Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Untitled Chapter 15

Despite being a little larger than Earth, the days on Klavaci were several hours shorter.  Because of this, Klavacs only slept about five hours a night, and Park still suffered from interstellar jet lag nearly a week after he arrived.  The jet lag, coupled with a hangover from drinking with Bo most of the night, made the shouting apparently coming from just outside his window at such an early hour even more annoying.

He rolled off his pillow bed and struggled to his feet to see what was going on outside.  When he stepped out on the balcony he saw dozens of uniformed Klavacs running to and fro.  He went back inside and quickly got dressed.  By the time he got his pants on, he started hearing noises coming from outside his door.  He stuck his head out the door to find a guard on either side and more Klavacs at the end of the hallway.

“What’s happening?  What’s wrong?” he asked one of the guards at his door.

“Nothing is wrong,” the guard to his right replied, “We are preparing for the delegates to arrive.  We are assigned to guard you.  Ambassador Friss is feeling that familiar faces are putting you at ease.  You are free to come and go as you wish, but we are accompanying you during the negotiations.”

“Sypha?” Park asked.

“I am Mas,” he replied, “He is Sypha.”

Sypha said, “Hello, Jim.  We are pleased to see you now.  You are not looking well.”

Park said, “I bet.  I discovered Frian beer last night.  Give me a sec, and you guys can guard me while I get a little hair o’ the dog that bit me and some breakfast.”

He ducked back into his room and stuck his lucky coin in his pocket, and then he and his guards headed downstairs.  After a quick stop by the lounge for a few cups and a bottle of Shiri instead of Frian beer at Sypha‘s request, he grabbed a couple of pieces of fruit from the kitchen that tasted much better than they looked.  He gained a new appreciation for the small red sun when his eyes didn’t scream in pain as he stepped out the back door of the mansion.

“I hope you boys don’t get seasick,” he said as they walked down the path to the dock.

A couple of hours later, Park poured the last of the Shiri into Sypha’s cup.  The soldiers had finished blending in to their surroundings in and around the house.  A couple of ships like the one Park encountered when he first arrived patrolled the skies around the estate.  Dozens of ships of just as many varieties delivered delegates from the various worlds of the Union of Worlds.

Mas looked very guard-like standing at the operator console of the boat even though he was feeling the Shiri he kept sipping on the sly.  Sypha relaxed on the deck, but he was just as careful about hiding his drinking.  Park still felt hungover, but he no longer cared.

He queried the network about the operation of Klavaci ships.  This was his first indication that he didn’t have full access to the network.  He was able to get information about all of the civilian craft, but most of his inquiries about the fighters were listed as classified.  He did learn that they were called Atmospheric and Space Ships.  As for the civilian craft, he learned the planet-bound variety were called xells, in general, and came in several types.  More importantly, he learned they were basically point-and-click because none of them were in any condition to drive.

“So, guys,” he said, “feel like going into the city?  I need to get started on getting my ship up to code.”

“We are protecting you,” Mas said, “We are going wherever you would like to go.”

“Oh, that kind of…”, he fell silent because glass and steel and bodies exploded from the side of the dome.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Untitled Chapter 14

Waves lapped at the shore of the lake while Park sat in the purple grass watching the ambassador from some unpronounceable planet and his wife enjoy a private lunch out on the lake.  When he had been informed that he had full use of the grounds, including any of the boats docked here, he had made a beeline for the dock.  It hadn’t taken him long to discover that the Klavacs’ penchant for forsaking chairs extended to their watercraft, but he was perfectly happy just sitting in the grass and enjoying his first opportunity to be outside in over a month.

He could see a herd of animals grazing on the far side of the lake, but they blended in with the dark forest too well for him to get a good look at them.  A few trees dotted the lawn nearby with broad, dark leaves that drooped nearly to the ground.  Small plants grew here and there around the grounds of the estate that he was told would blossom in a beautiful array of colors later in the year, but he hoped to be back on Earth by the time they bloomed.  Having taken a closer look, so to speak, at the list of repairs he needed to make to the X-88 though, he had his doubts.

“Tits,” someone said behind him.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Untitled Chapter 13

Large wings unfurled themselves as the shuttle sped away from the space station.  Retro rockets fired a moment later, and the shuttle began descending to the planet below.  Hardly any of the passengers onboard were particularly concerned or even interested in the plasma streaming past the small porthole windows while they plummeted through the atmosphere.  When the shuttle settled into supersonic flight, a few more passengers began to look out the windows, but most of them continued their conversations or naps.   At around fifty thousand feet, a double sonic boom declared they had slowed to subsonic flight.

The shuttle descended through a thin layer of clouds to reveal a sprawling metropolis silhouetted against the purple sky.  Towers that would dwarf the tallest buildings on Earth dotted the coastline for as far as the eye could see, and lights blinked on all across the wakening city.  The shuttle banked left and began its final approach to the spaceport located about a mile offshore.  It came to a hover above an empty landing pad and gently touched down.

A jetway nestled up against the door of the shuttle, and a disembodied voice inside the shuttle announced, “Welcome to Nomaparra.  You are disembarking now.”

The first passenger off the shuttle stood six feet tall with short jet black hair and a stubbly beard.  He wore a loose fitting off-white tunic secured with a dark belt and brown pants made out of some kind of animal skin.  His bodyguards, who he now knew as Mas and Sypha, stood on either side of him as he surveyed the terminal.  The first thing he noticed was that friendly Klavacs greeted each other by intertwining their face trunks.  The next thing he noticed was a billboard.

“You have money?” Park asked Sypha.

“I have money,” Sypha replied.

“Huh,” Parked said mostly to himself, “I kind of assumed you’d be a post-capitalist society.  I guess the ambassador isn’t here yet.  Is there someplace we can get one of those Shiri cocktails you were talking about while we wait?”

“I apologize,” Sypha said, “You are not allowed with no shoes.  We are waiting for Ambassador Fiss.”

“No worries,” Park looked down at his bare feet and wiggled his toes, “We have the same rule on Earth.”

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Untitled Chapter 12

Park blinked, but that only made the huge red spots dominate his vision even more.  He could see his HUD, but he couldn’t focus on it.  He looked up and to the right, and he could almost make out the brightness control in his lower peripheral vision.  He managed to dim the HUD without blinking or looking directly at what he was doing.  It didn’t make the spots go away, but his eyes needed a rest to recover from that explosion of blue light.  Flash blindness wouldn‘t make landing on Mars any easier.  This was one scenario he had never gone over with Dr. Krupp.

As he sat there, trying to will the annoying afterimages to fade, a disturbing realization struck Park.  Even without the benefit of being able to read his HUD, he knew it must have been at least a minute since the Krupp drive had engaged.  It should have only lasted for a few seconds.  This could not be good.  Park needed his vision back, and he needed it now.

Park began to count to himself to keep a measure of time because what else could he do?  If he manually shut down the Krupp drive before he could focus, he’d be unable to avoid anything that might be approaching him at twenty-five million kilometers per hour.  Even sighted, he could be screwed if he got unlucky and popped up right in the middle of the asteroid belt.

Around two hundred Mississippi’s later his vision began to clear, and Park didn’t want to wait any longer to get out of this…void, or hyperspace, or whatever the hell this place was called.  There were no stars here; no light at all that didn’t emanate from within his own ship, and it made him uneasy.  He pulled up the emergency procedures on his display and powered down the Krupp drive.  Stars blinked into existence along with a new red spot rapidly growing right in the middle of his field of view.  This one was no afterimage though.

“Well,” Park thought, “I’m out of the frying pan, and here comes the fire.”

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Untitled Chapter 11

Jackson walked into the lab to find Tash already checking vidmail at her desk, as was usual in the week following her announcement.  The implications of her discovery spawned a flurry of hypotheses from those in the loop, including accusations of fraud.  It took her several hours each morning to watch and respond to all of the various questions and accusations.  Most of her replies were variations on the theme of “We just don’t know yet.”

“Morning, Tash,” he said as he sat down at his desk to check his own messages.

“Morning,” she replied without looking up.  She picked up her ear buds and put them in, and her screen fell silent.

Jackson put in his own ear buds and opened the message that jumped out at him from the bottom of the list, “Hello, Dr. Lima.  This is Constable Gilmore.  Please call me as soon as you get this message.  Thanks.”

“Finally!“ he said a little too loudly and tapped the Return Call button at the top of his screen.

“Constable’s Office,“ a shot of a hairy, muscular arm filled Jackson’s screen, “Gilmore speaking.”  Constable Gilmore’s head dropped into view as he sat down at the other end of the call.

“Good morning, Constable,” Jackson said, “Jackson Lima.  I’m returning your call.  Did you find my missing artifact?”

Gilmore leaned back in his chair, “Good morning, Dr. Lima.  I believe I did.”

“Is that Constable Gilmore?” Tash said from across the room, “Tell him I’ll call him back in a few minutes.  I’ve just got a couple more messages to reply to first.”

“No need,” Gilmore said to Jackson, “I’m going to need the both of you to come over to my office right away.”

“Of course,” Jackson replied, “I’ll be right over.  This is fantastic news!”

Gilmore leaned forward, “Both of you.  You and Dr. Floyd.”

Jackson’s smile faded a little, “I can come over right away, of course, but Dr. Floyd is pretty swamped right now.  Can she come by this afternoon?”

“Whatever she’s doing can wait,” Gilmore said, “My office is in Dome 1, Sublevel 1.  Come over immediately, please.  This is of the utmost importance.”

Jackson gave the constable a look of uncertainty, “A looter?  I don’t understand.  What exactly is going on, constable?”

“I’d rather not say over the phone,” the constable replied, “I don’t care if she’s talking to the President of the United States right now, this is more important.”

“Actually,” Jackson glanced at Tash’s monitor, “I think she is.”

Gilmore raised an eyebrow, “Oh.  Really?  Well, like I said, this is more important.  You both need to get over here as soon as possible.  Dome 1, Sublevel 1.  You can’t miss it.”

Jackson turned off his monitor and walked over to Tash’s desk, “Tash?  We have to go over to the constable’s office.  He found my artifact, and he wants us both to come over right now.  He says it’s important.”

Tash looked up at him, “More important than a message from the President of the United States?”
Jackson shrugged, “His exact words were, ‘I don’t care if she’s talking to the President of the United States, this is more important.’ So, yeah, I guess so.”

“Jesus,” Tash removed her ear buds and turned off her monitor, “He better be right.”

When they walked into the constable’s office, he hopped up from his desk and walked over to greet them.
“Dr. Floyd, Dr. Lima,” he shook their hands, “Please, have a seat right over here.  We need to talk.”

Tash took the seat nearest the door, “What’s this about, Constable Gilmore?  Why do you need both of us to pick up an artifact?  Jackson wasn’t lying when he said I was watching a message from President Collins.  I can‘t go into it, but I’m really very busy right now.”

Gilmore held his thumb to his lips and just looked at Tash for a moment before he replied, “I don’t doubt that, Dr. Floyd, and I meant it when I said this is more important.  What can you tell me about your work?”

Tash looked annoyed, “I’m afraid I can’t really go into it right now.  It’s…”

“He opened the safe,” Jackson interrupted.

“I opened the safe,” Gilmore confirmed.

Jackson and Tash excitedly asked in unison, “What was in it?”

“Where is it?” Jackson continued, “I have to see what was in that safe!”

“Yes,” Gilmore replied, “you do.  I need to ask a couple of questions first though, so I can wrap my own head around this whole thing.  How old would you say most of your archaeological finds are?”

“Fifty,” Tash answered, “maybe sixty million years.”

“Sixty million years,” Gilmore drew a breath, “That’s what my own test came back with too.  Son of a bitch.  You know, Dr. Lima, when I found that safe, I had a totally different picture of how this conversation was going to go.  You were my prime suspect.  Looking back on it now, I realize you probably weren’t even aware of the writing on the top of the safe.”

“Writing?” Jackson looked confused, “Prime suspect?  What do you mean prime suspect?  What did you suspect me of doing?”

Gilmore chuckled, “I didn’t even know yet, but it doesn’t matter.  As for the writing though…” He pushed something across the desk towards Jackson.

Jackson looked at the coin, “And?”

“That 1999 silver dollar is sixty million years old,” Gilmore said to them.

Tash chimed in, “That’s impossible.  Your test was obviously wrong.”

Jackson leaned forward in his chair, “Constable.  The writing?”

“E Pluribus Unum,” he replied.

“On the safe,” Jackson was starting to get agitated, “The writing on the safe.  I don’t give a shit about this damned coin.”

“E Pluribus Unum,” Gilmore repeated, “Etched on the top of a sixty million year old safe.  I don’t know if you can really call it a safe though.  It was designed to preserve what was inside it, not to lock it away.  It was actually pretty easy to open.”

Jackson and Tash stared dumbfounded at the constable.  He reached into his desk drawer, pulled out a metallic-looking sheet of paper, and slid it across the desk.

“You wanted to know what was in the safe,” he continued, “A journal, and this handwritten letter.  They’re both made of the same material.  It’s paper, but I’m told the composition is unknown.  And, it’s sixty million years old.  The journal’s in the safe for safekeeping, so to speak, but I wanted to be here when you read this.”

Tash pulled the letter closer to the edge of the desk, and she and Jackson began reading.

“To Anyone,

I don’t know if anyone will ever find this, but it feels good to at least have it all written down.  I know BP discovered some ruins somewhere around here before I left, and this box is built to last indefinitely, so who knows?

First of all, the natives of Mars call the planet Guo and themselves Guoren.  It’s a beautiful world, and they’re wonderful people, but it‘s still been a lonely existence for me.  Their language is Guohua, and the name of the city where you found my stasis box is Jiashan.  I’ve included an English-Guohua dictionary in the journal.  You’re welcome.  I’ve been here for close to 10 Guo years, and my Guohua is still pretty shitty, but it should get you started.  BTW, they call Earth Naguo.

I leave for home tomorrow, for good this time.  I’m old, and I want to die on my own planet no matter how long I’ve been away.  The earthquakes have been getting more frequent and severe, and I’m fearful that the next eruption of Gaoshan (you know it as Olympus Mons) will be the one that turns Guo into Mars.  I wish I could warn them, but the Union (see journal) would never allow it.  I don’t know what the Guo could do about it anyway.  They’re very advanced in their own ways, but they aren’t a technological species.  A welcome change after everything that happened on my way here.

I guess that’s it.  You can find everything else in the journal, if it survives, and if anyone ever finds it.


Colonel James Edward Park (Ret.)

P.S. Take to the stars, but never forget where you came from.”

Untitled Chapter 10

Constable Gilmore had found the wrecked vehicle the previous day, but it was already getting dark so he had decided to wait until the next morning to try to reach it.  He didn’t enjoy having to drive three hours in the dark at over a hundred kilometers an hour.  He certainly wasn’t going to climb down a ravine at night by himself with the only potential medical aid that far away.

“Shit.  I need a damn deputy,” he said to himself as he stood at the edge of gully.  He could see a trail of wreckage strewn all the way down the deep slope culminating at the overturned rover.  His robots could get down there from here, but he would have to find a gentler slope if they needed to bring anything back out.  He had no way of recovering the rover itself short of airlifting it so this would probably be its final resting place.

He pulled the levers to lower two robots from their storage spots on the right hand side of his rover.  Once the robots successfully unfurled themselves, Gilmore climbed into the rover to give them their instructions in comfort.  He removed his mask and rebreather and hung them on the wall before he sat down at the workbench.  He picked up his data pad and opened the robot control program.

A list of menus appeared at the top of the screen.  The left side of the screen showed representations of his four robots, two of which indicated they were online and ready to receive commands.  A satellite view of his current location filled the rest of the screen with two green triangles representing the robots next to the red square of the rover.  He zoomed the map until he could easily identify the large boulder about two-thirds of the way down the slope.  He noticed there was another slightly smaller boulder at the bottom near where the overturned rover would be now.  Then, he drew an ellipse around the area of the crash site and opened the accident menu to give the robots their instructions.  The triangles on his screen began moving toward the gully.
Once he confirmed the robots were indeed walking over to the edge of the gully on the monitor above the workbench, he checked the satellite map for an easier way out of the gully.  The problem with satellite maps though is that they don’t give the best impression of how steep a grade might actually be.  He marked a couple of candidate locations within a kilometer on the map and set off to check out the closer one first.

Oddly enough, the first entry point he checked was perfect.  About five hundred meters from the crash site, the surrounding terrain formed a shallow depression which made the gully a few meters shallower.  Entry into the channel would be a breeze, and he might even be able to recover the vehicle if he could get it to this point.  He suited up and started making his way back up the channel on foot with data pad in hand.

Just as the wreck started to come into view around a bend in the gully, an alarm sounded on the data pad to indicate that one of the robots had located a person.  Gilmore acknowledged the alarm on the display and noted it was located inside the rover.  It had already been twenty-seven hours since he received the first call from Dr. Lima, but as long as the rover wasn’t compromised, there was still a chance he might find a survivor.
He started running down the ancient creek bed, but before he had even take five steps he could see it was too late.  He already knew the rover was overturned, but this new vantage point showed him the grisly details of the crash.  Dying of exposure on Mars was never pretty, but this man had also suffered a massive head trauma.  Gilmore hoped he had died on impact.

The body lay at an awkward angle against the boulder.  One arm extended out the windshield, but the other still held onto the steering wheel.  A large dark stain covered the ground and much of the lower half of the boulder.  The liquid in the blood had already evaporated.  The man’s face was blackish-blue and swollen to the point that any features were unrecognizable.  Two desiccated, blood-stained raisins dangled from his eye sockets.  From the wound that hopefully mercifully killed him on impact protruded most of his brain.

As he approached the gruesome scene, Gilmore noticed that the waist of the body looked too thin, and the chest and neck looked bloated.  Nausea overwhelmed him when he realized that the sudden change in pressure inside the man’s body had caused his internal organs to try to escape through his head.  The poor bastard’s stomach was literally in his throat.  Gilmore vomited into his mask.

“Oh, my fuck, I need a goddamned deputy,” he thought with every tentative step as he walked back to his rover.  He had to fight the urge to run to keep the bile in his mask from splashing into his eyes.  He tried to remove his mask as fastidiously as possible inside the airlock, but he still got vomit all over his pressure suit.  When he got into the rover, he vomited into an evidence bag.

Three hours from the nearest shower and covered in vomit was not Constable Gilmore’s ideal way to start a day.  He took a moment to regain his composure and clean himself off as best he could, and then he put on a spare rebreather and mask just to get away from the smell.  He had lost his data pad somewhere, probably when he threw up, so he pulled his backup out of a drawer and quickly ordered the robots to recover the body.

By the time he got back to the accident scene, the robots had finished removing the body from the wreck.  They stood quietly next to the corpse waiting for new instructions.  Gilmore put one of them into wheeled mode and ordered it to bag the body and deliver it to his rover.  He didn’t bother to supervise the task.  Instead, he found his primary data pad, unbroken, right where he knew it would be.  He set the pads on top of the remaining robot and proceeded to inspect the scene.

He tried to enter the rover through the rear airlock, but it wouldn’t respond.  He walked around to the front and inspected the broken windshield with trepidation.  He could probably fit through the hole, but there was also a good chance he would rip his pressure suit in the process.  A small tear in his suit wouldn’t be fatal, but he decided to err on the side of caution.  Besides, that’s why they had robots.  He retrieved his data pads and found a small boulder to sit on while he worked the robot.  He put it in manual mode and activated the POV camera, and then he began the tedious task of removing the windshield via remote control.

Once he had finished with the windshield, he moved the robot a few feet away from the rover and put it standby.  He put the spare data pad back on top of the robot and walked around to the back.  It took him a minute to enter the identification number from the back of the rover.  He had never been good at reading things upside down.  A few seconds later the data pad confirmed what he already knew.  The rover belonged to Arch Coal.  The looters had been miners.

He walked back around to the front of the rover and set his data pad on top of the robot.  He took off his utility belt and laid that on the robot as well.  He took a couple of deep breaths before he grabbed his flashlight and crawled into the cab.  The inside of the rover was surprisingly neat for a vehicle that had barrel rolled down a ravine.  These miners had been good about stowing their equipment.

Everything that hadn’t been properly stowed in the rear of the rover lay in a pile at the bulkhead behind the cab.  Gilmore gripped his flashlight with his teeth and began sorting through the debris.  He saw the square metal box that must have been Dr. Lima’s safe right away, but he had to clear the pile before he’d be able to retrieve it.  He set aside a half full flask of vodka, but everything else got quickly inspected and tossed into a new pile on the shattered overhead light.

“What the hell?” he asked himself when he saw the writing etched on the box.  This was no simple looting.  Doctors Lima and Floyd obviously mistook Constable Gilmore as a fool.  Questions began to form in his mind.  First and foremost, what was in that box?  What was the connection between the archaeologists and the dead miners?  The question that bothered him the most though; did those assholes really think he was dumb enough to believe this thing was a millions year old Martian artifact?

Gilmore threw the flask out the opening behind him, and then he dragged and flipped the box to the front of the cab for his robot to retrieve it.  He picked up the flask from where it had thankfully landed  far enough away to clear the large blood stain in front of the rover and collected his things from on top of the robot.  A few minutes later he walked back to his own rover with the robot rolling along ahead of him with the safe.

On the walk back, he placed a call to the Olympus Mons airfield to have the rover airlifted out of the riverbed.  He needed to know if the accident was really an accident, or if someone had tampered with the vehicle prior to the crash.  He placed a second call to have a mechanic standing by to inspect the wreckage as soon as it arrived at the airfield.  He held off on calling Dr. Lima.  He wanted a clearer picture of what was really going on here before he confronted Lima.

He received a call from the mechanic while he was still half an hour out of the settlement to inform him that the rover had arrived, but it would be several days at least before he could give Gilmore any kind of report.  Gilmore told him he understood, but to please work as quickly as possible.  When he finally pulled into the Dome 1 parking garage forty minutes later, he took his usual spot next to the entrance to the jail and hauled the safe inside.  He spent the next several hours staring at it, trying to figure out the best way to get it opened.

Untitled Chapter 9

Pink didn’t realize that he hadn’t heard from Tash all day until he walked into their empty apartment. She should have beaten him home by hours, and she always gave him at least a quick “How you doin’?” when she got home. He checked the bedroom to see if maybe she had gone straight to bed, but she wasn’t there. He checked their vidmail, but Tash was on his list of priority callers. Several messages from some very important people on Earth waited for Tash, all since 1800 that day, but there was nothing from her. A sense of dread suddenly washed over him as he touched his personal ear bud, “Call Tashi.”

“Pete! Oh my God! Honey, I forgot to call you! Are you home yet?! Get over here quick! This is fucking huge! Hurry, hurry, hurry! Love you! Gotta go, bye!” He didn’t get a chance to say a word before she disconnected. He took a moment to enjoy a feeling of relief before we walked over to Tash’s lab.

When he entered the lab, he saw Tash and Jackson setting up a camera and projector. Jackson was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but Tash still had on her dirty red pressure suit. Pink thought about how he didn’t get to see his beautiful wife in a pressure suit often enough. Dr. Cho sat at Tash’s desk watching a message from what looked like the Secretary General of the U.N. saying something about the need for secrecy, but he only caught a snippet before Dr. Cho closed the video.

“Tash? Baby? Is everything alright?” he said as he walked into the room.

She ran over and greeted him with a hug and a kiss, “Oh my God, Pete! You’re never going to believe it!”

“Tashi,” Dr. Cho interrupted, “top secret, remember? I thought you locked the door.”

She looked over at Dr. Cho while still holding onto Pink, “I did, but Pete’s on my exceptions list. You know we don’t have any secrets, not even top secrets. He’s going to find out now or later, Bae, so it might as well be now.”

“I know,” he said as he picked up a data pad from the desk, “That’s why I already have an NDA ready for him to sign. You go change for the presentation, and I’ll get Pink squared away and fill him in on the details. Ok?”

“Ok,” she gave Pink another quick kiss, “I’m burning up in this pressure suit anyway, but I get to break the news to my own husband. Mum’s the word until I get back.” With that she unwrapped herself from Pink and disappeared through the door in a blur.

“Ben, Jackson. Big find, huh?” Pink walked over to the desk and quickly signed the NDA without bothering to read it.

“Hey, Pink,” Jackson said while adjusting the projector, “Huge find. Colossal.”

Dr. Cho quickly cut him off, “But you won’t get a word out of us until Tashi gets back, right, Jackson?”

Jackson looked over his shoulder at Pink, “Not a peep, and don’t bother speculating because you’ll never believe it.”

“What? We’re all descended from Martians?” Bae and Jackson looked stunned. Blood drained from their faces, and their jaws dropped in unison. Jackson tried and failed to keep working. “Bullshit. Come on, guys, seriously? We’re descended from Martians?”

“We, um,” Dr. Cho tried to compose himself, “we should wait for Tash. How are things at the plant?”

“Yeah, uh, good, I guess,” Pink cleared his throat to gather his wits, “We got our last delivery of water today. We should be ready to start generating by the end of the week. I’ll never get used to the idea of designing a plant to maximize pollution, but that’s what we’ve done. Oh, Ben, I haven’t seen you since the concert. Terrific show. What was that new song at the end of the show? That was fantastic. Did you write that yourself?”

Dr. Cho smiled, “I did. Thank you. I’ve been working on that one for a couple of months, and it seemed like a good time to try it out in public.”

“You should be on Earth making the big bucks.”

“There isn’t enough money on Earth to get Dr. Cho to leave Mars,” Jackson chimed in.

“I don’t know about that,” Dr. Cho laughed, “but I doubt the Earth kids are ready for a fifty year old Korean pop star. I’m happy with my wonderful Martian fans.”

Tash came rushing back into the lab still buttoning her blouse and with her seldom used makeup bag tucked under her arm. Her short dark hair dripped onto her blouse as she hurried over to her desk. She pulled a clean rag from a drawer, and dried her face before she started putting on some makeup. “How much time, Jackson?”

“Plenty. Five minutes,” he replied.

Pink looked on in disbelief at his wife applying lipstick, “Makeup. Wow. It really is true?”

“They told you?! Who do I kill? Bae or Jackson?”

“I guessed, I think,” he said, “but…I need you to actually tell me before I can believe it’s really true.”

“Oh, I can do more than tell you,” she smiled.

Untitled Chapter 8

Tash kept herself busy covering up the work site while Constable Gilmore took Jackson’s statement in his rover.  She was glad the Constable had taken her statement first.  She had kept it short and sweet and gotten the hell out of his rover as quickly as possible.  She preferred her dead bodies ancient and finished decomposing rather than fleshy and sitting at her feet in a body bag.  Aside from finding a few tiny jewels disturbed by last night’s looters, they had accomplished absolutely nothing today.  Jackson’s statement was taking much longer because of that body.

“Okay, Dr. Lima,” Constable Gilmore said as he looked at the data pad in his lap, “Just a couple more questions, and we should be about done here.  Let’s see…  Race?”

“Huh?” Jackson looked confused.

“Your race?  I need your race, height, weight, and contact info for my report.  Are you Mediterranean, African, Hispanic, Asian, Arabic?”

Jackson scratched his head, “Um, all of the above?  Is mutt an option?”

Constable Gilmore chuckled, “Not really, no.  I’ll just put you down as Other.  Height?”

“One hundred and ninety-five centimeters.  Weight, one hundred and five kilos.”

“One…oh…five,” the constable said to himself as he wrote on his pad with a stylus, “Hair, black.  Eyes,” he glanced up, “brown.  And, your address?”

“Dome 12, Sublevel 2, Olympus Mons,” he replied.

The constable finished writing down Jackson's address and held the pad and stylus out to him, “Ok, Dr. Lima.  If I can just get you to sign at the bottom here, that should do it.”  Jackson signed on the line and handed the pad back to him.

“Pen?”  The constable gestured as Jackson’s right hand.

“Sorry,” he handed the stylus back to him as he stood up, “What’s that?”

Constable Gilmore looked at the evidence bag sitting on the workbench, “Oh, that’s just an old coin I found in this poor guy’s pocket.  Dr. Floyd said it definitely isn’t from your dig.  I’ll be heading back to where you found the body when I leave here to see if I can follow his trail.  I might even be able to get your stuff back if we’re lucky, but my guess is his partner threw him out of their rover for whatever reason.  Not sure why he’d give him a rebreather though.  Change of heart, maybe?”

“Mind if I take a look?” Jackson pointed at the evidence bag.

“Sure,” the constable replied, “just don’t take it out of the bag.”

Jackson held the bag up in front of his face, “Boy, that thing’s beat up.  1999 silver dollar, definitely not ours by a few million years.  I wonder who he stole it from.”  He put the bag back down on the bench and pulled his hood over his head.  He strapped on his rebreather, and before he put on his mask he asked the constable to let them know as soon as he found anything.

Tash stood at the back of their rover with an empty tote waiting for him as he stepped down from the constable’s rover.  It sped away as soon as the outer door clunked closed.  Tash pushed the button by the door then put her hand to her mask, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

On their way back to the Olympus Mons settlement, they saw the constable’s rover creeping through the desert.  He must have been following the dead looter’s tracks.  Jackson was tempted to turn off the road and track down his missing artifact himself, but he didn’t.  They were still three hundred kilometers from the Olympus Mons settlement, and he had to piss something fierce.

Three hours later they pulled into the parking area.  In another few months an underground parking garage would be finished complete with drive-thru airlocks.  The drive-thru entrance was already built, but it only led to a multistory cavern with no entrance to the colony.  Today they got a shitty parking spot a good five minute walk from the entrance to Dome 12.

The domes at Olympus Mons were more specialized than those at Mathlab.  While Mathlab housed mostly terraformers and engineers, Olympus Mons was home to archaeologists, botanists, exobiologists, other assorted researchers, miners, engineers, roboticists, flight controllers and crew, and a few administrators.  The administrators and their offices were in Dome 1 along with the botanists.  The roboticists lived in Dome 2 and maintained all of the robots in the settlement and mines.  Most of the colony’s engineers lived in Domes 3 through 5.  Some of them worked on the soon to be operational coal power plant isolated in Dome 15 some five kilometers away from the rest of the complex, but the majority worked for the coal and oil companies.

Miners made up a third of the population and lived in Domes 6 through 9.  Dome 9 was the place to go if you wanted to find contraband.  You couldn’t smoke in the domes, but you could cook.  Pot cakes were very popular, but they were scarce and expensive.  Vodka was the unofficial official drink of Mars, but even the best Mars Vodka paled in comparison to the liquors smuggled in by newcomers.  It wasn’t technically legal to run your own still, but there was no official prohibition either.  Constable Gilmore knew better than to try to shut them down.  Besides, he liked to have a shot or two in the evenings.

Like Dome 15, Dome 10 sat a short distance away from the rest of the complex.  The control tower coming out of the top of Dome 10 made it instantly recognizable as the tallest man-made structure on Mars.  During travel season the flurry of people and supplies ferried to and from Earth turned the airfield into a bustling interplanetary spaceport.  The other fifteen months of the year it reverted to sleepy little airfield status with maybe a couple of flights, on a busy day, delivering coal to the already operational power plant at Mathlab or bringing water to Olympus Mons.  Domes 11 through 14 housed all of the researchers and their labs.

Each dome stood a few stories high above ground, but they each went four stories or more below ground.  The above ground portion of most of the domes housed a common area were sometimes people would stage plays or concerts.  Elevator banks that sat in the center of the domes acted as impromptu stages.  The five thousand or so people living at Olympus Mons weren’t the most artistically talented bunch, but any live entertainment was appreciated.  Even the most amateurish endeavors were loudly cheered, and the few genuinely talented people around were treated like celebrities.  It wasn’t unusual for a particular archaeologist from Dome 12 to sign an autograph in one of the underground tunnels connecting the domes.

Labs and living areas were all built to spec below ground.  Most people who worked within the domes lived less than fifty meters from their offices.  A large steel dome could be lowered over the elevator banks in the case of an inner wall breach, and all of the tunnels had large blast doors at each end.  Those emergency measures had only been needed once in thirty years at Olympus Mons, and even then only as a precaution, when an outer glass panel on Greenhouse 5 cracked during a dust storm in 2112.

Tash and her husband, Peter “Pink” Floyd, lived next door to Jackson on Sublevel 2 in Dome 12.  She was the only person who never called him Pink or Pinky.  He had to explain the nickname to her on their second date back on Earth.  She tried listening to the music, but she didn’t like it.  She liked her music like she liked her dead bodies; ancient.  Maybe in another hundred years she might warm up to it.  She also tried calling him Pink, but that didn’t work for her either so she stuck with Pete or Hun.

When they reached Sublevel 2, Jackson practically ran to his apartment to take his long awaited piss.  Tash peeked in on her own apartment, even though she knew Pete would still be working at the coal plant, before she walked across the hall to her lab.  She poured the three little diamonds into a small plastic container, catalogued them, and placed the container in the storage cabinet, and then she pulled the pendant from its place in the cabinet.

She held the pendant up to the light and looked at the etching in it for the hundredth time.  There must have been a reason for it, but she couldn’t make heads or tails of it.  She decided to try something new, so she grabbed a flashlight off the tool bench and turned off the lights in the lab.  When she held the flashlight up to the ruby and shined its light through, an image of it appeared on the far wall.  Alien writing formed a circle around the image in the center.  This wasn’t like any other Martian writing that had been found, and there was no Rosetta Stone for Martian so it would take years to decode, if ever.  In the center was a picture of a…Martian?   That was new.

Was this the first visual evidence of an actual Martian?  It had two large eyes and a thin mouth.  Where the nose would be there were two fairly long finger looking things.  It had catlike ears near the top of its bald head.  In fact, it looked completely hairless, at least from the part of it pictured from the neck up.  This pendant had just turned into the find of a lifetime.  Tashi Floyd would be writing papers about it for years to come.

Almost as an afterthought, she turned the pendant around and shined the flashlight through the other side.  That couldn’t be right, but she’d be damned if it didn’t look like a man complete with two eyes, two ears, nose, mouth, long hair, and a thick beard surrounded by more Martian writing.  The implications of this would be profound beyond belief, but what the hell did it mean?

Untitled Chapter 7

Tash knew it was her tarp as soon as she saw something blowing across the desert away from the dig site.

“We got looted,” she said calmly.

“What? Why do you…,” Jackson followed her gaze, “oh. Maybe we just didn’t put enough rocks on it.”

“Yeah, maybe,” she said, “but you know we did. Between your safe and my jewelry, someone had a good night.”

Jackson slammed his hands down on the steering wheel, “Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck! That safe was important. Damn it!”

“You don’t know that. It could have been empty for all we know.” She watched the tarp catch on a large rock. “We should probably catch that tarp before it goes too far.”

“Fuck that tarp,” he snarled, “Even if it was empty, it was still an amazing find. It wasn’t like any other artifact anyone’s ever found. It almost looked like a safe you could buy on Earth today. It had an electronic keypad, for Christ’s sake! And what if it wasn’t empty? Whoever owned it left a fifty carat ruby pendant lying out. How valuable does something have to be to get put in the safe? Fucking looters.”

“We don’t even know for sure it was a safe,” she said, hoping she sounded reassuring, “We don’t even know for sure if we got looted yet. Let’s just stay calm until we see how things look in the pit.”

Jackson pulled the rover into the site and drove slowly past the uncovered pit, “Can you see the safe? Is it gone?”

“No,” she replied unhelpfully.

Tash climbed down from the cab and started to strap on her rebreather while Jackson parked. No sooner had the rover came to a stop, he jumped down from the cab and started putting his on too. He hadn’t even put on his mask yet when he opened the inner door of the airlock.

Tash tapped her visor and shouted, “Mask,” from inside her own. He put on his mask and said something muffled into it.

He reached over his left shoulder and turned on his rebreather, “Oops.”

Tash touched the radio button on her helmet, “Calm down, Jackson. Mistakes get you killed out here. Now let’s go see how much damage they did. And turn off your VOX.”

Before they even got into the pit, the ragged hole where the safe had been was painfully obvious. Tash checked on her own little work spot. Her marker had been stepped on by someone with a fairly large boot, but other than that it looked undisturbed. She even saw something glinting in the morning light. One of the missing diamonds from the pendant, maybe? She knelt down to pick up the glimmering whatever, and she noticed the dirt had been slightly disturbed. Someone had pulled something out from here. She pinched the glimmering mystery item in her fingers and dropped it into her open palm. It was a diamond. At least they hadn’t gotten that. She reached for the pouch on her utility belt, and she realized that neither one of them had bothered to put them on. She wasn’t as unaffected by the robbery as she wanted Jackson or herself to believe.

Tash pressed her radio button, “Jackson, you want to chase down the tarp while I start cleaning up this mess?”

He didn’t answer. He just stood over the hole where his discovery should have been, staring at her.


He put his hand to the right side of his visor, “Sorry, forgot to push the button. Yeah, I’ll go get it.”

“Thanks,” she replied, “and grab my belt out of the rover for me, too. Okay?”

There was a pause before he touched his radio button again, “No problem.” He made his way back to the rover.

“And one more thing, call Dr. Cho and let him know what happened.” Tash didn’t hear Jackson swearing at that last request because he didn’t have his radio set on VOX. The inner airlock door made a muffled clunking noise as she approached the rover. A moment later it clunked again, and then the outer airlock door swung open.

“Belt,” Jackson handed Tash her belt, “Back in a bit.” The outer door clunked shut followed soon after by the muted clunk of the inner door. Tash dropped the tiny diamond into a pouch and watched the rover drive away as she put on her belt.

A few minutes later and a few kilometers down the road Jackson disconnected his call with Dr. Cho. Dr. Cho had told him that he would contact the Olympus Mons Constable and that they should expect a call from him sometime that morning. Jackson could see that the tarp had already been blown off the rock it caught on earlier so he kept going down the road.

When the road wound around a hill, he decided to drive up to the top to get a better look, and he found the tarp caught on another rock a few hundred meters away. As he drove down the hill, he saw a flash out of the corner of his eye. He looked that way but didn’t see anything, but then it flashed again. It looked like a discarded mask, but he couldn’t be sure from that distance. He thought he might check it out if he had time after he retrieved the tarp, but when he saw tracks leading that way while he was folding the tarp, he knew he had to take a look. Footprints in the middle of nowhere on Mars never had a happy ending.

Untitled Chapter 6

The bar on the HUD turned yellow as it ticked below fifty percent. Tash ignored it and continued brushing away dirt from what looked like a piece of jewelry. Jackson was doing the same thing a few feet away with something she couldn’t see. They both wore rust colored pressure suits to hide the stains from digging in the Martian dirt all day.

“…be damned,” she heard him say over the radio.

Tash pressed a button on the side of her mask, “Jackson, you’re on VOX again.”

He looked up, “…know. I like to keep my hands free. Come look at this, Tash. It’s…interesting.”

“I’m busy,” she said, “Just tell me what it is.” She gently brushed clean a brilliant red jewel that was the centerpiece of what looked more and more like a pendant, possibly a brooch. She wanted to get it out of the ground before they left the dig site in an hour.

“…think it’s a safe.”

“A safe?” She looked up and pressed her radio button, “Did you say a safe?”

“…h, I think so. It’s got a door, and this looks like some kind of control pad or a display maybe? Come look at it.”

She put her brush in her belt and pulled out small knife, “Give me a minute.” She slipped the edge of the knife under the edge of the pendant and carefully began to pry it loose.

“…ously, Tashi. You’ll want to see this. It doesn’t look like anything else we’ve found out here.”

“One minute,” she said. The pendant came free of the dirt. She put her knife away and picked up the pendant. The stone had to be at least fifty carats, and it was surrounded by dozens of smaller stones set in what looked like silver. She had been working on Mars long enough to be able to guess what something would look like in indoor lighting, but she also knew you could never completely trust your eyes in Martian light. Some of the smaller stones were missing, but it still looked beautiful in any light.


“Coming,” she said as she stood up.

Jackson looked up as she walked over to where he was working, “…owza.”

“Still on VOX, Jackson.”

“…ight. Sorry,” he said, “What do you make of this panel?”

She tucked the pendant into a small bag on her belt and knelt down to look at the artifact. Only one side of it was exposed, but luckily it appeared to be the front. It was about eighteen inches on each side and made of metal. About an inch inside the rounded edges she could clearly make out the seam of a door and in the center of the door was some kind of glass panel. It looked electronic, but there was no way they would ever get it to work again. It had been shattered.
“…do you think?”

“What?” She looked up.

“…said what do you think?” he repeated.

“I think,” Tash stood up, “there’s no way we’re getting it out of the ground in an hour so help me with the tarp, and we can dig it out in the morning.”

“…re thing, boss,” Jackson stood up and stretched his back.

They spread a tarp over their work site and weighted the edges with decent sized rocks to protect their work from any Martian storms that might pop up overnight. It wouldn’t rain. I might snow a little overnight, but it never rained on Mars, not yet anyway. The rare clouds that appeared near Olympus Mons were invariably thin and wispy. Martian storms consisted of massive walls of windblown dust. They could ruin an archaeological dig and kill anyone dumb enough to not seek shelter.

As Jackson set down the last rock, Tash walked over to their rover. She pressed the button next to the airlock door. A second later the door made a clunking noise and swung open. She grabbed the tote with the day’s finds, stepped up into the airlock, and waited for Jackson to join her. Once he climbed into the airlock, she hit the button by the inner door. The outer door clunked closed, air whooshed into the airlock, and the inner door clunked open. They pulled off their masks and hoods as they stepped into the interior of the rover, and the lights flickered on. They helped each other remove their rebreathers, and stowed them in the rack by the rear door.

Tash pulled the pouch from her belt and carefully laid it on a small workbench, “You want to drive while I check out this pendant?” She took off her utility belt and hung it on the wall behind her.

“No problem,” Jackson said, “I can’t wait to get home and take a piss.”

“Why won’t you ever piss in your suit?” Tash asked even though she already knew the answer.

“Call me old-fashioned,” he said as he climbed into the cab of the rover, “but I don’t like pissing myself.”

“I’ll call you a prude. It isn’t pissing yourself. There’s a receptacle.” She removed the pendant from the pouch and held it up to the light. A big, red ruby held in place by a silver setting covered in sapphires and diamonds. It was a beautiful piece, but the ruby had a fairly major flaw. No, not a flaw. There was an etching inside it.

“Beautiful,” she said to herself as she waggled the pendant side to side to get a better look at the etching, “Why wouldn’t this be in the safe?”

“It still feels like you’re pissing yourself,” Jackson said from the cab.


“Never mind,” he replied, and the rover lurched to a start, “We forgot to remove the chalk again.”

Late that night another rover drove up to the dig site. A few minutes later, two men stepped out of the back wearing dark red camouflage over their pressure suits with their visors set on night vision. Coal miners by day, amateur archaeologists by night, they worked in silence tossing the rocks away from the edge of the tarp. They surveyed the hole for a minute before one of the men went to retrieve a couple of shovels. They dug out the safe as quickly as they could and hauled it back to their rover without saying a word. They climbed in, and a moment later the rover took off silently into the night. The whole affair had taken less than half an hour.

The driver motioned toward the back of the rover, “That thing kind of looks like a safe. I wonder what’s in it.”

“Who knows? Check out what I found while you were getting the shovels,” the man in the passenger seat of the cab said, “It’s a coin. It looks like it’s got writing on it even. Eplusoom. Wonder what that means.”

The driver glanced over and held out his hand. “Let me see that,” he said. The passenger looked at him distrustfully.

“I’m not gonna steal it, asshole,” the driver reached his hand out further for emphasis, “Just give it here a sec.”

“Yeah, yeah,” the passenger said as he put the coin in his hand.

The driver inspected both sides of the coin, “Thought so.”


“It says E Pluribus Unum.” He flipped the coin at his passenger who caught it awkwardly. “It’s an old American coin. The letters should have tipped you off. It’s probably worth about five bucks.”

The passenger stuck the coin in his jacket pocket. “Shit.”

The driver laughed, “Yeah, shit.”

Suddenly he screamed, “Oh, shit!” A proximity alarm sounded in the rover. He jerked the wheel to the right and hit the brakes, but it was too late. He had been driving too fast in the dark trying to put distance between the dig site and themselves, and he had been paying too much attention to his idiot partner and his worthless coin.

The rear wheels broke free, and the whole rig slid sideways over the edge of an ancient river bank. It flipped and rolled down the steep slope. The back of the rover struck a boulder. That stopped them from rolling, but it caused them to slide upside down, head first, into another boulder.

The air inside the rover vacated in an instant. The boulder crushed the driver’s skull, killing him instantly. The passenger scrambled to reach the rebreathers in the back of the rover. His face burned with the pain of a thousand exploding capillaries. His eyes bulged, and one of them popped out of its socket. His lungs screamed, but he didn’t dare try to breathe until he could get to a mask.

He reached one of the rebreathers without a second to spare. He held a mask to his face and activated the rebreather. He tried to take a breath, but his dangling eyeball kept him from getting a good seal on the mask. He tucked his eye inside the mask and tried again. Air. He tightened the straps behind his head and passed out.

When he woke up several hours later, the sun was coming up. He activated the other rebreather and disconnected the hose from the tank. Then he switched his own hose over as quickly as his pain addled body would allow. He tried to pick up the safe, but a sudden shock of excruciating pain made him realize he had broken several ribs in the crash.

He dragged his broken body out of the broken rover and to the top of the bank, and then he began the long walk towards the only road within twenty kilometers. The first time he fell he was able to get back on his feet. The second time he fell, a big rock hit him right in his injured ribs, and he passed out. The low air alarm from the rebreather woke him just in time to suffocate. He died unaware the road was just over the next hill.

Untitled Chapter 5

Launch day; the day Colonel Jim Park would die. He awoke at 0430 hours to the sound of Flight of the Valkyries. He shit, showered, and shaved. He wrapped a towel around himself and walked into the living area when he heard breakfast being delivered. A technician in a clean suit was setting things on his table.

“Good morning, Jasmine,” he said as he sat down, “What’s for breakfast this morning?”

“Good morning, sir. I’m afraid you aren’t going to like it. Bagels and cream cheese, grapefruit, toast, and orange juice.”

“Au contraire, mon Cheri. This is exactly what I wanted,” he lied, “but you can take that grapefruit with you on your way out.”

She smiled at him from behind her mask, “Yes, sir.” She returned the unwanted grapefruit to her cart and headed for the door. It slid open as she approached, and she wheeled the cart into the buffer room. Before the door slid closed behind her, she turned and said, “Good luck, Jim.”

After breakfast, Park donned his pressure suit. He looked like an Alpine skier in the white, form fitting, two-piece body suit complete with hood, gloved hands, and glove-like footies. He had asked for and been denied permission to wear his uniform over the pressure suit. Even if he was the only person who would admit it, everybody knew this was practically a suicide mission. He was about to rip a hole in the fabric of space. The least they could do was let him do it with a little dignity.

He tucked his lucky silver dollar inside his collar, near his heart. He had found it by the bank of the river at his grandfather’s house when he was ten. 1999, D for Denver. His grandfather had told him the woman on the front was named Susan B. Anthony. He always carried it with him because he figured as long as he had that dollar, he could never be completely broke.

At 0530 a team of technicians in clean suits arrived to escort him to the launch bay. They strapped a rebreather onto his back. The rebreather was connected via a hose to a gas mask with a gold colored visor. He held the mask to his face and took a couple of breaths to verify everything was working. He held the mask out to reposition the drinking tube, put it back up to his face, and gave the tech to his left a thumb up. The tech tightened the straps around his head to the point of discomfort, and then he tightened them some more. A green bar appeared on the right of his field of view showing one hundred percent oxygen. One way or another, the mission would be over no more than twenty four hours from now. That’s all the oxygen the rebreather held.

They led Park out of quarantine and down a short hall to an elevator marked, “Authorized Launch Facility Personnel Only.” When they arrived at sublevel twenty, they ushered Park into a golf cart which drove him five kilometers down a wide tunnel to the launch bay. The tunnel buzzed with activity; mostly people walking or driving away from the launch bay.

A new group of technicians and a few administrators met Park at the entrance to the launch bay. They were all talking over each other as they escorted him across the gang plank. Asking him questions, giving him encouragements, wishing him luck, but he barely heard a word. He was looking at the X-88.

The X-88 was the eighth prototype in the X-80 series. The other seven had all suffered catastrophic failures, but the X-88 had something the others hadn’t; a pilot. The Krupp warp drive sat in the snub nose just ahead of the cockpit. An updated version of the elder Dr. Krupp’s sub-light propulsion system and the reactor occupied the bulk of the body of the craft behind the cockpit. The engine had been put into commercial use several years earlier. That model was governed at a maximum of twenty-five percent power, but some enterprising souls had already hacked it up to thirty-five percent. It had already reduced the flight time between Earth and Mars from three months to as little as just over a week. That had allowed for a far longer launch window, and the population of Mars was booming.

There were four tapered and flared main wings and two stabilizing tails at the rear of the X-88 to be used in the event that Col. Park actually landed on Mars. It wasn’t the prettiest bird, but it damn sure would be the fastest. From nose to tail it only stood about twenty-five feet. The ship would launch on rails to guide it out of the tunnel.

Two burly techs lifted Park into the cockpit and helped him strap in. They closed and sealed the cockpit hatch, and then everyone made their way back down the gang plank. He had to listen to a loud horn blaring every few seconds for another forty-five minutes while the launch bay was cleared. He went through the pre-flight checklist with Flight Control while he waited. Finally, he heard the call he had been waiting for.

“All systems go. T-minus ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, FIRE!”

A loud boom tore through the launch facility followed by an increasingly high pitched whine. The force pushed Park into his seat like an industrial press. His peripheral vision faded away, and his breathing became shallow and difficult. Survivable, yes. Pleasant? Not at all. Two more booms rang out just as he exited the launch tube when the ship broke the sound barrier.

“Payload is away.”

For several seconds the only sound was the roar of wind, and then there were several small cracks like a string of firecrackers.

“Sled jettisoned. Altitude ten thousand. Speed five thousand. All systems nominal.”

“Altitude twenty thousand. Speed seven thousand. Commence roll program. All systems nominal.”

At one hundred thousand feet the engine throttled back. The sudden change from six G’s to micro gravity felt like it would have thrown Park through his cockpit window if he weren’t strapped in tight.

Everything went silent for a second before flight control broke in again, “Altitude one hundred ten thousand. Speed seventeen thousand five hundred. All systems nominal. She’s all yours, Destiny base. Godspeed, Colonel.”

Park responded, “Roger. Thank you, White Sands.” He strained to look over his shoulder, but he was only able to catch a glimpse of the planet as it receded away from him.

“Destiny, this is X-88, over.”

“X-88, Destiny. We read you, over.”

“Powering up to ten percent then I’ll begin the warp drive power up. I should enter lunar slingshot in approximately two hours. Are you tracking? Over.”

“Roger, X-88. We have you. See you in a couple of hours, out.”

Park programmed the sub-light governor for ten percent and the g-force limiter for three G’s. He set a trajectory that would take him to within fifty kilometers of the surface of the moon. At the speed he would be traveling, he needed to get that close for the moon to get him pointed towards Mars. He confirmed the settings on his HUD and engaged the engine. When the ship reached speed twenty minutes later, he began working on the warp drive checklist. Once he had finished bringing the warp drive online, he settled in to watch the moon grow alarmingly fast in his window.

The lunar flyby took less than a minute, and Park was headed towards Mars. He set his new trajectory for Mars orbit, set the sub-light governor to maximum, left the g-force limiter at three, and activated the Krupp warp drive system. The computer would automatically engage the warp drive when he reached his target velocity. He double and triple checked his settings on the HUD and put in the call to Destiny base.

“Destiny, X-88, over.”

“X-88, Destiny, over.”

“All systems are nominal. Ready to begin test run, over.”

“Roger, X-88. On your mark, over.”

“On my mark in three, two, one.” Park executed the program, and the ship began to accelerate.

“Fifteen percent.”

“Twenty percent. Speed two hundred thousand.” The band of the Milky Way began to turn a brilliant blue.

“Twenty-two percent. Twenty-three. Twenty-four.” Park’s world flashed blue then turned black. The X-88 disappeared in a flash of gamma rays. No wreckage could be found. No trace of Colonel James Park or the X-88 remained.

Untitled Chapter 4

“Colonel? Colonel, this is important. Are you paying attention?” James T. Krupp watched as Colonel Park took a drink of something probably alcoholic on the other end of the video conference. “Colonel, if you don’t want this mission, there are dozens of other pilots who would be happy to take your place.”

“The sub-light engine takes me up to point-oh-two-five light speed, the Krupp thingy does its thingy, and then I,” Park took another sip of his definitely alcoholic drink, “jump to the other side of the hill. Rinse, repeat, ad infinitum, et cetera, et cetera. I got it, doc. I had it six months ago.”

“My mother and I both dedicated our careers to this project, Colonel. I know you don’t care about that, but I thought maybe you’d care that it’s your ass that’s going to be in the ship. You might not care about the details now, but those details might just save your life on test day. So pay attention, please. Now let’s go over it again, okay, Colonel?”

Park set his drink aside and leaned into his camera, “First of all, we both know there’s a very real chance I’m going to die in that ship of yours, so pardon my ass if I want to enjoy what’s probably the twilight of my life here on Earth. Second of all, my name’s Jim; just like you. Stop calling me Colonel. You’re a civilian. You don’t have to call me Colonel. I told you Jim, or James, or Park will do just fine. Third of all, no, is that right? Thirdly? Third, I doubt you’ll find anyone to replace me in the next three days. Fourth… I don’t have a fourth. That was it. So…I guess let’s just pick up where we left off.”

Dr. Krupp pinched the bridge of his nose in a vain attempt to stave off the headache that had already arrived, “Fine. The, um, the… Shit. Where was I? The…”

“The stabilizing field will activate one hundred milliseconds before the Krupp warp drive initiates the jump.”

“Right, the stabilizing field.” Dr. Krupp paused, “Why don’t we just call it a day, and pick it up again tomorrow…morning.” Park had already disconnected his link before Krupp could finish his sentence. “I guess that’s a yes.”

Park downed his drink and stood up from his workstation. He walked over to the window and looked out at the desert. He had just gained two hours of downtime, but he had nothing to fill them. Quarantine had all of the creature comforts of home, but it was still just three rooms and one locked door.

He could eat, sleep, exercise, read, study, or surf the web on his data goggles. What he couldn’t do was go outside, and what he really wanted to do right now was go outside. He went to the bathroom to pour himself another drink instead. He set his glass on the counter and grabbed the bottle from its hiding place beneath the sink, but there was only enough bourbon left for one more drink. He had wanted to save it for his last night on Earth. He held the bottle up and sloshed the bourbon around while he decided whether to drink it or save it.

“Fuck it.” He unscrewed the cap and finished the last of his bourbon straight from the bottle.

Untitled Chapter 3

“Destiny base, this is Houston. Come in, Destiny. Over.”

“Houston, Destiny. Go ahead. Over.” the call came back a few seconds later.

“Destiny, we’re preparing to hand over control of the X-80. Are you ready to receive? Over.”

“Roger, Houston. We are ready to take over guidance on your mark. Over.”

The X-80 was thirty years in the making. It could revolutionize travel between Earth and Mars. Its engine was designed to accelerate quickly to nearly one tenth the speed of light, one hundred million kilometers per hour, and maintain that speed indefinitely. It would reduce travel time between the planets from months to a matter of hours, and it would eliminate launch windows. If it worked, there would be no more waiting for the planets’ orbits to align. It would not only open up travel between the sister planets. It would open up the possibility of exploration within the entire solar system.

“Destiny, Houston. Prepare for hand over at twenty-three, ten, and zero seconds zulu. Do you copy? Over.”

“Roger, Houston. Twenty-three, ten, and zero. Over.”

Destiny base took command of the X-80 right on time. The crew currently manning Destiny base had been chosen specifically for this mission. They had arrived a year earlier, and they would stay four more years running test flights of the revolutionary new propulsion system. In a little less than a year they would act as flight controllers to the dozens of ships headed to Mars during the next launch window. Three of the crew were Commander Dr. Katarina Krupp and her two long time assistants who had designed the engine. The fourth member was the requisite botanist, Dr. Gardener. He had heard the joke before. Dr. Krupp enjoyed helping him in the greenhouse when she needed a break from her work. She never got tired of joking about his name and occupation, but she had already shortened it to simply calling him Gardener.

Dr. Krupp couldn’t stop grinning. “Okay, gentlemen, no time like the present. Run the systems diagnostics and prepare for our first test run. Ten percent power; one minute burn out and back.”

The systems diagnostics took an agonizingly long fifteen minutes to complete, but everything came up good to go. They plotted the course and firing instructions and uploaded everything to the X-80. The ship used thrusters to maneuver itself into position. Dr. Krupp laughed when she said, “Engage.” She loved old timey sci-fi so much that she almost called her engine a warp drive, but she resisted the urge because it wasn’t a warp drive. Instead, she settled for the more boring name of a sub-light propulsion system.

The ship fired its engine and rapidly began to accelerate away from the moon. Exactly one minute later the engine cut off. The ship used its thrusters to flip turn over and fired its engine for one more minute. Much of the second burn was consumed with stopping the forward momentum of the ship so the return trip took several hours. By the time the X-80 entered high lunar orbit, Dr. Krupp had already received congratulations from her staff and the brass back on Earth, and she was digging into the data in her lab.

Two months later, Dr. Krupp had a heated conversation with several high ranking Air Force officials. As heated a conversation as one could have with a built-in three second delay. She knew best how to interpret her data. She had designed the damned thing, for Christ’s sake. They almost sounded amused at how vehement she was about such a small anomaly.

They kept telling her things like, “Nothing ever goes according to plan, and you should know that, doctor.” And, “Progress comes with a certain amount of risk, doctor.” The way they emphasized ‘doctor’ at the end of practically every sentence made it sound insulting.

No matter how long or how loudly she talked, she couldn’t get them to understand that every step up in power had resulted in exponentially larger differences between her calculations and the results. She knew for a fact they were rotating in fresh generals to wear her down because the voices on the comm. would change ever so slightly, and it eventually worked. After eight hours, she finally acquiesced to their demands and scheduled a test run for the next day, but with a caveat. It would be at eighty percent power instead of a hundred. By her revised calculations, that would still be pushing the envelope.

The test began like all the rest except Dr. Krupp took no joy in saying, “Engage.” If she were right, her engine could be damaged beyond repair. If she were wrong, she’d be relieved, yes, but she’d also have lost a little credibility. Reputation could be rebuilt though. She hoped she was wrong; unfortunately, she was right. The X-80 reached seventy-seven percent power a little over fifteen minutes into its flight. It achieved ninety-three percent of expected velocity for that amount of power. Then it disappeared.

Near Earth Object tracking telescopes tracked it down based on its last known speed and trajectory. The X-80 had become the ex-80. It was hurtling toward the outer solar system as a cloud of little bits of rubber, metal, plutonium, and ice. The NEO trackers did report one interesting thing though. The remains of the X-80 hadn’t been found where they had been expected, and they were slowing down.

Even from tragedy, good things may come. The death of the X-80 brought with it many questions, recriminations, and inquiries. It also brought inspiration and a bold new theory.

After several days of slowing, the remains of the X-80 had settled in at a comfortable eighty thousand kilometers per hour on their journey towards their final resting place deep within Jupiter. Dr. Krupp theorized that the mass of the ship had thrown up a bow wake of space-time in front of it, essentially forcing it to drive up an increasingly steeper hill the faster it went. She spent the rest of her career trying to find a way to turn that to her advantage, but it was her son, James, who made the final breakthrough a few scant years before she passed away. She wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Untitled Chapter 2

Cheers went up at Johnson Space Center the day the atmosphere within International Moon Base Destiny was deemed breathable. All of the news outlets interrupted their regularly scheduled programming with the Breaking News. Scientists touted the milestone as proof that we could colonize Mars. Philosophers philosophized about the importance of Man’s first foray into colonizing other worlds. Politicians took credit, and documentarians documented everything.

Commander Viktor Popov, Mission Specialist Botanist Ana Popov, Mission Specialist Dr. Hsu Li, and Mission Specialist Dr. Bill ‘Bull’ Durham were mankind’s first semi-permanent colonists in space. Of the four of them, Dr. Durham made the biggest sacrifice to live on the moon. He was the only non-vegetarian in the group. He already had an F-24 on standby and reservations at Shula’s Steakhouse in Miami for when they returned to Earth in five years.

The first three robotic missions to Mars launched while the crew of Destiny base waited to clear quarantine in Russia. A fourth unmanned mission launched several weeks later bound for the south pole of Mars. The first of the unmanned missions had a two month head start on them, but they were in their new home on the moon well before it arrived at the Mars polar ice cap.

In May 2063, mankind’s first permanent interplanetary colonists blasted off on a ship the size of a small RV for the three month journey to Mars. On August 18th, Commander Don Boatman, Mission Specialist Botanist Sophia Boatman, and Mission Specialists Drs. Steven and Lisa Fuller entered the airlock of the Mars Terraforming and Habitation Laboratory to become the First Martians. They named it Math Lab. Some people back on Earth nicknamed it Meth Lab. A week after they landed on Mars a mobile laboratory arrived with all the tools necessary to kick start life on Mars, and they set about the business of terraforming Mars.

The habitat-building robots stayed busy building new greenhouses, labs, and living quarters onto Math Lab. Two grueling years later the First Martians were joined in their great red igloo by four new colonists. Then two years after that, four more colonists arrived. Then four more and four more until there were twenty scientists busy trying to release CO2 into the thin atmosphere of Mars. The laboratory at the south pole did the same but on a much grander scale manned by only three robots. The last group of colonists to arrive at Math Lab also brought some special passengers with them; chickens and rabbits. The First Martians were ecstatic at the prospect of their first protein in a decade, but they would have to wait another two weeks for the chickens to start laying eggs.

Nothing went to waste on Mars. Plants created oxygen and food for humans. Humans created carbon dioxide for plants. Urine and feces were filtered and separated into water and fertilizer for the plants. Rabbits served as test subjects and Sunday dinner cooked in multi-million dollar solar powered ovens. Eggs were the protein for the rest of the week, most often in the form of tomato and spinach omelets with a side of hash browns. Those ovens also served as glass makers, heaters, and any other use the colonists could think of. One day the Drs. Fuller discovered a deposit of salt while testing soil a few kilometers away from Math Lab. Pleas were sent back to Earth. One of the robots was reprogrammed as a salt miner, and life on Mars became almost civilized.

More robotic missions rocketed to Mars to build huge greenhouses filled with plants carefully chosen for their nutritional or medicinal value or their ability to produce the greatest amount of oxygen. The term greenhouse was a bit of a misnomer though because all of the glass produced on Mars had a pinkish hue. Colonists arrived four at a time. Each new arrival brought new robots and left a satellite in orbit. Communications satellites, GPS, weather satellites, and surveyors all orbited the red planet.

Sophia Boatman became the first person to die on Mars in 2080. She died of natural causes and was laid to rest in Greenhouse 1. All sixty-three Martians attended her memorial, and a billion more watched it live from Earth. A peach tree was planted as her headstone. Grief turned to joy one month later when Dr. Angelina Tucci gave birth to the first native Martian; a girl she named Sophia. Hers had been an unplanned pregnancy, but it opened the door for other women to ‘forget’ to take their annual birth control injections. By the year 2090, the population of Mars consisted of eighty adults and eight children. That same year the powers that be, millions of miles away on another planet, called the colonization of Mars an unmitigated success and officially declared that all Martian families could have one child each.

Blood would still boil in the thin atmosphere of Mars, but in 2100, officially called Mars Terraforming and Habitation Laboratory #2, the settlement of Olympus Mons was established on the gentle southern slope of the ancient volcano. The colonists planned to tap into the natural geothermal energy they hoped to find there. What they found instead was a revelation.

Coal. Great huge deposits of coal buried deep within Olympus Mons. That barren behemoth had been the site of lush forests many millions or billions of years ago. After a century of scraping rocks and analyzing soil samples, they had finally found definitive proof of ancient life on Mars. The old arguments about contaminating Mars sprang up again, but they quickly died off as it was rightly pointed out that the argument was moot after nearly forty years of intentionally contaminating Mars. Yes, they had found proof of alien life on Mars, but more specifically they had found coal. It would act as a fuel source while accelerating the greenhouse effect by untold decades.

The Martian coal rush began in earnest a few years later when the first commercial mission to Mars arrived to begin mining. Several oil companies quickly followed suit because where there was coal then surely there must be oil. They took with them their expertise and equipment. A BP survey team made the next great discovery on Mars. Using ground penetrating radar, they discovered what appeared to be the remains of a city near the base of a cliff on the northern slope of Olympus Mons.

Untitled Chapter 1

The population of Earth reached seven billion in the year 2025. By the year 2050, it had been reduced to four billion. Civilization didn’t teeter on the brink of Armageddon because of a killer asteroid, unfriendly aliens, zombies, or nuclear holocaust. A virulent new strain of Encephalitis killed three billion people.

China and India accounted for nearly half of the deaths. The mosquito-borne plague proliferated throughout Asia then spread as far west as Africa and Southern Europe. Panic gripped the rest of the world when the virus found its way into the US blood supply. Agriculture and manufacturing suffered catastrophic blows as unaffected countries took drastic measures to keep the virus at bay. The global community reverted to a world of isolated city-states. Rice became a luxury item as paddies throughout Asia were doused with insecticides and drained. Oil prices skyrocketed, and the world entered a deep depression.

The scientific community rallied under the banner of ‘Single Point of Failure’, and they found most people ready to listen. The Global Academic Conference of 2044, attended via teleconference by academicians from around the world, established a plan of action to begin the colonization of Mars. Man’s long delayed journey to the stars was finally a go.

It started with a trip to the moon, not by men, but by two little robots with a glorified solar powered oven, a solar powered cement mixer, and ten tons of rebar. The selection of the site had come down to a natural cavern in Oceanus Procellarum or an area at the north pole with abundant (for the moon) subterranean ice. In the battle between convenience and necessity, water won out. So on January 18th, 2060, the International Moon base Destiny was established at the north pole of the moon.

The robots landed safely within two hundred meters of their target in a module the size of a shipping container that resembled a slipstream trailer with an airlock at each end. JPL engineers on Earth ‘drove’ the module into position, and the robots went to work. They spent their first two days on the moon setting up a solar array and unpacking their landing module, and then they started to dig. After nearly a year of digging, mixing, and pouring, interrupted every twenty hours for a four hour recharge, those two little robots had almost finished building a reinforced concrete dome the size of a large house around themselves with only a tower of solar panels and one end of their module on the outside.

In late 2060, a second pair of robots landed nearby, docked their module to the original Destiny module, and began their task of building a smaller tinted glass dome onto the side of the first. Two months later a third module containing compressed carbon dioxide landed and was incorporated into the wall of the second dome. When the first domes were finished, the robots began building slightly smaller identical concrete and glass domes inside them. When they had finished building what looked like a big, fancy igloo, all of the robots received new tasks. For one, it was essentially the same task. Collect water. Two of them collected water ice, one built living quarters and laboratories, and the fourth built a hydroponics system. The CO2 was slowly released into the greenhouse, and a garden began to grow on the moon.