Prologue — Background.
Mars had been settled during the first half of the twenty-first century, largely due to the vision and willpower of several determined people. The foremost of these had been a young woman, a visionary by the name of Lilith Yew—although she always prefers ‘Lily’.
Lily had campaigned, organised, campaigned again and had almost single-handedly overcome the inertia of politicians and the resistance of that empty-headed minority of Earth’s population who possess the loudest voices. She had fired imaginations and galvanized people into backing her and her campaign had rapidly become a Crusade to settle Mars.
There had been many obstacles along the way that needed to be overcome: the Earth-based Martian Authority and the accountant-controlled big business that it sold out to being the major one. While a Mars-based slaver named Isis Pines and her hive were the most insidious. It had been a close run thing, but Lilith Yew had succeeded in overcoming both. But now, five years after Mars had been freed from Earth-based domination, new challenges were about to threaten the Red Planet...
On Mars the dawn really does come down like thunder. One second it is night with a million galaxies’ stars, planets and whatever else is to be found up there all blazing away overhead: their splendour hardly dimmed by the thin, frigid Martian air. Then, well, they are suddenly gone almost as if someone had performed the greatest conjuring trick in the solar system.
First the sky was black and strewn with stars... Then it was purple but with more than a tinge of salmon-pink—that Martian dust really does get everywhere... Finally, as the sun peeps above the eastern horizon, it adopts the famous butterscotch hue that experts who had never left Earth are still arguing about. Butterscotch sky, pink and brown rocks with a scattering of tiny blue nodules; pretty well every colour except green... Perhaps the one that the humans on Mars miss the most...
But pink or not, Alexis Feoderov never tired of gazing out at the landscape, although he rarely got much of a chance to step outside these days as running the Tsiokolski Base took up far too much of his time. Today was different, for today Alexis was showing a rare visitor around and so had time to dream. He half turned to the woman standing beside him and used a sweep of his left arm to gesture towards the arid landscape. “Beautiful isn’t it?”
If he could have seen through the tinted plastic of her helmet visor, Alexis would have been struck by the woman’s puzzled frown. “Is that a river valley, tovarich?” There was a pause followed by. “But it can’t be, there’s no running water.”
Governor Feoderov’s chuckle cut through the radio static and seemed to annoy the woman. “It’s dry now, but if you had stood here a billion and a half years ago then you would have seen quite a large river over there.”
The woman seemed to shrug. “Nechevo.” (—“It doesn’t matter”—) She muttered and began to walk towards the edge of the canyon, her boots scuffing up little puffs of salmon-pink dust with each light, dancing step.
She turned and nodded towards the Tsiokolski Facility, the centre of the Russian presence on the planet and asked. “How long have we been on Mars?”
Feoderov recognised it as a rhetorical question and bit back an acid remark. “The base was opened about twenty Earth-years ago.”
“And yet it is still so small.” The woman mused.
“It’s big enough for our needs and besides it still costs a fortune to ship stuff in from Earth.” He rumbled although the rumble seemed more like a whine by the time that the end of the sentence was reached.
The woman turned to face him. “The base turns a large profit on the manufactured goods and rare-earth metals shipped back to Mother Russia: why isn’t that money re-invested?”
Fedorov grimaced... The irony packed into his visitor’s sentence was not lost on him. “Because, Madam Karpova, the profit is needed to service the loan that was used to set-up Tsiokolski Facility in the first place. Expansion would require an even bigger loan which has been deemed to be uneconomic.”
The conversation stalled as the woman seemed to be more interested in the landscape than in economics; this was understandable as the contrasts produced by the low sun and its long deep inky shadows were truly remarkable.
Suddenly Feoderov noticed a trio of small silver stars floating towards the base from the vastness of the empty sky. “What the Hell?”
“Ah, yes, those will be the shuttles bringing some of my people.”
Braking jets flared an incredible incandescent white in the dawn air slowing the descent of the three craft as a deep, rumbling roar reached the two observers.
“Your people?” The Governor sounded almost panic stricken. “What do you mean, ‘your people’?”
The woman turned and began to walk back to the base. Once again scuffing up the salmon-pink dust with every dancing step. “Did Moscow Centre not inform you?”
Alexis Feoderov turned and began to follow her. “Inform me of what?” This was a surprise and he hated surprises because surprises on Mars could easily prove to be fatal.
The woman, who was a few yards in front, glanced over her shoulder at him. The exosuit that she was wearing made this possible—a real space suit would have been far too ridged for such a manoeuvre. She chuckled. “The commission back home has decided that you need a new deputy controller... That’s me by the way... You know... To lighten the load, shepherd in new policies... All of that kind of thing.”
He paused and muttered: “Boge moi!” (—“My God”—) under his breath before demanding. “What new policies?”
There came an amused chuckle, “Why expansion, tovarich, what else?”
Feoderov groaned and then snarled something unprintable. “Of course they did not tell me. They never tell me anything that isn’t related to increased production quotas!
“How many people have you brought with you?” He added suspiciously.
She smiled, although she was careful not to let him see this. “Just the twenty or so, but there’ll be more later.”
“Twenty?” Feoderov exploded. “How the fuck can I feed twenty more mouths? We’re barely producing enough food for the colony and it’ll take forever to decontaminate enough soil to support more crops.”
The woman, whose full name was Valentina Karpova, let him simmer and curse for a minute or so before putting him out of his misery. “You won’t need to feed us as we are self sustaining. Two of the shuttles contain enough food and other equipment to support us for twenty months. We will construct our own tunnels and hydroponics areas in the mean time: it won’t take us long as my women are very efficient.”
Her gaze settled upon the three squat peaks of the distant mountains away to the west that the first light was only now illuminating. “What are they?” She asked, trying to sound as if she was intrigued by arid landscape.
“The Tharsis Mountains, they’re volcanoes.” Fedorov said, happier that the discussion had returned to the certainties of the local topography..
Behind her, the man shrugged. “Very likely, but on Mars, who knows? This damned planet is an enigma.”
Karpova noted the exasperation in his voice, but said nothing. Little bits of knowledge could come in useful during future dealings... Base Commander Federov seemed to be at the end of his tether: now that was a really useful thing to know. Suddenly she changed the subject. She spun around to face him. “How far are we from the Copernico and Philae Facilities?”
Even though his face was concealed by a visor, she thought she saw him grimace. Valentina smiled to herself, but said nothing.
Twenty minutes later, back at Tsiokolski there was excitement in the air: the shuttles had landed and the base’s fleet of four utility rovers were ferrying the crews and passengers over to the main reception block which was the only part of facility wholly above ground. Many years ago it had been the first permanent Russian structure on Mars back in the day when mankind firmly believed that the best place to be was on the surface. The incident at ‘Eden Dome’, over at the Saudi Arabian base on the Meridian Plane had caused a rapid re-evaluation.
The meteorite hadn’t caused a great deal of damage when it had punched through the plastic and the crater blasted into the ground inside had been a small one. The effects were limited and wouldn’t have been serious if it hadn’t been for the collateral damage caused when the meteorite had slammed into one of the three blocks that the dome housed. The death-toll was very low and five people killed would hardly have rated a footnote in the news back on Earth. But on Mars, at a time when everyone knew everyone else, it was a major tragedy and was still the largest single loss of life in the planet’s history.
Worse still: it had almost brought an end to Martian colonisation, spawning a “Bring them Home” movement back amongst the sillier elements of Earth’s risk-averse chattering classes. Saudi Arabia and a couple of other countries actually did pull out but mankind’s presence on Mars survived and nothing else had even come close to being struck by space rocks in the intervening years. The Martians, as the colonists took to calling themselves, began tunnelling. They no longer lived on Mars but in it.
‘King Faisal Base’ still sat out on Meridiani Planum, the Meridian Plane, and still had the largest man-made structure on the planet. However it had been lifeless and abandoned ever since the disaster. Oh, there was the occasional suggestion that it should be re-activated as an agricultural facility but nothing had yet come of this idea. The ‘Eden Dome’, as the huge plastic and aluminium geodetic structure was called, sat there as an unchanging reminder of the potential hazards of colonisation.
Now, as the rovers docked with the Tsiokolski base’s airlocks, further changes were about to beset the human presence on Mars. The population of Tsiokolski Base, like the whole of humanity before it, was oblivious of the future that lay ahead as it gathered to welcome the new arrivals. It had never been a large facility—large populations cost money to support and Mars bases tended to work at minimum-manning levels, still the arrival hall was filled to near-capacity by the sixty or so people who had turned out to welcome the new arrivals. Like most people living in remote locations, the colonists tended to be what is known as sensation-starved and no doubt a great deal more than these sixty would have crammed into the hall if this had been physically possible. As it was the other ninety percent would have to make-do with watching the arrivals on the local TV channel which had changed its scheduling at a moment’s notice to cover the momentous event.
The inhabitants of the smaller Russian satellite bases would be watching too as would most of the populations of most of the other Martian facilities. New arrivals always sparked interest.
The airlock doors slid open and Chief Engineer Erik Posokhov, deputising for Base Commander Feoderov, stepped forward to welcome the newcomers. A hush fell upon the hall as Erik peered into the tunnel linking the base to the rover. Suddenly he held up a hand to silence those behind him. “On behalf of the Governor and the People of Tsiokolski Base, may I welcome you all to........”
He froze, his voice trailing away to nothing as he saw just what was emerging from the tunnel. There were three lines of them all marching in perfect step like elite soldiers... Elite female soldiers! There were also significantly more than twenty of them.
A shocked hush fell in the reception hall broken only by the Facility’s doctor who stood half a pace to the side and behind Engineer Posokhov. “Boge moi! Who are they?”
A half of the way around the planet and a little to the north-east excitement gripped the night-shift personnel who were on duty in the Copernico Facility. Copernico, due to the course of action forced upon its former director, Lilith Yew, some five years earlier, had assumed the position of the Martian Capital. As usual, the duty shift was small and consisted of just the three operators monitoring communications plus a couple of police officers watching the facility’s CCTV screens, they were also on stand-by in case of emergencies.
Suddenly Bill Davis, who was seated in front of a bank of ancient flat-screen monitors, gasped loud enough to attract the attention of the other four who were dotted around the room.
“Hey,” he called, “come here, come and look at this! There’s something happening with the Russians!”
Three of the other four ambled over to Bill’s desk and gazed in a bemused fashion at the tableaux unfolding at the Tsiokolski base. The fourth member of the team remained seated and carried on holding an animated conversation with someone at space traffic control via an intercom link.
The three who had gathered behind Davis, however, remained silent for a minute or so until one of the coppers said very quietly. “I think that I’d better go and wake the Base Commander.”
Not to be out done, the other copper muttered. “Fuck the base commander, somebody needs to alert Lilith Yew over at Hive Philae...”