Star Bright

Captain's Log (31st October 2158)
31st October 2158

“19th December 2156: Powered down Transit, we will arrive in Mars orbit in six hours. We are to meet our Contact in high orbit who will accept the Hardware consignment. Following delivery we are to make our planetfall rendezvous.”

“20th December 2156: I am lucky to be alive. We have no idea what happened but the shockwave and resulting pulse hit our systems before the rendezvous. How we managed to achieve any sort of landing I do not know. The majority of crew are dead: only four besides myself survive. Communications are down, and the atmosphere is unusually laden with even more dust. I think we are somewhere in the eastern end of the Mariner Valley. We must be strong.”

“21st December 2156: We are taking stock. We still have our consignments which includes a substantial food delivery – this is the least of our problems. We can seal sections of the ship but keeping warm is a problem. Some fuel cells have survived and we must ration them carefully. Hopefully our consignment is of sufficient import that it will be searched for.”

“23rd December 2156: Had to shoot Loftmann, as his behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic. "

“25th December 2156: I see no imminent hope of rescue and so I have made a fateful descision. I have taken four samples of the second delivery from our stock, and I am going to administer one to each of us. It is true that I am no scientist and do not fully understand the likely effects, but if what Mr. L. told me is true it will make us better able to resist the biting colds of Mars: perhaps then we will have a better chance of surviving till rescue. Harsh times require hard descisions: only the Strong Survive.”

“29th December 2156: I feel much better, stronger. And we have a supply of fresh meat also – why I didn’t consider it before I don’t know. The main problem will be defrosting it. There seem to be minor physical changes too, and I seem to be having strange dreams. I see them only dimly at present but I will try to record them later.”

“2nd January 2157: Ahhhhhhhhhhh………………….skllfc c c cc”

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Trick, not Treat (31st October 2158)
31st October 2158

“Nukes?” exclaimed Jonas. “NUKES!!?”

“Yup.” said Jake. “Four. Enough to blow the Mars colony to hell: one in Mariner, two or three around Seven Sisters. A few thousand people might survive in mining camps or small settlements like Petrograd, but Mars would pretty much be shot to hell. 300,000 casualties. Beanstalk gone. No infrastructure etc etc.”

“Plus enough small arms for a whole bunch of terrorists” said Marcus. “No wonder Earth First were on the case.” All eyes turned towards Prof. Grimaldi.

“Well I didn’t know!” he spluttered. “I assumed we were looking at high value art goods here. How was I to know?” There was a short silence.

“Look whatever” said Jake. “Let’s just explore the ship first. Grab a better gun first if you want one.”

Forward of the Armory and Vault was an old barracks area and galley, and here they made a gruesome discovery. Arrayed on the bunks were a series of corpses, all frozen. What was more shocking was their condition. there were sixteen corpses in all, and about half of these were still intact. The majority of the others had been stripped literally to the bone, some of which appeared split and gnawed.

The two remaining corpses were partially stripped, as though these were in the process of being eaten. Rigged up to a couple of fuel cells in the galley area was a portable oven, and there was also a butchers block and array of choppers.

The entire area was awash with the remnants of microwaved meal containers. There were also five used black and gold disposable similar to those used to deliver pre packaged drugs; these were marked only by a strange Egyptian hieroglyph.

“This doesn’t look good” said Marcus. Jonas motioned to the ladder leading to the upper deck. Cautiously Jake climbed up.

He emerged in the shambles of a crew common area. Doors led aft to the silent interior of the ship, while to the Fore the two doors to the Bridge seemed to have been sealed with insulating foam.

“Looks like there were survivors, and they wanted to keep out the cold” said Spyder. “We should access the bridge and see if we can access the ships logs.”

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The Last Resting Place of the Joyeuse (31st October 2158)
31st October 2158

The tunnel had stretched for 50 km before emerging rather nearer to their destination than before; Marcus estimated that it had shaved maybe a day off their journey.

Below them lay the battered hulk of the Joyeuse, a 400T craft of unfamiliar design. it’s broken and battered frame was now partially clear of the frozen regolith, her nose jutting out while her stern lay partially below the surface: possibly the heat of the engines had caused a degree of defrosting, which had since reversed and frozen the ship into its current position.

Most of the front armour-glass around the bridge had been smashed out, but two panels were still intact. This offered one point of entry to the hull, though about 10 metres above the ground surface. The ship did not lie flat, but was nose up and with a distinct starboard tilt. An airlock on the starboard side was fully buried, though another on the opposite port side only partially so.

Rather than risk the climb in the frozen conditions Jake decided to modify some of the thermite explosive charges the Grendal used to shoot in its earth anchors. A secondary charge sent the surrounding silt spraying. They soon had access to the port airlock.

Cautiously they entered into the pitch black interior, with Jake and his Combination Goggles leading the way. Doc. Orlov also had a set of LI goggles she had purchased in Mariner after their previous experiences, but the others were still relying on torches.

In general, the interior of the ship was dirty, crusted with ice and muck, with the floors having a distinct tilt starboard and aft. This made getting around the interior of the vessel slow and difficult, and the ice and grime did not help.

The sub level of the ship seemed to be of a regular and functional arrangement however, containing areas with crumpled landing gear and fuel storage. In one of the aft corridors Jake opened a door into the interior of the ship, and then whistled.

It was an Armory, and a very well stocked one. Assault Rifles, Machine Pistols, Shotguns, Grenades – even several Military Grade Vacc Suits. All appeared to be brand new. Clearly, a number of items were missing from the racks.

“A bit overloaded for a courier vessel wouldn’t you say?” said Marcus. Jake also found four containers about the size of a shoebox. He opened one of them to reveal a shiny metallic precision engineered cylinder, about the size of a drinks can. He frowned and closed the box back up.

“This looks like a Strong Room” said Professor Grimaldi excitedly, pointing to another door. Strangely, it was no longer locked.

They were expecting an array of Art Treasures, but what they found was two flat storage crates marked with medical symbols they did not recognise. There were in addition four devices, secured by straps, each about the size of a small toolbox. there was a hole in the top of each which would fit one of the metallic cylinders, and a small key panel.

“Ummm” said Jake. “I think these are Nukes. Those cylinders next door would be the Arming Triggers.”

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The Tunnel (30th October 2158)
30th October 2158

Doc. Orlov’s sharp eyes had spotted what looked like a tunnel. For several days now Jonas and Jake had steered the Grendal though a series of canyons, tilted table lands, sinkhole edges and hill slopes which had made the worst Mariner Valley driving seem like a picnic: and this was one of the easiest routes the computer had picked out. And now they saw a tunnel: it was heading approximately SE – the direction they wished to go in – but their programmed route veered slightly further to the south. Nevertheless, their curiosity got the better of them.

The tunnel was a bizarre formation. While it must have been natural, it was hard to see how an underground tunnel could be natural: it was fairly straight, with only a few kinks and curves. It was roughly oval in cross-section, 12 metres tall and 20 metres wide – the Grendal fitted easily enough. And that was not all.

“Another WTC has been here” said Doc. Orlov, pointing to the large wheel ruts imprinted into the frozen slush ahead of the crawler. With all of the vehicle lights on, they cast around outside. It appeared that Strewer might have driven in here. There were more ruts further ahead, and the tunnel extended on into darkness. They decided to explore a little further.

After three kilometres it showed no sign of ending, and it still shot straight as an arrow. Ten kilometres, twenty, and still Strewer seemed to have followed it. If the tunnel emerged somewhere useful they would clearly save a lot of time.

Doc. Orlov pointed out that the walls of the passage showed fantastically complex whorls and swirls of dark volcanic rock, creating the speculation that this must have been some sort of colossal lava tube in the past.

“Possibly fractured by tectonic cracks from Tharsis bulge; perhaps tube then became split and isolated from initial system. Further collapse in chaos region would further fracture the system. This is very ancient.”

Odd-looking ‘ribs’ of twisted and convoluted rock arched over the span of the tunnel, spaced at long intervals which gave the strange impression of regularity.

The bottom metre or so was full of semi frozen silt and water, though as they moved further into the system this became less apparent.

“Rock has unusual textures” said Doc. Orlov. “I think lava tube cooled very rapidly, perhaps even underwater.” She frowned.

“I wish some pictures of this.” They stopped and reversed forward and back for a short time, bringing the vehicle sensor cameras to bear. She zoomed in around one of the rock buttresses.

“I am not sure….” she muttered.

“What is it Doc?” asked Jonas.

“These buttresses, and these small formations near it. Rock tone is darker see. It looks almost like Celenite.”

“What’s Celenite?” asked Spyder.

“Celenite is the dense black rock which seems to permeate the subsurface of Mars” explained Professor Grimaldi. Virtually impossible to dig through, and worthless. It’s the discovery which pretty much killed the mining industry on Mars. It’s everywhere if you dig long enough."

“Is true” added Doc. Orlov. “Which is why Mars mining is all local and small scale now. All big Corporations moved to Asteroid Belt, or maybe Kuiper Belt.”

“But so what?” asked Jonas.

“But do you not see?” explained Doc. Orlov, with the persistence of a school teacher. “Volcanic rock lava tube, with apparent buttresses formed of completely different rock composition?”

Slowly it started to sink in.

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Wiglaf (27th October 2158)
27th October 2158

They had arrived at Wiglaf the previous evening, and slept overnight inside the small base. It was a typical pod type lander base, with the monitoring station on the lower floor and a small hab unit upstairs. It was anchored into the ground, and engineers had installed a small geothermal tap outside, no doubt dropped along with the base pod.

As the sun started to rise Jonas looked south out of the viewing port, and his eye caught a metallic glint. Mentioning this to the others, when they were ready to depart they drove over in the Grendal.

What they found was a large chunk of plating, heavily pitted as though by a giant shotgun.

“Must be part of the Joyeuse” said Spyder, “Pounded by stone fragments and dust during the Phobos incident. Maybe it was this that grabbed Strewers attention initially. And there’s more.”

He pointed; there appeared to be two or three other obvious fragments, perhaps flotsam from a dying spacecraft as it plummeted south into the maze of ravines, dead ends, hills, sinkholes and crazily angled rock tables that constituted the Chaos to the south.

,

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Strewers Choice (23rd October 2158)
23rd October 2158

“Marcus sweetie” flashed up yet another message from Angie on his flex screen, “You do realise of course that Jezebels computer is compromised don’t you?”

Marcus looked round. Himself, Doc Orlov, Spyder, Jezebel and James were reviewing the sat. data and comparing it: it was something of a mammoth task and required all hands to deck.

“I’m just taking ten guys” said Marcus. “My eyes need a rest.”

He went into the garage and climbed into the Grendal.

“What do you mean Angie, compromised?” he asked.

“File mismatches, there is something going on in the background. Some sort of malware I suspect” replied Angie. “Want me to……help you…….. with it?”

This was probably a good idea but Marcus was teetering on edge with Angie’s suggestiveness. The sooner they were off in the Grendal the better.

“No, if it’s doing some harm its probably too late now. And sifting Strewers data is the main priority.”

“Fine” snapped Angie waspishly. “Be like that then” She cut off.

“Great” thought Marcus.

They were making progress however. Comparing the nav. tracking logs they had determined that after leaving Wiglaf, Strewer had been parked at a location in Eos some 250 km SE of Wiglaf, which in itself lay about 200 km E of Llewellyn. His vehicle had stood there for two full days. A navigation app. plotted three overland routes to the location from Wiglaf. One of these they ruled out straight away as Strewer’s vehicle had an additional plot on a point shared by the two other routes, and another comparison with more recent data showed that another had since been blocked by a landslide.

“There’s our route then” said Jonas. “Still don’t understand why we can’t use a VTOL though.”

“You not understand implication of Chaos terrain” said Doc. Orlov. “Landing would be risky verging on impossible. Fuel on VTOL would be major issue also. The Grendal is much safer, easier to explore in, and we know there is a land route for sure. Only downside is slower.”

“How long?” asked Jonas.

“Maybe three days to Wiglaf. Another four or five to site. Should reach by Halloween.”

“I guess that’s alright then” muttered Jonas.

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Systems Running (22nd October 2158)
22nd October 2158

The Double Entendres and flirtation with Angie were wearing Marcus down; that, and as one of the three main techs on base, a serious portion of the workload fell on his shoulders.

The Logistics module was all brought on line, and under Jona’s direction the others were making the Living Quarters habitable. At least they would likely have a decent meal tonight.

Tonight they would hopefully start downloading the historical Ute data, and by people taking late shifts they would all be in a position to review it and hopefully work something out tomorrow morning.

“Ah Marcus” said the smooth tones of Angie as he brought up some technical schematics, “What lovely hands you have.”

“I hope I don’t have to take one for the team here” grimaced Marcus, forcing a smile.

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Power Up (21st October 2158)
21st October 2158

MereWif2.jpg

By noon the next day they had managed to restore power, and the hab modules were made functional by early evening.

Jonas had made profitable use of his time by interviewing some of those student survivors from the Spring events, regarding Professor Strewer. His personal charm certainly seemed to open doors with Jezebel and Rida, who he rather fancied himself.

Rida had been approached by Professor Strewer shortly after his return from his final wilderness run, and he had privately asked her to run some tests on a blood sample. She printed out a copy of her test results, which had seemed to show an abnormally high haemoglobin and white blood cell count, though the blood was certainly human. Strewer had also asked Jezebel to run checks on missing ships on Mars.

Strangely, Marcus too had had some romantic issues.

Once the power had been rebooted the base technician, James Desiato, had switched on the base computer, MereWif. After giving a few system readouts in neutral tones the main screen flickered, showing the face of a beautiful woman.

“Hi there everybody! Welcome ho…ome!” said the face. Presumably this was MereWif. Professor Grimaldi and James looked at one another.

“Hey- by the way. I gotta say this…MerelWif was a monster: but hey – I’m just a regular gal. So I want you to call me Angie from now on, ok?”

“Uh……” stammered James, “That’s …ah…. Fine….Angie?” Clearly this behaviour from the base computer was unexpected.

“Hey. Who are you’re new friends? My, my, so many new faces. What’s your name cutie?” MereWif seemed to be looking at a bemused Marcus.

“Wha….? Me?” said Marcus, starting slightly.

“Yes you sweetie” said MereWif. “I hope you’ll be pushing some of my buttons later on.”

Minutes later James and Marcus stood outside the base, fanning themselves against the cold, and with all electronic devices switched off.

“What the fuck was all that about?” complained Marcus.

“Don’t worry, she clearly likes you” said James. “Anyway. Probably safer not to piss her off. String her along a bit.”

“String along the crazy computer? Are you INSANE?”

“These organic computers can get a mite tetchy; its clearly developing a personality. That Prof. Strewer was a clever guy.” Marcus froze.

“Are you telling me?” he said through gritted teeth. “That Professor Strewer was involved with this computers operation? I thought he was the meteorologist?”

“Oh yeah, but he was also a top notch IT specialist in the military. He probably knew MereWif better than anybody. Shame about his accident – caught in the storm wasn’t he?” Clearly the new staff were not ‘in the know’.

“The storm. Yes.” said Marcus. “Boy, I want to go home.”

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Llewellyn Again (20th Ocober 2158)
20th October 2158

Llewellyn2a.jpg

A journey which had taken them weeks in their WTV’s took hours in the VTOL. As Rhys was piloting on his own for much of the trip Doc. Orlov sat up front in the co pilots seat, familiarising herself with this particular craft. In point of fact Rhys would only be staying overnight, before refuelling and returning to Mariner.

For the pilot the journey was pretty intense stuff, as it basically involved flying through the canyon itself, to maximise the responsiveness of the controls in the thicker atmosphere. At no point was the valley narrower than twenty miles or so, but nevertheless the process involved intense concentration, especially when the light levels dropped in eastern Coprates, and it was necessary to balance the flight altitude almost near the top lips of the canyon.

In the passenger compartment Prof. Grimaldi explained that the rest of the base team had been dropped off the day before yesterday.

“Powering up the base and getting it fit for purpose will take a while” he explained. “We have some new staff on the team to….er…replace those we lost. No doubt they re will still be work for us to do when we arrive.”

“What’s the plan Prof?” asked Jake.

“Well once the base is powered up and the sat. link operative, we can start to download and review the historical Ute nav. data. It is unlikely to be complete but it should give us some more precise data on Strewer’s movements.. Unfortunately the speed at which we accomplish that will be limited by the window we have for viability of the link – which is about one hour in every five. As we install additional satellites that should improve, but we’re stuck with it for now.”

“Once we have that we can review route possibilities. Eos chaos is essentially a maze of thousands of hills, canyons and dead ends. It will be a miracle if we can pick one out at all.”

Llewellyn was in view now: it looked much the same as it did last time, though Marcus thought that the radio towers had a few more attachments, and a new outer protective shell seemed to have been added to the maser array. It was late afternoon, and the winds were starting to pick up.

“If a couple of you can stay to help me anchor the Plane I’d be grateful” said Rhys after they landed. Marcus agreed to stay with Doc. Orlov, while the others unloaded their baggage. A couple of dust buggies drove over to greet them.

“It’s that girl Jezebel” thought Marcus. “I’m glad she managed to pull though.” Her face did seem more serious however, and her manner seemed somewhat less forward than he remembered; clearly her nightmare experience must have had some effect on her.

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The University Plane (20th October 2158)
20th October 2158

The University of Mars was storing its VTOL in the hangar of Barrier Aerospace, alongside another plane that was currently the subject of legal wrangling between Barrier’s various creditors: the Company going bust was the reason for the delay in the Llewellyn Team’s pickup six months earlier, with fatal consequences for over half the staff.

The Professor explained that the former employees of Barrier would receive a share of the value of the spaceplane and other assets once they were sold, but for the moment they were merely another set of creditors. In the meanwhile two staff had been retained by the Court to manage the assets, and these former employees had set up a small company of their own: ‘Camel Corps’.

They arrived at the hangers early in the morning, fortunately situated a few kilometres distant from the doings of the previous evening. Professor Grimaldi was expected to be leaving for Llewellyn today by his colleagues anyway, and he hoped to avoid officialdom until they had returned to Mariner and file their salvage claim. He seemed confident that buttons could be pushed, but maybe he was bluffing.

Camel Corps consisted of only two staff, a middle aged man with the air of a combat veteran called Rhys Zun Wei, and a native martian called Zarina Deacon: both were pilots. Karina was at a workstation, working on a full inventory of parts and materials, while Rhys was running though the maintenance checklists for the disputed VTOL, the one the university did not own.

After a brief discussion with the Professor, Rhys offered to do the pre-flight checks with Karina’s assistance. Showing an unusual interest, Doc. Orlov joined them along with Jonas, and Jonas learned to his surprise that she held a VTOL flight qualification. He supposed that her work had involved field expeditions on Mars in the past.

After loading their bags on board (Profesor Grimaldi’s had been sent ahead yesterday), the others went into the cabin which served as a flight office on this portion of the airfield, in order to sort out the paperwork. This was nearing completion when they received a call from Jake, who had been leaning outside near the Hanger.

“Two dust buggies approaching real fast. Might be trouble.” he cautioned. This time they were all wearing concealed pistols, and Jake had his rifle in a holdall, just in case. Technically they were outside the city limits, but waving obvious guns around would not have been helpful. It was just as well they had them though, as the two vehicle screeched to a halt nearby and five of the black clad Earth First commandos piled out.

“Keep them away from the plane!” screeched Jonas, running for the Hanger. Jake ran for the outside corner of the shed and brought one down with his AFL 16. Katrina crouched below the landing strut of the VTOL, while Spyder ran out of the Admin Hut.

“Stay put Prof” said Marcus, covering the only door into the cabin.

While two of the commandos exchanged fire with Jake and Doc. Orlov, the other two got in between the parked vehicles, and attempted to work their way towards the Admin Hut. This time however their opponents were wearing body armor, and the Hornet Machine Pistols that they carried started to show their limitation. One by one, Jake’s rifle took account of the attackers.

Spyder had a life threatening moment with one of the attackers who had climbed on top of a Rover, but eventually he was brought down. The local staff were panicking.

“We need to go. Now!” screamed Professor Grimaldi. They all bundled aboard the VTOL, which a quick check showed was fortunately unhit.

As the aircraft lurched vertically upwards Marcus groped for his medikit. And then the whine of the engines pushed them eastwards back down the length of the Mariner Valley, and back towards the grim location of their adventure six months earlier..

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