Martian Scriptures Chapter Twenty – The Middle Ground

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Harriet watched what was quickly turning into one of the oddest arguments she’d ever witnessed take shape. On one side was an enormous two meter spacer, an experienced surveyor who’d visited more planets in the last five years than most people would see in a lifetime. The other was a kind of dumpy mother of two who’d lived her whole life under a single colony dome and first met someone from outside said dome less than a week ago. They were apparently debating the theological implications of nuclear physics.

“We know that the reactor was modified to disguise your colony, Miss Pracht,” Fyodorovich was saying. “But there are a dozen other ways we could achieve the same end with safer equipment. Part of the reason your reactor is failing is because it’s been forced to do something entirely outside its specifications.”

“It’s not a matter of the technology at work, Volk,” Alyssa replied. “We know the reactor is a nuclear fusion device. But Ransom’s notes also suggest its part of how the Oyarsa defends the colony against Thulcandra. How do we know replacing it with two different pieces of technology keeps the same effect?”

“But what if you don’t need it anymore?” Fyodorovich countered. “You’re not in any meaningful danger from Earth now.”

“Only for as long as you stay,” she countered. “And then only as long as Thulcandra is and remains as helpless as you say it is. You can’t honestly expect us to put our trust in something that flimsy, can you? Outsiders haven’t exactly done right by us in the past.”

Volk sat back in his chair, an old thing left by the basecamp’s previous occupants that had more dust for padding than cushions. It creaked ominously under the navy man’s weight. His face gave little away and, since he hadn’t given Harriet any clues on his negotiation strategy before Alyssa had arrived with the Eldest, she wasn’t sure if he’d expected this dead end or what his next move might be.

But it turned out Volk’s plans didn’t matter at this stage. Eldest Nobari leaned forward, rested his forearms on the table and said, “Commander Fyodorovich, at this point I think we’ve said all that can be said on this front. The Sunbottle is our only tested defense against the threat of Thulcandra. You could very well explain enough of your technology to Alyssa to convince us your new countermeasures could work. The spiritual protection they offer us from the Enemy might even carry over, whether or not you believe such a thing is possible. After all, the original Sunbottle came from Thulcandra itself, a planet on the other side of the spiritual battle we live in. I’m sure a reactor made by those who don’t believe in it at all could function just as well.”

“But you’re unwilling to take our word for it,” Volk said.

“Correct.”

The big man sighed. “Under the circumstances, I understand. At least to an extent. Can I ask you something, Miss Pracht?”

“Of course.”

“Does the name C.S. Lewis mean anything to you?”

Harriet glanced up at that. She’d mostly been watching the transcript her AI was building up until that point but the introduction of this new, unexpected name got her attention.

“I’ve never heard it before,” Alyssa said. An honest answer, by Harriet’s assessment. She hadn’t met the Martian woman until they visited the ship two days ago but Alyssa struck her as the type to wear most of her feelings on her sleeve. That undoubtedly made puberty hard but journalism easier. For the journalist, not Alyssa.

Nobari, on the other hand, shut down. It was less obvious, just a rapid flick of the eyes from one person to another, a twitch of the cheek and slight turn of the lips suggesting he’d heard something he hadn’t expected. Then all motion left his expression in a clear attempt to withhold any tells. A well done poker face implemented a split second too late.

Volk grunted and changed the display on the holoprojector he was using, replacing the current image of  the layout for a replacement reactor with a new image of a large landing craft. “Fine. A full replacement is the safest, fastest way to solve your problem but there is another option.”

“Retooling the Sunbottle.”

He glanced at Alyssa with an amused smile. “I suspect that’s along the lines of what your previous proposed solution was?”

“Yes.” She seemed less amused at the line of thought. “But that assumed we had the time to fabricate a whole new set of junctions and injectors, plus enough batteries to store enough power to run the dome in the meantime.”

A new set of readouts were ready and projected for them to look at. Volk began pointing out parts of the plan as he explained. “That assumes a couple of things. First, that you have to use battery power. But if we bring down a Tigris-class lander we can hook the ship’s generator into your power grid and run your buildings off of that. The reactor only needs to be offline for about a day before you can start booting it up again, in about two days you can run the full dome on that level of output and a Tigris can put out enough power to run Bottletown for about a week, so plenty of breathing room.”

“What about the rest of the dome?” Nobari asked.

“Your crops and equipment can last a couple of days without gravity or air circulating. We’ll keep the EM shielding up so you don’t catch any extra radiation from the sun. Brownouts like this used to be a regular thing on some of the space stations we have so we’ve had plenty of chances to work up measures to deal with them. Nothing we’ve experienced suggests it will pose a problem for anything you’ve got down here.”

“But we won’t have the raw materials strip and replace one full injector system until we strip some of the parts,” Alyssa objected. “That alone pushes our timeline out a day and a half, maybe two. And adds the fisher’s equipment back into the list of things that have to run.”

“No. Because that’s the second thing your plans assume.” The project switched images again, this time changing to pure text. “I’ve been talking with our engineering experts onboard the Stewart, that’s how I knew this problem was coming in the first place. We’ve put a lot of the parts into production shipside already. If you didn’t need them they could’ve always been recycled and this way we weren’t wasting any time. And not only have we already started, our fabbers work much faster than yours. A full set of replacement hardware should be ready to go within six hours.”

Nobari leaned forward and studied the readout intently. “I see why you’re so reluctant to impress yourselves on others,” he said after a moment. “You could sway a huge number of people to your side with these kind of gestures. What do you want in return?”

“Eldest,” Alyssa hissed.

“It’s fine.” Volk cleared the readout. “Personally, I’d just like your goodwill. These kinds of goodwill gifts are common in diplomacy but if you don’t like feeling indebted you can just let us take your old injector systems. Once we break them down we’ll be no worse off in terms of raw materials.”

Nobari leaned back and thought about it for a moment, then glanced at his companion. “Alyssa?”

“I’d like a closer look at the plans for your lander. And I insist on looking over your replacement parts before you send them down. But…” She hesitated a moment, then shook her head. “I can’t think of any reason not to do it this way.”

Nobari nodded, as much to himself as to anyone around him. “Very well. Let’s do it.”

Volk stood up and shook his hand. “Certainly. I presume you want to get this done as soon as possible?”

“Sooner, if we can get away with it,” Alyssa said, also standing.

“Then let’s get you spaceborn ASAP.”

Harriet stepped forward, moving around Volk as the big man led Alyssa out of basecamp, choosing instead to approach the Eldest. “Excuse me,” she said, moving her AI to her off hand so she could offer a handshake. “Mr. Nobari? Could I trouble you for a comment?”


 

Craig looked through the diagrams Deveneaux was explaining and said, “You say it has less than a year of service left?”

“That’s our most generous estimate, yes.”

“Why wasn’t I briefed on this immediately?”

“Well…” The engineer glanced over at the ship’s tactical officer just down the table. “I did intend to bring it up as soon as we reached these conclusions but there were other issues demanding your attention at the time.”

For a split second Craig wondered if his career was over. It was a Prime Directive violation and he hadn’t even been able to ask Admiral Carrington to formally order his crew to intervene for the sake of form. At the same time his heart was with Volk. He wanted to help the children Earth had abandoned to Mars. He just wasn’t sure that they were going about it the best way. Then again, the Malacandrans had been on the verge of addressing the problem before the Stewart arrived. Perhaps without the distraction of their presence on the ground in the first place they would have solved the reactor’s problems already. He rocked back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling for just a moment. “Okay, Commander, how long will it take us to finish producing the replacement parts they need?”

“Assuming Commander Fyodorovich brings their techs up immediately? We should have all the parts finished an hour after they arrive. Depending on how long the inspection takes we can get a lander loaded and back out in another two.”

“That’s awful fast,” Rand muttered, looking at the parts inventory. “How much of this did we have in inventory already?”

“None of it,” Deveneaux replied. “It’s two hundred fifty year old tech, why would we have it on hand?”

“You’re going to nanofacture all this in…” Craig did some mental estimates. Ninety to a hundred minutes to get up from Mars, plus an hour after they arrived. “Two and a half hours?”

“This is four hours of work, at least,” Rand said.

“Five, actually.” Deveneaux shrugged. “When I couldn’t discuss it with you I checked with Fyodorovich. We decided it was worth going ahead and starting on, so I cleared the cues on the fabbers and started production.”

Rand straightened in surprise. “You canceled my type two shelters?”

“You’re not going to need an outpost on Mars if the reactor melts down, Commander.”

“I agree,” Craig said, clearing the holodisplay. “Well done, Commander Deveneaux. Keep me posted if there are any developments in the situation. I’ll report to the Admiral.”

“Wait. One thing.” Rand visibly got his head back in the game. “How are we getting a lander inside the colony? Do we need to include some way to open the dome?”

Deveneaux shook his head. “I’m told that’s something they can handle on their side of things.”


 

“Okay,” Pak said, looking around at his fellow shift heads and Gemma. “Who here has ever replaced the servos on an exterior door? Or has anyone on their shifts who has? Lawrence? Tupulo?”

To his surprise, Gemma raised her hand.

“Really?”

“I used to be on one of the crawler crews.” She clasped her hands together and her fingers worried at each other. “Not many people know it but there’s a set of exterior doors at the bottom of the Sunbottle. We had to replace the servos once a year.”

Pak gave the girl a hard look. She was odd, and a little flighty, but she’d never deliberately lied as far as he knew. “What possible use for an exterior door do you have down there?

She threw her hands out in an enormous shrug. “I don’t know. Crawlers just take replace parts, we aren’t told what they’re for.”

“Fine. Go check with the crawlers on shift today, see if they have any of those servos on hand. It’ll save us time if we don’t have to make the parts from scratch.” He looked up and out the watch tower windows, towards the hatch in the dome a few hundred meters away. “We got enough on our plate as it is.”

Martian Scriptures Chapter Nineteen – Quick Fixes

Previous Chapter

Volk did not expect to walk straight in to Bottletown given the poor showing he’d made on his last visit. He really didn’t expect to do it with the ludicrous entourage he’d picked up on the way. Of the people who started out back at the Borealis basecamp only Long had remained behind to facilitate communications with the ship – a job that boiled down to making sure the comm relay didn’t short out. Everyone else grabbed such equipment as was relevant to their jobs and followed behind Pak as the excitable kid dragged the lot of them back to see whatever emergency had him so worked up. Captain Gyle understood that this was a chance to repair some of the ill will that they’d apparently built up with the Malacandrans and had settled in on the bridge to armchair quarterback the situation.

Which was great if you weren’t the head of Martian Operations. If you were, you had to listen to said quarterbacking for the whole run across Borealis, too out of breath to say anything back. “And try to figure out what they were expecting when Ransom came back,” Gyle was saying. “There’s nothing in either of the sequels that suggest Ransom ever expected to return to Mars.”

“Don’t think… they know… about sequels,” Volk huffed, marveling at how fast Pak was going. He said his primary job involved sitting in a tower, at a console. When had he had time to develop the legs of an Olympic sprinter?

“That may be the first thing we bring in to further negotiations,” Gyle mused. “New revelations may soften them up some. The last book apparently establishes Earth as a viable planet again.”

“I’m not sure upsetting their worldview that way is a good choice right now.” Dulan’s voice was distant, suggesting she was away from her pickup. “There’s a good chance they’re not running off the published text anyways.”

“What?” Volk huffed.

“That’s true,” Gyle said. “There’s nothing I’ve read in Lewis’ novel that suggests ritual suicide, for example. The early Malancadrans may have reworked the novel to reinforce some of their more unpleasant practices to help justify them to future generations.”

That made a certain degree of sense but before Volk could ask any of the dozens of questions that sprang to mind he had to skid to a stop or run over Pak.

“What?” Volk asked again.

“This is the Glass Box,” Pak replied, sounding just a touch winded. “Come on.”

It turned out the Glass Box was a hospital. 

Or more probably, an old first aid station. Really just a reception room, four beds and two of the titular Glass Boxes, containers the size of a coffin that currently contained one person each. In spite of the burns on much of their bodies, Volk guessed they were more comfortable than anyone else in the building, there were already at least a dozen people in there when he arrived with his group and from the sounds of shuffling and grunting everyone who had followed along was packing in behind him after he entered. “All right… Pak. Tell me… what happened.”

“What is he doing here?” Nobari’s voice came from behind one of the Glass Boxes. A moment later he stood up from behind it, irate. “Pak, who’s idea was this?”

“Mine,” he said. “They have a space ship, Eldest. Maybe they know more about how the Glass Box works, too. When I heard about the accident I went to get them.”

Volk refrained from comment until he managed to swim through the crowd and get up to the boxes himself. What he saw wasn’t encouraging.

One of the boxes contained a lanky kid he’d never seen before, somewhere between fourteen and twenty based on his height. The burns on his head, chest and arms kept Volk from guessing anything else about him, even his hair color. The other box contained Alyssa Pracht. Her burns were less severe and took up less real estate. Both were floating in some kind of highly viscus liquid reminiscent of a nanofacturing pool, both boxes had some kind of readouts at the end closest to the door.

Volk was no doctor but the readouts were simple enough. The boy’s were all in the red, showing no blood pressure, no heartbeat, no brain activity. Volk revised his estimate of their relative comfort levels. Alyssa was still alive but the signs were trending downward. If he was reading them right.

Volk rested his fingertips nervously on the readout panel. “Can anyone tell me what this setup is supposed to do?”

“The Glass Box is a medical device designed for repairing large scale topographical injuries.” Nobari said it with the singsong of someone reciting specifications learned by rote from a manual.

“How does it work?”

“It uses the same principles as the nanolathes and nanovats.”

Volk turned to look over the crowd. Saw the person he wanted in the back. “Miss Vance? We need your expertise.”

“Traffic control, Commander,” she said as she worked through the crowd. “I worked with AIs in traffic control, I’m not an expert on any of this.”

“But you know something about medical nanotech, which is more than the rest of us can say.” He looked back at the Glass Box. “So what can we do here?”

“Okay. Let’s see.” She rested her hands on the box. “Every traffic center has a few mobile, emergency nanotanks. Probably related to this system somehow. Our internal medical nanotech has limits based on our metabolism and available calories, dunking someone with large scale external injuries in something like this gets around those problems. But it’s the internal systems that deal with hemorrhaging and organ injuries from crashes. A mix of internal and external systems is considered best for dealing with significant injuries, which is what we have here.”

“What do you mean internal?” Nobari demanded.

Aubrey glanced up from the box, fingers drumming on it absently. “Do you have any kind of medical procedure done at the end of puberty?”

“What is puberty?”

“Never mind.” The cultural and social mess that was puberty was something Volk didn’t want to bother explaining. “She wants to know if you have some kind of medical operation everyone gets between 44 and 55 cents.”

“No.” Nobari shrugged. “But I was a healthy one. Someone might have.”

“There’s no reason not to give the tech to everyone,” Aubrey muttered. “Although plenty of reason not to keep using it after seeing everyone you knew with it go into Shutdown.”

“You think they stopped using it after Earth wiped out Borealis?” Volk asked.

“Wouldn’t you?” She countered. “I’m thinking of having mine removed, if that’s feasible. In the meantime, the only viable method of helping her I can think of is to pump her full of the stuff.”

“Great.” Volk clapped his hands in an ancient gesture to show willing. “Let’s see the manual on this thing, Eldest. I know you have them.”

That got him a peculiar look but Nobari just pulled a heavy plastic book from a slot in the Box’s primary support. “Here it is. But I’m afraid this is one of our more incomplete manuals. Several pages are missing in it.”

“In every copy?”

Nobari’s full attention ratcheted around to give Volk his full scrutiny. “How do you know how many copies we have?”

“I… don’t.” Which was true. And he wasn’t going to admit to seeing another one in the Eldest’s offices earlier.

“Well, the answer is yes, in all the copies we have certain pages are missing. There’s no mention of internal versus external treatment in any of the remaining pages.” Nobari set the book down on top of the box suddenly. “Although now that I think of it…”

When the silence got long Volk prompted him. “Think of what?”

But the eldest had just gone to the controls and started going through them with shocking speed. “There is a control screen we don’t know the full function of. Here.”

Volk peeked over one of Nobari’s shoulders, Aubrey the other. They saw a long list of options that could be toggled between two or more options. All of the options were abbreviated and he didn’t have the first clue what any of them did. Nobari pointed to one line where the toggles were labeled “E” and “I” saying, “We don’t know what any of these options do but we’ve been taught in no uncertain terms to make sure this is always set to the ‘E’ option.”

Aubrey tugged at the cuffs of her shirt absently as she studied the screen for a moment. “Maybe. Maybe not. I’m not sure that’s worth taking a risk on. What if It’s not?”

But Alyssa’s vitals had already dropped in the few moments they’d been talking. Volk sighed. “Then she’s probably going to die anyways.”

And he planted a finger on the touchpad and slid it until the E flipped to I. The glass box began humming softly. And Volk was suddenly aware that he was sweating profusely in his uniform and the air in the room was incredibly close. He turned around and started waving his hands at the crowd. “Okay, everybody, time to get back to work. To many people staring at you can ruin your recovery. I’m sure you’ll get to talk to Alyssa once she’s well again…”


 

The world came back slowly. Masamune Nobari was the first thing to come into focus – hardly what she’d call a great start – then Victor came along second. Alyssa let her husband put a hand under her back and lift her to a sitting position. Memories filtered back slowly at first, then all at once. “Where’s Doug?”

Nobari looked resigned. “There will be time for-“

“He didn’t make it, did he?” Alyssa slumped against Victor’s chest, profound disappointment settling over her in a shroud. It wasn’t the same as watching Naomi walk out of the dome the day before. She didn’t know Doug that well and hadn’t liked him any better than her other coworkers. But he had been a good man, so far as she knew, and knowing she wouldn’t see him again left her feeling off balance.

“Douglas Presser has passed into Silence,” Victor said. “But you’re still with us for now. Can you get up?”

She looked around, realized she was sitting in the middle of an empty Glass Box dressed in only minimal clothing, and felt the red start creeping over her body. “If I can’t I need you to move me. I’m not sitting here like this for another minute.”

A moment’s fumbling got Alyssa’s feet off the table and onto the floor then Vincent rocked her forward into a standing position and, still leaning on him, she turned towards the door. Much to her surprise she found it blocked by the short, dark haired, freakishly intense woman that had followed Volk around for the past several days. Alyssa racked her mind for a name but couldn’t come up with one. She didn’t think she’d ever heard it. “Sorry to interrupt,” she said, not looking sorry at all, “but Commander Fyodorovich would like a word with you.”

“He can wait,” Vincent replied with uncharacteristic heat.

In response the woman just hefted the helmet under her arm and pushed something inside. There must have been an external microphone somewhere as Volk’s voice came out of it. “Miss Pracht, I’d like a moment of your time.”

Alyssa groaned. “If this is about what happened at the Sunbottle–“

“Your reactor is failing.” Volk’s words hung in the air for just a moment. “In fact, I’d guess your emergency treatment today was the result of some aspect of the progressive system failure currently working its way through your reactor’s injector supply systems right now. If–“

“Listen,” Victor snapped, “my wife is our foremost expert on–“

Victor stopped short as she tightened her grip on his arm. “You’re correct, Commander.”

There was a moment of silence from the helmet, long enough Alyssa saw the woman carrying it give it a questioning glance. “Miss Pracht, for better or for worse you’ve had certain expectations of the people outside your dome for your entire life. You’ve expected them to come and change your world however they liked. It was just a question of when and whether they would be good people or bad people. For our part, we’ve had certain rules about how we treat other groups of people that tell us taking over and changing the rules in that way is, in and of itself, an evil thing to do. I’m not going to argue the merits of those positions. Instead, I’d like to offer you – and, if he’s there, the Eldest – a compromise.”

Alyssa and Nobari exchanged a glance. After a moment’s hesitation, Nobari answered. “Go ahead, Commander Fyodorovich.”

“If your people have a solution to this problem we will offer our technical expertise, available materials and fabrication capacity to assist in implementing it. If not, we have a solution of our own to propose.”

Nobari asked her the question with one raised eyebrow. She answered for the room to hear. “We had a solution, but the man who put it together died before he could fully explain it. I’m sure he had files somewhere we could use to piece it together but… the problem has also progressed much farther than we thought it had.”

It only took a second for Nobari to reach a decision after that. “In which case, we’d be happy to hear your proposal, Commander.”

“Then please meet me at basecamp at your earliest convenience. SFC Shen will show you how to get here.”

The helmet clicked and went quiet. Alyssa sighed and looked up at her husband. “I hope you brought me a change of work clothes.”


 

Volk signed off the comms and sighed, looking up at the ceiling and wondering how he got roped into all this.

“I’m surprised you got the Captain to sign off on this.” He practically jumped out of his skin and looked over at the doorway. Thacker was standing there, her AI in one hand and recording. “Nice work, by the way.”

He shook his head and laughed. “Thanks, I think. Didn’t realize I had an audience.”

“Being invisible is how a reporter does their best work. So.” She gave him a winning smile. “How did you convince the Captain to go along with this little plan of yours?”

Volk shrugged and reached for the comms again. “Let’s find out, shall we?”

Martian Scriptures Chapter Eighteen – Falling Dominoes

Previous Chapter

Vash Deveneaux did not want to go to the Captain’s Ready Room. It went against all protocol and considerations of shipboard life. When on the bridge, the Captain was surrounded in a perpetual cloud of holographic information that he had to monitor, analyze and react to on a second by second basis. The Ready Room was, in theory, a place to retreat from that and contemplate a single subject. Sometimes a subject unrelated to shipboard duties. It was grossly inconsiderate of the crew to pursue the Captain there with distractions and they all knew it.

Which was why it was doubly disconcerting to arrive at the Ready Room door and find Commander Rand there already. Vash frowned, sizing up his fellow officer. He’d never worked with Rand before their assignment to the Stewart, something that was no longer uncommon in the Rodenberry Stellar Navy. This wasn’t the six ship fleet the colony had started out with, it was a genuine fleet of eighty three ships plus six under construction. You couldn’t know every officer in your peer group anymore.

But in their six months together on the Stewart Vash had learned to loath him.

It was a very professional loathing, rather than a personal one, but a loathing none the less. Rand seemed to think shipboard security and tactical performance was the first duty of every department and spent an inordinate amount of time pestering his fellow department heads about their section’s performance in various drills. Meanwhile, he’d ignored two formal reports on excessive energy use Vash had sent him in as many months. It wasn’t the drop in efficiency that bothered him. It was the lack of consideration.

But Vash felt he had good cause to call on the Captain in his Ready Room. He was willing to do Rand the courtesy of assuming he had the same. So he just nodded a greeting. “Commander.”

“Morning, Vash.”

Vash did his best not to bristle at the familiarity. Rand was casual with everyone. “What brings you here?”

Rand was about to answer when the Ready Room door opened. The Captain was seated behind his desk, attention fixed on a text display. He waved one hand absently. “Come in, gentlemen.”

There was a moment’s hesitation as Rand wavered then Vash brushed past him. Rand followed with an annoyed sound and the Ready Room door closed behind them. “Unusual for the two of you to come together,” The Captain said after another few beats, closing down his reader. “This must be important.”

“Actually, we’re here on separate business,” Rand said, giving Vash an opaque look. “I have Jimenez’s report on the matter we discussed earlier. You did say you wanted to see it as soon as it was finished.”

The Captain nodded. “Yes, I did say that. I’m sorry, Commander Deveneaux, this will have to wait.”

For a brief moment Vash considered protesting, pushing for the importance of his own case. But it wasn’t because he honestly thought he was bringing something more important than the tactical officer; it was because he hated letting Rand have yet another win. The realistic portion of his mind knew that, under the circumstances, tactical considerations probably did take precedence but his pride still protested. Quite a bit.

“I understand, Captain. At your convenience.” Deveneaux turned around and let himself back out of the Ready Room, annoyance gnawing away at his patience. Still, there were options. As soon as the Ready Room door was closed behind him he keyed his comms. “Devenaux to Fabrication Bay Three.”

“Chief Volney here, Commander. Go ahead.”

“Go ahead and clear the fabbers for the new jobs we discussed earlier, Chief. Pull the pop-up shelters from the cue and swap in the parts the Spiner recommended, then move on down the list. Priority one, I don’t want this job suspended unless the orders come from me or the Captain.” He walked into the lift and ordered it back to Engineering.

“Understood, sir. Glad the Captain saw it your way.”

“I’m sure he will, Chief. Deveneaux out.” The truth was, very little of the equipment Vash’s engineers were responsible for was under their sole supervision. Even the nanofacturies in the ship’s fabrication plants had such constant demands placed on them that many people in other departments felt possessive of them. Which forced Vash to maneuver carefully where they were concerned most of the time. And to lean on other department heads when he had to assert himself. Vash keyed his comms again. “Deveneaux to Lab 232. Put me through to the head of Martian Operations, please.”


 

Harriet checked the AI display inside her helmet for the fifth time in as many minutes. She’d made the mistake of assuming she could navigate the streets of Old Borealis as easily as Commander Fyodorovich did and was fast discovering the actual limits of her abilities. It was annoying, less because she couldn’t get where she wanted to go and more because she’d been so confident she could do this she turned down an offer from the ensign in the lander to escort her to the base camp. Some might find constantly doubling back to find the right street in a place like Old Borealis fun. But those were people of different tastes and, more importantly, not people on the cusp of scoring the scoop of two centuries.

There were more than a dozen embedded journalists in the Fleet but the only one with a Terran human on the same ship was named Harriet Thacker.

There was still a chance some shenanigans would put the main body of the fleet in contact with Earth before her scoop developed into anything particularly meaningful. But she had to keep her instincts sharp and at least try for it or she was going to rot away and become useless as a journalist thanks to all the inactivity she’d endured in the Fleet so far.

Then again, she had gotten to Mars before any of the other journalists in the Fleet and there did seem to be something interesting going on here, too. Most of the Martians she’d met had been tight lipped about pretty much everything so far but a lot of journalism was slowly cultivating contacts until you learned something big. With less than a week invested on the ground so far she couldn’t expect a whole lot just yet.

But then again, maybe she could. One of the orange suits was hustling his way towards her. It was hard to tell with the ill fitted nature of the suit, plus the helmet obscuring the face, but it looked a lot like the Head Watcher, Teng Pak Won. Harriet waved a hand to him as he got close. “Good morning!”

He caught his breath then ripped his helmet off, confirming it was, in fact, Pak. “I need to talk to Volk, please. Is he here?”

“Last I heard he was at the base camp.” She studied his face a little more closely. “Is something wrong?”

“There’s been an accident.”


 

“So we’re looking at a Prime Directive problem,” Oda mused. “They’ve built a culture based on a work of fiction that leads to ritual suicide. The question it raises is whether it’s our place to interfere.”

“I’m sorry,” Aubrey said, her holographic projection leaning forward a few degrees, “this may not be procedure but can I ask what a Prime Directive problem is?”

“Of course, Miss Vance.” Craig dredged through old memories of Academy lessons – and now that he was thinking about it Veers was right, there was a lot of time spent on Rodenberry’s television there – to formulate a comprehensive answer. “I presume that Star Trek is not one of the aspects of old Earth culture that you maintain?”

“If it is, I’ve never heard of it,” she said. “But I’m not a real student of old world cultures.”

“Then simply put, the Prime Directive is a belief that interfering with the natural progression of a culture or civilization of vastly inferior scientific and technological knowledge is innately harmful, and thus immoral. Prime Directive problems hinge on when that belief is put in conflict with another core tenant of humanism, like the belief that life is inherently valuable. Is it ethical to use modern medicine to save a stone age species from dying in large numbers from a disease? Their culture will naturally warp in response to that. Can we guarantee it does more good than harm? We can’t see the future, after all.” Craig spread his hands. “But like the Three Laws of Robotics, the storytelling function of the Prime Directive was to challenge the idea that even straight forward moral notions could be easily understood when applied to real life.”

“That may have been Rodenberry’s original purpose,” Commander Dhawan said, “although I’m not sure the record there is clear. Regardless, many writers played it entirely straight even before the franchise crossed the accountability threshold. For example, in The Next-

“Putting aside the more labyrinthine parts of the analysis,” Craig put enough of an edge at the beginning to ensure Dhawan knew the topic was closed, “what we really need to ask ourselves is how ethical we think it is to interfere in this situation.”

Farah Dulan, human development officer, sociologist and the only other person physically present in the conference room with Craig, tapped the table to draw their attention. “While I’m not sure the Prime Directive was ever a truly ethical principle to hold to, it also doesn’t apply to our situation here. I can’t quote you every time the Directive was referenced in Rodenberry’s work but I do know that it wasn’t really meant to apply between radically different human cultures. All spacefaring civilizations were exempt from it and Mars was settled by a spacefaring civilization.”

“But they’ve clearly lost that capability,” Oda pointed out. “And there is a noninterference clause in the Naval charter, so its ethical considerations are secondary – we are bound to uphold it.”

“I think the question is moot.” There was a moment of uncomfortable silence as everyone in the physical and holographic meeting space turned their attention to Sergeant Langly.

Oda finally broke it. “Please explain, Sergeant.”

“I thought it was obvious,” Langly said with the annoyed tone universal to senior enlisted personnel who felt their officers were being obtuse. “First, you’re already here. You’ve already interfered and taken – or been given – a place in their cultural landscape. What you do with it or whether you even accept it is up to you but clearly the noninterference ship sailed long ago. Besides. This isn’t a Rodenberry mission.”

Craig nodded. This was the thing he’d been thinking all along. “It’s a joint mission between our governments. Even if Rodenberry was obliged to withdraw, a different ship from the fleet would just take our place.”

Commander Fyodorovich got to his feet and for a moment Craig thought he was about to make some kind of appeal to the assembled crew for one purpose or another. But instead he just made a motion to SFC Shen and stepped out of the hologram pickups, vanishing from view. For a brief moment Aubrey and Langly’s heads pivoted at odd angles, watching Fyodorovich leave relative to their own point of view. Opting to ignore the incident Craig carried on. “What are the potential outcomes of continuing here? Between Miss Vance’s briefings and Commander Fyodorovich discovering Out of the Silent Planet as the source text for this culture, what is there still to learn here?”

“We’ve never observed a culture this close to the myths that shaped it,” Dhawan put in. “We could learn incredible amounts just by studying it.”

“Interesting but not ultimately useful in the short term,” Craig said. “What else?”

There was another pause as Fyodorovich rejoined the call, sans SFC Shen. “Not exactly something to learn,” Langly put in, “but the colony is well positioned as a rally point for new ships entering the Sol system. If relations with Earth remain tense that’s really handy to have.”

“Interesting but again not the question.” Craig zeroed in on Fyodorovich in particular. “Given the recent difficulties, how much more can we hope to learn by remaining here? What do they know and how likely are they to share it?”

“I’m not sure what they know,” Volk said. “But I don’t think they’ll share it with us unless we agree to help them in one way or another. They’ve been desperate for contact with the world outside their dome, Captain. They want our help and I think we’ve reached the point where they’ll cut us off if we don’t give it.”

“The fleet didn’t exactly arrive prepared to help a struggling colony out,” Langly pointed out. “What do you think you can do about it?”

“I don’t know,” Fyodorovich mused. “We could probably expand the dome considerably, and equip it to defend itself against Earth or space pirates, with a couple of months work.”

“Raw materials are the problem,” Rand pointed out, “not time or know how.”

“There’s a planet full of old, empty cities we can break down and repurpose in the nanofacturies.”

“I don’t think UNIGOV is going to allow you to harvest any of the old places for parts,” Aubrey said.

“Maybe if we had anyone in the fleet that specialized in removing things from planets over the planetary government’s objections…”

Langly’s head snapped around – presumably to look at Fyodorovich although the holoprojections didn’t make that clear – and he said, “You want to send the Galileans to raid Earth?”

“They have the ships for it…”

The idea was amusing but not where Craig wanted their energy spent. “Thank you, Commander. I’ll pass that suggestion on to the Admiral. Now, for the third time -”

But there wasn’t a third time because Harriet Thacker burst onto camera and said, “Commander you need to get to the Sunbottle right now.”

Martian Scriptures Chapter Sixteen – Hard Truths

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, Commander. Stewart out.”

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

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

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

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

“Everything secure?” She asked.

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

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

“Any luck?”

Shen shrugged. “Ask him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked at Shen. “Yes?”

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

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

The door swung open.

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

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

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

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

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

“Fyodorovich to Stewart.”

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

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

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

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

Martian Scriptures Chapter Fourteen – Separate Ways

Previous Chapter

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

“Where’s he going?” Brent asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your Mr. Ransom–“

“Dr. Ransom,” Alyssa corrected him.

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

“Admiral, we’re making real progress–“

“I understand the basic Rodenberry desire–“

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martian Scriptures Chapter Eleven – Children

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Technically?”

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

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

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

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

“Can I ask you something?”

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

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

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

Pak started. “What?”

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martian Scriptures Chapter Ten – The Pact

Previous Chapter

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

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

“You didn’t know about this?”

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

“Which one is Pak?” Thacker asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A journalist?” Naomi asked.

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

“Like an archivist.”

“There are certainly similarities,” Thacker said.

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

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

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

“Well then,” he said, “lead on!”


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is.”

Curiouser and curiouser. “How old are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martian Scriptures Chapter Nine – Dinner Plans

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gyle raised an eyebrow. “Certainly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about Masamune?” Greg asked.

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

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

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

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

But they all knew it wouldn’t.

Martian Scriptures Chapter Eight – Hnau

Previous Chapter

“Lieutenant Commander?

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

Department head?

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

“Sir, what is-”

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

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

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

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


 

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

“They have not kept us waiting.”

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

As if there wasn’t already enough.

Lieutenant had returned with his four friends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s true.”

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

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

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

“You are not an Elder yourself?”

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you one of them?”

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

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

“Take care, Pak.”

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

Martian Scriptures Chapter Six – A Malacandran

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

“What’s the situation, Lieutenant?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you not have Elders on Thulcandra?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But?”

“But there was red dust on him, sir.”

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

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

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

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

“What’s that, Lieutenant?”

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

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