Martian Scriptures Chapter Twenty Two – The Tipping Point

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Alyssa scrambled back into the spacelock, frantically fiddling with the controls on the weird box the Rodenberries called an AI, something she really didn’t understand beyond being a very small but very advanced computer system. Supposedly it had decision making capabilities but not “strong” decision making capabilities. Whatever that meant. The reason she had one was so she could monitor the Sunbottle’s situation remotely but right now it was just showing her a badly focused hologram of her status board back at the watch room. “Not this board, Ramone, I need Doug’s old board.” 

“Hold on.” Ramone’s voice drifted in from somewhere out of sight. “I think we’re still trying to get something sorted with the input here.” 

The hologram jerked, then snapped into focus. Another moment passed, then the hologram froze for a second before changing to the desired board. “Much better,” she said. Then noticed that the primary wing fields were down to half strength. “Oh, never mind. Much worse!” 

One nice thing about AI holoreadouts was their transparency. That let Alyssa keep an eye on the board as she walked through the hanger towards the landing craft the Sunbottle parts were on. Captain Gyle only had to steer her around an obstacle every once in a while. “Eldest, you need to think about evacuating the rest of your people from Bottletown,” he was saying. “In case we can’t patch your system before something goes wrong.” 

“Are you sure we’ll be safe if we just move to the Borealis outskirts?” Nobari was also speaking from somewhere off camera. “We do have the resources to move everyone outside the dome for a day or two.” 

“As impressed as I am that that’s the case, I don’t think it will be necessary.” That was Deveneaux, also speaking from somewhere else on the ship. Once the call from Thacker revealed how bad things were on the ground he’d scurried away to ‘run simulations’ and consult with someone else who wasn’t even onboard the ship. Sometimes the scale Gyle’s crew worked on boggled the mind. “Those reactors are purpose built to not irradiate their surroundings. Most of the danger in this situation comes from not having a reactor available, rather than said reactor melting down.” 

“Still, pulling back some is for the best,” Gyle added. 

“Agreed,” Deveneaux hastened to add. “We should be able to slow the progress of the failure cascade if we lower the reactor’s output. I’m running some numbers now, give me five minutes and we’ll see what we come up with.” 

“If we don’t change anything, how long before we have a serious problem?” Gyle asked. 

The AI turned out to have a calculation function that Alyssa was taking full advantage of. “I think… eight hours. Maybe ten. What’s the fastest we can get back to the surface?” 

“I’m not the best pilot in the Navy,” Gyle said, “but I think I could make the trip in a hundred minutes if I really pushed it. Ensign Cates could probably do it in ninety.” 

“We’ve never had to hook something other than the Sunbottle into the dome’s power grid, so I have no idea how long that will take. Let’s call it two hours.” Alyssa bit her lower lip, by all accounts it should take under four hours to get to ground and start powering the Sunbottle down. Less than half her projected time limit. Why didn’t that reassure her? “With your permission, Captain, we’ll leave as soon as possible.” 

“Naturally,” Gyle said. “Merryweather! You have everything loaded?” 

They’d come around the end of a row of four Tigris class landers to find Chief Merryweather waiting for them, still wearing his metal skeleton suit the Rodenberry’s called a “loading exo” and looking a bit disgusted. Two boxes of components rested at his feet. “Almost, Captain.” 

Two other men and one woman were waiting there with him. One man Alyssa recognized as Commander Oda, the Captain’s assistant. The other looked vaguely familiar but she’d never seen the woman before. “I had him halt the loading for the moment,” Oda said. “There’s something we need to discuss, Captain.” 

Gyle stiffened, an odd look crossing his face. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t aware my orders on this subject got referred to committee.” 

When Alyssa had first started in the Sunbottle the head bottler had been a surly man named Greg Fields. He had always insisted on his orders being carried out immediately and completely, much to her annoyance. Until, halfway through her first cent in the bottle, a conduit blowout had scorched half a crawler team deep in the bowels of the reactor. The speed and precision of responding teams under Greg’s direction went a long way to explaining why he insisted on such discipline. And it was Greg’s example that helped her understand what the Captain was doing now – sitting on his annoyance until the crisis was passed. 

Oda realized it, too. “Commander Rand has new concerns about the tactical situation, Captain.” 

“We’re dealing with fifteen hundred people who haven’t even reached twenty years, living in an ancient colony dome with barely any resources of their own.” Gyle managed to say it without sounding condescending. Almost. “There is no tactical situation, Rand.” 

Rand opened his own AI holodisplay and showed the Captain some kind of graph. Alyssa thought it looked very familiar but couldn’t place it right off. “I had Lieutenant Jimenez running a number of tests over the past few days, Captain. Her people have tapped the dome power grid in several remote locations in order to build a better picture of how the colony is running.” 

“What?!” That explained why the graph looked familiar. It showed circuit loads throughout the dome. “Captain, we did not allow anyone into Bottletown for that purpose!” 

“Everything we did was done from Old Borealis,” Jimenez said. At least she had the good grace to look embarrassed by all this. “With a little knowhow you can get information on the whole grid from any substation in the network.” 

“And why is this important?” Gyle demanded. 

“Sir, they shunt a third of their power into some kind of underground chamber,” Rand said. “Fyodorovich’s initial survey detected the upper edges of it and we had his two enlisted men do a sweep of the crop fields that gave us an idea of how deep it runs, although we only hit a corner of it. Just based on that, at a minimum we’re looking at something the size of the Sea of Tranquility’s primary hanger bay. But theoretically they could have a warship on the scale of the Principia down there.” 

Gyle slowly turned to give Alyssa an appraising look. “Is that true?” 

“That we route a large amount of power through circuits fourteen and fifteen? Yes.” Alyssa folded her arms over her chest. “That’s a vital system. Every document on colony maintenance left by the Founders confirms that.” 

“As nearly as we can tell,” Rand countered, “the chamber doesn’t do anything. Outside of the power supply lines we couldn’t detect any entrances or exits.” 

“There’s one in the first level of the Sunbottle,” Alyssa said. “And there’s an external access.” 

“So what’s in there?” Gyle asked. “You’re a bottler. You must have gone in.” 

“No one goes in there.” It was barely a whisper. “Not until you pass into Silence.” 

“Great.” Rand threw his hands in the air. “It’s haunted. You’re spending a third of your power generating capacity on a haunted hanger bay. Doesn’t that fit with fucking everything–“ 

“That’s enough, Commander,” Gyle snapped. 

“It does bring us to the other issue at hand, Captain,” Oda said. “There’s still the Prime Directive issue to consider.” 

“We’ve already discussed this multiple times, Commander Oda.” 

“But this adds a new element to it.” Oda was firm and insistent. “We are dealing with a civilization that has sabotaged their own lifelines on an inhospitable world and even now shunts a sizeable portion of what safety they have left into systems that may have nothing more than religious significance. By interfering now we may be keeping them from a rightful collapse. It is arrogant of us to meddle in this situation.” 

From the twitching in his forehead Gyle seemed to be winding up for a blistering reply. But Alyssa had had enough and she stopped him with a hand on his forearm. “Commander, are you familiar with the work of the ‘Great Man’ that we watched when we visited your ship a few days ago?” 

“Yes.” Oda did not miss a beat when answering. “I was one of three officers who selected the episodes in question.” 

“I found it fascinating. I’m not a petitioner nor a great student of Ransom’s notes, but I’ve read through them about as often as most.” Alyssa closed her AI display and gave Oda her full attention. “I found the story about whether the metal man was truly human or not very reminiscent of Ransom and Weston’s meeting with the Oyarsa. Are you familiar with that story, Commander?” 

“I read a summary of–” 

“This story, too, rested on the question of who was or was not human. Only in Old Solar the term does not refer to humanity as such, but rather whether a thing contains the essence of the Creator – whether a living thing is hnau. Oyarsa was unable to comprehend how Weston could not see that the natives of Mars were hnau, just as Weston himself was. Do you know how Weston explained it?” 

Oda adopted the pursed lips and longsuffering air that seemed hardwired into Rodenberries who were listening while trying not to dismiss what they were hearing out of hand. “I do not.” 

“Weston said they were too primitive to justify his consideration. They had only sticks and nets and crude wooden houses, so it was fitting that he hold his hand over them in dominion.” Alyssa scowled at him. “It seems you’re the opposite. You can see that we’re hnau, just like you. But we’re too primitive to deserve your helping hand, so it’s fitting you not put yourself out to help us. If that’s the case, perhaps Ransom and Rodenberry don’t have as much in common as I thought.” 

Gyle rested a hand on her shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “Let’s hope that’s not the case.” His gaze offered Oda less comfort. “Anything you’d like to add, Commander?” 

Oda wasn’t winning his point and he could tell it. “Just that I strongly object to this course of action, Captain.” 

“Understood, Commander. You’re relieved of duty until further notice. Lieutenant Jimenez, please escort Commander Oda to his quarters.” She nodded and met Oda’s eyes for just a moment. He gave an imperceptible nod and left without further complaint. Gyle ignored them, still barking orders. “Merryweather, get that gear loaded. Miss Parcht, you can board at any time. Commander Rand, please oversee the launch procedure.” 

“Yes, sir.” He turned and headed towards the spacelock’s control room. 

“Thank you, Captain,” Alyssa said. 

“I want you to know that Commander Oda doesn’t speak for Rodenberry – not our planet, not for Gene.” 

“Of course not,” she said with a wan smile. “Not any more than I do for Bottletown. But you expect us to learn enough about both Rodenberries to make our own judgements you’ll have to stop treating us like children. No matter how young we look in your eyes.” 

“We’ll do our best, Miss Pracht. I promise you that.” 


“All aboard!” Volk announced as Cates secured the hatch behind Alyssa. “And perfect timing, we just got the last of your cargo loaded.” 

“Wonderful,” Langley said as he clomped past them on his way to the cockpit from the cargo bay hatch he’d just secured. “Get me off this damn ship and away from all this peace and goodwill.” 

Cates scowled at the man. “Remind me again why you’re here?” 

“Every ship should have at least one qualified pilot onboard, kid, even if he’s from a different service.” 

“Excuse you?” Cates stalked after him, doubtless to continue the argument. It had been near constant since they’d lifted off Mars. 

“Sorry about them,” Volk said to Alyssa. “Pilots love two things: flying and one upsmanship. I think Langley is getting as much of the second as he can since Cates won’t let him do the first.” 

“Sure.” Alyssa had most of her attention on the AI in her hand. “How do I answer this when it wants to talk to me?” 

Volk walked her through the finger movements to do what she wanted, then walked her towards the cockpit as well, doing his best to monitor both her conversation and the new battle lines being drawn between Rodenberry and Copernicus. The liftoff sequence apparently also failed to meet Langley’s exacting standards. “Let’s get strapped in before those two start throwing punches and put us in a flat spin.” 

Alyssa just nodded absently, speaking into her AI rather than to him. “Go ahead Commander Deveneaux. What do the numbers look like?” 

“It’s not the numbers that are a problem, Miss Pracht. It’s the reactor. I shared some models with my opposite number on our sister ship. After refining things some we’re pretty sure your reactor has three hours, tops, before the next cascade failure knocks out all your injectors and the backwash overloads your containment fields.” 

“Okay.” Alyssa walked while punching numbers into a holographic calculator. “If we shut down the reactor now the dome should be fine on back-up power for as long as six hours–” 

“I already tried that,” a new voice said. “But none of the reactor’s shutdown codes were accepted. From what the Bottletown computer is telling us it won’t do it as long as there’s no alternative power source for the dome available.” 

“Great,” Alyssa muttered. “Another system the Founders didn’t explain to us.” 

Volk gently helped her get settled into a chair. Cates had already gotten the lander off the ground and started cycling through the spacelock. Rather than hassling him about it Langley was quietly eavesdropping on the conversation. “Can you bypass that lockout?” Volk asked, trying to figure out what options were available. “Just cut out the relevant code in the program?” 

“Even if it was that simple,” Alyssa replied, “we don’t have anyone who’s familiar with the reactor’s code. There’s maybe twenty programmers in Bottletown at a given time to begin with.” 

“Fine. Fine.” The lander cleared spacelock and drifted over the aft port section of the Stewart. Mars peeked over the edge of the ship in the distance. “How much time will it take you to hook up the lander to the dome?” 

Alyssa shook her head. “I don’t know. If everything goes perfectly, twenty minutes? But I don’t know what the odds of that are. I’m not even sure the dome is ready to open – no one has used those hatches in thousands of cents, it’s going to be hard to get them operating again.” 

“Okay,” Volk said, soothing her. “Let’s not borrow trouble. Two hours to make a landing is more than plenty to–” 

“Injectors two and seven just went red!” Ramone yelled. “Juggle the relays before – Oyarsa save us, junction box seventeen’s out. Even the load!” 

Alyssa muted the audio, working numbers frantically. “Okay. Okay. We have… maybe ninety minutes before the reactor passes a point of no return and we can’t shut it down under any circumstances. We need to land in an hour. Maybe faster.” 

“Cates?” 

The ensign shook his head. “Not possible, sir. I could do eighty five minutes at the fastest but–” 

“I can do it.” 

Cates gave Langley a venomous look. “Stop with the bullshit. This is serious, we need to get the colony ready for a meltdown, not–” 

“I want to hear this, Cates.” Volk nodded to Langley. “Go on.” 

“I flew Somme class landers in the assault force that got wiped out at Minerva Polar,” he said. “They’re functionally identical to the Tigris class except they have weapons and armor in place of sensor emplacements and comms packages. I was trained to take them through all kinds of landing situations and I can get you from here to the dome in twenty two minutes. All we have to do is crash the ship at the end.” 

One response to “Martian Scriptures Chapter Twenty Two – The Tipping Point

  1. Pingback: Chapter Twenty Three – Long Way Down | Nate Chen Publications

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