Monday, February 12, 2018

Beyond Phobos An Excerpt • За Фобос - Отрывок • Más allá de Fobos - Un extracto • フォボスを越えて

(mars has two moons - phobos and deimos which are sometimes distinguished as satellites. their names mean fear and dread)


Beyond Phobos
K. Van Kramer



Mars can be settled. For our generation and many that will follow, Mars is the New World.

The Promise Of Mars– Robert Zubrin

Thursday October, 4th, 2207

Following instructions is overrated.

A ship named the Peregrinus Interstellar roared near a Mars Colony 1 landing pad.
“Panara Valles tower, this is the Peregrinus Interstellar. Come in. Repeat this is the P.I. Requesting permission to land immediately.”
The foreign ship drifted above a spectacular vista of red earth and unfamiliar forms of Panara Valles, near Mar’s equator.
 “P.I. This is Colony Tower One. Please hold,” a voice came through. “We don’t uh, have any record of your ship or flight plan. What is your position? Over.”
“You got radar, you find us, over,” the captain spoke with arrogant impatience.
 “Alright, I’ve got you on radar, state your intentions,” the controller said remaining composed.
 “We got Sertes.”
 “I’m sorry, say again?”
 “Pigs,” the pilot drawled out in a Hungarian accent. “Rare Hungarian pigs, prized for the rich tender texture of their meat.”
Although food on Mars included fresh vegetables, fruits, and fish, there was little meat available. To get the dietary protein they needed, they lived on strict programs that included “customized” pre-packaged meals called V-Paks and other assorted freeze-dried rations. The pilot waited, knowing the men at Mars tower were drooling. 
“I got fourteen large, fat hairy hogs. Four legs, curly tails, and very big snouts. We got the best delicious strips of juicy bacon, a pork heaven waiting for you. Served at breakfast with eggs, but perfectly good alone at any time of day. But don’t make me fly in circles eh, I might give my cargo to the Russians again,” he said with a thick accent.
 The unknown pilot and his team waited. The rugged pilots hair was dark, clipped short, and long scars etched his scalp inside his helmet. His arms were bulging, large and muscular, pressed tightly inside a light pressure suit.
After a short pause the Clearance Delivery operator spoke off the radio to the controller, “Looks like we got us an Independent. Man these guys have some balls,” he said taking a drag on a Vaporette.
“P.I., Colony Tower 1, welcome to our airspace,” Control said grinning. Traffic controllers at Colony 1 were renowned as short tempered, but he couldn’t help from smiling. Although the ship hadn’t paid them the courtesy to warn them of their approach, it wasn’t likely they could work out another flight plan. “You’re cleared to land on 1, the wind is calm for descent, maintain four one zero. Ah, expect lower visibility in ten miles.”
 “Negative! You can’t do that!” The tower chief started. “You can’t just clear them to land,” he said incredulously. “It’s a total violation of security protocols!”
 “Say’s who?” ground control quickly snapped. “He’s ESA. Look at his numbers. He’s got aircraft clearance and landing rights here.”
“If you let him land we’re liable for contamination. You don’t have the authority, and security clearly states — ”
 He has clearance,” Ground Control insisted getting heated. They all understood why the small settlement had strict regulations. Since the small Martian city evolved, rules had been set in place to protect the small underground city and its supporting systems. Any individual or small group could in theory, destroy the entire colony by disrupting their power supply or contaminate the area and there would be little they could do about it. Needless to say, many of the colonists fought the hyped up security which they were subjected to in order to take advantage of important opportunities arising for the colony and its operations.
The chief began again, turning red the face. “Security clearly says —”
 “You want protocols? Here’s your damn protocols right here,” ground control clenched his jaw in anger pointing to an electronic report and began reading. “The U.S. Colony shall authorize the use of their base by the European Space Agency to support all launch and landings. The U.S. Colony shall authorize the E.S.A. to install and to use specific equipment related to the reception of the E.S.A. launch and landing vehicles. Hereinafter referred to as Colony 1 facilities, and so forth and so on…we are not liable for any negligence. Says it right here,” he tapped his finger hard waving up a lighted protocols page exhaling his Vape. “How do you like them apples?”
The tower’s chief glared expectantly at the other men in the room. “There’s going to be hell to pay without approval from the installation commander.” Defeated, he stormed back to his seat.
The radio was silent but only for a moment. Delivery grinned again even though he knew the chief was right. “Ever tasted a pig slow roasted? It’ll be worth it,” he joked. He came back on the radio, “P.I., Tower 1. Report your numbers. This is Delivery.”
“Tower 1, P.I., mark our position, we are ready for landing,” a voice from the Peregrinus responded.
 “Copy that, cleared for landing,” Delivery responded, instantly transferring the small E.S.A. drop ship information they needed for approach. “The Greens are gonna love this,” he said off the air. They’ve been asking for more pigs to make fertilizer.
Strapped in their seats, the space ship’s crew continued the banter as the landing beacon from the Martian tower became visible on their radar. Wind was moaning along the concourse as the unknown Hungarian shuttle slowly landed its automated descent eventually giving up control to it’s commander. Underneath the ship, powerful jets began hitting the red Martian landscape sending up billowing clouds of red dust and four huge hydraulic landing legs extended down from the belly of the craft making a deep thud. The rumble increased in pitch until the heavy, sturdy circular gray metallic ship touched ground on a defined rectangular area of the airfield. A workhorse of drop ships it was not as “hot” as later designs, but it was a sturdy heavy design, based on earlier ships with plasma engines, that the E.S.A. and Independent’s were able to produce in small numbers. The Peregrinus was a souped-up modified version, uglier and faster than most, outgunning most other ships as well. Properly handled it was lethal.
Large swept back delta wings retracted from the top of the ship and they waited for heavy robotic tugs called Towbots to pull them into the large protected underground hanger. With careful directions from the cockpit, the Towbots connected to the Pereginus and they began moving along a long taxiway to the entrance end of the colony’s main military hanger. As the ship taxied, Captain Tibor rested his elbows, looking forward through a large cockpit window like cruising the boulevard on a Saturday night. Built into the side of a mountain under hundreds of meters of red Martian stone, the crew watched as they made their way to 500 ton steel blast doors, that opened like a giant gaping jaw. The Towbots pulled the ship forward through the entrance towards a vacant spot inside the enormous hanger. With room for a squadron of fighters called Star Breakers, and other various mining and exploration ships, space was well available, and the Peregrinus was parked inside the sprawling complex.
Extending a huge loading ramp from the center of the ship, the crew prepared themselves for boarding and inspection after shutdown procedures. Despite the fact that they hadn’t forwarded their approach or been given a “Plan of Entry” they had already keyed in important pieces of data about his crew and cargo through an electronic data interchange or (EDI).
“That’s it,” Tibor said pulling off his helmet. His fingers reached up playing with a few last controls to completely power down the ship. “Enjoy yourselves.”
 “Yes!” His co-pilot smiled. “Just what the doctor ordered, eh Greer?” he said chiding the medical office still seated behind him.
“Yeah, thanks for the prescription doc, I could use a break,” another one of the other crew members said unbelting himself from his seat. They had all experienced some signs of stress and fatigue from their busy schedules in space and the small crew looked forward to some much needed some rest.
Curious about another private spacecraft that had made it miraculously to the colony, the hanger’s emergency lights blasted inside and the interior bustled with activity to begin security and servicing procedures. Along its vast length, maintenance crews and other rugged equipment began moving toward the craft, driving large rolling pallets to the ramp in preparation to unload the cargo. A second specialized team responsible for evaluating and inspecting incoming ships were on scene in minutes waiting to carry out a physical inspection, checking for any “dangerous goods” as Tibor and his crew began exiting. Despite the fact they arrived unannounced, the Independents were a good sign, becoming a critical part of a crossroads for a major expansion. The scramble was on to lure a new generation of cargo ships and bulk carriers, and trade was growing significantly.
Tibor and the men began disembarking as the entire Colony Port Authority descended on them. “Welcome to Colony 1,” the lead officer said coolly looking up at the tall commander.
“Captain Tibor, it’s great to be here,” the captain said cordially shaking the man’s hand in a bear grip.
“What are we unloading today?” the officer questioned.
“I have four crewmen, livestock, pharmaceuticals, textiles, electronics. It’s all on the manifest I just sent you. You’ll find everything inside,” he said looming over the man in a khaki brown flight suit. “But take it easy eh, with the pigs eh?” he said. “Their legs break easy,” he warned.
The man looked at Tibor curiously trying to take stock of the situation. “We know,” he said gesturing at a man in charge of cargo operations giving him the okay. A small team continued pulling up the pallets taking in the information. “You know the drill. Optek is taking it from here for contamination,” he said glancing away from Tibor to the cargo officer.
Tibor smiled without much regard for the authorization polices. His ship would most likely be taken care on a nonexclusive, temporary basis. “You should have the cargo statements, doc’s, visa’s, medical. Provision checks. Everything. It’s all in your system.”
“Appreciate that,” the officer said. “Permission to disembark,” he said. “You and your crew can stay in the lounge until the installation commander figures out what to do with you. It’ll be just a few minutes.” At the discretion of the officer in charge, they were quickly released to a temp’s crew area. Later they crashed for the evening inside the crew’s temp quarters, but Tibor stayed up late to have a drink inside a crew’s lounge, worried about what wasn’t on the manifest, buried deep in hidden containers.



Creating — that is the great salvation from suffering.

Xanders was tired but the woman seated on his right was talking compulsively.
“I can’t believe I’m here. I’ve really done it all now. I mean not many people can say they’ve been on Mars. It just doesn’t happen unless you have the right connections,” she sniffed.
Xanders had seen many passengers bound from Earth, coming to live on the colony lately, bragging about life on Mars. He had come straight into the tunnel from the surface still wearing his Coat, eager to see his girlfriend Lirren who was working underground in the greenhouses, sector seven. He checked his wrist monitor for a second then casually flipped off his suit’s air pressure down to normal. The Coats, as they were called, provided air flow with a tight protective layer fabric around the wearer’s bodies for brief surface excursions, but he hadn’t bothered changing into his everyday suit yet called a Heavy. He wondered if the woman would ever stop talking.
“You know what I’m going to do?” asked the woman, whose body was squeezed inside a Heavy suit like a sausage inside a casing. She didn’t wait for a reply, and kept talking with a rapid voice saying exactly what she planned on doing. She seemed like the type arriving here more worried more about impressions than bone rot. Seated in a fast moving 4-man car called a slip, they passed through the small Colony’s main underground tunnel.
  — And then I’m going to Bottoms Up tonight. I’ve heard you can jump around in a special room there, without a suit, wearing just your thin tight grays. I heard people do more than just go light in there,” she giggled looking at her suit’s controls. Her blood pressure reading was high so she began pressing the suit’s adjustments on her sleeve. He turned his head away, aware she was studying his face.
“Are you paired with anyone? Do you ever go there?”
Xanders brushed her off quickly, “I’m too busy,” he said.
“Oh. Well It doesn’t seem like we’re on Mars does it? It really doesn’t. It seems like yesterday I was in the ship coming here. The Zenith. It was an antimatter ship. Wonderful ship. Beautiful! Ever seen one?
Xanders nodded. He’d toured one.
“Well I sure remember the day I came here. Couldn’t have been more than a few months ago. Do you think people make mistakes here? You know, maybe people get hurt, freeze to death, or don’t snap their helmet on right and breath in CO2, something like that?
“It’s happened,” said Xanders, answering her question with a sideways glance.
“Stars,” she gulped her bright red face turning a shade of pale. “I heard CO2 can raise your blood pressure and cause a heart attack… even brain damage. Of course, that’s why we need so much training. It isn’t so bad, except the gym time. So much time in the gyms, and if they find out you don’t go, they penalize you, and say you’re unfit to stay. Not that I’m skipping the gym mind you. I just wonder how much a person actually needs — ”
“It isn’t so bad once you get used to it,” Xanders said cutting her off.
 “Of course, it’s necessary. Without all these special rules, none of us could live here. But I’m not worried,” she swallowed again, looking suspiciously at her suits blood pressure reading probably wondering if she had CO2 poisoning, although her suit would instantly alert her.
She sat nervously fidgeting with her suit’s control unit on her sleeve as the slip whisked forward. She looked up and began talking compulsively. “Without so many hazards on Mars there’d be a lot more people coming here, but since it’s so small we can’t support too many. I mean…we simply don’t have room for just anyone to come here. But if you stay on Earth you take your chances too. But Mars isn’t so bad, is it? When I was only twelve I began experiencing earthquakes and floods in Washington. We escaped north to Canada. In Canada the weather was better. On Mars though, no earthquakes, no floods. Just a little gamma, but it’s getting better. I heard you don’t really need a pressure suit anymore on the surface.” She took a deep breath in. “It isn’t so bad.”
“No. No it’s not,” he said. She was beginning to wear out his patience and he regretted not taking a more secure car. It was good to mix with the new colonists, but when he was short on time, he usually avoided the general population by using his clearance for the Express – a car that went slightly faster and didn’t stop for other passengers. Considered 2nd in command under General Takeda at the attached Air Force Base, he oversaw most of the main operations, with the power and clearance to get almost anything he wanted. As the former chief technology officer for a large commercial spaceflight company called XWing, he was heavily involved with building the colony, helping bring important technology needed for survival inside the city. When one impossible job after the next came up, Xanders was the one you called to get it done. If she realized who he was, she was the probably type to keep talking to him like she was anyway. At least his stop was coming up soon, he thought. He watched as the plants and trees planted alongside the platform began getting thicker, an indicator the car was approaching Green Sector. She began talking again, but he tuned her out, thinking about all the changes happening to Mars to make life possible.
From power and air, to food and water, it was like one engineering feat after the other in the beginning, but it wasn’t long before a few underground buildings spread into a diverse hectic population. Like any city, they were becoming an international hub with people from a wide range of backgrounds. With a winter population of about 1,500 people and a summer population that reached over 3,500, the colony included several living complexes like guilds, with attached underground gardens. Just about everything they needed was within walking distance including basics like a large medical clinic, exercise centers, stores, clubs, science centers, and the base.
At the same time, above ground, they were terra-forming the entire planet. Modified was what the scientists were calling it. Certain types of algae, trees, and artic grasses were pumping oxygen into the suffocating atmosphere. Natural magnetic fields were taking hold, and life saving water was plentiful, oozing out from ice cracks and riverbeds. It was true the planet’s climate had raised a few degrees but Mars was still far from hospitable. What many people didn’t realize though, was Mars colonization began ­long before people ever arrived with the use of self-replicating machines known as Zygotes. The Zygotes built the sprawling solar power centers and self-growing lunar factories without the initial risk of sending humans. Paving machines and robotic loaders had strip-mined Mars’ topsoil for a carbothermic process long ago.
“Maybe when you have time — ”
 “My stop is here. Good luck,” he said. The slip slowed down reaching past a line of evergreens that marked the greenhouse entrance. Xanders stopped the tiny open-air car, and exited the slip.
“Good-bye,” the woman called out to him curiously and she disappeared moving forward to another location in the tunnel.

Xanders didn’t want to remember how many years had passed since he’d brought Lirren and her son Logan here, and how much it took to get them off Earth. A well-known agricultural engineer, Lirren had worked for the USDA in California before they left, and now she worked as the leading Ag Officer, in charge of developing the colony’s first sustainable food resources.
It was different four years ago when they came. Now it seemed as if anyone with enough credits could pay their way. Xanders walked forward thinking about how he had painstakingly arranged their escape on a large spaceship named the Demetrius from Vandenberg, California, avoiding the hellish earthquakes there. He’d been right about all the weather on Earth still getting worse and the suffering going on. All the people dying. He tried shutting off the thought, finishing the last few strides towards the Greenhouse entrance.
At least on Mars, things were going better than expected. It hadn’t been easy for them in the beginning, but things were going smoothly now. Notwithstanding the near catastrophe Lirren had when they first arrived, he reminded himself. Lirren had tried bringing some Ag product to Mars with her colleague Dirk, from the USDA at Riverside California that wound up becoming a dangerous fiasco. It all began after they inadvertently crossed paths with Vladimir Zalesskii — a cunning billionaire space tycoon, and outlaw, who meddled with Mars shipments frequently. Luckily, he and a small covert team were able to intervene before things got too out of hand at a distant Space Station. Everything seemed under control but it wasn’t long before Zalesskii retaliated by trying to kidnap her son Logan on Mars Spacebridge. During a last minute harrowing extra vehicular battle, Xanders and his two close friends, Patrik and Nez stopped the attempted kidnapping midway up a space elevator. Patrik, one of XWing’s star pilots, had helped by commandeering a small getaway ship called the Star Grazer, while Nez — a Navajo Indian, and natural born hunter fought along his side.
Xanders closed his eyes remembering how he saw Zalesskii and his men coming for them in outer space in their E.V.A. suits. Nez had fought them, giving him time to pull Logan safely out of the space elevator. In that instant while he fumbled to get Logan out, Nez saved their lives but Nez took a blow. Knocked unconscious, Xanders pulled Nez back to the Star Grazer, with Logan by his side. Zalesskii wheeled and came back yanking Xanders away from the ship. They grappled over a gun, and he kicked Zalesskii away. He watched as Zalesskii ’s arms clawed out reaching against the black nothingness of space, a black silhouette against the red glow of Mars. He would never know for sure if Zalesskii survived, but rumors spread quickly he was still forging his own empire on Mars somewhere. Ever since Zalesskii started interfering with Mar Colony 1, and especially after the incident with Logan and Lirren, he was designated as an “entity of concern,” and a direct threat to Mars and other U.S. Government agencies. Meanwhile other scientists, ships, and technology continued to disappear to his base impeding their progress along with other substantial violations of the Space Treaty.
In response to everything that happened with Lirren and Logan, General Takeda had stepped up with a multitude of secret conferences, scheduling strictly Members-Only briefings with Xanders hoping to thwart any future terrorist incidents. Takeda also had multiple surveillance activities in place, still keeping an eye out for trouble, trying to pin-point Zalesskii’s exact location, but things had quieted down. In some ways, Xanders felt a reluctant admiration for the man for making his own private empire, bringing who and what he wanted here, living by his own rules. But given the circumstances, it was also warped, cowardly and selfish.
Xanders slowed down and unsnapped a tiny, white hand-held computer that contained everything from communication to identity. Called a Interface Device or I.D. for short, his was the basic type since the flying designs called M.A.V.’s were banned on Mars. Considered another one of their “unfriendly” regulations there were steep fines for using M.A.V’s here. The little micro air vehicles were privacy busters but another major problem was that Mar’s light gravity played havoc with their weight and motion. He had seen them disappear, stuck against ceilings because of their tiny size. Eventually they would loose power and fall to the ground becoming a potential equipment hazard.
He looked up realizing he had already covered a long distance along the platform, and stopped placing the tiny device into a key slot to open a tall set of steel doors. With a faint click, a light blipped green and the doors sliced opened from a darkened steel arena into a new world. Xanders snapped the personal identification device back in to his suits sleeve and squinted for a moment adjusting to the vast airy complex that gleamed with bright artificial light.
Adjusting to the warmth and humidity, he continued forward into the giant white skeletal structures jammed with plants, trees and crops sprouting everywhere. Nearly twenty feet tall and as wide as a football field the underground garden sat interlocked with neatly laid smooth aisles. Massively appealing to all the different groups living in the complex, the colonists could visit the Main Greenhouse anytime they wanted although certain sections that used honey bees for pollination were off limits. Only certain Ag’s or various high ranking colonists like himself had the authority to access those areas, but mainly as a precaution. All the gardens and the greenhouses were considered extremely important on the Colony, but not just for eating — it also lifted their spirits reminding them of Earth. Even Xanders admitted it gave him a sort of psychological relief to be here occasionally. Occasionally, he and Lirren would stop by and visit Nez, who usually tended to the bees now. Nez had settled in permanently as one of the Ag’s top scientists and lead apiarists producing limited amounts of honey for the colonists. Now and again he would give Lirren some of his private stash as a gift. A rare treat.
After the incident, Nez never spoke of it again, but Xanders would never forget what Nez had done for him. At times when he looked at Nez he could still see a dark intense look in his eyes, as if he was still waiting for his final revenge against Zalesskii. Sharp, ruthless and clearheaded, few people knew Nez and what he was actually capable of doing. Xanders didn’t doubt if he ever met up with Zaleskki again, that Nez would win.
Walking through the green spring like world, Xanders quickly weaved his way over to aisle marked 5, and slowed down knowing he would find Lirren nearby. Section Five was where she spent most of her time, tending to the famed project that had drawn so much outrageous attention by Zalesskii — strange looking mutant fruits and vegetables that grew by the thousands in the complex now. Part of a genetically altered program called Evolution; the plants were technically the brainchild of her son Logan, to breed native crops in arid conditions on Mars. The crops were thriving and becoming an indispensable part of their daily diet, but in the beginning, only Lirren and Logan really understood what the new plants meant, and why they risked so much to get them to Mars. Xanders paused and looked around admiring the technology. Some of the vegetation rose almost twenty feet high, with Ag inspectors who either walked around or stood on foot movers checking nutrient levels. Some of them were swinging precariously in buckets atop tall robotic arms carefully selecting the vegetables near the garden top.
Xanders glanced right and spied Lirren bending over a plant. He crept up behind her tall slim physic and delicately smacked her from behind, his smile barely noticeable. “Lirren!”
Lirren jumped up holding her chest. “Xanders! Stars you scared the hell out of me,” she burst out laughing. “Just look at these,” she said excitedly handing him some sort of new vegetable, kissing his lips quickly along with a little hug. He looked at her softly for a moment, lost in her deep mysterious brown eyes, and long dark hair. She was beautiful, even her imperfections, like the slight gap between her front teeth when she smiled. Her smile melted his heart.
 “Oh, uh, interesting,” he commented peering at something remotely like a cucumber. “What is it?”
“Just try it, you might like it,” she said hopefully. The new class of fruits and vegetables also gave everyone a little boost in radiation protection, growing in a bizarre array of colors, shapes and sizes that were somewhat alarming.
He tentatively bit into the end and chewed trying to swallow it. He glanced at the pinkish meaty interior trying not to let her see his expression at the bitter taste. Lirren was eye balling him closely with her hands on her hips, watching intently as he chewed. The new plants had certainly raised a few eyebrows in the beginning but after some thorough testing the Colony approved the new plants.
“Well?” she asked.
“It’s good.”
“You’re such a terrible liar,” she said and grabbed the half-bitten cucumber out of his hand. So what brings you to this side of town?”
“I was on my way back from a meeting on base with Takeda. A ship from Hungary landed here yesterday with special pigs onboard — an Independents ship.”
            “Special pigs? Really? I guess Mars is becoming the pig planet. I hate that idea, but it’s becoming a reality I suppose.” She looked up at the top of the greenhouse, her thoughts wandering for a moment. “I saw a little piglet at Optek a few days ago. I was tempted to take it home,” she smiled. She spied a compost bin to her right and stopped to throw Xanders half eaten cucumber into the collection slot. “Your food scraps just became animal feed for the pigs and additives for our soil. What’s really amazing is it also produces methane gas to help warm up the atmosphere.”
Xanders nodded but Lirren could tell he wasn’t listening. “Xanders?”
“Oh, uh, you mean keep a pig as a pet? I told you I don’t mind. They’re letting some of the colonists have one, but once they get too big….”
“Don’t worry I won’t,” Lirren said quickly, “but it was tempting.” she paused again and gave him a sideways glance looking at his Coat. “What is it Xanders? I get the feeling you didn’t come all the way down here from the surface to tell me about another ship.”
“We got more bad news from XWing today. The National Academy of Science reported the sun was about to have another temper tantrum. Congress is preparing for a continent wide power outage.”
Every time he warned her about the crumbling situation between the two planets she felt like their world was turning upside down, but now he sounded down as well. Inner alarms were sounding off. Something was wrong.
“How bad? Are we nearing this — end of the world?
“The EOTW? No. But…it’s not looking good.
“So you mean just bad enough to cause more food riots, satellite interruptions, the usual.”
Xanders nodded. “XWing is also concerned about their nanosats. It could cause further communications interruptions. According to them, it’s another safety issue with these geomagnetic storms. It’s a hazard for everyone. The pilots are at risk and it damages the unmanned ships too. Everything is affected by all this space weather. Funny how an invisible burst of energy from the sun can wreak so much havoc on everything.”
“For how long? How much more can our people take?” she asked, her voice getting edgy.
Xanders said nothing. It was never looking good. They both hesitated for a moment at the end of the garden. Everyone was tired of all the bad space weather going on.
“I guess that explains it then. I keep making requests for heirlooms. They keep promising me, but it never comes,” The new administrative coordinator keeps saying it’ll get shipped on the next available vessel, and there’s already a two month delay before I ever order. Our crops might fail without them and we still don’t have everything we need. No one seems to get it. How long can we go before our Pak rations run out from the same problem?”
   “Then we’re really screwed,” Xanders shrugged his eyes still fixed on the garden. Lirren’s heart jumped slightly at his remark. She had grown used to the idea they could pull through almost anything, and come up with amazing solutions out of the air. Lirren and the Ags had labored ceaselessly to build an independent food resource on Mars. Although Xanders wasn’t a scientist himself, he shared her concerns and fully understood the implications of her mission. “It shouldn’t be too much longer Lirren. You have to trust XWing will get us what we need here. If all else fails, you know we can count on them — and Lexa,” he smiled faintly.
Lirren stood nervously. “I hope you’re right. But all these communications interruptions are making me nervous. No way to monitor the shipments…” She sighed, turning her head and began playing with one of the plants to her right. She picked off a leaf and ran her long fingers over the smooth texture in her hand. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see,” she managed a faint smile, but measured Xanders with a long glance. Xanders put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed her hard.
“It’ll be okay, they’ll get here I promise,” he paused thinking. “Hey, why don’t we sneak a look see at that new Hungarian ship at the operations center?” he asked. Although they weren’t exactly aviation nuts, it was the newest attraction at Mars Colony 1.
“Let’s go,” she said putting her arm around his. She glanced at the helmet he was still holding. “Will we need our bubbles?
“No. It’s secured in an air tight area. You won’t need it.”
Moving air cut through them as they reached the main tunnel and climbed back into a Slip. Xanders spoke rapidly trying to get Lirren’s mind off the Ag shortage. “The ship we’re about to tour was rebuilt and served by a few previous owners. It’s called the Peregrinus Interstellar now — but it underwent several name changes before it eventually fell into the hands of Pull — out of Hungary.”
“The Peregrinus Interstellar?” Lirren repeated. “That’s a mouthful.”
“They call it the P.I. around here, for short.” He smiled at her and looked ahead as the slip slowed down. He was thinking about some of the gossip he heard. “The captain’s says he’s completely legit, but rumor had it that the Peregrinus was won during a high stakes poker game.
“Maybe he had a good hand, a Royal Flush,” she smiled brushing her hair aside. Xanders grinned at her comment, but his face went slack thinking more seriously. “I heard he uses his ships to smuggle cargo for the Russians at the Russian base near-by. No one knows for sure. Just stories maybe. I feel a little suspicious just the same.”

Being presented with another dilemma so close to her heart was a dangerous thing for Lirren right before she stepped into the main operations center. She had a job to do. A problem to fix and something began unwinding in the back of her head like a tiny clock spring after they reached the sophisticated nerve center. Buzzing with activity, she looked on with fascination at the tracking and dispatch area from which a tide of new colonists and ships flowed in and out of Mars.
Her eyes roved over the ship watching as the Peregrinus and other ships underwent a routine checkout inspection. What were they really doing here and why had they come?
Looking like a war torn battered type, it was both striking and menacing at the same time. Four huge hydraulic landing legs held up a large circular body, and the main port gaped, with a ramp leading from the front center like a huge outstretched tongue. Pegged as a modified light freighter class with large folded wings, it looked more military in style, more solid and ten times more dangerous than the label suggested. She stood quietly calculating it’s size at around 40 meters long by about 16 meters wide.
Xanders tugged at her elbow noticing the intense look on her face. “Don’t worry. We have permission,” he smiled. “C’mon. Let’s take a look inside,” he pulled her forward. Lirren nodded and they unglued themselves, walking towards the ship listening to one of the security guards recant facts about the protocols of ships, the crew and the parking area. There was no more security in sight as they approached the ship and climbed the ramp, mixing in easily with the processing crew intent on their jobs. Lirren let go Xanders to go in her own direction, and watched as he lagged behind, busily chatting with one of the station’s payload officers. As she moved forward she overheard the man tell him the ship was one crew member short for some reason or another. A fact she quickly stored away for later.
To her surprise, no one seemed to care much as she quietly moved about. Curious about every detail, she searched for the sleep cabins and the bathroom first, taking a good look at their shower facilities. They certainly spared no expense, she thought taking in the spa-like facility complete with fully enclosed glass showers and a neat row of white towels. She exited and thoroughly inspected one of several Biobed cabins and continued finding a door to what looked like a small med lab. It seemed as if the P.I. was well prepared for minor medical emergencies as well.
It wasn’t long before logic, pure crystalline logic, and precise purpose began to shape an idea. Living in a world of theoretical possibilities, combined with her natural ability to solve problems was drumming inside her mind already. It was obviously a fast stealth state-of-the-art type that could penetrate Russian airspace — and it just so happened the heirloom seed vault she needed to reach was in Norway, right over Russian airspace. Her ideas normally grew slowly over time but this one was ready to explode like a new sun. They could handle one extra person. One extra person…
Great Space. The ship! 
Problems always had solutions…and ships always had cargo, she thought. If she had laid eyes on the Peregrinus a few weeks from now, or a few days ago, she wouldn’t have thought of it. But how exactly? In an environment as hostile to life as space, the aid and goodwill of your fellow humans couldn’t exactly be counted on. No one was obligated to stop or render aid, unless…. unless they wanted a contract to come back. She made up her mind in a split second with her arms outstretched, sweeping past the stars through the galaxy. Timing was everything.
Lirren looked around for one of the crew. It would be crucial to find out first hand how fast it really went and how much cargo it could handle. Thirty or so suits continued in and out servicing the ship as she idly walked into the main bridge. She turned pleasantly surprised to actually find one of the crew playing with the controls speaking with an OPF technician. Dressed in a khaki colored suit with the private company emblem PULL she brushed past him eyeing his name in big letters “Zoly”. He didn’t seem to register her entrance as he hovered over a large control panel speaking to an OPF guy who was trying to process some information. Based on their conversation, it sounded as if Zoly was getting impatient with the questioning so she milled around quietly until the OPF guy left the room. Zoly disregarded her flipping some switches with fingertip precision. Lirren walked up besides him and introduced herself.
She smiled at him, trying to act interested in the controls. “Don’t worry, I’m not OPF. I’m just a tourist,” she started, looking sideways at the man’s name on his chest.
“Lirren Lammar. I’m an Ag Officer here… uh, nice to meet you,” she smiled breathing a little more quickly offering her hand. He shook it and she sensed a subtle friendlier change in his attitude. Lirren’s attention was unexpected but welcome.
“Agriculture. I help grow the green here. They call us Ag-heads. You know like Eggheads…Ag-heads…Egg…Ag? Oh well, never mind,” she lost her smile seeing Zoly’s blank expression.
He gave her a cursory glance unsure what to say next. He pulled up another glowing panel waving his hands over some sort of fuel gage. He was cute in a boyish way, thin, in his twenties, with curly red hair and freckles.
This ship is pretty impressive. Plasma twin 600’s. I’ve heard of those,” she commented. How does it handle?”
The pilot grunted his response, still intent on the controls. “Reasonably well. Starts out slow as whale, but gains a lot of speed once we connect with the Interstellar. He looked up curiously at Lirren, noticing her glowing green Ag symbol on sitting on her form fitting Heavy.
 “I flew on a really fast ship once, it used plasma engines too, a Russian ship called the X5,” she said trying to engage him again, but he only nodded. She glanced at his lighted engine map. “Is that the helicon couplers?”
Nothing. Was this guy dense or what? she thought blowing her bangs out of her eyes. Desperate for information, she took another direction. “It sure feels hot in here,” she said pulling at her suits magnetic ring down to her cleavage. The magnetic closure gave way snapping open a bit too far exposing the tops of her breasts. Between the lighter gravity and the Heavy suit’s extremely tight fit, her breasts had a full sumptuous lift. “Oops,” she said pulling up the small ring just slightly so it dangled right at the base of her cleavage. “Stars, I feel like I can breath now,” she said pulling out her long thick hair out from a tight wad of hair she had loosely pulled back on the slip. She finally had his attention, with his eyes locked on her breasts.
She gently fluffed out her hair and rubbed her face slightly so her invisible lip and eye colors would show up enhancing her features. “These suits are so heavy, I just want to rip them off sometimes. I’m sure you feel like ripping yours off too once in a while —  Mr. Zoly?” She said with a provocative smile. She dipped her body down seductively, lingering over a hand rail to look at his name.
 “Oh uh, sorry, It’s Franky — Zoly, uh Zágonyi. I usually go by Zoly. I’m the co-pilot.”
 “Zoly,” she slowly stood up and glided her fingertips over her neck, “so ah, how fast can you go and how much thrust do you have? I like to go fast.” She smiled demurely at him, and moved next to him as her eyes flickered over at the ship’s engine manifest information.
             “I can go really fast,” he said with a dazed expression on his face. Finally a reaction, she thought.
“Power is good, but I really like safe and reliable too — so no one gets hurt.”
He was starting to breath hard. “Of course — ,”
   “If you went top speed, say over 250 miles a second with 9 nuclear engine cores and 600 million pounds of thrust for both cargo and passengers that’s only a week between Earth and Mars right?
“Sounds like you already know a lot about plasma engines,” he said flatly. It figures, he thought, the only good looking woman he’d seen in months, and she was turning out to be as exciting as a frozen food option.
            “Just guessing,” she said.
 “What’s that? Is that the picture of the crew? Which one is missing?” she asked not daring to glance-up, quickly memorizing the captain’s face.
“How did you know?” His tone was starting to get suspicious.
“Oh — well I didn’t, until now,” she smiled broadly batting her eyes looking up. “Only rumors. You’re what we call Independents. You have to understand, it’s the most exciting thing that’s happened around here in a while,” she smiled grabbing his arm. She let go quickly pretending as if the moment got the best of her.
“Stars sorry,” she said.
Zoly managed to smile and shook his head at the attractive woman. “No problem Ms. Lirren.”
 “I should go.” She backed away memorizing every detail of the ship’s design and crew carrying capability. She walked away just in time as a few more OPF technicians suddenly showed up interrupting her self-guided tour. 
Zoly looked back and frowned. What was she really up to anyway? An Aghead, he smiled finally getting the joke.
Lirren turned looking at the cockpit from outside a doorway to find Xanders. The idea that was hatching in her head was a simple one. Perhaps her plan was too simple, but then again, routine details were not her strong point, never were. She had a tendency to avoid complications and push away doubts, but there was one thing for sure. She could definitely use the Independents ship to get the seeds herself. She was the only one qualified for the job and she knew as well as anyone how to travel to the vault and get it back safely. She listened, watching carefully taking in every detail of the ship, hearing the slight murmur of its idling power echoing softly and continued following the curved pathway inside the upper center of the ship. “There you are,” she heard Xanders say. Seeing him, she raised her hand and he grabbed it pulling her up besides him.
 “Having fun?”
“Yes. Thanks for the tour,” she said.
“Go ahead, I’ll follow you out,” he gestured.
They clamored down a large set of steel stairs through the central hatch down the ramp, returning to the bay, meandering around to gaze through one of it’s famed portals before they returned home. They stood together looking through the window at the sun, as it became a disc of faded white gold inside a light purple haze. Phobos was no where to be seen.
“What are you thinking about?” Xanders turned looking at Lirren.
Lirren continued staring through the portal. “I don’t know,” she sighed. “How long do you think before Earth becomes really unlivable and people realize we’re making a last ditch effort here? What happens then?”
“I think you already know the answer to that Lirren.”
“Worst case scenario.”
Xanders took a deep breath in. “Let’s say a few hundred thousand survive at the poles and in underground complexes. Others decide they want to get here at any cost and start storming the launch sites. Ships could be hijacked and supply runs could run dry. Too many people get here and we could run out of food. Air. Water. Everything we’ve worked for could blow up.”
“Which is why most of the launch sites, even the small ones have already stepped up security,” Lirren continued.
 “Let’s just hope it never gets to that. It’s hard to say how many settlers we could really support or even how many could actually get here at that case.” Xanders paused his eyes scanning the plains. “The climate is already like a hellscape over there. Maybe Earth won’t end, but human life will. I give it a year before a volcano finally explodes from the heat. That would speed up the process of elimination alright.”
 “So until then, life goes on. Cities like Moscow build underground complexes where a few select people try to survive and adapt while earth is riddled by earthquakes and volcanoes. Meanwhile applicants continue to escape here    judged on their scientific experience, resiliency, adaptability, curiosity and ability to trust…she tailored off gloomily.
“And creativity.” Xanders added.
“And wealth….” her voice broke. She turned away.
“And creativity,” Xanders eyed her apprehensively for a moment. “Did you have your psyche eva — ?”
“God dam it Xanders, I don’t need another psyche eval,” Lirren said furiously. The hellscape, she thought. Hellscape. The words resonated in her mind sending off an alarm that was already ringing. “It doesn’t change the fact that everyone has the right to know what’s going on. The truth is, even though I tell myself I’m good at what I do, and the sacrifice is worth it…I still see myself as part of a…a twisted lie. It doesn’t feel right. When I see the destruction down there, and the bodies….The way I have to tell to everyone I’m here for a scientific post, a special appointment…I don’t know if I have the strength to keep going on like this,” she broke off hoarsely. Her face seemed to fall under the weight of her words.
Xanders saw her face go pale and he grabbed her shoulders pulling her closely. “Lirren.C’mon. Just look out there at the trees you grew, the gardens,” he said softly pulling her towards him. What you’ve managed to do here is a miracle. You’re turning this entire planet into a permanent home, and that’s not a lie, is it?” He was pulling her tightly now, pressing her into his chest. “This isn’t all on you,” he said. “Think about what you risked to get Evolution here. Everything you and Logan invented is saving lives.” Xanders stood there looking at her with concern. “You used to tell me you believed in fate. Maybe it was luck or fate or whatever you want to call it, but we made it here, alive and well and so did Logan. And I love you, I love you very much,” he said gently. “We need to stick together.”
“Okay,” she said her voice tight, feeling tears welling in her eyes. “I’m sorry. It’s just so hard to understand sometimes. I’m lucky to be alive. I’m grateful to be here. I am,” she inhaled a deep breath. “I guess we should get back,” she said pulling away. “You need to get a few things ready for tomorrow. “I was th — ”
Just then, his comlink buzzed on his suit sleeve. Xanders looked at the I.D. with a familiar face coming through.
“Xanders speaking.”
“HELLO? HELLO? CAN YOU HEAR ME? It’s Toni. TONI DAX!” Xanders was holding his arm out at full length at the shouting.
“Toni, I hear you loud and clear,” Xanders said, covering is sleeve for an instant, his eyes focused at Lirren. “What?” he mouthed.
“Nothing,” she said.
He quickly excused himself from her side, turning to speak. Xanders was acting as lead consultant for a new project outside the city tapping into more of the planets frozen water reserves, but this time he was going out there too. Once they found the right spot, and dug deep enough, they could pipe it into the expanding colony, used for drinking, food preparation, bathing and cleaning, and growing crops. Thermal hot vents also contained metal rich fluids, including gold and silver, used to help fund the excavations, but it was dangerous work. Extremely dangerous. In the past, automated machines laid down a lot of the ground work, without the initial risk of using humans, but after the stage was set, men were needed here. Proving to be both treacherous and lucrative, Mars was where men came to get rich or die trying. 5-Point would dig up more water, more ore, more roads, more water. Just about everything here depended on water. It was crucial. Communications, air and electricity had been easy in comparison.
Lirren watched Xanders talk to Toni for a minute but turned her thoughts back to the ship. Commercial ships were flowing in less and less but the Independents like the Peregrinus were still coming. The unplanned landings were becoming more routine, but still gray area with Mars Gov. because they had little control over their experience    or their reliability. Unless the P.I. was willing to document every last ounce of cargo they carried and adhere to very strict working policies for the U.S. Colony, they would never make the cut. With the P.I.’s tarnished history, and the captain a known gambler, it was an unlikely case. But perhaps a mutually beneficial arrangement could change that. The captain was bound to listen to her proposal. Anything was possible.

Once they returned to the Hab, Lirren began chewing on her nails dreading Xanders reaction if she told him what she was thinking. All evening she fought the overwhelming impulse to say something, but he would never understand, and besides it was still all hypothetical. If she asked the captain, and if he said yes. Too many unknowns hung in the air. She plopped down at their small dining table staring at the darkness of the Martian plains through a floor-to-ceiling window. She wanted to be thankful she was here, but she also couldn’t hide like a frightened animal in these underground caves forever with the future of humanity at stake. The thought of missed shipments and starvation on the colony had been a fear that consumed her, ever since their arrival, and time was running out. Xanders was the reason she was here with Logan, but he had also given her a purpose, and she would fulfill her purpose. She stood up and pushed a button for a plastic eco-cup that heated and formed in seconds on the counter. She grabbed it and turned, filling it with red wine from a spigot.
She sat sipping her wine, watching as Xanders paced back and forth making calls, stuffing his duffel bag in front of a mature bamboo genus growing high between the two levels.
He had worked for several years as a D.S. agent, which meant he knew a lot of things, and had access to information other people normally didn’t. One word to her friend Lexa at XWing about her idea and she’d probably find herself locked up in the Hab for the rest of the summer. She watched as he moved around quickly, busy making his last minute arrangements. Xanders studied her cautiously as the evening wore on but he took her mood as nerves over his trip to the mining outpost. There would be no way to tell him before he left and no turning back once she decided. Maybe if she was lucky, she would be back before he returned. If she was lucky.

It would be difficult and dangerous. She planned and waited.