Martian Scriptures Chapter Thirteen – Welcome Shipside

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Craig met the Malacandran delegation just inside the airlock of Landing Bay Two. Procedure dictated that Oda oversee the actual landing procedures and greet their guests as they disembarked from the landing craft, so Craig was forced to cool his heels on the other side of the pressure hull to ensure nothing catastrophic happened to the ship’s command structure. On the balance of things, he found it annoying. Oh, it made sense of course. But there were times he wished he could have just stuck his nose into every interesting thing on the ship, like Kirk had been able to.

Of course, Kirk had plot armor and a team of writers who didn’t have to work hours and hours of meetings, paperwork and constant smoothing of ruffled feathers into their scripts.

But even if he couldn’t go on away missions there was a lot of fun to be had in the captain’s chair. He’d been looking forward to meeting the leaders of Bottletown for the last two days. It was nice to have regular, communicative people to deal with instead of the passive-aggressive silence of Earth. Absently Craig ran his hands over the front of his uniform for the dozenth time and scrubbed a hand over his nonexistent hair, then glanced at his assembled officers. After a little debated he’d settled on Rand, who’d insisted on a small security presence for the meeting, and Dhawan. Tactical and medical seemed like the right mix to strike. He’d have brought Jimenez as well, but someone had to stand watch on the bridge.

And, of course, there was Harriet Thacker. Craig wasn’t sure how she’d gotten back upwell from planetside but there she was, her newly bobbed brown hair looking glossy and professional, a recording unit in hand and some kind of heavy duty AI that he hadn’t seen before strapped to her waist. “Any thoughts you’d like to share based on your first meeting with the Malacandrans, Miss Thacker?”

Harriet stopped flipping through whatever she had on her AI readout and gave him an arch look. “A trip to Mars was all it took for you to finally pay attention to me?”

“I could think of a few other ways you could grab my attention. Flag my AI. Show up at unexpected places on the ship.” He gave her simple but stylish blouse and pants a quick once over. “Change what you wear.”

She feigned shock. “Whatever could you mean, Captain?”

“An evac suit, of course.”

That chilled the air a bit. Craig realized it had come out a bit harsher than he’d intended but, before he could correct the statement the airlock clunked and then cranked open. While Craig was hardly a short man he’d gotten used to cranking his head back a step or two to see Commander Fyodorovich’s face. He wasn’t expecting to have to lean back even further to make eye contact with the serious faced five year old boy Fyodorovich was carrying on his shoulders. The big man practically had to fold in half to step up over the lip of the hatch while also ducking to get through without hitting his passenger’s head on the top. There was a weird, hypnotic awkwardness to the maneuver.

Matched by a weird, choking laugh from Harriet, who was trying her best to treat this with the seriousness it deserved.

Fyodorovich straightened up, walked over to his commanding officer as if arriving with a child in tow was a daily occurrence, and halted at a modified parade rest with his hands resting on the child’s feet to keep him in place. Craig rapidly considered and discarded a number of responses. Finally he ignored his officer and looked up at the boy, offered him a crisp nod and said, “Welcome aboard the Stewart, Eldest.”

The child said, “I’m not the Eldest. My mom is.” He turned to point and Fyodorovich mimicked the action with eerie accuracy, almost as if he and he boy had fused nervous systems at some point. Behind them a tall, slim women with dark hair was just clearing the hatch. Clearly this must be Naomi Bertolini.

She had that vaguely exotic look to her that most people from another planet had, the clear result of dozens of genetic idiosyncrasies settling into a limited gene pool and creating the phenomenon known as ethnicity. With just mother and child to go by so far Earth’s Martian descendants seemed to be marked by very round faces, pronounced ears and above average height, an impression that was driven home when a man who was well over two meters tall followed the Eldest through the door. He was holding the hand of a three or four year old girl. The boy added, “That’s my dad and sister.”

The youngest Bertolini was stuck staring at the edge of the hatchway, clearly unsure how she was supposed to get over it. Craig froze for a moment, getting young children over the lip of an airlock wasn’t something covered in the Diplomatic Procedures he’d reviewed, but before he could say anything her father just smiled and said, “Hup!” And lifted her into the air by her arm then swung her over the threshold. To Craig’s ever increasing surprise the giggling girl swung forward on both arms, her other hand held by his executive officer. The girl didn’t let go of Oda’s hand once she was over the lip of the hatch or even when he stepped through behind her. At first Craig thought he might get to see Oda put out by someone else for once. But from the satisfied way Oda watched the girl swing along between them Craig was doomed for disappointment. He made a mental note to check with Fyodorovich and see who’s idea it was to give the guest’s kids piggyback rides.

A second family of four followed behind Oda. Like the first wave, the adults were tall. The wavy brown hair and thoughtful blue eyes suggested that the man who came first was Naomi Bertolini’s younger brother. He was flanked by a woman that was almost two meters herself, although still more than a head shorter than her companion, with deep red hair. They had two boys sandwiched between them and all three were looking around at the ship with a faint sense of awe.

Craig also got his first impression of their culture. All eight of the Malacandran Martians had long hair, waist length in the case of the adults and at least shoulder length on all of the children. The kids were all wearing fairly amorphous coveralls but the adults were clothed according to gender, with the men in belted tunics and pants while the women wore blouses with loose, flowing sleeves tucked into high waisted bottoms. Naomi wore a skirt, the other woman pants. Reports had mentioned that the Eldest wore utilitarian clothes while planetside, at a guess this was more formal attire.

Satisfied that he couldn’t learn any more by looking over the group Craig focused his attention on Naomi. “Welcome aboard the Rodenberry Stellar Navy’s Stewart, Eldest. I’m Captain Craig Gyle.” He gestured to his officers. “These are Commanders Barton Rand and Varu Dhawan, in charge of our tactical and medical departments. And, of course, you’ve already met Miss Thacker.”

Naomi held out her hand for a handshake, which Craig accepted. “A pleasure to meet you, Captain.” The rank sounded a little uncertain, as if the word wasn’t something she was used to saying. “I’m Naomi Bertolini, the Eldest in Bottletown. But you probably knew that.”

“Commander Fyodorovich speaks highly of you.” It wasn’t a very meaningful compliment but it seemed to please her none the less.

“Volk is a wonderful guest. Let me introduce my family.”

And they were all family. Her husband was a doctor named Greg, the other two adults her brother Victor Pracht and sister-in-law Alyssa. The Bertolini children were Greg Jr. and Tancia, the Pracht boys were Harold and Brent. Craig filed all this under things he would have to look up in his AI later.  It did raise the interesting question of why she’d chosen to bring family on this visit, rather than other senior leaders of the colony, but that was something he filed under things to ask if he wanted to end diplomatic relations. Nepotism was a universal constant in human affairs. But it wasn’t something he was interested in seeing on his ship, which meant he’d be keeping a sharp eye on Fyodorovich for the next few hours. Four children under ten gave Craig a great chance to see if the rookie department head’s legendary cool under pressure extended to these kind of formal situations.


 

Geraldine Jimenez rarely got to stand watch on the bridge. By her estimate there were at least twelve officers on the ship with more seniority and command experience between her and the Stewart‘s big chair. Pretty much the only time it happened was when all those other officers had some kind of important function that would keep them in their own departments while the Captain and XO were off the bridge. So naturally she was officer on duty during the Martian’s visit to the ship.

Bridge time was vital to forwarding your career so really there was nothing to complain about. But Jimenez preferred being involved in things rather than being sidelined and being stuck on the bridge felt a lot like sidelining at the moment. She tried to console herself by remembering that ship tours were boring and based on reports from SFC Long the Bottletown colony didn’t seem to have any significant fighting capability so they weren’t really expected to cause trouble.

So she dug deeper into her current project and compared historical maps against modern scans and tried to work out what the insides of the colony looked like. The bridge was quiet and it helped to pass the time. She had just started evaluating where she might ask Shen to set up sensor relays when she got a ping from Hoyle directing her to a recent transmission packet from the grav relay that kept them in touch with the Spiner and the rest of the fleet. It wasn’t time for one of their regular check-ins so this was definitely something to take note of.

Concerned, Jimenez opened it to see if it merited passing on to the Captain immediately, or if some comm spacer had just gotten an itchy finger while manning the relay. The first few lines were pretty much what she expected, and included instructions that they were to finish with the day’s diplomatic functions. That alone was enough to suggest she could leave the message for the Captain to get to on his next duty shift. But she kept reading, just to be sure.

Which is why she decided she would have to interrupt the tour for at least a few minutes after all.


 

Two hours into proceedings Craig decided that perhaps Fyodorovich had a good sense for how to handle his diplomatic duties after all. Alyssa and Naomi had been fascinated by their trip to the ship’s power plant and Greg Bertolini had many questions for Dhawan as they passed through Sickbay. Victor said little and kept an eye on the four children, with help from Fyodorovich.

The big man had a way with kids that Craig also wouldn’t have given him credit for.

The lunch break in the officer’s mess served as the first real chance for them to decompress since their arrival. Seating had been left to the Head Steward and Craig found himself at a table with the Eldest, her husband and Oda. They had barely started on the soup when Naomi’s questions started, but they weren’t the questions Craig had been expecting.

“Where are your families, Captain?” She was genuinely perplexed. “Your whole crew is of marriageable age but I haven’t seen a single child here.”

“We rarely take our families into space.” Craig hadn’t been expecting the question but it was something that was routinely debated among the kinds of people who formulated the Rudeness Pact so he had an answer on hand.. “It seems Malacandrans value the community and strength close family brings, and I truly respect that. But few spacers would think of bringing family aboard a vessel like ours if for no other reason than how dangerous it is.”

That alarmed her. “You ship is dangerous?”

“Not always,” Craig hastened to assure her. “In orbit, like we are now, this ship is just as safe as your colony. But travel between stars has many dangers. Engines can fail and strand us months or even years away from help. There are many stellar phenomena that we haven’t mapped which we will happen across unexpectedly and can damage the ship. And there’s the ever present danger of space pirates.”

“But wouldn’t your family be a bulwark against such dangers?”

Craig smiled faintly. “I’d rather think of myself as that bulwark for my family. Besides, starships have little room for people who aren’t a part of the ship’s functioning. Everyone has to pull their weight. What if a spacer married a terraformer? That’s a skillset that’s vital to our home planet but has no useful application in space.”

“But surely,” Greg objected, “you have to need so many more sets of skills on a ship in space than in a colony.”

Craig hesitated, trying to find a way to phrase things that didn’t come off as offensive. “Let me turn that around on you. Do you have people who dedicate their whole lives to music? To telling stories? To the design of buildings?”

“No.” Greg looked perplexed at the question. “We could never afford to spare the people. Bottletown’s population is far too low.”

“In that respect,” Craig replied, “you are far more like a starship than like a city on Rodenberry. There are many people who are full time musicians, writers, artists and architects there but there’s no need for, nor place for, people who spend all their time on those endeavors on the Stewart. But in New San Francisco there is not only a place for them, there’s a need for them.”

Craig intended to continue on that line of thought but he was interrupted by the sound of Jimenez clearing her throat at his shoulder. He glanced back to find his security chief standing with her arms folded, AI cradled in one hand. A classic pose for someone with a message for their superior. He looked back to the table. “I’m sorry, it seems something has come up. Would you excuse me for just a minute?”

Martian Scriptures Chapter Twelve – Ups and Downs

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The last to arrive was Lieutenant Commander Fyodorovich, to no one’s surprise. He hustled into the conference room just seconds before the clock rolled over to 20:00 hours, his uniform still creased across his shoulders and under his arms in the way all uniforms were right after someone climbed out of an evac suit. In just the few days since the man had been promoted he seemed to have aged several years, new lines had appeared around his nose and lips and the shadows under his eyes told of new levels of exhaustion. Before he could slip into the last open seat in the conference room Craig said, “Thank you for making the trip up from Mars, Commander Fyodorovich. I know you’ve come a way already but would you mind briefing us on what you’ve found so far?”

Fyodorovich moved the chair back under the table with a nod and stepped over to the presentation display and slipped his AI into the slot at the base. A moment later the holoprojector was taking them on a rapid tour of Borealis colony, both the part the locals knew as “Old Borealis” and the inhabited portion known as “Bottletown”, with Fyodorovich providing a concise commentary on it all.

“While nothing in and around Bottletown looks more developed technologically,” Fyodorovic said as his brief talk wound down, “it is definitely newer. The fishers, as the Eldest called them, have certainly done a good job manufacturing parts to replace anything that breaks.”

“They haven’t upgraded anything at all?” Deveneaux asked, more than a little incredulous.

“To be honest, s-” Fyodorovich caught himself just before calling his fellow Lt. Cmndr. ‘sir’ and tried again. “To be honest, we’re not sure they really understand how a lot of their technology works. There’s a lot of rote procedure down there, but very few of them have a broad enough understanding of what they’re working with to adequately explain the principles behind the technology, much less how they might go about improving it. I think Naomi might have enough of a grasp on how a fusion reactor works to design her own but she’s a special case.”

“Thank you.” Fyodorovich ejected his AI and Craig gave his juniormost department head a moment to get back to his seat before sizing up his senior staffers with a careful eye. They’d broken up along rough areas of responsibility. Deveneaux, along with Commander Rand and Lieutenant Jiminez, occupied the three seats to Craig’s left, together they were those responsible for the safety and smooth functioning of the ship. While engineering might seem out of place along with tactical and security officers in Craig’s experience the two areas really went hand in hand.

To Craig’s right were Commander Oda and Lieutenant Commander Dhawan, his second in command and chief medical officer respectively. Together they saw to the health of the crew, although in Craig’s mind it was more a tug of war between Oda’s secretive attempts to drive people insane and Dhawan’s best efforts to see the crew stayed as they were. The two men almost never talked to each other, which Craig assumed was due to Oda’s malicious delight in watching people annoy each other putting off Dhawan’s medical sensibilities, but by the same token Craig didn’t know of any overt conflict between them either.

Finally, Lieutenant Hoyle from communications, Lieutenant Commander Tannish, chief flight officer, and Lieutenant Commander Wallace, the Quartermaster, made up the logistical officers that held the day to day functioning of the ship together.

And, of course, there was Fyodorovich himself, who looked a bit uncomfortable among them but otherwise was performing as well as could be expected.

“Ladies and gentleman,” Craig said, evaluating his crew. “Thirty minutes ago I filed my daily report with Admiral Carrington. I fully expect that, by 08:00 tomorrow we will receive orders recalling us to Earth.”

“I take it you think he’ll conclude that Mars has nothing to tell us about the situation on Earth?” Rand asked.

Craig grimaced. “I’m afraid that’s exactly what he’ll conclude. The situation down there is exceedingly strange, but it’s pretty clear just from what I heard today that the original purpose of our visit – to learn why Earth is hostile to us – is pretty much shot. Bottletown is as clueless on that front as we are. A mission under Rodenberry command would most likely stay to unravel the rest of the puzzle down there. I’m not sure Carrington will chose the same.”

“That doesn’t seem to be the most forward looking decision, Captain,” Oda said. “There is a great deal still to piece together here and there is still the possibility that whatever happened to the colonists here is a danger to us as well.”

“I doubt that,” Jimenez said. “Neither Borealis Colony nor Bottletown seem much more advanced than the Departure era. My understanding from Engineering is that they’re still running on their original generator. I doubt anything that Earth could have done to Mars in the decade or so after Departure is something we couldn’t easily deal with today. By the same token, if Bottletown is in no danger out here, I doubt we are.”

“But can we even explain what happened to Borealis?” Dhawan asked. “The account from Bottletown seems to be that everyone collapsed suddenly. Doesn’t seem to be a bioweapon, part of the colony survived and Earth took the bodies away. Long distance neural disrupters have been bandied about at the theoretical level before. What if someone on Earth found a way to propagate the necessary EM fields? Could we defend against something like that? Especially if the necessary technology has been advancing over the last two hundred years.”

“I don’t see how that kind of unfounded speculation helps us,” Jimenez shot back.

Craig hated to cut in there since it looked like he was taking Jimenez’s side but the conversation was quickly veering off course. “It doesn’t, I’m afraid.” He gave Dhawan an apologetic look. “Beyond being something that we could point out. What I want from each of you is a comprehensive list of reasons we could offer the Admiral to remain here. I also want to hear any reasons you might have for why we should leave – I’m not entirely opposed to that course of action although I admit I would find it very disappointing. So take your AIs, have them review the past few days of recordings from the landing team and bring me anything that jumps out. In the meantime, Commander Tannish’s suggestion that we bring some of the colonists to the ship has bought us some time. I don’t think the Admiral will pull us out with a major diplomatic promise unfulfilled.”

“Is he talking about Hellfire Carrington?” Hoyle’s whisper to Wallace was not as quiet as she’d probably intended it to be. Clearly she bought into the Admiral’s reputation as a hot headed, hard driving spacer who’d blown apart the alliance between the Gallilean moons of Diana and Minerva with a single heavy cruiser.

“Lieutenant,” he said with a practiced edge in his voice that immediately had everyone’s attention. “I know Vice Admiral Carrington’s past deeds make us all think of him as some kind of near mythical figure. I’ve heard ‘the spacer’s Patton’ bandied about before. But my personal experience with him suggests he’s also a man who values understanding the situations he’s in as much as any Rodenberry spacer. If we can make the case that there’s still something of value to learn here I’m sure he’ll be attentive to it.”

A look around the table confirmed that they all understood he wasn’t interested in debating this further. “Now, let’s move on to tomorrow’s diplomatic visit. Commander Fyodorovich will be playing host to our guests. I’d like him brought up to speed on what each of our departments is planning to present to the emissaries from Bottletown.”

What followed wasn’t exactly promising. The Stewart had been loaded with an abundance of experienced officers with considerable expertise in their respective field for the visit to Earth. They’d all hoped to learn more about the advances in their fields Earth had made in the centuries of enforced silence and Craig had been happy to have the best and brightest the Navy could give him. It had never occurred to him that he’d also stuffed his officer roster full of far more senior officers than a ship of its class would typically have on a deep space cruise.

Oda had realized this, of course, but he’d kept quiet because he knew too many chiefs and not enough Indians would result in his favorite kinds of command situations.

So now Craig was in the uncomfortable position of watching a very junior officer who’d jumped past half a dozen more experienced officers to head a department struggle to coordinate a very simple tour. There were already two or three people who’d started the cruise at the rank Fyodorovich now held provisionally who were complaining about his promotion and if he botched this assignment that was only going to get louder.

Fyodorovich had made serviceable, competent reports so far and seemed to be handling his people well. The Eldest had been receptive to him during their talks. But Craig knew if the rest of the senior staff turned against the young man he’d be forced to replace him. There were already rumors swirling about Fyodorovich. It was going to start hurting morale, to say nothing of the damage it could do to the career of a bright and promising young officer.

An hour and a half later the meeting was wrapping up, with most of those present doing their best to suppress yawns. Fyodorovich had been quiet for a while, focusing on making detailed notes with his AI and only occasionally interjecting to ask a pertinent question. A lot was hanging on how he performed tomorrow and Craig hoped he would live up to expectations. But tomorrow had time enough for those worries. He put them out of his mind and rocked forward in his chair in preparation to stand, saying, “If there’s no further business…”

Fyodorovich stowed his AI and said, “Actually, Captain, as I’ll probably be busy all day tomorrow with Naomi and anyone she brings up with her, I thought I should mention it now.”

Craig hesitated. “Mention what?”

“What you should tell the Admiral if he tries to withdraw us because Bottletown doesn’t know what happened to Borealis.” Fyodorovich spread his hands. “Tell them they might.”

Craig settled back into the chair, looking at the younger man skeptically. “Are you suggesting I lie to the Admiral?”

“No, Captain, remind him what we’re dealing with. I know they say they don’t know what happened and nothing in their archives speak to the subject. But consider. The Elders of Bottletown are all very young – the Eldest is twenty years old. I don’t know what happened to cause that but it’s clearly cost them a lot of institutional knowledge.”  Fyodorovich held up his AI as if they could still see it projecting his report on the holodisplay. “Sir, I wasn’t kidding when I said they don’t seem to know how most of they’re technology works. They don’t even know how to fix simple hydraulics. They have to throw the whole assembly into a nanofactury vat and rebuild the thing from scratch. They have about three dozen people in a colony of fifteen hundred that study computer programming at all. They could have the complete history of the human race in their computer core and not know it. The historic archives Borealis left may be password protected or encrypted; if so no one I’ve met so far has the knowhow to bypass or decrypt them. Getting answers may be as simple as getting direct computer access.”

“And how difficult do you think that will be?”

Fyodorovich shrugged. “I’ve been avoiding even mildly intrusive suggestions like that so far because we didn’t know what we were dealing with. It didn’t seem wise to pry.”

Craig adjusted his opinion of the room’s youngest officer back up a notch. What he said had truth in it, although how much was anyone’s guess. Still, it was a good point to bring up to the Admiral, if he needed it. “If it comes to it, I will remind the Admiral that Bottletown might not know everything it has in its computers. Thank you, Mr. Fyodorovich. Now, let’s all call it a night and let you get back down to the planet. You have a long day ahead tomorrow.”

Martian Scriptures Chapter Seven – Council of Elders

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“Clearly they’re lying,” said Elder Henry Umbrage of the gardeners. “Thulcandra is restricted within its own moon.”

“The lunar siege was reported in Ransom’s notes.” Elder Nobari Himeko gestured to her handheld reader. “We haven’t reconstructed the timeline with anything like accuracy but he certainly wrote them before the founding of Bottletown and that was thousands of cents ago. In fact, our very presence here, and the absence of the eldil or other hnau, suggests that the world is very different from what he saw. Thulcandra may have sent out colonies of its own.”

“Assuming we’re not one ourselves.” Pak shifted nervously, eyeing Elder Alyssa Pracht. The elder bottler was one of the youngest present, excepting himself, and clearly something of a cynic. She had an intense personality which made it quite clear to him how Gemma had come to be such a subdued young woman.

Several other Elders were equally as uncomfortable with Pracht’s suggestion and were clearly about to interject when the Eldest beat them to it. “I don’t want to debate the past right now. Those discussions are important and interesting when potential emissaries from the Silent Planet are not breathing down our necks. What I want to know is if any of us have a useful way to test the notion that these people are from beyond the Solar System.”

Pak frowned. The Eldest in Bottletown at the moment was Naomi Bertolini, another bottler and, according to Gemma, supposedly more considerate than her peers. But then, Gemma had never seen her in a Council of Elders. What was clear was that Naomi wanted something specific from the Elders and wasn’t in the mood for digressions, she’d been squashing them all night. “There’s nothing in the Archives that mentions what would set two people from different planets apart,” said Elder Deng Zao Jen, from the archives in question. “There is a concept called genetics that would allow us to make an educated guess as to the truth of this statement – but we would need large samples from both Thulcandra and this – what was it called?”

“Rodenberry,” Pak supplied.

“This Rodenberry to perform it, so it is obviously not workable.”

“Then why bring it up?” Elder Himeko asked in exasperation, living up to the fishers notorious reputation for hating anything not immediately practical.

“Well,” Deng grumped, “we have the tools to do it if we could find the samples.”

“Thank you, Elder Deng,” Naomi replied. “We’ll keep that in mind, should it ever become practical. Other suggestions?”

“Exotic materials?” Elder Nobari Masamune suggested. “The archives do have an exhaustive list of materials available on Thulcandra. If they have items built of unearthly materials that would prove that, at least, they were not built on the Silent Planet.”

“We can test that easily enough,” his wife said, giving him a surprised look. “But do you think they will simply give us something to throw in the tanks so easily?”

“It can’t hurt to ask, Himeko,” Naomi said before wresting the meeting in a new direction once more. “Petitioners. We haven’t heard from the Oyarsa or his eldil since possibly as early as the founding of Bottletown. Any chance they plan to weigh in directly on this matter?”

The only elder among the petitioners on hand was Higram Skjeggestadd, a thin faced, worried looking man whose name was constantly mispronounced, even among the Elders who probably should have known better. “Eldest, you and I have repeatedly discussed the question of the eldil and their silence in the past. I cannot simply wave my hand and make them speak to us again. They may still enforce their silence towards all hnau of Thulcandra however long they live outside of the influence of that planet and its Oyarsa. They may have been forced to abandoned Malacandra entirely as the influence of Thulcandra grew more and more pronounced. The Lunar siege may have failed, and the malevolent influence of Thulcandra driven the eldil further beyond the belt and into the depths of the solar system. Regardless, we will petition them and they will answer or not as they chose. It falls to us now to test this Fyodorovich as Weston was tested. It would be simpler if the hrossa or other hnau were present. They are not, so we must make do. He must see Bottletown and his actions there judged with care.”

“Will you do this yourself, Elder Skjeggestadd?” Elder Himeko asked.

“I shall-”

“No.” Naomi said this with surprising firmness. “Chose a promising understudy and have them do it. You’re the only Elder among the petitioners right now, let’s not risk your life heedlessly.”

Elder Higram nodded in understanding. “I will make my selection and explain the matter to them immediately after this.”

“Then we’d best let you get to it.” Naomi began to stand, causing Pak’s heart to leap up into his throat.

“Excuse me, Eldest?” Pak’s voice was almost a squeak. Speaking out of turn was hard, even for a watcher who considered himself more seasoned than most. “Who will be interacting with the outsiders from here on out?”

Naomi gave him a blithe look. “Watcher Teng, while the watchtower has previously been an assignment chosen by those who desire a great deal of time on their hands it’s always been understood that serving as Bottletown’s point of contact with the outside was one of their chief responsibilities. And you are the oldest in the watchtower, are you not?”

“But – but Eldest, I’m not even an Elder! Surely this is a time for-”

Naomi clapped him on the shoulder in a gesture oddly reminiscent of what the stranger had done just a few hours ago. “Congratulations, Watcher Teng, consider yourself promoted.”


 

“Department of Martian Operations?” Craig dimmed the holodisplay in front of him until it was practically invisible, allowing him to look directly at Oda. “You think we need a department for this?”

Hiroyuki shrugged, something he shouldn’t have been able to do when leaning that far back in his chair without tipping over. In this as in many other tasks, Oda was able to make the impossible look effortless. “The Mars question is about to become the most important, most pressing thing facing the Rodenberry Stellar Navy. We aren’t equipped to rescue people from a hostile planet, the Copernican Spacer Corps is. We’re not prepared to chase down and restrain ships running through hostile space, the Minervans and Dianan ships are. We can’t send enough firepower to crack a moon from Earth to Charon in less than an hour, that’s what the Newtonian section of the fleet is for. But look. There’s a whole barely understood human society down on the planet below us. The Stellar Navy was practically purpose built for these situations.”

Craig suppressed a smile. “I didn’t realize you were a Kirk purist as well.”

“I value all of the Great Man’s work that stays on his side of the accountability horizon.” Oda spread his hands. “And as the Lieutenant said, this does seem to be a classic TOS Type Two situation. But fiction always oversimplifies. We need serious manpower and equipment available for this situation and, administratively, that means we need a dedicated department for it. We can’t just handwave a bunch of people together in an incoherent command structure and wait until amusing personality conflicts arise.”

“Oda.” Craig pulled himself forward over his desk to make sure his slumping subordinate could see his extreme disgust. “Amusing personality conflicts are your favorite part of the job.”

Oda’s smile was pure malice. “Of course. But if I let them creep up the same way every time even I will get bored of them.”

“When we get back to New Frisco I’m putting you in for transfer to a desk job.”

“You can take my career but you’ll never take my love for human folly, Captain.”

Craig put the display between the two of them again. “So we build a new department. Why put Fyodorovich at the head? Why give him a double promotion in the process? Surely Lieutenant Commander Dulan-”

Oda was suddenly upright, alert and serious, crossing his legs in front of him in the position oddly known as Indian style. “Farah Dulan is an academic sociologist, poorly suited to operating her current department, much less assembling one out of scratch on the fly.”

“Okay, how about Commander-”

“Commander Rand is a crack administrator and has an excellent tactical sense in simulations but he’s never been in combat and he’s not well liked by his department. You’ll remember I recommended against accepting his posting here for this mission for exactly those reasons.”

“I do.” Craig dimmed the display again. “I’d also like to point out he has seen combat at this point.”

“If you consider our part in what happened combat then yes, and he handled himself admirably.” Oda raised two fingers. “His department still dislikes him because he doesn’t have a great leadership sense. And we were never in direct danger during the Earth Orbital exchange yesterday. In my opinion he’s still untested in the most important aspect of this assignment, which is performance under pressure.”

Craig grunted and put the display back in place. “So why Fyodorovich?”

“Ensign Fyodorovich was cited for bravery during an avalanche on Type-E Moon 2485 during a routine survey mission and again for reacting decisively during a cometquake on a standard harvesting mission, both during his second tour of duty on the Kelly. Lieutenant Fyodorovich was reprimanded for his actions during a hull breach while serving on the Yamato and then commended for his actions during a similar incident a year later on the Venture. The through line to these four incidents is simple.” Hiroyuki suddenly snapped his hand up in a clenched fist. “Bold, decisive action when he and his subordinates were in danger.”

“In moments of decision it’s better to do the wrong thing than nothing at all,” Craig murmured. He wasn’t sure the source of the sentiment, probably some American president, it had that kind of headstrong feel to it. Regardless, it wasn’t entirely out of place in deep space. And skimming through Volk Fyodorovich’s service record, it did seem the young man had it in spades.

“In addition to that,” Hiroyuki added softly. “Lieutenant Fyodorovich has been in more life threatening situations than any other officer serving aboard this ship, including yourself. He’s not reckless, in fact as the two hull breach situations show he actively adapts to familiar dangers. He’s just been lucky.”

“Or unlucky.”

“Unlucky is dead. Fyodorovich is alive. There’s a special quality to men who survive these kinds of circumstances; it doesn’t show up in service records or performance evaluations. But enlisted men are drawn to it and officers can rely on it. Considering the circumstances we certainly could use it on Mars.”

Craig continued through the service record with growing interest. Hiroyuki had a certain eye for people – what made them tick, what potential they had, what shortcomings they would show under stress. It wasn’t something he’d ever been able to learn but, with practice, Craig had learned to pick out shadows of what his XO saw and he was certainly seeing them in Fyodorovich. “You think he can run this new department smoothly?”

“His subordinates will love him, he’ll do whatever you ask him to and as many people as can be kept safe in the process will be safe. But this is space, Captain. Not everything will go easily.”

Craig nodded. It was space they were talking about, after all. He couldn’t ask for more than that. “Well, hopefully the other department heads will get along with him, too.”

“Oh.” The smile was back. “I’m afraid they are going to hate him.”

“Oda…”

Next Chapter

Martian Scriptures Chapter Four – Watching the Silence

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gemma.”

“I’m sor-”

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

Gemma opened her mouth to apologize again then caught herself.

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

“Have I ever asked?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How often does that happen?”

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

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

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

Gemma’s board went ping.


 

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

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

“Any plans?”

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

“That sounds nice.”

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

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

“You don’t have to-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They’re eighty pages long!”

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

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

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

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

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

“No one told me!”

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

Next Chapter

Martian Scriptures Chapter Two – Triage

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s happening, captain?”

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

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

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

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

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

But no one had predicted instant hostilities.

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Chapter

Martian Scriptures Chapter One – Alarms

Introduction

“Captain, we are T-minus 90 seconds to superluminal deceleration.”

Captain Craig Gyle nodded an acknowledgement to Ensign Cates at Communications then pressed one finger down against his armrest, the motion more than pressure informing his AI to patch his voice through to the rest of the ship. “Attention all hands, set condition two, secure all stations and remain at readiness. We are about to enter Earth orbit.”

A cheer erupted across the bridge of the RSN Stewart as a dozen officers and enlisted spacers, plus one embedded reporter, all reveled together in the knowledge that they were some of the first spaceborn humans to return to the Homeworld in two centuries. There were three bottles of alcohol hidden in watch stations on the bridge alone, Craig suspected the contents would be gone before the day was over and somehow that fact would get omitted from the duty logs. Not that he could blame them. No living colonist in the Triad Worlds or Rodenberry had ever seen Earth.

In a very real sense, they’d arrived at a place of legends.

“T-minus 60 seconds to superluminal deceleration.”

Craig levered himself up, out of his chair. Shipboard gravity had been adjusted up from Rodenberry’s 0.93 G to the full Terran Standard a month ago but he still found it a bit difficult to work against at times. Hopefully if he was asked planetside by Admiral Carrington he’d be able to maneuver there without embarrassing himself. “Communications?”

Down at the forward most console, Lieutenant Hoyle answered without missing a beat. “We are prepped to receive on all standard Earth frequencies of the Departure era and our transponders are now broadcasting the standard Colonial callsign, Captain. We’re also prepped to dial in on the Roberts and the Spiner as soon as we hit real space.”

“Stand by to route communication from Earth through to the rest of the ship.” Craig smiled slightly. “We’ve come all this way, might as well let everyone hear what they have to say to the prodigals.”

“T-minus 30 seconds to superluminal deceleration.”

Craig wrapped his hand around the brace bar on the side of the holotank that dominated the center of the bridge. He wasn’t interested in the overwhelming mass of data there, he just wanted a better view out the forward port, a sweeping expanse of transparent plastic that gave a breathtaking view of the upper decks. Like bridges of old, the Stewart‘s bridge was on the structural “top” of the ship and afforded a look down the vessel’s centerline towards whatever was out there. At the moment, it was the pinprick of relativistic light dead ahead that was the only thing visible at superluminal speeds. In less than thirty seconds, it would be a window to the cradle of humanity.

“Superluminal deceleration in 5… 4… 3…”

Another finger twitch piped his voice back through ship wide.

“2… 1… Decelerating.”

The universe exploded out of the pinprick and swept across the viewport, welcoming the Stewart back from the world beyond light. Down in the lower left hand corner of the port was a brilliant blue ball. A mixture of emotions he couldn’t quantify surged through Craig’s chest and expressed themselves in words. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome home.”

This time there was no cheer on the bridge. For one magical moment they watched the planet below in silent awe.

In the silence they all heard the loud ping from the watch station closest to the rear of the bridge. A sliver of dissonance shot through Craig, for a split second he wasn’t at the peak of his career but rather in high Newtonian orbit three years prior – but he quashed that feeling immediately. “Tactical?”

“Radiation spike, Captain.” Lieutenant Commander Barton Rand was frantically working his board. “Explosion of some kind, but too big to be a weapons discharge.”

That was worse than he’d hoped. He’d been expecting just an active scan or weapon signature. Admiral Carrington had repeatedly emphasized it was possible they’d be viewed as a threat when they entered orbit, and that no ship should respond to sensor pings or weapons powering in defensive emplacements. What they should do if fired on was less clear – Carrington insisted he would make the decision personally, in the way most likely to deescalate the situation. Everyone had assumed there would be a few moment’s grace once they decelerated to at least establish communications among the fleet.

“Source of the explosion?”

“Approximately 8,000 km distant, at an orbital separation of -”

“Captain, general distress call received from CSV Johnston!”

Craig pushed away from the holotank and bolted back to his chair. “Tactical, is the position of that explosion consistent with the Johnston’s position in the fleet formation?”

“It’s within 200 km of their project arrival point.”

Well within the margin of error for superluminal travel. “Communications, scrap all outgoing transmissions, get me the Spiner and the Sea of Tranquility immediately.”

“Captain, EMG readings show no, repeat no active powerplant in the vicinity of the Johnston’s position. If the ship’s actually there she’s dead in space.”

Craig stared at the holotank, his AI sorting through the information and enlarging the electromagnetic/gravitic scanning reports before the EMG officer’s report was even finished. While the Stewart and its sister ship, the Spiner, and the Copernican frigate Roberts were clearly marked by the distortions of shipboard gravity there was no similar distortion from the next ship towards the formation’s center. Beyond where the Johnston should be was another distortion marking the MSS Remus. In fact, based on the EMG readout the whole fleet was more or less in position, except for the Johnston.

“The Spiner is responding, Captain,” Hoyle called, her voice pitched higher than normal to cut through the sudden noise on the bridge. “Establishing tight beam communications.”

“Tactical, set condition one.” Craig tasked his AI with marking the relevant reports in one corner of the holotank and dismissed the EMG display, pulling up a wider map of Earth space. “Navigation, bring us downwell of the Johnston, half degree offset, for standard rescue operations. Communications, ask the Spiner to counter us upwell.”

The low, rumbling pulse of the condition one alarm was added to the background noise. “Captain,” Hoyle said, “we have communication with the Remus. They report that the Johnston is fragmentary and ballistic.”

In other words, the Johnston was in multiple pieces falling towards Earth rather than proceeding under their own power. They’d decelerated below lightspeed less than sixty seconds ago and already a ship in the fleet was lost. They’d been broadcasting as friendlies, damn it.

What was happening out there?


 

Alyssa Pracht was in the middle of a drink break when the alarm on the Sun Bottle went off. She was too old and seasoned to drop her glass and scramble when the harsh, ringing tone started but the other bottlekeeper on break with her was less disciplined, fumbling his drink and creating a sticky, purple mess all over the break room table. Alyssa squashed the urge to give Doug an annoyed look or long scolding. The Bottle was more important. So she just set her own glass down primly and bolted out the door, Doug only half a step behind her, his right shoe squeaking wetly as they scrambled through the door into board room.

“What’s red, Eldest?” She asked, skidding to a stop next to Naomi, the older woman who had main watch that day.

“Injector five, again,” Naomi answered, her words clipped and curt, even for a famously terse woman. “Not red yet, but climbing yellow hard. I’d take an early Closing if it’s not those conduits again.”

“Oyarsa,” Alyssa muttered. “What are those fishers sending us?”

“Not our problem,” Naomi replied. “Focus on finding and clipping those conduits.”

“Right, right.” Alyssa was already trying to run down the errors but it was harder to pin down which conduits might need work when the injector was only trending yellow. The temperature variances were much narrower. “Doug, feather wing seven please?”

Doug turned to reach the right board, pivoting on his squeaky boot with a creaking, clicking noise she felt in her teeth. Alyssa slammed her hand down next to her board. “Doug!”

With a snap of her fingers, Naomi instantly refocused Alyssa’s attention, the older woman giving her younger peer a concerned look. “Alyssa. Focus.”

Warmth crept up into her cheeks and Alyssa nodded. “Sorry, Eldest.”

“Wing seven feathered, Alyssa.” Doug kept his eyes on his hands, avoiding eye contact with her as he reported and carefully picking up his wet foot as he pivoted back to his main board.

With the changes in the wing fields inside the Sun Bottle she could back off the overheating injector and take a little more time to pin down the problem. “Conduits 5, 7 and 12 are the problem children. I’ll grab a crawler crew and we’ll take care of it.”

Naomi leaned over the railing of the board room, down into the depths of the supply room. “Ramone! On watch please!” Then she straightened and waved her hand for Alyssa to come stand next to her. “I’ll go with you.”

“That’s not-”

But Alyssa’s protest died unspoken when Naomi raised a single eyebrow in rebuke.

Once Ramone got up the stairs to the board room the two women took off at a fast clip. It was only two doors down to the crawler’s waiting room where a single clap of Naomi’s hands set a crawl team scrambling to their feet. “Three conduits, prep for immediate replacement. Let’s go!”

The eight man team scattered in all directions, assembling equipment in the seemingly random yet shockingly efficient manner only the most coordinated and experienced of crews could accomplish. Although even at peak performance it would still take them about five minutes to pull everything together for a three conduit job. She leaned over until one cheek almost brushed against Naomi’s shoulder and murmured, “I can supervise this kind of replacement, you know.”

“It’s not the replacement that worries me.” Naomi leaned in towards Alyssa and the two woman adjusted until their huddle was symmetrical, rather than lopsided. “I know Closing is hard and the changes make us irritable, but if you keep taking it out on the younger we’re going to have problems on our hands. You’ve only been one of the Elder for three weeks but that doesn’t mean they don’t look up to you. The words of an Elder mean more than those of the Youth.”

Alyssa hunched her shoulders and looked down and away. “I know. I remember when… you know.”

“I know. I was harder on you than I should have been at first and I was hoping you’d remember that; but I guess it’s harder to judge your own attitude than those of others.” Naomi gave her a comforting smile and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, rubbing her arm. “Something for you to remember in a couple of cents.”

“Yeah.” The word was barely a whisper. Alyssa straightened back up and did her best to smile. “I hear you, Eldest,” she added, her voice coming back. “And I can handle this, if you want to go back.”

“No.” Naomi’s smile turned sad. “I want to tag along on this one. Since it’s probably the last time.”

The statement hung between the two of them for a moment then Alyssa nodded and the women broke apart. A minute later the crawl team joined them and they were on their way to the conduits.


 

“Admiral Carrington is ordering the Spiner forward to fill the Johnston’s place in the fleet’s scanning formation,” Hoyle reported. “The Remus is moving to backstop us and take the Spiner’s place in the rear formation. We’re to continue rescue operations.”

“Request the Spiner be allowed to deploy its survey and launch craft to assist ours,” Craig said, keeping his eyes on the holotank as new data continued to pour in, his AI shifting the priority order of various datafeeds on a second by second basis. “Commander Rand, do we know what the Spiner is helping them scan for?”

“Breaking down the latest update from the Tranquility’s BASIC now,” Rand replied. “No specifics on why the Admiral ordered the change in formation but I’d guess its related to the satellites.”

The holotank shifted again, the new display a hazy and indistinct image of something that looked like a simple automated defense satellite, little more than a missile tube and ammo supply on thrusters. Shockingly unsophisticated, clearly very effective. “The Roberts reports it shot one down about forty kilometers from the Johnston’s arrival point,” Rand continued. “It was already firing on them as well but their point defense systems were able to intercept the missiles and they suffered no damage. The NSC Principia is also under fire from at least two of these things and the Admiral has ordered the fleet to clear a 60 degree orbital arc of the things and see if that buys us breathing room.”

And, based on the estimations from the Sea of Tranquility‘s Battle Space Information Center, these satellites were small and had some kind of stealth tech built into their hulls to make them harder to pin down. Rodenberry scanners were more sensitive than anything on a Triad Worlds ship, outside of perhaps the Principia, the heavy cruiser fresh off the Newtonian shipyards. At the same time, with their unusually large onboard compliment of launches and survey craft Stewart-class deep space exploration ships were also ideally suited to rescue operations. There was a logic to how Carrington had arranged his ships but Craig didn’t like having the Stewart’s safety in the hands of the crew from the trigger happy Minervan Spacer Corps. He didn’t know the Remus’ captain very well but that was really the problem, wasn’t it? The Unified Colonial Fleet was unified in name only, most of the captains and crews had never worked together before. Some of them had been actively at war with each other less than five years ago. Six months spent mostly in the isolation of superluminal travel had done little to foster a sense of solidarity among them.

“The Spiner is deploying survey and launch craft,” Hoyle reported.

One good decision for the win column. Craig looked through the holotank towards Navigation. “Adjust our position to give them optimum access to the rescue zone, Ensign Cates.”

“Adjusting position spinward, sir.”

Craig was already back to musing through his datafeeds. After the harrowing first minute post deceleration things had slowed to a pace more in line with typical fleet actions. The Stewart had reached condition one 97 seconds after the order had been given, a record for the ship on this cruise, and Commander Hiroyuki Oda, Craig’s first officer, had moved from his alert station in Engineering to Spacelock Four to supervise the rescue operations. After that they’d continued by rote procedure for a full six minutes, establishing lines of communication, beginning rescue operations and watching for danger, before Carrington started giving orders to the fleet. And for a twelve – well, eleven ship fleet scattered over an area of space more than 100,000 km in diameter even that was working pretty damn fast.

Less than ten minutes since deceleration. Enough time to lose a ship, find himself depending on unreliable allies and responsible for the lives of men and women in dire straits. More than enough time, one would think, for an entire planet full of people to look up and wonder who had come to visit them. “Lieutenant Hoyle, any -” Craig caught himself and adjusted his voice down to normal levels. The alarms and emergency chatter had died away, he didn’t need to shout make himself heard anymore. “Have you picked up any transmissions from Earth?”

The silence stretched just long enough for Gyle to go back through the records of the last few minutes and check for himself. So when he was prepared when the answer came. “No, sir. Not to us, not to any other ships in the fleet. We’re not getting any transmissions from Earth at all.”

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