Chapter Twenty Three – Long Way Down

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“You’re crazy!” Cates said. 

At the same time Alyssa said, “I don’t like the sounds of this plan, Dex.” 

“We skim down in a single orbit, use the atmosphere as brakes during the nadir of the first stage of the loop then bounce up a bit and repeat. We’ll lose about half the hull on our belly but we’ll be down in twenty five minutes, tops.” Langley jerked a thumb at himself. “At least, if I’m flying. Clearly your guy doesn’t have the chops for this.” 

Volk gave the Copernican pilot his best officer’s stare. “Langley, if this is just some overwrought way to make Ensign Cates feel inferior it’s in poor taste.” 

“Lieutenant,” he replied, “I did almost this exact landing pattern over Earth less than a week ago in a far less robust or maneuverable craft and on that run everyone who was alive before impact with the ground was just as alive after.” 

“A weird way to say it,” Volk countered. 

“One of us in the pod died during the orbital bombardment on the way down,” Langley said, matter of fact. “There’s no ground based barrage to worry about here.” 

“Mars has a lot less atmo than Earth,” Cates said. “You can’t count on it to brake as hard at any point during descent.” 

“Martian gravity is a lot lighter, too, and the thinner atmosphere is an upside since otherwise we’d burn up, you ain’t got the armor on these things to make a really fast landing in standard atmo.” He spread his hands. “Come on, LT, what do you say?” 

“Lieutenant,” Cates snapped, “we don’t have the thrust to land safely even with a landing profile configured for maximum air resistance.” 

“I wasn’t kidding when I said crash the ship.” 

“We’re not all that has to survive the landing,” Alyssa put in. “This is all kind of pointless if the reactor parts don’t survive.” 

“That cargo hold is the sturdiest part of the ship, if we flood it with impact gel it’ll be fine.” Langley jammed his hands under his arms and clamped them down tight, clearly anxious to be doing something. “We can do this but if we’re going to try it we need to start down soon.” 

“No, this is stupid.” Cates waved towards the back of the ship. “What about the reactor? You heard what they said, we need that to power the dome some other way or we can’t–” 

Volk grabbed Cates by the collar of his evac suit and dragged him out of his chair. “Thank you, Ensign, that’s enough. Sergeant Langley, take the conn please. Everyone else take a seat and ready for vacuum. And Alyssa, let the colony know they’re going to have to open both sides of their airlock long enough for us to get through. We can’t go in the normal way.” 

To his credit Cates didn’t press the point once the decision was made he just scrambled into different chair and started strapping in. Langley took his place and set to work, changing the lander’s angle of descent sharply and hitting the acceleration thrusters hard. Since his hands were full Volk took his helmet and fitted it in place for him. Alyssa and Cates followed suit. The ship’s comms crackled and Captain Gyle’s voice came over. “Lieutenant Fyodorovich, explain the change to your landing profile.” 

He waited just long enough to pull his own helmet on and transfer communications over before answering. “Fyodorovich here, Captain. Have you been briefed on the new situation planetside?” 

“The failing reactor? The report just came through. We’ve got Commander Deveneaux working on it. Does this have a bearing on your vector?” 

There was a horrible moment where Volk tried to decide if he should acknowledge the potential pun or not. Discretion was the better part of valor. “Yes, sir. Sergeant Langley thinks we can get down fast enough to prevent a catastrophic failure if we make a powered emergency landing.” 

“Very interesting,” Gyle said. “Mr. Fyodorovich we don’t have the time to make a replacement for the parts you’re carrying if they’re destroyed on landing.” 

“Understood, sir. But we think we can land this safely. What are the odds we find a way to keep the reactor intact long enough to make a conventional landing before it irradiates half the dome?” 

There was a long moment of silence on the other side of the comm. Volk hoped the Captain made up his mind before they were too deep in the gravity well to turn back. Finally Gyle came back long enough to say, “Good luck, Lieutenant.” 

Volk reached across the board and triggered the manual override to flood the cabin with impact gel. As the clear, noneuclidean liquid filled the chamber Langley got set up in the glove box that would let him manipulate the lander’s controls without having to fight the liquid’s temperamental viscosity. “Ladies and gentleman,” he said, “thank you for flying Drop Ship Transportation, we hope you will enjoy today’s crash for the rest of your lives. We’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that it is a good day to die.” 

“Oh, shit,” Volk muttered. “He thinks he’s a Klingon.” 

“Q’plah, motherfuckers!” 


“They want us to what?” Pak threw the old wiring aside and moved out of the way so his crew could keep working on the servo replacement. 

“You have to open both sides of the airlock,” Harriet said. “They’re coming in very, very fast and Volk says the lander will punch through the internal door one way or another so he’d like us to get it open if we can.” 

“That’s not possible,” Pak said, trying to keep from yelling into his comm. He didn’t want to deafen the woman. “There’s safeties to keep us from opening both halves of the door.” 

“Can’t you override the safety?” 

“The programming language isn’t one we have a manual for…” Pak looked around for a loose board. “But I can try to do something.” 

“Well if you can’t figure it out get your team away from that hatch in eighteen minutes because by that point you’ll be in the line of fire.” 

“Great. Great, thanks.” He signed off the comm and looked around. “Gemma! You’re in charge here, finish up these replacements and clear the scene in ten minutes, got it?” 

“Ten minutes!” She pulled herself out of a servo hatch and stared at him. “How am I supposed to do that? And what are you doing?” 

“Just get it done!” He sprinted off towards the closest network node he could tap in to. 


The worst part about an emergency landing was the waiting. There was nothing quite so terrifying as sitting in a chair, looking out a viewport and watching the air around your ship slowly superheat from the friction of your passage, knowing you were bound for a sudden, sharp stop sometime in the near future. Except maybe sitting in a chair with no viewport. Volk caught a quiet whimper come over the open comm circuit he’d established among the four passengers in the lander. 

“Everything okay, Mrs. Pracht?” 

“Sick stomach,” she said. 

“Ah. Well, if you do lose anything your helmet has an automatic suction system that should deal with it. Let me know if it doesn’t.” 

“This happens a lot?” 

“More than we like to admit.” 

“Crosswinds moving north-northwest,” Cates said, cutting in to the channel. “Brace for it.” 

“In this atmo it’ll be a walk in the park,” Langley said, his hands working the controls frantically. 

And to Volk’s surprise the jolt a few seconds later was pretty negligible. “Damn,” Cates muttered. “How did you do that?” 

“Practice. Panic about crosswinds once we’re halfway down, kid. Until then, try and relax.” 

Langley had probably meant it as much for Alyssa as for Cates but, if so, it was lost on her. She was starting to huff a bit in her helmet and Volk was getting worried. Spacers went through a lot of training to acclimate to the stress of being in a vacuum suit, to say nothing of space flight and emergency situations. “Calm down, Alyssa,” he said. “Only fifteen minutes to go.” 

“Is it supposed to be this warm?” She asked. 

Volk glanced out the viewport and watched the air glow brighter and brighter. “No. Not really.” 


Where the exterior door and its servos had deteriorated quite a bit the network hub was still in surprisingly good shape. Pak managed to get it open and connect it to his board in under a minute. After that he got so wrapped up in trying to get access he never noticed Harriet coming up behind him. He nearly jumped out of his skin when her hand touched his shoulder. “What?!” 

“Sorry…” She huffed, panting and sweaty. “Got… lost. Thought you were… at the hatch.” 

He tried to slow his heart down. “No, I had to come here to get in the network. What did you need?” She just held out the small, comm sized box the spacers seemed to use as their all-purpose computing solution. After a moment’s hesitation Pak took it and said, “Hello?” 

“Is this the person in charge of reprogramming the hatch systems?” A voice asked. 

“That’s me.” 

“I’m told no one down there has any significant experience with this kind of thing.” 

Pak grimaced. “True enough. Is it too much to hope you have a solution ready to go?” 

“We’re going to do everything we can to help you.” Which he noticed was not a direct answer to his question. “Now, we’re going to be working in ENDEMIC, the English language version of ColSystems’ Dome Engineering Management Information Codec, which is a very simple and robust programming language from that era.” 

“I’m glad someone here is an expert on it.” 

“I’m just reading from the first page of the manual, kid. We’re not trying anything fancy, just pasting a new command bypass over existing code so hopefully it won’t take us too long to sort it out. Now you need to get system access.” 

“I’m working on that.” 

“There’s a back door you can use by bringing up the file directory…” 


“We’re crossing a warm air pocket in twenty seconds.” For all the animosity previously Cates seemed to function as Langley’s copilot just fine. “Shorter to skirt it to the north.” 

“We’re going too fast to cut around it neatly like that. We’ll just ride the turbulence.” 

Alyssa whimpered, the only noise she’d made for the past three or four minutes. “Easy,” Volk said. “We’re more than halfway down.” 

“We can’t just fly through it, we’ll hit the updraft and bounce like a bad penny!” 

“You have pennies on Rodenberry? I thought the Federation was beyond money.” Even Langley’s barbs had lost their playful edge and sounded more like a straining man trying to distract himself. 

“Steady, Langley,” Volk said. “Banter isn’t necessary if its distracting you.” 

“Gotta rag on someone, LT,” he shot back, “or I wind up doing it to myself. That’s even more distracting.” 

“By all means, rag on me then,” Cates said. “Just don’t smash this thing on the ground.” 

Another nervous sound from Alyssa. Then they hit the turbulence and engine two burst in to flames. 


“Try compiling it again.” 

Pak hit the right key on his board. “Same error message. Maybe we’re going about this all wrong, Mr. Deveneaux. What if, instead of creating a new opening subroutine, we tried just disengaging the safeties on the servoes for the inner door and cranked it open by hand.” 

“That’s going to be very slow to open and reseal, Pak,” the stranger on the comms said. “I don’t know if that’s adviseable.” 

“We have eight minutes left. I think It’s or only option to get this done before your ship crashes straight through the hatch and we can’t reseal it at all.” 

“Fair point. Okay, Pak, try the following commands…” 


Volk finally got the fire in engine two out. “You have full thrust on the starboard side again, Mr. Langley.” 

“Peachy.” The lander’s engines roared back to maximum, a new and somewhat ominous whine added to the mix. “We are twenty seconds away from the dome, people. If you’re the praying type, now is the time.” 

A quick glance at Alyssa told Volk she’d taken Langley’s advice some time ago. Assuming she hadn’t passed out. The woman had many admirable qualities but a love of flying wasn’t among them, unfortunately. He ran through a mental list of things he needed to do before crashing the lander and he could only think of one thing left to do. “Mr. Cates, stand by to release the braking parachute on Mr. Langley’s command.” 

“Wait, this ship has a parachute?” 

What?!” Volk and Cates demanded in unison. 

“Langley to Borealis, confirm entry hatch is open!” 


Pak clung to the side of the manual servo release, doing his best to resist the rushing tide of air trying to rip him out onto the surface of Mars. “This is Pak Teng Won at Hatch Five, hatch is open.” 

“Then hang on to something, we’re coming through and it isn’t going to be pretty.” 

“Already hanging on, thanks.” 

But his words were lost in the deafening howl that rose up, swallowing even the roar of the wind, as a flying craft the size of a house tore through the hatch. A wave of scalding air bore through the hatch with it, momentarily reversing the flow of wind through the hatch and almost knocking Pak to the ground with the suddenness of the reversal. As soon as he had his feet again Pak hit the automated controls for the outer hatch, sealing the dome again in a matter of seconds. But he didn’t pay attention to that because the ship smashed to the ground with a horrifying grinding, hissing noise. 

Half an acre of Martian corn flashfried into ash under the superheated hull or got ripped up in a tidal wave of dirt and plants that scattered everywhere in front of the sliding extraMartian object. For a moment he didn’t think it would stop before it hit a building but then a colorful black and gold object exploded from the back of the ship and expanded into a parachute that looked like it was half the size of the Sunbottle. It billowed under the force of the air for a moment then tore in half down the middle but that was enough to stop the ship before it even crossed the clear space between the fields and Old Borealis. Pak heaved a sigh of relief. Then realized that even though the ship hadn’t hit anything that was no guarantee anyone was alive in that thing. 

He’d covered half the distance to the ship when hatch popped open on the top of the ship and a suited man dragged himself out, a weird slime dripping from his whole body. He looked unsteady but that didn’t stop him from ripping his helmet off and throwing it down hard enough that it bounced five times before rolling to a stop. “Perfect landing, Cates. Let’s see you do that next time.” 

Pak let his headlong dash slow to a walk. Ramone had sent bottlers with hookup cables to loop the lander in. The parts on the ship would let them fix the Sunbottle. All four passengers on the lander had crawled out and looked like they were okay. 

Gemma came up by him, looking equally shellshocked by the craziness that had come and gone in the last half hour, and asked, “So, are we done?” 

Pak took a deep breath and let it out. Laughed. And said, “Yeah, I think the disaster is averted. For today.” He slapped her on the back. “Good work.” 

She turned bright red for some reason. “Uh, yeah. Thanks.” 

Pak put it out of his mind and went to see if they needed any help unloading the lander. 

Martian Scriptures Chapter Twenty Two – The Tipping Point

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And why is this important?” Gyle demanded. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I read a summary of–” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, Captain,” Alyssa said. 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cates?” 

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

“I can do it.” 

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

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

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

Martian Scriptures Chapter Twenty One – The Precipice

Previous Chapter

“I thought you said you’d done this before.”

Gemma stopped in the middle of banging the rust off one of the eight servo stations that needed replacing. “We didn’t have to do it in suits down in the Sunbottle. Not to mention the rust.” With a final bang she got the access panel on the side of the servo open and started rummaging around inside. “How did it even get out here, anyway? Didn’t think there was enough oxygen or moisture in the air outside the dome.”

“I dunno. Maybe it worked its way around from the inside. Maybe there’s a similar reaction with the atmosphere out here.” Pak handed her a cable tester when she waved for it. “Maybe we just got bad parts when these were installed.”

“That’s comforting.” She fiddled for a moment then yanked a set of cables out. “No good.”

“Will replacing those add any time to fixing the hatch?”

Another set of cables came out of the hatch with similar abruptness. “I want to say not much but I’ve never had to rerun a set of these in vacuum rated gloves. It could just be a few minutes per servo, it could turn into as much as half an hour.”

“How long did this take down below?”

Gemma glanced at him over top of the hatch. “Twenty minutes with an experienced crawl team, thirty if I was on it. We’re getting two crawl teams plus the watchers you pulled, so we only need to do two servos per team. But the real problem is how deep we need to go.”

The lip of the hatch was about four inches above the red Martian dirt underfoot. Pak gave it another once over, he’d been certain there weren’t any servos down there but he hadn’t looked closely before. He’d been under the impression they wouldn’t do much on the bottom of the frame.

“Deep into the wiring,” Gemma said with a giggle. “Not underground. Corrosion tends to spread once it gets onto something. We may need to rip out part of the wiring in the dome walls or even find a junction box and rerun an entire line in order to get power moving to these things again.”

“Great.” Pak scooped up the hammer she’d been working with a moment ago. “Well, let me know if you need a hand with anything.”

“Where are you going?”

“To get the next servo case open.” He started towards the other side of the hundred and twenty foot hatch. “The sooner we can get all these tests done and start the replacements the happier I’ll be.”


 

“…And this is the Sunbottle.”

“Impressive.” It really was. Harriet hadn’t expected to feel outdone by the Malacandrans at any point during her visit but the reactor’s main floor atrium was enough to take the breath away after a few days on the bleak surface of the Red Planet. “Was it built like this or did you remodel it?”

Nobari shrugged. “It’s not really clear what is original and what was added by the Founders but the early records suggest at least part of this was added after Bottletown was established. Most of our existing facilities started off as remains for Borealis and were expanded to accommodate more people as the population grew.”

“Why not just expand out into the old colony?” Aubrey asked. “We have a lot of old, unused buildings on Earth but we were never shy about reappropriating them if we had a need. It’s just most of the time we didn’t.”

“Most of the old places are – were – unsafe. And there’s the question of whether we can feed everyone if we expand.” Nobari made a noncommittal noise. “Or that’s what I would have told you two weeks ago. There’s a lot about the Founders that only the Eldest and his or her successor know. Normally I’d be in the process of passing most of that on to Elder Rectenwald now that I’m Eldest but, to be honest, I’m not sure how much of it is going to be relevant in the future.”

“So you think you stayed out of the rest of the colony because only these buildings were masked by the reactor?” Harriet understood that was what the Naval engineers thought.

“That’s a possibility, although I don’t have the first clue how to tell if it’s true.” Nobari led them across the atrium to a door at one end of the oval and let them in. They arrived in a bare office with a single bookshelf at one end. “Most of our knowledge of the Founders’ era tells us about how things work but not why they work that way. In the Founders’ time people were not sent into Silence as young as now and there were fewer people overall, so they had more time to delve into the whys of the hows. Now most of what they learned just sits here and gathers dust.”

“What do you think the whys are, Eldest?” Harriet asked.

That drew the first genuine smile he’d shown that day. “Me? I’m an odd person to ask, don’t you think?”

Harriet fumbled for a moment, a bit taken aback. “Well, you’re the Eldest, aren’t you?”

“That doesn’t mean as much as you might think,” he answered, laughing. “I’ve known most of the Eldest’s secrets for about twenty days and I’ll leave the position in about the same period of time, Oyarsa willing. That’s about average for an Eldest’s tenure. There’s really not a whole lot of weight to the position, or at least there wasn’t until we had you folks to deal with.”

“But you are the one dealing with us,” Harriet pointed out.  “That makes it your decision and makes your thoughts kind of important, no?”

Nobari rocked uncomfortably from one foot to the other and back again. “Perhaps.”

Long honed instincts told Harriet she wasn’t going to get any more pushing harder. Better to let the interview’s subject take some time to sort their thoughts out. “I know this is a strange time for you,” she said. “We’ll let you–“

“Eldest!” A harried looking young man burst into the room, panting.

Nobari pivoted instantly from uncomfortable contemplative to decisive actor, pivoting to look back to at the door in the same moment. “What’s wrong, Ramone?”

“The wing fields are fluctuating towards the edges of the orange zone in shorter and shorter intervals!” He paused and gasped in another breath. “We could be looking at a complete field collapse!”

Momentary confusion crossed Nobari’s face, then he nodded. “This is because of the conduit problem Elder Alyssa was working on?”

“Yes, Eldest!”

Nobari started for the door with purposeful strides. “Show me.”


 

The crates took up a full quarter of the spacelock and the last batches of parts were still trickling in from fabber labs across the ship but, based on her expression, Alyssa was already overwhelmed by what she was seeing. Craig suppressed a smile and asked, “Is anything not up to your standards?”

“I wouldn’t say that. Pretty much the opposite, in fact.” She was looking over the injector assembly in her hands with a critical eye. She indicated a small patch near the primary coupling. “I’m not even sure what some of these parts do. I presume this is the secondary regulator, because that’s where it is on the parts we use, but this is far too small to be an exact replica of them.”

“It’s not,” Deveneaux confirmed. “It’s  a modern regulator with a quarter the size and twice the redundancy as what you have now. We’re not replacing your primary regulators right now so they aren’t going to take all the burden off the injection system but they will remove some of the strain. You can keep running your reactor under its current settings for another couple of centuries before the problems start again. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Alyssa put the injector back into its spot in the crate and closed the lid. “I don’t understand why you would consider sharing technology like this immoral. You could do so much good with it.”

“It’s not the technology itself that’s the problem,” Craig said. “Human beings are influence by their environment, up to and including the technology and culture around them. We think introducing technology and culture to those who aren’t prepared to deal with it is a harmful influence to the people in question. It distorts their culture and prevents them from developing into who they would be otherwise.”

“What if who they would be otherwise is less human than the people they will become if you help them?”

“That’s hardly a new line of thought, ma’am. But it’s also a very dangerous one. Many evil things in the past were done in the name of helping other people.” Craig shrugged. “Ultimately we decided that intervention beyond certain boundaries was something we couldn’t be trusted with. Humanity is not a thing we let ourselves define.”

“If you won’t define it, why have the word?” She locked the crate closed with a little more force than necessary. “We never wanted to become a colony locked in a dome, hiding from our homeworld, ignorant of how half our technology works. It was a terrible thing, made worse because we remember just enough to know that, in many ways, we are so much less than what we should be. Even then, we may never conform to what you think humanity should be, either. But it would be nice to at least know enough to judge whether you’re lying to me about the evils of the past. We could find our own ways to avoid them, then.”

A smile tugged at the corners of Craig’s mouth. He knew when he’d lost a point. “I think we can do that, at least. Is everything to your liking?”

She glanced down at her inventory list. “I think I’ve seen everything. And yes, it all looks more than functional in our reactor.”

“Excellent, then I’ll–” A low whistle in his ear informed him of an incoming communication. “Excuse me for a moment.”

He moved a couple of paces away and flicked a finger so his AI would tell him who was calling. A bland voice told him, “Harriet Thacker.”

Craig frowned. She was supposed to be on the surface, doing journalist things. He accepted the call. “Miss Thacker?”

“Captain.” She sounded a little frantic. “You need to get Mrs. Pracht and Commander Deveneaux on a line down here ASAP. Something’s gone haywire in the Sunbottle.”

“Understood. Standby.” He cut the line and looked across the spacelock. “Chief Merryweather! Start loading it up! Alyssa, Commander, we need to make a quick visit to the comms lab…”

Martian Scriptures Chapter Twenty – The Middle Ground

Previous Chapter

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?