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

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“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

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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.

Martian Scriptures Chapter Thirteen – Welcome Shipside

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Craig met the Malacandran delegation just inside the airlock of Landing Bay Two. Procedure dictated that Oda oversee the actual landing procedures and greet their guests as they disembarked from the landing craft, so Craig was forced to cool his heels on the other side of the pressure hull to ensure nothing catastrophic happened to the ship’s command structure. On the balance of things, he found it annoying. Oh, it made sense of course. But there were times he wished he could have just stuck his nose into every interesting thing on the ship, like Kirk had been able to.

Of course, Kirk had plot armor and a team of writers who didn’t have to work hours and hours of meetings, paperwork and constant smoothing of ruffled feathers into their scripts.

But even if he couldn’t go on away missions there was a lot of fun to be had in the captain’s chair. He’d been looking forward to meeting the leaders of Bottletown for the last two days. It was nice to have regular, communicative people to deal with instead of the passive-aggressive silence of Earth. Absently Craig ran his hands over the front of his uniform for the dozenth time and scrubbed a hand over his nonexistent hair, then glanced at his assembled officers. After a little debated he’d settled on Rand, who’d insisted on a small security presence for the meeting, and Dhawan. Tactical and medical seemed like the right mix to strike. He’d have brought Jimenez as well, but someone had to stand watch on the bridge.

And, of course, there was Harriet Thacker. Craig wasn’t sure how she’d gotten back upwell from planetside but there she was, her newly bobbed brown hair looking glossy and professional, a recording unit in hand and some kind of heavy duty AI that he hadn’t seen before strapped to her waist. “Any thoughts you’d like to share based on your first meeting with the Malacandrans, Miss Thacker?”

Harriet stopped flipping through whatever she had on her AI readout and gave him an arch look. “A trip to Mars was all it took for you to finally pay attention to me?”

“I could think of a few other ways you could grab my attention. Flag my AI. Show up at unexpected places on the ship.” He gave her simple but stylish blouse and pants a quick once over. “Change what you wear.”

She feigned shock. “Whatever could you mean, Captain?”

“An evac suit, of course.”

That chilled the air a bit. Craig realized it had come out a bit harsher than he’d intended but, before he could correct the statement the airlock clunked and then cranked open. While Craig was hardly a short man he’d gotten used to cranking his head back a step or two to see Commander Fyodorovich’s face. He wasn’t expecting to have to lean back even further to make eye contact with the serious faced five year old boy Fyodorovich was carrying on his shoulders. The big man practically had to fold in half to step up over the lip of the hatch while also ducking to get through without hitting his passenger’s head on the top. There was a weird, hypnotic awkwardness to the maneuver.

Matched by a weird, choking laugh from Harriet, who was trying her best to treat this with the seriousness it deserved.

Fyodorovich straightened up, walked over to his commanding officer as if arriving with a child in tow was a daily occurrence, and halted at a modified parade rest with his hands resting on the child’s feet to keep him in place. Craig rapidly considered and discarded a number of responses. Finally he ignored his officer and looked up at the boy, offered him a crisp nod and said, “Welcome aboard the Stewart, Eldest.”

The child said, “I’m not the Eldest. My mom is.” He turned to point and Fyodorovich mimicked the action with eerie accuracy, almost as if he and he boy had fused nervous systems at some point. Behind them a tall, slim women with dark hair was just clearing the hatch. Clearly this must be Naomi Bertolini.

She had that vaguely exotic look to her that most people from another planet had, the clear result of dozens of genetic idiosyncrasies settling into a limited gene pool and creating the phenomenon known as ethnicity. With just mother and child to go by so far Earth’s Martian descendants seemed to be marked by very round faces, pronounced ears and above average height, an impression that was driven home when a man who was well over two meters tall followed the Eldest through the door. He was holding the hand of a three or four year old girl. The boy added, “That’s my dad and sister.”

The youngest Bertolini was stuck staring at the edge of the hatchway, clearly unsure how she was supposed to get over it. Craig froze for a moment, getting young children over the lip of an airlock wasn’t something covered in the Diplomatic Procedures he’d reviewed, but before he could say anything her father just smiled and said, “Hup!” And lifted her into the air by her arm then swung her over the threshold. To Craig’s ever increasing surprise the giggling girl swung forward on both arms, her other hand held by his executive officer. The girl didn’t let go of Oda’s hand once she was over the lip of the hatch or even when he stepped through behind her. At first Craig thought he might get to see Oda put out by someone else for once. But from the satisfied way Oda watched the girl swing along between them Craig was doomed for disappointment. He made a mental note to check with Fyodorovich and see who’s idea it was to give the guest’s kids piggyback rides.

A second family of four followed behind Oda. Like the first wave, the adults were tall. The wavy brown hair and thoughtful blue eyes suggested that the man who came first was Naomi Bertolini’s younger brother. He was flanked by a woman that was almost two meters herself, although still more than a head shorter than her companion, with deep red hair. They had two boys sandwiched between them and all three were looking around at the ship with a faint sense of awe.

Craig also got his first impression of their culture. All eight of the Malacandran Martians had long hair, waist length in the case of the adults and at least shoulder length on all of the children. The kids were all wearing fairly amorphous coveralls but the adults were clothed according to gender, with the men in belted tunics and pants while the women wore blouses with loose, flowing sleeves tucked into high waisted bottoms. Naomi wore a skirt, the other woman pants. Reports had mentioned that the Eldest wore utilitarian clothes while planetside, at a guess this was more formal attire.

Satisfied that he couldn’t learn any more by looking over the group Craig focused his attention on Naomi. “Welcome aboard the Rodenberry Stellar Navy’s Stewart, Eldest. I’m Captain Craig Gyle.” He gestured to his officers. “These are Commanders Barton Rand and Varu Dhawan, in charge of our tactical and medical departments. And, of course, you’ve already met Miss Thacker.”

Naomi held out her hand for a handshake, which Craig accepted. “A pleasure to meet you, Captain.” The rank sounded a little uncertain, as if the word wasn’t something she was used to saying. “I’m Naomi Bertolini, the Eldest in Bottletown. But you probably knew that.”

“Commander Fyodorovich speaks highly of you.” It wasn’t a very meaningful compliment but it seemed to please her none the less.

“Volk is a wonderful guest. Let me introduce my family.”

And they were all family. Her husband was a doctor named Greg, the other two adults her brother Victor Pracht and sister-in-law Alyssa. The Bertolini children were Greg Jr. and Tancia, the Pracht boys were Harold and Brent. Craig filed all this under things he would have to look up in his AI later.  It did raise the interesting question of why she’d chosen to bring family on this visit, rather than other senior leaders of the colony, but that was something he filed under things to ask if he wanted to end diplomatic relations. Nepotism was a universal constant in human affairs. But it wasn’t something he was interested in seeing on his ship, which meant he’d be keeping a sharp eye on Fyodorovich for the next few hours. Four children under ten gave Craig a great chance to see if the rookie department head’s legendary cool under pressure extended to these kind of formal situations.


 

Geraldine Jimenez rarely got to stand watch on the bridge. By her estimate there were at least twelve officers on the ship with more seniority and command experience between her and the Stewart‘s big chair. Pretty much the only time it happened was when all those other officers had some kind of important function that would keep them in their own departments while the Captain and XO were off the bridge. So naturally she was officer on duty during the Martian’s visit to the ship.

Bridge time was vital to forwarding your career so really there was nothing to complain about. But Jimenez preferred being involved in things rather than being sidelined and being stuck on the bridge felt a lot like sidelining at the moment. She tried to console herself by remembering that ship tours were boring and based on reports from SFC Long the Bottletown colony didn’t seem to have any significant fighting capability so they weren’t really expected to cause trouble.

So she dug deeper into her current project and compared historical maps against modern scans and tried to work out what the insides of the colony looked like. The bridge was quiet and it helped to pass the time. She had just started evaluating where she might ask Shen to set up sensor relays when she got a ping from Hoyle directing her to a recent transmission packet from the grav relay that kept them in touch with the Spiner and the rest of the fleet. It wasn’t time for one of their regular check-ins so this was definitely something to take note of.

Concerned, Jimenez opened it to see if it merited passing on to the Captain immediately, or if some comm spacer had just gotten an itchy finger while manning the relay. The first few lines were pretty much what she expected, and included instructions that they were to finish with the day’s diplomatic functions. That alone was enough to suggest she could leave the message for the Captain to get to on his next duty shift. But she kept reading, just to be sure.

Which is why she decided she would have to interrupt the tour for at least a few minutes after all.


 

Two hours into proceedings Craig decided that perhaps Fyodorovich had a good sense for how to handle his diplomatic duties after all. Alyssa and Naomi had been fascinated by their trip to the ship’s power plant and Greg Bertolini had many questions for Dhawan as they passed through Sickbay. Victor said little and kept an eye on the four children, with help from Fyodorovich.

The big man had a way with kids that Craig also wouldn’t have given him credit for.

The lunch break in the officer’s mess served as the first real chance for them to decompress since their arrival. Seating had been left to the Head Steward and Craig found himself at a table with the Eldest, her husband and Oda. They had barely started on the soup when Naomi’s questions started, but they weren’t the questions Craig had been expecting.

“Where are your families, Captain?” She was genuinely perplexed. “Your whole crew is of marriageable age but I haven’t seen a single child here.”

“We rarely take our families into space.” Craig hadn’t been expecting the question but it was something that was routinely debated among the kinds of people who formulated the Rudeness Pact so he had an answer on hand.. “It seems Malacandrans value the community and strength close family brings, and I truly respect that. But few spacers would think of bringing family aboard a vessel like ours if for no other reason than how dangerous it is.”

That alarmed her. “You ship is dangerous?”

“Not always,” Craig hastened to assure her. “In orbit, like we are now, this ship is just as safe as your colony. But travel between stars has many dangers. Engines can fail and strand us months or even years away from help. There are many stellar phenomena that we haven’t mapped which we will happen across unexpectedly and can damage the ship. And there’s the ever present danger of space pirates.”

“But wouldn’t your family be a bulwark against such dangers?”

Craig smiled faintly. “I’d rather think of myself as that bulwark for my family. Besides, starships have little room for people who aren’t a part of the ship’s functioning. Everyone has to pull their weight. What if a spacer married a terraformer? That’s a skillset that’s vital to our home planet but has no useful application in space.”

“But surely,” Greg objected, “you have to need so many more sets of skills on a ship in space than in a colony.”

Craig hesitated, trying to find a way to phrase things that didn’t come off as offensive. “Let me turn that around on you. Do you have people who dedicate their whole lives to music? To telling stories? To the design of buildings?”

“No.” Greg looked perplexed at the question. “We could never afford to spare the people. Bottletown’s population is far too low.”

“In that respect,” Craig replied, “you are far more like a starship than like a city on Rodenberry. There are many people who are full time musicians, writers, artists and architects there but there’s no need for, nor place for, people who spend all their time on those endeavors on the Stewart. But in New San Francisco there is not only a place for them, there’s a need for them.”

Craig intended to continue on that line of thought but he was interrupted by the sound of Jimenez clearing her throat at his shoulder. He glanced back to find his security chief standing with her arms folded, AI cradled in one hand. A classic pose for someone with a message for their superior. He looked back to the table. “I’m sorry, it seems something has come up. Would you excuse me for just a minute?”

Martian Scriptures Chapter Twelve – Ups and Downs

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The last to arrive was Lieutenant Commander Fyodorovich, to no one’s surprise. He hustled into the conference room just seconds before the clock rolled over to 20:00 hours, his uniform still creased across his shoulders and under his arms in the way all uniforms were right after someone climbed out of an evac suit. In just the few days since the man had been promoted he seemed to have aged several years, new lines had appeared around his nose and lips and the shadows under his eyes told of new levels of exhaustion. Before he could slip into the last open seat in the conference room Craig said, “Thank you for making the trip up from Mars, Commander Fyodorovich. I know you’ve come a way already but would you mind briefing us on what you’ve found so far?”

Fyodorovich moved the chair back under the table with a nod and stepped over to the presentation display and slipped his AI into the slot at the base. A moment later the holoprojector was taking them on a rapid tour of Borealis colony, both the part the locals knew as “Old Borealis” and the inhabited portion known as “Bottletown”, with Fyodorovich providing a concise commentary on it all.

“While nothing in and around Bottletown looks more developed technologically,” Fyodorovic said as his brief talk wound down, “it is definitely newer. The fishers, as the Eldest called them, have certainly done a good job manufacturing parts to replace anything that breaks.”

“They haven’t upgraded anything at all?” Deveneaux asked, more than a little incredulous.

“To be honest, s-” Fyodorovich caught himself just before calling his fellow Lt. Cmndr. ‘sir’ and tried again. “To be honest, we’re not sure they really understand how a lot of their technology works. There’s a lot of rote procedure down there, but very few of them have a broad enough understanding of what they’re working with to adequately explain the principles behind the technology, much less how they might go about improving it. I think Naomi might have enough of a grasp on how a fusion reactor works to design her own but she’s a special case.”

“Thank you.” Fyodorovich ejected his AI and Craig gave his juniormost department head a moment to get back to his seat before sizing up his senior staffers with a careful eye. They’d broken up along rough areas of responsibility. Deveneaux, along with Commander Rand and Lieutenant Jiminez, occupied the three seats to Craig’s left, together they were those responsible for the safety and smooth functioning of the ship. While engineering might seem out of place along with tactical and security officers in Craig’s experience the two areas really went hand in hand.

To Craig’s right were Commander Oda and Lieutenant Commander Dhawan, his second in command and chief medical officer respectively. Together they saw to the health of the crew, although in Craig’s mind it was more a tug of war between Oda’s secretive attempts to drive people insane and Dhawan’s best efforts to see the crew stayed as they were. The two men almost never talked to each other, which Craig assumed was due to Oda’s malicious delight in watching people annoy each other putting off Dhawan’s medical sensibilities, but by the same token Craig didn’t know of any overt conflict between them either.

Finally, Lieutenant Hoyle from communications, Lieutenant Commander Tannish, chief flight officer, and Lieutenant Commander Wallace, the Quartermaster, made up the logistical officers that held the day to day functioning of the ship together.

And, of course, there was Fyodorovich himself, who looked a bit uncomfortable among them but otherwise was performing as well as could be expected.

“Ladies and gentleman,” Craig said, evaluating his crew. “Thirty minutes ago I filed my daily report with Admiral Carrington. I fully expect that, by 08:00 tomorrow we will receive orders recalling us to Earth.”

“I take it you think he’ll conclude that Mars has nothing to tell us about the situation on Earth?” Rand asked.

Craig grimaced. “I’m afraid that’s exactly what he’ll conclude. The situation down there is exceedingly strange, but it’s pretty clear just from what I heard today that the original purpose of our visit – to learn why Earth is hostile to us – is pretty much shot. Bottletown is as clueless on that front as we are. A mission under Rodenberry command would most likely stay to unravel the rest of the puzzle down there. I’m not sure Carrington will chose the same.”

“That doesn’t seem to be the most forward looking decision, Captain,” Oda said. “There is a great deal still to piece together here and there is still the possibility that whatever happened to the colonists here is a danger to us as well.”

“I doubt that,” Jimenez said. “Neither Borealis Colony nor Bottletown seem much more advanced than the Departure era. My understanding from Engineering is that they’re still running on their original generator. I doubt anything that Earth could have done to Mars in the decade or so after Departure is something we couldn’t easily deal with today. By the same token, if Bottletown is in no danger out here, I doubt we are.”

“But can we even explain what happened to Borealis?” Dhawan asked. “The account from Bottletown seems to be that everyone collapsed suddenly. Doesn’t seem to be a bioweapon, part of the colony survived and Earth took the bodies away. Long distance neural disrupters have been bandied about at the theoretical level before. What if someone on Earth found a way to propagate the necessary EM fields? Could we defend against something like that? Especially if the necessary technology has been advancing over the last two hundred years.”

“I don’t see how that kind of unfounded speculation helps us,” Jimenez shot back.

Craig hated to cut in there since it looked like he was taking Jimenez’s side but the conversation was quickly veering off course. “It doesn’t, I’m afraid.” He gave Dhawan an apologetic look. “Beyond being something that we could point out. What I want from each of you is a comprehensive list of reasons we could offer the Admiral to remain here. I also want to hear any reasons you might have for why we should leave – I’m not entirely opposed to that course of action although I admit I would find it very disappointing. So take your AIs, have them review the past few days of recordings from the landing team and bring me anything that jumps out. In the meantime, Commander Tannish’s suggestion that we bring some of the colonists to the ship has bought us some time. I don’t think the Admiral will pull us out with a major diplomatic promise unfulfilled.”

“Is he talking about Hellfire Carrington?” Hoyle’s whisper to Wallace was not as quiet as she’d probably intended it to be. Clearly she bought into the Admiral’s reputation as a hot headed, hard driving spacer who’d blown apart the alliance between the Gallilean moons of Diana and Minerva with a single heavy cruiser.

“Lieutenant,” he said with a practiced edge in his voice that immediately had everyone’s attention. “I know Vice Admiral Carrington’s past deeds make us all think of him as some kind of near mythical figure. I’ve heard ‘the spacer’s Patton’ bandied about before. But my personal experience with him suggests he’s also a man who values understanding the situations he’s in as much as any Rodenberry spacer. If we can make the case that there’s still something of value to learn here I’m sure he’ll be attentive to it.”

A look around the table confirmed that they all understood he wasn’t interested in debating this further. “Now, let’s move on to tomorrow’s diplomatic visit. Commander Fyodorovich will be playing host to our guests. I’d like him brought up to speed on what each of our departments is planning to present to the emissaries from Bottletown.”

What followed wasn’t exactly promising. The Stewart had been loaded with an abundance of experienced officers with considerable expertise in their respective field for the visit to Earth. They’d all hoped to learn more about the advances in their fields Earth had made in the centuries of enforced silence and Craig had been happy to have the best and brightest the Navy could give him. It had never occurred to him that he’d also stuffed his officer roster full of far more senior officers than a ship of its class would typically have on a deep space cruise.

Oda had realized this, of course, but he’d kept quiet because he knew too many chiefs and not enough Indians would result in his favorite kinds of command situations.

So now Craig was in the uncomfortable position of watching a very junior officer who’d jumped past half a dozen more experienced officers to head a department struggle to coordinate a very simple tour. There were already two or three people who’d started the cruise at the rank Fyodorovich now held provisionally who were complaining about his promotion and if he botched this assignment that was only going to get louder.

Fyodorovich had made serviceable, competent reports so far and seemed to be handling his people well. The Eldest had been receptive to him during their talks. But Craig knew if the rest of the senior staff turned against the young man he’d be forced to replace him. There were already rumors swirling about Fyodorovich. It was going to start hurting morale, to say nothing of the damage it could do to the career of a bright and promising young officer.

An hour and a half later the meeting was wrapping up, with most of those present doing their best to suppress yawns. Fyodorovich had been quiet for a while, focusing on making detailed notes with his AI and only occasionally interjecting to ask a pertinent question. A lot was hanging on how he performed tomorrow and Craig hoped he would live up to expectations. But tomorrow had time enough for those worries. He put them out of his mind and rocked forward in his chair in preparation to stand, saying, “If there’s no further business…”

Fyodorovich stowed his AI and said, “Actually, Captain, as I’ll probably be busy all day tomorrow with Naomi and anyone she brings up with her, I thought I should mention it now.”

Craig hesitated. “Mention what?”

“What you should tell the Admiral if he tries to withdraw us because Bottletown doesn’t know what happened to Borealis.” Fyodorovich spread his hands. “Tell them they might.”

Craig settled back into the chair, looking at the younger man skeptically. “Are you suggesting I lie to the Admiral?”

“No, Captain, remind him what we’re dealing with. I know they say they don’t know what happened and nothing in their archives speak to the subject. But consider. The Elders of Bottletown are all very young – the Eldest is twenty years old. I don’t know what happened to cause that but it’s clearly cost them a lot of institutional knowledge.”  Fyodorovich held up his AI as if they could still see it projecting his report on the holodisplay. “Sir, I wasn’t kidding when I said they don’t seem to know how most of they’re technology works. They don’t even know how to fix simple hydraulics. They have to throw the whole assembly into a nanofactury vat and rebuild the thing from scratch. They have about three dozen people in a colony of fifteen hundred that study computer programming at all. They could have the complete history of the human race in their computer core and not know it. The historic archives Borealis left may be password protected or encrypted; if so no one I’ve met so far has the knowhow to bypass or decrypt them. Getting answers may be as simple as getting direct computer access.”

“And how difficult do you think that will be?”

Fyodorovich shrugged. “I’ve been avoiding even mildly intrusive suggestions like that so far because we didn’t know what we were dealing with. It didn’t seem wise to pry.”

Craig adjusted his opinion of the room’s youngest officer back up a notch. What he said had truth in it, although how much was anyone’s guess. Still, it was a good point to bring up to the Admiral, if he needed it. “If it comes to it, I will remind the Admiral that Bottletown might not know everything it has in its computers. Thank you, Mr. Fyodorovich. Now, let’s all call it a night and let you get back down to the planet. You have a long day ahead tomorrow.”

Martian Scriptures Chapter Eleven – Children

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Volk Fyodorovich was obsessed with the Eldest. There was no other way for Pak to explain his behavior. The stranger from space mostly ignored Elder Nobari’s explanation of the fisher’s systems and how they allowed the colony perfect recycling and manufacturing abilities by breaking down and reassembling things on the atomic level, although from comments made by the archivist – or as they called her the journalist – in the group it sounded like the fisher tanks were something they understood already. Instead, Volk plied Naomi with questions.

Was she married? Children? He was astonished to hear she had two. What were the responsibilities of the Eldest? If they were mostly ceremonial, why had the Elders chosen her to lead the day’s discussions with him? And on and on.

By the time the tour of the fisher’s plant ended they were practically three groups. Volk and Naomi were pumping each other for information on their respective cultures, with Volk seeming very interested in Naomi in particular.

Harriet and Elder Nobari talked extensively about the fishers and how their work supported the colony. She took particular note of how the fishers on duty that day were in the middle of breaking down and rebuilding an old set of conduits from the Sun Bottle. That was pretty much the only time Naomi abandoned her deep discussion with Volk to move the group along. Pak had been expecting her to stop and talk about the conduits or the Bottle itself, since that was her field of expertise, but instead she just whisked them on to the refineries where the fisher’s pools were kept pure and functional.

As for Pak and the small, quiet woman named Shen, they walked behind the other four and said very little. Shen was quiet and frankly a bit off-putting, still hiding behind her helmet and wrapped in Silence. She didn’t carry the antenna box on this outing but Pak almost wished she did, since it would give him something, anything to talk about.

As it happened, she found something to ask first. “Why isn’t the Head Watcher a position for an Elder?”

The question came out of nowhere, without her even bothering to turn her head and look at him, but Pak had been so busy eavesdropping on Elder Nobari discussing the programming at work in the fisher’s research room that he almost missed it. In fact, for a moment he wasn’t sure Shen was the one who’d spoken until he looked at her and she spread her hands in a questioning fashion. “It is, technically speaking.”

“Technically?”

“Bottletown needs a lot of things to keep in going, doctors, farmers, weathermen, bottlekeepers, fishers, watchers, petitioners, the list goes on.” He shrugged. “And there are some jobs, like programmers, who can only be filled by Elders. There’s only so many of them to go around. And there’s not really a lot for watchers to do from day to day, at least until the past couple of days. So a lot of the time no one stays in the Watchtower until they’re an Elder, and so we don’t have any Elder to oversee us and we have to make do. It happens sometimes in other parts of the colony. Farmers and petitioners have gone without before, although not for as long a time as the watchers.”

“I would think the town guard would be a group that would require at least one Elder to lead it.”

“We’re not guards, we’re watchers.” Pak gestured vaguely in the direction of the old settlement outside. “A long time ago Thulcandra subdued the people of Borealis. We don’t know how or why, but it happened. When that was done Thulcandrans came and took all the Borealins away. We didn’t have the knowledge or power to fight back so Bottletown was established to let us hide. But we couldn’t stay in there forever, we needed the aboveground farms and stuff like that. So watchers were put in the Watchtower to see if anything ever came out of the Silence.”

“And when you see something coming you all hide in Bottletown.” Shen’s helmet hid her face from view so Pak wasn’t sure what she thought of it but her voice sounded distant and pensive.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.” A slight change in tone of voice and barely visible change in posture combined to somehow suggest Shen was paying more attention than a moment ago. “What do you want to know?”

“Why did you come back when it was clear that Earth had gone Silent?” Pak tried to keep the frustration from his voice but it was one thing that had bothered him since the day he understood what had happened to Borealis. “Why care about people who cut you off totally?”

“Listen, kid…” Pak bristled at that but stopped himself from cutting her off. “I know you’ve never left this dome and that’s not your fault. But you need to understand that space is a big place. A really big place. Even moving at superluminal speeds it can take months to move from one inhabited planet to another and, as far as we can tell so far, we’re the only ones out there. It’s lonely enough without cutting people off arbitrarily. And we never knew why Earth never contacted us. There are thousands of issues that could have kept couriers from getting through. They may not even have known there was anyone to talk to. Did you?”

Pak started. “What?”

“I mean, why did Bottletown go silent? Why did they never talk to us?”

“Oh.” The clarity that question brought was unsettling, both in what it said about Malacandra and what it implied might have happened on Thulcandra. “We never did because we didn’t know.”

“One of the Great Man’s first lessons, kid. Don’t assume motives.”

He didn’t know who the Great Man was but the lesson was well taken, none the less.


 

By the end of the grand tour Volk was certain of two things. The first was that Naomi hadn’t lied to him. At barely twenty years old she was, in fact, the oldest person in Bottletown. They hadn’t met anyone that could conceivably be older. The other was that the Malacandrans thought this was a normal state of affairs.

No one had come out and said so. In fact, Volk wouldn’t have found that very convincing. But he’d seen so many weird and warped ideas about human growth and aging taken for granted in the past two hours that it made his head spin. And served as stronger proof that the colony saw twenty as old – or even ancient – than any lecture on cultural norms could.

He’d been introduced to two thirteen year olds as newlyweds, to his barely concealed horror. Thacker had clearly wanted to ask dozens of questions about that but for once Volk opted to explicitly break with his orders and quashed that line of questioning. Beyond that he’d found people in their late teens leading every work detail and twelve year olds digging through the guts of industrial equipment. By the time Naomi brought them into the fusion plant proper and led them into a cafeteria for lunch Volk had entirely lost his appetite.

He tried to distract himself from his discomfort by gawking around at the building. The core of a fusion reactor is not big, in and of itself. If he was suicidal he could have fit one into his quarters on the Stewart. It was the containment fields, passive radiation shielding, coolant pumps and other components that took up most of the space. That, and all the hallways, offices and watch rooms for the people that kept it running.

Bottletown took things a step further. A massive balcony ran around the top of the power plant in a kind of open air promenade except with a roof. The balcony itself was about twenty feet wide and covered about a third of the open space over the oval shaped reactor two or three hundred feet below, practically resting on the Martian bedrock. There were green spaces and seating areas. About eight small kitchens opening off of the promenade were serving food. It really felt like a town square and Volk could kind of understand why they’d named their reformed colony after their reactor.

Volk drew Naomi’s attention to two sets of double doors, one on either end of the long oval. “What’s through those?”

Naomi pointed to the closer door, off to their left. “That’s the office for the Eldest although, since we’re largely a ceremonial thing, it doesn’t see a whole lot of use. We really only open it up about twice a cent.”

“Any chance we’d be able to see what happens there?”

“Depends how long you stay. The next major even is in…” She paused for a moment, counting days in her head. “Three weeks?”

“Shouldn’t you know?” Volk was amused. “Aren’t you officiating?”

“And the other door,” Naomi said with the smoothness of someone ducking responsibility, “is Ransom’s Office.”

“Ransom?” Volk’s eyebrows shot up. There was an interesting choice of words, one the sociologists were probably going to have a field day with. “Who’s Ransom?”

“Our…” Another pause as she considered. “Founder, I suppose you would say. A very important figure in the creation of Bottletown, certainly. We preserve his office for posterity, along with some of our most important records. And before you ask, it’s not something we can share with outsiders, that’s one of the things that’s very clear.”

“How does one go about not being an outsider, if I might ask?” Thacker sounded more like she wanted to know for completion’s sake, rather than asking out of a desire to join the colony.

Naomi gave a half shrug, looking uncomfortable for the first time since they’d met. “Ransom’s notes don’t really address that. We’re not supposed to share them with outsiders, but he was supposed to go to Earth and try and find allies for the cause – opponents for Thulcandra. When they came – if they came – they would identify him by name.”

That was when things clicked in Volk’s head. “Was his name Elwin? Elwin Ransom?”

“Yes.”

Which explained at least one thing about his first meeting with Pak. At least that was one thing the people shipside could stop trying to figure out. “How was he going about gathering allies?”

“He said he was going to write a book with a friend he knew on Thulcandra.” She spread her hands helplessly. “Unfortunately Ransom never mentioned his friend’s name. All we really have are copies of the notes his book was to be based on.”

Volk frowned. It really wasn’t much to go on but it was a place to start. The shipboard archives might have something. Thacker took his pause as an invitation to jump in again. “What if we never saw this book Mr. Ransom was supposed to publish?”

“Well, that’s why we sent a petitioner to you on your first day. Dorian is well educated on Ransom’s notes, as most petitioners are, and can teach the concepts in them directly or through questions. He evaluated how well you seemed to align with them, and we decided to take you in for a trial period.”

“Well I guess that covers all your bases,” Volk mused. “I hope we can still earn your trust, even if we haven’t met this Ransom guy or read his book. In a gesture of good faith, would you like to bring a party up to our starship tomorrow?”

Naomi lit up like a wayfinder beacon at night. “Could I?”

Volk tried his best not to feel like he was luring a child into a dark alley. She was older than he’d been when he’d joined the Navy. “We’d love to have you aboard and there’s no need to commit to understanding Gene Rodenberry’s work beforehand. Although we’d also be happy to share that with you, too.”

“How many people could we bring?” Nobari asked.

And they fell to hammering out the details, another thing Volk was getting used to with frightening speed. A part of him worried that he was practically turning into a desk jockey. That was the part he paid the most attention to. It distracted him from the part growing increasingly concerned at what he was seeing in Bottletown. A city run by children. An insular religious system waiting for the return of a departed prophet who was supposed to have evangelized the solar system. And still not a single damned clue what had happened to the Homeworld. They’d staggered to Mars hoping for some insight, they were getting even more mysteries.

Still, for his own part Volk was confident they’d come out all right. But for Naomi, Pak and the others in Bottletown? He wasn’t so sure…

Martian Scriptures Chapter Ten – The Pact

Previous Chapter

“What do you think, Shen? Twenty two?”

“Less.” The petite Han woman had the advantage of still having her helmet on, so she was able to zoom in and take in more details. “Well, maybe not. Not older than twenty five. Definitely not sixty.”

“You didn’t know about this?”

Volk grunted, tempted to ignore the journalist’s question. But Oda had stressed that the captain was interested in helping Miss Thacker make the most thorough record of the meeting possible and that he should allow interviews when possible, including interviews of his own team. That included him. “We suspected it, but we’d only seen Pak outside of a suit before today and one is a really small sample size to base any assumptions on.”

“Which one is Pak?” Thacker asked.

“The young one, in front. He said he was a watcher, which we assumed was guard. Low ranked guards tend to be young.”

“There were hints that the man we met yesterday was younger as well,” Shen added. “The way his voice didn’t sound like it had finished breaking. The way he walked.”

“You can guess age based on walk?” Thacker sounded skeptical.

“It’s got to do with whether the bones have fused.” SFC Shen was a master of the professional deadpan when on duty. Volk had gotten a bit of a shock when he’d walked in on her playing cards with Long after the end of the day. He made a mental note not to let Thacker see that side of Shen.

Pak and the two others with him were approaching earshot. “Let’s go greet our hosts, shall we?”

They were two groups of three. Volk had initially intended to just bring Shen with him and leave the other three to make scans and survey the empty buildings in the city – adding Thacker had been a last minute adjustment. But it had balanced things, which was nice. On the other side of the equation was Pak and two older people who looked about the same age as each other. One was an average sized woman with a bright, intelligent face and long braided brown hair on top of a red set of coveralls. While the clothes looked quite utilitarian there were numerous decorative patches and stretches of embroidery that gave the garment a lot of personality. The biggest of them was a patch with an eight pointed star surrounded by a jar or bottle of some sort, positioned over her heart.

The other was a very broad chested man with a wispy reddish beard that came down to his collar bone and piercing eyes. He also braided his hair, which was just as long as his companions, but he wore a full body jacket over a knee length tunic belted in by a broad, shiny black belt. Beneath that were equally loose and flowing pants and simple cloth and rubber shoes.

And, as Shen had said, neither one looked like they could be a day over twenty five years old. Volk was willing to bet they were younger.

He stepped forward and offered the trio a salute. “Good morning. I’m Lieutenant Commander Volk Fyodorovich, of the Rodenberry Stellar Navy. This is Spacer First Class Yiyun Shen,” he swept a hand towards Shen then looped it around to point to Thacker, “and this is Miss Harriet Thacker.”

The woman in red stepped forward and extended her hand. Volk hesitated a split second then shook it. From her broad smile Volk deduced that was what she’d been expecting and carefully let out the breath he’d been holding. “Pleased to meet you, Volk. I am the Eldest, Naomi Bertolini. This is Elder Nobari Masamune.” Volk goggled in momentary surprise. It was stupid, of course, outside of the Han none of the Triad World colonies had brought large enough contingents of any given ethnicity for those ethnic signifier to last more than a generation or two. Most ethnic names no longer meant anything there, it made sense that Mars would be the same. Naomi didn’t look at all Italian and that didn’t bother him. But he hadn’t been expecting a name from a Han language group to be detached from a Han ethnicity, especially since Teng did have strong Han features.

Which brought him back to Naomi, who had moved on oblivious to Volk’s momentary confusion. “And, of course, you know Watcher Teng.”

Volk gave a broad smile and said, “Of course. I’m pleased to finally meet you, ma’am.” With a sudden flash of horror Volk realized he was getting used to this patty cake, play nice chit chatting. He firmly sat on that revelation so it would keep until he was off duty. “Not to sound impatient but does this mean we are formalizing relations?”

“I’m not sure what formalizing relations entails on your side of things,” Naomi replied, her smile just as broad as his. “But Bottletown has never had to formalize relations with anywhere else before, so you’ll forgive me if we have to grope our way through the dark in this circumstance.”

“Well, in that case formalizing relations can just mean you’re willing to talk with us on a regular basis and allow us to visit your colony,” Volk said. “Anything beyond that we can hammer out over the next few days.”

“Visit? Of course.” Naomi gave a questioning look to Pak and once again Volk felt disconcerted at the way Pak was treated. He’d initially pegged the kid as twelve when he took his helmet off but, going by size, he had to be closer to fifteen or sixteen. Or big for his age.

Either way, Borealis colony’s Eldest seemed to have no problem deferring to him on security issues and Pak was apparently up to the task because he pulled a handful of cards from a pocket in his suit – it wasn’t lost on Volk that he was still in his orange and black vacuum suit – and handed one to each of Volk’s party. “I’ve consulted the documents on guests and had the fishers make these cards. Present them to the access door and they’ll notify the Watchtower of your presence and someone will come to admit you.”

As Thacker took her card she hit Pak with a brilliant smile that was there and gone, like a knife, as she asked, “Fishers? Do you keep them on the bottom of a tank?”

The sound of Pak’s brain derailing was audible to everyone, coming out as a weak, “Huh?”

Fortunately, before Volk had to step in, Nobari deflected Thacker’s attention. “We build all equipment here via nanofactury vats. We who oversee the process and extract finished product from the vats are called fishers.”

Volk turned his own access card over in his hand and evaluated it. Rodenberry manufacturing probably couldn’t create anything of better quality although the methodology itself would be considered pretty primitive now. AIs handled most of this kind of security and authentication these days. “You’re a kind of engineer then, Elder Nobari?”

“You could say that.” He seemed a little uncertain, though.

“If I could ask…” Pak looked like he’d recovered from Thacker’s charm offensive and Volk moved his estimation of the kid up a few notches. “I know that Volk is the Eldest in your group, but what role do Spacer First Class Shen and Miss Thacker fill?”

“Well, I’m sure there are differences but Shen’s job is probably a lot like yours. She’s part of our ship’s security and tactical department. And Miss Thacker is a journalist.”

“A journalist?” Naomi asked.

Volk shot Thacker a glance and she took the cue. “I observe events and talk to people, record it all and send it on so that the people of Rodenberry can get some idea of what is happening out here.”

“Like an archivist.”

“There are certainly similarities,” Thacker said.

“Well.” Naomi clapped her hands together and rubbed them eagerly. “I’m sure you have many questions and we have just as many for you, so let’s get to it. I’ll show you around Bottletown and answer any questions that come up. In the mean time I’d like to hear about the ship you came on.”

Volk looked from Naomi to the town around them in a bit of confusion. “Another tour? I’m pretty sure Dorian showed us the highlights yesterday.”

“That?” Naomi grinned. “Well, yes we do use some of the old facilities. But you haven’t seen the town proper yet.”

“Well then,” he said, “lead on!”


 

It turned out that Bottletown took up most of the northern half of the colony’s dome, a large complex of buildings and underground structures heaped up around the colony’s fusion reactor or dug into the side of the ridge the reactor sat next to. While Volk was initially worried that the reactor’s notable radiation leaks might be contaminating the environment a few preliminary scans confirmed that the reactor’s powerful magnetic fields were keeping the radiation moving towards the outside of the colony. A quick consultation with Deveneaux’s people told him that no one shipside had any firm ideas what was wrong with the reactor but that it shouldn’t pose any danger for the time being.

There was a lot of background chatter about how the fields aligned and what that might mean about how the reactor was configured but it all went over Volk’s head and mostly served as a distraction from more pressing matters so he filed it all under things to ask Naomi later.

What was clear is that the reactor wasn’t leaking into the colony and causing any problems – or unforeseen benefits – and that meant his next question was pretty straight forward.

“You’re satisfied with the condition of our Sun Bottle?”

Straight forward assuming Naomi didn’t keep derailing his train of thought. “I’m guessing you call your reactor a Sun Bottle?”

Behind her Volk saw Pak and Nobari exchange a mystified look but Naomi herself seemed to recognize the term immediately. “That’s right. The Bottle is more than just a reactor, however. It is the heart of Bottletown.”

Which explained why they called the colony that. “If you don’t mind my asking, why did you change the name of your colony? And why don’t you use the old settlement?” Volk waved his hand in the general direction of the empty buildings behind him. “This all looks like old industrial and laboratory space.”

For the first time Naomi lost some of her frank and open attitude. “We don’t know all the details, Volk. What I can tell you is that Bottletown and Borealis are two different societies. We were established after Borealis was Silenced.”

“Silenced?” The capital letter was clearly audible in the way Naomi said it. “What does that mean?”

“We don’t know,” she admitted. “Very little is left from that time. The founders of Bottletown just told us that one day the Thulcandrans crossed the Silence to Malacandra, loaded the Malacandrans of Borealis onto ships and departed. They do not clearly say how they were able to bypass the eldil of the Lunar siege or why the Oyarsa did not intervene on their behalf. To tell the truth, these were things we were hoping you could tell us.”

There were a lot of things Volk didn’t understand about that answer, which only made him feel worse. Just about anything he could say was a potential landmine and it was vital that he avoid or diffuse as many as possible before moving on. Over the centuries millions, perhaps billions, of people had discussed and debated the works of Gene Rodenberry and his successors and a number of simple steps to avoid the most common pitfall tropes of his work, as if they were simple and easy things to do. The truth was, Volk was absolutely certain he was going to cause an interplanetary incident in the next five minutes if he didn’t deploy at least one of these techniques and yet, as he opened his mouth to propose it, he found his voice stuck in his throat. The sheer nonsensical nature of it made it almost impossible to force out.

Naomi saw him struggling but misunderstood. “If you don’t wish to tell us now we will not change our attitude towards you. I’m sure that, in time -”

“That’s not the issue, Eldest,” Volk said hurriedly. “This may sound odd to you, but I want to offer you something my people call a Rudeness Pact.”

Somewhere behind him Volk heard Thacker let out a strangled noise halfway between gasp and laugh. Naomi ignored it. “A Rudeness Pact?”

“Yes. It’s an agreement between two people or groups of people who share little to no culture in common. It allows any insult, faux pas or taboo breaking to be ignored once under the assumption that it stems from ignorance and not malice.” Volk indicated the two of them. “This pact could exist between the two of us or our ship and Bottletown, whichever you prefer, but with it in place I think we could discuss these kinds of questions without having to qualify things quite so much.”

“Had I been qualifying things overmuch?” Naomi’s knowing smile suggested she knew Volk was offering the pact for his own comfort, rather than hers. Then she turned serious. “What if this is used as an excuse to take something that belongs to another?”

A question that typically came up when the Pact was bandied about. “The Rudeness Pact is intended for words, gestures and other actions. Generally, if it involves property or harm to another the Pact doesn’t extend to it.”

“Then I’ll agree to this pact between you and I. If more from your ship come to visit on a regular basis then we’ll consider expanding it. Still, you Rodenberry people must overthink a lot of things.”

“Thank you, Naomi, that sounds a lot like a compliment to me.” Volk took a deep breath and came out swinging. “Am I to understand the Oyarsa is a god, or some other local religious figure? Because that’s how you seem to speak of him. Or her. Or it.”

Naomi’s smile vanished in an instant, replaced with surprise then a hard but not quite hostile expression. “Okay, I take all that back. Your Pact is probably a good idea.” She took a deep breath of her own and let it out slowly. “The Oyarsa is not the Creator, but rather an eldil left by the Creator to watch over this planet specifically. Since they share the name Malacandra, we refer to the eldil as Oyarsa, which roughly means guardian, and the planet as Malacandra.”

So monotheistic deism? Possibly. But better to let the sociologists shipside think about those things. “And the lunar siege?”

“Established to contain the Oyarsa of Thulcandra within the moon’s orbit after his rebellion.”

That was starting to sound more like Abrahamic deism specifically, with the eldil as angels and the Oyarsa of Earth serving as the devil. Someday someone was going to write a paper on all this and finish their doctorate but that person was not Volk Fyodorovich. “And the eldil are powerful, immortal beings that appear and disappear at will, generally carrying messages?”

“Yes.” Naomi looked relieved that he seemed to be understanding things now. “You’ve heard of them? Perhaps met them, up in the heavens?”

“I’ve never met them, or heard of anyone who has,” Volk said, wondering how the best way to approach the matter was. “But the concept is frequently discussed among religious scholars. I’m afraid I’m not one of those, either.”

Naomi’s temporary optimism flagged again. “And the Lunar siege? The Silencing of Borealis?”

“At no point in the history of space flight are there any records suggesting the Moon posed any sort of barrier to entering or leaving Earth space. As for Borealis…” Volk shook his head sadly. “Well, we hadn’t communicated with Earth or Mars in nearly two centuries. We came here to reestablish contact. When we arrived at Earth they refused to talk to us, we came here because we hoped to learn something from you. I’m afraid we don’t know any more about what happened to Borealis colony than you do. It was a thriving place when last we heard.”

For a moment Naomi looked so crestfallen that it would have been comical, if it hadn’t also perfectly encapsulated how Volk felt on learning that Earth had closed itself off to them. “Look on the bright side,” he added. “At least now we share a common interest. We want to know what happened in the past. A good foundation for an ongoing relationship, don’t you think?”

That seemed to pull her up out of her funk. “Yes. Yes, I do think so. Now, do you still want to look over the rest of Bottletown? Or does knowing how little we can share with you change your priorities?”

“I think we have time for the tour,” he replied, not mentioning that Captian Gyle would undoubtedly contact him if he thought this new information mandated some change in approach.

Naomi led him towards one of the freestanding buildings next to the reactor. “This is the primary indoor manufacturing facility, where most of our fishers and some of our farmers work.”

“I see.” Volk studied Naomi in profile, once again trying to unravel the mystery of who this woman was and how someone so young came to lead a colony. Then again, with the Pact in place, perhaps it was time to ask. “Naomi, how did you come to be Eldest?”

She gave him an amused look. “The usual way, I suppose. I was born before everyone else.”

“So the title really is just based on age?”

“It is.”

Curiouser and curiouser. “How old are you?”

This time she just laughed. “Is that question not rude to Rodenberries or are you just having fun since I can’t get angry at you?”

“Some people do treat the Pact as a game but not me. I’m legitimately curious.”

“I’m seventy three cents, and three days.”

Certainty settled in his stomach like lead. “Cents is not a term we use, Eldest. I presume it’s a hundred of something?”

“Yes, Volk. A cent is one hundred days, based on the Malacandran day.”

She was seventy three hundred and three days old, based on the Martian day. Which translated to roughly twenty and a half Earth years.

The Eldest person in Bottletown was younger than the youngest member of the Colonial Fleet. What kind of world had they stumbled into?

Martian Scriptures Chapter Nine – Dinner Plans

Previous Chapter

“Good evening, Captain.” Harriet had the fleeting pleasure of watching Captain Gyle nearly jump out of his uniform in surprise. “A moment of your time?”

Her latest escalation in the constant war for the Captain’s attention had taken her to Section 232, where one of the ship’s Flex Labs was located. None of the carefully cultivated contacts in the ship’s officer corps had been willing to simply tell her where the Mars landing mission was being coordinated from but by piecing together hints from Lieutenant Hoyle, the ship’s communications chief, and Lieutenant Commander Milosevic, the Quartermaster, she’d eventually narrowed down the possibilities to one of two labs here in the forward section of the ship. And she hadn’t spotted the captain at all yesterday when she staked out Section 268.

Which by process of elimination left her waiting by Lab 232 when the Captain and Commander Oda exited around 1900 hours. While Gyle, a man who clearly believed he had more control over how he presented than he actually did, twitched like he’d been shocked when she greeted him, Oda just gave her an enigmatic smile and nod of greeting. “Hello, Ms. Thacker,” Gyle said, straightening his uniform tunic. “I’m surprised to see you. Here.”

The question implied was obvious but Harriet was the reporter and wanted him to remember that. “I was hoping we could discuss when it will be possible for me to join the landing team on Mars?”

“We were just discussing that, as a matter of fact,” Gyle said, his normal equilibrium returning. “The Martian authorities finally gave us permission to meet with them just this afternoon. At this point we’re confident good relations can be maintained so we’re preparing a second landing team and we have earmarked a seat on the landing craft for you, if you want it. Perhaps you’d like to discuss the details with us as we head to dinner?”

Harriet glanced from the captain to his officer, trying to judge the situation, but she couldn’t pick up on anything under the surface, so she nodded and said, “Certainly, Captain. I’d like nothing better.”


 

“… so while you’d be expected to follow Lieutenant Commander Fyodorovich’s orders for your safety, you’d otherwise have complete access to the crew on site and any Martians willing to speak to you,” Gyle said, pulling a chair out for her next to his own. The officer’s mess was mostly empty by that late hour but the steward on duty had apparently set something aside for the Captain and Commander and, on seeing Harriet, had set a place for her as well.

Harriet had mostly eaten in her own quarters or, on occasion, with one of the officers she’d gotten to know fairly well. It was her first time at the Captain’s table. Tentatively, she took the offered seat. “I’m not familiar with Commander Fyodorovich. What was his posting before this?”

“He was a member of the surveyors and led a team,” Oda replied. He was carefully lifting the cover off of his plate to examine the food. “Is this rabbit?”

“Looks like a roulade,” Gyle murmured, taking a deep breath and savoring the smell. “Chef must have used a good red wine from the New Orange Coast.”

As the two officers were appreciating the food a third plate appeared before Harriet, a simple round meat confection resting on a bed of rice and crisp green vegetables. It looked and smelled good but she couldn’t for the life of her identify the smell of wine, much less where it was from. She gave Gyle a wry smile. “A Siskoan, Captain? A little predictable, don’t you think?”

“I’m a Kirk man to the core, to tell the truth.” He carefully cut a wedge out of the roulade and took a bite, chewing slowly and deliberately before swallowing. “But I’ll admit there is a lot to admire about Avery Brooks and his performance as Sisko. And anyone should be able to appreciate a good meal prepared well.”

“Hm.” As a guest of the ship, Harriet had been fed from the officer’s mess for the duration of her stay on the Stewart and she had to admit she’d eaten better there than at pretty much any other time in her life, barring a few special events like weddings. For the first time she wondered if that was standard in the Navy or a reflection of the ship’s CO. Either way, it was true that the food was excellent. “Captain, can I ask you something?”

Gyle raised an eyebrow. “Certainly.”

“Why hasn’t there been any kind of update available on the ship’s operation?”

Both Captain and XO hesitated at the question. There was a moment’s silent communication, then Oda answered, “We were not sure what the situation on Mars was, initially and, as we said, the culture there is still very foreign to-“

“You’ve misunderstood my question.” Harriet took a sip of water as a cover to let her marshal her thoughts. “You know that every ship in the fleet has reporters embedded in it, correct?”

“Of course,” Gyle said. “The Triad Worlds all want to know what happens here just as badly as Genies do.”

“Well. You may not know it, but there is something of a professional courtesy among journalists. We talk to each other. And one thing I was interested to learn from my peers is that all of the Triad Worlds governments have standing procedures in place for how to deal with embedded reporters. There’s an officer in the Communications division assigned as liaison. Clear expectations for dress and behavior in combat. Methods to request interviews with, and service records for, members of the crew.” Harriet folded her arms and peered at the two officers dining with her. “But here I’ve had to cultivate my own contacts among the officers, barely received any clear guidance on who to communicate with or how to behave in dangerous situations until we arrived in Earth orbit and had to personally hunt down the Captain in order to request comment. I’m told that the Rodenberry Stellar Navy is every bit the spacefaring force as the Copernican Spacer Corps in skill and organization, if not in number, but I have to admit that now that I’ve experienced it first hand things sure don’t feel that way.”

“You had not complained until now,” Oda said, looking a little amused at her outburst.

“Not to you,” she countered. “Because I didn’t know how to contact you directly, and I have enough sense not to just yell at you on the Bridge. But I assure you, many members of this crew have heard my complaints.”

Oda looked a bit miffed at the sharpness of her reply but Gyle was nodding thoughtfully. “You raise good points, Miss Thacker. In my time in the Navy I never heard of embedded reporters until the Second Galilean War and, even then, they almost always embedded alongside members of the civilian authorities who handled most of those kinds of details.” His fork wound through the rice and greens on his plate describing ever expanding concentric circles. “We can’t have anything like clear procedures laid out by tomorrow but I think we can consider Lieutenant Hoyle your Liaison for the time being. Oda, I’d like you to facilitate with Hoyle and Fyodorovich and get to work on spelling out what the expectations and lines of communication will be.”

“Certainly.” Oda’s more inscrutable default expression was back in place. “I look forward to sorting out the details with Miss Thacker.”

For a brief second Harriet thought she saw a glint in his eye as he said that, an almost mischievous expression that vanished faster than it appeared. She decided it best to ignore for the moment. “Likewise.”

Gyle looked satisfied with himself for a brief moment before his left hand slid off the table towards his waist, the near-universal sign that someone’s personal AI was asking for their attention. With a disappointed glance towards the half-finished roulade on his plate Gyle got to his feet and said, “I’m sorry, would you two excuse me for a moment?”

“Of course, Captain,” Harriet said, surprised to find herself in chorus with Oda. Gyle stepped away and left the two of them in an uncomfortable silence. Ten minutes later, after Harriet had tried and failed to get any kind of meaningful discussion out of Oda, the captain returned but deftly avoided any attempt on her part to learn what had happened. It was frustrating but not a dead end.

Just because there was no official procedure yet didn’t mean she didn’t have options. After dinner, she decided she’d just have to go and pester Hoyle for some clue as to what had happened.


 

“I’m sorry about this, Greg.” It felt odd for Alyssa to apologize even as she accepted a cup of coffee from him but everything about the last few days had felt subtly off so, in a way, at least things were consistent.

“When we were younger this kind of thing is what we lived for,” he said, taking a seat on the couch beside her chair and bringing one ankle up to rest on the other knee. “How are you feeling about all this?”

“Not great,” she admitted, in between puffing on the drink to cool it. “Thanks for asking, Elder Doctor.”

Greg spared her a pained smile over the rim of his mug. “Just doing what we do in uncertain times.”

“Our duties.” It wasn’t quite the traditional formulation but it was well taken none the less.

Naomi hustled into the room, Vincent trailing just behind her looking vaguely worried. In other circumstances that would be a cue for Alyssa to get worried too but, when it came to his older sister, Vincent had been needlessly worried for the past two cents. Naomi handed her husband a plate of sandwiches and settled down in the crook of his arm. Vincent handed Alyssa a plate to put her mug on and stepped behind her to lean on the back of her chair. If not for the circumstances it could have been any typical night at the Bertolinis. For a few moments they just nibbled on sandwiches and enjoyed the quiet.

But the question had to be asked sooner or later and eventually Vincent decided to take the bull by the horns. “What are you going to do about them?”

Naomi stalled by reaching for her lemonade and taking a long, slow drink from it before answering. “I think I’m going to talk to them directly.”

“You?” Alyssa asked, surprised. She loved Naomi like few people in her life, valued her experience and insight into the Sun Bottle more than anyone living, but even Alyssa knew that she was a bad fit for anything that required a solid judgement of people. Naomi was too good natured, too trusting, too nice for anything that required clear judgement of people. She’d always had Vincent and, later, Gregory for those tasks.

“I need to talk to the myself,” Naomi said. “It’s fine to hear what Higram and Dorian thought of them but I have questions I want to ask them myself.”

Vincent’s hand rested on Alyssa’s shoulder and she reached up to give it a comforting squeeze, offering reassurance she didn’t quite feel herself. “Perhaps,” he said, “you should bring Alyssa with you.”

“No.” Naomi’s sad smile said she understood why Alyssa felt disappointed, and that they both knew they couldn’t change anything and live up to the standards of the Elders they’d always aspired to be. “Alyssa is on duty at the Sun Bottle tomorrow, and currently Elders there are in short supply. I’m not supposed to be there – five day’s grace, remember?”

“How could I forget?” Vincent’s voice was barely a whisper.

“What about Masamune?” Greg asked.

“He’ll be there as well,” Naomi conceded. “Along with the head Watcher. But the Nobari’s are so practical. And I don’t know Teng Pak Won all that well.”

“You don’t trust him?” Alyssa quickly replayed what she’d heard from the Watcher over the last two days. “He seems like a reliably man.”

“He’s unmarried, which is a bit odd at his age. But otherwise I agree. The thing is, we’re on the cusp of having everything we know about the world changed, one way or another. There are so many knew things to hear.” She gave a helpless shrug. “I suppose I just want to hear them with my own ears. Before the Silence.”

The world suddenly turned blurry and Alyssa fumbled to get her mug own onto the saucer without scalding herself. Distantly she heard Greg saying, “Of course you do. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

But they all knew it wouldn’t.

Martian Scriptures Chapter Eight – Hnau

Previous Chapter

“Lieutenant Commander?

“As befits your new position as head of the department.” Oda twitched a command through his AI and into Volk’s vacuum suit, causing the insignia there to change to the newly appropriate rank.

Department head?

“Of Martian Operations.” Oda handed Volk his suit and piled the rank tabs for his shipboard uniform on top of it. “Congratulations. This is strictly a field measure, don’t be surprised to find yourself a Lieutenant again once Naval Command finishes processing all the paperwork. Although that might take several years, so maybe you’ll have the seniority to keep it by that point.”

“Sir, what is-”

“Volk.” Oda spoke with surprising gentility. “Your department is four enlisted spacers and their equipment. Given the circumstances, all the evaluations and equipment tracking will be handled by your crew’s normal officers. Just bring them back alive at the end of each day and pull rank whenever you need something that doesn’t step on the toes of another department head. It’s surprisingly easy to do.”

Volk studied the older man’s face for signs he’d gone completely around the bend. The consensus among the officers was that Oda was some kind of nut but Volk had never seen signs of it himself. Until today. And even then, he didn’t really see them so much as just hear a bunch of words that made no sense. “Sir, I’m sure there’s more to being a department head than that.”

“Other than the paperwork?” A ghost of a smile touched Oda’s lips. He leaned in and whispered, “No, not really.”

With that he pivoted and swept back to the front of the ready room to address the rest of the landing team.


 

“At least they’re punctual,” Gemma said nervously, watching the five visitors clomp through the streets to the Burnt.

“They have not kept us waiting.”

Pak eyed Dorian Drake, the petitioner who Higram had decided to assign to the visitors, and wondered what to make of him. The kind of bizarre, indirect agreement he’d just voiced was typical of the things Dorian said. He’d heard many of his friends and family claim petitioners were just kooks who repackaged canned ideas they got from other people and regurgitated them in an effort to curry influence. It certainly wasn’t true of all the petitioners Pak knew. But it might be true of Dorian. Definitely something to keep an eye on.

As if there wasn’t already enough.

Lieutenant had returned with his four friends.

They looked somewhat different than before. Whereas previously each had carried a fairly large set of stuff in satchels, shoulder bags and in one case strapped across his chest this time most of the odds and ends were stacked on a single cart that navigated the streets with surprising ease. The cart must have had its own motor because none of them seemed to be pulling or pushing it. Mysterious cart aside, most of them came empty handed now, in fact Pak didn’t think they were carrying anything on their persons at all, aside from their suits, save for a couple of boxes strapped to their belts.

And the larger block and antenna device the middle sized man carried strapped over his chest. Pak wondered absently why he kept the antenna pointed at the ground all the time. It must have been important, his hands rarely strayed away.

Pak stepped up out of the Burnt, took a few strides forward and raised a hand in greeting. “Hello, Lieutenant.”

“Hello, Pak. And please, call me Volk. It’s probably going to be simpler.” Volk immediately reached up and removed his helmet revealing his pleasant, grinning face. “You brought friends today. Any chance these are the Elders you hinted at?”

One thing Pak had asked for but the Elders had forbidden was to talk to Volk without his helmet. It seemed that there were a huge number of things the Elders suspected about Thulcandrans but didn’t know for sure. They wouldn’t tell him what those things were so he didn’t know why hiding his face from Volk seemed so important but there it was. For the time being he couldn’t return the gesture. But privately he’d already decided that tomorrow he was talking to Volk face to face, no matter what the Elders decided.

“The Elders want to learn a little bit more about you before they make a decision,” Pak said. “My friends and I are here to try and do that for today.” He gestured to each in turn. “This is Gemma Sanchez, a watcher like myself, and our petitioner, Dorian Drake.”

Volk looked over the three of them, his enthusiasm seeming to deflate a little. “Well, that’s understandable I guess. And since you didn’t get names before, let me introduce my friends.”

He gestured to the shortest member of his party. “Spacer First Class Yiyun Shen.”

Next was the tallest member of the group, a gangly creature that was reached slightly higher than Volk but not nearly so far across. “Spacer First Class Lars Montak.”

Volk switched to the two on his left, starting with the one next to him, who was the most normal looking of the five. “Spacer Reg Barton.”

And finally the one with the box over his chest. “Spacer First Class Irwin Long.”

Dorian looked back and forth across the line of people, the loose fitting helmet of his borrowed Watchers suit flopping comically in the motion. He fumbled with it for a moment, eventually keeping a hand on the top to make sure it didn’t get too far away from him. “Tell me, Volk, isn’t it odd for so many of your people to share a name? Or perhaps, like Watcher Teng, Spacer is the name of a family?” He looked over the four again. “A very large family?”

Volk’s loud laugh seemed to take Dorian by surprise. “No, no, that’s another cultural miscue, I’m afraid. Spacer, Spacer First Class and Lieutenant are ranks. They kind of designate our places in a hierarchy, like Watcher or Elder but more… generalized, I guess?”

Pak was grateful for his helmet hiding his embarrassment. He’d made the same mistake as Dorian but it had taken the other man to discover the error. But if Dorian was bothered by the misunderstanding he did nothing to show it. “I see, I see,” the petitioner said, rubbing his hands together. “Well your spacers are welcome on Malacandra, for now, as are you. But now we must determine how long that will be the case. Walk with us for a while, Lieutenant Volk Fyodorovich.”


 

Volk hadn’t been expecting the great test to judge their worthiness to be on Mars to consist of a tour of the terraforming facilities but that’s exactly what they wound up getting. Dorian showed them the Martian weather control system, the soil enrichment plants and the fields. While Volk had never studied terraforming academically he, like many Rodenberry kids, had been raised by part time terraformers out on the edges of a newly settled planet and he could kind of guess at how most of these systems worked even though they were a good two hundred and fifty years out of date.

“It’s pretty impressive, even if it’s meant to work under a dome,” he admitted to Dorian as they completed their loop a good two hours later and started back towards the town square.

“You do not live under a dome at your Rodenberry?” Dorian asked.

“Nope. Rodenberry had a breathable atmosphere when we found it. The composition will be different when we’re done with the planet in another couple of hundred years but we never needed domes.” Volk waved his hand in the general direction of the weather control system. “Made some of these systems infeasible for us.”

“What do Rodenberry’s hnau think of your work?”

It had been a while since an unfamiliar word had popped up. Volk made a mental note of it although he was sure linguistic experts on the Stewart and Spiner were already digging into the word and cross referencing it. “I’m sorry, a hnau is what?”

“A living creature with the power of speech and decision, like you or I.”

Nanofacturing had been very new technology at the time of Departure. Each of the twelve colony ships dispatched from Earth had carried a primitive nanofacturing plant on board, a luxury that hadn’t been available to the Borealis colony when it was created. In the many debates he’d heard in the last twenty hours attempting to date when Borealis was cut off from Earth one data point that had come up continually was the poor fit of Pak’s environmental suit. A colony without a nanofactury wouldn’t be able to easily tweak those kinds of suits, made of very specialized polymers, to fit different people and probably wouldn’t bother in most cases.

When Gemma and Dorian had shown up in equally ill-fitting gear that had pretty much settled the point in Volk’s mind.

But now, after watching Dorian fumble awkwardly around the colony for two hours, Volk wondered if perhaps it might have actually been some kind of careful gambit, put in motion from before they even entered the dome. Because watching Dorian stand there, his fingertips pressed together almost as if he was praying, his helmet tilted forward on the crown of his head and hiding his face in its tinted depths, Volk suddenly felt like he was being weighed. It was an unsettling feeling and totally at odds with his impression of Dorian so far.

“There was no sentient life – no hnau – on Rodenberry when it was discovered,” Volk said, watching Dorian very carefully. He gave a slight start at the answer but Volk wasn’t sure why. “We wouldn’t have terraformed without their approval if there was.”

“No?” Dorian cocked his head and again the helmet moved comically. Volk finally placed the feeling he was developing in the pit of his stomach. It was like being around the JAG officer that investigated him after the hull breach on the Yamato. “You would have felt no duty to humanity, to ensure they could thrive and dominate the world?”

“All people have a duty to humanity,” Volk replied, very aware that he was walking blind through a philosophical minefield in ways that he, like so many other Rodenberry children, had seen played out time and again in the works of the Great Man. “But we would not consider it fulfilled by simply ignoring other hnau. Our belief is that cooperation in such circumstances, a true understanding of the needs and desires of all involved, is the best way towards thriving.”

For a moment longer the petitioner watched Volk from behind his impassive mask – or at least, so it seemed. Dorian could just as easily have been reading something off in the corner of a heads up display. But in his gut Volk knew he was still being judged. He just wasn’t sure what the outcome would be. Rodenberry had been an optimist, certain that enlightened people would all arrive at similar views on the important philosophical subjects given time. In that, at least, he had proven woefully shortsighted.

“I think,” Dorian announced abruptly, “it would be proper to offer you a shelter for the evening. You brought many supplies for a longer stay, correct?”

“That’s true.”

“Select a building to your liking and make it your resting place for the evening. Set up whatever you like from your belongings.” Dorian spread his hands. “We cannot offer you power, I’m afraid, but what space you wish to take for the moment is yours.”

“That’s very generous.” Volk still couldn’t tell if Dorian approved or disapproved of them. The man had an enviable steadiness to his voice. “Are we allowed to stay, then?”

“For the moment, although it would be forward of me to make a decision that ultimately rests with the Elders.”

“You are not an Elder yourself?”

“Not yet, no.” Dorian hesitated, his head again tilting in that unsettling, judging way. “But I think you will have the opportunity to speak to one soon. Good day, Lieutenant Volk Fyodorovich.”


 

When he came back late that evening, Pak found Volk and his friends settled into one of the houses just outside the Burnt. They’d set up some portable lights, a couple of computer terminals and two large antennas on the top of the building. He wasn’t sure how they were powering everything but if pressed he would have guessed the rolling cart they’d brought had some kind of massive battery in it.

In another surprise, Volk’s group had all shed their dingy gray suits. Beneath the featureless rubbery things they’d been wearing Pak was surprised to see their clothes were full of color. The torso of Volk’s shirt was a bright gold with a black collar and sleeves. Gold braid ringed his cuffs and the seams of his black pants.

The short member of the party – Shen, as he recalled – turned out to be a woman with a similar style of clothes but colored in red rather than gold. Shen and Volk were standing outside the front door as Pak approached, and he couldn’t help but notice that Shen was now carrying the box and antenna that Long had been carrying before. Once again, he wondered what it was for.

Shen spotted him first and gestured to him, prompting Volk to turn and raise a hand in greeting. “Hello. Is that you, Pak?”

“It’s me.” He hesitated for a moment, then reached up and pulled off his helmet, giving the big man his best effort and a warm smile. It must not have worked very well, for a moment Volk looked very surprised. “The Eldest wants to speak with you tomorrow, along with a few of the other Elders.”

“Of course,” Volk said, his expression returning to normal with no sign of what might have unsettled him. “We’re looking forward to it. I trust this means the petitioner gave us a good report?”

“He was…” Pak hesitated as he searched for words. “He was less suspicious.”

“Well, that’s a start, I guess.” Volk made show of looking over Pak’s shoulder. “Gemma isn’t with you?”

“She was supposed to keep an eye on Dorian. I guess he’s a bit of a well-known clutz.” Although in his opinion that kind of made for a case of the blind leading the blind. But nothing bad had come of it, so he wouldn’t complain. Instead he dug a timepiece out of a pocket and handed it to Volk. “The exact conversion of one clock to another can be difficult so we thought it simplest to give you a local watch and allow you to calibrate based on that. We’d like you to be out in the Burnt by 07:30 tomorrow morning.”

Volk took the watch from him and stuck it in a pocket cleverly sewn into the side of the belt he was wearing. “Thank you. We’ll do our best to be punctual. While you’re here, can I ask you something?”

Pak hesitated, his helmet halfway up to his head already. “Sure. What is it?”

“Is there any requirement to become an Elder? Or is it decided entirely by age?”

That was an interesting question, but a fair one given that Volk was about to talk to a large number of Elders. “You become an Elder at sixty,” Pak replied. “I take it that’s not how you became a Lieutenant?”

“No,” Volk said with a smile. “I had to undergo a number of evaluations to make sure I met very specific criteria in order to get promoted.”

“Oh, we do that, too, but the Elders use a tool called profiling. It’s how people get assigned to their ultimate duty stations. Most of the time.” Pak shrugged. “I volunteered to be a Watcher, but I wasn’t really expecting to wind up doing all… this.”

Volk nodded in understanding. “That’s how it turns out most of the time, believe it or not. There are lots of spacers out there who will never volunteer for anything because of it.”

“Are you one of them?”

Volk leaned closer, conspiratorially. “No. This kind of thing is why I do volunteer.”

Pak grinned. “Having done this once, I can kind of understand that. I’ll see you tomorrow, Volk.”

“Take care, Pak.”

As he headed back towards the entrance to Bottletown Pak felt quite good about himself. Volk seemed like a great person, with the kind of assurance and steadiness Pak tended to associate with the best of the Elders he’d met in his own life. Volk seemed to want to be friendly with them, and he’d passed Dorian’s test that afternoon. Most of all, Pak just found himself wanting to be friends with the big man, so he was glad to finally have some of the barriers down between them. He’d thought the day’s meetings had gone well. But when he turned to glance over his shoulder he saw Volk speaking quietly with Shen about something and both of them looked surprised and worried. They hadn’t looked that way when he’d walked up. He wondered what had happened.

Martian Scriptures Chapter Seven – Council of Elders

Previous Chapter

“Clearly they’re lying,” said Elder Henry Umbrage of the gardeners. “Thulcandra is restricted within its own moon.”

“The lunar siege was reported in Ransom’s notes.” Elder Nobari Himeko gestured to her handheld reader. “We haven’t reconstructed the timeline with anything like accuracy but he certainly wrote them before the founding of Bottletown and that was thousands of cents ago. In fact, our very presence here, and the absence of the eldil or other hnau, suggests that the world is very different from what he saw. Thulcandra may have sent out colonies of its own.”

“Assuming we’re not one ourselves.” Pak shifted nervously, eyeing Elder Alyssa Pracht. The elder bottler was one of the youngest present, excepting himself, and clearly something of a cynic. She had an intense personality which made it quite clear to him how Gemma had come to be such a subdued young woman.

Several other Elders were equally as uncomfortable with Pracht’s suggestion and were clearly about to interject when the Eldest beat them to it. “I don’t want to debate the past right now. Those discussions are important and interesting when potential emissaries from the Silent Planet are not breathing down our necks. What I want to know is if any of us have a useful way to test the notion that these people are from beyond the Solar System.”

Pak frowned. The Eldest in Bottletown at the moment was Naomi Bertolini, another bottler and, according to Gemma, supposedly more considerate than her peers. But then, Gemma had never seen her in a Council of Elders. What was clear was that Naomi wanted something specific from the Elders and wasn’t in the mood for digressions, she’d been squashing them all night. “There’s nothing in the Archives that mentions what would set two people from different planets apart,” said Elder Deng Zao Jen, from the archives in question. “There is a concept called genetics that would allow us to make an educated guess as to the truth of this statement – but we would need large samples from both Thulcandra and this – what was it called?”

“Rodenberry,” Pak supplied.

“This Rodenberry to perform it, so it is obviously not workable.”

“Then why bring it up?” Elder Himeko asked in exasperation, living up to the fishers notorious reputation for hating anything not immediately practical.

“Well,” Deng grumped, “we have the tools to do it if we could find the samples.”

“Thank you, Elder Deng,” Naomi replied. “We’ll keep that in mind, should it ever become practical. Other suggestions?”

“Exotic materials?” Elder Nobari Masamune suggested. “The archives do have an exhaustive list of materials available on Thulcandra. If they have items built of unearthly materials that would prove that, at least, they were not built on the Silent Planet.”

“We can test that easily enough,” his wife said, giving him a surprised look. “But do you think they will simply give us something to throw in the tanks so easily?”

“It can’t hurt to ask, Himeko,” Naomi said before wresting the meeting in a new direction once more. “Petitioners. We haven’t heard from the Oyarsa or his eldil since possibly as early as the founding of Bottletown. Any chance they plan to weigh in directly on this matter?”

The only elder among the petitioners on hand was Higram Skjeggestadd, a thin faced, worried looking man whose name was constantly mispronounced, even among the Elders who probably should have known better. “Eldest, you and I have repeatedly discussed the question of the eldil and their silence in the past. I cannot simply wave my hand and make them speak to us again. They may still enforce their silence towards all hnau of Thulcandra however long they live outside of the influence of that planet and its Oyarsa. They may have been forced to abandoned Malacandra entirely as the influence of Thulcandra grew more and more pronounced. The Lunar siege may have failed, and the malevolent influence of Thulcandra driven the eldil further beyond the belt and into the depths of the solar system. Regardless, we will petition them and they will answer or not as they chose. It falls to us now to test this Fyodorovich as Weston was tested. It would be simpler if the hrossa or other hnau were present. They are not, so we must make do. He must see Bottletown and his actions there judged with care.”

“Will you do this yourself, Elder Skjeggestadd?” Elder Himeko asked.

“I shall-”

“No.” Naomi said this with surprising firmness. “Chose a promising understudy and have them do it. You’re the only Elder among the petitioners right now, let’s not risk your life heedlessly.”

Elder Higram nodded in understanding. “I will make my selection and explain the matter to them immediately after this.”

“Then we’d best let you get to it.” Naomi began to stand, causing Pak’s heart to leap up into his throat.

“Excuse me, Eldest?” Pak’s voice was almost a squeak. Speaking out of turn was hard, even for a watcher who considered himself more seasoned than most. “Who will be interacting with the outsiders from here on out?”

Naomi gave him a blithe look. “Watcher Teng, while the watchtower has previously been an assignment chosen by those who desire a great deal of time on their hands it’s always been understood that serving as Bottletown’s point of contact with the outside was one of their chief responsibilities. And you are the oldest in the watchtower, are you not?”

“But – but Eldest, I’m not even an Elder! Surely this is a time for-”

Naomi clapped him on the shoulder in a gesture oddly reminiscent of what the stranger had done just a few hours ago. “Congratulations, Watcher Teng, consider yourself promoted.”


 

“Department of Martian Operations?” Craig dimmed the holodisplay in front of him until it was practically invisible, allowing him to look directly at Oda. “You think we need a department for this?”

Hiroyuki shrugged, something he shouldn’t have been able to do when leaning that far back in his chair without tipping over. In this as in many other tasks, Oda was able to make the impossible look effortless. “The Mars question is about to become the most important, most pressing thing facing the Rodenberry Stellar Navy. We aren’t equipped to rescue people from a hostile planet, the Copernican Spacer Corps is. We’re not prepared to chase down and restrain ships running through hostile space, the Minervans and Dianan ships are. We can’t send enough firepower to crack a moon from Earth to Charon in less than an hour, that’s what the Newtonian section of the fleet is for. But look. There’s a whole barely understood human society down on the planet below us. The Stellar Navy was practically purpose built for these situations.”

Craig suppressed a smile. “I didn’t realize you were a Kirk purist as well.”

“I value all of the Great Man’s work that stays on his side of the accountability horizon.” Oda spread his hands. “And as the Lieutenant said, this does seem to be a classic TOS Type Two situation. But fiction always oversimplifies. We need serious manpower and equipment available for this situation and, administratively, that means we need a dedicated department for it. We can’t just handwave a bunch of people together in an incoherent command structure and wait until amusing personality conflicts arise.”

“Oda.” Craig pulled himself forward over his desk to make sure his slumping subordinate could see his extreme disgust. “Amusing personality conflicts are your favorite part of the job.”

Oda’s smile was pure malice. “Of course. But if I let them creep up the same way every time even I will get bored of them.”

“When we get back to New Frisco I’m putting you in for transfer to a desk job.”

“You can take my career but you’ll never take my love for human folly, Captain.”

Craig put the display between the two of them again. “So we build a new department. Why put Fyodorovich at the head? Why give him a double promotion in the process? Surely Lieutenant Commander Dulan-”

Oda was suddenly upright, alert and serious, crossing his legs in front of him in the position oddly known as Indian style. “Farah Dulan is an academic sociologist, poorly suited to operating her current department, much less assembling one out of scratch on the fly.”

“Okay, how about Commander-”

“Commander Rand is a crack administrator and has an excellent tactical sense in simulations but he’s never been in combat and he’s not well liked by his department. You’ll remember I recommended against accepting his posting here for this mission for exactly those reasons.”

“I do.” Craig dimmed the display again. “I’d also like to point out he has seen combat at this point.”

“If you consider our part in what happened combat then yes, and he handled himself admirably.” Oda raised two fingers. “His department still dislikes him because he doesn’t have a great leadership sense. And we were never in direct danger during the Earth Orbital exchange yesterday. In my opinion he’s still untested in the most important aspect of this assignment, which is performance under pressure.”

Craig grunted and put the display back in place. “So why Fyodorovich?”

“Ensign Fyodorovich was cited for bravery during an avalanche on Type-E Moon 2485 during a routine survey mission and again for reacting decisively during a cometquake on a standard harvesting mission, both during his second tour of duty on the Kelly. Lieutenant Fyodorovich was reprimanded for his actions during a hull breach while serving on the Yamato and then commended for his actions during a similar incident a year later on the Venture. The through line to these four incidents is simple.” Hiroyuki suddenly snapped his hand up in a clenched fist. “Bold, decisive action when he and his subordinates were in danger.”

“In moments of decision it’s better to do the wrong thing than nothing at all,” Craig murmured. He wasn’t sure the source of the sentiment, probably some American president, it had that kind of headstrong feel to it. Regardless, it wasn’t entirely out of place in deep space. And skimming through Volk Fyodorovich’s service record, it did seem the young man had it in spades.

“In addition to that,” Hiroyuki added softly. “Lieutenant Fyodorovich has been in more life threatening situations than any other officer serving aboard this ship, including yourself. He’s not reckless, in fact as the two hull breach situations show he actively adapts to familiar dangers. He’s just been lucky.”

“Or unlucky.”

“Unlucky is dead. Fyodorovich is alive. There’s a special quality to men who survive these kinds of circumstances; it doesn’t show up in service records or performance evaluations. But enlisted men are drawn to it and officers can rely on it. Considering the circumstances we certainly could use it on Mars.”

Craig continued through the service record with growing interest. Hiroyuki had a certain eye for people – what made them tick, what potential they had, what shortcomings they would show under stress. It wasn’t something he’d ever been able to learn but, with practice, Craig had learned to pick out shadows of what his XO saw and he was certainly seeing them in Fyodorovich. “You think he can run this new department smoothly?”

“His subordinates will love him, he’ll do whatever you ask him to and as many people as can be kept safe in the process will be safe. But this is space, Captain. Not everything will go easily.”

Craig nodded. It was space they were talking about, after all. He couldn’t ask for more than that. “Well, hopefully the other department heads will get along with him, too.”

“Oh.” The smile was back. “I’m afraid they are going to hate him.”

“Oda…”

Next Chapter

Martian Scriptures Chapter Six – A Malacandran

Previous Chapter

“Malacandra?” The big man asked. “Not Borealis?”

“No, although I’m certain you wouldn’t have heard the name before,” Pak said, trying to tap down on his smile. “Still, you’re welcome on Malacandra, in the name of Malacandra.”

“Of course,” Lieutenant said, although he still sounded a bit uncertain. “Am I right in guessing you’re a guard for this… Malacandra?”

Pak fought the urge to laugh. It was important to remember who he was talking to. “In the abstract sense, perhaps. But the Oyarsa didn’t appoint me, the Elders did.”

At this point the big man went silent and he and the four others with him didn’t say anything for about a minute and a half, maybe more. They adjusted position slightly, juggled equipment from hand to hand and occasionally exchanged a glance, leading Pak to guess that they had some kind of radio built into their helmets and were speaking very quietly. If that was true it pushed hard against the idea that these were the ones they’d been waiting for. The five were silent indeed.

Finally Lieutenant reached up and pulled off his helmet, revealing a big nose on a big face topped with brown hair. His eyes, small and set deep in his head, squinted at Pak for a long moment before he said, “I have a lot of questions I want to ask but the most important one is…” He spun completely around in a single slow movement, arms outstretched, eventually coming back to look directly at Pak again. “Where is everyone?”

“I can’t answer that until you tell me something.”

Lieutenant continued to watch Pak with a strange expression Pak couldn’t quantify. “Okay,” Lieutenant said eventually. “What do you want to hear?”

Pak took a deep breath and let it out slowly. A lot depended on this question. “How is Elwin?”

Lieutenant hesitated for a split second. In that moment a light started blinking in his helmet drawing his attention downward.

“Excuse me for a moment,” he said, pulling his helmet back on.


 

“Fyodorovich here,” Volk said once his helmet clicked into place.

“What’s the situation, Lieutenant?”

Volk jerked involuntarily, as many junior officers tend to do when they suddenly find themselves under the scrutiny of their commanding officer. It was instantly apparent to him that he’d be best off speaking carefully. As if Teng Pak Won and his strange ways weren’t indication enough. “Well, Captain, I’d say we have a TOS Type Two here – clearly human society with incomprehensible culture. With our luck we’ll break some taboo or suffer a catastrophic equipment failure in the next five minutes.”

Like many surveyors, Volk tended to ignore the simplest path.

“We share your assessment,” Captain Gyle replied. Volk wondered who “we” was. “The communications department is running the word Malacandra through the language databases but they’ve been through all the major active and archaic languages and found nothing. Unless it’s something truly obscure they think it’s a made up word.”

“What about the other word? Oarsa? Do we have anything on that?”

“Oyarsa. The linguists think it might be related to Orisa, a kind of tribal deity from an old African religion, or possibly derived from an ancient Greek word that means ‘lords of being.’ Either way, they believe it’s a religious term.” A tinge of amusement crept into the Captain’s voice. “So be very, very careful of those cultural taboos.”

“Captain, I may not be the right person for this meeting. Perhaps-”

“You’re the person who’s on the spot, Lieutenant. Commander Oda has every confidence in you and you’re not doing half bad now. Just keep talking to him.”

Volk started to let his shoulders slump, caught himself and straightened back up. No point letting Teng know he wasn’t 100% on top of this. “Understood, sir. Any ideas who Elwin is?”

That question got him a few seconds of silence. “There’s no one by that name on the Stewart or the Spiner. We’ve requested a full crew list for the entire fleet from Tranquility BASIC but beyond that your guess is as good as mine. Do you have a direction for your next move?”

He did but he didn’t like it. “They say the Great Man valued honesty.”

“That he did, Lieutenant. That he did.”


 

Lieutenant’s friends didn’t seem like the talkative sort, which Pak could appreciate. They were certainly the curious type, though, their blank helmets swiveling back and forth as they took in the square. Pak considered trying to talk to them but decided against it. It was clear that, even if he wasn’t the one in charge, Lieutenant was at least the one they expected to do the talking. None of the other four had made any sign of trying to say something. Perhaps Lieutenant was an Elder among his people.

Before Pak could go any further down that train of thought Lieutenant pulled his helmet back off.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “We don’t seem to know any Elwins. Can you tell me more about him?”

That wasn’t surprising but it did make his life a lot more difficult. “No. If you don’t know Elwin you’ll have to be assessed by the Elders.”

“Can I ask who the Elders are? Will I get to meet any of them?”

“Do you not have Elders on Thulcandra?”

Lieutenant rubbed the back of his head with one gloved hand, laughing ruefully. “Okay, kid, I think we need to coast for a minute.”

“Coast?” Pak paused. He’d heard that word but took a second to think of the meaning. “Like on the ocean?”

“No.” Lieutenant actually laughed out loud. “It means running on inertia, like sliding on your feet after running.”

He took two long strides and demonstrated. Pak tilted his head. “Oh, I see. Why are we coasting?”

“Because I can’t understand some of what you’re saying.” Lieutenant sat down on the ledge running around the Burnt and picked up some pebbles, quickly laying them out along the edge of his seat. Pak recognized that he was looking at the solar system in miniature. Lieutenant pointed to the fourth in line. “This is Malacandra, correct? Fourth planet from the Sun, what we’d call Mars.”

Pak quickly grasped what Lieutenant was getting at. “Yes. And that,” he pointed at the third rock, “is Thulcandra. You call it Earth.”

Lieutenant broke into a wide, infectious grin. “You’re right, we do. But you’re wrong, too. We’re not from Thulcandra. We’re from a planet called Rodenberry.”

Pak ran through the Thulcandran names for the planets quickly, once and then again, but couldn’t recall any named Rodenberry. And the Silent Planet wasn’t supposed to be able to go past – “Oh, I get it. Is Rodenberry the Thulcandran moon?”

“No, Rodenberry doesn’t orbit the Sun at all. It’s as far from Mars as this rock,” he pointed at the fourth rock again, “is from Earth. Probably further, now that I think about it.”

Pak looked at the rock, then at Lieutenant, then at the rock again. The Ransom protocols did not cover that possibility. “I think… I think I need to discuss this with the Elders. The Oyarsa must be consulted.”

Lieutenant nodded affably and suddenly put a hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “Do what you need to, no pressure. We’re not here to bother you. We just wondered what was happening here.”

Pak’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

“We-” Lieutenant suddenly broke eye contact and straightened up with a sigh. “The planet of Rodenberry hasn’t heard from Earth in hundreds of years, Teng Pak Won. We wanted to know what happened to you all.”

“Oh.” It came out sounding much smaller than he intended. Clearing his throat Pak continued. “Well, there are a lot of things the Elders will probably want to know, too. Don’t worry, Lieutenant, I’m sure something will work out. Will you wait here?”

He spread his hands with a grimace. “It depends on how long it will take. We brought supplies for two days but living on them isn’t the best. If it will take more than half a day it might be better if we returned to our ship and met you here around this time tomorrow?”

Pak looked at the readout on his suit’s arm and considered the numbers. “A few hours earlier, if you don’t mind. It’s getting quite late here.”

The other man looked up at the sky and nodded. “That’s true. Not used to the conversion to local time yet.”

“I will see you then, Lieutenant Volk Fyodorovich.”

Lieutenant replied by making a weird gesture where he touched his fingertips to his forehead with his hand and arm held out straight to one side. “Take care Teng Pak Won.”

It looked silly enough to get him to smile. “Please, call me Pak.”

Lieutenant grinned back. “And Volk will be fine for me.”


 

Helmet sealed back onto his head Volk led his team back through the corn fields, listening to a bunch of officers way above his paygrade discuss his contact with Pak the Malacandran.

“Thulcandra isn’t a word we can track down either,” one of the linguists – Goldenstein? – was saying. “But it certainly seems to share a root with Malacandra. There’s something there. I’d like Lieutenant Fyodorovich to try and get Mr. Won to share more of their proper nouns if he gets a chance. We might be able to figure something out from that.”

“Teng Pak Won sounds like a name from the Mandarin family of languages. His family name might be Teng, not Won.” That was a voice Volk didn’t recognize, and he suspected was being relayed from the Spiner somewhere in Earth orbit.

“I think we could get a better idea of how long these people have been on their own here by examining their crops.” That was Lieutenant Commander Belinda Harris, the Quartermaster. “We could measure the genetic drift against-”

“I know we’re all curious about these things,” the captain said, breaking into the discussion for the first time since Volk had put his helmet back on. “But they aren’t the most important part of what brought us here. We need to understand the situation these people are in as well as anything else that will help us understand what happened over Earth. Lieutenant Fyodorovich, we ran your team’s live footage through the AI and saw no signs of anyone living in any of the buildings you entered or around the square. Did you or any of your team see anything that contradicted that? Aside from Mr. Won himself?”

“No, Captain, I did not.” He glanced around at his team. They were mostly concentrated on watching the surrounding environment as they hiked back towards the airlock. All except one. “Shen?”

“I didn’t notice any signs of other people, sir,” she said.

“But?”

“But there was red dust on him, sir.”

Oda’s voice joined the discussion. “Based on our analysis of the other scanning teams and what we saw coming in from orbit there’s a large section of the dome near the power plant that isn’t appreciably terraformed. He could have easily picked some up there.”

“And it wasn’t just the fact that there was dust on him,” she added. “It was on his shoulders. Like he’d walked out of an underground entrance.”

“That’s very interesting, SFC Shen,” the captain said. “Thank you for bringing it to our attention. We’ll run a new series of orbital analysis and see what that turns up.”

“Raises an interesting question, though,” Volk mused.

“What’s that, Lieutenant?”

Volk laughed. “Simple captain. We know the original colony was built above ground. All those buildings look like they’re still here. So why did they dig themselves underground?”

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