It’s been over two months since we last saw (Ret.) Captain Sergey struck down and partially paralyzed while fleeing the Lunar Base coup with the clone Elodie Gagnon, who sought to protect him from United Americas forces. Meanwhile, Clarissa Kragen has reunited with Sam Weng (or has she?) at Ceres and are bound for Mars. Where Martin Velasquez, currently the head administrator of the newly-proclaimed United Mars Colonies is in for a short, sharp shock…
Alarms had erupted throughout the Mars Colonies. Incoming ships had been detected, but no contact had yet been made.
They were in for it now, Martin thought, stepping into his excursion suit. The UA and Greater Indian Empire at open hostility. All ships banned from the ISS. Contact between Indian settlers and UA settlers forbidden. Lunar Base experiencing an uprising of some sort. All contact with Ceres cut off. UA Allied Forces already on the way to secure their ice factories.
Martin Velasquez called up his rickety console and examined the data feed. Somebody was approaching. Rapidly. Very rapidly.
Weng? Not possible. Surely…
The comm beeped. Grabbing the helmet from a closet, he toggled the comm system on his desk for what seemed like the hundredth time during the past two days.
“Overseer, two ships have suddenly entered orbit. They are nearing the geostationary transit station and will reach normal communication range in five minutes.”
“Yes, yes, I can see that. UA forces?”
Who else could be? Central African Alliance was normally fastidious in their relays. The Chinese wouldn’t dare, not after the UN debacle. Slavic Confederacy? European? Who?
Well, he thought wryly, at least by the time the refugees arrived, they would have nobody to contest their arrival. Even two ships filled with marines might be enough. Depending on how many of the MCSF were still compos mentis.
He checked the UV shield and comm system command strip on his right wrist. Old, but functional. He hoped he wouldn’t need the shield. He was no fighter.
“Overseer. Please repeat.”
He shook his head. Damned robot receptionist.
“What happened to the UA forces sent several weeks ago?”
“UA forces have diverted from the original plotted trajectory, Overseer.”
Martin dropped the helmet down on the desk. “What?”
“UA forces have div—”
“Yes, yes, I mean, where have they been sent and why?”
There was a brief pause.
“Overseer, I do not have sufficient information to answer your question.”
“Overseer, I cannot speculate without sufficient information.”
A wave of anger swept through his head. He slapped the console. Think, man!
He rubbed his eyebrow ridges.
The UA probably went to Luna, to fend off the hostile takeover attempt. Or they could be headed back to the ISS, to forcibly retain their supply lines. Or they may even have been sent to Ceres to ensure stable ore processing and export. Whichever place they headed, they wouldn’t be attacking Mars for a few months, at least.
Only one day left before they would be able to effectively use the gas. So many had succumbed to whatever it was in the water system that was causing hallucinations. He wondered if he were the only sane human left on Mars.
Besides those preparing the gas, he supposed wryly.
So who was coming? With only two ships?
Whoever it was, even with the failing water and food systems, he still had no intention of giving it up without a fight. Well, not a fight. He still had his talents.
At the thought, he calmed himself. He adjusted the bulky space suit sleeves and tucked the front into the belt again.
“Overseer,” said the receptionist over the comm again. “Five messages from settler faction representatives. El-Harrab of the IMC, Pehrat of—”
“Hold those,” Martin interrupted, waving his hand unnecessarily. “Contact one of the ships once in range. Ask for identification and purpose. Patch through here once confirmed.”
He toggled another switch.
“Sergeant Major,” Martin said, satisfied. “Still with us.”
“Barely, sir. Major headache.”
“It’ll be over soon,” he said. “One way or the other.”
He paused, then continued in a deliberate voice. “Order all available security forces to assemble at External Airlock 3. Full battle gear. Including former UAAF members.”
“The UA isn’t coming, Hamels. But somebody else is. We can’t allow them to land.”
“Affirmative, sir. Over half the settlers are affected now, and we’re barebones here, as well.”
Martin shook his head. He had known it would come to this.
“Lock down on all settler pods,” he ordered. “No one is to leave or enter without my authority.”
“Overseer, settler factions will dispute this.”
“Let them. They have enough food and water for two to three days. We have an emergency situation. They need to stay out of the way.”
He toggled back.
“Incoming transmission, receiving now. Identity of the lead ship confirmed.”
The screen on top of the desk began to flicker faintly. Martin immediately recognized it as his wayward water plant operator. He slid into his chair, relieved beyond all measure.
“Sam,” he said warmly. “You made it!”
“Overseer.” The architect sounded wary. Martin could understand that. In a similar situation, he would, too.
“I trust Luna was able to afford our request for food stuffs before, ah, the most recent transmission?”
“You have not been honest with me,” Weng curtly replied. “I know everything.”
“Ah.” Martin squinted at the view screen. “It appears as if Gen is not on board. Were you forced to leave him behind?”
“No,” Weng said. “He stayed of his own volition on Ceres. But he did ask me to convey a message to you.”
“Oh?” Now it was Martin’s turn to sound wary. Had the architect guessed?
“I have a companion,” Weng continued. “In the ship accompanying me. She and her crew are similarly afflicted with what troubles the Martian settlers. Gen is confident that they will be able to help.”
Martin started at that. Affliction? What would Weng know about it?
Suddenly, in a flash of insight, he put two and two together.
“The water,” he blurted. “From Ceres. That you brought. It was—”
“Yes,” Weng replied, tilting his head in a gesture of guilt. “The water was contaminated. The hunter crew that sent the asteroid from which the water was crushed were also affected.”
“The—you mean, they’re already here?”
“Yes. Captain Clarissa Kragen and her crew. I can personally vouch for her. When she says they can help, I trust her implicitly.”
“Help? What if they make the situation even worse?”
Weng’s image leaned toward the view screen.
“Overseer, you may be thinking that it cannot possibly get much worse. Without the Artemis’s help, I assure can you that it will.”
Martin ground his teeth together, biting back his initial response. The arrogance!
“Was that the entirety of Gen’s message?” he huffed.
“No. Gen reminds you of your purpose. Riss and her crew will lead the United Mars Colonies to heights beyond your hopes and dreams. But in alliance with the Ceres Council of Clones.”
Martin’s head swam and he grabbed the console to avoid falling out of his chair. How…how had it come to this…
Another vidmess began to break in to the transmission. A split screen formed. Without Martin’s having allowed it. He stared dumbfounded at the console.
“Overseer, this is Captain Clarissa Kragen of the hunter ship Artemis,” the image said. “Allow us to land, and we will show you how to make Mars self-sustaining.”
“Se—self-sustaining?” Martin stammered. “The terraforming has barely begun. It’d take decades!”
“No, Overseer,” the captain said with certainty. “It will now accelerate. Please instruct all Mars Colonies residents to seek shelter for the next thirty minutes.”
She nodded to someone off screen, then the screen went blank.
Martin stood breathless, barely even registering the sheer audacity. What on earth did she mean, “accelerate”?
The building suddenly shook; a dull, steady pounding that quickly increased in intensity, then subsided after a few seconds. Martin ran his fingers through his hair and stared at the walls and ceiling in disbelief. Earthquake? Mars quakes were usually so small that only sensitive instruments could—
He stopped himself. He knew what else could cause that kind of noise.
No, she couldn’t have…
An alarm broke out anew, red lights and a recorded robotic announcement sounded.
“This is not a drill. This is not a drill. Dust storm approaching. Do not leave settler pods or main administrative areas. Those outside find shelter. Repeat. This is not a drill.”
Martin grabbed the helmet and ran out the door. At least the pods were already sealed. Settlers would be safe. Hydroponics and water reclamation units were deep enough. The space tether to the orbiting station should be strong enough.
Airlock 3. Surely Hamels had stationed her forces inside, not outside.
He swore and raced through the corridors. A pounding noise reverberated around the linked structures, a different pounding noise than before. This one came like waves crashing, then receding. The storm was about to hit with its full fury.
He spotted a series of bots returning from their pod printing tasks; an automated response to the alarm. He supposed they might lose a few stray bots, but that was the least of his worries.
Pulling up short at one intersection, he leaned against a wall to catch his breath. The pounding got louder. The storm must be increasing in intensity, he thought. Time to get dressed for the occasion.
Pulling the helmet on, he did a quick check of systems. Old fashioned, but functional. He flicked the comm on and started again toward the airlock.
“Hamels, do you copy? Over.”
A brief pause, then a crackle.
“Overseer, this is Hamels. We’re…positive I saw…land…”
“Are you outside? It’s too dangerous! Pull your men back inside!”
“Roger. It may be…”
A sudden noise abruptly cut off the comm. Martin nearly fell to his feet, but managed to stagger on. The airlock appeared before him. The corridor was barren.
There was no sign of Hamels or the Mars Security Forces.
He cursed. Where the devil was everybody?
His helmet intercom crackled.
“Martin. This is Sam.”
“Yes. W, where are you?”
“At the orbiting tube station. Please meet me at the Receiving Station.”
“Sam, what have you done?!”
“I’m afraid things have progressed quite rapidly, Martin. You may wish to have the settler faction heads join us.”
The connection was abruptly cut.
Alarms blared around him as he walked unsteadily back to the main corridor junction. Something dangerous had happened. He could sense it. Perhaps not a physical danger, but certainly a political, strategic danger. As a lifelong diplomat, he could tell.
Martin grimaced. Hamels out of touch, maybe down. Weng giving commands. Dare he involve the faction heads?
He had no choice. He had to convince them to support his continued leadership. Even if the UN were compromised. And he had to assume it had been.
In another five minutes he was back in his office. He removed the helmet and established an emergency multiple view conference, with his own audio receiving off. He had no intention to field questions at the moment.
“Attention all settler factions. This is Overseer Velasquez. As you have heard, the Mars Colonies are currently experiencing an emergency situation. For their own safety, residents will stay in their respective territories until further notice.
“Faction heads, you are requested to send one representative each to the Receiving Station. Repeat, faction heads, one representative each. Velasquez out.”
He turned to go. A message suddenly appeared on his console. The Medical Center.
“Liu, here, sir.”
“We’ve kept most of our patients here under sedation, but I’m positive there are more who couldn’t get here because of the shutdown. The gas—”
“Keep the gas under wraps for now. And keep the patients sedated. Things are coming to a head.”
“Overseer, I have a frightened staff here. Any information you could provide would be very much appreciated.”
“Your sarcasm is most definitely not appreciated, Mr. Liu. But I will contact you again once the situation is under control.”
“But nothing. Do not leave the medical center. In fact, you and your staff are probably in the safest area in the colonies right now.”
He toggled the comm off, put his helmet back on and activated the UV shield.
Now to find out what the Artemis crew wanted. And how he could maintain control of the situation.
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 36: United Mars Colonies (pt 2). Everything begins.