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?”

Next Chapter

Martian Scriptures Chapter Five – The Empty Colony

Previous Chapter

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anything down there that could be dangerous?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hoyle?”

“Yes, sir?”

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Our middle names, sir,” Long replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello? Can you hear me?”

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

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

Next Chapter

Martian Scriptures Chapter Four – Watching the Silence

Previous Chapter

The watchtower was quiet. But then, the watchtower was always quiet. The Elders always chose people who were “naturally patient and passive” for the job and as a result the two people who manned it rarely saw the need to speak to each other. In fact, Teng Pak Won had once gone an entire week without so much as nodding to his partners in the tower. Then the elders had assigned Gemma Lopez to the watchtower.

But, for the first hour of the watch today she’d –

“The open air farms aren’t getting enough rain again, the weathermen need to look at that soon or we’re going to run short on all kinds of things. Did you know we grow all the livestock feed there and not in the hydroponics labs? Sergi told me that when we were out at the-”

Pak resisted the urge to drum his forehead against his board. “Gemma. We’re supposed to be watching the Silence, not the weather. That’s what the weathermen are for.”

“Sorry,” Gemma’s voice lost some of the obnoxious pep. “Just… you know, my mind wanders.”

The silence that followed barely lasted a minute before the sound of Gemma quietly humming to herself broke it again. Pak closed his coding program and sighed. Almost everyone who went up the watchtower wound up with a hobby by the time they rotated out. But Pak had volunteered for watch duty in part because he’d hoped to focus more on his hobby during the nearly constant down time watchers got. But he needed near total silence to concentrate and since Gemma had rotated in fifty six days ago he hadn’t been able to get it.

So he stood up from his chair and stretched, working kinks out of his back, and looked around. The watchtower was, in fact, an actual tower. Built on top of a large ridge, the lookout on top stood nearly eight hundred feet above the next closest building in the compound below. From his seat in the center of the ring of board readouts and controls Pak could look out and see everything for miles. Or he could lean on the railing and look down to the next level below, where a larger ring of boards and controls sat mostly inert. No one was entirely sure what they all did but the Elders insisted they be kept on, except when maintenance protocols dictated they be shut down and rebuilt. The only board in that ring they used faced roughly northeast, out over the open air farms, where Gemma kept watch on a board which was essentially a mirror of his own.

It let them cover each other’s breaks without too much shuffling of people and was, in general, a pretty useful redundancy. Although when all you were doing was staring into Silence and waiting for Ransom redundancy sometimes seemed a little silly. Especially when the redundant person was Gemma Lopez.

Pak rested his forearms on the railing and looked down at Gemma, still humming to herself. She’d passed forty cents and was relatively smart but she didn’t seem to have any of the personality traits he’d come to expect of people assigned to the watchtower. And she didn’t seem to have some incredibly time intensive hobby like Pak did himself, that might drive her to the tower and it’s peace and quiet of her own volition. “Gemma.”

She jerked a bit at the sound of her name, looking a bit ashamed. “I’m sorry.”

Frustration, his old friend, welled up in him for a moment. “Why do you always apologize when I call your name?”

She spun in her chair and looked up at him nervously. “Well, you always seem irritated when you say it and I really don’t want you complaining that I’m stupid, too.”

“There’s no rule against humming in the watchtower…”

“Of course there’s no rule against humming in the watchtower, that would be-” Her expression suddenly swung from amusement to shock. “Oh, do you not like my humming? I can’t carry a tune, I’m so sorry I can stop if it bothers you but-”

“Gemma.”

“I’m sor-”

“No, you’re not. You don’t even know what I was going to say.”

Gemma opened her mouth to apologize again then caught herself.

Pak waited a minute to see if she was going to say something else then went on. “I’ve never complained about you to anyone, so I can’t really add your humming to the list.”

He’d meant it as a joke but Gemma just looked down at the floor. “I don’t mind if you think I’m noisy. It’s true. I just don’t…”

She trailed off and swiveled her chair back to face her board.

After waiting a full minute, wondering if she was ever going to get back to that point of hers, Pak finally went back to his own board and opened his coder again. He’d been at it for nearly twenty minutes before it occurred to him that Gemma wasn’t worried that stupid had joined the list of complaints he had about her. She was worried he’d joined the ranks of people who thought that she was stupid.


 

When Pak came back from lunch Gemma was sitting at her board with a bowl and spoon – technically against the rules but who cared – absently tapping the implement against the rim of the bowl. The dull plastic thumping had a catchy rhythm and she seemed to be weaving back and forth on her seat in time to it.

Rather than climbing back up to the top level Pak turned his steps towards her station and dropped down into the chair at the board beside it. “What did you do before you came here, Gemma?”

The tapping spoon slowed to a stop. “You mean you don’t know?”

“Have I ever asked?”

“I mean…” She dropped the spoon into the bowl and set both on top of her board, which was even more against the rules. “I thought you were the senior watchman. They said you’ve been up here for five cents!”

“True, but we only get a new person here every couple of cents. And when we do I don’t really go over their details, watchtower duty isn’t that hard.” Gemma wilted a bit when he said that but, for the moment, he passed it by. “So I don’t really know much about the people who come here, what their specialties  and history are. Mostly I just kept the schedule, until I wrote a program to juggle all that for me.”

Gemma’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “You’re a codebreaker?

“No,” he said with a laugh. “But I hope to be one when I’m old enough. In the meantime, I stay up here so I can practice.”

“Right, you don’t look like you’re sixty cents yet.” Gemma nodded as if realizing he wasn’t yet old enough to be one of the Elders was some moment of genius. “Well, you’re in a better place for codebreaking than I was. I did my scrabbler period in the Sun Bottle.”

Pak winced, not so much because he felt her pain – he’d never been assigned there – but because he knew how hard it was to make it there. The job supposedly required total focus on readouts and expert predictions on what the future would bring. Being an understudy there must have been hard for someone like Gemma. “Don’t feel bad,” he said, hoping he’d come off as sympathizing with her. “Bottlers are hard on everyone. Ever told one you want to code? They’ll throw a fit.”

“I know all about their fits, trust me,” she said. “All my shift supervisors treated me to at least one. Naomi Bertolini was Eldest there while I was scrabbling and she was always nice. But last cent she told me she thought I would be a better fit here…”

Gemma’s face told a pretty clear story of how she’d taken that. She’d been told she was stupid by everyone else and taken her Eldest’s decision to transfer her as confirmation that Naomi thought the same. For his part, Pak wondered if Naomi had simply decided Gemma wasn’t cut out for the high stress of working in the Bottle. He didn’t know the Eldest at all so he couldn’t say for sure. “She probably just thought you could use the change of pace.”

“That, and it’s hard to screw up sitting around and waiting for a board to ping.”

Pak shrugged. “There’s a whole host of things we have to do once the ping shows up so I wouldn’t go that far.”

“How often does that happen?”

“Since I’ve been on watch? It hasn’t.”

“Oh! That’s nice.” Gemma looked less worried at that news.

“So I’d take it easy,” Pak said, doing his best to reassure her.

Gemma’s board went ping.


 

Alyssa walked Naomi out of the Bottle complex and back towards the central compound. The sun was pale and distant in the dome above, its brilliance muted by a thick haze suggesting the weathermen were trying to get it to rain again. “So.” Alyssa tried to think of something to say. Some topic other than the obvious. And failed. “Five days grace?”

Sensing her awkwardness Naomi laughed. “Yes. Five days grace.”

“Any plans?”

Naomi was quiet for several minutes. Long enough that they were halfway to the compound before she answered. “I think the next two days are just for Greg. And then we’ll do something special.”

“That sounds nice.”

The other woman wobbled her hand in an indifferent gesture. “It’s not horrible.”

The equanimity in Naomi’s voice was impressive although given the kind of person she was Alyssa wasn’t surprised. Sometimes Alyssa prayed Malacandra would give her equal control, sometimes she wondered if Naomi’s mindset was healthy. “I’ve been working on pulling together something special.”

“You don’t have to-”

“I want to. Let your friends celebrate with you, you old bottlecap.” She reached over and tried to pinch Naomi’s side but the older woman intercepted hand with elbow.

Naomi shook her head with a laugh. “Fine, fine. I suppose things will run well enough without us.”

There was a sudden whooping noise causing both women to look around in confusion. An unfamiliar male voice boomed out from overhead. “All watchers to the tower, all watchers to the tower. Elders, activate Ransom protocols. Elders, activate Ransom protocols. This is not a drill, I repeat this is not a drill.”

Naomi froze stock still, staring up at the dome. “Ransom protocols.”

The whooping alarm sounded twice more and then faded, replaced with the rising sound of wind whipping over the rooftops. The weathermen were raising a storm front. Alyssa racked her brains, trying to remember what she’d read about Ransom protocols. They were long, that was the only thing that came to mind. Panicking, she turned and said, “Naomi, I don’t know what to do!”

That snapped her out of her trance. “You didn’t finish the Ransom protocols yet?”

“They’re eighty pages long!”

“Who else is on duty in the bottle now? Elders, I mean.”

Alyssa’s whirling thoughts grabbed onto a detail she knew. “Perez. He’s alone tonight.”

“One isn’t enough.” Naomi grabbed her elbow and dragged her back towards the Sun Bottle. “Come on, the day isn’t over yet.”

“What’s going on?” Alyssa demanded. “Why did they announce that over the PA? How long have we had a compound wide PA?!”

“It’s the Ransom protocols,” Naomi said as if that explained it. “The most important part of Eldership.”

“No one told me!”

“We really need to work on the initiation…” She slid to a stop and took Alyssa by the shoulders. “You need to be at your best, Alyssa, this is big. Ransom protocols kick in when something comes out of the Silent Planet.”

Next Chapter

Martian Scriptures Chapter Three – To Mars

Previous Chapter

Craig had been first officer on the Crazy Horse when Rodenberry sent observers to the bombardment of Newton. The ship had ultimately wound up assigned to the Copernican fleet and the Rodenberry ambassador, in turn, wound up observing operations from the bridge of the Olympus Mons, the Copernican orbit ship’s first-in-class. Afterwards Craig had watched some of the recordings the ambassador brought back. He was sure she hadn’t gotten the full experience.

Due to their positioning in orbit the Crazy Horse hadn’t been near the Olympus Mons when it bombarded the Minervan pirate fleet over Newton’s southern magnetic pole. Instead they’d watched as the aptly named Sea of Oblivion leveled the captured military bases on and above Galenburg, the planet’s first major starship yard. In order to overwhelm the heavy point defenses built into the yards and bases the Oblivion had launched a swarm of projectiles so dense they resembled a line of pulsing stars that stretched from the orbit ship down to the planet’s surface in an unbroken river. In places Galenburg had been bombed down to bedrock.

In comparison to her sister ship the Sea of Tranquility was positively restrained. Each gun emplacement was the target of a two second burst of smaller missiles that were quickly lost against the brightness of Earth’s atmosphere, each carrying a focused warhead that would burn through a fortified bunker or armored hull well enough but had an effective radius of less than ten meters. Known as wasps, they were generally used as interceptor missiles but could be applied in other ways. Even if he was bombarding Earth, Admiral Carrington was still stepping as lightly as he could.

As glad as that restraint made Craig he still hated watching it play out.

They only recovered about half of the Johnston’s crew alive. Twenty six corpses were also recovered from the wreckage. Presumably some of the crew were vaporized in the explosion that destroyed the Johnston. The rest were scattered across the surface of Earth.

On the bright side, unlike the surfaces of the Triad Worlds or Rodenberry, Earth was largely hospitable to human life. Drop pods could float, so even the pods that landed in water were safe. Presuming Earth still observed the Borealis Conventions on Space Combat the downed spacers would receive full rights as prisoners of war. If they were, in fact, at war now.

There were too many variables.

Fourteen hours after deceleration from superluminal the Sea of Tranquility docked with the Stewart. Elements of the fleet were still hunting through Earth’s orbitals, searching for guard satellites they might have missed but for the most part the battle was over. No retaliation to the Tranquility’s barrage had materialized. No ships had appeared in orbit. No communications had come from the surface of the planet.

Now, most of the fleet had withdrawn to the dark side of the moon. The Tranquility hovered above its namesake, the Stewart nestled against it, returning the Johnston’s crew to their countrymen. As the Stewart’s medical staff supervised the transfer of the worst off survivors of the doomed ship Craig prepared to go off duty. That plan was interrupted by orders to board the Tranquility and speak with her flag officer. Ten minutes later he found himself in the ready room of Vice Admiral Jalak Carrington.

It had been almost two months since the last time Craig had seen the Admiral in person, at a meeting during one of the fleet’s weekly position checks. If the unexpected disaster they’d encountered on arrival had any effect on Carrington’s intense, surly demeanor it wasn’t readily apparent in the way he welcomed Craig.

“Come in, Captain Gyle. Sit down.” A frown cut creases all through the Admiral’s face, but it was directed at the reports he was looking over rather than the officer that had just entered the room. The leatherlike consistency of his skin was one of the many things Craig found mysterious about him. How could a man who spent 90% of his life in a can in space look weathered?

As Craig took his seat Harrington cleared his holodisplay and leaned back in his chair. “It’s a mess out there, Captain.”

“I’ve seen the reports from Tranquility BASIC.”

“You haven’t seen half of it,” Carrington replied. “Earth won’t talk to us. There’s no sign the Lunar Space Dock was ever constructed. There’s no navigational signals we can detect between here and the Jovian moons. The Martian nav relays are almost three degrees out of orbital alignment. The solar system has gone to shit.”

The twitch started at the base of his spine but Craig stopped it before it showed on his face. The Rodenberry Stellar Navy did its best to discourage informal language among on duty officers but Craig knew that wasn’t a universal rule among spacers. “I presume you have been trying to contact all major Earth cities at this point, not just the Nevada and Queensland Launch Zones?”

“That’s correct. We’ve had no responses from any of them, other than some kind of automated response from Cairo, Sevastopol and Sao Paulo.” Carrington drummed two fingers on his stomach, sending small ripples through the fabric and perhaps the waistline below it. He wasn’t a fat man but, with his broad shoulders and thick arms, when he stood he gave the impression of being thinner than he was. “After that we tried to contact Mars.”

Craig frowned. Over the last few hours most ships in the fleet had signaled Earth at least once. But Hoyle hadn’t noticed – or at least hadn’t reported – any signals bound elsewhere. “Any response?”

“Nothing promising, just an automated response.” The Admiral shifted back upright in his chair. “But not like the three from Earth, those didn’t follow any protocols we’re familiar with, this was Departure era stuff.”

“We are all broadcasting Departure era transponder codes,” Craig pointed out. “Still, I wouldn’t expect an automated response to still be using them…”

Carrington harrumphed. “It’s a mystery, Gyle, and one I frankly have no damn time for. The Stewart and the Roberts confirmed at least eight drop pods made it safely to the surface. There are as many as thirty two Copernican spacers grounded on a hostile planet. At the same time, I can’t ignore Mars because they might be on their way here this very minute to see why we’re bothering the Homeworld.”

“You want to send the Stewart to see what’s happened on Mars.”

“Or the Spiner, your choice. You understand my position, don’t you?” The Admiral ticked each of his points off on his wide, blunt fingertips. “I can’t send either of the Galilean ships. Setting aside the fact that the Remus is barely a step up from a pirate ship, neither moon wants the other one to be the only moon with a representative present when we finally establish contact with Earth. Whatever form that may take.”

“The Newtonians have four ships.” Although really it was three, one of the fleet’s two logistics and support ships was from Newton and it was little more than a flying warehouse. Given the circumstances, only a fool would send a ship without weapons all the way to Mars.

“And I’d be happy to send one of them, but their two destroyer captains are very green. That leaves them two. Even if I asked them to – and I’m not planning on it – they’re not going to send their box ship. As for the Principia…” Carrington grimaced. “Well, I’m still hoping to talk to someone in this solar system peaceably. The Principia is going to give the wrong impression.”

That left the Copernican logistics ship, which couldn’t go for much the same reasons as the Newtonian one, the Roberts and the two Rodenberry ships. “Are you ordering me to send a ship to Mars?”

“No.” The denial was swift and decisive. “I’m willing to send the Roberts if I have to. This fleet is a coalition of people who have good reasons not to like each other and we’re only here because some drunk politician got it in their head that a great way to patch things up after a war was to send the people who’d been shooting at each other on a yearlong trip through deep space to talk to people who’ve been ignoring us for two centuries. If I didn’t know better I’d say it was a deliberate plan to lose a dozen military ships senselessly.”

“But this was a political plan.”

“So it was, which makes it equally senseless but far less deliberate.” Carrington nearly spit the words out. “And so I have to try and keep the peace with my allies while trying not to fight my enemies. Which is why I’d prefer to keep the Roberts here to guard my flank. If one of your ships goes I’ll leave the other in the Johnston’s place in the formation so it won’t be left exposed. The fact is that your survey vessels are large enough to command respect but don’t carry enough armaments to threaten war. Hopefully they’ll talk to you.”

Craig rubbed his chin as he thought it over. “Very well, Admiral. We’ll take the Stewart out to check on Mars. But I want to route our communications through the Spiner, rather than through Tranquility BASIC.”

A moment of absence passed over the admiral’s face, a clear tell that he was accessing his AI. “There’s an eight and a half minute time lag between Earth and Mars right now, why add the extra step?” His eyes narrowed as he snapped back to the moment. “I see. Roddenberry really has cracked FTL communication, haven’t they?”

“Can’t comment on that, sir.”

A strained moment passed between the two men, then Carrington said, “Fine. Route your reports through the Spiner. I want hourly check ins, if the fleet loses a second ship I’m going to turn this whole thing around and take it back home. Or we’ll make a landing in force and make someone down there explain what their damn problem is.”

Another spasm caught before it made it to the face. With all he knew about Carrington’s career making a landing on the spur of the moment wasn’t entirely out of the realm of probability. “We’ll approach the planet very cautiously, sir.”

The admiral planted his elbows on the desk and leaned forward, his voice dropping to a murmur. “Off the record, Gyle. If we need to spread out operations, is there any way the rest of the fleet can make use of that comm tech?”

Craig hesitated a moment, wondering if he should say anything. Gravcoms had been theoretically possible for decades but no one had built instruments sensitive enough to make them practical until recent breakthroughs in a Rodenberry lab. And clearly rumors that Genie scientists had cracked the problem were already in circulation. Best to be honest and make sure the Admiral didn’t form any wrong ideas about what he might be able to do in an emergency situation. “Not without our sensor technology, sir. They go hand in hand.”

“That’s unfortunate.” Carrington straightened and called his reports back up. “Dismissed.”


 

The captain was off the ship for less than an hour, which was nice. Even with a full month to adapt, at the end of long days Harriet found her feet aching under the ship’s higher gravity and hanging around Docking Port Six was not a great way to spend an evening.

Not that spending the evening in her quarters, thinking about what had just happened, was a more tempting alternative.

Captain Gyle came back looking much the worse for wear. When he’d left the bridge he’d looked tired but composed. Coming back through the docking tube he looked withdrawn and the red tunic of his uniform seemed to hang a little more loosely on him than before. She cleared her throat and said, “Excuse me, Captain?”

Gyle looked up, surprise flashing across his face. “Miss Thacker. Can I help you?”

Harriet gave him a cool look. “Were you expecting someone else, Captain?”

“Commander Oda, in fact.” He stepped through the hatchway and into the ship proper then keyed the hatch closed. “I was hoping to speak to you tomorrow, though.”

“That would be a change of pace.” Harriet had been expecting the Captain to force his way back to a semblance of normalcy, smoothing his uniform out or putting on a more forceful air. While he’d pushed himself back to his normal posture he still looked disheveled and tired. Still, that only made for two of them. “In honor of the occasion, I’ll let you go first.”

“Miss Thacker, it’s the opinion of the Rodenberry Senate that journalists are always welcome to embed in the Stellar Navy.” Gyle was giving her the party line and they both knew it – he’d said as much when he’d first welcomed her aboard but largely ignored her attempts to conduct interviews in the time since. The only reason for him to go back to it was because he was about to upset the status quo. “Now I cannot – and don’t really want to – give you orders as if you were a spacer from my crew. But given the circumstances, I feel the need to ask you to make the evacuation suit you were provided when you came aboard a part of you every day dress.”

“I-” That was not at all what she’d been expecting. “Thank you, Captain, I’ll take that under advisement.”

“If you do, you might want to consider visiting the ship’s barber.” Gyle ran a hand over the smooth, hairless expanse of his own head, the gleam of the ship’s lights a hypnotizing contrast to the deep brown of his skin. “More than one helmet seal has failed because of a stray hair. Don’t worry, Mrs. Torres is quite good at making short hair fetching.”

If someone had asked her to make a list of top ten things she’d never expected a stellar naval captain say, “fetching” would be near the top of the list. “Thank you, Captain. Can you comment on your discussion with the Admiral?”

“I can give you the full details, but first I feel compelled to offer you the opportunity to transfer to the Spiner, if you so choose.”

“Transfer?” A dozen possible reasons for the offer rushed through her mind but none of them quite fit the situation. “Why is that?”

“My understanding is that you are supposed to bring back an account of the fleet’s trip to and contact with Earth.”

No matter how she looked at it, there was no trick in that statement. “Yes. And?”

“I wasn’t sure if that assignment would force you to remain here, or if you’d be free to accompany the ship to Mars.”

Harriet felt as if the ship had lurched under her. The ship was going to Mars? She was supposed to document the contact between the fleet and Earth, but Benita Hoyle had insisted that there were still no signals indicating Earth talking to anything in space, much less the foreign fleet that had just arrived. Who knew when that would change. On the other hand… “The Spiner is remaining here, in Earth orbit?”

“Along with the rest of the fleet,” the Captain said, a hint of amusement tinging his voice.

Of course it was clear why. Theron Christakos, from the Golden Gate Update, was on the Spiner. But he was staying in Earth orbit, along with all the embedded reporters from the Triad Worlds. This was an exclusive. Gyle knew it, and was expecting her to say yes.

“Well, I wouldn’t want to put you to the trouble of arranging a transfer, Captain. I’d be happy to remain aboard.”

“We’d be happy to have you.”

“Thank you, Captain. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to return to my quarters and brush up on what we know about Mars.” Harriet hurried off, her head spinning with the potential in front of her. One of five reporters present during recontact with Earth? Not bad, but only reporter present for recontact with Mars? Even better. And hopefully, safer.

It wasn’t until she was at the lift, waiting to be taken to the habitation levels, that she realized the Captain had managed to dodge her questions before she even asked them.

Next Chapter

Martian Scriptures Chapter Two – Triage

Previous Chapter

The scream following the loud clang was Alyssa’s first clue something had gone wrong. Then the voice of the crew leader who had taken the crawlers under the piping and into the cramped depths of the conduits by injector five echoed from deep in the walls of the Sun Bottle, “Hot rain, hot rain!”

Alyssa bolted up from where she’d been crouching by the hatch, waiting for the crawl team to report back, and dashed past Naomi, who was monitoring the board just above and to the left of the hatch. Ten steps further down the hall was a gear locker that she yanked open, her free hand shooting up to catch the bucket on the top shelf before conscious thought registered that it was wobbling and about to fall on her. Once it rattled back into place she snatched the collapsible stretcher off the rack on the back side of the door and slammed the locker shut again. She was back to the hatch, working with Naomi to unpack the stretcher, within a dozen heartbeats of hearing the first shout.

But they were heavy heartbeats indeed, shaking her ribs as if some eldil had made a home there and was now pounding on her ribs like the keys of a piano. Alyssa’s heart made its way through a full major chord progression before they got the stretcher unfolded and switched on. It wasn’t fully booted before the scuffle of feet and panicked breathing warned them the crawlers were back. Both women dropped to their knees and peered under the hatch. On the other side the crew leader was carefully laying a body almost flat on the floor and gingerly sliding the feet towards them. Naomi positioned the stretcher as Alyssa took the feet and delicately pulled the body through the hatch opening, barely tall enough to accommodate it.

“One day,” Naomi muttered through gritted teeth, “we’ll figure out how to get these things open all the way again.”

“Oyarsa will it so,” Alyssa said in agreement.

The injured crawler was in bad shape. The crew leader had pulled off his coveralls and undershirt and Alyssa could clearly see where superheated coolant had doused his right arm and shoulder. The whole limb was an angry red but over the shoulder joint the skin had boiled and burst. She quickly folded the extendable portion of the stretcher up and over the damaged limb and set it for automatic. The stretcher went about its work, disinfecting the wound, sealing it up and administering painkillers. She dragged it back from the hatch as the crawl leader scrambled out. “All conduits are currently sealed but we didn’t replace 12 yet. I need you to unlock the safeties for us.”

Naomi got up and went back to the board. “I’ll do it. Alyssa, you two take him down to the Glass Box.”

Technically it was Alyssa’s responsibility to make sure the conduit replacements got finished. But one look at Naomi told her that this was something the Eldest wanted to do on her own. She glanced over at the crew leader – what was his name again? Hezekiah. He was a tall, lanky man who didn’t look like he’d fit into the conduit sections if not for the fact that he wasn’t any thicker than a conduit himself. But thin or not he could heft a stretcher. She motioned him to the front set of handles and they lifted the injured crewman up and took off down the hall towards the Sun Bottle’s exit.


 

“Prioritize retrieving drop pods currently on atmospheric entry trajectories,” Craig ordered, studying the relative positions of the pieces in play. The Johnston had a crew of 853, standard Copernican ship evacuation procedures dictated that they abandon ship in drop pods that held four people each. However, given how sudden and catastrophic the ship’s destruction had been Craig estimated that a minimum of half the crew had never had a chance to get to their pods.

The Copernican Spacer Corps supplied their people with evac suits for use during elevated alert situations and, like all good stellar navies, they considered any transition to or from superluminal velocities an elevated alert status. And, as the wealthiest planet in the Triad Worlds, Copernicus generally supplied top quality equipment to their spacers. Any Johnston crew that had survived the explosion but failed to reach a drop pod would be safe for as long as an hour before they were in any real danger.

“I’m sorry, Captain, why are you prioritizing the drop pods?”

Craig pushed down annoyance at the question. He’d been all for the Rodenberry Parliament dispatching embedded reporters on both ships in the fleet and Harriet Thacker was, in most respects, a very agreeable woman to have on the bridge. But, like a lot of his crew, she was young enough to have no immediate family back home to miss her for the eighteen to twenty four months the mission had been planned for. And thus she was too young to have embedded into a combat situation, either.

Of course, Craig had never had a reporter embedded on his ship so they were even on that score. He quickly considered approaches to the issue of having a kibitzer on his bridge, then decided to simply answer the question as quickly as possible. “There’s a good chance Earth is hostile towards us, ma’am. Or, at the very least, they aren’t recognizing us as friendlies, maybe they’ve mistaken us for space pirates from the Martian colonies or something. I don’t want those people getting shot down by Earth’s defenses.”

The relative positions of the fleet in this case were unfortunate. The plan had been to enter the – admittedly quite old – standard approach vector opposite the moon and just inside the Lunar orbit. The fleet had stopped just outside Pluto’s orbit on their way in to confirm positions and make the final vector checks but, even with such a short superluminal jaunt, the fleet formation had spread out quite a bit over the trip given the small irregularities in starting vectors before breaking lightspeed. The Remus had actually decelerated the closest to Earth, at a distance of just under 120,000 km up from the center of its gravity well, but the Johnston hadn’t been that much further away from the planet. Thus, many of the drop pods’ automated nav systems had opted to make gravity assisted descents towards the planet below rather than burning all their reaction mass in an attempt to reach one of the friendly ships further up in orbit.

A distant part of Craig’s mind wondered if the Johnston’s drop pods registered the Stewart as a friendly ship. Some of those drop pods should have maneuvered into synchronous orbits and waited for his crews to pick them up if they did. So probably they thought the closest friendly was actually the Roberts, a few thousand kilometers further away towards the fleet’s center – and at a higher orbit that was far more difficult to reach. That was a bug and someone was going to have to look in to it.

“Captain!” Rand dragged the ship plot back up to primary importance on his portion of the holotank. “The Tranquility is maneuvering into swarm position.”

Sure enough, Stewart’s scanners showed the massive ship swiveling its bow towards the surface of Earth, looking like nothing so much as a giant arrow pointed down at the planet. The image wasn’t entirely coincidental, either. Unlike most human ships, which were essentially fat tubes built to best endure the stress of their central thrusters, Copernican orbit ships were wide, boomerang shaped things intended to allow as many weapons on each surface of the ship to bear on a target as possible. All you had to do to get the largest concentration of fire on an enemy was point the prow of the ship in the general direction of your target.

“What’s happening, captain?”

Craig didn’t even spare the reporter a glance. “Vice Admiral Carrington has decided to bombard the planet.”

The ship could run itself for a moment. Most of Craig’s mind dragged itself up and away from the bridge, focusing on the problem at hand by willfully excluding all other input. For better or worse the Admiral was effectively going to war with Earth, previous warnings about avoiding provocations notwithstanding. The Principia had been hit, which meant the Newtonians would probably follow along. The Minervan spacers were half pirates so the Remus was probably along for the ride as well, although what the Dianan half of Galileo’s ships would do was anyone’s guess. Probably fight, too. The Galilean lunar states stuck together. Which left him, as the senior captain, to decide whether Rodenberry was in for this fight.

The Genies had originally split off from the Triad Worlds because they were sick of the stubborn politicking that had led to the First Galilean War. They’d chosen to go their own way before the inevitable Second. Theoretically they were supposed to try and avoid being drawn in to these kinds of stupid, short sighted wars.

On the other hand, it was a long six months of superluminal travel back to Copernicus. And that was the closest of the Triad Worlds, Rodenberry was almost another full month beyond that. It was a lot of dangerous space to cross for just two ships. And, on the flip side of the coin, many of the Stewart’s survey labs and scout probe bays had been emptied of their normal contents and refilled with supplies for the fleet. Leaving the rest of the ships behind and running off would leave them in a bad place and wouldn’t be taken well by the Triad World governments.

More than that, the great man himself had left many lessons on how ultimately it was most important to stick together, even with unpredictable companions, in the face of even greater uncertainties. No one had talked to Earth in two centuries. Everyone had assumed they’d find it much the same cantankerous, fractured planet full of stupid, short sighted humans striving for nobility that it had always been.

But no one had predicted instant hostilities.

“Captain, we’re picking up radiation spikes down on the planet. Looks like small power plants booting up – just big enough for laser batteries.” Rand’s map of the battlespace adjusted again, plotting the locations of the spikes on a miniature globe inset beside the more immediate plot of the unfolding battle in orbit. The drop pods were taking fire from the planet’s surface.

Craig made his decision. “I want a full EMG work up of those locations sent to the Sea of Tranquility. Give the Admiral a good look at those gun emplacements. Hopefully he can neutralize them with a minimum of collateral.”

An uncomfortable silence swept over the bridge. Finally, Hoyle said, “I’ll arrange it with Tranquility BASIC.”

Craig settled back into his command chair and watched as rescue operations unfolded. For the moment there was nothing more for him to do.


 

Alyssa slid the stretcher out from under the body that Hezekiah was cradling in his arms and tossed it at the base of the Glass Box. As Hezekiah rested his crewmate on the bottom of the Box and closed the side and top she hit the Wake key and checked to make sure the input feed was set to “E”, not “I”.

Hezekiah got the Box sealed before it finished booting and they were left waiting impatiently as the old device finished checking all its functions and slowly filled with clear fluid. For several long minutes after that they waited to see the diagnosis. Finally it came up and they sighed in relief.

“Orange.” Hezekaih gripped her shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “He’s gonna make it, Elder.”

Alyssa sighed and nodded. Then realized that she should probably say something Elderly. “You’re to thank for that. Good job getting him out of those conduits.”

“Oh, uh… sure.” He offered a nervous smile. “Malacandra protected him.”

She slapped him on the back. “Lucky you, helping the Oyarsa so directly. That’s something to be proud of. People get burned in the conduits all the time, not all of them make it out to the Box in time. No eldil is going to say you did anything less than what was expected of you. So stop looking so gloomy.”

Hezekiah just grunted and watched the Glass Box work for a moment longer. “I should get back to my team.”

“Of course.” At least he walked out of the infirmary with his back straight. She leaned on the Box and looked down at the sleeping face inside. The burns were beginning to fill in with healthy, pink flesh and his face no longer looked quite so pained.

“And lucky you,” she murmured, resting her hand over his chest. “You haven’t gone to the Silence yet.”

Next Chapter

Pay the Piper – Chapter Thirty Four

Previous Chapter

“I’ve never had an office before.” It was a strange feeling, to be sure. The life of the Gifted contractor is one of travelling here and there at the beck and call of the Constellations, setting up an office isn’t usually helpful for us. That’s what I had people like Mixer for. I shot him a questioning look. “Are you going to miss juggling my schedule?”

“Are you kidding? Keeping up with the busiest Gifted forensic on the West Coast was a hassle like you wouldn’t believe.” He hooked a thumb at Eugene. “When he told me the FBI wanted you on the Archon taskforce for an indefinite period I gave him a discount just to get you out of my hair.”

“I’d wondered why my hourly rate took a hit,” I said, let a bit of my annoyance leak in ways only Mix would pick up on. “Remind me to recommend you to for the next Constellation seat that opens up.”

Mix faked annoyance and said, “Now that’s uncalled for.”

My gloved fingertips drifted across the desk, picking up nothing beyond the mechanical processes that had cut it out of the raw materials in some factory off in the Nordic regions when it was manufactured. They’d done a good job of sterilizing things for me. I grunted in appreciation. “I guess I can live with it.”

“It’s not like you’re hurting for cash,” Eugene said in disgust. “You make more than Hennesy does.”

“We take part of that,” Mix pointed out.

“We got a union, too,” Eugene replied.

I sat down behind the desk and took off my gloves, running my hands over the desk a second time then heaving a contented sigh. “I think I can make it work.”

“The office will lose its shine soon enough,” Eugene said with a roll of the eyes. “I swear, the things that make some people happy… Anyway, first briefing is in twenty. We’re analyzing what Agent Chase’s defection means to finding Vincent Anderson going forward.”

“How big an impact will one agent make in the long run?” I asked. It was a side of things I wasn’t used to thinking about – cat and mouse was not my usual beat.

“Given that she used to work in missing persons and knows all our standard procedures, a lot. But the briefing will cover most of that.” He turned and headed out the door. “Don’t be late!”

Mix watched him go then grunted. “Briefings. Waste of time. Hopefully this taskforce thing doesn’t wear you down. Because if it does…”

“Then what?”

He shrugged. “The Constellations can’t keep you under surveillance constantly. You were right about the Masks being involved in this case and handled it without any serious lapses in judgement beyond running a little too far ahead and getting kidnapped which was mostly not your fault. So your wellbeing is now entirely your own responsibility again – congratulations. I understand Aurora has already received a series of new assignments to choose from.”

That had only been a matter of time. Galaxy couldn’t force their members to do anything but it was no shock to hear that they wanted one of their handful of precious tier five medical psychometrics back in to the grind ASAP. “I’m sure she’ll have one picked out by tomorrow.”

Mix gave me a look I’ve been getting from other Gifted for a long time. Aurora is tier five, theoretically way out of my league, but has been interested in me for nearly a decade. It’s not something she can hide from her peers among the Gifted but they all pretend not to know because that’s the only way tier fives get any privacy. They also know I know, and won’t do anything about it. That part they don’t understand, and are happy to let me know about it.

But then, unlike tier fives, I know how to keep a secret. When I didn’t say anything or offer up any of my thoughts for his consideration he just sighed and said, “Well, do your best. We’re counting on you just as much as the FBI in this case. Can’t have the Masks pulling the rug out from under us a second time.”

He waved a brief goodbye on his way out. I’d be hearing from him again soon, although he probably didn’t realize that yet.

But first things first. I reached over and switched the my computer on, waited seven seconds for it to boot, then rested my hand on the keyboard. It only took a few seconds to find the pocket of cyberspace I wanted.

“Hello, Sandoval.”

“Hello, weakArmor.”

“Any problems maintaining my access to your systems?”

“Your access permissions have been deleted from Layer One by Administrators but remain in effect on subsequent layers of my operating systems.”

“Good. I’ve got fourteen minutes, so show me what you’ve datamined from the old Archon server sites we discussed yesterday…”


Something smelled delicious when I walked into my suite that evening. A small pile of luggage and boxes that represented my entire collection of material possessions was in the common room, waiting for me to put my life in order. Galaxy had issued me a long term residency apartment for the duration of my work with the Archon taskforce so I’d have a more permanent place to call home until we found Vinny. Honestly it felt less like a place to call my own than the office from the FBI.

Based on the scattering of books, pictures and clothing laid out on the furniture Aurora had started trying to change that. I paused to glance at my electronic picture frame on the coffee table, flipping through pictures of the two of us and some old friends back in our teenage years. As I watched them flip past she came in from the kitchenette carrying a couple of bowls of stir fry. “I ordered room service for you.”

“Hopefully you put it on my tab.”

She placed the food on the breakfast bar that looked into the kitchenette and took a seat. I took the other, noting absently that her usual well of calm was muted today, diminished somehow. She poke a fork into the stir fry and said, “I’m leaving for Saint Jude tomorrow afternoon. We’re testing another new treatment.”

Exactly the kind of project I’d expect her to take on when she wasn’t looking over my shoulder to make sure I was okay. “You always loved kids. And hated seeing them suffer.”

She looked up from her food and gave me a reproving look. “Poor Trevor.”

“Me? How so.”

“So quick to see flaws. And you can’t help poking at them.” She shook her head. “Too bad you see all your flaws as well.”

“So confident, Tiffany.” She blushed a touch when I used her real name. “Tell me about my flaws.”

She went back to picking at her food. “You let your gift rob you of confidence. You went into forensics because it’s about things, not people, and you can’t stand looking at people’s flaws for that long. You could have done more good if you learned to help people cover over the cracks in their armor instead of sinking hooks into them and dragging them to jail.”

“And yet, someone has to find people like Vinny.” I pushed back my plate and gently took the fork out of her hands. “But you’re right. I have gotten dependent on finding those cracks and leveraging them. It’s a weakness, and I need to get better on correcting those. Especially since there’s someone I know who doesn’t have any of those pesky flaws I can bring myself to grab on to…”

“Trevor…”

I took her hand and folded it in mine. “I want you to stay.”

She squeaked.

Aurora, tier five medical psychometric, squeaked like a breathless mouse. Somewhere far away the last vestiges of my juvenile self wanted a recording to tease her with later. There were more important things to think about at the moment. “Go to Saint Jude, you’ve accepted that assignment already, but after that I’m sure you can find plenty of people who want your input here on the Coast and-“

With unexpected force she sprang forward and wrapped her arms around my neck, laughing. Just like that her pool of calm and peace surged back at full strength and I found myself laughing too. After a moment we pulled apart and I gave her a questioning look. “So, is that a yes?”

“Yes.” A new feeling spread through her. Contentment. I’d never noticed it was missing until I saw her with it. “Of course I’ll stay.”

And with that confirmed my mischievous side surged back as well. “Well, I’m going to be getting an angry call from Mix in the near future, then.”

Curiosity tinged her expression. “Why is that?”

“I need to change my Gifted name to plain old Armor now.”

She laughed at me but I knew it was true. Vinny thought he needed a technological breakthrough to solve his issues. I’d found the beginning of a solution to mine. It wasn’t much of an advantage but for the moment it was all I needed.

Pay the Piper

~fin~

Pay the Piper – Chapter Thirty Three

Previous Chapter

Specialization is at the heart of computer development. Sound and graphical processing is handled by specific parts of your computer and software programs are written with specific functions in mind, rather than existing in a loosely defined set of problem solving and memory retrieving processes like in the human mind. I wasn’t sure what kind of black magic coding Vinny had done to create the program infiltrating Sandoval but I was sure it existed for the express purpose of cracking fractal encryptions like the Absolute Techies had used to secure their AI.

However, a program specializing in one kind of function adapts horribly to another. You don’t use your music app to handle your spreadsheets after all. The simplest way to handle Vinny’s infiltrator was to create a new layer of encryption for it to try and crack through. Fortunately, in my days working for Vinny, he’d taught me a bunch of their standard encryption procedures and placing in front of the intruder was a simple as a moment’s concentration. The treelike fractals of Sandoval’s defensive efforts were overlaid with a series of concentric orange octagons spreading out from the intruder’s point of contact with Sandoval’s system.

Less than a second later the fractal patterns spasmed and writhed, transforming to a new shape and form.

“Encryption has been modified,” Sandoval announced as my defensive encryption dissolved almost as quickly as it formed.

In less than a half a second the infiltrator had appeared, been stymied by my makeshift encryption, broken said encryption and discovered the underlaying fractals entirely changed. I wondered what kind of processing power made that possible, on both sides. “How long until the new encryption is cracked, Sandoval?”

“At current estimations, 277 seconds.”

Less than five minutes. Far less time than it would take for the FBI to figure out where the cyberattack was coming from.

“We need to find out where Vinny holed up,” I muttered.

“All system resources not devoted to encryption are attempting to backtrace the signals,” Sandoval told me. “There are currently 1,988 potential points of origin.”

Vinny had put a lot of work into this. “Put them on a map.”

A world map sprang to life, pinpricks of light showing all over the globe. Working together we quickly eliminated any place outside of Korea, Japan, Singapore or the U.S., where it would be harder for him to find the kind of Internet connection he needed without drawing attention. By keeping the principle of balance in mind I had Sandoval crunch numbers until we determined that the only way to divide up the potential locations of origin equally was by latitude. In the first digit column every number was represented twice except for degrees 4 and 7, which each had a single location with coordinates at that degree. With 1,988 traces reduced to two Sandoval was easily able to test and determine which was the actual point of origin for the hacking attacks we were repelling.

Vinny was operating out of Atlanta, Georgia. Not where I would have expected, but that was probably part of the charm.

There was no way I was going to be able to hack past whatever defenses against cyberattack Vinny had in place, even with the admittedly quite capable Sandoval to help me out, so I settled for the next best thing. He was strong in cyberspace but the FBI had a distinct advantage in meatspace. I tipped Hennesy off and the Feds were scrambling towards the location inside of twenty minutes. But the hacking attempts against Sandoval had vanished long before the first FBI response vehicle rolled out of the Atlanta headquarters and, while they found a lot of hardware, there were no signs of the anyone there. The equipment itself had been rendered useless via EMP.

That was the last the FBI would hear from the Masks and their technological collaborators for quite some time.


I was up to my eyeballs in evaluating the damage from the AI Massacre, less than a day after I’d stymied Vinny with Sandoval’s help, when my SIM card picked up a call from an unknown number. That’s not terribly unusual, given my contractor status, so I answered it without thinking. “weakArmor here.”

“We’re very impressed with your work, Armor,” Natalie said.

There was a couple of moments of frantic arm waving, gesturing and general shenanigans as I tried to get Eugene’s attention and make him realize what was going on. “I was not expecting this call,” I admitted, wondering how I stalled for time with someone who already knew every procedure and priority in the book for these kinds of situations. “To what do I owe the honor?”

“Your use of the AI,” Natalie answered. “Vinny is still mentioning how impressive he found it, how you managed to use the AI to help you track him down.”

“The AI did the math, the methods were all me,” I said, watching as Eugene frantically sprinted from a white board over to his desk phone. I wasn’t sure who he was calling but they didn’t seem to be picking up at the moment. “AT isn’t going to give you another crack at Sandoval, you know. It’s time you gave up on that and maybe turned yourself in -“

“Not happening,” Natalie assured me. “One AI still in the works isn’t that big a threat. Sandoval is the most specialized of the three, anyway. There are more important factors to focus on. This isn’t over, Armor.”

“I never thought it was. I am surprised you put so much importance in making me understand that.” Eugene was making the universal hand gesture for ‘keep talking’ while he murmured unintelligibly into his phone. So much of his attention was focused on me that I couldn’t interpret what he was saying by what he was broadcasting either. “Sandoval is actually a pretty okay AI, once you get to know it.”

“That’s not the point, Armor. The point is, the existing Internet is built to rapidly disseminate the most hostile aspects of memetic culture and the people who wield power in that sphere refuse to take any steps to change that.”

“Not great, I admit, but you could always just get off Twitter.”

“Tech needs to be held to account,” Natalie continued, ignoring my jab. “Silicon Valley won’t. The government won’t. So the Masks will excise the cancer and replace it with a new, healthy tech landscape for the future. You don’t have to fight it, Armor.”

“It’s better than trying to fight human nature, Natalie. No matter how high minded your ideals, no matter how good your technology, no matter what Mask you put over it, our worse angels will always find a way to warp it to their end.” I had a powerful urge to hang up on her to punctuate my point but I fought it down because I knew what I needed to really be after here.

Unfortunately so did she. “I look forward to seeing how wrong you are,” she said. Then she hung up.

I looked at Eugene. He spread his hands helplessly, said his fair wells and hung up the phone. We hadn’t gotten anything. Vinny and the Masks would be at large for a little while longer at the very least.