Facing unprecedented challenges to feed a colony on Mars and confront a rising need for underground crops, Dr. Lirren Lamaar takes things into her own hands again on a fateful trip back to Earth to access the Svalbard Seed Vault on a remote Norwegian arctic archipelago. For the dangerous mission she hires a Hungarian ship called the Peregrinus Interstellar, rumored to have a past in illicit cargo smuggling.
Lirren's efforts begin to unravel however, in a violent, multi-layered plot after the ship crashes a few miles off course on a glacier known as Spitsbergen, and the crew is entangled by its past with the neighboring Russians. Caught in the depths of winter, and stuck on the ice, Lirren uses an ice sailor named Zero to reach nearby Longyearbyen to access Heirloom seeds she hopes will provide the answer for Mars.
But with a Russian Special-Ops team closing in fast, and Norweigian special forces stepping in, Lirren is plunged into more suspense than she bargained for as they close in on the crashed ship in the interest of national security. It's not long before she understands the captain of the Interstellar secretly possesses a powerful new invention making her mission even more unpredictable.
As the situation spins dangerously out of control, Lirren must use every ounce of courage as she has to face an impending storm and reach the Interstellar in time. With unexpected alliances including a police detective in Svalbard, she hires a dog sled team to get back, stopping at an old schooner turned hotel named Noorderlicht, where men, dogs, and drones battle over a past and a future locked in ice and snow.
Mars Colony 1
Thursday, October 4th, 2207
Following instructions is overrated.
A ship named the Peregrinus Interstellar roared near a Mars Colony 1 landing pad.
“Panara Valles tower, this is the Peregrinus Interstellar. Come in. Repeat this is the PI requesting permission to land immediately.”
The foreign ship drifted above a spectacular vista of red earth and unfamiliar forms of Panara Valles, near Mars’ equator.
“PI, this is Colony Tower 1. Please hold,” a voice came through. “We don’t uh, have any record of your ship or flight plan. State your inentions. Over.”
“You got radar, you find us, over,” the captain spoke with arrogant impatience.
“Alright, I’ve got you on radar, state your intentions,” the controller said, remaining composed.
“We got Sertes.”
“I’m sorry, say again?”
“Pigs,” the pilot drawled out in a foreign accent.
“Say again?” Mars dispatch questioned.
“I have rare Hungarian pigs, prized for the rich tender texture of their meat. We are low on fuel, acknowledge,” the ship replied.
Although food on Mars included fresh vegetables, fruits, and fish, there was little meat available. To get the dietary protein they needed, they lived on strict diets, mostly “customized” pre-packaged meals called V-Paks and other assorted freeze-dried rations. The pilot waited, knowing the men at Mars tower were drooling.
“I have fourteen large, fat hairy hogs. Four legs, curly tails, and very big snouts. We have the best delicious strips of juicy bacon, a pork heaven waiting for you. Served at breakfast with eggs, but perfectly good alone at any time of day. But don’t make me fly in circles eh, I might give my cargo to the Russians again,” he said with a thick accent.
The unknown pilot and his team waited.
After a short pause the tower operator spoke off the radio to the controller, “Looks like we got us an Independent. Man, these guys have some balls,” he said, taking a drag on a Vaporette.
“PI, this is Colony Tower 1, you are cleared for landing,” the dispatch operator nicknamed Shorty quickly responded. Although the new arrival hadn’t followed procedures, it was also at his discretion to clear the ship, considering the dangers the crew faced to get here. “PI, we have you on scope and on track. You also have solo entry for Pad 1, the wind is calm for descent, maintain four one zero. Expect lower visibility on impact.” He instantly transferred information the ship needed for approach.
“You can’t do that!” The tower chief started. “You can’t just clear them to land,” he fumed. “It’s a total violation of security protocols!”
“Says who?” Shorty snapped. “He’s ESA. Look at his numbers. He’s got aircraft clearance and landing rights here.”
“If you let him land we’re liable for contamination. You don’t have the authority, and security clearly states—”
“He has clearance,” Shorty insisted. “What do you want, Dead on Arrival?” he said sharply. He understood better than anyone the vulnerabilities of the small colony and the bureaucrats who ruled their environment with a large stick. If anyone broke a rule, there would be a lot of reports and vidcomm meetings with men in drab suits, that spoke in dull tones. Everyone’s job including the ships and crews that arrived, was to avoid this fate at all costs. Everyone followed the rules to “avoid crashes and contamination and getting people killed,” but the reality was more about avoiding meetings and paperwork.
The chief began again, turning red in the face. “Security clearly says—”
“You want protocols? Here’s your damn protocols right here,” Shorty seethed with anger and clenched his jaw. He pointed to a publication known as the Aeronautical Information Manual Report and began reading it aloud. “The pilot-in-command of a spaceship is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to the safe operation of that vessel. In an emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot-in-command may deviate from any rule in the General Subpart A and Spaceflight Rules Subpart B in accordance with Mars 14 CFR, Section 93.3. Hereinafter referred to as Martian Colony Tower 1 flight and procedures. Says it right here,” he tapped his finger hard, waving up a lighted protocols page, exhaling his Vape. “How do you like them apples?”
The chief glared expectantly at the other operators who had fallen silent in the room around them.
“There’s going to be hell to pay without approval from the installation commander.” Defeated, he stormed back to his seat.
The radio exchange was silent but only for a moment. “Ever tasted a slow roasted pig? It’ll be worth it,” Shorty said more to himself than his colleagues.
“PI, Tower 1. Report your numbers.”
“Tower 1, this is the Peregrinus, your beacon is loud and clear. We’re on track for landing,” the ship responded.
“Peregrinus be advised that Space Patrol is on its way, and tugs are in the area to rendezvous for escort,” Shorty replied.
v v v
The space ship’s crew continued the banter as the landing beacon from the Martian tower became visible on their radar. Wind was moaning along the concourse as the unknown shuttle slowly landed its automated descent eventually giving up control to its commander. Underneath the ship, powerful jets began hitting the red Martian landscape sending up billowing clouds of red dust and four huge hydraulic landing legs extended down from the belly of the craft making a deep thud. The rumble increased in pitch until the heavy, sturdy circular gray metallic ship touched ground on a defined rectangular area of the airfield. A workhorse of drop ships it was not as “hot” as later designs, but it was a sturdy heavy design, based on earlier ships with plasma engines, that the ESA and Independents were able to produce in small numbers. The Peregrinus was a souped-up modified version, uglier and faster than most, outgunning most other ships as well. Properly handled it was lethal.
Large swept back delta wings retracted from the ship and they waited for robotic tugs to pull them into the protected underground hanger. With careful directions from the cockpit, the tugs connected to the ship and they began moving along a long taxiway to the entrance end of the colony’s main military hanger. As the crafts taxied, Captain Tibor rested his elbows, looking forward through a large cockpit window like cruising the boulevard on a Saturday night. Built into the side of a mountain under hundreds of meters of red Martian stone, the crew watched as they made their way to five-hundred-ton steel blast doors that opened like a giant gaping jaw. The tugs pulled the ship forward through the entrance towards a vacant spot inside the enormous hanger. With more than enough room for a squadron of fighters called Star Breakers, and other various mining and exploration ships, the Peregrinus was promptly parked inside the sprawling complex.
As the loading ramp extended from the center of the ship, the crew prepared themselves for boarding and inspection procedures. Despite the fact that they hadn’t forwarded their approach or been given a “Plan of Entry,” they had already keyed in important pieces of data about his crew and cargo through an electronic data interchange, or EDI.
“That’s it,” Tibor said, pulling off his helmet. His fingers reached up playing with a few last controls to completely power down the ship. “Enjoy yourselves.”
“Yes!” His co-pilot smiled. “Just what the doctor ordered, eh Greer?” he said chiding the medical officer still seated behind him.
“Yeah, thanks for the prescription doc, I could use a break,” another one of the other crew members said as he unbelted from his seat. They had all experienced some signs of stress and fatigue from their travels in space and the small crew looked forward to some much needed rest.
The ground crew entered the hanger, ready to prepare an unexpected space craft that had arrived. The hanger’s emergency lights blasted inside and the interior bustled with activity to begin security and servicing procedures. Along its vast length, maintenance crews and their rugged equipment began moving toward the craft, preparing rolling pallets to the ramp to unload the cargo. As Tibor and his crew began exiting, an inspector from Space Patrol approached the scene in minutes. Tibor knew he was there to carry out a physical inspection and check the ship for any dangerous goods. Despite the fact that they arrived unannounced, he was sure they would be welcomed. Mars needed supplies, and Independents like him were becoming a critical part of a crossroads for major expansions. The scramble was on to lure a new generation of cargo ships and bulk carriers, and trade was growing significantly.
Tibor and the men began disembarking as the entire Colony Port Authority descended on them. “Welcome to Colony 1,” the lead officer said, coolly looking up at the tall commander.
“Captain Tibor, it’s great to be here,” the captain said cordially, shaking the man’s hand in a bear grip.
“What are we unloading today?” the officer questioned.
“I have four crewmen, livestock, pharmaceuticals, textiles, electronics. It’s all on the manifest I just sent you. You’ll find everything inside,” he said looming over the man in a khaki brown flight suit. “But take it easy eh, with the pigs eh?” he said. “Their legs break easy,” he warned.
The man looked at Tibor curiously trying to take stock of the situation. “We know,” he said gesturing at the man in charge of cargo operations, giving him the okay. A small team continued pulling up the pallets taking in the conversation. “You know the drill. Optek is taking it from here for contamination,” he said glancing away from Tibor to the cargo crew.
Tibor smiled without much regard for the authorization policies. His ship would most likely be taken care of as a nonexclusive, temporary basis. “You should have the cargo statements, doc’s, visa’s, medical. Provision checks. Everything. It’s all in your system.”
“Appreciate that,” the officer said. “Permission to disembark,” he said. “You and your crew can stay in the lounge until the installation commander figures out what to do with you. It’ll be just a few minutes.” At the discretion of the officer in charge, they were quickly released to a temp’s crew area. Later they crashed for the evening inside the crew’s temp quarters, but Tibor stayed up late to have a drink inside a crew’s lounge, worried about what wasn’t on the manifest, buried deep in hidden containers.
Friday, October 5th, 2207
Creating — that is the great salvation from suffering.
Xanders was tired, but the woman seated on his right was talking compulsively.
“I can’t believe I’m here. I’ve really done it all now. I mean, not many people can say they’ve been on Mars. It just doesn’t happen unless you have the right connections,” she sniffed.
Xanders had seen many passengers bound from Earth, coming to live on the colony lately, bragging about life on Mars. He had come straight into the tunnel from the surface still wearing his Coat, eager to see his girlfriend Lirren who was working underground in the greenhouses, sector seven. He checked his wrist monitor for a second, then casually flipped off his suit’s air pressure down to normal. The Coats, as they were called, provided air flow with a tight protective layer around the wearer’s bodies for brief surface excursions, but he hadn’t bothered changing into his everyday suit yet, called a Heavy. He wondered if the woman would ever stop talking.
“You know what I’m going to do?” asked the woman, whose body was squeezed inside a Heavy suit like a sausage inside a casing. She didn’t wait for a reply and continued to rapidly tell Xanders exactly what she planned on doing. She seemed like the type arriving here more worried about impressions than bone rot. Seated in a fast moving four-man car called a slip, they passed through the small Colony’s main underground tunnel.
“—And then I’m going to Bottoms Up tonight. I’ve heard you can bounce and jump around in a special room there, without a suit, wearing just your thin tight grays. I heard people do more than just go light in there,” she giggled looking at her suit’s controls. Her blood pressure reading was high, so she began pressing the suit’s adjustments on her sleeve. He turned his head away, aware she was studying his face. He could visualize her bouncing around inside Bottom’s Up and was trying not to smile too broadly.
“Are you paired-up with anyone? Do you ever go there?”
Xanders brushed her off quickly, “I’m too busy,” he said.
“Oh. Well It doesn’t seem like we’re on Mars, does it? It really doesn’t. It seems like yesterday I was in the ship coming here. Aeons Opposite. It goes fast somehow using quantum technology. Wonderful ship. Beautiful! Ever seen one?”
Xanders nodded. “Yes, they’re known as Q-thrusters.” He’d toured one.
“Well I sure remember the day I came here. Couldn’t have been more than a few months ago. Do you think people make mistakes here? You know, maybe people get hurt, freeze to death, or don’t snap their helmet on right and breath in CO2, something like that?
“It’s happened,” said Xanders, answering her question with a sideways glance.
“Stars,” she gulped, her bright red face turning to a pale shade. “I heard carbon dioxide can raise your blood pressure and cause a heart attack…even brain damage. Of course, that’s why we need so much training. It isn’t so bad, except the gym time. So much time in the gyms, and if they find out you don’t go, they penalize you, and say you’re unfit to stay. Not that I’m skipping the gym mind you. I just wonder how much a person actually needs—”
“It isn’t so bad once you get used to it,” Xanders said, cutting her off.
“Of course, it’s necessary. Without all these special rules, none of us could live here. But I’m not worried,” she swallowed again, looking suspiciously at her suits blood pressure reading, probably wondering if she had CO2 poisoning, although her suit would instantly alert her.
She was nervously fidgeting with her suit’s control unit on her sleeve. She looked up and began talking compulsively. “Without so many hazards on Mars there’d be a lot more people coming here, but since it’s so small we can’t support too many. I mean…we simply don’t have room for just anyone to come here. But if you stay on Earth, you take your chances too. But Mars isn’t so bad, is it? When I was only twelve I began experiencing earthquakes and floods in Washington. We escaped north to Canada. In Canada, the weather was better. On Mars though, no earthquakes, no floods. Just a little gamma, but it’s getting better. I heard you don’t really need a pressure suit anymore on the surface.” She took a deep breath in. “It isn’t so bad.”
“No. No it’s not,” he said. All this chatter about fears was typical of new visitors, but she was beginning to wear out his patience, and he regretted not taking a more secure car. It was good to mix with the new colonists, but when he was short on time, he usually avoided the general population by using his clearance for the Express — a car that went slightly faster and didn’t stop for other passengers. As the former chief technology officer for a large commercial spaceflight company called XWing, he was heavily involved with building the colony, developing new technology necessary for survival inside the city. Consequently, he became second in command under General Takeda at the colony and its attached Air Force Base. When one impossible job after the next came up, Xanders was the one you called to get it done. As a result, he oversaw most of the main operations with the power and clearance to get things done his way. If she’d known how powerful he was, she’d probably burst into hysterics, so he held off the introductions. At least his stop was coming up soon, he thought. He watched as the plants and trees planted alongside the platform began getting thicker, an indicator the car was approaching Green Sector. She began chatting again, but he tuned her out, thinking about all the changes happening to Mars to make life possible.
From power and air, to food and water, it was one engineering feat after the other in the beginning, but it wasn’t long before construction of underground buildings spread to the diverse hectic population. Like any city, they were becoming an international hub with people from a wide range of backgrounds. The winter population diminished however, with a summer population that swelled to over thirty-five hundred. Much like McMurdo Station — an Antarctic research center on Earth, people preferred to stay during the warmer and safer summer months. The colony included several living complexes divided into groups such as Medical and Agriculture, with attached underground gardens. With a large medical clinic, exercise centers, stores, entertainment, science labs, and the base, just about everything they needed was within walking distance. At the same time, above ground, they were terra-forming the entire planet. Planetary engineering was the technical term. Specialized algae, trees, and artic grasses were pumping oxygen into the suffocating atmosphere. Natural magnetic fields were taking hold, and life-saving water was plentiful, oozing out from ice cracks and riverbeds. It was true the planet’s climate had raised a few degrees, but Mars was still far from hospitable. What many people didn’t realize though, was Mars colonization began long before people ever arrived with the use of automated printers, heavy robotics, and self-replicating machines known as Zygotes. The Zygotes built the sprawling solar power centers and self-growing lunar factories without the initial risk of sending humans. Paving machines and robotic loaders had strip-mined Mars’ topsoil for a carbothermic process long ago.
“Maybe when you have time—”
“My stop is here. Good luck,” he said with a good-natured smile. The slip slowed down reaching past a line of evergreens that marked the greenhouse entrance. Xanders stopped the tiny open-air car, and exited the slip.
“Good-bye,” the woman called out to him curiously and she disappeared, moving forward to another location in the tunnel.
Xanders didn’t want to remember how many years had passed since he’d brought Lirren and her son Logan here, and how much it took to get them off Earth. A well-known agricultural engineer, Lirren had worked for the USDA in California before they left, and now she worked as the leading Ag Officer, in charge of developing the colony’s first sustainable food resources.
Things had changed a lot since they arrived. Now it seemed as if anyone with enough credits could pay their way. Xanders walked forward thinking about how he had painstakingly arranged their escape on a large spaceship named the Demetrius from Vandenberg, California, avoiding the hellish earthquakes there. He’d been right about all the weather on Earth still getting worse and the suffering going on. All the people dying. He tried shutting off the thought, finishing the last few strides towards the Greenhouse entrance.
At least on Mars, life felt safer and people were optimistic. It hadn’t been easy for them in the beginning, but things were going smoothly now. Notwithstanding the near catastrophe Lirren had when they first arrived, he reminded himself. Lirren had brought some Ag product to Mars with her colleague Dirk, from the USDA at Riverside California that wound up becoming a dangerous fiasco. It all began after they inadvertently crossed paths with Vladimir Zalesskii — a cunning billionaire space tycoon, and outlaw, who frequently meddled with Mars shipments. Luckily, he and a small covert team were able to intervene before things got too out of hand at a distant Space Station. Things had calmed down, but it wasn’t long before Zalesskii retaliated by attempting to kidnap her son Logan. During a last minute harrowing extra vehicular battle, Xanders and his two close friends, Patrik and Nez, stopped the attempted kidnapping midway up a space elevator. Patrik, one of XWing’s star pilots, had helped by commandeering a small getaway ship called the Star Grazer, while Nez — a Navajo Indian and natural born hunter fought by his side.
Xanders closed his eyes as he remembered Zalesskii and his men coming for them in outer space in their EVA suits. Nez had held them off, allowing him time to pull Logan off the space elevator. In that instant while he fumbled to get Logan out, Nez saved their lives but at a cost — he was knocked unconscious. Xanders had pulled Nez back to the Star Grazer with Logan by his side. Zalesskii wheeled and came back yanking Xanders away from the ship. They grappled over a gun, and he kicked Zalesskii away. He watched as Zalesskii’s arms clawed out reaching against the black nothingness of space, a black silhouette against the red glow of Mars. He would never know for sure if Zalesskii had survived, but rumors spread quickly that he was still forging his own empire in a hidden location somewhere on Mars. From the time that Zalesskii started interfering with Mars Colony 1, and especially after the incident with Logan and Lirren, he was designated as an “entity of concern,” and a direct threat to Mars and other U.S. Government agencies. Meanwhile scientists and ships continued to disappear — it was assumed Zalesskii absconded them to his base sabotaging their progress. He was in fact the original space pirate, breaking every law, in addition to substantial violations of the Space Treaty.
In response to the Lirren and Logan fiasco, General Takeda had stepped up with a multitude of secret conferences. He had scheduled strictly Members-Only briefings with Xanders hoping to thwart any future terrorist incidents. Takeda also had multiple surveillance operations in place, still keeping an eye out for trouble, while trying to pin-point Zalesskii’s exact location. However, things had quieted down. In some ways, Xanders felt a reluctant admiration for the man for creating his own private empire, bringing who and what he wanted here, making his own rules. But given the circumstances, it was also warped, cowardly, selfish, and criminal
Xanders slowed down and unsnapped a tiny, white hand-held computer that contained everything from communication to identity. Called an Interface Device, or iD for short, he had a basic model since the flying designs called Micro Air Vehicles (MAV’s) were banned on Mars. Considered another one of their “unfriendly” regulations which prohibited MAV’s — there were steep fines for bringing them here. The little flying vehicles were privacy busters but another major problem was that Mar’s light gravity played havoc with their weight and motion. He had seen them disappear, stuck against ceilings because of their tiny size. Eventually they would lose power and fall to the ground, becoming a potential equipment hazard.
He suddenly realized he had already covered a long distance along the platform, so he stopped to place the tiny device into a key slot to open some well-hidden steel doors. With a faint click, a light blipped green and the doors sliced opened from a darkened steel arena into a new world. Xanders snapped the small device back into his suits sleeve, and squinted for a moment, adjusting his eyes to the vast airy complex that gleamed with bright artificial light.
He quickly acclimated to the warmth and humidity, and continued forward into the giant white skeletal structures that were jammed with plants, trees, and crops. The underground garden, nearly twenty feet tall and as wide as a football field, sat interlocked with neatly laid smooth aisles. Massively appealing to all the different groups living in the complex, the colonists could visit the main greenhouse anytime they wanted. But some sections like the ones that used honey bees, for example, were off limits. Only certain Ag’s or various colonists like Lirren had the authority to access those areas, but mainly as a precaution. The gardens and the greenhouses served a dual purpose and were considered extremely important on the Colony — not just for food, since they also lifted their spirits reminding them of Earth. Even Xanders admitted it gave him a sort of psychological surge to be here occasionally. Sometimes, he and Lirren would also stop by and visit Nez, who usually tended to the bees now. Nez had settled in permanently as one of the Ag’s top scientists and lead apiarists producing limited amounts of honey for the colonists. Now and again he would give Lirren some of his private stash as a gift. A rare treat. Liquid gold.
After the incident, Nez never spoke of it again, but Xanders would never forget what Nez had done for him. At times when he looked at Nez he could still see a dark intense look in his eyes, as if he was still waiting for his final revenge against Zalesskii. Sharp, ruthless, and clearheaded, few people knew Nez and what he was actually capable of doing. Xanders knew if Nez ever met up with Zaleskki again, that Nez would win.
Walking through the green spring like world, nicknamed the Garden of Eden, Xanders quickly weaved his way over to aisle number five. He walked slowly, knowing he would find Lirren nearby. Section five was where she spent most of her time, tending to the famed project that had drawn so much outrageous attention by Zalesskii — strange looking mutant fruits and vegetables that grew by the thousands in the complex now. Part of a genetically altered program called Evolution; the plants were technically the brainchild of her son Logan, to breed native crops in arid conditions on Mars. The crops were thriving and becoming an indispensable part of their daily diet, but in the beginning, only Lirren and Logan really understood what the new plants meant, and why they risked so much to get them to Mars. Xanders paused and looked around admiring the technology. Some of the vegetation rose almost twenty feet high, while Ag inspectors either walked around or stood on foot movers to check the nutrient levels. Some of them were swinging precariously in buckets atop tall robotic arms as they picked vegetable specimens for colonists to eat near the garden top.
As Xanders glanced right, he spied Lirren bending over a plant. He crept up behind her tall slim physique and delicately smacked her from behind, his smile barely noticeable. “Lirren!”
Lirren jumped up, holding her chest. “Xanders! Stars you scared the hell out of me,” she burst out laughing. “Just look at these,” she said excitedly handing him some sort of new vegetable, kissing his lips quickly along with a little hug. He looked at her softly for a moment, lost in her deep mysterious brown eyes, and long dark hair. She was beautiful, even her imperfections, like the slight gap between her front teeth when she smiled. Her smile melted his heart.
“Oh, uh, interesting,” he commented peering at something that resembled a cucumber. “What is it?”
“Just try it, you might like it,” she said hopefully. The new class of fruits and vegetables also gave everyone a little boost in radiation protection. They grew in a bizarre array of colors, shapes, and sizes that were weird and somewhat alarming.
He tentatively bit into the end and chewed before he swallowed it. He examined the pinkish meaty interior while trying not to let her see his expression at the bitter taste. But Lirren was eye balling him closely with her hands on her hips, watching intently as he chewed. The new plants had certainly raised a few eyebrows initially, but after some thorough testing the colony approved the new crops.
“Well?” she asked.
“You’re such a terrible liar,” she said and grabbed the half-bitten cucumber out of his hand. So, what brings you to this side of town?”
“I was on my way back from a meeting on base with Takeda. A ship from Hungary landed here yesterday with special pigs onboard — an independent ship.”
“Special pigs? Really? I guess Mars is becoming the pig planet. I hate that idea, but it’s becoming a reality I suppose.” She looked up at the top of the greenhouse, her thoughts wandering for a moment. “I saw a little piglet at Optek a few days ago. I was tempted to take it home,” she smiled. She spied a compost bin to her right and stopped to throw Xanders’ half-eaten cucumber into the collection slot. “Your food scraps just became animal feed for the pigs and additives for our soil. What’s really amazing is it also produces methane gas to help warm up the atmosphere.”
Xanders nodded, but Lirren could tell he wasn’t listening. “Xanders?”
“Oh, uh, you mean keep a pig as a pet? I told you I don’t mind. They’re letting some of the colonists have one, but once they get too big…”
“Don’t worry I won’t,” Lirren said quickly, “but it was tempting.” she paused again and gave him a sideways glance looking at his Coat. “What is it Xanders? I get the feeling you didn’t come all the way down here from the surface to tell me about another ship.”
“We got more bad news from XWing today. The National Academy of Science reported the sun was about to have another temper tantrum. Congress is preparing for a continent-wide power outage.”
Every time he warned her about the crumbling situation between the two planets she felt like their world was turning upside down, but now he sounded down as well. Inner alarms were sounding off. Something was wrong.
“How bad? Are we nearing the…end of the world?”
“The EOTW? No. But…it’s not looking good.”
“So, you mean just bad enough to cause more food riots, satellite interruptions, the usual.”
Xanders nodded. “XWing is also concerned about their nanosats. It could cause further communications interruptions. According to them, it’s another safety issue with these geomagnetic storms. It’s a hazard for everyone. The pilots are at risk and it damages the unmanned ships, too. Everything is affected by all this space weather. Funny how an invisible burst of energy from the sun can wreak so much havoc on everything.”
“For how long? How much more can our people take?” she asked, her voice getting edgy.
Xanders said nothing. Earth’s future looked grim. They both hesitated for a moment at the end of the garden. Everyone was tired of all the bad space weather going on.
“I guess that explains it then. I keep making requests for heirlooms. They keep promising me, but they never come. The new administrative coordinator promises they’ll be shipped on the next available vessel, but there’s already a two month delay before I ever receive an order. Our crops might fail without them and we still don’t have everything we need. No one seems to understand. How long can we go before our Pak rations run out because of these unnecessary delays?”
“Then we’re really screwed,” Xanders shrugged, his eyes still fixed on the garden. Lirren’s heart jumped slightly at his remark. She had grown used to the idea that they could pull through almost anything and come up with amazing solutions out of thin air. Lirren and the Ags had labored ceaselessly to build an independent food resource on Mars. Although Xanders wasn’t a scientist himself, he shared her concerns and fully understood the implications of her mission. “It shouldn’t be too much longer Lirren. You have to trust XWing will get us what we need here. If all else fails, you know we can count on them…and Lexa,” he smiled faintly.
Lirren stood nervously. “I hope you’re right. But all these communications interruptions are making me nervous. No way to monitor the shipments…” She sighed, turning her head and began playing with one of the plants to her right. She picked off a leaf and ran her long fingers over its smooth texture. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see,” she managed a faint smile, but measured Xanders with a long glance. Xanders put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed her hard.
“It’ll be okay, they’ll get here, I promise,” he paused, thinking. “Hey, why don’t we sneak a look see at that new Hungarian ship at the operations center?” he asked. Although they weren’t exactly aviation nuts, it was the newest attraction at Mars Colony 1.
“Let’s go,” she said, putting her arm around his. She glanced at the helmet he was still holding. “Will we need our bubbles?
“No. It’s secured in an air tight area. You won’t need it.”
Moving air cut through them as they reached the main tunnel and climbed back into a slip. Xanders spoke rapidly, trying to get Lirren’s mind off the Ag shortage. “The ship we’re about to tour was rebuilt and served by a few previous owners. It’s called the Peregrinus Interstellar — but it underwent several name changes before it eventually fell into the hands of Pull — out of Hungary.”
“The Peregrinus Interstellar?” Lirren repeated. “That’s a mouthful.”
“It means ‘The Star Wanderer’ in Hungarian. They call it the P.I. around here, for short.” He smiled at her and looked ahead as the slip slowed down. He was thinking about some of the gossip he heard. “They claim to be completely legit, but rumor had it that the Peregrinus was won during a high stakes poker game.”
“Maybe he had a good hand, a Royal Flush,” she smiled, brushing her hair aside. Xanders grinned at her comment, but his face went slack thinking more seriously. “Takeda thinks he uses his ships to smuggle illicit cargo for the Russians at the Russian base near-by. No one knows for sure. Just stories maybe. I feel a little suspicious just the same.”
v v v
As she stepped into the main operations center, being presented with another dilemma so close to her heart was a dangerous thing for Lirren. She had a job to do. A problem to fix and a solution began to spin in the back of her head like a tiny clock spring after they reached the sophisticated nerve center. The place was buzzing with activity and she looked on with fascination at the tracking and dispatch area from which a tide of new colonists and ships arrived daily.
Her eyes quickly scanned over the Peregrinus and other ships as they underwent a routine checkout inspection. What were they really doing here and why had they come?
Looking like a war torn battered type, it was both striking and menacing at the same time. Four huge hydraulic landing legs held up a large circular body, and the main port gaped like a huge outstretched tongue, with a ramp leading from the front center. Pegged as a modified light freighter class with large folded wings, it had a military like presence. Very solid and ten times more dangerous than the label suggested. She stood quietly, calculating its size at around forty meters long by about sixteen meters wide.
Xanders tugged at her elbow, noticing the intense look on her face. “Don’t worry. We have permission,” he smiled. “C’mon. Let’s take a look inside,” he pulled her forward. Lirren nodded and they unglued themselves, walking towards the ship listening to one of the security guards recant facts about the protocols of ships, the crew, and the parking area. There was no more security in sight as they approached the ship and climbed the ramp, mixing in easily with the processing crew who were intent on their jobs. Lirren went her own way and watched as Xanders lagged behind, busily chatting with one of the station’s payload officers. As she moved ahead she overheard someone tell him the ship was one crew member short because of an accident. A fact she quickly stored away for later.
To her surprise, no one seemed to care much as she quietly moved about. Curious about every detail, she searched for the sleep cabins and the bathroom first, taking a good look at their shower facilities. They certainly spared no expense, she thought, taking in the spa-like facility complete with fully enclosed glass showers and a neat row of white towels. She exited and thoroughly inspected one of several bio-bed cabins. She continued exploring, eventually finding a door that lead to a small med lab. It seemed as if the ship was well prepared for minor medical emergencies as well.
It wasn’t long before logic, pure crystalline logic, a plan with precise purpose began to take shape. Living in a world of theoretical possibilities, combined with her natural ability to solve problems, an idea was drumming inside her head already. She hoped it would work. This was obviously a fast, stealthy, state-of-the-art vehicle that could penetrate Russian airspace — and it just so happened the heirloom seed vault she needed to reach was in Norway, right over Russian airspace. Her ideas normally grew slowly over time, but this one was ready to explode like a new sun. They could handle one extra person. One extra person…
Great Space. The ship!
Problems always had solutions…and ships always had cargo, she thought. If she had laid eyes on the Peregrinus a few weeks from now, or a few days ago, she wouldn’t have thought of it. But how exactly? In an environment as hostile to life as space, the aid and goodwill of your fellow humans couldn’t exactly be counted on. No one was obligated to stop or render aid, unless…unless they wanted a contract to come back. She made up her mind in a split second with her arms outstretched, sweeping past the stars through the galaxy. Timing was everything.
Lirren looked around for one of the crew. It would be crucial to find out firsthand how fast it really went and how much cargo it could handle. Thirty or so suits continued in and out, servicing the ship as she idly walked inside the main bridge. She turned, pleasantly surprised to actually find one of the crew playing with the controls while he spoke to an orbiter processing technician. He was dressed in a khaki colored suit with the private company emblem Pull. She brushed past him, eyeing his name in big letters, “Zoly.” They didn’t seem to register her entrance as the two men hovered over a large control panel, speaking to one another. As she quietly observed the room, she could overhear them, arguing over numbers for the ship’s weight, cargo, and speed capacity. Based on their conversation, it sounded as if Zoly was getting impatient with the questioning so she waited for the technician to exit. Zoly turned his back to her, disregarding her presence. He flipped some switches with fingertip precision. Lirren walked up beside him and introduced herself as if she had every right to be there.
She smiled at him, trying to act interested in the controls. “Don’t worry, I’m not OPF. I’m just a tourist,” she started, looking sideways at the man’s name on his chest. “Lirren Lammar. I’m an Ag Officer here…uh, nice to meet you,” she responded, breathing a little more quickly as she offered her hand. He shook it and she sensed a subtle friendlier change in his attitude. Lirren’s attention was unexpected, but welcome.
“Agriculture. I help grow the green here. They call us Ag-heads. You know like Eggheads…Ag-heads…Egg…Ag? Oh well, never mind,” she lost her smile seeing Zoly’s blank expression.
He gave her a cursory glance, unsure what to say next. He pulled up another glowing panel, waving his hands over some sort of fuel gage. He was cute in a boyish way, thin, in his twenties, with curly red hair and freckles.
“This ship is pretty impressive. Plasma twin 600’s. I’ve heard of those,” she commented. “How does it handle?”
The pilot grunted his response, still intent on the controls. “Reasonably well. Starts out slow as a whale, but gains a lot of speed once we connect with the Interstellar. He looked up curiously at Lirren, noticing the glowing green Ag symbol emblazoned on her uniform.
“I flew on a really fast ship once, it used plasma engines too, a Russian ship called the X5,” she said, trying to engage him again, but he only nodded. She glanced at his lighted engine map. “Is that the helicon couplers?”
Nothing. Was this guy dense or what? she thought, blowing her bangs out of her eyes. Desperate for information, she took another direction. “It sure feels hot in here,” she said, pulling her suits magnetic ring down to her cleavage. The magnetic closure gave way, snapping open a bit too far, exposing the tops of her breasts. Between the lighter gravity and the Heavy suit’s extremely tight fit, her breasts had a full sumptuous lift. “Oops,” she said, pulling up the small ring just slightly so it dangled right at the base of her cleavage. “Stars, I feel like I can breathe now,” she said, tossing her long thick hair out that had been neatly tucked inside her uniform. She finally had his attention, with his eyes locked on her breasts.
She gently fluffed out her hair and rubbed her face slightly. Just a light fingertip touch on her skin would activate a few invisible tech tattoos, including lip and eye color that would enhance her facial features. “These suits are so tight, I just want to rip mine off sometimes. I’m sure you feel like taking yours off too, once in a while, Mr. Zoly?” She said with a provocative smile. She dipped her body down seductively, lingering over a hand rail to glance at his name.
“Oh uh, sorry, It’s Franky…Zoly, uh Zágonyi. I usually go by Zoly. I’m the co-pilot.”
“Zoly,” she slowly stood up and glided her fingertips over her neck, “so ah, how fast can you go and how much thrust do you have? I like to go fast.” She smiled demurely at him, and moved in for a closer look at the ship’s engine manifest.
“I can go really fast,” he said with a dazed expression on his face. Finally, a reaction, she thought.
“Power is good, but I really like safe and reliable too…so no one gets hurt.”
He was starting to breath hard. “Of course—”
“If you went top speed, say over two hundred fifty miles a second with nine nuclear engine cores and six hundred million pounds of thrust for both cargo and passengers, that’s only a week between Earth and Mars, right?”
“Sounds like you already know a lot about plasma engines,” he said flatly. Lirren could tell by his tone that she had begun to sound about as exciting as a frozen food option, so she quickly changed the subject.
“Just guessing,” she said. “What’s that? Is that the picture of the crew? Which one is missing?” she asked, not daring to glance-up, quickly memorizing the captain’s face.
“How did you know?” His tone was starting to get suspicious.
“Oh, well I didn’t, until now,” she smiled broadly, batting her eyes with practiced innocence. “Only rumors. You’re what we call Independents. You have to understand, it’s the most exciting thing that’s happened around here in a while,” she smiled, grabbing his arm. She let go quickly, pretending as if the moment got the best of her.
“Stars sorry,” she said.
Zoly managed to smile and shook his head at the attractive woman. “No problem, Ms. Lirren.”
“I should go.” She backed away, memorizing every detail of the ship’s design and crew carrying capability.
Zoly looked back and smiled. “An Aghead,” he said, finally getting the joke.
Lirren smiled back and walked away just in time as a few more technicians suddenly showed up interrupting her self-guided tour.
Lirren turned, looking at the cockpit from outside a doorway to find Xanders. The idea that was hatching in her head was a simple one. Perhaps her plan was too simple, but then again, routine details were not her strong point, never were. She had a tendency to avoid complications and push away doubts, but there was one thing for sure. She could definitely use the Independents ship to get the Ag herself. She was the only one qualified for the job and she knew as well as anyone how to travel to the vault and get it back safely. She listened to the ship and heard the slight murmur of its idling power as it echoed softly. She continued to follow the curved pathway inside the upper center of the ship. “There you are,” she heard Xanders say. Seeing him, she raised her hand and he grabbed it, pulling her up beside him.
“Yes. Thanks for the tour,” she said.
“Go ahead, I’ll follow you out,” he gestured.
They clamored down a large set of steel stairs through the central hatch down the ramp, returning to the bay, meandering around to gaze through one of its famed portals before they returned home. They stood together looking through the window at the sun, as it became a disc of faded white gold inside a light purple haze. Phobos was nowhere to be seen.
“What are you thinking about?” Xanders turned, looking at Lirren.
Lirren continued staring through the portal. “I don’t know,” she sighed. “How long do you think before Earth becomes really unlivable and people realize we’re making a last-ditch effort here? What happens then?”
“I think you already know the answer to that, Lirren.”
“Worst case scenario.”
Xanders took a deep breath in. “Let’s say a few hundred thousand survive at the poles and in underground complexes. Others decide they want to get here at any cost and start storming the launch sites. Ships could be hijacked and supply runs could run dry. Too many people get here and we could run out of food. Air. Water. Everything we’ve worked for could blow up.”
“Which is why most of the launch sites, even the small ones, have already stepped up security,” Lirren continued.
“Let’s just hope it never gets to that. It’s hard to say how many settlers we could really support or even how many could actually get here in that case.” Xanders paused, his eyes scanning the plains. “The climate is already like a hellscape over there. Maybe Earth won’t end, but human life will. I give it a year before a volcano finally explodes from the heat. That would speed up the process of elimination alright.”
“So until then, life goes on. Cities like Moscow build underground complexes where a few select people try to survive and adapt while earth is riddled by earthquakes and volcanoes. Meanwhile applicants continue to escape here…judged on their scientific experience, resiliency, adaptability, curiosity, and ability to trust…” she tailored off gloomily.
“And creativity,” Xanders added.
“And wealth…” her voice broke. She turned away.
“And creativity,” Xanders eyed her apprehensively for a moment. “Did you have your psyche eva—?”
“God damn it Xanders, I don’t need another psyche eval,” Lirren said furiously. The hellscape, she thought. Hellscape. The words resonated in her mind, sending off an alarm that was already ringing. “It doesn’t change the fact that everyone has the right to know what’s going on. The truth is, even though I tell myself I’m good at what I do, and the sacrifice is worth it…I still see myself as part of a…a twisted lie. It doesn’t feel right. When I see the destruction down there, and the bodies…the way I have to tell everyone I’m here for a scientific post, a special appointment…I don’t know if I have the strength to keep going on like this,” she broke off hoarsely. Her face seemed to fall under the weight of her words.
Xanders saw her face go pale and he grabbed her shoulders. “Lirren. C’mon. Just look out there at the trees you grew, the gardens,” he said, softly pulling her towards him. “What you’ve managed to do here is a miracle. You’re turning this entire planet into a permanent home, and that’s not a lie, is it?” He was pulling her tightly now, pressing her into his chest. “This isn’t all on you,” he said. “Think about what you risked to get Evolution here. Everything you and Logan invented is saving lives.” Xanders stood there, looking at her with concern. “You used to tell me you believed in fate. Maybe it was luck or fate or whatever you want to call it, but we made it here, alive and well, and so did Logan. And I love you, I love you very much,” he said gently. “We need to stick together.”
“Okay,” she said, her voice tight, feeling tears welling in her eyes. “I’m sorry. It’s just so hard to understand sometimes. I’m lucky to be alive. I’m grateful to be here. I am,” she inhaled a deep breath. “I guess we should get back,” she said, pulling away. “You need to get a few things ready for tomorrow. I was th—”
Just then she was interrupted by the comlink buzzing on Xander’s suit sleeve. Xanders looked at a familiar face coming through on his sleeve.
“Hello? Hello? Can you hear me? It’s Toni. Toni Dax!” Xanders was holding his arm out at full length at the shouting.
“Toni, I hear you loud and clear,” Xanders replied. He covered his sleeve for an instant, with his eyes focused on Lirren. “What?” he mouthed.
“Nothing,” she said.
He quickly excused himself from her side, turning to speak. Xanders was acting as lead consultant on a new project outside the city that tapped into more of the planets frozen water reserves, but this time he was going out there too. Once they found the right spot, and dug deep enough, they could pipe it into the expanding colony and use it for drinking, food preparation, bathing, and growing crops. Thermal hot vents also contained metal rich fluids, including gold and silver, used to help fund the excavations, but it was dangerous work. Extremely dangerous. In the past, automated machines laid down a lot of the ground work, without the initial risk of using humans, but after the stage was set, men were needed here. Proving to be both treacherous and lucrative, Mars was where men came to get rich or die trying. Five-Point would dig up more water, more ore, more roads. Just about everything here depended on water. It was crucial. Communications, air, and electricity had been easy in comparison.
Lirren watched Xanders talk to Toni for a minute, but turned her thoughts back to the ship. Commercial ships were flowing in less and less, but the Independents like the Peregrinus were still coming. The unplanned landings were becoming more routine, but still a gray area with Mars Gov. because they had little control over their experience — or their reliability. Unless the crew was willing to document every last ounce of cargo they carried and adhere to very strict working policies for the colony, they would never make the cut. With the ship’s tarnished history, and the captain a known gambler, it was an unlikely case. But perhaps a mutually beneficial arrangement could change that. The captain was bound to listen to her proposal. Anything was possible.
v v v
Once they returned to the Hab, Lirren began to pace because she dreaded Xanders reaction if she told him what she was planning. All evening she fought the overwhelming impulse to say something, but he would never understand, and besides, it was still all hypothetical. If she asked the captain, and if he said yes. Too many unknowns hung in the air. She plopped down at their small dining table, staring into the darkness of the Martian plains through a floor-to-ceiling window. She was grateful she was here, but with the future of humanity at stake she couldn’t hide like a frightened animal in these underground caves forever. The thought of missed shipments and starvation on the colony had been a fear that consumed her, ever since their arrival, and time was running out. Xanders was the reason she was here with Logan, but he had also given her a purpose, and she would fulfill her purpose. She stood up and pushed a button for a plastic eco-cup that heated and formed in seconds on the counter. She grabbed it and turned, filling it with red wine from a spigot.
She sat sipping her wine and watched as Xanders paced back and forth between calls. He stuffed his duffel bag in the living room near the mature bamboo stalk that grew high between the two levels.
He had worked for several years as a DS agent, which meant he knew a lot of things, and had access to information other people normally didn’t. One word to her friend Lexa at XWing about her idea and she’d probably find herself locked up in the Hab for the rest of the summer. She watched as he moved around, busily making his last-minute arrangements. Xanders studied her cautiously as the evening wore on, but he took her mood as nerves over his trip to the mining outpost. There would be no way to tell him before he left and no turning back once she decided. Maybe if she was lucky, she would be back before he returned. If she was lucky.
It would be difficult and dangerous. She planned and waited.
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