Star Bright

In the Tunnels
28th January 2159: midnight

Spyder looked down at his flip flops.

“Maaan, these are real neat-o flip flops. What is this…Bamboo? Nooo couldn’t be, the price of shipping bamboo all the way out here would be cost prohibitive. Plastic? No, the texture is spot on fibrous and they make a loud ‘Flopp Flopp Flopp’ sound as I walk…..Hmmm maybe a Martian hybrid from one of those so called Communes north of Mariner city. Those wacka-doodles are all ways coming up with new stuff to sell so’s they can build churches. Hey that reminds me, I think God wore sandals when he turned loaves to fishes. "

He paused a moment, briefly considering that there might actually be some risk involved in doing what he was doing. He quickly dismissed the thought.

“I’m just like God in these neat-o flip-flops. What is this….Bamboo?”

He was at the rendezvous point. No one here yet; he was probably early. What was that noise he could hear?

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Lights Out
27th January 2159

Paul and Spyder were finishing a last game of pool: everyone else had gone to bed and outside was the blackness of the martian night. Spyder yawned, and then reached for his smartlink, before slowly turning right round and then yawning again.

“I’m going to bed man” he said. “Can you check this cue before you put it away. I can’t see with my crappy eyes. Boy, I sure am bushed.”

Paul was about to say something when Spyder handed him the cue – and something else. He looked down and saw that Spyder had palmed him his smartlink – but now he had left the room.

Paul frowned: why had Spyder done this, and with such a subterfuge? Playing along he slipped in in his pocket, and then went over and crouched down in front of the cue rack, and started to dismantle the cues. As he did so he slipped the device out and read the message on the screen.

“I know who’s behind it all. Meet me in the storage tunnel near Link Four at midnight. Tell no one.”

Paul let it sink in. Was the idiot actually going off to the rendezvous alone? Maybe he should warn the others?

He put the cues away quickly and left the Rec. Room. The nearest entrance to the underbase was in the warehouse, but Spyder had a lead of a couple of minutes now. He decided that he best follow as quickly as possible. A lot could happen in two minutes. He stood before the elevator and waited for it to ascend.

He buzzed Doc. Orlovs smartlink. Hopefully someone would answer.

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The Base Techs
27th January 2159

They decided to round off the days interviews with Doug Ybarra, the Computech, and Karl Rotmann, the Life Support Technician.

A quick conversation with Dr. Wilson had revealed the main computer access and skills as belonging to Rottman, Ybarra and Yu Sung. Yu Sungs access would be largely for stores and requisitions, and Rotmann for a range of base and systems functions. Ybarra would pretty much have full access – as would Dr. Wilson himself.

Rotmann had been at the base for three years, and seemed pretty knowledgeable about its functions. A three year gap in his cv raised a question from Jake, but Rotmann explained that he had been Travelling.

There was something puzzling about Ybarra too, though as he had only been at the base a year this would have made him a low priority suspect. It was not like he was actually hiding some secret, but he did seem vague about some of his work – perhaps even embarrassed. Clearly something was going on with him. They decided to chew it over and close the interview.

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Let the Audit Commence
27th January 2159

Jake and Marcus especially had a long day ahead of them: they figured that they could probably squeeze in six interviews/ examinations today, doing the final two tomorrow.

After hearing Spyder’s comments about Dr. Kirishima on the previous evening, they already had some idea of her hard line – verging on fanatical – approach to the project, and this was a theme which continued during the interview. Of course this might just be a mask, but if it was they failed to see through it.

St. Cyr was a different and strange kettle of fish. Beautiful, blonde and with an exquisite french accent, she asked as many questions as gave answers, and seemed intent on testing them as interviewers and medical examiners: she made Marcus blush more than once during her physical. Her manner might have raise suspicions, and was certainly provocative. However the fact that she had only been on the base for a year made her one of the less likely suspects.

For similar reasons they ruled out the two Research Assistants, Parvati Souza and Ares Jones. Despite Ares radical background he seemed intent of making money and being with girls, and it seemed probable that he had already made some inroads with the female base staff. Souza did seem to be not telling the full truth however, and perhaps she knew something she was not prepared to discuss.

“Maybe we could get the Doc. to chat up this Ares fellow” suggested Jake.

“Good idea. I’m sure she’d just love that” grinned Marcus.

As they were about to break for dinner Marcus received a wave from Doc. Orlov, and the pair decamped to the small admin office situated in the base sub level, where Katrina and Spyder had been going through the monitoring data. Paul and Jonas were already there drinking a cup of coffee. As they approached the office small mono wheeled handibots scuttled past en route to their various maintenance tasks, either on the base machinery or in the kilometres of subterranean tunnels which stretched in a vast web from the base into the rock beneath the seeding areas: some of these stretched for more than 100 km. On the rare occasions when actual staff needed to traverse these for any distance they knew there were small buggies which could drive through the main tunnels: they had seen all this on their arrival tour the previous day.

“Someone has definitely been altering the data” said Doc. Orlov. “It looks like about once a month for the past year at least. The saboteur is systematically biasing the data to make the soil seem warmer than it really is. Terraformers using the bogus data could end up under-heating the region, which would throw off the whole terraforming program for years”

“And that’s not all” said Jonas. “It looks like there’s been direct damage to physical equipment too. Notably the Drones, which i guess they use much like we used them doing our survey last year. Props bashed about – as though with a hammer. They’ve been jury rigged to functionality, but they are nowhere near as reliable, and I guess the temptation is to not use them as much.”

“So the computer data has been altered?” said Marcus. “I bet not many base staff are capable of that.”

“We need to find out who” said Jake. “Let’s rejig this evenings interviews.”

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The Ball Starts Rolling
26th January 2159

Marcus and Jake conducted their interviews with the two chief scientists, allowing two hours for each. It was clear that Dr. Wilson had something on his mind -clearly he was worried about some aspects of the project, or at least the way it was going.

Dr. Esposito was an odd fish, and they did not know what to make of him. Apparently he was not actually paid a salary, and funded all his own expenses. Clearly he regarded his work here as a semi retirement option, and was simple doing it, as he put it, “to keep his hand in.”

In the Rec. Room Paul and Spyder played a game of pool, keeping slightly apart from the other three or four base staff who were chatting or watching a movie. Spyder’s pool cue disassembled in a clatter and several stares, and Paul noticed that some idiot had taken the thread screw out and simply joined the two halves of the cue together with a matchstick and chewing gum. “Baiting the Auditors” no doubt.

Dr. Kirashima was engaged in a debate with the two Research Assistants, Parvati Souza and Ares Jones. Jones had the temerity to suggest an alternative route to the use of some particular species, and received a dressing down from Dr. Kirashima which even Spyder thought was perhaps beyond the limits of polite behaviour.

“Man, she’s kind of cute, But what a Dragon” he whispered to Paul.

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First Impressions
26th January 2159

After settling in they decided to give the Bullshit “Why We are Doing this Audit” presentation the University of Mars had provided them with. The subtext of the presentation was “Don’t Worry: your jobs are (probably) Safe.”

The six ‘Auditors’ had been billeted in two of the smaller hab modules, each normally shared by two base staff. Space was clearly at a premium. As Spyder headed down one corridor towards a module, Katrina headed in the opposite direction. Where Katrina led, Marcus and Jonas followed: clearly this was going to follow their old sleeping arrangements during the Fountain Botanicals survey.

“Dibs I top bunk” said Jonas.

“Fine " said Marcus with a secret smile.

“I will take futon” said Katrina.

By the time they had had lunch it was two before the presentation started, and by the time they had finished it was near five. Marcus and Jake proposed to start the interviews in the evening, doing Dr. Wilson and Dr. Esposito after dinner. Paul and Spyder dcided that they choose to shoot a little pool in the Rec. Room and maybe do a little informal information gathering.

“You need to be careful” cautioned Jake. “Me? I’m a hard faced git who can talk any old pile of crap and appear plausible, but some of you are as transparent as a strippers panties. If we’re going to pull off this con it’s probably best if we all limit our contact with the staff to formal situations: keep a bit of distance like.”

“And that means you too Spyder” added Jonas.

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Fafnir, finally
26th January 2159

It was about 8 am when they started picking up the transponder signals: the series of small beacons which directed approaching vehicles down a safe route from the plateau of the Arabia Terra Highlands, and down towards the edges of the Acidalia Planitia. It was here that Fafnir Base was located.

After an hour or so they could glimpse the base several hundred metres below them: a typical M Class Base, with circular domes linked by enclosed corridors. They established radio contact and proceeded forwards. As they did so Jonas reviewed the personnel files they had been provided with.

Dr. Juan Wilson was the station director: a 43-year-old climatologist, who had been part of the Mars Terraforming project for the last nine years. Before that he was on Earth, doing climate-engineering research. Apparently he had a stirling record, and used to compete in long-distance cross country bike races on Earth.

Dr. Vladimir Esposito was a meteorologist,and a bit of an odd fish. 70 years old, and born on Mars in one of the original settlements. His doctorate was awarded by a college he helped establish, long after he was widely recognized across the Solar System as an expert on planetary climate modeling and manipulation. Fafnir Station was a semi-retirement position for Esposito; he drew no salary and payed his own expenses.

Dr. Yuki Kirishima was the station hydrologist. Kirishima was 36 years old, born on Earth. She came to Mars at age 19 and since then has studied the development of the planet.

Anais Saint-Cyr was the base biologist. Saint-Cyr was 32 years old, an ecologist by training though without formal acaedemic status. She has worked for the Mars Terraforming Consortium since she was eighteen however.

In addition to the four base scientists were two research assistants. These were:

Parvati Souza, 22 years old, and recently graduated from college and working toward a graduate degree under the supervision of Dr. Esposito.

Ares Jones, 23 years old, and educated at home by his radical parents, now studying hydrology with Dr. Kirishima. He was Martian-born, from a tiny colony in Elysium, possibly much like the one they had discovered at Croatan.

Finally there were four base support staff.

Miranda Knudsen, the general services technician was 31 years old, and born on Earth but a resident of Mars since age 11. She grew up at a remote mining camp near the Argyre basin and had no formal education at all, but was a self-taught expert on just about all kinds of mechanical and electronic systems.

Karl Rotmann, the life support technician was 26 years old, and a native-born Martian from Mariner. His dossier indicated that Rotmann had been working at Fafnir for three years. He graduated from Mariner with a degree in Complex Systems Theory.

Doug Ybarra was 28 years old, a Martian from Pharoah. He had a degree in programming from Mariner Technical School, and four years of experience working for the Terraforming Consortium. He had been at Fafnir only a year now.

Yu Sung, supply manager and chef was 37 years old, and emigrated from Earth 12 years ago.

The two staffers currently away from the station were Martina Halaby, a research assistant working with Dr. Wilson who had taken medical leave after falling into a crevasse and breaking eight bones; and Bernard Kerr, an ecology research assistant who was working with Ms. Saint-Cyr until he resigned and left to get a job running a hydroponic farm. Ms. Halaby was still getting back on her feet, but planned to return to Fafnir and complete her studies in a few months time .

The group had decided that their deception would be threefold.

The first team would consist of Marcus and Jake (his head still wrapped up like a radical Shi’ite) conducting a brief physical examination and interviews, posing as a standard medical/ psychological interview, but of course trying to glean any additional information.

Meanwhile Doc. Orlov and Spyder would access the experimental and monitoring data and try to establish any patterns of misuse or unusual trends.

Finally Jonas and Paul would run through the base physical inventory, counting and in fact checking for physical sabotage.

This process would likely take a couple of days at least, hopefully leaving them additional time for visits to some of the more remote stations and locations, if necessary.

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On the Road Again, Part II
24th January 2159

“Those guys” said Jonas, “Were real Kooks. Tell me what they did up there again”

After having escorted the damaged WTC back to Pharoah and staying there overnight, they were now setting out once again. Hopefully they would arrive at Fafnir a mere six days late.

“Well man” enthused Spyder, “Apparently Mars is, like , the home of some of the Secret Masters- you know Buddha, Jesus, L. Ron Hubbard – all those guys thoughout the ages. These guys, like came down to us to teach us Wisdom and stuff, and then went back home again.”

“So you’re telling me Jesus lives on Mars right?” said Jonas, amused.

“Don’t be a Dingbat man” said Spyder. “Jesus lives on Venus -those other nuts must have got it wrong. But some of these other Secret Master Guys live on Mars.”

“So how come I never seen them?” said Jonas, reasonably.

“Ah that’s the clever part. See, these guys live on a ‘Higher Vibrational Plane’ which we can’t see or visit till we leave this one. Pass over like. And the Face is like a special place – a sort of bridge between this plane and the one with the Masters.”

“Is idiot nonsense” cut in Katrina. "I check this Aetherius Society, and they exist for couple hundred years. When they start out they believe these people ACTUALLY live on Venus, Mars and so on. But when Astronomy data show this total Bullshit they invent all this invisible Plane nonsense and change their tune. "

“Hey we shouldn’t lightly dismiss stuff we don’t know much about” said Spyder. Katrina snorted.

“Anyway, the Face is kind of sacred to them and so they wanted to scatter their Ashes there. They also, like, charged up a Prayer Battery with Good Karma, to release into the World to make it a better place. Nice people.”

“Kooks” muttered Jake.

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Cosmic Encounters
22nd January 2159

Katrina had not been happy with the idea, and said she could not do it alone. But Kieth and the others were adamant that they would make the attempt, and so Marcus sighed and volunteered as well.

“After all " said Jonas. “You’ll work up an appetite for later.” Spyder and Paul wanted to go too, much to Doc. Orlov’s annoyance.

“Now we babysit six” she hissed to Marcus, who shrugged. They made their preparations, with Katrina and Marcus carefully checking the vacc suits of the others, and were well supplied with rope and other equipment. Marcus noted that Katrina’s suit was customised for exactly this sort of use, and so that should give them some slight edge.

Jonas drove them to within a km of the base, and then drove back to the damaged vehicle: He would meet them here later – hopefully at this short range they should be able to communicate. here.

They had done some homework. The face was about 1.5 km high at its tallest point, which was one of two ridges sitting on a plateau about 1km high. Marcus had calculated about an hour and a half to get up on the plateau itself, which would basically leave little time for anything else once they got there. There was no way this bunch could get up to the top.

In fact it wasn’t as bad as he and Katrina had feared. A rough (very rough, in fact) trail had been cut into the rock on several stretches, making a sort of stairway. With the expert guidance of the two martians, they managed to reach the saddle between the two ridges after about 100 minutes. Marcus bit the bullet.

“This” he said, “Is as far as we can go. Alive that is.”

Kieth was not happy. After a tantrum he went off and sulked.

“Is simple arithmatic” said Katrina. “We have 260 minutes air left. Allow 30 minutes for your ceremony and 100 minutes to get down. Leaves 130 minutes. To get up ridge will take maybe another 100 minutes up, and nearly same down. Do this and you die seventy minutes before we get down to bottom. You choose, but Mr. Kaminski, myself and our colleagues – we go down.” Candice Marie went over to Kieth and started quietly pleading with him.

“Let’s just get on with it” said Trixibelle, showing some sense at least. Sky and Candice Marie joined her. Sulkily, Kieth wandered over.

“You got thirty minutes” said Marcus.

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We Shall Overcome
22nd January 2159

“If you want my technical opinion mate” said Jake. “The f*****g WTV’s buggered.”

They were all now stood in the cabin of the A Plant WTV. It transpired that Keith et. al. were visitors to Mars, and they were in fact on a pilgrimage to climb The Face. This was not as odd as it sounded, as they might have guessed from the various tourist literature they had been bombarded with since their arrival in Pharoah, that it was a destination for a particular sort of sightseer. Kieth, Candice Marie, Sky and Trixibelle Frou Frou certainly seemed to be that sort of visitor.

Each of them had brought the ashes of a loved one on their journey (a labrador called Biffo in Sky’s case), and it was their intent to climb the Face and have some sort of ceremony up there. Unfortunately the suspension of their WTV was making horrible grinding noises, and Kieth had been pompously declaiming the hire company for hiring shoddy goods to the gullible tourists.

The mechanics in the group held their peace, as a diagnosis had indicated the likely cause of the problem was terrible driving.

“Ten – twelve hours at least” Jake continued. “We’ll need the jacks and the crane arm from our own WTV. We can maybe do a bit of cannibalisation, but mostly a lot of welding and frame reinforcement. Might be able to limp the bloody thing home again.”

“Well then " said Kieth. “Plenty of time for us to make ouw hike up the Face then.”

“Yes Keef” agreed Candice Marie. “It’s very exciting. This is why we came after all.” Sky and Trixibelle nodded in agreement.

“This not good idea” interjected Doc. Orlov ." Is not simple hike. Clearly you are not experienced on Mars. Only six hours air. You will Die."

“Tell it like it is Katrina” winced Marcus to himself. But like Katrina he too was a Martian with experience of the Outback. A 1km climb might look simple on paper, but with the approach, vacc suits and all the rest of it, these idiots were likely to come a cropper.

“Nonsense” blustered Kieth. “Candice Mawie and I awe expewienced Fell Walkers, and we have walked all awound the Lake Distwict and Peak Distwict. I have it all planned out to a tee.”

“Excuse me SIr” said Jonas using that ingratiating manner of his which had been known to melt accountant’s hearts, “But Doctor Orlov. is a native born Martian, and well experienced in leading expeditions both on Mars and on other worlds. In vacc suits. Do you need vacc suits to walk in this Peak or Lake District Sir?”

“What?” stammered Kieth. “Well no. But my calculations…..”

“Your calculations meaningless if you have no experience or data to measure baseline. is not Earth. Is Mars. You have no experience on Mars. Trust me. You will Die.”

“Ouch” thought Marcus. “Diplomatic as ever Katrina.”

There was a long pause.

“Hey!” said Sky. “Why doesn’t the Russkie Mars Doc come along as our guide?”

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