Crater*

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Chapter Ten

One year on from the ISELP disaster and the ML riots.

Marnie stands in front of the holoscreen in Cal's election office, listening for news on any early results.

'...In a new twist, the archaeological dig out at ML has revealed more than just the first scientific base on Mars. When the intrepid crew of the fated ISELP crash landed the Rubicon, the ISELP's very own antique space rocket, at ML almost a year ago, little did they know that the site would become one of this century's most archaeological important discovery, helping to piece together Mars' early history. Now, the remains of Perin Sybaris, one of the senior members of the Company Board and missing since the riots, has been unearthed there but so far, forensics are keeping an open mind about the nature of his death, saying he may well have been sheltering in the underground site during the ML hostage situation...'

'...In other science news, the research ship, The Ark is due to reach Earth any day. On a two year mission to visit and map the inhospitable planet, the first of it's kind in Mars history, they are searching in particular for signs of new life. The project has been funded from the bestselling book 'Earth History: a Planet in Crisis’, one of the many treasures rescued from the ISELP and bought to Mars on the Rubicon...'

'...Momentum is growing among the exit polls that the Union candidates have gained a lead as the first open vote to re-elect the Board for the Company is underway. In a historic move the Union could soon find themselves in control of the resources loop on Mars as their pledge to introduce democratic rights and a rudimentary parliament system has found favour with voters. Front runners in these polls are Sam Pagan, at the moment still campaigning in New Eden and Calvation Nation, an independent candidate, whose popularity with the younger voting demographic was bolstered after his series of Freedom and Choice for Mars concerts …'

Meanwhile, on Earth

The Establishment of a War Council in the Event of A Return to Earth from Mars

Dr. Darius Singh and Dr. Melvina Trollope take their places around the table with the rest of the Council. There are seven full time members and three non-voting rotational members chosen at random from the general population in the biome. Verity Nine is also present at the table. In front of them, in a petri dish, lies the remains of a small finch, its feathers matted and dirty, one wing broken, splayed at an awkward angle.

'I found it caught in the water distillation traps. It was, unfortunately, already dead. They must have released it somehow.' Melvina shakes her head at the small lifeless from. 'Poor thing, never stood a chance.'

'They plan to return.' Darius slaps a hand on the tabletop to emphasise his words.'It's just a matter of time. Now they know we are here. The problem with Mars was always the scale. It's too small a planet for them. Now they know we have survived here, they'll be back. And they'll dress it up as a science mission.. but you'll see, they'll colonize us! Overrun us! It was a mistake to ever let those two leave..'

'Hold on Darius, we don't know that for sure. We have had NO contact of any kind and there have been no more missions back to Earth! We don't even know if they even made it back to Mars...'

Verity Nine leans forward and interrupts the heated exchange.

'I bugged the Rubicon.' All eyes turn to her. 'It seemed a way in which I could monitor the flight capabilities of the Rubicon. And also to see if they made it back to Mars. '

'And, did they?'

'Yes, just. Well, the ship did anyway. How many of the crew, I don't know. But my best projection is probable survival.'

'You see? You see? THIS is what I am talking about! Eeryone suddenly has their own agenda! Why didn't the Council know of this? It's been months since they left, at what point were you going to reveal this information to us?' Darius glares at Verity.

'Telling you now.'

'Well, if they did survive, they may well keep their promise and not reveal our existence...' Melvina's voice trails off under Darius's glare as he switches his attention back to her.

'Really? Really? You think that's what they are going to do?'

From further round the table an older voice remarks 'We can only play with the hand we are dealt. Right or wrong we let them return to Mars. Whether they return or not, it is out of our control. Whether we are prepared or not to deal with a return to Earth from Mars, that is within our control.' Many heads nod at the words of Professor Nicolo Bredfrey. 'Darius, don't beat yourself up over the decision. We have time to prepare if or when these people decide to return. We need to contact the other two biomes, I know, I KNOW..' the professor waves away the protests. 'It goes against our protocol but.. we must all work together in the best interests of Earth...'

After more discussion an agenda is drawn up by the Council. They would contact the other two biomes, explain the sequence of events that had taken place and decide on a plan in the event of a revisit.

After the meeting convenes Melvina heads back up to the Observatories. Finding the bird had shaken her. It was so fragile in her hands. She couldn't help but see the parallel with their own existence on Earth. An hour or two of observing stars should help to quell the disquiet in her heart. The visit from the Crater crew had been so positive. She had felt at the time as though perhaps, finally, the two planets could reach out to each other, start a new chapter of human history. Work together, share knowledge, share people. Build and grow together. And here they were, believing Darius' conspiracy theories of impending doom and global takeover. Was human history ever to be thus? Could they never rewrite the story?

Through the lens the solar system spreads out, milky, opaque, swirling away out there. How many planets out there like Earth. How many playing out this scenario?

Darius paces his lab with the measure of twenty good strides. Were they really so hopelessly naive to not see where this was all leading? The bubble had been burst, the genie out of the lamp. They had set the two planets' populations on a collision course. Of course the Martians would be back and even if it was in the name of friendship, how long before the pull of Earth took hold. Called them all home. How long before they realise how economical we had been with the truth? The Atacama desert was just that, a desert still. But the rest of the planet? Darius shakes his head, Nicolo was right, whatever happens next, happens but at least they could be prepared. Darius was tired of the endless meetings going round and round in a circle. Let the Council mess about with drawing up plans and resolutions, there was another way to prepare.

Nicolo scans the email again. He wanted it to be clear and measured, with no hint of doubt or self-recrimination. They had done nothing wrong. The ship had crashed landed. The whole chain of events had been triggered by accident. He pauses for a moment wondering why they hadn't contacted the other two biomes at the time. What is it they say about hindsight? He adds the council addresses and then pauses again. Darius was right, they did need to think about a possible hostile return. Perhaps it had always been only a matter of time. They needed to go through all the possible scenarios thoroughly and present those as well to other biome councils. He saves the email and sighs. He would schedule another council meeting for tomorrow.

The Himalayan Plateau Biome is three times the size of the one in the Atacama desert. It hunkers low to the ground, three domes rising towards the towering walls of the river gorge, in Mustang, Nepal. The valley's high, cold location, in the rain shadow of the Anna Purna massif, had made it ideal for a biome. The dust-filled wind, the lack of water, the winter cold, the rock. Just like Mars but with air. Inaccessible too, it needed to be. Even more inaccessible than the other two biomes, it housed the library. One of the greatest libraries in Earth's history.

In order to build the biome in such a sacred spot, a compromise had been made. All the world's words. All the religious texts, sermons, prayers, all the great histories of belief and faith, the very well-spring of the human heart would be held within the biome. Plus the Earth Monitoring Station. Across the planet, before Earth Abandonment, a network of monitoring stations had been built, each housing meteorological equipment and relay centres for the global imaging camera array. Each day a weather reading and a photograph is taken by these monitoring stations and then this digital information fed back to the EMS. Here it is compiled into the largest digital jigsaw image of the state of the planet. An image repeated every day since the EMS went online. To power the EMS, there is an army of wind turbines marching up the flanks of the gorge. The biohedrons themselves generated solar power which is fine for the day to day running of the community but for the power hungry EMS, more is needed. Hence the wind turbines and the hydroelectric turbines even further up the gorge.

Roman's job is maintenance. He didn't mind if it is one of the most lowly jobs within the biome. Keeping the mechanisms of daily life running like clockwork is fine by him, because once a month he and the rest of the maintenance team leave the cloistered, quiet order of the biome and head up the gorge to check the turbines. It is a three day expedition of rowdy camaraderie and freedom that few within the biome are permitted to experience. All the floor mopping and toilet unblocking is worth it for the sting of the wind on your face and the chance to bellow rowdy songs into the sparks of a campfire at night. For a moment Roman pauses in his floor-mopping as his mind wanders off into the world beyond the biome.

'Hey! Brother Roman, where have you gone! Don't neglect your duties, my slippers will be soaked through if you leave your mop spreading water!' Roman jumps at the sound of Brother Tiger's voice. Sure enough a large puddle is spreading out from his mop and about to reach the elder man's slippers.

'So sorry, Brother!' Roman quickly starts to mop up the water, aware that soaking such a senior member of the order would be frowned upon by his maintenance supervisor. 'No harm done! Where did you go to, hmm? You had such a happy look on your face!' Brother Tiger chuckles at the young man's hasty work. 'Slow down! You'll wear away the floor at that rate!'

'Nowhere, Brother.. well, just thinking about a song.'

'A song? Must be a good one. Sing it to me while you mop and then, once you've finished, I shall show what I have been working on.' Brother Roman obliges with a rather squeaky rendition of one the fireside songs as he works his way swiftly down the map room with his mop.

Brother Tiger finishes rendering the map and then beckons Roman over. 'Enough of your song, Here, look at this.'

Roman stares at the 3D image stretching out over the screen in front of Brother Tiger. It shows a scrubby flooded forest reaching to the banks of a wide, wide river. 'Where is that, brother Tiger?'

'That is the Nile Valley in flood, Roman. A long way from here. But beginning to be quite fertile now. Almost ready. Almost ready.' He pats the young man's hand. 'Now, you! Less singing and more mopping! Go on, that's enough geography for today. Out of the map room now.'

Roman obeys Brother Tiger and drags his wheeled bucket and mop out of the map room, his mind now filled with an image of the sparkling waters of the Nile.

Another year or so and Roman would need a wife.Brother Tiger sighs at the thought of another generation ready for adulthood. Would Roman be one of the lucky pioneers returning to life outside the biome? Certainly it is looking more and more likely that soon, areas of the planet could sustain a population away from the biomes. This is what their work is for. For the return to an earthly paradise. To reclaim freedom. Brother Tiger turns back to the map, names, dates and saves it and then loads up the next set of information for 3D rendering.

The biome city in Australia is very different in design to the other two. It does not sit on the surface but is half sunk into the desert. A huge donut shaped ring. Because of the massive storms that rack the desert, the design was hoped to provide a better wind resistance and more even temperature to the inhabitants. In fact it did neither, desert days are still hot and the low, flatter roof allowed dust to settle more easily across the solar panels, requiring expensive sweeper machines to keep them clean, which eat into the erratic power supply. The rainstorms are worse than the dust storms, washing waves of deep red umber across the surface, finding every tiny gap in the roof and leaking through to the interior. The biome had been abandoned for human habitation long ago and now functions as a huge greenhouse. A farm for the biome's inhabitants who prefer to live out at the Henbury airport nearby.

Airport is an overstatement for the dusty red strip cleared out of the desert scrub. On one side of the runway a group of long, low buildings hugged the dry-baked ground. Strung between them are the photo voltaic panels, wind pumps and water tanks that keep the community ticking over.

Jackie and Adelphi sprawl in the shade of the water tank. A slow drip from the tank above allowing a thick carpet of clover to spring up in the shade and it is this that they are using as a rug as Jackie re-plaits Adelphi's hair. She always managed to mess it up by lunchtime.

'When do you reckon they'll be back?'

'Dunno, by sundown I should've thought.'

'Earlier I reckon, this arvo' maybe. Depends on the heat.'

From nearby the sound of a bell reaches them. They sigh and stretch and scramble up from the ground, rubbing the imprints of the clover leaves out of their school pinafores and smoothing down their hair.

'Come on Jacks! I'll get detention if I'm late again!' Adelphi runs off in the with Jackie following her twin at a slower pace. Adelphi is always the fastest. The school hall is a low building with a wide veranda allowing the heat from the roof to dissipate away into the afternoon haze. Adelphi and Jackie take their seats with their classmates as the afternoon session begins. Plotting plant respiration rates.

Reg settles back further into the chair as Milly leans forward and runs a finger slowly from his Adam's apple down to his navel. 'You're sweaty!' She chuckles and spreads her fingers out, gently teasing the hairs on his chest with a soft, slow, circular massage.

'It's you, you make me hot.' Reg slides his hands up under the hem of her shorts, enjoying the feel of her dimply thighs. 'Really? Not just the fact this greenhouse is like a sauna today?' Milly chuckles again, this time riding towards him under his hands. 'Nope, it's definitely you.' Reg grabs his wife's bottom and pulls her down onto his lap, biting her playfully on the neck and then, wrapping his arms around her tightly, picks her up in one swift move. She shrieks and draws her knees up, wrapping her legs around his back as he pushes the cuttings out of the way on the table in front of them and leans her over it. Milly can already feel his excitement rising through the thin cotton of his shorts as she deftly undoes the button and fly. All around them is an oasis of green leaves and flowering fruit. The heat, sultry and humid, pushes them closer together as their flesh becomes compliant with sweat and nerve endings flare with anticipation at the familiar rhythms. Milly and Reg come together in a breathily sweaty, table-shuddering way and then collapse together laughing and groaning back onto the greenhouse potting table.

In the back of Milly's mind a hopeful plea rises unbidden. Please let it be a boy. But she immediately squashes the thought before her mind fills with runaway fantasies. The twins were ten now, if that was to be their lot, then that was it. Reggie is a good man. A good father. The girls should be enough.

Reg sighs and untangles himself from his wife, stretching and adjusting himself as he checks the time on his watch. 'We need to go now, if we want to make it back by sundown.' He pulls Milly to her feet and smooths down her hair, kissing her gently on the forehead. From somewhere further round the donut of the biome a door can be heard slamming and the sound of running feet approaching makes them scramble to get re-dressed as their private Eden is gatecrashed by Lance arriving through the banana palms at some rate. 'Good! You're still here, Reg! Got a message come through on the old internet for you. Wants to link up now.' Lance stares at the dishevelled state of the two biologists in front of him. Milly in particular looks very flushed. 'You two alright? The humidity is a bit up today, it's the bloody dust in the filters again.'

'Yeah, fine, Lance. Who's the message from?'

'Darius. Come on, I think he's still on the other end.' The pair follow Lance back through the bananas, coffee, beans and pineapples towards the door set into the red wall of the biome. It leads to the control rooms, an air conditioned suite cut into the red rock of the desert.

Reg sits down at the old terminal pc and wipes the thin layer of dust away from the built-in camera. He clicks on the link and a minute or two later the face of his older brother appears on the screen.

'Reginald! We need to get hold of Theodore. Who's there with you? Never mind, I'm sending you a file. You need to read it immediately. You'll see why. Just send it on to Theodore, for some reason our link is down to them. Can you do that?'

'Yeah, nice to see you too brother! Darius calm down, what is going on?' Reg could see the agitation in his brother's face. Something is preying on his mind.

'Just read the bloody files and then you'll see! I've got to go, send my love to the twins!' The screen goes blank as Darius cuts the connection and the file symbol starts to flash in the corner of the screen. Reg forwards them to the terminal at their house at the airport and shakes his head at the other two. 'Don't ask me what that was about, I have no idea! You know how Darius can get a bit hot and bothered over ridiculous things. Probably some new equation of his he wants me to check.'

'Sorry, Reg, it seemed really important.' Lance shrugs at Reg and goes back to the air con unit he is overhauling.

Milly and Reg load up the ute with a couple of crates of vegetables and start on the ten mile journey back to town. 'Why would he want you to send the files onto Theo?' Milly is still mulling over the crytic conversation she had just witnessed. 'I haven't a clue! Look, I'm sure it's just one of his mad theories again. Anyway, it's proabably about time I caught up with Brother Tiger, he's been shut up in that order for far too long. See if the thought of home will bring him to his senses and come back to us.' Reg stares out of the window across the sweeping red land as Milly drives them back. Each lost in their own thoughts as a long cloud of dust billows out over their tracks.

The evening stretches out from the veranda. A deepening blue sky filling up slowly with stars. Reg leans over the veranda railing mulling over the email Darius had sent him. Inside the house, Milly is putting the twins to bed. He stares intently at the sky, trying to work out if what Darius had said is true. Had they really had a visit from Mars? The email was a series of notes from the meetings and conversations of the Atacama Council over the last few months, plus a long rant from his brother about possible invasion by Martians. Reg knew they kept a watchful eye on the skies over at the Atacama biome but here, in Henbury, Earth's history seemed just that. History. It is hard to imagine there is another planet, another world with people going about their daily life. Let alone imagine they wanted to return to Earth. Were they really a threat, these other people? Did they really want to come home? Reg watches the stars for a little longer. Perhaps Darius was right, he needed to forward it all to Theodore. Theo instinctively could see the bigger picture. Understood the grander schemes that always seemed hidden to Reg. He would do as Darius asks and send it all on to Theo and not let the Henbury Town Council know just yet. A lethargy seeps over Reg as he turns back to the house, the afternoon out at the biome catching up with him. He would send the email and then catch an early night.

The evening passes as every other has for Brother Tiger since his arrival at the Himalayan Biome. At six he helps prepare the evening meal, a stew made from dried pulses and mushrooms served with flat bread and strong tea. Then the meal ceremony itself, held in the kitchens, the heat of the ovens helping to overcome the chill air as a hundred people pack in on the long, low benches spread round the room. Then, between eight and nine there is contemplative thought in the west libraries or ablutions in the courtyards. From nine onwards the evening is his own, whether to carry on with personal study in one of the many reading rooms or to engage in one of the dice games in the dormitories. As a member of the order, Brother Tiger is meant to frown upon such activities as dice but they allowed a certain amount of venting of frustration and a release from the often monotonous routine of the brothers who are not high ranking. What harm could a game of chance really do?

As he returns to his small room, the computer console in the corner is flashing up a new email. He presses read and opens up the folder. It is a file from Darius, fowarded on from Reg. His real brothers, like the real world, seemed far away, as though belonging to a previous life. He smiles at the thought of them and starts to read.

By the time the biome lights are turned off, Brother Tiger has read and reread the email from Darius and Reginald several times. It feels like a blow to the body, the shock of the news. All the plans of the order suddenly seem to hang by a thread rather than the solid foundations he and his fellow brothers had been patiently working on, waiting on. Waiting for Earth to balance, to settle, to bloom once more into a fertile home for them. They are so close to that point. And yet now. Here is a an arrow into his heart. The thought that all this time, this sacrifice could be for... It occurs to Brother Tiger that he is being selfish. Did Earth belong solely to them or did it, in some part remain the mother home for these Martians? Was a return to Earth always the plan? And, typical Darius, had bypassed all council protocol and so now, technically, he and his brothers are party to knowledge gained illegally. There would be protocols in place, surely, for dealing with this, plans that he and his brothers are not aware of. Did not have access to. Someone must have thought about a return after Earth Abandonment?

By morning after a sleepless night, Brother Tiger is sure of one thing. His time at the Himalayan Biome is over. Whatever action the Councils decide, whatever happens, there is only one thing that matters more to him than the piles of books, papers, maps and plans that have been his life for the last fifteen years. His family. He stares at the cursor on the screen, hoping to glean some inspiration from it but his mind is empty. He wanted to put into words how suddenly threatened the world seems, their life was always so insular, so focused, now laid open like a book for all to read. He thinks of his brothers and for a second he is at home, running bare legged through the red dust, kicking up a storm as he charges after his two brothers, always running faster than him. And suddenly he knows what to type, what they would understand.

'All for one and one for all.'

That summer they had spent, after reading the books, being musketeers, pledging to each other, swearing in blood under the shade of the water tank. Each trying not to flinch as the drops of red from their fingers mingled with the red, red dust. He smiles briefly and presses send as the dawn light hits the side of the biomes and another day starts.

'I want you tell me what you are up to!'

'What I'm up to? Well, I'm trying to retrieve any data I can from these fried systems. There might well be an area of local memory storage in the systems that route through the ship and, if I can a find a section that isn't melted through, I might be able to learn more about what happened. Did you know that all the systems are integrated, everything talks to everything else, no wonder they had a problem when the.. '

'No! Not what you're doing now! I can see what you're doing now!' Darius impatiently leans in through the cut section of the Gybe. 'Why did you bug the Rubicon? What is your hidden agenda?'

Verity Nine straightens up from the section of hull she is examining and stares at Darius. She glances around the temporary hanger built around the crash site but the place looks empty.

'Don't worry Verity, I made sure we are alone. Now, I want answers from you. Just what are you up to.' Darius folds his arms and tries to block her way out of the ship but Verity snorts divisively and carefully maneuvers around him in one quick glide. Darius follows after her, at a quick trot to keep up as she strides to the nearby table.

'Darius for a smart man, at times you are a fool! My agenda is programmed in. My main objective is to protect you all. To help maintain the systems and fabric of the biomes and to make sure you humans don't kill yourself with your own strong-headed silliness. Have a cup of coffee and sit down!'

Darius opens his mouth to reply but she waves away his protest, pouring him a mug of black coffee from the jug on the table.

'You know why I bugged the ship. Earth has managed to do a very good job of playing possum over the last few centuries and we know that, despite all their salvage trips, there has been no interest in finding out what is happening down here. But now, this,' Verity gestures towards the ship, 'Them, the whole visit! It will remind them about Earth. I cannot see how, once they know there is life down here, even if they believe it is restricted to inside the biomes, they won't be curious. I've calculated out a series of scenarios as to how long before they return to visit us and I think it could be within a year. Darius, I just needed to know whether The Rubicon made it to Mars or not. Now, talking about hidden agendas, why don't you tell me why you are emailing Reginald?'

Darius chokes softly on his coffee at her direct question.'You know about that?'

'Of course I know Darius, I maintain all the systems here on Earth. I monitor them as well.'

'Then you know what I sent.' Darius pauses for a moment, remembering something. ' Did you block the email to Brother Tiger?'

'No! No, that was actually interference. The mountain stations get atmospheric interference. Darius, I'm not allowed to interfere, you know that. '

'But spying is OK?'

'And breaking Council code by going behind their backs with restricted information is OK? I monitor, Darius, as I am programmed to do so. What you are doing is altogether different. There is an old word for it. Mutiny.'

Darius digests the word slowly in his mind. Mutiny. 'Is that what you think I am about? This is our home Verity, my brothers and I, everyone on Earth, it is our home. Those people on Mars, their ancestors helped to destroy this planet, then they left. Like a swarm of locusts moving on. I won't let them return to simply destroy this planet again!'

'Nor will I Darius, nor will I. Let the Councils decide on a course of action before you and your brothers make any rash moves. Like I said, I think we have a year to plan. Now, I could use a hand with the circuitry boards under the console, if you're not too busy cooking up a revolution!'

Verity Nine walks as slowly as she can so that the Professor can keep up with her. The garden is quiet and peaceful. The scent of night stock, honeysuckle and evening primrose fills the air. Overhead, through the panes of the biome, stars slowly dot the evening sky.

'My projections would put the return within a year, if they are going to return. Have you had a reply to your emails from the other two councils?'

'Yes, yes, we are planning a series of Earth Council meetings. Video-linking up the three biomes is never easy. The plan is to draw up a ratified plan of action. We need agreement in how to proceed. But this is not why I wanted to talk to you, Verity. I'm worried about someone.'

'Darius?'

'Darius? No, no, not Darius! He's a hothead alright but his heart is the right place. No, it's Melvina that worries me. Very absorbed in her work, passionate about it. Too passionate. She has no one else in her life to temper her ideas. And I could see how shocked she was with that bird. She spends too much time with her work, I wondered if you could keep an eye on her for me. '

'How will everyone cope? With the idea that Earth has been rediscovered by Mars.'

'Well now, Verity. You are better at predicting future outcomes than me! I don't know how we'll cope, what lies ahead is a mystery. As it should be. People's freedom and choice are nebulous variables to quantify. We must simply try and prepare as best we can for all eventualities.'

'Even war?'

The professor doesn't answer, instead he stops to smell a particularly fragrant flower.

'I must remember to collect the seed from this one, Verity. Can you remind me, it is such a vivid scent. Now, let's go and see how the honeysuckles are doing.'

Later, back in her room, Verity sits in front of her console, re-running the conversation she and the Professor had. Something he said had fired a connection in her memory banks. 'People's freedom and choice are nebulous variables to quantify.' Such a strange and very precise phrase. The search engine returns a bank of bland references. What ever it is that Verity is remembering, it is not in the system. But she has definitely come across the phrase before. Freedom and Choice.

The Ratified Agreement by the Councils of Earth Meeting

Resolution One

To increase resources used for monitoring Earth space and to implement an early warning system.

Resolution Two

To Establish a war council in the event of a hostile return to Earth from Mars.

Resolution Three

To protect and defend the biome resources with particular attention given to the Earth Genome Project, the EMS and the Great Library.

'Bloody hell, that's it? Three months and that's all they've come up with?' Lance reads the document headings over Reg's shoulder.

'Well, they go into greater depth in each of these categories but yep, pretty much, that's it. We all have to volunteer for duties that fall into one of those categories.' Reg hands over the document to Lance.

'Bloody hell! Do you really think we're going to be visited by Martians?'

'That's just it Lance, we already have. We already have.'

Theodore

Brother Tiger kneels in front of the Order Elders, seated in their ceremonial robes in the Inner Temple. 'And we can't change your mind to stay?' Brother Sky leans forward to hear his answer.

'No, my journey lies elsewhere. I am sorry but these events, they change everything. If I stay here, I am not being true to my heart.'

'Then we will accept your request for nomadism. But remember Brother, your spiritual home is here with us. We will grant you three years leave, after which point you must return to us or renounce the Order.'

'Thank you.'

Brother Tiger can feel relief flood through his body. He is going home. He packs his small pile of possessions into a backpack and dresses in the warmest of his clothes he can find. It will be a four day trek to the nearest airfield. He sends the email to Reginald with his estimated arrival at the airfield and then starts the rounds of saying goodbye.

With every step it feels as though the years spent in the order are slipping from his shoulders, changing shape back again and emerging from a cocoon, not as Brother Tiger but as Theodore.

There is a queue of Brothers to see him leave at the gates of the biome. Small presents to receive and blessings bestowed. Some tears, some smiles and then he is outside, on the hard, worn, stone path which leads down to the valley floor. The wind bites at his ears and he pulls his felt cap further down over his forehead and sets off down the path stretching out before him.

Slime Molds

Melvina walks swiftly towards the simple wooden door in the corner of one of the labs in the Atacama biome. To any casual observer it looked very much like a broom cupboard or a service door. She opens the door and passes into what appears to be a small, dark cupboard but is, in fact, a lobby. She uses the press key on the wall opposite, not needing any light to know its exact location and the wall panel slides back to reveal a lift, just about big enough for four people.

One floor below the biome, built into the bedrock of the desert, is a series of sealed rooms holding the Mars Ark. The Earth's ecosystem genome. Melvina has spent her life maintaining this catalogue and using it as a reference point for her work up on the surface. She feels her work could lend itself, in particular, to Resolution Three of the Ratified Agreement.

Once, long ago, it had been thought that the ecosystem genome could be used to kick-start life again but, actually, nature had her own plans and, so far, had well outperformed any scientific calculations or models. This massive organic database was, to some extents, obsolete on Earth. The ecosystem could, given long enough, repair itself.

If they'd known what we know now. That thought often occurred to Melvina, the idea that given long enough, the system would reboot itself. Humans had always prided themselves in their position at the top of the complex ecological pyramid, of that much had been obvious in the willful destruction of the planet and the collating of the Ark. And yet, here they are, hundreds of years later watching Earth heal herself and without the help of humans. It threw up many questions for Melvina and one in particular, since the Gybe crash landed on Earth. What effect would humans have on other complex, evolving ecosystems. Like on Mars.

Traditional science postulated that at some point Mars had atmosphere, rivers, maybe even oceans and some catastrophic meteor impact had stripped away the atmosphere, rendering the planet lifeless. Certainly by the time of Earth Abandonment, Mars was a convenient nearby lump of red rock to land on. It wasn't lifeless though, Melivina's work was showing that there is no such static term as lifeless in the solar system, probably in the universe, only a state of bio-latency. Given time, Mars would have rejuvenated itself. What kind of catalyst, if any, had the impact of humans been on the red planet? She couldn't help wondering if the appearance of humans had been as catastrophic as the impact of that meteor. Her wandering thoughts have bought her to the far end of the Ark suite, to a small section signposted as 'Slime Molds'.

Here, using an electron microscope, Melvina finds what she is looking for. Slime molds are co-operative micro-organisms, gathering together as one entity to hunt new food sources, to fruit and create spores to then disperse back into the environment. If you are going to need a biological weapon to hold off an entire invading planet, this is where you would start. Slime molds.

And Back on Mars

Straight to Compartment Bliss

‘Come on! You have to open it now, I’m dying to know what’s in it!’ Noona drags the travcrate over to Addie and Irv. Addie reaches for the press key to open it, pausing as a text message flashes up on the keyscreen. ‘It’s from Dougal, he sends his love and is sorry he can’t be here…I can't believe how quickly he and Verity Nine managed to get that science mission to Earth off the ground.'

‘Go on open it!’

‘Ok, OK’ Addie opens the crate and looks inside and then laughs out loud. Noona retrieves the inventory tag from the inside of the crate lid.

‘What is it?’ Irv puts his arms round Addie’s waist and swings her to one side to see what’s in the crate. Noona lists off the inventory, ‘It’s sixty-two jars of his jam and seventeen and a half jars of his marmalade. Apparently he’s calculated exactly a year’s supply for the two of you.’

All three of them burst out laughing and Christophe, looking up from the table of gifts nearby, wanders over to join them.

‘What’s the joke?’

‘Silly really, just Dougal’s present to us, a year’s supply of his jam.’

Christophe looks blankly at them and Noona smiles, linking her arm through his, ‘You had to be there, it was a space thing. Well, we ought to think about rescuing Chip from the clutches of that bridesmaid.’

‘Hold on, what’s that?’ Christophe reaches into the crate and pulls out a small packet stuffed in between a couple of jars. He hands it over to Addie, who unseals the readywrap and tips the contents out into her hand. It is a small roll of soft, slightly sparkling tape and a hand written note.

‘If I don’t make it back on this trip, then this is for my fellow crew members (Noona, Dougal, Addie and Irv), to remind them of me. I think of them as friends and friends stick together, through good and bad times, kind of corny I know, but for me, their friendship is like this tape and I always carry a roll of it with me, wherever I go. Plus, and this will make you all smile, Tacky Tape is an anagram of Katy Capet.

All my love, Harvey.’

Addie can feel Irv’s grip slightly tighten round her waist and looking up into his eyes she can already see the sadness echoed in hers. Noona sighs, ‘I still find it hard to believe he’s gone. I miss him. Dougal must have had that all the time, he never said.’

From across the room there is a loud whoop and the four of them turn to see the dance-floor clear and the lights dim to a more romantic mood.

‘I think it’s your cue, for your dance.’ Christophe lightly guides Addie and Irv by the shoulders over to the waiting crowd and Addie, suddenly conscious of the roll of tape in her hand, passes it to Noona, who pockets it and follows them to watch. The band start to play and Addie and Irv take to the centre of the floor and start to dance. As Noona watches them, the lines of an old Katy Capet song spring into her head.

All the wisdom that we gain
Is too often learnt with pain
Still, you'll have to take that chance
For a moment in the turn of the dance

The End


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