Martian Scriptures Chapter Nine – Dinner Plans

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gyle raised an eyebrow. “Certainly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about Masamune?” Greg asked.

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

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

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

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

But they all knew it wouldn’t.

Martian Scriptures Chapter Eight – Hnau

Previous Chapter

“Lieutenant Commander?

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

Department head?

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

“Sir, what is-”

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

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

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

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


 

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

“They have not kept us waiting.”

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

As if there wasn’t already enough.

Lieutenant had returned with his four friends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s true.”

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

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

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

“You are not an Elder yourself?”

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you one of them?”

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

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

“Take care, Pak.”

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

Martian Scriptures Chapter Six – A Malacandran

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

“What’s the situation, Lieutenant?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you not have Elders on Thulcandra?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But?”

“But there was red dust on him, sir.”

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

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

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

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

“What’s that, Lieutenant?”

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

Next Chapter

Martian Scriptures Chapter Five – The Empty Colony

Previous Chapter

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anything down there that could be dangerous?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hoyle?”

“Yes, sir?”

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Our middle names, sir,” Long replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello? Can you hear me?”

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

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

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