Star Bright

The Bottom of Beyond (2nd February 2158)
2nd February 2158

sallytown.jpg

CHAPTER 1: " STIRRING THE ASHES"

“The most merciful thing in the world… is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”

Sallytown was the shithole armpit of Mariner City (or Mars Central, if you preferred). Unlike the newest constructions which were building the settlement upwards into the canyon walls , or the domed settlements of more recent history, Sallytown was the original settlement of robot built concrete hab units, and had grown into a sort of shantytown on the periphery of the modern city.

Dr. Katrina Orlov mused that one day this would all be gone: as the terraforming reached its more advanced stages the permafrost would start to melt, and the water locked into the martian soil would return to the bottom of the 4 mile deep Valles Marineris and pour from its eastern end to flood the basin of Chryse Planitia, once more recreating the ancient sea. Sallytown, and the first domed settlements, would be no more. But that was the future.

In the distance she could see the vast pinecone shape of one of the huge RAP’s which were scattered across the martian surface. The RAPs were essentially atmospheric scrubbers and converters that sublimated the soil bound carbon dioxide and released oxygen. Inside the structures pumps deep inside drove the cleaned and scrubbed atmosphere up through a series of cables to a height of over two miles, and in some cases associated mining units additionally pumped out PFCs.

The buildup of carbon monoxide and oxygen would eventually raise both temperature and atmospheric pressure to the point where a greenhouse effect would kick in, and start to melt the permafrost and polar ice: Mars would become an atmosphere and water rich world again

Already at the depths of the Mariner Valley pressure suits were no longer needed, and the colonists could get by with a Mars Suit and rebreathing apparatus. Up on the high plateaus it was still a different story however-but one day…….

As a native of the small mining town of Petrograd Katrina was familiar with all this: indeed, even in her own short lifetime she had witnessed changes in the awakening planet, and how its inhabitants lived.

And that brought her back to her meeting with Willis.

The doors which were being closed to her in the academic community had forced her to return to Mars and try to pull in a few favours from family friends. She had hoped that some of the smaller mining companies and terraforming sub contractors might still be able to find her useful, and so it had proved with Fountain Botanicals. A former high flying academic applying for a lowly outback monitoring post had seemed too good an opportunity to resist, and she had still been able to call in private references from a few ex colleagues.

And now it seemed that WIllis had finally managed to find a few others desperate enough to accept a job spending several months driving around the martian outback. She imagined that they were unlikely to be other academic types.

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Tales from the White Hart (2nd February 2158)
2nd February 2158

Katrina eyed the White Hart dubiously from the outside; she seriously doubted that most of its clients even knew what a Hart was. It was one of those slightly upmarket bars where the senior officers of the small companies littering the periphery of Sallytown (usually operational type building and mining companies, with heavy machiinery and storage yards) brought their secretaries and new contract clients for lunch: a cut above the usual miners dens, but nothing to write home about.

Nearby was a small church dedicated to St. Mary of Mars- a catholic nun who had had engineered the first organism seeded on Mars, Matteia gabrielsis. She wasn’t quite sure how that had squared with the catholic theology of the day. She supposed that it was all wrapped up with the Reformed Church of God now, though she knew that the Catholic Orders still existed- quite a few others too. Not her field. She cycled through the airlock and went in.

Willis was sat over in the corner, and he stood up and gestured her over. He was sat with a handful of others, who Katrina took in at a glance.

“Bozhe moi!” she thought to herself. “They look as though they’re all about to be arrested.”

As Katrina made her way over from the airlock, Marcus nudged Willis as he noticed her hesitate slightly as she scanned the table.

“Is that the chick we’re waiting for?” he asked Willis. “She’s cute. Is she just eye candy or is she useful? That look she just gave us has ‘high maintenance’ written all over it…” his voice slid down in volume as the woman approached.

Willis stood up, the bottom of his tie now resplendent with chile sauce. Marcus saw that the woman had noticed this and sniffed slightly. Willis seemed oblivious.

“Dr. Orlov, glad you could make it” he beamed., turning round slightly to the others. "Gentlemen this is Doctor Katrina Orlov, our Planetologist. She will be doing the species monitoring on our little expedition. "

Introductions were made, and Dr. Orlov sat down (somewhat stiffly Marcus thought), replying in a heavy Russian accent. She accepted a black coffee ordered by Willis.

“Well now we’re all here” said WIllis, “I guess we can begin.”

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Down to Business (2nd February 2158)
2nd February 2158

“Well, I’m glad we’re all here at last " said Willis. “The job is ready to start as soon as you’re able. If we can sign the contracts today I’d like you to set off in a week’s time.”

“The sooner the better really: it’s not like the specimens are going anywhere but we need this data for the annual report to the UWC Terraforming Commision in six months time. As you can appreciate Dr. Orlov, " here he nodded at Katrina, “squaring up all your results for the report itself will take quite a bit of time in itself.”

“So our deadline is…..” asked Marcus.

“Well the paper deadline for yourselves is three months from the date of departure on the 9th” replied Willis, “But in reality we should be ok if you can get all the data back to us by the end of May, and there’s a bit of slack built into the timetable anyway.”

“I don’t understand why you need all of us” said Jake, still secretly hoping that some wealthy school contact would turn up and offer him free passage to somewhere-anywhere-other than Mars. Now the deadline was looming forward towards actual work he was getting a bit fidgety.

“Mars is a dangerous place” shrugged Willis. “A total population of a few hundred thousand doesn’t go far on a planet this size, and most of the smaller settlements are in proximity to the mag rail along the main valley, running from Terminus in the Noctis Labyrinthus to the west, and Helium further at the eastern end of Melas: that will be your jumping off point. Mining camps off this main spine do exist, but are few and far between.”

“And in Coprates Chasma?” asked Spyder, “Are there any settlements there?”

“I was coming to that” replied Willis. “About halfway along Coprates is a small mining town called Presidia: there’s a RAP tower not too far from it and the servicing is run from Presidia. There are also a few tiny stations dotted here and there- the last one is the University Research Base at Eos. In general it’s a pretty remote area though. And that’s the point really.”

“What do you mean?” asked Jake.

“The point is this team will be pretty much on its own for three whole months. No towns, no backup nothing. Sure we can track your location from time to time with the GPS when a satellite happens to be overhead, and when the dust from the Phobos Incident allows us to actually get a reading at all, or even better, radio contact. But otherwise that’s it. That’s why we need two vehicles, and backup staff. Either one of the Rovers you’ll be using can transport all of you, if need be.”

“What vehicles we be using?” asked Dr. Orlov.

“Well I’d assigned a pair of Land Rover Mark IVs” said Willis, “But we’ve also just acquired two brand new Boeing Dustrakers: I’m sure I could pull a couple of strings if you prefer those- all the mod cons.”

“Hey I saw the advert for those. They look great!” said Spyder.

“All the American and French aerospace company rovers are crap” said Marcus. “It’s better going for robustness than gadgets and fancy electronics.”

“Well, well, I’ll leave that to you to decide-just get back to me before the end of tomorrow” said Willis.

“Will we need Vacc Suits?” asked Spyder nervously.

“Not at all” said Willis, “Though the Rovers contain them anyway as standard locker issue. There should be no need at all to ascend to the high sierra, and even the far eastern outflow of Marinis into Chryse is only about 1km above where we’re sat at present: Mars Suits will be fine. The vehicles can be presurised anyway.”

“We keep them pressurised, Yes?” said Dr. Orlov. “The dust it is big problem otherwise.”

“And, uh…Doc. Orlov here will do all the science stuff yes?” asked Marcus.

“Yes, Doctor Orlov is highly qualified.” said Willis, “Though there will be a lot of sampling and legwork involved so you will need to assist her from time to time.”

“I thought all the seeding experiments were in Amazonis and Chryse” said Marcus, I didn’t know there was stuff done in Coprates."

""It wasn’t really publicised at the time, but the seeding programme was five years ago now" said Willis, “And of course we handled the specifics. This will be the first comprehensive survey we’ve done since then.”

“The locations are all marked and the seeder pods will give you transponder signals as you get within range. We’re hoping for good results, especially in some of the more closed terrain-totally unlike the Amazonis and Chryse locations: different species mixes too.”

“Anyway, any last questions before you sign?”

“None for me" said Marcus, reaching for the datapad, "As long as your cheque doesn’t bounce, I’m in.”

Spyder leaned back and took a long drink from his beer glass, as he mentally calculated both his finances and how long it would take the Russki Mafia to find out that he was in Mariner City. Being off the radar for three months might be good for his health.

“Pass the pad over here" he said, when Marcus had finished. He then passed it to Dr. Orlov, who signed it quietly, though with a slight degree of hesitation he thought.

“It’s a basic 3 month contact with a flat Cr 3000 per month, plus any individually negotiated extras. There’s a time based bonus on completion, if you make it back before the deadline” added WIllis.

“I really do need to know which vehicles you’re taking, so talk it over and let me know asap.”

“Oh- and your signature includes a confidentiality clause too, which you don’t want to breach if you want to get paid.”

“Well like I said”, responded Marcus, “Boeing, Lockheed, Arianspace- wouldn’t touch any of their vehicles with a barge pole. Great looking, comfy, good electronics, but unreliable as shit. For a decent rover you need Land Rover, Shanghai GM, Rolls Royce or one of the Japanese Companies-made on earth by car manufacturers who’ve been building off road vehicles for nearly 200 years.”

“And Earth is 1G: a vehicle built to stand that will be fine on Mars. Moon tested- what a load of crap.” Marcus laughed harshly.

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Checking Out the Wheels (3rd February 2158)
3rd February 2158

Not for the first time, Katrina was glad her Mars Suit was heated. She had met the others as agreed, to inspect the Rovers stored in the maintenance hanger at Fountain’s Sallytown depot.

The hanger was a simple concrete structure with pressure doors, and mounded with Martian Dirt; it wasn’t pressurised at the moment however, and the doors were in fact open. The temperature was reading a balmy -40 degrees centigrade. She stood back and peered through her wraps at the monkeys climbing over their new toys.

She smiled with wry amusement as they tried to outdo one another with their knowledge of minor technical details. She was slightly bored: if only they would hurry up and choose she could move in and check the technical specifications for the field laboratories. Both she and the one called Marcus – clearly a Martian by his accent – had argued for the use of the Land Rovers. But that was last night in the bar, and here they were this morning muttering at the chipped and dusty paintwork of the older vehicles, and casting moon eyes at one of the new Boeing’s parked in the corner. It’s seat covers still had cellophane wrapped on them.

“I don’t give a fuck about the self cleaning microwave” fumed Marcus, “Or the 38 track interior mood lighting options. I’m getting paid for this job so I want to get back alive to spend it, and that is only likely to happen if we take the Land Rovers.”

There was more bickering and puffing out of chests, but eventually reason (or perhaps, superior sulking skills) prevailed. The Land Rovers it was. Katrina moved across to the lab vehicle and climbed inside.

It was a familiar arrangement. Entering through the side airlock gave way to the cockpit seating on the left, and a cramped utility area amidships, with a small dining/ seating area and galley. This gave way to a bunk corridor, which opened into another closet like corridor with a fresher on either side. Beyond this was a storage area, or in the case of this vehicle, a tiny field lab. Hopefully she might rig up a hammock in here and get a bit of extra privacy. Katrina was used to lonely scientific research posts with tiny teams, and she knew well how important personal space was likely to become. Another airlock led from the rear of the vehicle.

Thoughout the Rover every available inch of wall space was lined with storage cupboards, screens, terminals and other equipment. The layout was familiar to her, though clearly not to Jake or Spyder, who were looking askance at the cramped quarters.

“Don’t worry” said Marcus, “We’ll be split between two vehicles remember”.

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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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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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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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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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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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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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