Date – 2375 A.C.E.
Don stepped off the Electrotrak and immediately wished he had the day off. The shuttle bay was alive with activity. It was crowded, actually hot, and almost deafening with the thunderous sound of people yelling, chatting, singing and even crying. He pulled his hat off and ran his fingers through his hair, slicking it back again. He sighed, put the hat back on, pulled the edges of his shirt down to straighten it and glanced at Wayne.
Wayne just smiled, “When was the last time you came to greet the expats?” He had his own hat in hand and was backing up to lean against the Electrotrak tube wall.
Don grimaced. He knew that was a loaded question. The reality was he should have come every time the new civilian colonists arrived, and in the last month they’d been coming nearly every week. “Wayne, let’s get down to the landing pad and make sure we’re where we need to be.” Don started down the corridor to the center of the building, the receiving pad for the mars shuttle.
The colonists would have already been in orbit several hours. The space craft that brought them from Earth had been traveling for nearly five months, a long journey on the crowded craft. The latest space craft flying to Mars were more comfortable and much faster than the one that brought Don. The civilian crafts were more like the old Earth trains that carried passengers across continents. They held each nearly six hundred civilians, one hundred crew, supplies, food, goods and even some pets. The large crowd that gathered wasn’t just there to greet the new arrivals; they were there to greet the “stuff”. Mars still wasn’t a production planet, not in a meaningful way other than the production of minerals. The garden domes produced sufficient food, but it wasn’t especially varied. There was no meat production, and the insect farms so far had proven too difficult to maintain. Don himself was hoping that the craft contained not only new varieties of seedlings and insect, but contained fermented drink. While alcohol consumption was allowed, it was generally frowned upon, especially for the priests, but every time legal restrictions had been placed on the consumption of alcohol or even most narcotics, crime skyrocketed so high that the bans were lifted.
In her wisdom, the ruling Church decided that all alcohol and drug production would be regulated and state owned. Private production and distribution of drugs, alcohol and narcotics was strictly forbidden, but the Church produced goods were widely and readily available. The money made from the productions of these goods almost entirely funded the Mars colony, and then left some revenue available for many other projects, especially mining the asteroid belt and the small moons of Mars.
Don tapped Wayne on the shoulder, “Let’s go.” They elbowed their way through the ever surging crowd towards the shuttle bay doors. These doors were enormous, and trying to configure construction so as to receive the large transport ships on the Martian surface was a logistical nightmare. The low gravity was a boon in landing and taking off, but the receipt of general populations after the long space journey was extremely difficult to navigate. The Mercy Colony was located on the southern hemisphere of the planet, great for summers, nearly impossible during the long, long winters. Growing pods were set up on both hemispheres, and the produced food was transported by space craft to the planet’s other hemisphere in the off season.
The first thing the colonists had to adjust to, the most noticeable at least, was the gravity. On the space craft gravity was simulated using magnetism. The clothing, shoes, instruments, everything was laced with magnetic compounds that simulated Earth’s gravitational pull when connected to the large electromagnets placed in the walls and floors of space craft and the colony. Finding the right balance on Mars required constant adjustment, and most colonists complained for months following their first landing on the planet of weakness, dizziness and disorientation. It was claimed that scientists were on a breakthrough with a new device that manipulated space and time on the quantum level, but it wasn’t ready for use with the general public. While magnetic gravity wasn’t exact, and took some getting used to, eventually colonists adjusted and the pull of everything on and around the body kept them feeling like they were walking in water. As there was no gravity in space, the craft had much stronger electromagnets, and these were shut down once the craft drifted into orbit around Mars. So for the last several hours the colonists were weightless in the Martian orbit.
Don knew that these colonists when they arrived would not be prepared for the Martian experience, hell he hadn’t been and he had been trained for months in orbit, for over a year on the moon orbiting Earth, and had several days of just resting on Mars to adjust. Here, once colonists arrived they would have little time to adjust as the waiting receivers, many of whom were family and friends, wouldn’t give the new arrivals time to do much of anything. He looked around and spied the miners who had been with him and Wayne on the Electrotrak. Their leader, at least Don assumed he was the leader, stood nearly a head and shoulders taller than the rest of the group and able to see over all the other colonists gathered outside the receiving dock. Don felt the faint vibrations of the space craft nearing the hanger, some six hundred meters away from the receiving dock. He could hear people laughing, clapping excitedly as the new colonists grew closer. He glanced at Wayne. Wayne held his hat in his left hand and his right stroked his guns butt in an absent minded fashion.
Don nudged Wayne who quickly moved his hand from his gun, “Let’s see if we can’t get near the doors, they’ll be here in a few minutes.” Wayne nodded, slid his cap on his head and began to shoulder his way through the crowd. Don kept scanning the crowd and caught the eye of the lead miner. The man scowled, then smiled, widely and nodded. Don did not return the scowl or smile but adjusted his gaze to the crowd in front of him. Eventually they were at the doors, standing next the man who would operate the mechanism to slide the doors open, allowing the new arrivals their first glance of Mercy.
The wait seemed eternal, the room grew stifling and hot, but the communicator on the doorway beeped and crackling voice uttered, “They have disembarked – arrival at Mercy in three minutes.” The young man who was the door attendant pushed a colonist away from the door. “Folks keep back, you know as well as I that the air coming in will be freezing.” This was hardly an exaggeration. The arriving colonists would still be in their protective space suits, designed for the short journey from orbit to surface, they offered short but effective protection during the landing process. The Mercy colonists already arrived would have no such protection, and the blast of cold Martian air from the space dock could freeze skin in seconds. The doors had blast air curtains that helped keep the worst of the freeze at bay, but immediately next to the door it was still possible to experience frost bite. The young man slide thick gloves on his hands and pulled goggles down over his eyes. He looked up at Don and Wayne, “Fathers, step back.” A final crackling voice uttered on his communicator, “Colonists have arrived at the door.” The young man stepped up and entered a series of codes on the door panel, air hissed, blowers overhead came on, red and green lights began to flash, and the doors began to move open.
The crowd immediately grew silent and the groaning of the doors echoed across their faces, the flashing lights sparkling like some enormous Christmas tree, reflected back to each other. The rush of the super cold Martian air leaked across the floor, spilling on their feet and boots like a deluge of water from a mountain spring. Hard to see at first, with the lights and the air bellowing down, the new arrivals stood like ghosts before the slowly opening doors. Their white space suits make each of them appear the same, like an army of astronauts. The young man lifted his hands and the arms of his coat and his gloves flashed a bright yellow, pulsing through the air, visible clearly. He began to motion to the arriving group that they should walk into the chamber. The crowd pressed back, allowing more room. Don glanced around and wondered how they would all fit into the chamber, but the greeters all crushed together, and the arriving group of fifty or so new colonists fit into the space, the last moving over the doors threshold. The young man pushed through them to look down the hall to the space craft, which was illuminated by bright white lights, and he could see men racing around the craft, lifting bags, boxes, and crates, supplies off the ship and onto the colony carriers to be distributed appropriately at Mercy Colony. His communicator crackled, “All clear.” He stepped completely back into the chamber, but by now the waiting Mercy Colony community had begun chanting, “MERCY, MERCY, MERCY!” over and over. It was so loud Don covered his ears and noticed that Wayne had done the same. The young man stepped to the door panel and the lights became only red and blaring horn sounded as the doors began to slide shut.
Wayne leaned over to Don and yelled something, but in the echoing blare of chanting Don couldn’t hear him, “WHAT?” He screamed back.
Wayne tapped his eye socket, and then pointed at one of the new colonists. One colonist stood slightly apart from the others, at the front of the group crammed into the space. The figure was clearly a woman judging from her shape. Her space suit was snug, almost sensually hugging her body. She stood with such a demeanor that it was as if she had been born in the suit. Her helmeted head glanced around the room, and upon spying Don and Wayne in their uniforms began to move toward them. The crowd, like water when a stone cuts through it, moved aside for her and she was able to glide to Don and Wayne with no effort, no one bumped her, it was as if the room of welcoming men and woman were there just for her.
She reached up and touched the buttons on the neck of the suit, releasing the helmet. Oxygen, white from the pressure hissed out like a cloud from a jet. She pulled the helmet off as she walked, and then bent forward to completely remove it as she arrived just before Wayne and Don, now standing alone, the crowd miraculously disappearing around them. As her helmet came off, long brown hair fell around her face and shoulders, again hiding her face. The crowd suddenly and completely ceased chanting, and the silence in an instance was louder to their ears than the previous roar. She threw back her head to reveal her face, one gloved hand holding her helm; the others moved up so as to see her push back the long hair gliding about her face.
Don tried to hide all emotion from his face; he felt a trickle of sweat roll down his back, a result of stress, not heat. The woman was severe, strong jawline thrust out, eyes glinting in the flashing red light. Her mouth held a smile, more like the grin of a cat, her mouth slightly open, she looked like she tasted the air, a predator. Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly, and then suddenly she dropped to one knee, her empty hand thrust out before her and words dropped from her lips, “Blessed, holy one of Mars. I, Meruna of Earth, daughter of the Christ, sister of the Virgin, present myself, most unworthy, flawed and broken, to you, Holy One. I seek the gift, not earned, of forgiveness for my sins. I cry to you oh Holy One, Priest, to touch my head and offer me the blessing of grace, undeserved. Please oh lord; let your words of forgiveness reach out to God.” Her head was bowed down so low, it nearly touched the floor. Her hand was thrust up, strong, not wavering.
Don for a moment cleared his throat, the prayer of response nearly forgotten. He felt the eyes of the room on him, expectedly. He looked down at this woman, Meruna. He was washed in a wave of sorrow for her, compassion for her that was unexpected. He reached down and lightly touched the palm of her upraised hand. The words of prayer coming back to him, “Daughter of the Christ, though unworthy of the forgiveness for your sins, it is yours. The Christ always welcomes back his sons, his daughters who seek him. Rise now, be worthy going forward of his gifts. You are forgiven. You are blessed.” Don slowly lifted his hand away. The room remained silent, and then suddenly the room exploded with a single word, spoken at once by the group around them, “AMEN.”
For a moment the room echoed with the amen, then it was silent. Don looked over his shoulder and spied the miner he had encountered earlier staring at him, a baleful gaze of burning hatred in his eyes. Don looked back down at Meruna – she still knelt before him, head bowed in supplication. Then suddenly she shot upright, standing before him, her eyes bright, almost glowing. She did not smile, did not look at Don, rather she looked almost through him, as if he were a window. As her eyes scanned the room, she saw the miner, and immediately the look on her face softened, and she was transformed. It was then she looked up at the priest, “Father,” she reached up and brushed her hair back from her forehead, “I must take my leave of you for now but surely I’ll see you at morning prayers.” Don nodded silently, then said, “Yes of course,” but she had already moved past him. The second she stepped around him the room came alive again with the sounds of the miners and Mercy colonists welcoming the new arrivals.
Don was left standing in the middle of the room like a rock in a stream, unnoticed and forgotten. The only person who noticed him was Wayne. Wayne stood for a moment, his back against the large shuttle doors, finally he reached out and touched Don’s arm, “Don come on, let’s let them get settled. Tomorrow there is a festival planned to welcome them which we’ll be expected to attend.”
Don looked at Wayne’s face. It held no answers, was empty almost, void of emotion. “Yes,” he paused, looked around, “yes of course.” He lifted his cap to his head then paused and looked around again. “Wayne, I have a bad feeling about this.”
Wayne slipped his cap on. His empty face became suddenly full. “It will only get worse.” He adjusted his gun belt. “It will only get worse.”
Don looked at him then over again at the miners. Meruna was chatting with them, but the leader of the group, the one encountered on the Electrotrak was still starring at them, at Don really. His eyes gleamed, and even from across the room they flashed, filled with rage and hatred. Then the miner smiled at Don, it was like a blow to the face and looked away. Don felt the sweat again down his back. “Wayne, it is worse than we thought.”