Yew and Me
Time moved on and Mars continued its slow journey around the sun. Oh, the inhabitants used the Martian day without thinking about it—it was only about forty minutes longer than a day on Earth and so was ideal for human purposes. There was even a Martian hour which was less than two minutes longer than the real thing back on the home planet. But as watches told the time in local seconds, minutes and hours, everyone soon forgot that there was any difference.
The Martian year, however, tended to get ignored. As no one lived or really worked out in the open, the seasons that had ruled life on Earth since pre-history were irrelevant here. When the population talked ‘years’, it was Earth-years that they referred too and the local year of 687 days was just a curiosity spoken of by the few and used only by traditionalists and the handful of astronomers on the planet.
It was about a week after those fateful meetings at Copernico and Tsiokolski that things began to happen. Lily had commandeered one of the few precious aircraft that there were on the planet and used it to fly the Ward sisters, two of her best agents over to the tiny former-British research station at the foot of Mount Ascraeus, which at almost 60,000 feet was the second highest mountain on Mars.
For some reason the Brits had christened their tiny base ‘Olympia’ despite the fact that it was hundreds of miles away from the famous Mount Olympus. From here the sisters had set out on their 370 mile journey. They had driven ninety percent of the way to Tsiokolski before parking up their dune-buggy and walking the last forty miles to the supposedly sealed Russian base. The drive had been fairly easy, though a slow one, one through fairly level scenery. Two days out from the base, the buggy had skirted to the north of the Noctis Fossae an area of rocky terrain criss-crossed by a many ancient water courses that ran in from the south. Then early the next morning they drove across a ridge-line and almost wrecked their buggy when it fell into a dry stream bed that wasn’t marked on their map. After that it was just a case of turning south-east and heading towards the Russian Base. Luckily the journey had been made several times before so it was just a matter of following the old vehicle tracks: the same tracks would serve to hide the new wheel marks from bored or nosy operators who might accidentality stumble across them when reviewing satellite images.
Okay, the girls were much more single minded than they used to be: the deep conditioning induced by their enslavement to the will of Isis Pines during that final day when she lost control of both her hive and her mind had greatly changed the once happy-go-lucky Irish sisters. But single minded or not, they still retained much of their former spirit and this allowed them to marvel at the spectacular scenery.
The sisters of old would have slowed down and maybe driven around quite a bit more and stretched out their journey by exploring some of the old dry creek beds, most of which had never been visited by humans. Those days had died when the girls had been converted into hive slaves and their new iterations were far too mission-oriented to engage in such undirected frivolity. Their Goddess, Mistress Yew, required them to travel to the Russian Martian Oblast and insert themselves surreptitiously into the life of the main base and this is exactly what they intended to do. Lady Yew needed to know just what was going on and they could not imagine themselves doing anything else before they had completed their mission.
The days moved on and their start-point in the Tharsis Mountains was left well behind being partly hidden by the salmon pink dust kicked up by the buggy’s aluminium and mesh wheels. Ahead lay the Tsiokolski Facility which was close to the side of the massive canyon carved out by a once-mighty river. To the south lay a sixteen thousand foot plunge into the Tithonium Chasm, the longest and deepest known canyon in the solar system although the only way that they could fall in was to miss the base entirely and drive uphill for a further one hundred and forty seven miles. Although Mars was tiny when compared with Earth, her mountains, craters and canyons dwarfed anything that marked the face of her much larger, warmer sister. When it came to spectacular features and views, then Mars was difficult to beat.
Butterscotch skies capped the panorama of mountains, craters and rolling planes; red, pink and brown rusty rocks and pink dust: there was always the salmon-pink dust. Nothing said “Mars” more eloquently than the dust that kicked up and floated in a defuse cloud stretching behind the buggy and reaching back to the horizon. To the front and sides were boulders, ridges, rocks and craters, all pinky-brown and all as dessicated as any other billion year old corpse but them behind there seemed to be nothing but dust.
Oh, there were those on Earth that still claimed that Mars was shirt-sleeve warm with a breathable atmosphere, blue skies and running water. The whole dead-red planet thing was all a conspiracy invented by the government... The Mars Authority... The Vatican... The UN... The Masons... The Illuminati... NASA... Or may be all of them working together because everyone in power was either mind-controlled or was really a giant lizard in disguise. Even these days, in the midst of an age of scientific advancement and discovery there were those who preferred to hide behind tissue paper-thin fantasies thus confirming that the power of self-delusion was still as real as ever.
As Ciara and Yseult Ward parked up the buggy in a tiny crater and hid it under old fashioned hessian and cam-netting it should be noted that they were far too single-minded to be taken in by any of the above silliness. Their love for the one true Goddess, Lilith Yew, left no room for such pointless fantasies or childish conspiracy theories. While they both worked away silently they recalled their final briefing delivered by Lady Yew herself. It was simple, they were to get into Tsiokolski through one of the access ways expected to be located on the side furthest from the facility’s landing field—‘The Cosmodrome’—and look around, trying to discover just what the hell was happening and then get out fast.
“We believe that the Russian Base is a pretty place chaotic place at the moment,” Lily had told them, “so it shouldn’t take you too long. We need to know who is actually in charge, what’s happening and what their intentions are: the only way to find out anything at all is to get inside and fade into the background.”
The girls had both stood rigidly at attention while their Mistress had briefed them in the admin dome atop Hive Philae which had been their home for the last five years. “You both speak fairly good Russian and are dressed in the same black uniforms as Valentina Karpova’s newly arrived troopers so you aught to blend in.”
Hopefully. The three of them had thought simultaneously.
“Get in fast and get out even faster. Remember, whatever happens, I want you two back!” Lily, much to her own surprise had then kissed them both and wished them ‘God-speed’. Now, five day’s later after a long drive and walk the girls were moving slowly through the deep shadows behind their target: the rather shabby-looking Tsiokolski Base. The massive reception block, built of rammed Martian soil and locally quarried rock, towered imposingly above them: its monolithic brown face solid and unrelieved by ground-level portals, windows, vents or doors. Sure, there were ducts and assorted pipes that burrowed into the dull brown structure but they were too high to be of much use; and even in the low Martian gravity and there was little hope of jumping the thirty or forty feet needed for them to be accessed.
Instead the girls entered by the same method that they had utilized to gain access to Hive Philae five years before. They used a pair of bolt-cutters to chew through the grill covering an exhaust shaft that they discovered about a hundred yards away from the structure.
The grill looked as if it covered an ancient well and by the amount of dust hiding in the crevasses around it, it hadn’t been disturbed since the day that it had been installed. Ciara had used a hand-held sensor to check whatever it was that streamed up from below. It was mainly Nitrogen and Carbon Dioxide although there was much more than a trace of Oxygen and Water vapour in the exhaust. She showed the results to her sister and both women knew that Lilith Yew would not have tolerated such wasteful inefficiency! Wasting water and oxygen would be totally unthinkable at either Copernico or Philae and indicated that there could be problems with the current facility’s seals.
The bolt cutters made short work of the grid which Yseult lifted out and buried under a thin layer of dry Martian soil. If the grill was hidden then it was hoped that its absence would not be noticed. After that it was just a matter of a hundred or so foot climb down the shaft making use of the access ladder let into the side. The walls of the shaft and the ladder itself were caked with a thin layer of greenish-brown goo dotted with patches of what looked like a flaky grey-green, crumbly deposit.
The girls had touched helmets. “What is it?” Yseult had asked after they had shone a penlight onto one of the larger patches.
“Something growing!” Ciara had answered. “There’s enough light, water vapour and carbon dioxide to support photosynthesis and the temperature’s well above zero in the daytime.”
“Terrestrial bacteria or algae, probably.” Yseult had added before the sisters had dismissed the thoughts of life and carried on down the shaft.
There was a slimy and partially clogged wire grill in the wall close to the bottom. Opposite it was an access hatch which wasn’t even locked, not that this surprised the sisters for locks were intended to keep people out. On Mars there was normally no one too be kept out, so such locks were not necessary. There were, however, a couple of lights: green for enter and red for keep out. Currently the green one was lit. The catch groaned and the door creaked as it swung open to reveal an airlock chamber big enough for one person, Yseult slipped in and vanished behind the closing door. Quickly the light blinked from green to red indicating that the airlock was cycling.
Ciara waited outside with inhuman patience until the light blinked to green once again and she was able to follow her sister. It was no surprise to find a second door inside complete with its own pair of lights, again Ciara waited but this time she could hear the hiss of air flooding into the little chamber. The hiss ceased, the light blinked green and Ciara pushed the door open and stepped into a cluttered storeroom which doubled as the airlock’s antechamber.
She glanced around and, yes, her sister was waiting for her. Yseult nodded and both women began to peel off their pink exosuits to reveal the skin-tight shiny black one-piece garment beneath. The sisters turned and checked each other. The forehead ornaments, whatever they were supposed to be, were still in place, and flashed with reflected light as they moved. Their long auburn hair was secured back and braided into a long, fat plait which was the normal style adopted for working on this low gravity planet. Free hair tended to need very little persuasion to float around and easily got trapped in machinery hence the very practical ‘Martian Plait’, as it was widely known.
Then, after hiding their exosuits and helmets under a pile of boxes in a corner, the droned-sisters made there way through the room’s only other door and found themselves surrounded by pepper plants that were growing in one of the base’s many hydroponics rooms.
And not just peppers; for as they began to walk steadily between the rows they identified tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines, squashes, peas, beans, okra, soya, red-cabbage... Everything needed to keep a small population fed and healthy. The bright light blazed down from panels set in the ceiling fifteen or so feet above and the plants pumped out oxygen which on Mars was more important than food.
Making their way between the benches with their tiers of plants, the sisters almost bumped into a pair of women who were busily removing dying leaves from purple-veined plants that neither of them recognised. The women, who were identically dressed in brown coveralls, reacted very differently. One of them gasped, jumped back and everted her eyes from the pair and mumbled “Sorry!” as they strode past. There presence clearly making her nervous.
The other one, who was clearly younger, ignored them completely and carried on mechanically plucking leaves, her face expressionless. Yseult noticed that she alone of the pair, had a little shiny disc affixed to her forehead. No wait! The disc wasn’t just stuck there, it was fully embedded in the skin itself.
The sisters glanced at each other and then, by unspoken consensus, separated and each moved towards one of the women. Ciara found herself standing next to the one with the forehead disc while Yseult approached the other. The ‘disc woman’ continued working as if Yseult didn’t exist, dying leaves were rapidly plucked and continued to flutter down into one of the wheeled carts that were parked in the aisle. Indeed the only heed that she paid the Irish woman was to step around her so that she could work upon different plants. Suddenly Yseult noticed light reflecting from something behind the woman’s left ear. Her first thought being a piercing or some other form of body art. Gingerly she reached forward to brush the woman’s hair out of the way to reveal something like a computer data port embedded in the mastoid bone just behind her left ear. The woman, who had paused to allow herself to be examined, continued work as soon as Yseult removed her hand.
The other woman’s reaction could not have been more different for as Ciara approached her, she attempted to back through the bank of plants that lined the aisle: her eyes wide with fear. Then when she saw a hand reaching out to her she screamed, threw herself to the floor and tried to roll up into a ball upsetting one of the carts as she did so.
Silently the ‘disc woman’ paused in her task and stepped across the aisle to right the little truck before picking up the leaves and other debris that had been scattered by her colleague’s panic. This done, she reached down to the woman cowering on the floor, seized her arm and gently but forcefully hauled her to her feet. “Continue with your work, Svetlana-unit, you are assigned to this task so ignore the Security-units.”
Sniffing back tears, the woman nodded and then turned back to the plants and hesitantly began plucking dead and dying leaves once more. Seeing this the ‘disc-woman’ turned, stepped around Ciara and returned to her section of vegetation, resuming work as if nothing had happened.
Yseult frowned ever so slightly... There was something about this set-up that was very familiar. She looked up at her sister, signalled to her to remain where she was and then stepped over to where the ‘disc-woman’ was now working. “Report!”
The woman straightened up and, without turning towards Yseult, began to speak. “Work-unit 4a-56 is currently engaged on a Horticultural Maintenance Task and has been assigned the unmodified Svetlana-unit to assist it. This task will continue for a further two hours and twenty-three minutes.”
Yseult paused. “What is your next task?”
“In two hours twenty-two minutes time this Unit will convey the Svetlana-unit to the Modification Centre where it will be upgraded, enhanced and programmed to convert it into a Work-unit.”
Both Ciara and Yseult noted that the ‘Svetlana-unit’ began to sob uncontrollably on hearing this. Yseult nodded to her sister and then indicated the other door, the one that almost certainly led out into the rest of the facility. Ciara nodded back and followed Yseult to the doorway.
The sisters glanced at the unfortunate Russian woman who was once again making a half-hearted attempt at plucking dying leaves. “We cannot save her.” Ciara stated bluntly.
“Agreed, that action would be inappropriate and could jeopardize our mission.” Yseult, her face expressionless, agreed before adding. “But we could save her from a lot of distress by accelerating her conversion into a drone.”
Ciara nodded. “That would be merciful. We also need to confirm just what it is that is going on and that includes gathering details of the processes being utilized. Escorting those two would give us a valid reason for being present when conditioning is carried out.”
“Agreed!” Her sister nodded brusquely. “It will be an ideal way of gathering some of the data require by Lady Yew.”
Deep inside, both Sisters shuddered: disgusted at what they had become. It wasn’t nice; it wasn’t fair; it wasn’t even right: but they both knew that it was what needed to be done for the good of Hive Philae and all of the other Facilities that had given their allegiance to their beloved Mistress. They had a metaphorical omelet to make and Svetlana was just one of the eggs.
With one mind the sisters turned and marched over to the Svetlana-unit seizing both of her arms before turning towards Work-unit 4a-56. Yseult spoke in a monotone. “Unit 4a-56, your current task has been terminated. The Svetlana-unit must be upgraded immediately. You will lead the way and these Security-units will assist.”
“No!!! For God’s sake have mercy!” The doomed woman screamed. It was no surprise when she began to sob uncontrollably as they frogmarched her away to meet whatever fate awaited her.