Martian Scriptures Chapter Sixteen – Hard Truths

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, Commander. Stewart out.”

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

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

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

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

“Everything secure?” She asked.

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

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

“Any luck?”

Shen shrugged. “Ask him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked at Shen. “Yes?”

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

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

The door swung open.

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

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

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

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

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

“Fyodorovich to Stewart.”

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

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

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

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

Martian Scriptures Chapter Four – Watching the Silence

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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.”

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