Chapter Six – Not All Hope is Lost

Date 6,253,101 B.C.E.

A rumbling beneath her feet caused her to look up from her eye piece.  Dust sparkled around her in the dim light.  The hum of the generators around her hit a higher pitched sound, followed by a buzzing, and then resumed their normal soft purr.  Satisfied she applied her eye back to the piece and looked back across the solar system.

Another rumble caused her to shift out of her chair and she knew then that the entire telescope would need to be re-calibrated.  She moaned outwardly.  The power seemed fine, at least for now, but she knew this was temporary.  Worriedly she put the cap on the eye piece, her hand resting on it, longingly.  She smiled at herself, protecting the eye piece lenses were pointless, well at least it would be.  She stroked the device and looked up at the dome above her; dim stars sparkled there, winking almost as if to say they spied her too.  She shifted her long legs off the stool she had been perched on.  Reaching above her head she stretched.  The thin garment she preferred pulled tight across her body.  Ah, she would miss having sensations.

There was a sound behind her, something dropped.  She spun around, crouching.  Standing by the door was another woman, looking embarrassed.  “Olimpia!” she called with a smile.

Olimpia blinked slowly, bending to pick up the computer pad from the floor.  “Normia – you just looked so magnificent, stretching to the heavens.”  A small smile escaped her lips, her second eyelids shuttering quickly.

Normia jumped off the platform, nearly two meters above the main floor.  She practically ran upon landing, her joints flexing like springs; reaching Olimpia she hugged her tenderly. “Stars it’s good to see you!”  She pressed her forehead against Olimpia’s, the computer pad dropping again, this time with an audible crack.

“Oh dear, ” Olimpia groaned, “I think the computer pad is cracked.” She didn’t push Normia away though, she relaxed and for a moment allowed her friend to hold her.

Normia looked down past Olimpia’s face at the pad in pieces at their feet.  “My dear, it is no matter, none of these shall remain whole if we’re right.”  She felt Olimpia flex.  She stroked her fingers along Olimpia’s back, “Don’t tense, we all know this is the way of things, we’ve done what we can.”  She reached her slender fingers beneath Olimpia’s face and tilted her head sideways.  “How are you holding up?”

Olimpia for a moment looked into Normia’s eyes, and then looked away, past her.  “We number less than 1,000 people planet wide.  Reports are coming in that the habitats have failed in most places.  Of the thirteen settlements, this is the last.”  A tear, forbidden, sparkled and rolled down her check.

Normia scooped the tear on her finger and held it up, raised above their heads.  “Look Olimpia, it inverses us.”  Their reflections on the tiny sphere blinked back, upside down.  “We have dispatched the robots; they’ve taken Mothership to the south.  They’ll begin to bury her by night’s end.”

“Without Mothership most computer systems seem to be failing, we’ve just not got the power to keep the processors up to speed.”  She broke free of Normia’s embrace and bent to the broken pad.  She began to pick up the pieces and then stopped.  “We’re the pad aren’t we?  Broken, in pieces, resembling who we were, but not able to be working or fixed again.”  She let the piece tumble from her fingertips back onto the floor.

Normia smiled sadly at her, then reached down and took her hand, “Come, over to this work station, I think I have good news.”  She pulled Olimpia with her towards a lighted computer station at the base of the telescope.  As they neared it Normia began to rapidly type on the screen.  “I was able to view the asteroid headed towards Kieaa, I am confident they will be spared the largest, a few small ones no doubt will strike, but the damage shouldn’t be catastrophic.” She smiled, “Our children there at least can survive.”  She looked up at the sky again through the dome.  “Image them, working to share our bodies’ codes with those primates.  Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t have been a geneticist or biologist.  How adventurous, working with those incredible animals.”

Olimpia reached her hand around Normia’s waist, “They’re so hairy.”

Normia laughed, “They’re so short!”  Olimpia laughed as well, she pushed Normia around to face her.

“How long?”

Normia looked again at the sky.  “A few days, maybe a week.  I’ve rerouted the power grid to support the central command the longest, but the fuel reactors will fail.  The robots have enough power to last a century, maybe two beyond that. I’ve already programed them to shut down once Mothership is fully buried and protected.  Who knows, if Mothership is reactivated those robots will be the only beings left who know how to manage her and activate her data system.”  Her hand was absently stroking the back of Olimpia’s smooth head.

Olimpia purred and looked at Normia, “I admire your confidence that our ancestors will rise from Kieaa to return to this place. ”    Their fingers interlocked.

“Oh not just to return here, to settle the entire system. Perhaps someday, return to the home system.  Oh it was said to be magnificent, greater certainly than this rock we’re on; Our children, there with those apes is now the only hope we have Oli, just think, our children are planting the seeds of our future.  Now that they have more time, they’ll be better able to control the primate groups and direct their evolution.  With careful planning they can accelerate the evolutionary process.  Neomis and Galela together with the team will build a future, one designed to live on that third world.  Gravity will be their asset, using its power to power their machines; they will learn to use the energy of the star to build cities on all these worlds.  Hopefully they shall not make our errors.  Hopefully they’ll know peace that we have only just found.”  Normia squeezed Olimpia’s hand, their fingers intertwined. “Tell me, did you see Neomin?”

Olimpia smiled, “He was busy trying to re-energize spent energy rods.  He felt certain that the fusion drive would fire back up if he cursed at it enough.”  She smiled sadly, “It didn’t, but he looked pleased all the same to be focused on something other than worrying about Neomis.”  She blinked again, aware of the power that Normia had over her.  “You ask so much about me, how are you?”

Normia smiled sadly.  “Defeated to be honest.”  She moved away from the computer station.  “We can’t even stop a rock being thrown at us.  Just a few hundred years ago, we could have settled on the asteroid, now, we’re barely alive, and even that has an expiration.”  She walked away, her long arms folding behind her back as she walked.  “Did I ever tell you about my grandmother?”

Olimpia smiled, she had.  “No, tell me.”  She walked along Normia, her arms folded in a similar fashion.

“Grandmother was an astrophysicist; they say one of the leading in the study.  She helped developed the theory of gravity reversal.” She paused, “Shame it required all of Mothership’s processors to run.”  She paused at a desk she walked past and picked up a computer pad absently.  “Well it’s said that she devised the means to help develop the construction of the orbital craft around Kieaa.  I suppose that’s why Neomis refers to it as “grandmother.”  She was the one who theorized that the nebulas could be used as fuel sources if we could harvest the matter contained therein.  Shame that the craft sent to nebula in the adjacent solar system lost power half way there, they might have brought back necessary energy to help us continue our civilization.”  She sat on a stool at another work station; she reached over and pulled Olimpia so her hip rested against her rib cage.

“Grandmother used to say we settled here because this planet would be the cradle, and Kieaa would be our home.”  She sighed deeply, “Sadly we never managed to get out of the cradle I guess.”

Olimpia nuzzled to top of Normia’s head.  “You know that’s not why we stayed.”

Normia nodded.  “If we had more woman in charge of the ruling council, like Grandmother, we would never have even stayed in this system.”

“It was the war.”  Olimpia even felt herself clinch.  “That stupid war.”

Normia looked up at Olimpia from her stool, sighing, “The war.  What was it over again?”

“Water, it was always the water.  This dreaded planet didn’t have enough.”

“Those moons are mostly water around the sixth planet.  I don’t know what our grand families were thinking.”

“They weren’t.”  Olimpia felt uncomfortable. They didn’t normally speak of these things.  “Well they were thinking that they were out of fuel, and going to and from those moons from here with the resources left on Mothership, well, they felt they would end up stuck there, like those poor souls still observing.”

“Oh yes.  I heard that contact was lost about month ago.  I presume the orbiter has failed.  Poor dears; that had to be lonely stuck there. Maybe the quiet refuge of space is preferable.”  Normia looked again at Olimpia.  “But fortunately, the wisdom of Grandmother left us with something, it wasn’t long enough, but it was enough that we have the Kieaa craft.  It was enough that Neomis and Galela can give us hope.  Give me hope.”

Olimpia reached down pulling Normia up off the stool, hugging her; she felt Normia’s eyes brush against her neck as she rose to her full height, a small action against her skin which set her on fire.  She trembled against Normia’s body. She pulled her close, a kiss.  She pulled back slightly, “Normia, I don’t want us to end.”

Normia, reached her slender hands around Olimpia’s body, their bodies so close, looking as if they were one.  “We shall not find our ending my beloved, our genes, our history, is even now, as we speak being given.  Developed so as to succeed in this place, this solar home, so far from the light of our ancient ancestors. Now this, it will be our ancient home.”  She kissed her deeply, not noticing the flickering lights, the rumble of the generators around them.  The only purring they were aware of was each other’s.

Some hours later, as they lay against each other, covered in a blanket from rest pod, they held each other absently stroking each other’s arms.  Normia heard the generator sputter again and she looked up.  The lights on the top of the dome were off.  She sat up.

“Olimpia, quickly, we have to get out of here.”  She sprang to her feet.

“What? Why?”  Olimpia pulled herself up from the ground.

Normia pointed to the ceiling.  “This bio-dome is failing.  Quickly now, we must move.”  She looked around the room and immediately felt dread.  “Where did you say Neomin was working?”  She started towards the connection tube to the next bio-dome.

“He was in dome 3A, that’s nearly two kilometers away.  Is it just this dome failing.”  The lights all around the dome were blinking off and on.

Normia stopped.  “No, the central generator powers in all the domes in this sector, including 3A.”  She ran to the emergency locker and pulled out two breathing apparatuses.  She threw one to Olimpia, “Quickly, put this on.  We won’t be able to survive the air for more than a moment or two.”  She heard a faint sucking sound, and knew that the air in the dome was evacuating.  She pulled the device over her face, her nostril slits covered.  She clicked on the respirator.

Olimpia already had hers on.  “The entire sector is going down?”  She ran to the same door as Normia.  “There are nearly two hundred of us here, we have to warn them.”  Her eyes were all pupil.

“We’ve got to get to the next dome to sound the general alarm, there isn’t one installed here since this isn’t considered habitat space.” she pulled open the door and immediately wished she hadn’t.  The air in the room rushed out around her feet, pulling her forward. The brittle cold of the connecting hall immediately caused her eyes to tear, and then the tears began to immediately freeze.

Olimpia shrieked, a visible cut was on her shoulder from some debris hitting her.  She looked at Normia and nodded it was okay and they began to run.  Their long legs gliding more smoothly than any machine they had ever built.  The next door was only a few hundred meters, but by the time they had reached twenty or so meters both felt their joints stiffening.  Both pressed the elemental heating circuits on their tunics.  Strangely now the only light was their blinking tunics and the small headlamp attached to the apparatus.  They reached the next door and burst through.  The cold air of Gugulaania pushing around them.

The dome was completely dark, but it appeared to have atmosphere.  Normia called out, “Anyone here?”  She touched the side panel by the door, hoping the lights were just off.  The pad beeped faintly at her, one light flickered on the other side of the dome.  Several bodies lay scattered on the floor in front of her. She immediately reached down to one for a pulse.  Her head dropped.

Olimpia pulled her to her feet, “Normia, come, we cannot stay, look.” She pointed at the windows of the dome, now covered in frost, frozen.  “We will freeze, we’ve only a moment or two of power left in these.”  She tugged at her tunic and immediately began to run to the other side of the dome to the door whose shape she could barely perceive.  She was thankful for her powerful eyes, built for the lowlight conditions of this world.

Normia nodded and ran along with her.  When they reached the opposing door, it hissed open, warmer air rushing past them.  They stumbled into the hall and the door slide shut behind them.  They could feel the hiss of the air around them.  Normia lifted her breathing mask off.  “The enter dome system is failing in this section, this is only a momentary reprieve.”  Olimpia nodded and she immediately began to run to the other end of the corridor.

They reached the door and pressed the door airlock release, and nothing happened.  “What’s this?” Normia began to type on the door pad.  “These should still work, they’re powered by small units in each door.”  The door beeped and Normia’s brow furrowed.  “Why it’s locked!”  She wiped the small view window free of the frost forming and peered through.  She saw a familiar face, another scientist with whom she had collaborated the calculations of the asteroids projected path past Kieaa.

“Soliminia, open the door, we’ll freeze!”  She pounded on the door. Soliminia pulled away from the door and ran down the corridor apparently to the next bio-dome

Olimpia couldn’t see what was happening.  “Is the door jammed?”  She felt powerless.

Normia pressed a few more sequences on the door pad.  “She’s locked it.  The door is locked from the other side.”

“Well open it!” Olympia screamed.

“I cannot.”  She looked around the hallway. “Come, back to the bio-dome.”  They sprinted back to where they had come from.  This had been an art center, now a tomb.  Her tunic beeped.  “My power is out.”  She saw a body near her, wearing a similar tunic.  She ripped it from the body.  She looked at Olimpia, “Quickly, find another tunic, we won’t survive without these.” She spotted a computer console, a combination center from the looks of it.  She spied the general alert button and jammed it down with her palm.

Olimpia ran to another body pulling off a tunic.  “What do we do?”  She pulled the new tunic on, hitting the power button.

Normia pulled her respirator over her face, “Tonight love, we survive.”

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Chapter Five – The Flowers of Late Night

Date – 2375 A.C.E.

He was dreaming.  There, standing in a field of flowers, bright yellow – leaning toward the sun.  He could feel the soft wind of the midday touch his cheek, blow his hair back.  For a moment he stood this way, surrounded by the fields of yellow flowers, basking in the radiation and warmth of the Sun.

There was a knocking sound – a pounding even.  The light faded and the flowers melted away into the darkness of wakefulness.  Don sat up, dazed for a moment, rubbing the sleep from his mind and eyes and heard the pounding again.

He sighed heavily – glancing at his digital clock he moaned, “2 in the morning?”  The pounding continued, it sounded like someone hammering on his door with a metal pipe.  “Computer,” he called out, “illumination.”  The lights flickered on.  Don swung his legs over the edge of his sleeping platform, feeling slightly dizzy, now the blankets were off him, he felt the full effect of the weak gravity of Mars.  Reaching down, he slipped his feet into his boots and stood.  Still disoriented he stumbled across his room to the door.

He pressed the door communicator button angrily with his thumb, “you know my communicator in room works just fine,” he muttered.

The pounding continued.  Don reached behind him off the small table at the entry way and pulled on his shirt.  He started to engage the door lock, then thought better of it, returned to his sleeping chamber and pulled on his gun and holster.  He glanced around the room again then to the door.  He pressed the external communicator again, “Look, whoever this is, I’m coming out, if you don’t have a reason to be here I suggest you leave now.”  For a moment he wished he had the external cameras installed that had been originally recommend.  “Computer, open door.”  The lights flashed again above the door and it hissed open.

For a moment Don was blinded by the lights and the rush of air coming into his chamber – the hall outside was dark, which it shouldn’t have been considering someone or something had been pounding on the door.  He pulled his gun and squinted into the hall, the light from his chamber enough for him to make out shapes.

“Alright, whoever this is, show yourself, I’m Father Don Wesley, though I’m guessing you know this.”  He stepped out into the hall, as he did so he glanced left and right, though now the light cast from his room wasn’t enough to see more than a meter or two on either side.  He glanced up at the ceiling and then down at the floor.  “Computer,” he called out, more loudly than before, “Lights on.”  Nothing.  Sighing Don looked back into his room. He could just go back in there, lock his door, put plugs in his ears and sleep, or, he could call for back up, no doubt Wayne would come or another priest.

He heard a shuffling to his left, down the hall, “Stop!” he called out, “who is it?”

A soft voice came back, a man’s voice, “Father”  Don started to walk down towards the voice past the light.

“Look you, if you had anything to do with the lights being disabled…….” he didn’t finish, suddenly he felt strong hands and arms around him from behind.  Damn he thought, fell for an easy trick.  Then everything went dark as something was pulled over his head.  He tried to struggle, but whoever held him was strong and his gun was pulled from his fingers.  “Computer” he managed again, “red….” then he was out as something hit his head.

At first all he could hear was a pounding sound, thump-bump… thump-bump… thump-bump.  It was rhythmic, soothing, but every time it thumped, he felt flashes of pain.  He wanted to open his eyes.  He wanted to go to sleep.  He wanted to be back in his bed.

As his mind cleared he became aware of a few things; he was lying on his side, his hands were bound behind him; there was something over his head, even after he opened his eyes he could not see except for light filtered through some sort of cloth; he could hear mumbling, no, whispering voices.

He closed his eyes again, the thumping emanated from the back of his head, ah right, he was struck there.  No doubt by something very heavy.  He slowed his breathing as he realized it was heavy.  The bag over his head pulled him down to the floor, the artificial gravity acting on the bag itself, it felt like he was under water.  For a moment he began to panic again.  “Calm down Don,” he told himself mentally. He knew that if he were to be missing beyond the night, people would search for him. He had a staff briefing at O- seven hundred hours, even Wayne would look for him, probably.

The voices grew gradually louder, they were coming towards him.  Don felt powerless, but his military training started to kick in, “Just be patient he told himself.”

“Get him on his feet.” A gruff voice grumbled.  Shuffling around him ensued, and he found himself being thrust upwards.  The voice again, “Stop playing possum, we know you’re awake.”  Don immediately stood of his own accord.

“Take the damn bag off my head, it hurts enough without me straining.”  Don gritted his teeth, talking made the pounding return with a frenzy.

There was a laugh, “You’re still an arrogant son-of-a-bitch.”  Suddenly the bag was yanked off.

He was blinded, and staggered for a moment as the pain shot through the back of his head and across his cranium.  “shit” he muttered.

Laughter from his captors then, “Welcome ‘Father’.” It was said with such distain that Don felt his stomach drop.  He blinked and allowed his eyes to adapt.

The room was still dark, illumined only by a few scattered lamps, mining lamps from the look of them.  He blinked again and stared at his captor, “YOU!” he gasped.

The leader of the miners, the one he had seen on the electrotrak smiled a crooked smile at him, “Me.”  His dark eyes glinted and narrowed, “Have you missed me, ‘Father’” again the distain poured from his mouth.

Don scrambled in his mind, who was this man, he had only noticed for the first time this morning on his way to greet the new expatriates.  “Look bud, I don’t know who the hell you are…..” the man’s back hand stung Don suddenly across the mouth.

“Shut up priest.  You’re not here to talk,  you’re here to listen.”  The man, now seemingly much larger than before stepped up, only a few centimeters from Don’s face.  His hot breath reeked of tooth decay.  “We have words for you.  Words you must hear regarding the Bishop.”

Don dropped his head to his chest, the pounding in his head was now screaming.  Shit he though, now I have a concussion.  He lifted his head, “Tell me then what you have to say.”

The man walked away, turning his back.  He crouched down just in front of Don, looking like a tribesman of some sort.  He fumbled with something from a pouch that hung on his hip.  He spun back around, something black, but gleaming in his hand.  “We found this priest.”  he thrust the object into Don’s face.  In the dim light he couldn’t make it out, that plus the pounding in his head

.

“I can’t see it” he gasped for a moment, “too dark.” Don closed his eyes again, he thought he might pass out.” the men holding him upright felt him go slack and struggled to hold him up for a moment.

“Get him some water,” the man growled.  He placed his hands on Don’s chin and lifted his head, “Open your eyes.”  he squeezed Don’s chin, “OPEN YOUR EYES!.” he pushed Don’s face away from him.

Don blinked his eyes open.  Damn.  He blinked again and looked at the man before him.  He was a hardened man, skin pale from the lack of sun.  Around the corners of his eyes was caked the fine red dust of the planet.  His hair was likely blond, but looked auburn beneath the dirt caked in it.  The man smelled like Mars, a unique smell, almost akin to the smell of blood, no doubt the iron in the soil.  Don mumbled, “give me a moment.”

The miner grinned and looked over his shoulder, “where’s that water.”  He turned back to Don and sneered, “Sorry for these methods priest, but I wanted to do more than talk to you to be quite honest.” Someone stepped up to the miner and handed him a cup, “here’s some water.”  He thrust it up to Don’s lips, whose blood filled mouth gulped it down.

Don’s mind was clearing, standing upright seemed to help, and surprisingly the smack on the face cleared his head a bit, minus the bloody lip it left.  Don glanced around over the edge of the cup.  He could make out shadowy figures just behind the miner in front of him, two, no three.  He knew there were two men holding his arms, supporting his weight, Don was faking part of his weakness, better to not let them know he was recovering.  He guessed at least one more was behind him, maybe two men.

He faked a cough, allowing the blood to splatter a bit, the miner, the leader, stepped back, growling a bit. “Shit priest, watch it.” Don looked up, his eyes narrow.

“Damn,” he thought to himself, “they’ve got me in the Park,” this, The Park, the old memorial on Mercy colony built to remember the earliest astronauts who came to Mars all those hundreds of years ago, now abandoned and used as a storage facility.  Most folks avoided this place, claiming it was cursed, haunted.  Nothing grew here, nothing at all.

The lead miner noticed Don’s moving eyes, he knocked the water cup out of Don’s hands, the cup clattered to ground, while the water fell slightly more slowly.  “Enough priest.  Time for us to talk.” He leaned in towards Don’s face, only centimeters from his face.  “Do you know me?”  he hissed.

For a moment Don was confused, he slowly shook his head, “no, well I mean I’ve seen you at the colony, we interacted this morning,” or was it yesterday, damn he didn’t know what time it was.

The man barked a laugh, “Ha, that’s not what I mean.  Look at me.”  He grabbed Don’s cheeks between his fingers and forced Don to star at his eyes.  “Look at me…..”

Don looked, this time he really looked.  There was a power in the eyes he was starring at, burning power.  Strength.  A brightness.  Intelligence.  Animal magnetism.  He wracked his brain, did he know this man?  Think….. Don closed his eyes.

The miner squeezed, “LOOK AT ME” he shouted.

Don’s eyes flashed open.  He starred. Then, slowly a memory floated in.  “I do know you, but god, it’s been what, 20, 25 years?”

The man released Don’s face and stepped back.  “22 years, Samuel.” Don inwardly shrank, Samuel, a name he had almost forgotten for himself.

Don shrugged against the men holding him, their grip tightened.  “You’re Benjamin!”

The man smiled, “yes, there it is, Father.  Looks like some light hit the back of those eyeballs of yours and finally you see.”  He motioned at the men holding Don to release him, suddenly Don almost fell, having grown accustomed to the men holding him up.  Benjamin put up a hand against Don’s chest, stopping him from falling forward.  “How well you’ve forgotten me, my face, is it so different now?”  He removed his hand from Don’s chest.

Don brushed back his hair from his forehead, tucked in his shirt, straightened his collar.  He was missing the familiar weight of his gun on his hip.  “We’re all different now Ben.”  he looked Benjamin in the eyes again.  “What happened to you?”  He immediately regretted the question.

The dark eyes flashed with madness, for moment, but Benjamin controlled the flash, and the madness was covered in the dark recesses of his eyes.  “What happened?”  he laughed, a gravely laugh, rough, unpleasant sounding.  “you had me removed from my duties as a priest!  I was an outcast; lost, alone with no one!”  He spun away from Don, facing in the darkness.  “I lived in the streets of Tulsa for a long time, then found myself working the plantation fields outside of Brazil.  Finally I got work as a miner, and when the mines opened on Vesta in the Asteroid belt, well I went.  I was there for nearly a year before the weakness of zero gravity nearly killed me. I managed to convince my doctor back on Earth that I was fit for duty on Mars, and got assigned to one of the early mining teams.  I’ve been here nearly two years, two years of hell.”  He spun back around towards Don.  “But in that time, Father, I’ve regained trust of those in the Church who matter. I’m not some politician “cop” pretending to have faith.” The madness flashed again, but was gone, almost as quickly.  “No, I’ve rediscovered the true faith and I will do anything; I will do EVERYTHING to promote it.”

Don audibly sighed, “Benjamin, you know what happened at the Bishop’s council, I didn’t have you removed, I only reported my concerns about your behaviour.” Don paused a moment before continuing, sensing that Ben was going to let him continue without interruption.  “It seems, based on this kidnapping, my fears were founded.  You were a fanatic.  You destroyed anything that deviated from your interpretation of the truth.  You couldn’t allow for error, for fallacy,” Don’s voice raised, “you couldn’t allow for people to be people.”

“Fallacy?  Error?  Those words are the words of a man who tolerates suffering, lies, deception!”  the madness was back, crashing against the front of his eyes like a storm, “Those fallacies, errors, lies lead humanity to war, they destroyed faith, they killed people.  I’ve learned that trust in the Divine is the only true thing and any deviation from it is murder.”  He leaned in again, his hand again on Don’s chest, “I have seen the devil Samuel, and he wears a priest’s frock.”  he pushed Don back.

Don stumbled but kept his balance, “What are you talking about Ben?”  He stepped forward, “What lies, errors?”

Benjamin grabbed Don’s right shoulder in an iron grip, “Yours, the Bishop’s, the false church.”  His eyes cleared, “I’ve seen hope Samuel, in Meruna, in the faithful. I’ve heard the voices of angels singing to me.  The truth of the Church, the real Church is our salvation, not this mining company, not you, as a fake priest.”  he released Don’s shoulder.

Don was confused, “Benjamin – what happened, you leaving the church…..”

“LEAVING?  ME???  You bastard, you know I was laicised!  I did not choose to leave, I was pushed out.  I, along with others who kept the true faith, forced out.”  He was speaking so forcefully spittle formed on his lips.  Then like a light the passion was gone.  “It was worth leaving though Samuel.  It gave me the chance to suffer, to experience the same pain as the God who made us.  That loss was the same felt by the Lord for our sinfulness, our arrogance, our pride.  I’d do it again.”  he paused, “all over.”

Don was thoughtful; this was not the first time he had dealt with those so ingrained in the faith.  Their ranks were swelling it seemed as the Church grew fatter off the successful peace following the last war, as its revenues grew from its investments in mining and the Mars colony, more and more extremists, if they should be called that, came forward.  “Benjamin,” his voice was soft, gentle, “I didn’t mean to hurt you.  You killed that boy Ben, he died as a result of your actions, I did what I thought was right.”

Benjamin looked up, “Boy? Ha, hardly, he was man.”

“He was twelve.”

“He was armed.” Benjamin turned away.

“We all were, it was war.”  Don signed, glanced around the room. The other men stood silent, one held a gun.  “Ben, look, it’s been a long time, what happened has happened.  What’s this all about.”  Don swept his hands around.  “You didn’t need to knock me out for this, Jesus man, you could’ve just made an appointment.”

Ben spun and was on Don so quickly, Don thought he was a like a flash of light.  “DO NOT speak the Lord’s name so flippantly.”  He hands grasped Don’s shirt front.  “Don’t!”  he thrust Don back.  “This isn’t about that, that, well that is reminiscing isn’t it?”  Ben smirked, “This, tonight,” pausing, he looked around the dark chamber then reached into his pouch again at his side, “is about this.”  He thrust a small dark object towards Don.  “Take it,” he snarled.

Don reached out with a shaking hand and grabbed the object in front of him.  It was a piece of dark blue metal, cold, and appeared to be broken.  He held it up toward the lamp, “what is this?”  He turned it over.

“You know.” Benjamin stepped towards him, “you know,” he repeated.

Don looked a Benjamin, genuine questions on his face.  “Tell me.”

Benjamin motioned to the men around him, “Secure the exits, we’re running out of time.”  The men scattered quickly, the one with the gun remained.  Benjamin made sure the rest were gone before continuing.  “We found this, along with several other pieces a few weeks ago, at the south pole.  It’s only a small part of the find, I’m sure you’ve heard something was found there.”

Don palled, “You were there? I thought only the robots were working the south pole.”  Don cursed himself immediately for saying anything. The metal in his hand was strangely warm, it almost felt like it was pulsing.

Benjamin smirked, “those robots sometimes need a human.  One of my men was assigned to geo-track them down there.  When he noticed that they all converged at one spot, well he followed them.”  Benjamin began pacing.  “What is the Church doing at the south pole Samuel.”

Don held the metal object then closed his hand around it.  “I don’t actually know Ben.  Yeah, you’re right, we’ve found something, but even I don’t know the details.  I heard it was an object, a large one, metal maybe, but perhaps just trace metals in rock.”  Don sighed, looked at the object again, he could swear it was glowing.  “you know even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you.” He looked up at Benjamin, “Even if I wanted to tell you I couldn’t.  You might pretend that I don’t have integrity, but we both know that’s not true.”

Benjamin turned to face Don and slowly walked up to him, his hand outstretched, “give it to me.” Don dropped the object in Benjamin’s hand, and it disappeared in the pouch.  Benjamin looked at Don, the anger flashing in the eyes again, “Alright, Father, then let me tell you why you’re really here.” Don must have looked surprised because Benjamin smiled, “Surprised you eh?”  He actually laughed, “You’re here because you’re going to help me kill Bishop West.”

“What?  You’re insane.” Don started to turn away, to walk out.

Benjamin grabbed Don’s shoulder again, spun him around.  “Oh you’ll help me kill Bishop West.”

Don pushed Benjamin’s arm away, “No, no I won’t.”

Benjamin smiled again, “Yes, yes you will.  If you don’t I’ll kill her.”  the rage in the eyes was mesmerizing, Don couldn’t look away.

“Kill who?  What are talking about?” Don felt sweat roll down his neck.

Benjamin revealed in Don’s confusion, “Why your daughter of course.”

Don literally stumbled and gasped.  “Daughter……” he muttered.

“Don’t be a fool old man, I know you.  I know why you were so eager to leave Earth and come here.  I might have killed when I was a priest, but I never broke my celibacy.  I didn’t have a wife.  I didn’t have children.”  He was grinning like a jackal delighting in the expression on Don’s face.  “Oh, you thought no one knew.”  he laughed,   “It was convenient that the woman you fucked died shortly after giving birth.  It was convenient that your family supported the old couple who raised her in that village in south Wales.  It was convenient that she’s found you, though I don’t think she knows so yet.”  Benjamin stepped close to Don again, “She loves me you know.  She worships me.”  He licked his lips, “Me, a former priest, now a faithful follower of righteous way.  Me, a worker humbled by God so as to experience his glory.  Me,  a man who fought, who killed for my faith so that others might know it too.  Oh yes, she loves me more than you know.”

Don gasped, “who….”

Benjamin starred at him, “you don’t actually know do you?  By the faith man, are you so heartless?”  He stepped up to Don, “Meruna you fool.  She’s your daughter.”

Don laughed out loud. “Meruna?  I don’t even know her. I met her today.”  His mind was reeling.  “Daughter?”

“Don’t play dumb.   You and I both know you have a daughter.”  Benjamin glanced over his shoulder, “I have followed you Father, every step of your life I have traced.  You lacked the faith, the strength to do God’s will; but you had the pride to follow man’s folly.  Your pride made you powerful, reliant on other men’s praise. I knew you would work for Bishop West, the snake.”  he physically spit, “that man is truly Satan’s servant, and you are his whore.”  He looked at Don again, “yes I know your life and I have been waiting until the time was right, presenting itself as it has now.”  He paced again, “This discovery in the south pole here threatens everything I have worked for, my followers,” he paused, “God’s followers.  We will destroy this discovery, but more importantly we will kill Bishop West, and you will help me.”

Don stepped towards Benjamin, the guard behind him followed, “Ben, what are you talking about?  Kill Bishop West?  Me, helping you?  My daughter?”  He felt like all the gravity was off, like he was floating.

Benjamin again grabbed Don, “Listen, Father, you’ll hear from me again but know this.  I will kill everyone on this colony to stop Bishop West but first I’ll kill your daughter. It would be so easy, she trusts me, honors me.  She’s mine.”  He grinned, “But you, in all your good sense won’t say anything will you?” he didn’t wait for Don to respond, “Samuel, my old friend, you know I’m right.  you know the lie planted by the Bishop in the south pole is a test and I’m here to destroy those liars and deceivers; I will destroy any and all of those who seek to harm the faithful.  You know me.”  he squeezed Don’s shoulders, “you KNOW ME.”

The broiling color in Benjamin’s eyes were in tumult, rolling in and out of focus before Don.  He recoiled from the sight. This man was insane, but holding onto reality enough to be dangerous.  “Don’t do this Ben, let’s talk about it.  Let’s find out together what’s going on in the South Pole…..”

“NO!” he pushed Don, “I know enough and I know what I have to do.  I am but one man Samuel, if you think I’m here alone, doing this alone, you’re a fool.  We are many.  We are powerful.  Cut me down and another will step up.  There is no talking about this.”  He looked at the man behind Don, “I’ll be in touch priest.”

“No wait, Benjamin…………..” He was struck from behind again and all he saw for a moment before blacking out was a flower, who looked a lot like Meruna.

Chapter Four – Asteroids

Date 6,253,101 B.C.E.

There were days he hated it.  This glowing, blue ball of life.  It, as it rotated, caught the light of the sun and seemed almost to mock him.  His view this morning was of a world shining bright.  He thought of the day prior, turbulent skies brewing with storms that he hadn’t seen in many sols.  He wondered if they spoke of the future, then shook his head.  He laughed.  “God I sound like my father.”  Neomis took one more glance out the window, his eyes lingering on the water of the oceans below, no bigger puddles to him from this visage.  The beeping of his communicator pulled him from his reverie.

He pressed the button to access the communication device, his long narrow fingers soft and graceful.  Another moment of whimsy flittered his mind, “they look like the wings of those small reptiles, what are we calling them, birds?”  He grinned at himself, “what on Kieaa has come over me?”  He pressed the button, “This is Neomis, and you’ve reached Kieaa Station.”

There was static at first, then a clear soft voice, “My son, this is Neomin, your father.”

“Father!  It is early here!  What brings you to communicate to me now?”

“Just a father wishing to speak to a son who is far, far away!  Your mother and I are soon to head to the astronomy lab and I wanted to reach you before I departed.”  He sighed, audibly on the communicator.  “It is so dark here sometimes I wonder how you can survive all that light there.”

Neomis shook his head, he knew his father was teasing, only a little.  “We must survive what we must survive so as to survive father.  I believe you taught me this lesson.”  A wry grin crept on the corners of his mouth.

“Survive my son.”  Silence crackled on the communicator.

It seemed a full sol passed before finally Neomin spoke again.  “Son I need you to look at 11-mark-4 once you clear the lunar body orbiting Kieaa this morning.”  Neomis glanced out the view window above him.  The lunar body was looming large and near, sometimes it was so bright, like looking at the central star in this system, and sometimes it seemed dark and forbidding.  They would clear its horizon in a few short moments.

“Father, 11-mark-4.  What am I looking at or for?”

Neomin was silent for a moment, a long moment it seemed.  “Well, as you are aware, this is a young system, and is very active with asteroids and other unattached astrological bodies.  From our vantage we see several asteroids entering your space coming from the region between you and Gugulaania.  I would have Hemoit review, but your mother heard this morning that he has fallen very ill.  Evidently his home atmosphere unit failed and the air of the habit therein escaped.”

“Is he alive?”   Neomis asked, genuine concern featured in his voice.

“Yes, so his wife reports.  It was fortunate she had stayed the night at the lab, otherwise we would have lost them both.”  Neomin cleared his throat.  “We continue to fail here son.  Hemoit was our expert of astronomy, certainly I can use the telescopes, but I am not confident I can or even could accurately calculate the trajectory of this asteroid.  Our best estimate is that is on a collision course for Kieaa, but we’re hoping it will miss.  From what I can tell it isn’t large enough to cause catastrophic damage, but will certainly affect your station and research on the ground.”

“Well as a precaution we’ll abort any terra landings until we are certain.  Hmm, I wonder if we shouldn’t separate the station from the space elevator.  If largely affected the elevator could pull us out of our orbit.”  There was no answer for many moments.  Neomis spoke again, “Father are you there?”

More silence then finally, “Yes my son.”  Neomin cleared his throat.  “There is another asteroid.”

“Another?”

“Yes – it is on a collision course for Gugulaania, or is as far as we can tell.  This one we can see more clearly from our vantage.  It is more significant given it is headed close to, or directly for our city center.  We have a few weeks, maybe less.”

“Are you certain? It’s coming to you?  I mean without Hemoit to review surely you are mistaken!  Isn’t it more likely that it will miss you! Gugulaania is so small – the chances of it hitting, well……” Neomis’ voice tapered off.  “So small……”

Neither spoke for a moment.  “I may not be an astronomer son, but I can a mathematician, we have better than 70% of being hit.  Of course we are not 100% certain, and your mother, ever the problem solver is working on a solution.  Evidently we still have the old rockets, though we are not certain they will fire.  We plan on launching them to asteroid in the hopes of breaking it apart or diverting it.”

Neomis knew what this portended.  The likelihood that the ancient rockets, left from an era of space, launching into the asteroid and affecting its path was very small.  If they would launch at all.  Most of the radiation fuel that had powered them had been diverted many sols prior to keep the habitats functional.  “What can we do?”

“My son, continue your research.  Unless by some miracle we are wrong, and this asteroid misses us, you and your station could be the last of our people.”

“NO father!  Even if the asteroid hits you you’ll survive, it cannot be that catastrophic!  It cannot be……” his voice dropped off.  The hopelessness of their lives for a moment over whelmed him.  “Cannot…….”

“Be strong my son.  Tell me, how goes the genetic research? When we last spoke you had mentioned advancement in gene splicing therapy with one of the primates.”  His voice was clear, direct, no tremble of fear.

Fortified by his father’s voice Neomis spoke, “The trials have been very successful father.  We have found several primates whose DNA and RNA sequences could support an introduction of our genetic markers.  If we had the right equipment I could accelerate the growth sequences.  Our limitations of the gravity of this world hinder our ability to remain on the planet body.  Yet here in the lab on the station, several of the primates in only a few generations are showing remarkable adaptations indicating greater intelligence and these traits are passed down generationally.  Remarkable progress is seen in the larger apes, the ones not confined to arboreal habitation.  With natural evolution this species will evolve to be very much like us.  If we could accelerate these adaptions and sequencing, they could become the carriers of our history.  In their genes we could allow our people to live on.  Damn these limited resources, if I had another orbiting station I have no doubt I could complete this work in just a few sols.  As it is, with our limited resources, and lack of the ability to better control the growth of the apes, I don’t see us living to see our “children” evolve much beyond the apes they are today.”  He chuckled, “a few million years and they’ll call us father and mother.”

“You are young my son, you’ll see your sons and daughters as you image them.  Their hands and feet firm upon Kieaa, eyes to the heavens laid upon their orbiting father, in heaven above them.”  Neomin muttered something obviously speaking to someone in the room.  “My son, your mother has come to speak to you.”  He stopped for a moment then continued, “My beloved son, do not fear for us.  Your mother and her researchers will find a solution for us.  They will find the power we need to survive even a blow from the heavens.  No rogue rock from space will stop us.  She will not allow it.”

“Father…..” Neomis could barely speak, “No heavenly body is as great as the love I hold in my heart for you.  The Sun and all her light are dim against the honor it is to be of your lineage.”  He choked on his tears.  “No light……”

“There now son, please no weeping, Normia is here and she will speak to you.  My son, there is one light greater than mine.” he paused for a moment, “your own light. It is brighter than a 100 suns, a million stars, the infinite depths of space.”

“Both of you stop this nonsense!”   Normia’s strong voice caused the communicator to crackle with feedback.  “Lights and suns indeed, we have work to do, and feeling sorry for our fate shall not divert a rock or set the sun.”  Her voice softened, “This is our fate, and so be it.”  He could feel her smile over the communicator, “Neomis, the work you and your team has begun must continue.  Accelerate all your programs and the apes you have begun to modify that are able, return them to Kieaa.  The ones you are still modifying accelerate their development.  Even if we survive the asteroid strike here, we won’t be able to send another craft for resupplies for some time.  You could be on your own.  Now listen to me carefully because while our day may be ending, the life of our people must go on.  We are a species who survived 100’s of millions of years from one solar system to this one, and this dark lonely system shall not be our end.  I am sending you a digital file that I need you preserve.  Place it on Kieaa, somewhere that it will survive even the cataclysmic events bound to affect this place.”

“Mother – what are you talking about?”  Neomis grew concerned.

Normia’s voice was directed not to Neomis but to Neomin, “dear, please step out for a moment will you?”  He could hear his father protesting, but finally surrendering.  He shouted as he left the room, “Son you are my light!”

She spoke again, now very directly to Neomis, “There is more than one asteroid coming to this planetary body, and more than one likely to hit Kieaa.  You have two or three weeks and we suspect that the damage will wreak havoc upon your station and could damage the space elevator.” she paused, “We have one week.  We have no fuel for rockets to launch, but what we do have is fuel for the mining robots.  We shall immediately begin to mine as deeply as we can at the south pole, which is facing from the incoming asteroid.  I will bury there a recorded history of our people contained in our Mothership.”

“The Mothership? If you disconnect her won’t you lose your mainframe?”

“We shall.  We have already lost it son, this is just not realized.  Even should the asteroid not strike, our fuel is nearly expired.  The habitats are failing at rate we cannot maintain.  I have not told your father, but Hemoit was not the only person lost last night.  Nearly half of all habitats failed, we were not able to reactivate them in time.  We lost nearly half of all our people.  Only I and Olimpia remain from the planetary science council.  I could not bear to tell your father, not today. He was so looking forward to speaking to you.”  She paused.  “Son the program I will send you is a message for our ancestors to come, for our new children.  Perhaps someday they will find the records and know then where to look here to find their lineage.  I will likewise indicate a homing device on this record should it be that they find the Mothership before their home world file.  We must hope that between these two libraries our people, our history, our art, who we are shall remain.”

Neomis did not speak for long moments.  Finally he cleared his throat.  “What shall l tell my team here mother?  There are 100 of us; they will not want to hear these words.”  He glanced down through the observation window at Kieaa.  It was beautiful.

“You must tell them the truth.  You know our people Neomis.  Trust that they will understand.  I think we’ve all known for at least a generation this was our last hope.  You are our last hope.  Home does not exist for our people, not yet.  But perhaps with time, these creatures you nurture from Kieaa will become us, evolve to know their history.  To find that their home lay not on the ground beneath their feet, but in the stars above their heads.”  She smiled, he knew she did, “Son time for you to look at the asteroids as they approach. Calculate exactly your time.  Do what you can to save as much life on Kieaa as possible, for the strike will be devastating but based on the richness of the life below you, it will survive.  Spread your genetic markers to as many primate species as are compatible. Surely some will survive and our time which ends now will come again.”

He sobbed, “Mother, I cannot…..”

“YOU MUST.”  She yelled.  “Neomis, you must.  This planet has been dying for as long as we have lived here. It was a temporary home and we’ve out stayed our welcome.  Our new home is not yet prepared, but if you plant the seeds, someday our lives will grow back.”  She paused, “you are the great father now.  Today is the day you must decide to give our people their future, unknown, unseen, and bright.”  Her voice died out, he knew she was crying, “Neomis we shall speak again in a few days.  Be strong my child.  We trust in you.  You are still our great hope.”  The communicator shut off.

Chapter Three – The Arrival

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.”

Chapter Two – Memories

Date 6,253,101 B.C.E.

For a moment he panicked – he felt the thinness of the air and couldn’t breathe.  “Is this it?” the thought flickered briefly but fiercely on his mind.  Then he shook his head and out loud said, “Fool.”

“Dear?” he heard his wife’s voice from the house call out.

“Nothing Normia, I’m just talking to myself again”.  He stepped out onto the veranda and looked up into the sky.  The stars were bright, too bright.  He knew why they were bright, he knew why the air seemed thin, and he knew why it was so cold.  The world, their world was dying.  It had been for some time, and all centuries of planning and working to reverse the inevitable had failed.  He was a scientist and he and his wife were some of the last who studied the planets rotations and the slow, painful demise of their atmosphere.

He looked back into the house at his wife Normia.  She was a handsome woman, never truly beautiful, but striking.  She was tall, proud and intelligent. She was one of the leading minds who devised the shields around the homes and water containment facilities.   She was the mother to his only son, and she was one of the last bits of hope he held near and dear.  She was at her desk reviewing her latest presentations on the radiation effects of the Sun.

It had started to become unmistakably apparent about many years prior.  For generations, scientists had theorized that the core of this planet was cooling, cold even.  The ever cooler planet was just indication, but the loss of breathable air, the thinning atmosphere, dramatically increased and measurable radiation levels all were long time indicators.  The biggest and most noticeable issue to the general population was the disruption of many guidance systems that were being affected.  This was the beginning of the end for much technology as it was built around being geo-centric.  This loss of guidance spurred the desire, and perhaps the need for renewed space exploration.  They had just begun to set probes on all of the ten large bodies encircling the Sun, but the one that had been the most interesting for them was the third planet.  It was teeming with life, large animals, fishes, birds, and small mammals.  They had been exploring the planet remotely some hundred years prior, but at that time had not yet sent astronauts to land.  Yet when it was discovered that their own planet’s core was cold, and the electromagnetic shield protecting them from the Sun and space’s radiation was failing, they immediately began to theorize that they might have to colonize that third planet.

Their planet, smaller, much cooler and long inhabited by them was a difficult planet.  The ancient volcanic activities had left much of it inhabitable.  The long and slow rotation around the Sun made seasons difficult and required a planet wide migration every six hundred and fifty sols or so; allowing her inhabitants to continue to grow their crops, keep their livestock alive.  Migration allowed them to live.  The rotation of their planet allowed their growing season to be the longest, and this allowed them to produce and store enough food for many sols.

As they began to explore and discover the bright blue, third planet, they discovered its gravity much stronger than their own.  This required much discussion and review of the method that they would use to explore this planet effectively.  Their bodies simply were too lithe to effectively move about on the planet.  They had to build machines to reduce the effect of gravity.  The first explores who landed found themselves nearly crushed under the weight of the atmosphere and several of them expired.  Of course the early trips for the explorers to the third planet were one way, their technology and space craft were not designed to leave such power forces as the gravity of the planet’s surface.  The long trip to the third planet required too much fuel, and as their own world was slowly expiring, they feared using resources at all.  At first they explored the planet from orbit, but once the knowledge came that home was slowly bleeding to death through its atmosphere escaping into space, they moved the space agency’s timeline up, probably before they were ready, but then in-hindsight probably not quickly enough.

The second and third waves of planetary explorers were more successful, given boon by the now more permanent space station in orbit.  From this advantage they were better able to understand the planet, its cycles, its gravity, its atmosphere.  Breathing had been a challenge, but the new respirators developed allowed the explorers to breath.  Several theories had developed that simple genetic modification would allow the creation of explorers whose bodies were modified so as to live and breathe without respirators.  Sadly, this theory was just now being put into place and it would take another forty years for these new explorers to be ready.  Others theorized that their own bodies would modify in a generation or two and that they would be able to survive naturally.

He shook his head.  Yes, they were a remarkable species; any would be who survived this long in the conditions left on their home.  At one time his entire planet had been habitable – for the entire sol cycle. It had been warm, wetter, beautiful it was said.  The image of the arts from 100’s of millions years prior were an inspiration and filled each of them with pride.  They as a species had adapted, but not to life on a planet like the third where clearly it was more favorable towards life.  No they had genetically adapted for life on a planet that was dying.

He glanced up at the sky.  The orbit of the third planet would be visible with his telescope, and in fact he and his wife were due the next day at the observatory to review the planet and to remain in communication with the current exploration team there now.  He smiled.  This was a special review, for his own son, Neomis, lead the current exploration team on the third planet.  They had been there now nearly four years, and had some exciting news to report on the planet and the next terra-walk which was scheduled in just three days.  They had created in the last ten years a space elevator, a simple solution to the rocket problems of getting up and off the ground on the third planet.  Their own rocket systems were too bulky to transport, but creating the space elevator, a technology already long established, was viable.  It was the work on the ground that caused most issues there, but once the connecting base was finally built they were able to more easily move from the stratosphere to the ground.  Visits were kept to short jumps as the gravity still wreaked havoc on their bodies, but it was giving them the opportunities to actually get on the ground and off very quickly without the use of the rockets or their precious fuels.

Neomis was extraordinary, in several ways.  First he was brilliant.  Second he was fearless.  And third, he was one of only a few hundred born in the last forty or fifty years.  The loss of atmosphere and exposure to the Sun’s radiation had not only caused increased deaths due to cancers and other new diseases; it had increased the rate of infertility.  Now a live birth was almost unheard of, and the natal centers struggled to produce healthy, viable children.  Yet there had been Neomis.  At first the planetary council insisted that he manage the most recent exploration team from the home planet, but he insisted he go, that their future was to be determined by his and his team’s ability to find a permanent solution to living on the third planet, and it had to happen quickly.  The council of course agreed, they had been loath to send one of the last great minds away, knowing that it was likely he would not be able to return to the home world.

It wasn’t that there were just too few resources left; it was there were just too few people left.  Great and empty cities sat all around the northern hemisphere of the planet, abandoned centuries ago.  Left to slowly rust and decay away.  Water had become so scarce that it was considered a crime to cry.  Of course a ridiculous law, not enforceable, but created so as to help the remaining population see the importance of, the irreplaceable importance of, water.  The once large population of the world was now down to just a few several hundred thousand, and most of these were growing older.  There had been explorers sent to other bodies in the solar system, especially to their other neighbor, the large gas planet with her many moons, the large frozen one had been especially interesting, but since it was already known that life existed on the 3rd planet, they kept a small crew orbiting here, but focus turned back to home and that small blue planet.

The robot technology had been developed nearly one hundred years prior, but because of the continued loss of scientific minds and the ever increasing hostile world that had once been home, the robotic discoveries came to a near standstill. Those that still existed were self-repairing and several were self-replicating.  Yet their advancement stopped, at least at home.  The robots in use by the colonists on the third planet were the most advanced, and were designed to survive the warm wet climate with its extraordinary gravity.  The few remaining robots here were used to harvest the increasingly small crops, maintain the ever decaying infrastructures and just ensure that the lights came on.  People now were focused on perfecting life pods and places to live on the home world, while the explorers at the third planet figured out how and if a mass exodus to this new world was even possible.

He shook his head and stared at the sky.   He loved one thing about the thinning atmosphere – the luminescence of the stars.  How crisp they all were, bright, some nearly as much so as the Sun itself.  Especially bright was the enormous 5th planet and her moons, shinning so brilliantly from her place in the heavens.  His heart was heavy as he thought about the scientific discoveries of the past two hundred or so years: the advanced space flight, setting up observatory stations around the third, fifth and sixth planets, the advancement of robotics, the change of their own genetic materials and DNA.  He sighed and shook his head.  He could see the light of the third planet, what did Neomis call it?  Ah yes, Kieaa.  It was a pretty sounding word, not has harsh as their own home, Gugulaania.

“What are you doing now my son?”  He squinted and noticed through his telescope bright, previously unseen lights in the space sky.  He knew that no space craft were flying.  Perhaps a satellite?  No, they were too far, perhaps as far as the large asteroid belt between Gugulaania and Kieaa.  Most likely comets, perhaps even an errant asteroid.  Their trajectory would place them in the orbit of planets nearest the Sun.  There had been increased asteroid activity in the last year or so, and impact events were not entirely unknown, even here, though not since he had been born.   He would have to check the astronomy lab telescopes tomorrow when he and Normia were working.  He shuddered; they hadn’t been watching the entire solar system anymore, with the focus, the entire planet’s focus on that third planet – all eyes turned toward the future.  He had warned against this, but once Neomis arrived at Kieaa, he too had only looked there.  His son, his future was in a space craft circling that large blue planet teeming with life.

The air was becoming too cold to remain outside.  He rubbed his long thin arms and looked at his hands.  The fingers were long and narrow, capable of elaborate manipulation of the smallest objects.  He stood nearly three meters tall.  He head large, oval shaped. He had no hair and his eyes, great globes that could see a multitude of spectrums.  Much of their bodies had been genetically modified.  It was said that his greatest ancestors, tens of thousands of generations, had come to Gugulaania some two hundred thousand years prior, from a distant star of the same galaxy.  His people had traveled on a great space craft, they still maintained, grounded called Mothership, on which generations of his people lived, loved, died.  The histories of those generations had been largely lost, forgotten, but the great Mothership that had carried his ancestors was buried, deep in the soil, protected from the Sun, the wind, the cold, the water……  It was commonly believed as they were not native to this world that their ancient ancestors had in fact seeded the third world of the solar system for them some many eons ago; a genesis experiment that failed as the craft upon which people had traveled had failed and had to stop here, at the fourth planet, no longer able to sustain life beyond this place.  They thought this because the air had always been too thin here, even then, too cold.  How different his life would have been had they made it to Kieaa all those generations ago.  Now it was his son and the one hundred or so scientists and engineers who would call Kieaa home.

He stepped into the life pod, the door sliding shut behind him.  The hum of the door seal hissed behind him.  Normia looked up from her desk, her bright eyes shining.  She smiled, her small mouth turned slightly up.  She rose to her full three and half meter height, towering over him and reached her arms around him.  Their heads touched, intimately.  “The sky still keeps your gaze darling, even over me?”  She whispered.

His hand stroked her long shoulders, “My dear, all the lights in the sky, bound together in ribbons would be dark next to the radiance of your eyes,” and for a moment they stood like this, heads together, eyes closed.  The only sound was the rare and invaluable water clock dripping on the table.  He pulled her away finally and looked up into her face.  “I miss him Normia.”

The moment of absolute love crossed her face as she looked down onto her husband.  “Neomin, he is with us as surely as you and I stand here.  His blood pulses in our veins.  His hope is our hope.  His love is our love.  He will save our people.”  She looked away, up at the ceiling windows.  “We both know the generators here won’t last another year, if that.  We’ve run out of options. The solar panels are failing; we simply don’t have the resources to maintain this world much longer.  It is only because of Neomis we have hope.  It is our hope because it is his.”  She looked down at him and stroked his long cheek.  Tomorrow we will see him, if only by view screen, but we will see him.  The alignment of our worlds will be nearly perfect.”

He smiled, “You are my hope.”  His fingers intertwined with hers.  “Dear, I noticed asteroids or perhaps a previously unrecorded comet, visible through the telescope.”  He looked back over his shoulder at the veranda door.  “Have you heard anything from the others at the observatory?”

“No, but our focus has been here, planet side, maintaining the generators, I don’t think anyone but you right now are looking off world.”  She smiled, seeing his frown, “Neomin, you know this is an active system, we both know this.  Asteroids and comets are all too common as we well know.  Tomorrow from the observatory grab Hemoit and ask him to review the solar system.  I’m sure if he reviews these rouge satellites whizzing by in the system he’ll tell us what they are and where they’re going.”

“Perhaps.  I shall look myself.”  He started to pull away from her.

“Neomin?  Now?  I think tonight we let the stars and other space bodies shine where they will and you and I rest here, together.”  Her large eyes blinked slowly, luxuriously, lustfully.

He hesitated; he could feel the pulse of her blood beneath his fingertips.  Her gentle touch remained on his hands. He looked back into her face, her eyes.  His mind for a moment shut down and then he acquiesced.  He pulled her mouth down to his and their lips met, at first a hesitation, then the hunger of the stress overcame them both and they lost themselves in pulse of blood pounding against their skin.  The lights of space spun above them, unnoticed.

Chapter One – Expatriates

Mars – 2375 A.C.E.

It was usually in the late evenings when through the thick glass of the ceiling he looked out on the landscape above that he realized just how beautiful the sun was from this distance. He’d only been on the planet for six months, 2 days, yet it felt like an eternity. Of course the trip to get there was grueling, and took several months. Living in the cramped quarters of the ship made an already long trip even longer. There were days when he thought he’d lose his mind if he weren’t able to stand at his full height, feel the sun on his face, the wind in his thinning hair, and just absorb the radiation. Now, off the ship, he was in a cramped, metal box that was his home, office, chapel, and future.

His great grandparents had been infants when the first explorers had landed on the red planet. That first trip was a disaster as the interplanetary explorers had been unable to get off the surface and return to their craft orbiting the planet. They had all died terrible deaths of suffocation as their oxygen supplies ran out over the course of a few, very long days. That first mission though, proved to the people of Earth that getting to the surface of Mars was not only possible, but had been achieved. Getting back to Earth would prove more problematic.

The first Mars missions had started late in 2025, and had become routine “flybys” by astronauts from several nations space agencies by 2075. Those trips, save one had all been successful. One exploration group remained in orbit around the red planet nearly a year, and in that time mapped the surface, surveyed the weather, and declared that it would not only be possible, but easy in fact to land on Mars, set up a small temporary base, and get back off Mars.

Sadly that prediction wasn’t accurate, and the first men and women who stepped on the red planet remained there forever. There was a memorial set up back on Earth, and here on Mars City One (the colony was called Mercy by all who lived there) a small plaque graced a common area known as the Park. The Park, when first conceived was to be garden, a place that reflected the light of the sun so as to warm the minds, hearts, bodies of Mercy’s inhabitants, much like a small earth garden. Sadly the trees planted in the garden had died almost as soon as they touched the red soil mixed with Earth topsoil. Now it collected unused shipping containers from earth and had become a rather large, unsightly storage area. The dead who were honored there may not be so pleased to know that there memories were blocked by large steel crates.

Humanity was desperate to colonize Mars, after all the moon had been colonized early on by the Chinese, and humanity had been living there for many decades. The moon proved to some a disappointment, and quickly became a large world park once mining operations ceased. Conservationists quickly managed to get laws passed that would prohibit the increase and continuance of mining operations, and those who lived there could only do so for short periods of time. Finally, after nearly 50 years of man living on the moon, it became a tourist destination. Those who had thought the moon would be a source of minerals, ore, diamonds even, were left to explore several large asteroids, but had always had their sights set on Mars.

The early robots who had very thoroughly explored the Red Planet discovered that this planet held so many minerals and elements, most of which were rare on earth or gone due to over mining. Their reports had immediately turned the tide for funding, even following the Third World War. Governments had largely stopped funding space exploration, but the private sector, lead mostly by mining companies, continued to drive the exploration of space, and thus the Red Planet was settled. The first colonists were robots actually, remotely controlled from space by orbiting men and women. These robots worked in the Martian soil, rock, wind, and sand, and dug, dug, dug. They created a large labyrinth of underground tunnels, chambers, and space so that when man finally stopped on the surface for more than a few days, he would survive the barrage of radiation from space and wicked thin atmosphere.

The idea to “terra form” Mars was kicked around, but really humanity didn’t have the patience. The powers that lead the exploration and settlement of the planet were much more interested in what lay beneath the soil than staying on top of it. A few early attempts at localizing “terra domes” failed when Mars showed just how incredibly powerful its storms could truly be. Living on the surface was just not a possibility. But ah, living underground, it was easier to accomplish. Mars proved to have a relatively stable crust, little to no geothermal activity, and seismic activity hadn’t yet been recorded. The mountains, rock, and ground were easily moved by the ultrasonic miners, and the robots who worked to build rather amazing places to live, work, play, and exist.

A thumping at the door brought him out of his thoughts. The sun was disappearing below the wall of the habitat anyway.

“What’s it?” he called out.

“Hey Don, time to round up the expatriates.”

Don, it wasn’t his name actually, but then it didn’t matter, not on Mars. Lots of people who had come here created new identities. It was so remote from everywhere else, even the small bases on the asteroids in the asteroid belt. He had been a Samuel at one time, but lost that name because it sounded too old fashioned, though hell, who is named Donald anymore.

“All right I’m coming.” Damn he thought, he’d have to put on the uniform shirt. It was laying, tossed carelessly over the back of a chair jammed up against the eat sink. He picked up the uniform, not needing to brush it off, the fabric was self-cleaning due to the nanites built into it. The color had faded a bit, the harsh habit lights constantly shining had that effect on everything. He felt the fabric, which was synthetically soft – a remembered the first time he had put it on. He slung it over his head and shoulders and realized it was a little larger than it was the first time he had put it on. Muscle definition had been lost living on the Red Planet. He pulled on his belt, attached there to it was his gun, communicator, and ID.

He faced a blank wall, “Computer – mirror.” The glass wall light up briefly for a moment, then slowly the wall became reflective. He looked at himself and smoothed the material of the uniform unnecessarily. It was baggy on him; he tucked the shirt into his belt and grabbed his goggles and hat. His thinning hair needed some touching up, but why bother. If he became self-conscious of it, he’d put on his cap.

The door was a huge thing, designed to seal should the airlock be broken outside of this chamber, or should the glass ceiling above him suffer a similar fate. “Computer, open door.” The red lights that surrounded the edge of the door blinked once, turned green, and a sucking sound indicated the door was open. Don pulled his goggles on, covering his eyes, and slid his cap into his belt.

A man standing outside of the door saluted him, “Don, you ready.” The man was older than Don, though looked younger, genetic enhancements no doubt.

“Let’s go Wayne.” Don walked past him without returning the salute. On Mars, some men still clung to the trappings of the Earth regime, but on Mars, well, it really depended on the day and how much a guy had to drink whether he’d salute or not. Of course not saluting, that is to greet another Earthling in the tradition of Earth was a finable offense, but since Don was a top ranking Earth Council member, he didn’t think that Wayne would report him.

He glanced back at Wayne who was securing Don’s door. Naw, Wayne was trying to hard these days to make friends with Don, he wouldn’t report him, not yet. Wayne glanced up with a grin while sealing the door, “All done, shall we?” Don nodded and they proceeded down the corridor. The lights came on as they went, energy conservation was a fact of life, and the sensors in the floors knew when they walked past. It was still dusk, so the light from the glass ceiling panels still trickled it, but it would be dark soon, and cold. Don knew that the feeling of cold was psychosomatic but it didn’t matter. Of course his clothing automatically adjusted his body temperature too with a few adjustments of the humidity levels against his skin, but Mars seemed cold, colder than space even.

Don glanced at Wayne as they walked, “So have you seen this group roster yet?”

Wayne didn’t say anything, glancing up at the ceiling windows; he cleared his throat, “yes, and a different group than our usual.” He seemed uncomfortable.

Don signed inwardly. Expatriates, these were groups of people coming to live on Mars. They had only just started to arrive the year previously; originally residents of Mars were mostly miners, engineers, technicians, astronauts, the usual space settlers. Back on Earth though, new edicts were issued, and Mars would be expanded to other settlers, children, teachers, doctors, service folks, even a new hotel was opening later in the month. Mars was a new frontier, and lots of folks wanted off Earth. Don at first was one of those wanting off Earth – before arriving at Mars he had forgotten though that he liked to go outside. Coming to Mars meant an end to that. Sure there were underground “park simulators”. They were mostly painted cave walls with fake grass, trees, piped in music, and a huge lamp that did look a lot like the sun. But it wasn’t real – no matter how gentle the air movers pushed the air, it wasn’t a wind, it was always a fan. No matter how subtly the light dimmed, there were never clouds. No matter how many robins were allowed to fly in the habit, they never found worms, and most didn’t live very long.

He checked Wayne’s face and wasn’t pleased. “Different how?”

Wayne looked quickly at Don, then face forward as they walked. “They tow the line.” He looked at Don again, “They’ll want you to salute.”

Don sighed outwardly this time, “I’ll salute and offer the blessing.” Damn he thought, though he knew these types expatriates would come, he was hoping they would have been later, coming as a minority after the other expatriates, non-traditional, had made the majority. That didn’t look like that was going to happen. “I presume they are the faithful expatriates?”

Wayne didn’t answer, but he adjusted his goggles and smoothed the sleeves of his uniform shirt. “Did you hear that on the South Pole they think they found something?”

Don was surprised that Wayne mentioned this. “I heard very early reports though.” Found something, hell they’d found something all right, and it wasn’t what any one of these faithful expatriates would want to hear about.

With the dawn of space exploration, landing on the moons of Jupiter, in depth exploration of Mars, Saturn’s moons, and advanced imagery of other stars and their planets millions of light years away, they hadn’t found a single notion of life. So far, Earth was the only planet that anyone had ever discovered with life. No extra-terrestrials had come to Earth; no life had been found anywhere, not even a microbe. It appeared life was limited to Earth.

The last war on earth had been tough, and was still being fought in some places. The thermal nuclear devices used had wreaked havoc on the weather patterns, and Earth was a colder place. People felt lost, and they looked to old faith. Christianity was still the dominate religion, but of course Islam was a close second. Most non mono-theocratic faith was frowned upon, the victors of the war, if they could be called victors, had suppressed most other faiths. Strangely, the dominate world religion again became the Catholic Church. Many believe it was because it was the Pope, Pope Thaddeus John who had hammered out a peace agreement. In the agreement, he managed to increase the political power and wealth of the old Roman Church. Following the war, the Church flexed its new found muscles, passed laws, started to help “police” the peace, and slowly, it became a world leader. The always fragile governments of Italy were replaced by the Pope, who became the head of Italian Parliament, and eventually was its president. Finally, in the last 20 years, the Pope was its king.

The war of course was fought for pseudo-religious/theo-political reasons. The Earth’s population surpassed twelve billon, and the real reason the war was fought was over energy, water, and food claims. The United Government of Europe waged a war at first against the United People’s Front of the Middle East, but the war quickly spread to Russia, Asia, and China, who all joining with the Pacific powers, threw in their hat with the Middle East. Finally the United States of America and Mexico joined the war, followed shortly thereafter by the super power Brazil. At wars end one could not claim to be a victor, as the might of thermo-nuclear weapons was unleashed in a half dozen cities around the world, resulting in a dramatic reduction in populations, and the dramatic destruction of necessary and rare essentials, power grids, transportation hubs. Finally the world, not because there was a victor, but because it was exhausted, ceased most hostilities, leaving a burning, much changed world in its wake.

The world governments fell asleep, or perhaps were unable to lift their collective heads, and while the church gained wealth, power, influence, the rest of the world became torn by infighting, inefficient leaders, greed, corruption, and finally, it became a member of the Pope’s parliament. The world’s leaders had been left weak an ineffectual following the end of the last great war. Then, only after the world was broken, the Pope took control, with his bishops, priests, and police. The world war, which was fought over mineral rights and water, had been over, but not won until the Pope assumed control. People needed faith in something, and this leader, charismatic, charming, and powerful offered hope, universally, across faith boundaries, promised change, had solutions to water shortages and food crisis, he had the answers.

Don was himself a “priest.” This title had changed meaning in the last century, he was really closer to an old fashioned cop than a priest, he wore a pistol, wielded judgmental power, could arrest, and even imprison “those lost to the light.” He was really a law enforcer – laws based on a broken world looking to an ancient collection of theology and laws to lead it from nuclear radiation, to a bright and clean future. On Mars, Don was the lead priest, head of a group of over 100 such priests. They served under the rule of one bishop, a small, middle aged man called Bishop West, who was almost never seen in Mercy, and was certainly not going to be introduced to the expatriates.

Again Don shook his head, the revere he found himself in, was typical every time a group of expatriates arrived. Wayne didn’t seem phased by all this, and just keep walking down the long corridor. The Mercy Colony was set up much like the wheel of a bicycle. Several long corridors shot off from the central command center, where Don, Wayne, and the other priests lived. The center of the colonies social life was also head there, food, shopping, recreation, the gravity centers for exercise. Shooting off the center hub, were spokes, each one leading to another habit building at its end. Each habit was keep self-sufficient from the others in the event of a critical event, such as an air pressure loss, fire, collapse, or some other catastrophic event. These events were rare, but only a month ago, at habit colony alpha c, the building housing a school, day care, and several other children’s centers exploded. The cause of the explosion was classified as an oxygen event, which is too much rich oxygen entered the habit and when a spark ignited the habit was destroyed. Don though knew the investigation was centered on something else, the habit was home to several mine operators children, and they all happened to be in school the day the habit was destroyed.

The outer habit units were connected by a series of tunnels intersecting the spokes at every quarter kilometer up their length from the central habit. These intersecting tunnels shortened distances and created various access points to the different habits. Don and Wayne could have taken the above ground Electrotrak, and while this option was much quicker, walking was always safer. The Electrotrak regularly froze in the extreme temperatures of Mars atmosphere, and while it ran completely with magnetized rails and no friction, the build-up of dust on the magnetic rails could happen in seconds, and the trains were often stuck for hours exposed to the harsh Martian sky. Don had been stuck on the Electrotrak the week prior for 14 hours. The small cramped transportation trains very quickly became uncomfortable. Plus each train held enough atmosphere for only 24 hours. His rescue came in time, with no problem but his opinion of taking Electrotrak was well known, and he wouldn’t take it unless the need to travel quickly was urgent.

They passed several people on their way to the central habit. This evening an entertainment group was performing at the central coliseum, and it was reported to be a spectacle. Robots were going to re-enact a great battle fought in the city of Rio De Janeiro. People were still shocked by the children’s habit’s destruction, and many wore mourning colors of black. Some women wore black veils to conceal their faces as was considered proper during such a time of mourning. However, even though some of the “faithful” had called for an end to any festivities, Don knew that people needed a distraction from the horrible nature of the accident a week earlier. He would not attend the event, the robots, while impressive, never could impart to his sensibilities the emotional impact of the battles they re-enacted.

Wayne’s communication device beeped three times. Don looked at him, “Who is it?”

Wayne frowned and pulled out the device. “It’s the receiving habitat, the expats are arrived.”

“Damn,” Don swore softly under his breath, “Let’s get a move on.”

Wayne grabbed his arm, “Don, we’re only a half meter from the electrotrak access point to the receiving habitat. We need to grab it.” He looked into Don’s eyes.

Don sighed, shrugged off Wayne’s hand, “All right, but if this damn thing gets stuck I’m taking a month of your pay.”

Wayne grinned, “I personally over saw the maintenance last week after you were, um, stuck.”

Don’s piercing glanced melted Wayne’s smile. “I’m taking two months’ wages.” They broke into a quick jog, and found the door leading to electrotrak entrance. A guard was standing just behind it. Don flashed his id, and the guard nodded, and unlocked the door.

“Fathers, the next train arrives in two minutes.” The guard pushed a few buttons, and the short hallway leading up to the track was filling with pressurized air. “They’ve been running perfectly the last week. The dust storms have been limited to the eastern wing of the external habitat rings.” The door behind him made a hissing sound, “Area pressured sirs. To which habitat are you headed?”

Don ran his fingers through his hair, and then pulled his cap out of his belt and snuggly slipped it on his head. “We’re headed to the receiving habitat.”

The guard nodded, “Right, new pates coming in today.” He released the latch on the door, “Go ahead sirs. I’ll monitor the track, if there’s any issue I’ll personally make sure you get immediate help.” Don gave a withering glance, “Thanks son.”

Don and Wayne entered the corridor leading up to the Electrotrak. As they began their assent, the walls transitioned from stone to the re-enforced tempered glass. This gave them both the view of the area surrounding the habitat. It was nearly pitch black outside, save the glow of the habitat corridors siting just below ground, their ceiling windows indicating the lives beneath the soil. The corridors from this view appeared to be blinking off and on, but Don knew this was just the passing of people along their lengths, as the intelligent electric grid operated only in the presence of people. They heard the Electrotrak arrive above them, and they ran the last few feet. The small train stopped against the upper external hallway. As it did so, a small docking mechanism extended from the Electrotrak and attached to the upper habitat hallway door. The glass shook slightly as the upper door was applied with pressure. Slowly the door opened and the very cold Martian air rushed around their feet. They both held their breath and stepped into the train. The door, and then the docking door, closed behind them. The computerized female voice announced their departure and the train took off.

The g-force was balanced along the length the train, but Don still lost his footing and stumbled. Wayne grabbed his arm and held him upright, “You alright.” Don nodded and sank into a seat. There were several miners on the train. Don raised an eyebrow and jabbed Wayne in the leg with foot. Wayne glanced around the train, noticed the men and sat next to Don.

He leaned near Don’s ear, “I’m guessing they’re going to meet the expats too…..strange, I didn’t realize this group arriving already had family here.”

Don looked at the men seated near them. Their faces were marked with the pallor that every miner developed not having exposure to the solar lamps in the central habitat. They all sported beards, clothes that looked worn, and all had hard, dark eyes. Don nodded at one closest. “Evening, are you greeting the expatriates tonight?”

The man sat forward on the edge of his seat, “I am.” He appeared that he might rise up out of his seat, but then crossed his arms and sat back. Staring at Don without so much as a blink. Don reached across his waist with his right arm to make sure his weapon was still attached to his waist. He hoped his move was subtle.

“Do you know this group of exs?” Wayne asked the man, perhaps not noticing the seething hatred burning behind his pale skin, dark eyes.

The man slid his eyes off of Don’s face like a knife sliding across a sharpening stone. He looked at Wayne like he hadn’t noticed him on the train at all. “I know of them. I would think that you,” he swallowed like he was about to be sick, “priests would know of this group.” His eyes went back to Don.

Wayne again not noticing the man’s dangerous eyes probed again, “I’m sorry, I don’t know them,” he looked over at Don, “Do you?”

Don wished that Wayne would just be silent. “I know this group is a special group, from the leadership group assigned to Rome?” Don was shooting blindly, but he remembered Wayne mentioning that this was a group with whom he’d need to tow the line.

The man across from his nodded, or so Don thought. “Yes, they are faithful. Something few on Mars would know about.”

Wayne seemed to take exception, “Sir watch yourself, we are priests of Bishop West.”

The man didn’t look at Wayne, “I know who you are, you wear your uniforms like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Wayne stood up, “Sir, identify yourself!”

Don reached up from his seat, “Wayne,” he pulled Wayne back into his seat. “I’m sure this gentlemen meant no disrespect.” Don noticed the other miners sitting forward, a couple reaching into pockets. “Isn’t that right sir.”

The man glanced at Wayne, back to Don, and smiled, “Sirs, no disrespect.” His companions didn’t relax.

The Electrotrak slowed suddenly and then stopped. They all looked at door and saw they had arrived. The external compartment had already attached to the habitat building. The red lights above the door switched to green, and the doors pushed open with a great sigh. The miners on the train, like a single organism, stood at once and went to the door. All save the man staring at Don.

One of the standing miners called out, “Let’s go Ben, I don’t want to miss her!” the man called Ben never taking his eyes off Don stood, almost bowed, “I’m sure you’ll meet me again priest.” Then Ben stood quickly and exited.

Wayne sat for a minute in silence, then burst out, “Don, what the hell?”

Don slid his hand off his gun. “We were outnumbered, and I think those men would have liked nothing better than to have a go with a couple of priests.” Don stood, looking at his hands and noticed he was shaking. “Come on Wayne, let’s go greet these expatriates, it seems I should have read the roster before coming down here.” They stood and exited off the train.