“The one we stuck in a ball of sealant told me.”

“They talk? Oh, this is better than I dreamed!”

“Don’t you get it, Diamond? Maybe that thing has a plan, too, and it is using you to its own ends.”

“From where I’m sitting, it doesn’t look dangerous in its ball of mylar.” He laughed and went back to the cockpit.

“What do you think Diamond would do if we spaced these two crawlies out of the airlock right now?” Malek asked.

“Honestly? I think he’d kill us and send our bodies out the airlock.”

“How many marines do you think are on this ship?”

“If you’re thinking of trying to take control, forget it. Military vessels have a failsafe to prevent that. It would shut down the plasma drive if we tried to operate the ship without knowing the code.”

“Crap!” Malek said. “I feel like a rat trapped on a sinking ship.”

“We have to wait until we get to Ganymede to do anything. Maybe Livingston is acting on my message and can neutralize Diamond’s plan.”

“You will not stop Zingi,” the crawly said, making a grinding noise that might have been a laugh.

“Malek,” Styles whispered, “How can we immobilize the second crawly?”

“There’s cargo netting under the seats for when the artificial gravity centrifuge is not engaged. I could probably toss one of those over it. Why?”

“I made a deal with Diamond to give him one crawly, not two. I think it’s time to space Zingi.”

“But you just said-”

“Zingi understands some English,” Styles whispered. “A deal is a deal. One crawly, and you know Zingi is much more evil than the other one.”

“Diamond will be pissed.”

“He’ll still have one. I am not breaking the deal.”

“Okay. Let’s do it.” Reaching under his seat, grasping a handful of netting, standing quickly, and throwing with a turn of his wrist, Malik had opened a round, spinning net that slapped the unsuspecting crawly and knocked it to the floor. Before it could move, Malik was standing on the edges of the net.

“CRAUGHH!” the crawly screamed.

Styles was moving, scooping up Zingi, avoiding the snapping teeth, throwing it into the airlock, and punching the door latch to seal Zingi inside. The flashing button turned solid red, and Styles pressed it, releasing the air and shooting Zingi into the icy vacuum of space.

Colonel Diamond hurried from the cockpit. “What the fuck is going on?”

“Our deal was for one crawly, not two,” Styles said, “and the little bastard killed at least two of my men.”

“I see. Okay, Styles. If you get cute again, you’ll also be a floating piece of frozen space meat.”

…To be continued in Chapter Three, The Snows of Ganymede.

Characters:

Commander Kevin Styles: is one of two survivors of the Martian Colony Program, kicks ass, and takes names.

Malek Coleman: The other surviving colonist is a capable engineer, loyal to Styles.

Paul Livingston: Mission Control Executive at NASA in Houston, feels helpless but wants to help Styles.

Colonel Diamond:  Special Missions Battalion, United States Marine Corp is a wild card; no one seems to know anything about him or what he is doing on Ganymede.

Zingi (pronounced Zin Gee): is a particularly intelligent and malevolent crawly that wants to go with Colonel Diamond.

Author Notes Chapter One of Hitchbury Zone finished third in the "First Chapter contest." Here is chapter 2


Chapter 3
The Snows of Ganymede (HBZ #3)

By Thomas Blanks

THE STORY SO FAR: Pluto’s moon, Charon, knocked from its orbit, nearly misses Mars, stopping the red planet’s rotation. On the dark side, strange subterranean creatures emerge into the darkness and attack Earth colonists. The last two surviving colonists, Commander Kevin Styles, and engineer Malek Coleman are rescued by a Marine Colonel who promises passage to Ganymede (a moon of Jupiter) in exchange for a captured creature. Commander Styles agrees but learns that the crawlies are very intelligent, and one they caught wants to go with Colonel Diamond.

Styles and Malek must leave Mars to survive, and the crawly is their ticket, but they also need to destroy the crawly along with another one that got in the door when they left the planet. Styles has already advised NASA of the danger on Mars and told them to quarantine it, knowing that Colonel Diamond could hear his message.

Deciding that their deal with Colonel Diamond was for one crawly, waiting for the right time, Styles and Malek throw a net over the subordinate crawly and flush Zingi out the airlock.

The Hitchbury Zone CHAPTER 3 – The Snows of Ganymede

With Jupiter enormous on the horizon and the cream of the Milky Way splattered above them, Styles and Malek stood and stared out the viewing port of the small but robust military installation on Ganymede. The moon’s surface was white with snow broken by rocky outcroppings, a desolate mountainous surface pocked with craters, and one side always faced Jupiter, amber, streaked with pale reds, blues, and browns. However, this far from the Sun, the light side only experienced twilight.

“First-timers always stand there and gawk,” Colonel Diamond said. “I’m in room twelve when you get enough of the view.”

“I read that Ganymede is the largest of all moons in the solar system and has a magnetic field, like Earth, that holds a thin oxygen atmosphere,” Malek said to Styles.

“A molten iron center generates a magnetic field, but what good is an oxygen atmosphere at minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit? There’s a salt-water ocean under all this rocky ice.”

“I wonder what’s in that.”

“We have enough to worry about, Malek. Let’s go talk to Diamond.”

#

“Our little crawly friend is being very cooperative despite what you did to his colleague,” Diamond said as Styles and Malek appeared at the door to room twelve.

“That should tell you they have some ulterior motive. Zingi probably told him to cooperate with you,” Styles said.

“Now you are going to tell me the CIA killed JFK, NASA faked the 1969 moon landing, and the 9/11 attacks were an inside job to get public support for a Department of Homeland Security, right?”

“Look, we gave you a crawly. How do we get off this base?”

“I’m afraid that might be a problem,” Diamond said.

“What are you saying? You said you would give us passage,” Styles said.

“To Ganymede. I never said anything about anywhere else. You now have some information classified above Top Secret. I can’t even say the name of the classification because it is Top Secret.”

“So, we’re prisoners?”

“You can go anywhere on the base you want.”

“How long is your deployment?” Styles asked.

“Right now, it is indefinite.”

“What happens if the tour of duty of someone stationed here ends?”

“They only let lifers come here.”

“Supply shuttles?”

“We have enough supplies for the next five years.”

“What the hell are you doing out here? How did you know we had discovered the crawlies?”

“That’s two questions. What we were doing was looking for something like you found on Mars,” Diamond said.

“You were spying on us! Waiting to see if anything showed itself.”

“I was not spying. We couldn’t listen to you from here,” Diamond said.

“YOU were not spying. Someone on my team… Malone? No, he was genuinely scared. Of course, Linh Ton. She ran the radio. She could contact you without raising suspicion.”

“Yes, too bad she didn’t make it out,” Diamond said.

#

In the lab on Ganymede, a nameless white-clad scientist sat across the white table from another. “Since man has never encountered silicon-based life before, my theory is that a meteor brought the basic life building blocks to Mars, leading to the evolution of the crawlies.”

“Perhaps,” said scientist two. “Do you think this cloning will work in a silicon lifeform?”

“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this.” Scientist one said. They didn’t detect the virus to which the crawlies were long immune. Among the symptoms for carbon-based life were passing out, coughing, vomiting, physical pain, sweating, and mental confusion. Within thirty minutes of beginning cloning experiments, both scientists were coughing and sweating.

Due to the high rate at which the pathogen reproduced, death came within hours. This was fortunate, as they didn’t have time to leave the lab or contaminate the airlock. Discovering his dead associates, another scientist wearing a hazmat suit entered the lab through the airlock.

The disease caused by the virus became known as mendaxic neurosclerosis. Discovering that a specific radiation frequency could disrupt the pathogen’s silicon matrix, the scientist was disappointed to learn that the dosage required would be lethal for humans.

Ordering isolation of the crawly, radiation of the lab, and ejection of the dead bodies of the scientists into space, Diamond considered his options.

“We’re going to have to freeze that crawly,” Diamond said. "Let’s get it to an ejection port and drop it on the surface.”

“Why didn’t anyone in the shuttle get the virus?” Captain Augello asked.

“It was released when they took cell samples. I am speculating, but it must have mutated quickly and become airborne. We’re lucky they died before they could come out of that lab, or we’d all be dead.”

“You don’t want the crawlies for soldiers anymore?” Augello asked.

“To hell with the soldiers. Can you imagine a dirty bomb with that virus? An enemy would have to nuke itself to save itself.”

The phone on Diamond’s desk rang. Reaching out, he pressed a button putting the call on speaker. “Diamond.”

“Colonel, this is Jennings. I have finished my analysis of the cloning experiment with interesting results.”

“Give me the highlights.”

“The creatures you call crawlies do not have to maintain liquid cellular or bodily fluids to survive, and they do not breathe.”

“What do you mean they don’t breathe? How can they survive if they don’t breathe?”

“You recall that they came from under the Martian surface. They must have developed another way to supply their cells with the required nutrients,” Hugo Jennings said.

“What are the nutrients they require?”

“Silicon in their bodies combines with oxygen to form silicon oxide (SiO2, also known as quartz). The crawlies convert quartz and nitrogen in the atmosphere to silicon nitride (Si3N4) and oxygen. The reaction is 3SiO2 + 2N2 = Si3N4 + 3O2. They can absorb that oxygen and create more quartz. The silicon nitride is incredibly resistant to temperature, high or low.” Jennings paused for Diamond to speak.

“So, we can’t freeze it to death?” Diamond asked.

“No.”

“And it doesn’t need an atmosphere to survive?”

“It can survive without one for a long time. It will eventually need to find nitrogen, but it might be able to absorb it from soil,” Jennings said.

“Amazing.”

“Colonel, we wouldn’t ever want one of these to get to Earth!”

“Why not?”

“I think the only way to kill them is to dissolve them in salt water. They won’t burn, and if you blew one up, I suspect a crawly would grow from each piece.”

“What did you do with the samples from the cloning experiment?” Diamond asked.

“They’re soaking in salt water.”

“Thank you.”

#

Zingi crawled down off the top of the Mars shuttle. When Styles had ejected it out of the airlock on the starboard side of the marines’ cruiser, Zingi grabbed onto the still-docked Mars shuttle of Styles and Malek. Working itself under a support beam for the landing gear, Zingi rode to Ganymede.

Dropping to the rocky snow of the Jovian moon, Zingi walked slowly, feeling no pain or discomfort. While crawlies had a sense of touch, they felt no pain. The silicon nitride in Zingi’s body protected against the cold.

…To be continued in Chapter Four, Biological Warfare.

Characters:

Commander Kevin Styles: is one of two survivors of the Martian Colony Program, kicks ass, and takes names.

Malek Coleman: The other surviving colonist is a capable engineer, loyal to Styles.

Paul Livingston: Mission Control Executive at NASA in Houston, feels helpless but wants to help Styles.

Colonel Diamond:  Special Missions Battalion, United States Marine Corp is a wild card; no one seems to know anything about him or what he is doing on Ganymede.

Zingi (pronounced Zin Gee): is a particularly intelligent and malevolent crawly that wants to go with Colonel Diamond.

Captain Augello: Yes man that reports to Colonel Diamond.

Hugo Jennings: Brilliant scientist at the marine base in Ganymede.

Author Notes The Hitchbury Zone Chapter Three


Chapter 4
Biological Warfare (Hitchbury 4)

By Thomas Blanks

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

THE STORY SO FAR: Pluto’s moon, Charon, knocked from its orbit, nearly misses Mars, stopping the red planet’s rotation. On the dark side, strange subterranean creatures emerge into the darkness and attack Earth colonists. The last two surviving colonists, Commander Kevin Styles, and engineer Malek Coleman are rescued by a Marine Colonel who promises passage to Ganymede (a moon of Jupiter) in exchange for a captured creature. Commander Styles agrees but learns that the crawlies are very intelligent, and one they caught wants to go with Colonel Diamond.

Styles and Malek must leave Mars to survive, and the crawly is their ticket, but they also need to destroy the crawly along with another one that got in the door when they left the planet. Styles has already advised NASA of the danger on Mars and told them to quarantine it, knowing that Colonel Diamond could hear his message.

Deciding that their deal with Colonel Diamond was for only one crawly, waiting for the right time, Styles and Malek throw a net over the subordinate crawly and flush Zingi out the airlock.

In trying to clone the remaining crawly, two Ganymede scientists contract a virus and quickly die. Undaunted, Col. Diamond sees the weapon potential of the virus that can only be killed with a dose of radiation lethal to humans! Scientist Hugo Jennings tells Diamond that crawlies can live in extreme cold and without air. Burning them or blowing them up will not kill them. Only a specific salt mixed with water dissolves them.

Zingi has survived ejection from the airlock. After grabbing onto Styles’ docked shuttle, it rode to Jupiter and is now on Ganymede!

The Hitchbury Zone CHAPTER 4 – Biological Warfare

Styles found Jennings in his lab and knocked on the window.

"Hello," Jennings said. "Where's your partner?"

"I have him distracting Colonel Diamond with feigned interest in base operations so I can talk with you undisturbed. I know you don't like having the crawly."

"It is too dangerous to keep."

“How long does the salt water take to have a biodegradable reaction on a crawly?” I asked Jennings.

“It depends on the amount of salt water and the concentration of sodium hydroxide. It has to be sodium hydroxide, not sodium chloride.”

“I suck at chemistry,” Styles said. “Sodium chloride is table salt. What is sodium hydroxide?”

“Lye, but it is also a salt,” Jennings said. “It has to be at least 300 parts per thousand. The creature has to be thoroughly drenched, then the molecular bonds break down, and the crawly turns to sodium silicate – a gloppy binding paste... NaOH (sodium hydroxide) + SiO2 (silicon dioxide) = H2O (water) + Na2SiO3 (sodium silicate).”

“I’m glad I asked because I thought you meant salt water like the ocean,” Styles said.

“That would only piss it off!”

“What about the virus when we dissolve the crawly?”

“The virus can’t survive in lye,” Jennings said.

“You’re sure?”

“No lie.”

“Jennings! You are joking in the face of danger?”

“I’m trying not to wet my pants from fear.”

“Do you have some lye?”

“Of course,” Jennings said, holding up a canister.

“How about a sprayer?”

“There are a few in the maintenance area used for de-icing. Are you going to kill that crawly?” Jennings asked.

“Do you have a problem with that?”

“Heck, no! Follow me. I’ll lead you to the sprayers.” Jennings carried the canister of lye and headed for the corridor.

“You aren’t afraid of what Colonel Diamond might say?”

“I’m not killing it,” Jennings said. “You are. I’ll deny everything. I’m quite the coward, but I know right from wrong. Where’s your friend, by the way?”

“I have him distracting Colonel Diamond with feigned interest in base operations.”

“Aren’t you afraid of what Diamond might do to you for destroying his career project?”

“NASA knows Malek and I are here,” Styles said. “As soon as we do it, we need to radio Earth.”

“We?” Jennings said. “Do you have a mouse in your pocket? Don’t count me in on the extermination.”

“I need you to open the cell door where the crawly is.”

“Not if I give you the access code,” Jennings said. “I plan to be in plain sight somewhere else with plausible deniability.”

“Jennings,” Styles said.

“What?”

“Look at the ceiling behind you.” He turned to see a security camera with a fisheye lens and a red light on top.”

“Crap!”

“UP THE REBELS!” Styles yelled.

“How did you know my family was Catholics from Northern Ireland?” Jennings asked.

“I was talking about us, Jennings.”

“Right. I’m much better in a laboratory. The crawly is this way.”

#

“How long has this base been out here?” Malek asked Colonel Diamond.

“Since you won’t be going anywhere, I guess it’s okay to tell you. When NASA started the two colony structures on Mars, the military started building our base, but we finished much sooner.”

“You weren’t just monitoring us on the chance we would find life on Mars.”

“Of course not,” Diamond said. “We have been exploring this and another moon for possible life. What do you know about Europa?”

“It’s supposed to have a huge, liquid water ocean covering the whole moon, protected from radiation by a thick ice covering and warmed by convection activity,” Malek said.

“Quite correct,” Diamond said. “We took water samples from that ocean with a probe.”

“What did the analysis show?”

“I didn’t say we got the samples back here.”

“What happened?” Malek asked.

With the flip of a switch, a wall panel slid up to reveal a screen, and Diamond used a remote to find the correct video file. Malek saw the view from an underwater video camera mounted on a lighted submersible. Circling the probe in the clear, dark water under Europa’s ice after taking the water sample, the operator hoped to catch a lucky view of some living creature. Suddenly obscured by fast-moving teeth, darkness, and static, the image, along with the probe, was gone!

“What was that?” Malek asked.

“We call them dark sharks because we have never seen one yet. Sonar readings tell us they’re about twenty-five feet long.”

“So, further exploration is challenging,” Malek said.

“That’s a good word,” Diamond said, “as challenging as giving a wild hippo a root canal in the middle of the Nile.”

WEEEOHHHWEEEOHHHWEEEOHHH, the alarm pierced Malek’s brain and continued to sound.

“What is that?” he yelled, holding hands to his ears.

“Intruder alert,” Diamond said. “Someone’s outside.” He grabbed a pistol from his drawer and ran. Malek followed.

#

“Is that for us?” Styles asked.

“No,” Jennings said. “That’s the intruder alert. Someone is outside the base.”

“Perfect! Punch in the code.” Styles watched as Jennings’ fingers glided over the keys, and the latch clicked. Pushing the door open, Styles saw the crawly sitting against the wall. Not waiting, he doused it with the lye water and kept spraying.

“CRAUGHH!” the creature fell to the floor and began writhing, its grey body becoming a clear milky ooze.

“Let’s get out of here,” Jennings said. “You’ve done it.” Styles followed him out, and the door clicked shut behind them.

Running back to the maintenance area, Styles left the sprayer there and turned to Jennings. “Thanks. Which way to the viewing port?”

“Left then right.”

Styles ran to find Malek wondering who or what was out on the moon’s surface.

…To be continued in Chapter Five, The Truth in the Lye

Characters:

Commander Kevin Styles: is one of two survivors of the Martian Colony Program, kicks ass, and takes names.

Malek Coleman: The other surviving colonist is a capable engineer, loyal to Styles.

Paul Livingston: Mission Control Executive at NASA in Houston, feels helpless but wants to help Styles.

Colonel Diamond:  Special Missions Battalion, United States Marine Corp is a wild card; no one seems to know anything about him or what he is doing on Ganymede.

Zingi (pronounced Zin Gee): is a particularly intelligent and malevolent crawly that wants to go with Colonel Diamond.

Captain Augello: Yes man that reports to Colonel Diamond.

Hugo Jennings: Brilliant scientist at the marine base in Ganymede.

Author Notes The Hitchbury Zone Chapter 4


Chapter 5
The Truth in the Lye (HBZ #5)

By Thomas Blanks

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of language.

THE STORY SO FAR: Pluto’s moon, Charon, knocked from its orbit, nearly misses Mars, stopping the red planet’s rotation. On the dark side, strange subterranean creatures emerge into the darkness and attack Earth colonists. The last two surviving colonists, Commander Kevin Styles, and engineer Malek Coleman are rescued by a Marine Colonel who promises passage to Ganymede (a moon of Jupiter) in exchange for a captured creature. Commander Styles agrees but learns that the crawlies are very intelligent, and one they caught wants to go with Colonel Diamond.

Styles and Malek must leave Mars to survive, and the crawly is their ticket, but they also need to destroy the crawly along with another one that got in the door when they left the planet. Styles has already advised NASA of the danger on Mars and told them to quarantine it, knowing that Colonel Diamond could hear his message.

Deciding that their deal with Colonel Diamond was for only one crawly, waiting for the right time, Styles and Malek throw a net over the subordinate crawly and flush Zingi out the airlock.

In trying to clone the remaining crawly, two Ganymede scientists contract a virus and quickly die. Undaunted, Col. Diamond sees the weapon potential of the virus that can only be killed with a dose of radiation lethal to humans! Scientist Hugo Jennings tells Diamond that crawlies can live in extreme cold and without air. Burning them or blowing them up will not kill them. Only a specific salt mixed with water dissolves them.

Zingi has survived ejection from the airlock. After grabbing onto Styles’ docked shuttle, it rode to Jupiter and is now on Ganymede!

Malek discovers that Colonel Diamond has found life on Europa, a moon of Jupiter. Commander Styles and Hugo Jennings dissolve the crawly being held at the base on Ganymede using lye and water. Colonel Diamond is alerted to an intruder outside the base.

The Hitchbury Zone CHAPTER 5 – The Truth in the Lye

Earth, Houston, Texas

“Without a magnetic field or significant atmosphere, the surface of Mars is exposed to higher levels of radiation from cosmic rays and solar wind than the Earth.” General Warren Stearns, USMC, was calm. “It receives occasional lethal blasts from solar flares. That’s why the crawlies stayed underground.”

“So, General,” Paul Livingston of NASA said, “it’s not because they don’t like light?”

“Light does not bother them.”

“I want to know how the hell you know that! Just what in blue blazes are you telling me? Or not telling me?” Livingston raised his voice, and his face turned pink.

“The crawlies didn’t evolve on Mars or anywhere else. They were created-”

“If you tell me the military was trying to create genetically superior soldiers, I will punch you in the damn mouth!” Livingston said through clenched teeth. “What is your Colonel Diamond doing out on Ganymede? And why did he take a crawly?”

“I’m not sure, and I never authorized him to take a crawly,” General Stearns said.

“Oh, why doesn’t that make me feel any better? General, I have two men on Ganymede, and if they are not on their way back to Earth in the next twenty-four hours, I will advise the president.”

“You know him personally, do you?” Stearns laughed.

“Do you know the First Lady’s maiden name?”

“No.”

“Look it up on your phone. I’ll wait,” Paul said.

General Stearns clicked on his phone. “Jill Livingston,” he said.

“Does it say anything about her family?”

“Parents Phillip and Amy Livingston and a brother, Paul, at NASA… Oh shit!”

“Sis and I are pretty close, General. So, twenty-four hours, eh?”

#

Ganymede

“Sir, there’s a crawly out there on the ice,” Captain Augello said.

“I’ll be damned. It’s that one that Styles put out of the airlock halfway from Mars! What’s its name? Ziminy, Zippy, something like that,” Diamond said.

“Zingy,” Augello said.

“That’s it! Open the outer door.”

“Are you sure?”

“That’s an order, Captain.”

“Don’t they carry that virus?”

“No,” Diamond said. “We were testing the crawly with it.”

“What? Define we?” Augello demanded. “We don’t have authority to conduct those kinds of experiments. What did Jennings say?”

“He didn’t know,” Diamond said.

“You- Those two scientists in the lab weren’t qualified to work with a live virus. Where did the virus come from that killed them, if not the crawly?”

“A water sample from the ocean under the ice,” Diamond said.

“Here on Ganymede or Europa?”

“Here.”

“So, you found life here and didn’t tell anyone?” Augello asked.

“They already know about it.”

“Were you testing to see if the crawly was immune?” Augello asked.

“I was testing to see if it was the virus that the military used to spark life in the crawlies. Silicon-based life is not a normal evolutionary step. Carbon is much more stable. I wanted to know how they did it.”

“You killed two men!”

“I was right. They used the virus from the ocean under Ganymede to create the crawlies. Then they dumped them on Mars, where they had to burrow underground to survive.”

“Define they,” Augello said.

“General Warren Stearns,” Diamond said.

“Silicon-based life, monster soldiers?”

“Yes, but it was the wrong play.”

“What do you mean, Colonel?”

“The virus is ten times better as a weapon than the crawlies. Now let Zingi in the outer door.”

#

Running down the curved corridor, Malek collided with Styles, who was in a full run in the opposite direction.

“Ow! Fucks sake!” Malek said from his knees, rubbing his nose.

“You okay?”

Malek looked at Styles, standing there with his hands on his hips.

“Didn’t I even hurt you a little?” Malek asked.

“I was coming to see about the intruder.”

“That’s why I was coming to get you! It’s fucking Zingi!”

“No way!” Styles said, knowing there was a way.

“I saw him!”

“Okay, let’s go to maintenance.”

“What for?” Malek asked.

“A sprayer full of lye.”

“Same question.”

“It dissolves crawlies.”

“There it is! The best thing I have heard all bloody day!” Malek said. “Lead the way.”

#

As the outer door closed and the airlock pressurized, Captain Augello opened the inner door, and Zingi walked into the base.

“Diamond,” Zingi said.

“Yes,” Augello said and signaled for the crawly to follow him. Walking to room twelve, Diamond’s office, Augello pointed inside.

“Diamond?” Zingi asked.

“I am here,” Diamond said. Zingi walked inside. “Mantu.”

“Is that your friend?”

“Mantu. Zingi see Mantu.”

“Come,” Diamond said, walking into the corridor and toward the cell.

#

The message from General Sterns came into Diamond’s office and played on the screen even though Diamond was not there. Due to the vast distance from Earth to Jupiter, there could not be a conversation.

“Diamond, this is General Stearns. I don’t know what the hell you’re up to, but if you don’t have Commander Styles and his engineer on a shuttle to Earth within 12 hours, I will personally ensure you will spend your retirement reading piss-stained books by candlelight in the smallest cell at Leavenworth! I have the file on Angela Hutchenson and will use it if you do not respond.” Captain Augello stood there stunned for a few seconds before walking away, wondering who Angela Hutchenson was.

#

When Colonel Diamond opened the cell for Zingi, they went inside to find a mound of clear, hardened water glass. Recognizing what had happened, Zingi turned and leaped on Diamond.

“CRAUGHH!” claws ripped at the throat, and razor-sharp teeth sank into one cheek, severing flesh, exposing bone. 

“Augh!” Diamond screamed.

Following the sound, Styles broke into the cell, pumping lye over both crawly and Colonel Diamond. The lye burned Diamond's eyes and wounds.

“Yaahh! Are you saving me or killing me?”

Zingi dropped to the floor and began rolling and bubbling. Styles kept the liquid flowing onto it until the tank was empty. Colonel Diamond was bleeding profusely from the throat and passed out.

“Go get help!” Styles ordered Malek. "Diamond won’t survive without immediate help.” Styles tried to hold pressure on the neck wounds, but it was hopeless. The colonel’s eyes glazed over, and he went still.

Looking at the clear, milky ooze on the floor near the dead body of a rogue military officer, Styles reached in and removed a small metal tag about one-quarter the size of a dog tag that read, “Prototype 1 Zingi model 1.”

“I have orders to put you and Malek on a shuttle to Earth in the next twelve hours, Commander Styles,” the voice behind them was Captain Augello.

“Zingi killed Colonel Diamond,” Styles said.

“That’s probably for the best,” Augello said.

Slipping the metal tag from Zingi into his pocket, Styles followed Malek and Captain Augello to the shuttle bay.

“I’m thinking about taking early retirement,” Styles said to Malek.

"You and me both!"

END of Book One

Characters:

Commander Kevin Styles: is one of two survivors of the Martian Colony Program, kicks ass, and takes names.

Malek Coleman: The other surviving colonist is a capable engineer, loyal to Styles.

Paul Livingston: Mission Control Executive at NASA in Houston, feels helpless but wants to help Styles.

Colonel Diamond:  Special Missions Battalion, United States Marine Corp is a wild card; no one seems to know anything about him or what he is doing on Ganymede.

Zingi (pronounced Zin Gee): is a particularly intelligent and malevolent crawly that wants to go with Colonel Diamond.

Captain Augello: Yes man that reports to Colonel Diamond.

Hugo Jennings: Brilliant scientist at the marine base in Ganymede.

General Warren Stearns USMC: Marine general who has been covering up military knowledge of the crawlies.

Author Notes The Hitchbury Zone Chapter 5


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