Imperial Space Central sits in the middle of the desert, its exterior covered in deteriorating silver and faded white panels. A long dry lakebed serves as the primary glide path for incoming and outgoing ships. Part of the Imperial Fleet is moored here, but most of its crews are housed on a base several kilometers away. Trajan will not have to worry about them. It is dark when he and Sid arrive and only a few security guards mingle around the entrance. These guys are fat and only doing time until they can retire. He can skirt them with little trouble. Trajan hides the motorcycle about half a kilometer out in some sagebrush, then sprints to the fence. He keeps low with Sid hovering silently beside him. They traverse the distance nap-of-the-earth style. Stopping just shy of the perimeter, Trajan spies camera monitors every hundred yards. An ominous red light shows they are recording. They rotate, scanning a small section in their field of vision.
“Can you disable the security?” he asks Sid.
“Yes, sir. That’s simple.”
A green light blinks on Sid’s hull and several of the cameras wink out. They only have seconds before the outage sounds an alarm. Jumping up, Trajan scrambles over the fence. The cameras come back on but now he has a little time to search for the port housing the Ajax. Most of the area is deserted he seems to have arrived between shifts. The complex is huge. Trajan looks around, unsure of what direction to take.
“This is going to take forever,” he says quietly to Sid.
The drone beeps. “It is to the left, sir. Docking bay 29,” Sid says.
“Right,” Trajan says, dashing off to the left.
Sid is a smart device. In all the confusion, it must have turned off my tracking system. Good thing or I’d be in custody by now. It is loyal for a machine. I wonder how far artificial intelligence develops. Perhaps more than people realized? They were built to serve and protect. The more interaction with their assigned master, the more they absorbed their traits and habits. Sid is more than a robot, it’s a friend, and the only one I’ve got for now.
The Ajax looks like it might fall apart any minute. So much the better for Trajan and Sid as old ships have many nooks and crannies in which to hide. He scopes the area for any guards. It appears to be quiet. Sid shows him a small hatch below the main drive shaft used for maintenance. Sid overrides the security protocols and the panel slides back. Trajan climbs inside.
The interior is dark and dank, the smell of oil and grease pervasive. The maintenance hatch is cramped but Trajan is wiry enough to wiggle further in. As he proceeds, the shaft opens up a little, allowing him to stand in a crouched position. The engine is overhead. “We can’t stay in here. When they get ready to take off this whole place will heat to almost two hundred degrees,” he says to Sid. “Let’s move further into the belly of the ship.”
Vents expel noxious vapors from the liquid hydrogen tanks being emptied to take fresh fuel. Trajan chokes trying to hold his breath as he makes his way past them. Reaching a set of rusted metal stairs, he ascends up to a catwalk. At the top there is a landing and below is the cargo area. Personnel are drifting in, loading large metal crates the size of hover cars. Sealed on each end they carry everything from food to medical supplies to clothing and other goods.
From what he sees of the ship’s complement, they are a motley group. They have missed shaving and most likely, bathing, for a number of days. Dirty, their clothes smudged with grime, they go about their business. All seem a bit overweight. Trajan could take any of them without any trouble, but these guys do not appear to be the type to fight fair. There is one who is bigger than the rest. He wears a cowl over his head, looking more like a monk than a crewman, he walks amongst the others giving directions. More people hidden by cowls arrive. Checking storage bins they pull out pulse rifles. A chill ripples through Trajan’s body. These are not standard security weapons but military grade heavy blasters capable of taking out armoured vehicles and approaching aircraft. The hooded figures know their way around the arms, stripping them down and checking every component. These men are something separate from the crew, a team with advanced training. Perhaps they were members of the military. Whoever they are, we should avoid them.
The taller man’s arm comes out of the cloak as one of his compatriots tosses him a gun. On the taller man’s forearm is the tattoo of a serpent and a trident. The markings of a gladiator! The taller man examines the weapon then nods his approval before throwing it back to his associate to pack into a crate.
Trajan and Sid hunker down as a loud clanking noise comes from overhead. The large cargo bay door unhinges and swings open. A hover loader is hauling a dropship aboard of the type used in military operations. “These guys are funded,” Trajan whispers to Sid. “Marcus had spared no expense.”
The crew is prepared and dangerous. Trajan knows that if he is caught by them he will certainly be killed. A terrible dilemma faces him: either stay here, take a chance of getting to Mars alive and face who knows what or return to the city to be hunted down.
He watches as the machine secures the vehicle in the giant release claw above the main hatch. The crew scurry up ladders and attach fuel hoses and filling the drop ship’s oxygen tanks. They finish up on the smaller craft and a few more crates of supplies are flown in and packed away. The whole endeavor takes less than fifteen minutes before a klaxon sounds and everyone disperses to their launch positions.
The cargo hold is emptied and the normal white lighting has been replaced by low crimson illumination for blast off. Trajan glances out from his hiding spot. The coast is clear. He has to find a place to strap in. The g-forces of lift off will sling him all over the bay and he could be killed. He looks around the cargo bay but there is no place to secure himself. Then he glances overhead to the drop ship.
The ship would not be used until the Ajax reached Mars and had seats with restraints. Trajan climbs the ladder beside the drop ship hoping the security lockout is not something Sid cannot break and is not tied into a warning panel on the bridge. It is a risk he will have to take. With everyone busy on the launch sequence maybe they will not notice.
Sid unlocks the drop ship hatch and it swings open. After Trajan steps inside and Sid follows, the hatch slides shut with a whoosh. The onboard computer has started an automatic countdown. It speaks in a monotone feminine voice.
“T-minus fifteen seconds, fourteen, thirteen...”
Trajan scrambles for a the pilot’s chair and sits down, pressing the belt button which sucks him back into the cushioned seat. A metal and leather harness wraps around him. It squeezes him firmly and arm restraints fold over his wrists.
“Twelve, eleven, ten, nine, eight...”
He holds his breath. Trajan has never been into space. The simulations in school did not account for the possibility of being in raggedy ship like the Ajax. The computer keeps counting down.
“Seven, six, five...”
The Ajax rumbles to life, the whole frame shuddering.
“Four, three, two, one. Ignition sequence start.”
A deafening boom from below rattles everything in the drop ship. Everything that is not tied down falls to the floor. He closes his eyes.
The craft lurches upwards, picking up speed. Trajan is jostled and sinks back even further into the cushioned pilot’s chair. His face ripples from the fast acceleration to escape velocity. Things are going black and he feels himself drifting. He is about to pass out. He tries to keep conscious but the pressure is too much. He blacks out.
Trajan sits motionless strapped into the seat. The drop ship’s onboard computers flash readouts, their lights blinking in the still darkness. Inside the tiny craft there is zero gravity. Small objects like ink pens and a coffee mug float about him. There is a sudden burst of illumination as the ship crests the curvature of the Earth. The sun beams through the cockpit window. The light shining on his face and the warmth of its rays wakes him up. He shivers. This is the first real sleep he has had in days. Dreaming he talks to Lucilla without opening his eyes.
“You’re not going to believe the dream I’ve had,” he says.
He snuggles back into a comfortable position, unaware of his predicament. The peaceful illusion is shattered when a warning klaxon sounds. The noise is irritating, like a duck squawking from someone stepping on its webbed feet. The cockpit fills with red lights.
Trajan wakes with a start. Pluto’s bones. It wasn’t a nightmare. He looks around hoping, he has not been discovered. Peering out the window, he sees the moon passing below. The Ajax’s trajectory is for Mars. Aviates was right, this isn’t just a lunar transport. Out the corner of the glass he spots another ship, one far larger and more menacing than Ajax.
A gruff but anxious voice calls out over the intercom.
“Imperial cruiser dead ahead!”
The larger ship is on an intercept course, but it would not fire upon them until all possibilities were considered. The captain of the vessel speaks in a firm controlled tone to them over the intercom.
“Attention crew of unregistered craft. You are on a forbidden flight path. Return to Earth immediately.”
The Augustus is the flagship of the empire, the most modern and impressive of the massive fleet, able to transport up to five thousand troops. Its own complement of crew is four hundred. With ten forward batteries that can hurl upwards of fifty pulse blasts per second, it has enough destructive force to cripple or eliminate any opponent. They could obliterate a craft as flimsy as the Ajax. The Augustus has only a single Achilles heel: it is lethargic in maneuvering. It is rumored that the empire has experimental faster-than-light drive onboard, but that is only good at a dead run. Within the confines of a solar system it was of no use. By the time you felt such an engine engage the ship would be past Pluto.
The one advantage Ajax has against Augustus is its ability to slide in and out of asteroid fields and behind small moons for cover. Whoever planned this expedition had this very situation in mind. It had to be someone with a military background versed in strategic thought.
The Augustus looms closer. The ship is hundreds of miles away but still fills the monitors onboard the Ajax. The Ajax veers to the right and speeds up firing all thrusters. Without warning, a pulse blast from the Augustus passes beside Ajax and explodes, a violation of maritime law. Normal imperial procedure calls for disabling a fleeing vessel to facilitate boarding and taking into custody to stand trial any fugitives. Another explosion misses the Ajax, its pilot’s superb skills at anticipating the Augustus’s moves on display. Or he has something else guiding him... Ajax weaves and swerves, dodging each pulse burst.
Trajan sees they are heading for a large asteroid. If they are able to position themselves in magnetic north, the asteroid will hide the Ajax for a while. The pilot’s luck runs out as a shot rips through the starboard side. The Ajax spins out of control. Computers show pressure dropping as oxygen and drive plasma leak into space. Ajax is crippled and those on board are at the mercy of the empire. Augustus is closing in for the kill.
Sid proposes a plan.
“Sir, I can power up the onboard computer. There is a large enough opening in the aft bay that the drop ship could maneuver through. The odds of you piloting the craft unsuccessfully are ninety to one.”
“Yeah, great, but I’ve only flown in simulators. Besides, whoever’s running the ship will see that and shut us down.”
“I think they have their own problems, sir,” Sid says.
That’s true. It is every man for himself. If I’ve thought of using the drop ship to escape, the crew has, too. The hatch on the drop ship slides open. Trajan is still strapped into his seat and cannot turn to see who it is.
The individual is reassuring and calm.
“Can you fly this vehicle boy?” the man says.
He knew I was here, but how? Nobody saw me climb on board. Then there was another, older voice that sounds familiar.
“His father and Aviates assured me he could,” says the other man.
The two men present themselves. To Trajan’s amazement, one is Rufio the Great. The other is even more surprising. It is Darius, first citizen leader of all of Romanus. Darius and Rufio are dressed in battle armor pressure suits. This is not how he remembered the Proconsul who he had seen countless times on television and the internet. Darius was always an older man in a three piece business attire and a tie, an old friend of his father. During his childhood, Trajan visited Darius with Clavius. Darius was only a Senator then. Now, he heads the empire and is running for his life, being chased by his own troops. Trajan is silent, astonished. Rufio sits down in the co-pilot’s seat and Darius secures himself in the communications chair.
“Well, fire it up! They don’t take prisoners,” Darius says.
The computer warning voice blares “The Augustus is charging all batteries!”
“Time to go, son,” says the Proconsul.
Trajan is relieved he is not flying with pirates, but they are still in danger from attack. He looks over the console in front of him. Pressure gauge, oxygen, vector coordinates. It’s all coming back to him now. Both men give him a look of confidence. Were they expecting him? If they lived long enough he might get answers. Another big “if,” but he had to try. He scans the console for the right button. He knows he should go over a checklist but there is no time. The computer counts down the seconds before the Augustus can discharge cannons. After each burst they must recharge. Since their weapons are tied into their engines it takes longer, giving the Ajax some breathing room, but not much.
“Where is the rest of the crew?” Trajan asks. He knows the answer, but wants to hear if for himself before he leaves them.
“They are all dead. That last blast sucked them all into space. Only Darius and I could get our pressure suits on in time and make it down here,” says Rufio.
Trajan fires up the tiny drop ship. It is like a speedboat, built for getting in and out of situations. He flips the release switch on the giant claw that is holding them in the cargo bay. The indicator remains red and does not give them the green signal. It must have been damaged in the attack and will not disengage.
“Shit! That last hit sheared away the main drive cable,” Trajan says.
Rufio looks over to see wha is the matter and notices the clamp is still in place.
“We can’t move!” screams Trajan. The computer now issues their death warrant.
“The Augustus is firing.”
A huge blast of green plasma fires from all the batteries. Trajan remembers his combat training when being fired upon. Rotate the vessel to the aft quarter so the impact will roll up the length of the fuselage. Sid takes control of the Ajax’s main computer and routes it through to the pilot console. Now he can turn the Ajax. The blast hits the ship it and knocks them free from the claw!
Trajan fires all thrusters, and the drop ship is spit out through the hole in the nick of time as the Ajax disintegrates around them. The fireball masked their escape from the Augustus. The drop shift rolls and bumps, careening through space. Over the intercom they hear the captain of the Augustus.
“Target destroyed. Returning to base.”
Through the windows of the drop ship, they see the battlecruiser fire up its engines. The trio are on their own, but the drop ship is not designed for an extended journey and does not have oxygen enough for three people.
“Do you think we can make it to Mars in this thing?” asks Trajan.
“The gods are on our side, young one,” says Rufio.
The Proconsul chuckles at the comment but he feels little patronized by them. Deriding him because of his youth, even if they are older and wiser. Darius, a firm leader whose brilliance in politics and affairs is unmatched, and the other a man he idolized. Trajan could not choose to better men to be on his side.
Trajan checks the radar. The Augustus is gone and there are no other vessels in the area. The drop ship’s fuel gauge reads full, but it is only sufficient to take them halfway there.
Darius comes up with a brilliant suggestion. “There is a large asteroid ahead, perhaps a day’s journey. On the approach we’ll speed up and catch its gravitational rotation and sling shot the ship around it, gaining extra thrust. The added momentum will enable us to shut down the engines. Then we coast to Mars with enough fuel remaining for a controlled landing. Once the ship is on the surface, however, that’s it. There is no fuel on Mars,” says Darius.
A daunting thought: to be stranded on an alien world with hidden dangers. Somehow Trajan feels that these two have a plan for such a contingency. Now they were on their way, nothing but blackness and silence ahead of them. He checks the rear monitor. Earth is but a tiny blue dot in a sea of blackness. How insignificant it appeared amongst the heavens. Man’s home, all his hopes, plans and ideas, a mere speck of dust in the vast cosmos.
“It kind of squashes your ego, doesn’t it?” says Darius.
Trajan has to agree with him he feels small.
“We humans think we are the masters of our fate and the universe when in reality, we control nothing: it controls us. Needing manufactured air to breath outside our little earthly bubble, we have to eat every eight hours or we’ll starve we can’t go without water for more than a day. Our bodies would freeze with no shelter or clothing. We do not last, death can come from any direction and we are helpless to stop it,” says Darius.
“So what’s the point of living? And why are we heading to Mars to fight whatever this is? According to you, we should just resign to our fates and be done with it.” says Trajan.
“After your father was killed and the emperor assassinated, how long did you think I would have? Marcus will stop at nothing for absolute power. As for the other... Spoken like a young man who looks forward to a promising future with many years ahead of him. That is why we fight, to be sure you and everyone else gets a chance at that life and is able to grow and evolve. One day, we will become more than flesh and blood. I believe that’s what the Martians tried to do, but everything fell apart. Perhaps we won’t make the same mistake. Maybe we’ll be better than them. Our ideas live on after we are dead. A human thought is vaster than the billions of stars that inhabit the heavens. We are gods in a certain respect, our souls go on beyond death. That is where they went wrong,” says Darius.
“I’m only getting bits and pieces of this Mars story. I want to know what is going on. My parents are dead, my fiancee has had her mind altered by drugs. I’ve been framed for the murder of the Caesar, my best friend tried to kill me, then died saving me. Now I’m on a ship with the leader of the empire and the greatest gladiator who ever lived. Tell me what the hell is happening!” screams Trajan.
“The boy needs to hear the truth,” says Rufio.
Trajan catches his breath from the outburst then adjusts the controls to auto pilot and sits back awaiting Darius’s answer. Darius stares out the window into the infinite cold and dark. The secret is buried deep inside, but it must come out.
“Before I begin, what did your father tell you?’
“That a long time ago he, Pompeii and the Emperor discovered something on Mars. An ancient message from a being named Garelle who warned them about a substance called Crystal Blue. It was a drug that gave them immense power and the ability to control and manipulate things. Evil forces took over the experiment, and The Martian and others fled to Earth and created humans. He told them to destroy the bunker they were in and they were in danger of being infected.”
“Most of what they said is true, but they kept certain facts from you for your protection. I’ll try and explain what I know and remember. Garelle wasn’t a benevolent Martian scientist. He was the most vile of the Martians and had nothing to do with the creation of man. It is a little more complex than that. I was just a boy at the time it all happened, so my memory is not the most reliable. Pompeii was married to my father’s sister, and our families were part of the first settlers on Mars. My parents were in the initial survey team along with an entire legion of Rome’s finest. I was born on Mars.”
“I thought all this happened right after the colonists arrived?” says Trajan.
“No, no, we had been there for eight years, setting up the atmosphere processor. This was a long term expedition. It was to be the first permanent settlement of a new world. Our planet was running out of room and we needed an alternative home if something happened. It was a stop gap measure to ensure man’s survival. Little did we know that in going there we may have doomed ourselves.”
Trajan imagines Mars fifty years before as Darius continues the story.
“That angry red planet with vast landscapes of crimson sand has a beautiful sunsets. There is a rugged, primal splendor about it great mountains. They reach high into the heavens. Deep canyons go on for miles. Scientists said it was similar to Earth billions of years ago but some cosmic event ripped away its atmosphere. It was no celestial cataclysm that had destroyed Mars, however, it was the Martians themselves. Not a war, but the planned suicide of an entire race,” says Darius.
What was so terrible that it could make a whole species commit suicide?
Darius continues his tale.
“Garelles information about it being an experiment is half true, as well. He was the evil genius behind it. The exact details of why and how I do not know, but that is why we are going to Mars: to find out what brought about the devastation there, a power I believe is now loosed on Earth. A report came my way of significant funds being diverted to the imperial research facility at Renall, a black site bio-weapons lab. The files on the convoys were eyes only. Pompeii learned of the shipments and confronted me since it is supposed to fall under his jurisdiction. As you are aware, those defenses have been relegated to a low priority because of the dangers in tampering with viruses. I was just as stunned as Pompeii, so we dug further and found that a few of the funds were funneled to Nallie in Antarctica, a resort owned by the Empress Octavia. She had given it to her son to run and give him something to do. The place was a dismal failure. He’s been using the money for a new perfume.”
“Crystal Blue,” states Trajan.
“Yes. Why invest in cosmetics? The profit margin is minimal. The are hundreds of thousands of brands. But within a month of its release it soared to the top of the market, eclipsing any others. The public couldn’t get enough of it. We tried tracking the sales but none of it was going to the Royal family . We approached the Emperor about it and he knew nothing. Domitian would not lie. He confronted his son, who denied it all. That’s where your father stepped in. He discovered that part of the funds have been sent to the military and to smugglers. Not long after, my staff began behaving like robots. The usual office chatter was replaced with silence. It was disturbing. When I asked my assistant about it, she told me she had never felt so good and could not wait ’til Marcus ascended the throne. The staff all shared the same sentiment. Associates I had known all my life bluffed their way through conversations. Whatever this is, it takes people’s memories from them. Throughout the government, key personnel are being reassigned and shifted around. Young Centurions became Admirals. Then there were the deaths. Tibius the Great, one of our most gifted philosophers, phoned me en route to the forum. He sounded distraught. He had to tell me about ‘the threat’ he saw coming, but he was killed in a crash. Diostenese, the leader of the Disease Control Facility, committed suicide. He too tried to get in touch with me. That was two days ago. Then the evening of the twenty-first, the day before yesterday, I got a urgent call from Domitian. He was blindsided by a hack into the medical computer records at his physician’s office. Some files had been copied and a sample of his blood was missing. He was not made aware of this for over a month because they did not know which documents were tampered with. Domitian believed they were stonewalling and conducted his own investigation. He discovered the money was given to hackers and it came from none other than Marcus.”
“So what does that mean?” asks Trajan.
“It was Pompeii, Clavius and the Emperor who figured out that the Martians could somehow infect us. If it was something we breathed, drank or ingested, they never found out. Whatever it was, it caused the Martian extinction and the battle that wiped out the other settlers. It’s possible that the substance remained in our blood and Marcus extracted it.”
“Wait a minute. They destroyed the colony?” says Trajan.
“The official report says a leak brought about by negligence in one of the habitat units resulted in some deaths. Disgruntled colonists blamed the empire and separated themselves from the group, choosing to stay and form their own government. There was a battle, all right, but not because of any political ideals. It was because whatever happened to the Martians began to affect us. Just a handful of colonists got away. The rest returned home and you know the rest.”
“So what happened to the others?”
“You must understand. I was a child and can recall only bits and pieces from that horrible time. I do remember that it was in May when my mother, a beautiful woman named Livia, and an archeologist came bursting through the door of our habitat. She couldn’t get her pressure suit off fast enough to show us what she had discovered,” says Darius.
“The colony consisted of six domed structures called atmosphere bubbles. The central dome is several miles square and a quarter mile high. In it were the research, administrative and engineering and construction departments. A separate unit contains the medical lab, able to contain any outbreak. Surrounding it were five more domes, each containing seven hundred domical dwellings designed to comfortably house four people, although some are for couples or single occupants. In all, three thousand civilian and military personnel and their families habitated the permanent settlement. They were there not only to survey but to make the planet livable. Each biosphere is connected to the others with a Plexiglas tube. Outside the perimeter of the domes is an electric fence to guard against any danger or intruder, a throwback to ancient Roman campaigns when moats and fences were built around encampments. Their function is to produce air breathable a huge processing plant is being erected for that purpose. It sits several miles from the camp and was in the beginning stages of construction.
Mars is covered in a fine sand but there is a hard granite base about a foot below the surface. To set the foundation for heavy structures, the granite was blasted and quarried at least two stories deep. The machinery was massive, sucking in the existing oxygen to mix with water vapor and spits it out. The whole process involves saturating the atmosphere with enough moisture to cause precipitation. The settlement was initially planned near the Martian polar caps, but the region was deemed unsafe because the ice might crack under the weight of the domes. The temperatures are far too cold for any machinery or personnel to function, anyway.
The colony was built beyond the icy region in hopes that the rain would create a warmer climate, causing the ice to melt and flood the surrounding areas, imbuing the soil further for agriculture...”
Domitian’s lesson to Trajan and Rufio on colonial Martian engineering is far from the old man’s mind. Out of the haze of the past, he hears familiar voices.
Livia walks into the airlock. The rush of oxygen and the pressure stabilization is met with the zing of the control panel. She is anxious to get out of her suit. Carrying an excavating tool bag across a shoulder and a metal, briefcase-style specimen box in her hand, she enters the living area. She clangs the container down and opens it on an examination table that has a mounted electron microscope.
“Come see what I’ve found,” says Livia.
Agrippa, a square-jawed Roman and First Centurion under Pompeii, sits on the floor playing a game with their child, Darius, who has a touch of the flu. Agrippa took the day off to take care of their son, a welcome break even with Darius sick.
Agrippa is the soldier every officer wants: strong, willing and able to follow orders to the letter. Livia is the exact opposite, independent, disdainful of authority and the chain of command. She is fine on her own.
Agrippa rolls his eyes back in his head and frowns. The child smiles. The soldier loves to poke fun at people and get a laugh out of his son.
“Oh! Mom’s got another rock to show us. How special.”
Little Darius giggles, getting Livia’s attention.
“I heard that this is no stone,” Livia says. She reaches into the case and brings out small glass vessel holding a green object. Agrippa knows he better feign surprise over her newest discovery. Livia presses the seal button on the container. The vacuum inside bleeds away and the lid retracts. With the skill of a surgeon, she takes a pair of plastic probe tweezers and grasps the stone. She holds her breath as she guides the two-inch piece of rock from the container and places it on the lip of the electron microscope.
As Agrippa gets closer, he sees the stone features a carving resembling the union of a hornet and a grasshopper. The hideous form has a bulbous tailend, stinger appendage and large hind legs. The wings are folded across the belly and a spiny backbone leads to a long, thin neck topped with an almost triangular head with bulging eyes.
“What is that? did somebody try to play a trick on you?” Agrippa laughs.
“Seriously, this is the find of a lifetime. It redefines what we know about Mars and life on Earth.”
“Is this a fossil or what?” Agrippa asks.
Livia turns on the electron microscope and connects it to a large monitor which projects an image the object twenty times its original size. There are indications of tooling and what appears to be writing.
“It’s a carving of some kind.”
“That’s some kind of trick. Somebody planted that for you to find,” says Agrippa.
“I almost wish that were true. I was near the construction site with the other geologists to make sure everything was safe before they blasted. The engineers didn’t want to be responsible for overlooking anything that may cause a disaster. We had just cleared the place and gave the go-ahead for the workers to proceed. I hunkered down in the blast bunker to watch the explosion. The charges were set then detonated and the whole area went up in a cloud of smoke. I waited as debris and rocks fell and settled. As I left the bunker, I kept my eyes down out of habit. As an archeologist, you always keep looking at the ground; you never know what you’ll find. That’s when I saw this small, green-hued rock in the rubble. It appeared to glow and was encrusted with sediment, but I could tell there was something solid underneath. I placed it on my field desk and prepared to clean it off. From the beginning, it looked odd. I feared radioactivity so I called one of the geologists over. He waived his Geiger counter over it and the reading was clear. He then did a chemical analysis by dropping two drops of liquid sulfate onto it. The stone soaked it up like a sponge and grew brighter. He then put it in a beaker of water which was immediately absorbed. When removed, it was bone dry but glowed more. As I cleaned it off I found this carving. It must be an ancient artifact.”
“Before you jump to conclusions, get the other scientists to look it over. I don’t want that thing in the house. It needs to be quarantined in the science wing of the colony. How can you know what effects it will have on you handling it without protective gloves and a biohazard shield?” he says. On the screen, the rock glows a little more.
“It could be reacting off the light from the electron microscope,” Livia says.
“Get that out of the house!” Agrippa demands.
“Don’t be a child. The age reading revealed it was at least ten billion years old. No possible harm could come us.”
Agrippa looks at her again, then grabs the tiny statue. When he does he cries in pain and drops it. Livia reacts fast and examines his injured hand. The flesh where he grasps the statuette is blistered, dry, and chalky white. The moisture has been sucked right out of his palm.
On the floor, the figurine glows even brighter and pulses with radiating green light. The unexpected aberration frightens Livia. With examination tongs, she picks it up and puts it back into the specimen case.
Agrippa looks as if he will pass out and Livia helps him to the couch. The bio readers in the house have not sounded so there is no sign of infection or bacteria. Nevertheless, Agrippa is pale and his breathing raspy. She presses a button and the calm voice of the colony physician comes over the speaker.
“What is the problem?” she says.
“My husband’s hurt. We need help immediately!”
“Do you require an evac pod dispatched?” asks the doctor.
“I don’t know...Yes, I think so,” she says.
Agrippa attempts to stand but collapses to the floor.
The gurney hovers into the spartan medical dome with two accompanying emergency personnel. Livia carries young Darius on her hip as they walk in. Agrippa is unconscious, his breathing still shallow. At once the colonial physician recognizes the severity of the sickness and springs into action. Stabilizing the patient takes priority. She checks Agrippa’s vitals. It is clear she is nervous. As she works, Livia catches a whiff of alcohol on the physician’s breath.
“Jupiter help, are you drunk?” Livia exclaims.
“When did he get like this?” asks the doctor, ignoring Livia.
Livia realizes she has no choice but to trust this quack and tells about the artifact. She lifts Agrippa’s hand so the doctor can see the blistering. To her surprise, the blistered spot is gone! The doctor takes Agrippa’s temperature. It is a slightly higher than it should be, but not by much. His breathing is calmer, but he is still sweating.
The doctor swings the gurney under the full body CT scanner. It can check everything from organ functions, vitals, DNA issues, and variations in a the brain’s wave patterns. Additionally, it offers recommendations for procedures. It has saved lots of lives and as many careers from less than skilled physicians.
A blue light appears on a long scanner arm and moves over the length of Agrippa’s body. The readout displays on a wall monitor.
“The subject is suffering from a neural trauma of unknown origin. It is recommended that the individual be placed in suspended animation until the next shuttle arrives for Earth,” says the computer.
If a person is sick beyond the capabilities of available personnel or technologies, they are placed in one of the suspended animation or “freeze” units. The body functions are lowered to a point where infections or other disorders cannot cause any further damage.
“That’s it then,” the doctor says, half relieved she’s off the hook for this one. Livia glares at her. If it were not for Darius, she would berate the bitch. The youngster glances at his mother, not understanding what is going on.
“What’s the matter with Daddy?” he asks. Livia rocks Darius in her arms, then leans down and kisses the unconscious Agrippa. The physician intervenes.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“You know what’s best, right? Go finish your Scotch before I report you to Domitian,” says Livia.
Humiliated, the doctor slinks to her office, walking past Pompeii and Clavius, who have heard the news and rushed to the medical center. They have been on patrol and are still in their pressure suits. Removing their helmets they are concerned at the sight of Agrippa lying on the gurney. Military personnel are a close knit group that rely on one another for survival.
“What happened?” asks Clavius.
Livia is too distraught for words. He takes her and Darius in his arms.
“Start at the beginning.”
“I discovered a Martian artifact and didn’t take the proper precautions,” she replies. “I made a terrible mistake and my husband is paying the price for it.”
“There’s nothing we can do for Agrippa, let’s have the artifact examined and tested. Perhaps we can figure out the cause of Agrippa’s condition and its cure. This planet is to be our new home. We’ll have to get used to dealing with variables and unknowns,” says Clavius.
A suspended animation tube is brought in. The transparent cylinder gives a medical readout and has a biomonitor at one end to activates the device. Two nurses slide Agrippa’s body from the gurney into the tube. It switches on and performs a diagnostic, then a vacuum seal pressurizes and the glass fogs up and crystallizes into a frosty haze, obscuring Agrippa. The temperature gauge goes from 98.6 to 10 degrees in a matter of seconds. The pulse slows and the heart rate decreases to only a single beat per minute. Agrippa is moved to the morgue to be held in a wall cubicle until the shuttle arrives later in the month. With him secured, Clavius turns to Livia. He tries to be gentle but firm.
“Let us go get this artifact and try to determine what we can do.”
The piece, now being referred to as the “bug medallion,” is on display on a lab table in the science wing. Several of the colony’s engineers and scientists are gathered around. Livia explains what happened and how she came to find it.
“There are indications of a script on the edges of the object,” she says.
The lead theoretician, Nelles, speaks up. “Well, it could be from an unknown and ancient culture, but perhaps the rock is simply a naturally occurring phenomenon we are unaware of,” he says. “I disagree. The tooled marks and the rendering of the insectoid form suggest there was more at work than natural processes. Its soaking up the water and the strange blister that it made on my husband’s palm indicates it requires liquid. The radiation increased after both incidents with water absorption.”
The doors to the lab slide open and Domitian, then regent of the empire, enters. He volunteered to lead the mission to Mars at great opposition from his father, but this endeared him to the colonists; he would take the same risks as them, regardless of his position and power. Everyone considers him a decent man whom they can trust their lives to. He weighs all options and is a careful decision maker who analyzes every detail.
They all bow as he approaches. The lighted panel on the lab table reflects the faces of those gathered and silhouettes the bug medallion. Domitian turns a wary eye to the alien object. Nelles begins his summation of what they are about to do, but Domitian interrupts him.
“Tell me right now, does it pose a threat to the colony?”
The group looks around at one another. “We do not know, sir,” Nelles says.
“Go on, then.”
“Sire, we were about to place it in the CT scanner to get a better view of the inside. I feel it is nothing more than diorite.”
“A common mineral here on Mars.”
Domitian nods his head to proceed. A robotic arm swings over the table and picks up the bug medallion, placing it into the cylindrical CT scanner. A red laser encircles the object, hugging the contours and picking up every detail. After a few moments and several scans, the scanner projects a perfect, three dimensional and much larger holographic image of the medallion. The interior of the medallion pulsates with green glow like a heartbeat. From the look on all the scientist’s faces, they are astounded by this. Domitian is the first to speak.
“Could it be alive?”
Incredible as it sounds, Nelles nods a half-nod. “Possibly, sire.”
“It looks like a location finder,” Pompeii says.
“For what?” asks Clavius.
“I don’t know, but it was discovered near the construction site, which is itself not very far from the polar ice caps. The object seems to react to moisture. Perhaps that has something to do with it?”
Several of the engineers nod.
“Come morning myself, Clavius, and Pompeii will look into it,” Domitian says.
Darius suddenly stops speaking, coming out of the fog of memory.
“That was the last I remember before everyone changed. Your father and the others left early the next morning. My mother was the first to change. I believe she realized what was happening and hid me away. I heard her scream, then a pulse rifle blast, followed by shouting and gunfire and explosions. Pompeii burst open the door and grabbed me. When we ran outside, hundreds lay dead. Some were fighting with swords as in ancient days. Pompeii put a pressure suit on me. We ran through the outer airlock towards the ships with soldiers giving cover fire.
Darius closes his eyes.
“None of the infected colonists had oxygen suits on outside the domes. They could function and breathe in the Martian atmosphere. My dear mother was one of them. Pompeii shot and killed her. We got to the ships and blasted off, leaving everyone and everything behind.”
Trajan and Rufio can hardly believe it.
“You were only eight and remember so much. What makes you think this Martian is not benevolent?” Trajan asks.
“Because of what your father told me they found,” says Darius.
“Dad said it was a chamber or bunker of some sort and that’s where they encountered Garelle. He warned them to destroy the facility and they did so.” “They tried to shield you and the others from the awful truth. They discovered an enormous device capable of controlling matter and energy. The ancients thought they disabled it, but it functions to this day on a lower power. The subterranean nuclear engines were deactivated. The core rods were pulled, but Garelle’s consciousness is in the mechanism and alive. Your father and Pompeii must have inadvertently triggered it for Garelle to take them over, but not enough to bend them. When they realized what was happening, they escaped. The system is still running.”
“A living machine?”
“Yes, but powered by more than nuclear fission. As to what exactly, that’s what we have to find out,” says Darius.