Star Bright

Strange Brew
22nd January 2159

Jonas stealthy approach had not gone well, as he had stealthily stubbed his toe, stealthily tumbled head over heels down a rocky slope, and stealthily narrowly avoided impaling his face plate on (as Doctor Orlov later kindly explained):

“an example of Chassigny – a cumulate rock, resembling a terrestrial dunite, consistingof about 91% iron-rich olivine, 5% clinopyroxene, 1.7% plagioclase, 1.4% chromite, 0.3% melt inclusions, and few other accessory minerals and phases. Possibly also rare amphiboles, and cracks filled with carbonate and sulfate salts. Most interesting”

These details had escaped Jonas at the time, but his tumble had not escaped the notice of the WTV occupants, who hailed him over the short range comms. Sighing he stumbled towards them, noticing that it was a hire vehicle from the ubiquitous A Plant. His experienced eye noted that the vehicle didn’t seem to be sitting right.

The vacc suited figure beckoning him was also wearing an A Plant vacc suit in their trademark garish yellow. He polarised his visor a little more, and quietly checked that his pistol hadn’t fallen out.

Inside the WTV were three other individuals. One was a middle aged man with a neatly trimmed beard and chewing on an unlit pipe. He held out his hand.

“I’m vewy pleased to meet you. I’m Kieth Joynew, and this is my wife Candice Mawie.” Here he gestured at a small mousey woman wearing an anorak, with round spectacles almost as big as her head.

“And this is Sky” he gestured at a young blonde haired woman who flicked here hair and pouted.

“Hi!” she smiled. “Would you like to sleep with me?”

“What have we said Sky?” said Keith in a school teacher voice. “This sowt of thing is not vewy appwopwiate, especially with stwangers.” Sky didn’t seem to register at what he’d said.

“I’m getting a bad feeling about this” thought Jonas looking around, and spotting the acoustic guitar, the banjo and the cuddly toys.

Candice Marie seemed to notice his gaze and picked up a fluffy cat toy thing which seemed arranged around a hot water bottle: Jonas had seen one in a folk museum once.

“This is Prudence” she said, picking up the fluffy cat. “Say hello to the nice man Prudence”. She picked up one of the cats paws and waved it at Jonas, making meowing noises.

“Errr….” he began.

“And of couwse you’ve met Twixibelle Fwou Fwou” continued Kieth, gesturing towards the vacc suited woman, who had now removed her helmet, revealing the stern visage of a woman probably in her mid fifties with iron grey hair, who probably kept lots of dogs and owned a tweed jacket and unattractive orangey stockings. Jonas did not normally like to stereotype people but as no one he knew was watching he decided to anyway.

“Probably hates men, but likes women a lot” he thought. “Stupid hair too.”

Trixibelles hair, though possibly iron grey, was in fact tied up into small dreadlocks each coloured turquoise, pink, yellow, white or lime green. Clearly an older woman trying to to be ‘right on’, or perhaps just plain Barking.

“Jonas Hoffmann” he smiled. “What appears to be the problem here?”

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The Lost Travellers
22nd January 2159

They had only been driving for an hour or so when Jonas called for a halt.

“Wassup?” asked Jake. Jonas waved him to silence, and then adjusted the filters on the comms relay.

Through the masses of static rendered by the dust clouds, they could faintly hear what sounded like a Mayday call.

“Bloody ‘Ell! said Jake. "If we can ’ear it they can’t be too far away can they?"

“No” said Marcus, " A max. of twenty Kliks I’d say. We should reposition and see if we can get a fix."

“It might not be genuine” cautioned Paul. “I’ve heard that here are gangs of roving Pikies in these Highlands: some of them might not be too honest.”

“You mean the Rovers?” said Marcus. “Never heard of them attacking or waylaying people. There’s that story Mando told Marty I guess, but that was way over in the Mariner Valley.”

“No ’arm in being cautious mate” said Jake. “Maybe we should just drive close and then take a closer look.”

“Hate to say it man but we’re legally obliged to answer a Mayday” said Spyder. “If it was found out we ignored it we could be in a World of Shit.”

“We should check it out anyway” said Marcus. “Mars is a tough place, right?”

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On the Road
21st January 2159

With Paul at the wheel of the WTC hired by the University, they finally set out towards Fafnir, which lay on the northern edge of the Cydonian Highlands, about 120 km north of Pharoah.

Their University contact had shown up on the previous day, and provided them with a selection of cover identities, personnel files, access codes and of course the base location – which did not seem to appear on standard maps.

“Too important I guess” said Jonas.

Paul had been somewhat nonplussed when he realised that he would need a vacc suit, but fortunately there was an A Plant office in Pharoah, who did a nice sideline in hiring out vacc suits and WTVs to tourists. Fortunately he managed to hire one which stretched to his oversize frame.

With no previous experience of driving on Mars, he found the going tough. After four hours Jonas took over,but by nightfall they had only covered about half the distance needed.

“Where’s the Face man?” asked Spyder excitedly, having acquired a fistful of tourist literature in Pharoah.

“Is over there to west” pointed Doc. Orlov. “Is part of lava dome that has created an isolated mesa: a hill, in other words. Enjoy.”

“That’s kinda dull” said Spyder. “I ’d prefer it to be the face of Jesus like that Preacher Man in Pharoah was saying.”

Doc. Orlov shook her head and picked up her book again.

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Peace Breaks Out
18th January 2159

Doc. Orlov interrupted the awkward silence.

“I picked up wave from terminal” she said. “University guy held up. He say we wait here till day after to tomorrow.”

“Problems?” asked Jake.

“Apparently some sort of legal difficulty with Mars All Schoolgirl Athletics Team” replied Doc. Orlov. “Our contact caught up in panic.” She shrugged.

“Look man I can make amends” said Spyder. “We’re here on a job- pays real good too. I’m sure a six foot four sniper would likely be real handy.” He looked around at the others for encouragement.

Surprisingly he only received Katrina raising her eyebrows quizzically.

“As long as it comes out of your share Spyder” said Jonas pleasantly, “If you want to sub contract part of your workload to your old buddy here.”

Spyder looked at August and pondered. He really did want to come off as the good guy here. Layna was a nice girl (and really, really nice in some ways he would never reveal to this Big Lunk) and even he knew deep down that she had deserved better then him. The fact that man-mountain Paul hadn’t ground Spyder into red dust with his ham -like fists yet just went to show that there might be a way to spin his abandonment of his sister as some sort of noble sacrifice on his part.

With practised ease, Spyder tuned on the waterworks.

“Seeing you, Paul has made me think about your sister and what I did. I really miss Layna!”

“Lucy, God damn-it.” snarled the man -mountain.

“Lucy was the world to me. I couldn’t stand to see her want for anything, or be at risk because of my…other problems, so I chose to leave Callisto and find my fortune. To make it.” He brushed a tear from his eye.

Spyder eyed the thread bareness of Paul’s clothes. A year ago they were rugged: now they were just ratty.

“And I think I’m not the only one. Me and my team here have a lead on a gig that could pay off big-time. We could use a fellow Callistan to take care of any problems that would crop up on the horizon. All you need to do is sign a contract that gives back to us 25% of any profits we make from this venture and any cash we loan you to supply yourself before we go. I can go as high as 5 thousand credits.”

August looked very dubious. He was no longer swayed by Spyder’s fast talk. A metallic hum could faintly be heard. Spyder tried to change the subject.. Fast.

“Heeey, by the way. Do you have any vids of..er..your sister and the twins?”

“Yeah. I have a picture of Lucy.” August emphasized the name as he showed Spyder and the nearby team mates a photo.

“Cute” lied Jake. “Which one is the little girl?”

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Stefan Webb: Daddy
18th January 2159

“My you two have a lot to talk about” said Katrina. “I will get some coffees”. August and Spyder were crammed into a booth – the ex soldier’s huge size not making this a particularly comfortable arrangement. On an adjacent table the others sat grinning at Spyder and winking.

“So, er, how is Layna?” asked Spyder.

“Lucy” said August, his knuckles whitening as he gripped the edge of the table. In his left hand the table edge snapped off. Spyder paled.

“Sugar Mr. Webb?” called Doc. Orlov pleasantly.

“Hey I don’t pollute my body with that shit” snapped Spyder.

“Ah yes I forget” called Doc. Orlov. "Your intensive training as Jeet Kun Do expert preclude decadent sugar additives. "

“Uh… Jeet Kun….”

“Sure” added Jake, “If you were fat on sweets you wouldn’t have been able to whup that drunk marine last month.” he lied realistically. “Boy the things you said about soldiers that night.” The others shook their heads in pretend reminiscence .

“Lucy” said August through gritted teeth, “is now happily married with two eleven year old twins, plus a younger little girl.” He let the words sink in. Spyder counted on his fingers.

“Eleven years old huh?” he laughed nervously.

“Hey Spyder didn’t he say you left Callisto twelve years ago?” asked Jonas. “Quite the coincidence”

“Isn’t it just?” said August, staring levelly at Spyder.

“Hey man how was I to know?” said Spyder. “I had my own problems and had to leave in a hurry. I never even said goodbye to my Dad….” A swift look of pain flitted over Spyder’s face and he stopped in mid sentence. A frown came over the soldier’s face, and he paused.

“I heard about your dad and sister” he said quietly. “The perpetrators were never found. I liked your Old Man.” This was all news to the others, who listened intently. Doc. Orlov handed out the coffees.

“Like I said man” said Spyder, “I had to leave. I had no idea that they would get payback some other way.” He paused. “Hey, listen” he continued, “Maybe I could contact Layna. Explain……”

“You’ll do no such thing” said the ex soldier, angry again. “As far as her husband is concerned they’re his kids, and you’re not going to mess things up for them. I think you’ve done quite a bit of that already.”

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The Mango Stripe
18th January 2159

“Well there it is” said Jake. “It’s a bit…..Orange.”

“Black and orange” said Jonas. “Hurt’s my eyes a bit.”

“Holy shit!” yelped Spyder, hiding behind Doc. Orlov. “Don’t let him see me!”

“What are you talking about mate?” asked Jake turning. Katrina noticed a scruffy looking man mountain in an old canvas jacket sitting at one of the tables stand up, and stare hard past her at Spyder.

“Spyder Webb?” grunted the man. “I KNEW it was you even underneath that stupid Cat makeup”. Katrina was astounded that he could actually speak – and with a Callisto accent she noted. With some distaste she also noted the three day old stubble and the military type patches and stupid slogans.

The huge man loomed over the group, ignoring the others.

“Spyder …how long has it been….11 years?” he grinned mirthlessly.

“Uh….Ah….” stammered Spyder, “Twelve I think… Uh……”

“Mr. Webb” smiled Katrina, “Are you not going to introduce us to your old friend?” She stepped forward and held her hand out to the Stranger. Spyder was even more worried – Doc. Orlov rarely smiled. Jonas laughed inwardly – the Doc was lapping up Spyder’s obvious discomfort. The man stopped.

“August Ma’am. Paul August” he said standing rigid and hesitantly taking the proffered hand.

“You from Jupiter orb. too buddy?” grinned Jonas, disarmingly also offering his. “One of Spyder’s old school chums maybe? He doesn’t say much about his past. Jonas Hoffmann.”

Jake hovered quietly in the background. Although he too was amused at Spyder’s discomfort he immediately recognised the man’s bearing as some sort of soldier, and one of the old patches as belonging to the JDF – The Jupiter Defence Force – the small private Force employed in Jupiter Orbit. He had spent lots of time evading them during his smuggling and gun running days.

“Bloody UWC stooge” he thought to himself.

“School chums?” laughed the man shortly. " I guess you might say that. Hung out, raced old speeder bikes in the dome. Met my sister. Remember my sister Lucy Spyder?" he looked straight at him, and Spyder quivered.

“I think I see where this is going” thought Jonas. “I never suspected he had it in him”. He looked at Spyder with a new respect.

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A Quiet Reflection
18th January 2159

heroglyphics1.jpg

While the Boys bickered about which of the four long avenues to take Katrina stood apart slightly, and looked round.

“Pharoah” she reflected, “Is not my kind of place at all.” It wasn’t just the hordes of fringe religious nuts and alien conspiracists, nor even the batty New Agers. Even the eating establishments seemed to sell nothing but vegan wholefoods and coffee made by ecologically sensitive small growers which probably tasted faintly of paraffin.

She gritted her teeth slightly as she read the signs. A smile fixated woman in long robes came up to her. Katrina narrowed her eyes and noticed from her literature that she was from the Church of Starry Wisdom.

“Hi, I’ m….”the woman began.

“No. " cut in Katrina sharply. “Not interested.”

“But…”

“Go away. Or I will punch you.” The woman pouted and sulked off muttering something about the Fate of Unbelievers.

Down the Hallway a small band from The Church of the Living Elvis were just starting up a performance: The Living Elvis had done a series of huge concerts in Founders Square last year, but fortunately they had been counting lichens in the martian outback.

An old style preacher with a southern american accent was regaling a gathering audience with a whole lot of nonsense about Jesus hiding out in the Cydonian Plateau, waiting for the True believers to come to him. She sighed.

A Spiderman and a Captain America walked passed, holding hands. One of them asked her to take a picture while they kissed underneath a statue dedicated to someone called Stan Lee. Dutifully she snapped the picture and sighed again.

Spyder would fit right in here.

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Mixing with the Mystics
18th January 2159

They staggered across the enclosed passenger bridge leading from the strat bat into the concourse facility built into the edge of the red stone ridge. Inside was a reception area with sparse facilities, and a platform leading to a small local monorail. As well as their luggage, they now trailed their vacc suits packed into compact wheeled holders: on this bleak plateau Mars Suits were not enough.

Jake had taken to wearing a Shemagh and dark sunglasses in public all the time, to mask his now skeletal face until the face paint had worn off. Spyder had taken a slightly different approach and his cat face was fully visible above a tiger stripe T Shirt, and below a straw hat with a pair of dummy cats ears attached. He had tried wearing a tail but the others kept pulling it off and depositing it in recycling bins.

Piling their gear into the small monorail carts they down as a worker closed the cages over their heads, and the small train began the five km journey into pharoah proper. The stone tunnel sped past outside the safety cage; the journey would take only a few minutes.

Once everyone had cleared the monorail the waiting area doors opened up into a large well-lit hallway. Carved right through the Martian rock the hallway lead gently downwards with walls covered in colorful murals depicting all sorts of scenes out of famous works of science fiction. After a 200 meter walk the hall ended and opened up into the Pharoah Round About. Spyder flicked through the entry on his portacomp.

With miners and prospectors generally living out in the surrounding highlands, Pharoah itself bustled with an atmosphere that seemed part college campus and part science fiction convention.The group were approached by numerous people trying to hand them religious pamphlets and sell them New Age healing crystals and pyramidal Feng Shui focuses.

The streets of Pharoah were paved with the non-stick resin common to roads throughout the solar system, but the center of the Round About itself was composed of red cobbles laid out in an intricate design. At the centre was a large open-sided pyramid that doubled as a central gazebo and much of the area around the pyramid was covered in food carts, portable mini-shops and information kiosks. The area was crowded but the people seemed friendly, if a bit odd.

“We’re looking for a coffee shop called the ‘Mango Stripe’ said Marcus. “The university guy is meeting us there”.

“Let’s book in somewhere and spend a night here” said Spyder. “I don’t fancy driving for hours over the surface – I want some food and a beer.”

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A New Job (14th January 2159)
14th January 2159

AcidaliaPlanitia.jpg

We will be picking up Star Bright again in approximately October

It was just before 1300 hours local time, and Katrina, Jonas and Marcus were in their best formal cloths, waiting to see Mr. Kim and Grimaldi. Spyder and Jake (or ‘Cat Man’ and ‘Skeletor’ as Marcus had dubbed them since Jonas Face Painting prank), had been wisely left at home, despite Spyder’s protests.

A secretary buzzed them in, and Professor Grimaldi and a small Asian man (Vietnamese as it transpired), stood up to greet them.

“This is Mr.Phuong Kim” said Prof. Grimaldi as he made the introductions. “He is the Security Officer attached to our Fafnir Project Station.”

“Security Officer?” queried Jonas.

“Since the recent goings on at Llewellyn, we have a two man security detail at all of our most sensitive locations now” explained Grimaldi.

“And this is sensitive location?” queried Doc. Orlov.

“Indeed Doctor Orlov” continued Grimaldi. “Fafnir is located in Cydonia, at the edge of the Arabia Terra Highlands, and bordering the Acidalia Planitia.”

“Isn’t Cydonia where all the Nut Jobs go?” interrupted Marcus. Grimaldi smirked slightly.

“It’s true that the area certainly attracts its share of alien conspiracy buffs and fringe religionists” he explained, “But there is also mining for precious metals in the region.”

“And more to the point” spoke Kim for the first time, “The Acidalia Planitia is also a focus of a major terraforming effort. The northern plains have been heavily seeded with genetically engineered lichens and algae: this is the business of Fafnir Station.”

“It’s a joint project between the University, The Mars Authority, and a consortium of Private Interests” explained Grimaldi. “Broadly put, it monitors and reseeds the plantations, and conducts experiments on processes which modify the local environments to promote plant growth.”

“That is huge area geographically” said Doctor Orlov. “And you are Biogeologist yes? Not Botanist?”

“Yes. And quite Right” said Grimaldi. “My input in this is solely to put Mr. Kim in contact with yourselves, after the University Authorities sought my advice – given the problems my own Project has recently experienced. And your input in resolving them of course.”

“Fafnir is the main Project Station, head by Dr. Juan Wilson – a meteorologist " explained Kim. “There are smaller facilities and remote stations dotted about, but they are all directed from Fafnir.”

“So what’s the problem?” asked Marcus.

“The problem is that I’m reasonably certain that there is an ongoing program of sabotage against the terraforming project. One of the controlled processes the Project undertakes is the use of a sort of underground sprinkler system powered by geothermal taps. In selected locations this is used to thaw the ice in the upper soil levels and increase the amount of water available. It’s a risky process which needs precise management."

“Or what?” asked Jonas.

“Or water will be wasted and lost, or not sufficient water will be made available. And that will lead to a failure of some very large plantations.”

“I only arrived in Post six months ago, but I began to notice that since the six months before that, they had started to experience a lot of problems. The engineers there haven’t been able to properly regulate the water release, and there seemed to be issues with the accuracy of their data on the heat content of the soils: their efforts to correct these issues have often made them only worse."

“I’ve been analyzing information from all the remote stations as well, comparing them with one another and baseline data from previous years. It appears that someone has been deliberately altering information from the sensor net. That can be done only at Fafnir itself. That’s where the sensor data is collected and relayed to the other stations, and the facilities which regulate the taps.”

“You can see Mr. Kim’s problem” Said Prof. Grimaldi. “He waited until he had a spot of leave due and then brought this directly to the University. For obvious reasons, not unrelated to major funding, the University would like this handled discretely, without alerting the the other partners.”

“Who are also Funders” added Marcus.

“Indeed” nodded Professor Grimaldi.

“Now, I don’t think the saboteurs know that I’ve found anything out yet, hopefully. "said Kim. “If we can uncover their operation in place, catching them by surprise,we can learn a lot more about their organization, methods, and sources of support.”

“Who do you suspect?” asked Jonas.

“Well The Red Legion fit the Profile most fully” replied Kim, “Though it could also be Earth First, or a Competing Commercial Interest.”

“So where do we fit in? asked Marcus.

“Your mission would be to visit the station under cover, pretending to be in the area doing a routine survey on behalf of the University in terms of local assets, facilities and so on. Find out who’s sabotaging the sensor readings and how, and take them into custody. The University will pay well of course."

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Party Games (25th December 2158)
25th December 2158

They had managed to get back for noon, so Christmas was still salvageable. The guests were recovering, and the mess had been cleared up.

Cecilia had snorted when the Rover had not been returned, though grudgingly accepted that they wouldn’t likely need it for a week anyway. They glossed over the fact that the Vladescu Place was a Diamond Mine – there were too many guests present who might overhear.

Many of them had been catnapping since they had set off early in the morning, and most of them had an appetite. Christmas Dinner was consumed, and the usual festivities commenced.

Spyder had offered to do a striptease, when Jonas intervened.

“Face painting first” he said. “You first Spyder – what do you want?” Jonas had demonstrated some reasonable artistic talent.

“I like those cat faces man” said Spyder. “They look really cool….Rawwwrrrr……”

Katrina carefully placed back the white label she had idly peeled back from one of the tins, hiding the paragraph which said “Takes seconds, lasts up to eight weeks!”

“Let us see what you can do Mr. Hoffmann” she said.

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