Star Bright

The Sisters of St. Mary of Mars (11th February 2158)
11th February 2158

They were close now, and were extending their driving even into the brief Martian twilight to reach the Sisters of St. Mary.

“What are a bunch of nuns doing out here anyway?” said Spyder. “No offence” he added, looking at Kara.

“This is one of two Abbey’s of the Order” said Kara. “The other is in the Asteroid Belt.”

“But why out here? And who is St. Mary anyway? The patron saint of arid deserts?” persisted Spyder.

“You already know who she is: Mary Gallagher.” answered Kara.

“Umm… who…?” said Spyder.

“She was a scientist” said Jake. “Don’t you know anything Spyder? Bred plants and stuff that kick started the whole terraforming thing on Mars.”

“What isn’t widely appreciated is that she was a nun” said Kara.

“The shipyard billionaire Howard Roth was so impressed – and a devout Catholic – that he offered to donate two sizable properties and a huge stipend to the Catholic Church in perpetuity, if they would consider the institution of an Order which could strive to serve God and the religious congregation through scholastic and scientific endeavour. The result was the Order of St. Mary of Mars, and the Abbey’s of the Order here and in the Asteroid Belt.”

“This place is a major player in the terraforming process” explained Kara. “Suppliers and research facility for all sorts of stuff. Contracts with the UWC. Important stuff.”

“I guess that would explain the mercenary guards then” said Jake, as they approached the twenty foot walls. An armed guard waved them down.

“A stipulation of the UWC, given the importance of some of their work” said Kara. They seemed to be expected, and after being given directions were waved inside.

Inside the wall was a large semicircular compound, several hundred metres across. They approached down a long road, lined with greenhouses and biodomes. The main facility was built several stories high, tunnelled into the cliff face.

Outside of this were a few other buildings and a vehicle park.

“The Guest Lodge is out here” said Kara. “I expect you’ll be limited to there”.

They were waved down by a mercenary and two nuns, who were obviously expecting Kara.

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Dawn's Early Light (11th February 2158)
11th February 2158

They woke up and assessed the situation. Following the tracks of the escaped smg man they saw that these led several hundred metres to two parked rovers: now long departed.

The attackers were not common thugs or bandits. In fact they were all neat and presentable young men, possibly in their twenties. There was a preponderance of good looks and blonde hair. All were dead, clearly not from gunshot wounds.

“Poison” said Doc Orlov. They loaded up and drove on. Hopefully they would reach the Estate of the Sisters of St. Mary of Mars by nightfall.

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A Busy Evening (10th February 2158)
10th February 2158

Despite its bleakness, Jake had started to like the Martian Night. The cold and the wind, and the hissing of the sand being blown about. Sometimes the rush of air though the canyons made eerie noises and his imagination started to play tricks on him. Out here away from the settlements it was completely isolated, and it gave you time to think and ponder.

They had parked the two WTVs nose to tail, though they had decided not to run a link tube between the two side airlocks in case they needed to depart swiftly. They had decided to keep watch, and given the circumstances, kept their weapons close to hand. It was pitch black outside, though he flicked on the lights from time to time for a sweep. Hopefully the rocks around them would shield this from distant prying eyes. Jake and Jonas had decided to take the first watch.

Jake squinted. Was that his imagination, or was there movement outside in the darkness? He switched on the mikes and thought he heard a sound like the crunch of gravel. Quickly he woke the others, and they quietly pulled on their clothes.

Jake told Kara to flip on the lights on his signal, and nosed through the top hatch. Down below Spyder had crept into the side airlock, where he saw Marcus and Doc. Orlov standing in the lock of the vehicle opposite.

“Now!” hissed Jake, and Kara switched the lights on. Jake saw the shape among the rocks opposite and fired a burst with his rifle; the figure tumbled to the ground. Other shapes pushed forward and returned fire, a spray of autofire missing him narrowly. Jake took another shape down.

Jonas had popped out of the hatch of the Lab ATV, and found himself in a close range firefight with someone who had climbed up onto the roof.

Down below Spyder, Doc Orlov and Marcus had jumped down into the space between the two vehicles, and found the vehicles being rushed from figures at either end of the rovers.

While the attackers moved forward, the defenders pressed themselves against the vehicles and took aimed shots. Spyder took another figure down with a Long Rifle, and Doc. Orlov and Marcus brought down several others.

A burst from the smg man grazed Jake’s head, and down he went: Kara struggled frantically to pull him back down in to the WTV. But Jake had disposed of the man on the roof now, and down between the vehicles a succession of pistol armed attackers were being hit by Spyder and Doc Orlov, while Marcus shot down a man with a shotgun.

“Where is the smg man?” called Jonas, but Kara, who was now prone on the roof of the vehicle, could spot no sign.

“Check underneath” called Marcus, and drawing his autopistols Spyder started to comply. Under the first vehicle there was no sign, but something there was something not quite right about the second. Then he noticed the row of glowing green lights, and scrambled backwards.

“I think he’s placed a bomb!” he yelled. “Move the other one!”

“Jake! Get Jake! yelled Marcus. “He told me he know something about explosives.”

Kara had already applied a stimpack to Jake, who had come round. Groggily he clambered to the ground, being handed a set of electronics tools by Marcus. Shaking his head, he pointed his pencil torch up at the device.

“Right”, he said, "I think I can remove this quickly. “It’s set to go off in about ten minutes otherwise.”

“Will it be safe?” asked Marcus anxiously.

“We’ll soon know” said Jake, reaching for the electronic probe.

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Unwelcome Company (10th February 2158)
10th February 2158

Spyder woke up, vaguely remembering that he had blown 450 Cr last night. As he scratched in his underpants he found something hard, and plastic. Reaching inside he triumphantly recovered the Cr 10 chip he had slipped there, which (he now recalled), the Go Go dancer had refused to remove with her teeth. He rolled over and then awoke in excruciating pain as the bunk hit his broken nose. He banged his head on the bunk above. The rover, it seemed, was already moving.

As he pottered about in his Amazing Spider Man thong, and mule socks, Kara grimaced.

“Can’t you make him get dressed?” she called to Jake. “I’m trying to eat.”

Jake turned round, taking a drag on his cigarette, and quickly assessing the situation.

“Your problem luv, I’m driving” he replied, and activated the driver screen so that he, at least, would be spared any additional pain.

It was much later in the day when Jake noticed the dust clouds. Very fast along the ground, but some distance off. Dust Buggies maybe? He called the others.

“They seem to be heading in roughly our direction” he said. “Trouble?”

They halted for a quick discussion, and then headed around the base of some rocky dunes ahead of them. Spyder scrabbled up to the top with a set of binoculars.

On a distant dune some km distant, a buggy rolled up to the top of the crest. A man clad in Mars Suit and Poncho scanned towards them with binoculars. Spyder ducked down. The buggy drove off.

“If they’re after us, we can’t outrun them” said jonas. “Let’s just keep going.”

As they drove on they saw further dust clouds off to the east, as well as behind them. Ominously, it looked like they were trying to push ahead of them: but for what?

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Dunkin's Rest (9th February 2158)
9th February 2158

Kara was laying low in the WTV, and Doc. Orlov was keeping her company. The boys however were in the bar, and Spyder had struck lucky selling some multipack cartons of cigarettes to passing truckers from his stash. He had then blown the money on an enormous meal, copious amounts of alcohol, slot machines and requests to the Bar Dancers. None of them noticed money changing hands between the neatly dressed young man and the four enormous miners, as he nodded towards the group.

As they staggered outside they sang, very badly:

“Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side,
The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling,
It’s you, it’s you must go and I must bide.

But come ye back when summer’s in the m………….."

Four heavy set figures lumbered out of the gloom, blocking the gate to the rover park outside.

“‘Tis murderin’ a foine auld oirish tune, they are” said one.

“Sure it is Pat” said another, “Takin’ the moichal out of us hard workin’ lads. We oughtta teach them some manners, to be sure.”

“Whoa, whoa” said Spyder, “let’s all calm down and we’ll buy you a drink. Some of our best friends are Scotch, aren’t they lads?” A fist shot out and bloodied his nose.

“By dose!” screamed Spyder.

“Get ’em boys!” yelled one of the miners, and they lumbered forwards. Billy clubs and monkey wrenches flailed at the group.

“Bugger this” said Jake, and pulled out his knife, jabbing straight into the side of one of the attackers. Grabbing his pot belly, he keeled over.

Spyder retreated strategically to evaluate the situation, failing to notice the two figures observing events from the shadows. Marcus took a right hook, while Jonas too pulled a knife and slashed one of the assailants. Another went down.

Moments later it was over: the remaining miners had fled into the darkness.

“Be deed to bake ourselbs scarce!” said Spyder, clutching his nose. They raced over to the rovers, and powering them up drove a few miles down the road, and then off a short distance into the pitch black dunes, where they made camp for the night.

Outside the winds of Mars hissed dispassionately in the darkness, as the temperatures plumetted downwards.

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The Golden Road (9th February 2158)
9th February 2158

Following the Golden Road, they made good time towards Helium; their intent was to overnight at Dunkins Rest, before heading off into the Martian Outback. Dunkins Rest was one of several minor stops along the Mariner Valley Magrail Route, which housed a tiny number of services and buildings, serving primarily as a jumping off point for the several mining camps dotted around the area.

Dunkin’s Rest also featured a Truck Stop for the Utility Rovers hauling supplies and mining output from these camps, or for other camps traversing the Golden Road. The Golden Road itself was simply a trail paralleling the main Magrail Route, largely used by the ore haulers and supply trucks.

Jonas and Jake were both good drivers, and they made good time. After a few hours they switched drivers, and Jonas hopped across to the other Rover to do a bit of catching up with Kara.

They chatted a little about old times, but he had no luck in persuading her to reveal more of the situation she was in. As they spoke however she fiddled with a necklace or amulet beneath her outer clothing, and it was a peculiar item he had not seen before, which looked kind of familiar.

It was a cross like pendant about two inches in length, resembling a crucifix but with a second crossbar lower down the main spar. The amulet was finely made of ornamented gold, heavily worked, and with numerous small precious gems working into the whole. It looked pretty valuable, and possibly antique. Some vague connection with France sprung to Jonas’s mind.

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Nun on the Run (9th February 2158)
9th February 2158

It was seven a.m. when they finally drove the Rovers out of the storage hanger. Instead of pulling straight south out of Sallytown they parked up next to the Church of St. Mary. Jake lounged against the ladder of one of the vehicles next to a side door.

Father Patrick and the four nuns who staffed the Sallytown Church came out, and the Preist started to conduct a blessing ceremony of the two rovers, and offered Holy Communion to Marcus and Jonas, who were both pretending to be good Catholics (in fact Marcus was a bad Catholic, and Jonas a Lutherian). There were many minor distractions during the ceremony, and during one of these Kara sneaked out , shielded by the nuns, and was quickly bundled into the airlock by Jake. Doc. Orlov and Spyder stood around looking suitably embarrassed and/ or bored (which they were anyway).

The ceremony over, they shook hands with the priest, and set off on their mission

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Kara Krosse (7th February 2158)
7th February 2158

“Hello Jonas,” said the attractive nun on the vidscreen, “Don’t you recognise me?” Jonas stared, and then realisation dawned.

“Kara!” he said with astonishment, “Kara Krosse!”

He had served with Kara on the tramp trader “SpongeBob Squarepants”. He had always wondered about that name. The ‘SpongeBob’ had operated from the Saturn orbit, mostly trading food supplies to the other Outer Worlds, and returning in with ores, crystals and other speculative cargoes to turn a steady profit. Kara had joined them as a general crew hand as a technician. They had got on on pretty well, and he had even slept with her a few times (he wasn’t the only one). She had always worn a tiny silver crucifix round her neck but now a Nun? One day they had docked at Titan and she had simply never returned to the ship. Why was a mystery, and the Captain had cursed her to High heaven.

“I need help Jonas. People are after me: bad people, powerful people. They’ve been after me a long time.” said Kara. “They were looking for me on Titan and now they’re looking for me here. If you can sneak me out to the Sisters Estate they can ensure I’m well hidden. I have the Church’s protection now.” She fingered the simple cross around her neck.

“But why are they after you?” asked Jonas.

“It’s complicated”, she said.

“Just like a woman” thought Jonas.

“You’ll have to trust me” she added. Jonas sighed.

“I’ll need to talk it over with my friends” said Jonas.

“Sort out the details with Father Patrick” said Kara. “But be careful: these men will kill you to get at me.”

As they left the Church, Jonas wondered how they would take it.

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More Tales from the White Hart (7th February 2158)
7th February 2158

It was chile and plastic Doritos again, with an optional dollop of sour cream. Everyone seemed hungry anyway, so they started to eat. So it was that Spyder failed to spot the nun collecting for the poor, and so was unable to slip to the toilet till she’d gone.

The nun beamed sternly and shook her collection tin. Jonas sighed and reached into his pocket. It was only when she’d gone that he noticed the folded paper slipped half under his plate. Frowning he took it, and unfolded it below the table.

“Jonas Hoffmann.

Please be discreet. Please attend confession at the Church of St. Mary of Mars in Sallytown half an hour before the evening mass at six. A Friend in Need."

Jonas briefly discussed it with the others. There was a Church of St. Mary just across the street. His curiosity aroused he decided to attend, and it was agreed that Marcus would go in with him and sit alongside. The others would remain in the bar.

Time passed and alcohol came and went. At five thirty Marcus and Jonas went across. Jonas followed Marcus’s lead making a sign of the cross and wetting his brow with Holy Water. Inside the small church were a few elderly women in Mantilla’s lighting candles or fervently praying with rosary beads. They sat in the bench next to the confessional, and after a pause Jonas went inside.

" I am Jonas Hoffmann: it’s a heck of a time since my last confession" said Jonas, following the protocol he had picked up from watching antique reruns of the Father Dowling mysteries.

“Mr. Hoffmann” said a thick irish brogue. “We have a favour to ask you. When you leave the day after tomorrow we need you to take a passenger out to our estate near the entrance to Candor Chiasma. We understand you are going there anyway.”

The priest was right: they needed to pick up some specimens of the seeder organisms they would be checking, for field comparative purposes. Apparently Fountain had originally purchased their stock from the Sisters greenhouses.

“What’s all this about?” asked Jonas. The priest pushed through a commlink with a number already pressed in. Jonas dialed it.

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Last Minute Prep (7th February 2158)
7th February 2158

Marcus was waiting to see which vehicle he could stow his stuff in. It was alright for Doc. Orlov – clearly she would be in the lab vehicle, and he noticed she had also added a stowable hammock and set up her own flexi screen and computer peripherals in the lab area. Well that was ok, if she claimed that as her space it would mean more for whoever else would be sharing the vehicle with her.

This was important. The bunks themselves had a curtain, but they were hardly places to relax in otherwise. Any free time would likely be spent in the small table/ dining area near the centre of the vehicle.

As the more experienced drivers he assumed that Jake and Jonas would be split between the two vehicles, leaving himself and Spyder a bit of a choice, as long as there were two in one vehicle and three in another.

He saw Doc. Orlov open the weapon locker in the Science ATV-already stocked with a shotgun, a rifle and a few revolvers, and saw her stowing a pistol and some ammo – an Anvil 12mm like his own.

“Funny” he thought, “An acaedemic type owning such a thing.”

As she jumped out she nodded at him.

“All done?” he asked.

“Da blagodarya”. Impenetrable, as usual. He looked round. She had also replaced one of the vacc suits with her own, he noted. He needed to do that – he certainly wasn’t carting his own back to his digs. Hers was customised differently to his, he noticed. While his own suit was optimised for EVA and working in space, hers looked like more of a ground exploration suit.

“That figures” he thought, “If she was doing ground surveys and stuff.” He had taken the trouble to look up her profile, and it seemed she had written quite a few high profile papers, and written books on Geophysics and stuff like that. It seemed odd to him that she was doing simple bread and butter monitoring work like this. Right now probably wasn’t the time to ask her about it, he figured.

“We’re all meeting for lunch next door at one” he called after her. She paused and turned round.

“Otlichno.” she said. “I will attend.”

“We’re honoured” he thought to himself.

At least he might drop in on a couple of buddies during this trip. Marty Thomas was a fellow homesteader, and after his memory loss Marcus had worked for him for a time, which had helped him to find his feet again. Marty was a real colonist, and had started to complain that the Mariner Valley (with something like 200,000 colonists, and then mostly in Mariner City) was becoming too crowded. He had relocated about as far out as anyone would go: as far as Marcus knew his was probably the last individual homestead eastward along Coprates. His job had been helping him set up his greenhouses and new hab, before Marcus had decided to chip in with a few others and go his own way. He and Marty had parted on good terms however.

The other was Stepan Alenin: Stepan was someone who had actually known the old Marcus in his mining survey days, and Marcus had tracked him down. While somewhat bemused by Marcus’ condition the two seemed to still get along anyway, and Marcus liked the way he sometimes had familiar twinges and a sense of deja vu when drinking in his company. A couple of years ago Stepan had landed a decent job with the Miners out at Presidia, and consequently Marcus had not seen him for some time.

As he pondered he saw Jonas enter the parking compound, just as Doc Orlov was climbing down the ladder.

“Nice,” thought Jonas, ogling her posterior. “Might be time for the Fatherland to invade the Motherland again,” he muttered as he helped her down. She turned round in surprise.

“Gut morning teammates,” he called out as he slung his small bag up behind her into the entrance door.

“You’re late,” snapped Marcus waspishly.

“Hmm, hope he isn’t gay” thought Jonas.

“I vas, ah, delayed,” Jonas replied, wiping a bit of lipstick off the side of his neck. He tipped a wink at the Doc..He held his hand out to her. “Hello, I’m your driver, Jonas Hoffman.” Somewhat mollified, she held her hand out, largely on autopliot.

The big man nimbly climbed into the ground car, eyes quickly scanning the familiar interior. He stuck his head into the lab, and saw that one of the bunks had also been claimed by Doc. Orlov. He made sure he claimed the bunk opposite, and lay down with his hands behind his head.

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