Martian Scriptures Chapter Five – The Empty Colony

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“Including the run up to superluminal and the deceleration to cruising speed it took the Stewart all of ten minutes to go from Luna to just outside the old Martian approach corridor. Which was empty. Then we spent another eight hours looking at every reflective bit of space dust in the 200,000 klicks from there to orbit. Outside of an asteroid that may have come out of the belt, nothing interesting. Now we got this.” Volk Fyodorovich thumped his hand on the outside of the featureless dome. “Even when we finally find something, it’s the most boring something you could possibly think of.”

“Thank you, Fyodorovich.” Commander Oda’s tone did not imply thanks. Rather, it suggested he was tired of hearing Volk’s thoughts on the subject, and had been for some time. “Our analysis on this section of the structure is complete. Please gather your equipment and move to the next scanning point.”

“Yes, sir.”

A quiet ping in his helmet informed him the scanning amplifier he was assigned to had folded back to its compact form and was ready to move. He gave it a quick once over, making sure all the sensitive receivers and antennae were, indeed, safely stowed and no red Mars dust had gotten where it shouldn’t, then hefted the amplifier over one shoulder. The move was made considerably easier due to the planet’s far lower than standard gravity. “Montak?”

“Right behind you, Lieutenant.” Spacer First Class Lars Montak and his partner in crime, Spacer Reg Barton, were hustling over to him, one amplifier under each arm. With that his entire detail was accounted for. Really, Volk knew this should have been work for an SFC like Montak but, after six months in transit, he’d been dying to get off the Stewart and do something less boring.

Granted, a twelfth of the fleet was gone now, and that was a tragedy. But there really wasn’t much for an officer on the Surveyor’s squad to do in a fleet action so Volk had mostly cooled his heels, waiting to see if his damage control team would be dispatched anywhere. Which it hadn’t. So when the chance had come to go down to a planet and survey something, even if that planet was Mars, and was already pretty well mapped, he’d jumped at the chance.

He hadn’t expected to spend two and a half hours in a space suit, walking the perimeter of a giant dome in fifty meter increments while the XO watched over his shoulder from the safety of the lander.

Volk’s frustrated thoughts were interrupted when his mental autopilot sequence completed and he finished setting up and switching on his amplifier again. A quick look to Montak and Barton confirmed they were ready to go, too. “We’re set up and ready for another round of scans, Commander. At your convenience.”

“Scanning now,” Oda said. “You have a few minutes. Best to double check your radiation shielding, Fyodorovich.”

“Acknowledged.” Volk grimaced, trying not to let the micromanaging annoy him. That was Oda’s leadership style and, although it grated, a lowly Lieutenant j.g. was not going to get anywhere if he bristled at an overbearing officer. Oda was an officer. Overbearing was part of the game.

Still, if radiation levels had changed at all, Volk’s team would have been the first to notice. But orders were orders. “Check your insulation and personal magfields, gentlemen. I want to know if there are any discrepancies!”


 

Craig watched the latest reports from planetside roll in. The dome was more than 60% scanned and so far seemed to be a fairly typical colony structure, less a single large hemisphere and more an irregular series of lumps spreading out in an irregular pattern as the colony expanded. The landing team had identified nearly twenty potential entrances, most on the ground but some clearly intended for atmospheric flying or space bound vehicles to enter and exit. Scans indicated the last expansion had been about twenty to thirty years after Departure. Like many other infrastructure projects that were supposed to take place in the solar system over the past two centuries, expansion of Borealis Colony had clearly been put on hold.

Or maybe even left to fall to ruin. Not only was no one under the domes responding to the Stewart‘s attempts to communicate, the ship’s scanners had picked up a massive radiation leak coming from the Colony’s primary fusion reactor. Paradoxically, the colony’s magnetic field and artificial gravity were still active, clearly visible on the EMG scans. Whatever was under the dome was shielded from both the solar radiation that bombarded Mars and the more localized radiation coming from the reactor.

Leaving the mag field active was an almost understandable measure to take when abandoning a colony you planned to return to in the near future. There were plenty of pieces of sensitive equipment in the typical domed colony that could be damaged by prolonged radiation exposure. But leaving the gravity on did not make sense under any circumstance Craig or his officers could think of. Yet EMG made it clear that most of the area under the dome was experiencing one full G – standard Earth gravity.

Commander Oda reported that the survey details had found no signs of anyone entering or exiting the dome recently – all the entrances they’d passed save one showed signs of serious corrosion. The last entrance was underground, mapped only by sonar, so its status was unclear.

In an orbit several hundred kilometers upwell the gravcomm relay was deployed and running, sending out subtle gravity pulses that the unusually sensitive receivers on the Spiner could pick up, keeping them apprised of the situation in something like real time. The engineering departments on both ships were at work trying to figure out what was wrong with the Colony’s reactor but the reports filing in on that front were far too esoteric for Craig to make any real sense of them. The Stewart’s Quartermaster, a woman with several advanced degrees in botany, had proposed an interesting theory about why the gravity might still be active in the dome. There were almost a dozen –

“Captain?”

His focus shifted smoothly from the ocean of data pouring through the holotank to Hoyle at communications. “Yes?”

“Commander Oda reports one of the survey teams found an external hatch that looks like it was used recently. He’s requesting permission to send the survey team through with a security detail.”

The holotank shifted to show a readout of the landing team’s composition. There were six security personnel in the landing team, not a number Craig felt comfortable dividing given the reception they’d gotten from Earth. However, nagging away at the back of his mind was the notion that they were operating on borrowed time, and that the main body of the fleet could be facing reprisals from Earth or her allies at any moment if they couldn’t figure out what had happened to the Homeworld in the last two hundred years.

With a few flicks of his fingers, Craig opened a comm line. “Engineering, this is the Captain.”

There was a two second delay, then, “Captain, this is Commander Deveneaux. Go ahead.”

“Commander, based on the scans you’ve seen from the surface so far, both orbital and surface level, do you anticipate anything of note coming from finishing a scan of the perimeter?”

The next pause was considerably longer. Craig waited patiently, expecting that the commander of his Engineering division would probably want to consult with his opposite number on the Spiner. Finally, after nearly thirty seconds of waiting, Deveneaux came back saying, “No sir, not really. Commander Walid knows his spectrographics pretty well and he’s certain the various dome sections all have the same basic material makeup. And based on the parts of the dome we’ve already scanned, that make up is very primitive, especially if you compare it to some of the stuff you can find on the Galilean moons.”

“Anything down there that could be dangerous?”

“From what we’ve seen so far? Just the reactor leak. And even that’s not as bad as it could be, given the age of the reactor.”

Craig frowned, trying to figure that comment out. Finally he gave up. “I’m not sure I follow, Commander.”

“I’m almost 100% certain that reactor is the original install,” Deveneaux said. “The details are pretty technical, but based on the radiation leak we’re seeing and some of the patterns in how it’s fluctuating I’m pretty sure the containment on it is misaligned. Probably to ease a specific kind of injector problem common in large scale reactors of the early Settlement era.”

“Are you saying the colony is running on a fusion reactor that’s nearly three hundred years old?”

“If the history books are to be believed, it’s also a prototype, although one very close to the final production model.”

Craig struggled to keep incredulity from his voice. “But you don’t see anything down there that could be dangerous?”

“Not on the dome, no.” Deveneaux was not making any effort to keep amusement from his voice. “But I don’t think the reactor is dangerous either, at least, not in any danger of containment loss. The failsafes on those SFR-8s are incredibly robust, it’s not going to explode catastrophically. Worst case it stops working and hits people nearby with an elevated dose of radiation.”

“I see. Thank you commander, anything else you’d like to add?”

“If we can salvage it there’s about forty museums in the Triad Worlds and Rodenberry that would love to have an actual SFR-8 to put on display.”

“Noted. Thank you, Commander. Captain Gyle out.” Craig sat back in his chair and wished for the blissful days of his executive officerhood. When they said it was lonely at the top he’d always assumed it was because of the weight of responsibility, not because everyone else had priorities that made no damn sense.

“Hoyle?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Tell Oda to bring his other survey team back to the lander, then send two of his security people to the detail that found the accessible hatch and send them in.” Craig sat up and twisted a quarter turn in his chair so he was looking at his comm officer directly. “And emphasize in no uncertain terms that Commander Oda is not to join them. I don’t want to have to replace my XO in the event of something going wrong.”

Hiroyuki Oda wasn’t a stupid man, Craig’s reminder to stay at his post rather than join the survey team was probably unnecessary. But Oda had to have thought about it, Craig would have. Any XO would have. Best not to leave any ambiguity in the orders. With that done, all Craig could do was wait.

Wait, and read reports. Stifling a sigh he got back to it.


 

Volk found himself in command of the entry detail. They’d brought Lieutenant Jimenez and five of her Spacers down as a security detail but Oda had chosen to send two enlisted spacers to effect entry of the dome, rather than the senior Lieutenant. It was a little surprising, although given that Oda stood a very good chance of getting rid of his least favorite surveyor on this assignment maybe it shouldn’t have been.

And given that Spacer First Class Shen was an incredibly petite Han woman, perhaps 52 kilograms on a good day, he certainly didn’t feel like he was being set up for success. Even worse, the unwritten rule that stated SFC Shen’s partner should have been a hulking monstrosity of a man had been ignored. Instead she’d been sent with SFC Long, whose name was not apt. He was a skinny man of average height who probably had a great personality but who couldn’t look intimidating to save his life.

Which worried Volk, as lives might actually depend on how well Shen and Long could protect them.

At least Long had brought along a guide on how to operate and override the kind of airlock they’d be entering through on his AI. Two other spacers had come with new equipment for Volk and his surveyors, swapping it out for the amplifiers they’d been using before. Now they all had universal data taps and sidearms. In addition they had a comm signal booster, a Type 2 AI booster with a full Departure era language pack and a full trauma kit in addition to the team medical pack. Once the new equipment was divvied up and in place Volk turned to Long and said, “Well, get us through that door.”

With a nod that was hard to read through Long’s bulky vacuum suit, the spacer headed over to the door and got to work.

To Volk’s surprise – and perhaps that of his entire team – they got through without incident.

Montak went first, he had the comm booster and used his vacuum suit’s camera and sound rig to broadcast a feed back to Oda on the lander. Long was a step behind, his plasma rifle carried across his chest in a relaxed fashion. Bringing the rifle had been a point of contention between Jimenez and Oda but personally Volk was happy to side with security and have the thing along. Things had been crazy enough in the past twenty four hours; he didn’t want to be caught unprepared.

The airlock was old and showed many signs of wear. There was a visible line of grit down the center of the lock where generations of feet caked in red Martian dirt had discolored the finish. The lighting was functional and bright and the paint on the ceramic walls was faded but not peeling. It felt… lived in.

A feeling that was reinforced when they entered the airlock’s inner door and stepped onto a path through a chest high field of crops.

“Looks like Martian corn,” Oda said over the comms after they’d had about thirty seconds to get the whole team out and arrayed. “That’s a crop that would need reseeding every season.”

“And the stuff’s in neat rows,” Volk added. “Definitely cultivated, not growing wild.”

“It looks dark,” Jimenez said, her voice surprisingly high for such a large woman. “Is the colony on night cycle?”

“No,” Shen said, her helmet tilted back so she could look upward. “Overcast. It looks like it recently stopped raining.”

Sure enough, the ground under Volk’s boots was a squishy, dark brown mud. Montak continued forward until he reached an intersection between fields of corn. “Looks like there’s a few buildings ahead. Want to go take a look?”

“By all means, Mr. Montak,” Oda said, “take a look. But be careful.”

“Our middle names, sir,” Long replied.

But the building was empty. Empty of people, at least. There were large cultivators and harvesting vehicles there, along with equipment Volk couldn’t identify but looked vaguely like some of the terraforming gear he’d seen. A cursory inspection revealed some of it was wet but none of it was anything useful for them. Once outside they continued down the path, boots squelching in the mud, watching the waving corn and the roiling clouds and wondering where everyone had gone.

It didn’t take them long to spot the settlement. By Volk’s estimate there was about half a kilometer of corn fields followed by a few hundred meters of other edible plants, some native to Earth and some designed specifically for use on Mars, and finally about twenty meters of open field before they reached the Borealis settlement proper.

The outer ring of buildings were multipurpose work buildings – labs, repair shops and the like. A few blocks in they turned into residences. Everything was empty and, after checking everything on the first block, Volk changed to searching one building on either side of the road every block. Regardless of the purpose of the building they followed a single theme. Old furniture, personal nicknacks, lots of dust, no people.

After eleven blocks they found themselves into a large open square a good hundred meters on a side. A depression about thirty centimeters deep took up the center half of the square. From his own internal sense of direction Volk knew they were close to one of the air/space doors on top of the dome, where planes and spaceships could enter. The many scorched marks on the ground suggested that the depression was a kind of landing pad, old enough to see use back when chemical thrusters had been the norm.

He was about to speak to Oda again when the audio in his helmet adjusted with the white noise sound every surveyor recognized as his AI trying to focus in on a distant sound. “-lo?”

A single finger twitch lit up a directional indicator in his helmet and he spun to the right.

A single man was hurrying across the square, an ill-fitting orange and black bodysuit swishing around his lanky frame and a matching helmet hiding his face from view. Volk estimated him at 170 centimeters and rail thin, maybe even as thin as Long was although it was hard to tell with both of them in bulky suits. It was also hard to tell of the newcomer’s suit was a simple vacuum suit or some kind of defensive gear but he wasn’t armed in any obvious way.

“Hello? Can you hear me?”

The audio pickups had his voice now and were feeding it through nicely. A quick set of hand motions toggled his comms so Oda could listen in on the conversation. “Yes, I can hear you. I’m Lieutenant Volk Fyodorovich of the Rodenberry Stellar Navy.” He should have asked who he was talking to but before good judgement could kick in a different follow-up came out. “We come in peace. Take us to your leader.”

The new comer cut the corner off of the depression, hopping down into the depression and stepping back out smoothly but with no apparent assist from his suit. So it didn’t have a powered exoskeleton. “I’m Teng Pak Won.” He said the name with clear divisions between each syllable. “I’m the head watcher. Welcome to Malacandra.”

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