Martian Scriptures Chapter Seventeen – Cracking Foundations

Previous Chapter

Alyssa snapped back to reality for the umpteenth time that morning. The Sunbottle’s readouts flashed and changed, their constant flux even more meaningless to her than normal. A constant whirlwind of emotions kept her from focusing on what was technically her job. Doug, Alessandro and the rest of the Watch Room staff had been tiptoeing around her for the past two hours. It should have annoyed her. But the energy for annoyance and anger had left her.

She probably shouldn’t have spent so much of it on Fyodorovich the Spacer but her ability to make clearheaded decisions on how to use her mind and efforts had left the dome when Naomi did the day before. She’d tried to remember what Naomi had told her about the day her older brother had passed into Silence. But in the face of her own grief all other memories had faded into the background. Victor’s time was coming in less than a cent. She didn’t know how she was going to handle that.

“Um…” Alyssa glanced over at Doug, the tall, lanky man standing respectfully, an uncertain expression on his face. “I’m sorry to bother you, Elder. I know this has been a rough time for you.”

“Spit it out, Doug. I’m not in the mood to have someone talk at me rather than too me.”

“Sure thing, Alyssa. I’ve been looking at the numbers on those conduit failures.” He handed her a tablet with a very dense set of data on it. “Now the Sunbottle was here before Bottletown was founded and we don’t have numbers from that time period. But if we start with the Founding and work our way to the present there’s–“

“Okay, wait.” She passed the tablet back. “That’s way too dense for me to try and parse today. How important is all that to the point you want to make?”

“Ultimately, not very,” he said, swiping to the end of the report. “Just me proving my work, in case it was important to you. I can give you the short version if you want.”

May the oyarsa give her the strength… “Please.”

“I think we need to do a complete shutdown, replace all the conduits and the injectors, and do a Page 73 restart of the entire Sunbottle.” He handed her the tablet back with the appropriate page pulled up. Not that he needed to. “There’s a good chance the conduits keep failing because they’re leaking at the 135-140 junctions and if that continues the Sunbottle’s wings might fail entirely. Then we’re all dead.”

Alyssa frowned. Doug’s modeling was good – maybe even brilliant. The junctions in question were quite old, probably original, and by his best guess they were long overdue for a catastrophic failure. But for whatever reason that string of junctions was tied to every injector in the system. They couldn’t close those junctures with the Bottle running. Which was bad. Because…

“Doug, I can’t turn the entire Sunbottle off. Not even for half a day. The reboot process is nearly a week and we’ll have too many vital systems shut down in that time. Not to mention, ‘The Sunbottle is your first and only defense against the Silent Planet’ is the first rule of the Sunbottle.”

“We can build enough batteries and stockpile enough energy to run Bottletown in four days. And as for Thulcandra…” Doug gestured upwards. “There’s already a spaceship in geosynchronous orbit overhead. I think if the Sunbottle really had some function to keep us safe from Thulcandran invaders we’d have seen in by now.”

That’s right, Doug was a skeptic. He didn’t put a lot of faith in a lot of the warnings and methods the Founders had left behind in Ransom’s notes. He was a decent board operator and probably had some kind of innate knack for the machinery that was so strong it tended to override most of his other characteristics, at least in her mind. They didn’t socialize much outside of work. “Show me those junctions, then. Let’s see how bad a shape they’re really in.”


 

“Based on a work of fiction?” Craig cleared every last irrelevant report off his holo screen and full sized Ensign Veers’s face.

“That’s correct, sir.” Veers shrunk back down to half the screen, the cover of a book appearing over his head. “Specifically Out of the Silent Planet by one C.S. Lewis, a fiction author of the early to mid twentieth century.”

“Never heard of him,” Craig said, moving Veers to one side and opening up the author’s biography from the ship’s archives. “On the prolific side, it seems.”

“And he wrote both fiction and nonfiction. His ‘space trilogy’ is among his more obscure works, so we’re not sure how it wound up fulfilling this role. But all the language fits. Hnau, eldil, Oyarsa and other terms we’ve recorded down there are all used by Lewis. And, of course, there’s the references to Earth under siege by supernatural entities and a Dr. Ransom, who’s the protagonist.” Two more book covers joined the first in the space over Veers’s head. “A quick AI analysis of the whole trilogy suggests that no elements of the following two books are incorporated into the Malacandran world view, so they probably just had the one copy of the first book Commander Fyodorovich discovered to work with.”

“Their entire society is based on a work of fiction,” Craig muttered, looking through the plot summary their AIs had put together. “No wonder it’s so odd.”

The book covers vanished and Veers grew to fill the gap. “Sir, with all due respect, when I was in the Academy I had to take four semesters of classes on the philosophy and morality of a TV show runner who lived and died in the exact same century.”

Craig paused, midsentence, and turned his full attention to Veers. “Ensign, how would you like a promotion to assistant head of Martian Operations?”

“Sounds like an awfully harsh punishment for a simple observation, sir.”

“Too bad,” Craig said, going back to his reading. “The more that happens down there the more I feel like Mars could justify its own entire two hundred man department on permanent assignment planetside.”

“Don’t let Volk know you want to keep him on one planet, sir.” Veers shrugged when Craig gave him a questioning look. “He’d hate to be stuck in atmosphere that long.”

“Noted, Ensign. What does our resident Mars expert think of this?”

“Ah.” Veers coughed into his hand. Looked away for a moment, as if checking something. Double checked. “Miss Vance was not available to consult with. It seems she left the base camp in Old Borealis sometime shortly after arriving and no one has seen her since. Commander Fyodorovich has assigned most of the ground team search duties and they’re trying to locate her now.”

“Just. Wonderful. Thank you, Ensign. Please inform me as soon as they find anything.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Craig shook his head and pulled up the text of Out of the Silent Planet. He might as well learn something while he was waiting.


 

No one had used most of the buildings in Borealis in over a century. Finding one that had been opened recently was easy. Theoretically.  In practice there were over a thousand abandoned buildings in Borealis Colony and even just checking the dirt caked in the corners of the door frames on that many buildings, some with as many as six entrances, was going to take time. But Volk wasn’t willing to waste a whole lot of it. He needed to find Aubrey if he didn’t want to be remembered as the man who lost the first Earthling anyone had seen in centuries.

So he’d ignored standard safety procedures and sent his team out alone rather than in pairs. But even covering ground twice as fast as normal they hadn’t found anything in almost an hour of looking. Volk was about to write off the eastern side of the colony when he spotted what he was looking for. The dirt in the bottom corner of a doorframe had crumbled and wasn’t visible in the street. It had fallen inside the doorframe. He keyed his comm. “This is Fyodorovich. Mark this position. I have signs of entrance at this building.”

“Understood.” Long sounded relieved. “Proceeding to your location.”

“Likewise.” Langly just sounded annoyed.

“Do you want us to rendezvous with you or return to base camp?” Shen asked.

“You can all head to basecamp,” Volk said. “We’re heading that way anyway.”

“See you there, sir.” The channel went quiet.

Volk spent a second figuring out the door controls then let himself in.

Old Borealis, as they’d taken to calling the part of the colony not used by Malacandrans, hadn’t been used in at least a century. An inch or more of dust covered everything in all the buildings he’d been in and this one was no exception. This was the only one he’d found with footprints in the dust. They made finding Aubrey sitting at the table in the back of the house simple enough. They didn’t explain why she was just sitting in a chair on one side of a simple, rectangular table and staring down the length at a chair at the other end.

It was eerie. Plates and cups were set out on the table as if someone was about to walk out with a main course for dinner. Silverware sat in odd positions on the table as if dropped in a hurry. A few of the cups had rings around their insides. For a moment Volk wondered if Aubrey had set it all out herself but then he noticed a lighter colored streak on the plate in front of her. She’s brushed dust off of it at some point. It was the only plate like that on the table. She couldn’t have gotten all that out without wiping off a lot more dust than just that.

“Miss Vance? Are you alright?”

The silence stretched just long enough for him to worry. Then, “What would you think if this was the last thing you saw?”

He gingerly stepped over to where she sat. Nothing out of the ordinary that he could see, besides the passive Earth woman staring at nothing. “I don’t know. Is it going to be the last thing I see?”

“I hope not.”

There were ghosts in those three words. Volk had no idea what led him to that conclusion but almost as soon as the idea occurred to him he found it impossible to think anything else. “Seriously, Miss Vance. Do you need help?”

“No.” She shuddered from foot to head and back again. “I don’t think coming to see this was a good idea. But… I think I had to. I knew someone who used to live here.”

“On Mars?”

She nodded. “In this building.”

And suddenly she was on her feet, rubbing her hands like she was by a campfire in the dead of winter. “I thought I owed her this. Maybe it was just arrogance.”

“I see… Well, we’ve found a few things we’d like your opinion on. We can do it at base camp, though.”

“Great. Let’s do that.” Aubrey spun on her heel and walked out.

Volk watched her go then looked back at the table again. A family had been eating dinner here, back when Earth came for Borealis. They’d just fallen over, unconscious, thanks to their medical systems turned bioweapons. For just a moment he had a horrifying vision of watching his entire family pass out for no reason in the middle of dinner. Then he shivered and followed Aubrey out of the room.


 

“…and Junction 109 is the worst of the bunch. Microfractures all over the inner part of the seals.” Doug held up a hand scanner and pointed the readout in Alyssa’s general direction. “This and 107 are the two that really worry me.”

Alyssa sighed. Doug was right, replacing the junctions really did seem like the only viable option at the moment. “Okay, Doug. This is… a mess. And I know why you want to do all this. But I can’t just wave my hands and say it’s okay to shut down the Sunbottle. Much less requisition all the batteries it’ll take to run us while it’s off. All I can promise is I’ll put it in front of the Elders tomorrow.”

Doug grimaced. “I’d like to be doing this already. But yeah, if that’s the soonest you can bring it up we’ll have to go with that.”

“Don’t worry, Doug. You made a good catch. I think we still have more than enough time to come up with a fix for this, no matter what the Elders ultimately decided to do.” She reached up and rapped the junction box with her knuckles. “After all, the Sunbottle’s been her for over two and a half centuries. It’s not about to come apart on us now.”

That was when the junction box blew up.

Martian Scriptures Chapter Sixteen – Hard Truths

Previous Chapter

“What do you want the model number for, Jimenez?” Volk was once again in the cockpit of a lander, this time watching Mars loom ever closer as Cates brought them down towards the Borealis dome. It wasn’t much of a view but the morning had been one long string of calls from other department heads asking for him to find out this detail or try to find that piece of old equipment. He didn’t want the guests overhearing it. That would make the whole crew look disorganized. Which was unfair, especially since Jimenez was typically a very organized woman.

“Listen,” she was saying, “I am trying to run some simulations and I need to know the exact layout of the reactor.”

“They don’t typically change their layouts very often,” Volk said. “Can’t you just get a copy of the blueprints from Devaneaux, or his opposite number on the Spiner? Got an interesting report from them yesterday, lot of details on this make of colony.”

“The colony’s generator went through two major manufacturing runs. Significant changes to the reactor’s layout took place and I need to know which one I’m dealing with.” She made it sound very matter of fact but Volk was having  hard time thinking of why she’d need to know. “I’ve sent you all the different ways you could learn it but the simplest is to check in the primary or secondary control rooms. Or the manual.”

Volk opened up a display for his AI and pulled up Jimenez’s message. “Is there a serial number there or something?”

“Yeah.”

“Seriously?” That seemed absurdly simple. Naturally it turned out that wouldn’t work. “Okay, the primary control room is in a part of the building that’s off limits to us. No surprise there. But the secondary control room is… oh, also off limits. It’s set aside for the colony’s Eldest. They also haven’t given us computer access and we haven’t seen their library yet, either, so no manuals to reference. I can ask about that last one, but they’ve been very tight lipped about the reactor so far so I don’t think they’ll just let me flip through their user’s guide.”

“No, that makes sense, especially if the Copernicans are right about why it’s leaking radiation now. What about the secondary control room. You’re sure it’s off limits?”

“I could check that, too, I guess.” He shut the AI down. “Can I ask what this is all about?”

“You can, but I can’t tell you right now.”

Volk stifled a sigh. He was almost certain Jimenez wasn’t just giving him a hard time because he was the newly minted department head on board. She only had a year’s seniority on him and even headed a department at a lower rank than his temporary one. In fact, none of the ship’s department heads had given him any grief directly. It was still annoying to second guess every interaction with them. Also, he now had to try and figure out why Jimenez secretly needed blueprints for an ancient reactor. “I’ll see what I can do for you, Lieutenant Jimenez.”

“Thank you, Commander. Stewart out.”

Volk sighed and checked the clock. Briefings with Langly and Aubrey had taken up almost all of yesterday’s trip back to Mars and most of the morning had been spent bringing those two up to speed on their equipment and the Martian situation as they expected to find it on their return. The Captain himself was forced to intervene when Langly insisted he be allowed to wear his own Copernican armored suit down planetside. Volk hadn’t been able to convince him nothing on Mars warranted that kind of defensive gear so the Captain opted to impound it. Things had nearly escalated to that point again when Volk tried to explain that they’d have to wait to enter Bottletown until Pak or one of his watchers had an opportunity to admit them formally. Once Volk explained that they’d only be barred from the northern part of the colony and only for a short time Aubrey had calmed down a bit and Langly apparently decided it wasn’t worth arguing the point.

Dealing with those kinds of minor disagreements in procedure was all well and good but didn’t do anything to address the real elephant in the room. Aubrey also claimed to have spoken with an old survivor of Borealis colony that UNIGOV apparently kept buried underground in one of the old space launch areas under the Nevada desert. The people of the colony had apparently been knocked out using the government’s own internalized nanotechnology and removed from the planet. While medicine wasn’t Aubrey’s field of expertise, she said children who hadn’t started puberty didn’t have internal medinano, apparently the system started the aging process early causing any number of health issues. So the working theory was that the Bottletown colony was formed by the handful of prepubescent survivors who hadn’t been effected.

UNIGOV also apparently stole all the books and computer archives as that was part of their indoctrination program. That made Borealis in general sound like a pretty poor intelligence resource and Volk had momentarily feared that their mission would be scrubbed after all. But it turned out Aubrey had some kind of business on Mars. Helping her with it was a condition to her cooperation, so back to Mars they went.

There was a schedule to keep and by the time all the details concerning his new crewmates were worked out they were already behind so Volk decided to depart and sort out any issues left with other departments during descent. Which was how he wound up sitting in the lander’s comm room, signing off with Jimenez, twenty minutes after the ship touched down on Mars. But with all his chores taken care of it was finally time to get up and go play. He walked out of the comms station and down the ship’s ramp to find SFC Shen waiting there.

“Everything secure?” She asked.

“We’ve got a grocery list a kilometer long, but otherwise yeah.” He glanced up and down the dome and was surprised to spot Montak coming back along the structure from the opposite direction of the entrance they normally used. “What’s going on there?”

“Montak spotted new footprints going in that direction and went to check them out. He was wondering if they’d give some clue about accessing that underground entrance you found during your scans on the first day.”

“Any luck?”

Shen shrugged. “Ask him.”

Volk trotted over to do just that but Montak’s report was disappointing. “Just a set of footprints,” he said. “Either one person or a handful in the exact same size of boots. They went about four degrees around the dome and the prints stop. No idea what happened to ’em, short of doing more invasive scans of the dome we’ll probably never know.”

“Well, given what Naomi said after the tour that’s probably something they don’t want to share with outsiders.” Volk sighed. “Let’s go say hi to her, we can ask about it and see what happens.”

“What do you think they were doing?” Shen asked.

“Beats me. Could be anything. They could have just been replacing conduits or something.” Volk rapped his knuckles on the dome. “This thing’s gotta need some kind of ongoing maintenance.”

“I suppose.” Montak started towards the dome’s entrance a few yards away. “Long said not to wait, he’s gonna meet us back at Bottletown.”

Volk looked around, realizing Long and Barton were missing. “Where’d they go? Taking the Copernicans to the base of operations inside?”

“Yeah.”

He wasn’t sure he liked splitting the group like that. Then again, given the current time constraints it might have been the best use of time they’d get. It wasn’t worth chewing Long out over, he decided. It was the kind of decision that pushed him one step closer to true officer thinking, and he knew it, but it was also what got the job done. He hustled after Montak and the morning’s inevitable next meeting.


 

“Good morning, Elder Nobari.” Volk glanced back and forth, eyeing the assembled personages. He recognized a handful, like Alyssa and Vincent, but most of these Malacandrans were new to him. With nothing but appearance to go by, he presumed they were the Elders of the colony, as they all appeared to be about eighteen to twenty years old. There was one notable absence. “Where’s the Eldest?”

The red haired man drew himself up a bit taller, his lips pressing into a thin line. “Naomi Bertolini has passed into silence. I am the Eldest of Bottletown.”

An icicle plunged into his back between the shoulder blades and ran down into his stomach. Pieces of the puzzle snapped into place. The shockingly young age of the Malacandrans. Naomi’s statements about upcoming events the Eldest would oversee, but she seemed uninterested in. Even simple questions he’d ignored, like how a colony left alone for two hundred years had a population of less than two thousand. From the moment he’d met Pak out at the Square, he’d been taking far too much for granted about what he was seeing and hearing. The only thing that didn’t make sense was the timing. By his count, Naomi should be seventeen hundred and five days old, just a little past twenty and that was a fairly arbitrary –

“Leap years.” The words were little more than a whisper.

“I’m sorry?” Nobari leaned in a bit closer. “I didn’t catch that.”

“20 times 365 is 7,300. There are five leap years in twenty years so you add five days for a total of 7,305 days.” Volk’s eyes narrowed as the shock passed and unreasoning anger boiled up, shattering the ice within him. “No one in Botteltown lives past twenty years, do they?”

“We are given seventy three cents to grow and labor,” Nobari replied. “And five days grace. Then we must pass into silence.”

“And you’re okay with that? How long do you have before you go?”

“Eighteen days of labor, five days grace.” No hesitation or regret tinged the words.

For some reason that made Volk even angrier. “And will that be by ritual suicide or is there some kind of group murder event? A good old fashioned stoning? There are –“

“What do you know?” The angry shout didn’t come from Nobari, like Volk had expected, but rather from Alyssa Pracht, who pushed into the conversation, grabbed his evac suit by the belt and yanked him so close they practically touched. “You’ve got some nerve to come in here and lecture us. Greg and Naomi were supposed to have five days as a family but you showed up and took four of them. Now you expect us to listen to you preach at us the day after she passes into silence?”

“I don’t care much for euphemisms,” Volk snapped back. “If she’s dead just say she died.”

Volk saw the smack coming but didn’t move away from it. He regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth and figured he deserved it. But Alyssa caught herself before she could follow through. The fire left her. The cold that swept in was worse. “I did say she was dead. Silence is death. You’d know that if you ever bothered to listen to the people talking to you. But no, you’re the great spacer from Copernicus, come to share your glorious wisdom with the ignorant Malacandrans of Bottletown. We’ve heard stories of people like you.”

“I–“

“No, you listen for once. Really listen, don’t just dismiss us as superstitious backward children living under a dome.” Volk stiffened in surprise, as much because he realized Alyssa had made a fair assessment as from offense at said assessment. “From the moment Ransom left his notes we knew we’d be viewed as silly for the things we believe. But I don’t care. You cut us off and left us to die, every last person outside this dome, whether you’re from Thulcandra or beyond the solar system. It’s been more than eight generations since Bottletown was established and not one word has passed from your worlds to ours. We’ve been dead to you that whole time. More than twelve thousand people come and gone and you didn’t care. You don’t get to judge us for one more now.”

She pushed away from him and stormed away. After a brief moment of silent deliberation most of the Elders followed after, leaving Volk alone with Shen and Nobari in the middle of the promenade over the Sunbottle. Nobari sighed. “I know you had some kind of agreement with Naomi that made being rude to each other impossible. But it didn’t extend to anyone else here. I’m not sure how many people are going to be able to look past this… misunderstanding.”

Volk sighed, doing his best to rally his thoughts. “Eldest, I apologize for the way I spoke. But limiting the age of your population, especially to an age so young, goes beyond a cultural difference in my book. It’s flatly immoral.”

Nobari scowled. “That’s not what I meant, exactly. In fact, I agree with Alyssa on one thing for sure. You sometimes come off as a very arrogant man, Lieutenant. I suspect you’re a Weston – excuse me, an atheist? Is that the term?”

“I lean more towards agnosticism personally, but the general consensus on Rodenberry is that religion is not credible as anything other than baseline sociology, yes.”

“I suspected as much. You might want to work on hiding that better when you’re talking to people with different beliefs. But that wasn’t my point.” Nobari stroked his beard thoughtfully for a moment, struggling for words. “The point is, we’ve always thought the next people to come to the planet would either do to us as they did to Borealis, or come to free us from the confines of Bottletown and draw us into a new human fellowship. The problem was, you were neither. You didn’t even know we existed. Even if we didn’t say it, many of us were hoping you would change the paradigm and give Naomi another shot at life. You didn’t. That’s the fault of our expectations, not your actions, but it’s still hurt many of us.”

Volk sighed. “I see. Whereas we had no idea you were pinning such hopes on us.”

“Yes. I see that now, and I’m sure others will eventually.” Nobari shrugged eloquently. “But for today, I think we’ll have to postpone. Give them some time.”

Volk nodded. “Of course. Thank you, Eldest.”

Nobari nodded and headed off his own way. Leaving Volk to stew in unspent anger and frustration. He was still furious at the idea that the Bottletowners could have just thrown away the lives of one of their own. He also knew there were so many examples of cultures that would do just that. And for very understandable reasons. Mostly he was annoyed that he’d missed the signs and the chance to understand or even perhaps prevent such a heinous thing from happening.

“Sir?” Volk came to a stop at the sound of Shen’s voice, then realized he’d paced around the promenade at least once as his thoughts stewed.

He looked at Shen. “Yes?”

“I don’t think we’re going to see anything else today. Perhaps we should go back and report?”

“Oh. Yes, perhaps.” He realized he was standing at the end furthest from the entryway they normally used. The door to the Eldest’s office was right there. On impulse he walked over and tested the knob.

The door swung open.

“Sir?” Shen hurried after him. “The Malacandrans are already angry at us. I don’t think we should be in here.”

“Definitely not. So stay here and make sure no one looks in and sees us.” Volk slipped in and looked around.

The room was as well-lit as any other part of the Sunbottle Volk had seen. There wasn’t much there to see, though. Just a desk, a smattering of plants and, tucked away in one corner, a bookshelf stuffed to overflowing with books. The shelves were near where the serial number Jimenez wanted was supposed to be written so Volk moved over to have a look around for it. In the process he glanced over the bookshelf titles.

Most of them were manuals related to the care and maintenance of the various pieces of equipment they’d seen around the colony so far. A handful looked like introductory training textbooks. And one was about two inches shorter than all the manufactures and maintenance manuals on the shelf around it. Volk leaned in for a closer look.

It was old and made out of actual paper, rather than the plastic sheets that the manuals were printed on. It was paper bound and the spine had been opened and closed so many times the creases had made reading the title or other information there impossible. With two careful fingers Volk pulled the book out enough to grip the sides, then gingerly pulled the book all the way off the shelf and looked at the cover. Then keyed his comms.

“Fyodorovich to Stewart.”

“This is Ensign Veers. How can I help you commander?”

“I need a general workup on a piece of literature pulled from the archives, please.”

“Certainly. Name on the work and the author in question?”

Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis.”

Martian Scriptures Chapter Fifteen – Colonists are From Earth, Problems are From Everywhere

Previous Chapter

“Why are we here, Cates?” Volk rocked back and forth on his heels, annoyed at the Admiral, at the ridiculous command structure of the fleet and even at Ensign Cates for getting to do something he was good at while he himself was stuck watching from a patch of floor just behind the pilot’s seat.

“I’m partial to the theory that our purpose is to suffer,” Cates said. He avoided any kind of eye contact but his answer was just deadpan enough that Volk suspected it wasn’t sincere.

“I meant more along the lines of why are we here?” And he waved a hand towards the forward port of the landing craft, where the deceptively graceful lines of the Sea of Tranquility swept by below them; backstopped downwell by the blue expanse of Earth hanging like an exotic dinner plate. “What could possibly warrant dragging the entire ship back here for just one day? I should be back on Mars.”

“At least you know you’re still going to be head of the Martian Operations Department. I don’t know how all that impatience would get stuffed back into the uniform of a Lieutenant j.g.” Before Volk could come up with a retort Cates looked over his shoulder in meaningful fashion, directing Volk’s attention back out of the cockpit of the lander and towards the group seating area where Captain Gyle sat looking over yet another installment of the endless paperwork that comprised the life of an officer. “Have you tried asking him?”

“Yeah, but he wouldn’t say. Just that he believed we were going to get something that improved our chances of working things out.” Volk tapped his AI absently. “I spent an hour going through the fleet records last night, trying to figure out what he was talking about.”

“Find anything?”

“Just lowered my electrolyte levels.”

Gates grunted and adjusted his controls. “Well stop looming and strap in. Landing sequence starts in forty three seconds.”

“I am not looming.”

“It’s like you instantly became a pompous command officer the moment Oda pinned your new rank on.”

“Now that hurts…”

The Tranquility‘s primary hanger bay was huge, easily twice the size of the Stewart‘s largest landing bay, and packed to the brim with all the ferries, drop ships, drop pods and interceptor craft you could want to start – or end – a war. Easily two hundred and fifty meters long, three stories tall and packing a mechanical retrieval and storage system that allowed it to stack small spacecraft like cordwood, the hanger was much like the Tranquility herself, an ostentatious display of Copernican engineering at its finest. Against that backdrop of sleek fighters and armored landing craft the Rodenberry lander looked and felt like a donkey wandering through a pasture of prized horses.

Normally Volk was a big believer in the unity of form and function but today he was annoyed with the Copernicans and wished they could have made more of an entrance. It didn’t help that they were being drawn in to place via the Copernican’s mechanized system so they didn’t even get the dignity of landing under their own power. That didn’t seem to bother Cates, who was staring out the window at the various Copernican ships with fascination. “Look!” He exclaimed, pointing towards a group of a dozen uniquely wedge shaped fighter craft. “That’s the TX-55 Deep Space Superiority fighter. I didn’t think those were cleared for general service yet!”

“Deep space?” Volk raised an eyebrow. “How do they operate in deep space? You can’t fit a superluminal drive on something that small…”

“And yet, the word is that they did.” Gates was leaning forward over his console for a better look. “Can you imagine putting something like that through its paces on the run-up to superluminal?”

The kid was practically drooling. Volk sighed and craned his neck forward instead of to starboard. Their arrival point was coming into view. There were a good eight to ten people there in the dull gray and black – space cameo if you preferred – uniforms of the Copernican Spacer Corps. In the middle of them was a patch of bright red and warm tan, a woman in some kind of civilian clothing the cut of which he didn’t recognize. Perhaps the Tranquility‘s equivalent to Harriet Thacker?

He lost sight of the crowd as the lander rotated down into its slot in the hanger. Volk grunted his frustration and headed back in to the lander’s main compartment. Captain Gyle had already packed away his work and was straightening his uniform, a hand running over the top of his head. His absent minded tells were so obvious Volk had started wondering if the Captain played poker.

“Ready to meet the Admiral?” Gyle asked.

“He can’t be any worse than getting dressed down by the Academy Commandant,” Volk replied. “And I caught that twice.”

Gyle snorted. “Keep telling yourself that. I know Admiral Horowitz and he’s no pushover but this isn’t just anyone. It’s Jalak Carrington.”

“Didn’t you say we shouldn’t be deceived by his reputation just two days ago?”

“I said he’s more than his reputation.” Gyle reached out and keyed the door to the lander open. “Doesn’t mean he didn’t come by that reputation legitimately. Remember that.”

Volk had a moment to wonder what Gyle was getting at as they walked down the shuttle’s short landing ramp and into the hanger bay proper. Then the Captain was greeting the Copernican officers and exchanging handshakes and his brain started to check out. This was mostly the Captain’s show, in fact he wasn’t even sure why he’d been ordered to attend this meeting. It made more sense for Commander Oda or Rand to hear what the Admiral had to say, they had more decision making power and heaps more seniority. That train of thought got shoved to one side as Captain Gyle turned and gestured to him, saying, “This is Lieutenant Commander Volk Fyodorovich, who’s in charge on the ground.”

Volk stepped forward to take the Admiral’s hand, surprised to find that Vice Admiral Carrington was actually a full eight inches shorter than he was. That didn’t stop Carrington from radiating energy and authority, it just wasn’t what Volk had been expecting. “Commander, welcome aboard,” Carrington said, vigorously pumping his hand. “I’m assigning two people to your mission on Mars.”

“Thank y—I’m sorry.” Volk tried to roll with the abrupt change from pleasantries to surprises. “What kind of assignment are we talking about? I’m not sure adding more people to a murky situation is advisable.”

Carrington nodded. His scowl didn’t go away but it did somehow become more agreeable. “I understand, Commander. However, in this case I think you’ll find this clears up a number of things. Before I explain further, I need to inform you that this is restricted information. We don’t want it circulating around the fleet just yet.”

“Of course, Admiral.” Volk didn’t have the first clue what this was all about but if the Admiral knew something that could explain Bottletown to him he was willing to listen.

“Good. Let me introduce you to your new crewmates.” The Admiral turned and gestured one of the other spacers with him forward. He was almost as tall as Volk was but much thinner. In fact, he was almost gaunt and there were shadows under his eyes. “This is Sergeant Martin Langly, of the CSV Johnston. He’s an accomplished pilot who’s served since before the Battle of Minerva Polar.”

Volk studied Langly with a sharper eye. Minerva Polar had been a bad one for the Copernicans, with a task force consisting of mostly frigates and destroyers getting wiped out by Minervan raiders in one of the nastiest ambushes of the last war. It was also nearly four years ago, which meant it either happened right after Langly enlisted or he wasn’t quite as young as he looked. At a guess Volk decided they were about the same age, somewhere around twenty eight. “Glad to have you, Sergeant. I hate to tell you but you won’t have many chances to fly in Martian Operations. We mostly spend our time under a colony dome.”

“I have some experience with that, too,” Langly replied. He was surprisingly soft spoken as he said it, Volk wasn’t sure if this was his default attitude or just how Langly dealt with strangers. “Not my favorite way to spend time, but it’ll do.”

“And this is Miss Aubery Vance.” The Admiral said something as a follow-up but Volk didn’t catch it, distracted as that bright flash of color caught his eyes again, moving through the dull colored crow of Copernicans like a tropical fish through muddy water.

A supreme act of will kept Volk’s mouth closed as she came to a stop beside Langly and gave him a once over. Long, silky blonde hair. Beguiling, willowy figure. Facial features sharp enough to cut a brand new vacuum suit open if she just rubbed her cheek on your shoulder after when she welcomed you home. Preliminary survey report: Excellent, but with the potential for numerous dangers lurking within. She stepped forward to shake his hand. Volk accepted the gesture mechanically.

The Admiral was still talking and with an effort he brought his attention back to what Carrington was saying. “– still debriefing one of them to get a better idea of the situation on Earth. However, Miss Vance has some understanding of the situation on Mars and has requested – no, insisted is a better word – that she be allowed to take part in operations there as a condition of their cooperation. She’ll be giving you a complete briefing at your leisure.”

“I’m sorry,” Volk said, mind racing to try and fill in the gaps he’d missed. “Based on what we’ve learned from Bottletown the situation on Earth is directly related to the situation there. Will we be briefed on that?”

“I’m pretty sure I can manage both,” Aubrey said. That was the moment when he knew – he was dealing with a civilian. Not a member of Earth’s military. Military briefings were never short. “But if you want the quick version, Earth is neither hostile nor welcoming towards you. Or Mars. UNIGOV really just wants to ignore you until you go away.”

“How very broad minded of them,” Gyle said. “But why did they blow up one of our ships?”

“As odd as it may sound, it seems they didn’t actually intend to,” Carrington replied. “The satellite that hit the Johnston was an old, automated system that was in the right place at the right time. In fact, since we never found the satellite responsible it may have actually collided with the Johnston rather than firing on it. That’s something we may never know, UNIGOV claims they no longer monitor those satellites.”

“Why would they stop monitoring them but not pull them out of orbit?” Volk demanded. “That seems absurdly dangerous.”

“It doesn’t seem absurdly dangerous, it just is,” Langly put in. “And believe me, you don’t want to start down that rabbit hole.”

“Great.” Volk made a concerted effort to moderate his tone. “I take it Miss Vance is not an official representative of the governing body? That’s UNIGOV? She’s not going to be able to speak to the Malacandran Eldest directly?”

“What’s a Malacandran?” Aubrey asked.

“We were hoping you could tell us,” the Captain said with a grimace. “It’s not a word in our archives. I take it that it’s not in yours either?”

“I wouldn’t know,” she said. “I worked in the traffic control center. Not Schrodinger’s Vault. And not to disappoint you further but no, I don’t work for UNIGOV either. At least not in any official way.”

Great. He had a low level problem fixer of some kind. A very pretty low level problem fixer, but just a problem fixer in the end. “Well, we’re still interested in hearing whatever you can tell us about the situation, Miss Vance.” He turned to the officers and Corporal Langly. “Any other surprises?”

One of the Copernican officers behind the Admiral stepped forward and held out a data card. After a quick glance with the Captain Volk accepted it and slotted it into his AI. “That’s a work-up on what we think of the distorted radiation pattern from the Borealis colony reactor,” the Copernican said. “It’s similar to a kind of sensor scrambling radiation field we were experimenting with about a hundred and twenty years ago. It’s worthless now but against Departure area tech it would make scanning the colony impossible.”

Volk grunted in surprise. “Are you suggesting they did this to their reactor on purpose?”

“Yes.” The officer gestured vaguely towards his AI. “It’s all on the card there, but the short version is probably that they were trying to keep any scans from more than 200 km away show patterns consistent with stellar background radiation rather than an active colony.”

“So they were trying to conceal their presence from Earth after the Borealis colonists were abducted? Makes sense.” He peered at the other officer skeptically. “Why wasn’t this passed on to us before?”

“Because we just got the data to analyze last night.” The Copernican shrugged. “We apparently weren’t looped in on your crews’ engineering reports. We didn’t hear the reactor was leaking until yesterday at 0900 and then I spent most of the day trying to find someone who would share the data with us.”

“That’s…” Volk grabbed hold of his emotions and held on tight until they calmed a bit. “Unfortunate. We’ll try and get you looped back in.”

He gave the Captain a meaningful look. Gylen nodded minutely in reply and added, “A word to the right people on our ships should do the trick.”

“Thank you, Captain,” the Admiral said. “And thank you for bringing your ship all the way back here. I had nothing I could spare fast enough to get them to you in a reasonable amount of time.”

“Of course Admiral,” Gyle replied. “We have the most to gain here, after all. We look forward to working with you, Corporal Langly. Miss Vance.”

Volk watched her tentative smile work its way across her face, charmed. It didn’t sound like she knew much more than they did but he was definitely looking forward to working with her as well.

Martian Scriptures Chapter Fourteen – Separate Ways

Previous Chapter

Alyssa watched the ship’s captain leave warily. Over the past few days she’d come to the realization that she didn’t like the Rodenberries much. There was nothing she could really put her finger on, just a general sense of condescension that seemed to come whenever they were around. She could never quite get away from the notion that they knew more than they let on. But Naomi was enjoying her time with them and that had to be enough.

“Where’s he going?” Brent asked.

“I’m not sure, honey,” she told her son. “If it’s important I’m sure they’ll let us know.”

In fact she wasn’t sure of that at all, but from the vaguely worried look on Volk’s face as he tracked the captain’s path out of the dining area he hadn’t been expecting this either. But he said, “I wouldn’t worry, buddy. Captain’s a busy man. The Stewart has a crew of almost eight hundred – that’s about half as many people as Bottletown, and none of ’em are kids like you. Everyone needs a piece of his time sooner or later. Your aunt probably has lots of interruptions to deal with, too.”

“Yeah.” In the seat next to Brent, Naomi’s son slumped with his shoulders and chin resting on the table, staring at his food with the dispassionate contempt of the child who will not taste anything because he already knows he doesn’t like it. “This was supposed to be her five days’ grace.”

Alyssa tensed up. But Volk’s attention was entirely on the children he was talking to, and all he said was, “Is that like some sort of vacation?”

“I dunno,” Junior replied. “What’s a vacation?”

Volk shifted awkwardly. It was the kind of awkwardness he showed when something made him uncomfortable, like when he met the newlyweds the day before, and usually resulted in him looking to the nearest fellow Rodenberry for some reason. But he was the only one at the table with her, Victor and the four kids so he had to settle for rubbing the back of his head in confusion. “Gee, I never had to describe one before. It’s when you stop doing what you normally do and take some time to relax and reconnect with family and friends?”

“That’s an excellent way to look at the five day’s grace,” Victor said.

“Well, then I can understand the issue,” Volk said with a grin. “My dad was in the Stellar Navy too, and it was a lot smaller then. He got called away all the time, in the middle of vacations, during ball games, the whole nine yards.”

Victor nodded, although Alyssa could see he hadn’t followed all of what Volk said either. “Is it common for children to follow their parents footsteps on Rodenberry?”

“No more so than in other places, I’d think.” Volk drummed his fingers on the table top for a moment, looking off in the distance as he thought. “Cultures that emphasize hereditary jobs exist, of course, but in the colonies we don’t have the luxury of pigeonholing people like that. I’d assume Bottletown is much the same?”

“Yes,” Alyssa said. “My parents were a doctor and a fisher. We do have some people who give that impression, though. The Nobaris have been fishers for the last three or four generations.”

“Yeah, that’s not the Fyodoroviches. Dad was the black sheep of the family. His parents were terraformers on Newton. He basically ran away from home and moved to Rodenberry when he was young.” Alyssa shuddered, as much at the casual way Volk said it and proceeded to chew on the stringy stuff he called pasta as what he said. They’d all been prepared for people from outside of Malacandra to be different, but such flippancy about leaving home and family still shocked her.

Volk didn’t notice, just swallowed down his mouthful and asked, “How does Bottletown handle work, anyway? With your population and the amount of stuff you have to maintain I imagine you can’t let people do whatever they want.”

“That’s actually part of my job,” Victor said, the relief on his face telling Alyssa he’d read the mood and grabbed the first subject to come to hand to change to. “I’m a mentor. We teach children the basics of life tasks around Bottletown and test their aptitudes. When they hit about thirty cents they start going through more advanced testing until we can recommend some fields of work to them. At forty cents they’re apprenticed in various fields of work until they find one that suits them. We try to get it done by sixty cents, although sometimes people never quite find a place.”

Volk grunted. “Sounds about as sensible as any other process I’ve heard of.”

“What about your father?” Alyssa asked. “Why did he leave home? Surely no mentor could have suggested something like that.”

Another minute of thoughtful chewing, then, “Well, I suppose in a sense he did. Rodenberry is nominally founded on the ideals of an actual historical figure from Earth’s history.”

“Gene Rodenberry,” Victor put in. “I’ve heard Miss Thacker mention him.”

“That,” Volk jabbed with his fork for emphasis, “is the man. The Stellar Navy has a whole course track on his philosophy and how it’s endured the centuries since his death. Anyway, point is dad was familiar with Rodenberry’s work and when people decided to found a new colony attempting to realize some of his ideals dad bought in and went along with it. He snuck aboard one of the colony ships just before he turned sixteen – that’s a little less than sixty cents – and the rest is history.”

Alyssa’s left hand absently moved to cover Harold’s rubbing her son’s arm protectively. He ignored it and kept eating. “And no one said anything? How did he not get sent back?”

“Dad gets incredibly sketchy with those details.” Volk shrugged. “He’s the kind of guy who wants to be in the thick of things. We do share that in common.”

“What about Rodenberry encouraged that kind of loyalty?” Victor asked.

“Well, there was the emphasis on the universal value of human life,” Volk answered, swirling the past around his plate in a lazy red spiral. “The idea of cooperation uplifting us further than conflict. The potential of the future and the thrill of discovery.”

Victor nodded. “High ideals. Based on what Ransom told us, often paid lip service but rarely enacted.”

“Your Mr. Ransom–“

“Dr. Ransom,” Alyssa corrected him.

“–Dr. Ransom was a wise man,” Volk said. He set his fork aside with a grimace, as if his appetite had left him. “Rodenberry was founded in part as an objection to a major conflict, and out of a desire to stay out of future wars. Cooperation being the higher principle. Didn’t keep us from getting drawn into the most recent war.”

“Ideals are a tricky thing,” Victor admitted. “Ransom was also in favor of recognizing the value in all hnau and relying on the guidance of the eldil. Now we no longer hear the eldil and even among humans we have a hard time remembering the value of hnau.”

Volk studied him for a minute and Alyssa was suddenly aware of that air of condescension once again. It had faded for a few minutes but now it was back. “A lot of Rodenberry’s work was on the subject of the difficulties and contradictions in a set of high minded ideals. You’ll get a chance to see some of it, we’re planning to screen a couple of his works near the end of the tour.”

The conversation moved on but Alyssa never felt the distance between Volk and her family shrink again. It was disappointing. For a minute she’d felt like she could really connect with him. She spent the rest of the meal wondering what had prompted the change.


 

The lag was noticeable but not something he couldn’t ignore. Privately, Craig was impressed. He knew that gravitic communications relays were only a generation or two behind EM comms but he’d never used one before and seeing, as they say, is believing. Admiral Carrington was less reserved with his opinions. “No way for the rest of the fleet to use it? Bit of an exaggeration it seems, Captain Gyle.”

“In my defense, this is something Lieutenant Hoyle and her opposite number on the Spiner came up with, not something in the manual.” Criag noticed the Admiral’s eyebrow raise a few seconds after the remark and wondered if he shouldn’t have mentioned his Comm officer by name. The Copernicans were not above poaching talent from other planets. “It does put the fleet in a better position for system wide operations, but keep in mind it still requires one of our ships on each end of the line to function.”

“Not ideal, I agree.” That wasn’t his point but he let the Admiral’s remark pass. “And I presume it’s also not why you chose to call me up. This is about your being recalled to Earth.”

“Admiral, we’re making real progress–“

“I understand the basic Rodenberry desire–“

Both officers stopped short. Carrington had paused for some reason and Gyle had misunderstood it as the end of a thought. With the lag added in they’d wound up talking over each other. With a motion of his hand Craig asked the Admiral to continue. Two seconds later he did. “Let me put this another way. I’ve read your reports and I’m sure you don’t want to leave the problem of Borealis colony unsolved. Clearly a lot of strange things have happened there in the years since Departure. I can respect your dedication to doing your job, but I wouldn’t agree with the priorities under normal circumstances.”

Craig frowned. This wasn’t sounding like quite the conversation he was expecting. “Under normal circumstances?”

“That’s right. You see, we’re no longer interested in what Borealis can or cannot tell us about the lost time between the Departure and now. We think we have a fairly clear idea what happened.” Carrington spread his hands. “But we have a new consideration to keep in mind.”

Craig mentally ran through the daily reports they’d been receiving but couldn’t imagine how the fleet had managed to work everything out based on the activities they’d reported. Or what consideration had Carrington second guessing what their next step should be. “I’m afraid I don’t understand, sir.”

A nearly unbearable two seconds passed, then the Admiral nodded and said, “It’s something that happened just recently, to tell you the truth. Let me start by introducing you to two people I expect you’ll get to know very well in the next few days. This is Corporal Martin Langly, of the Johnston.” Craig looked at the tall, dark haired man skeptically, trying to remember if Langly had been one of the Johnston’s crew that they’d rescued. Then he was joined by a shorter, blond woman with long hair and the air of a bewildered grounder, still adjusting to artificial gravity. The Admiral gestured to her and added, “And the lovely Miss Aubrey Vance, of Fort Worth, Texas.” 


 

Volk felt a mix of satisfaction and relief as he watched the Captain shake hands with the Eldest. The nightmare tour was finally over and he was free to escort the Malacandrans back to the surface. By his estimate he’d spent thirty percent of the day on the duties he’d been assigned and the rest scrambling to put out fires. From the moment Naomi had showed up with children in tow he’d practically abandoned his plans for the day, although to his surprise the children of Bottletown were incredibly well behaved and willing to sit through what they had to see as long and boring discussions while strange adults tried to keep them away from control panels and equipment.

If that was the start of his problems it certainly hadn’t been the biggest. Every senior officer they’d met with had tried to pump the Malacandrans on some obscure topic of their particular interest, usually going way over time. Volk had practically been forced to drag his guests away at gunpoint before they were overwhelmed by questions they didn’t even fully understand. He strongly suspected trouble was brewing between the Department of Martian Operations and the rest of the ship.

But it was over. Finally, finally over, and he could go back down to the planet and get back to trying to figure out mysteries less complex than shipboard politics. Like why an entire colony had disappeared two hundred years ago. A slight adjustment in the Captain’s posture cued him in to the fact that the conversation was winding down and Volk tuned his mind back into the present.

“…sincerely hope that this marks the beginning of a long lasting connection between us,” Gyle was saying. “Perhaps we can even make a lengthier exchange, place some of our own crew in your colony for a month or two.”

“An interesting offer, Captain,” Naomi said. “But not one we can really contemplate now. Still, I’ll mention it to Elder Nobari and I’m sure something could be found for them to do.”

Gyle chuckled. “At the very least you could put them in a corner and just let them watch.”

Greg Jr. yawned, more likely out of exhaustion than boredom Volk thought, but it served as a good cue for him to step in. “And on that note, I think it’s time we got you back to the surface.”

“Thank you, Volk, you’ve been a great host.” Naomi looked uncomfortable for just a moment. “I hate to return the favor so poorly, but I have to ask that you return here after you drop us off.”

Volk’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh? Why is that?”

“I trust nothing you saw on your visit upset you?” The Captain asked.

“Volk and I have an agreement that makes that impossible,” Naomi replied in amusement. “But there are certain parts of life in Bottletown which just aren’t for outsiders. You’ll be free to return the day after tomorrow.”

“The timing there is actually quite good,” Gyle admitted. “The fleet has called us back to Earth for a day. We’d intended to leave Volk’s team with you for a day and rejoin you after. But since it seems both of our cultures have demands to make of us let’s say we’ll meet again in two days. Fair?”

“Perfectly.” Naomi rested a hand on Junior’s shoulder and led her family through the airlock and into the landing bay. Loading up four active kids for the ride to the ship had been difficult that morning, getting four sleepy kids strapped in for the ride down planetside proved even harder. But what had to be done got done, then he was shaking hands with Naomi as well.

“Have a safe flight, Eldest,” he said. “I look forward to getting back to Bottletown.” And to his surprise, it was true. As much as he had originally disliked being stuck in one place with no unfamiliar terrain to clamber over he found himself enjoying the time he spent under the old Borealis dome.

“I’m sure they’ll be happy to see you.” Naomi and her family waved as the lander’s hatch swung closed. Volk backed away and let the lander’s pilot take the small ship up and towards the outer airlock, then turned and headed for the inner lock without looking back. He wouldn’t question Naomi’s wording until later.