This is the fourth installment of this month’s chain story, written as part of our legal fundraiser. You can find Part One here. Part Two here. Part Three here. If you enjoy the story or Freethoughtblogs in general, please consider donating to our legal fund!
Content notice: Sci-fi themed racism and sci-fi themed transphobia.
Even at this distance, Key could recognize the aftermath of a battle. The remains of transports littered the battlefield. Scorch marks covered the buildings. Rovers swarmed around the base. Jimin’s ship, however, seemed undamaged.
Key then heard a faint buzzing sound from above. They lifted their goggles and looked up. Against the purple sky, Key saw three black dots. Key pulled down their goggles and zoomed in. Above them were three quadcopters, a model they’d never seen before. The quadcopters quickly descended towards them.
Key dropped down from the roof and rushed into the transport. After closing the door, Key raced to the driver’s seat and tried to start the engines. Nothing. Key tested the other controls. None of them worked.
A quadcopter descended into view. For several moments, Key stared into the lens of the orb-shaped camera attached to the belly of the copter. Key wondered if they were going to meet the same fate as the homestead.
Instead, the quadcopter floated away. The transport started driving itself towards the base.
Closer to the base, Key saw the extent of the battle. The transports were civilian Marsborn craft. It wasn’t a battle, Key suspected, but the scientists trying to escape their attackers. A few Rovers darted out of the vehicles, but hundreds of them were by the base, trying to claw their way inside. Oddly, Key also noticed improvised patches to various breaches. Key wondered if there were survivors inside.
As the transport approached a garage, Key noticed the remains of a military troop transporter. The Marsborn had a small military, but it mainly dealt with raiders. The soldiers lack the equipment and training to confront this attacker.
“Key?” asked a voice over the radio.
“Who? Who are–”
“Follow the green line. Jimin and I will meet you there.”
“Can I speak to Jimin?”
“For your sake, I hope Jimin is unharmed.”
The quadcopters attacked the rovers blocking the garage door using an invisible beam that caused Rovers to burst. Was it some kind of microwave beam?
After the rovers retreated, the door opened, and the transport entered. Key didn’t see any of the base’s vehicles in the garage. Only empty maintenance stalls instead.
Key’s vehicle stopped by the entrance to the base. Next to the door were the bruised and broken remains of a Marsborn general taped to the wall. Key wondered if a vehicle ran over the General. Key slung on the energy caster and equipped themselves with flashbang grenades and a flare gun.
The transport’s door opened on its own. Key stepped out and approached the entrance. As Key reached for the door, the General opened its eyes. Key staggered back then readied the caster.
“Follow the green line,” said the General.
“Who are you?”
“Follow the green line.”
The General closed their eyes and fell limp. Key noticed computer cables protruding from the back of the General’s head and extending into a crudely cut hole in the ceiling.
After powering down the caster, Key entered the base. The stench of death greeted Key. Key wished they’d brought something to cover their nose. The hallway was lit only by the emergency lights. Five lines of colored tape were on the floor. Ahead, Key saw two more wired corpses tapped to the wall, just like the General. As Key walked by, the corpses’ opened their eyes and turned their heads. As Key progressed, they saw several such wired corpses. Most were seated at desks and tables, with a few taped to the corridor walls. Later, he was startled to see two wired corpses working on sealing a breach. They ignored Key.
The green line ended at an airlock. Key opened the airlock and entered a pressure chamber. After closing the door, Key walked across the room to the second door. A gage next to the door showed that the air pressure on the other side the same as Earth’s atmosphere. Key skimmed the instructions on the panel and pulled a lever to equalize the pressure. Vents opened, followed by the hiss of flowing air. As the pressure increased, Key had to close their nose and blow to relieve the pain in their ears. When the hissing stopped, Key opened the door.
Key stepped into a room with a geodesic glass ceiling. They first noticed a machine that resembled many of Earth’s ancient landers. It had a white metallic sphere attached to its front. Unrecognizable words and symbols covered the craft. Several electrical cables, like the ones he’d seen attached to the corpse, ran from the walls to the probe. While the probe’s design seemed ancient, Key suspected it was newly constructed.
Key briefly scanned the room until they saw Jimin submerged inside a glass aquarium filled with a yellow liquid. Jimin, who was still wearing their dress uniform, didn’t move.
Jimin stirred after hearing Key’s voice. They turned towards Key and smiled. Key raced towards the container as Jimin slid the top panel open. The fluid started to drain into several connecting tubes. Key pulled Jimin upright, which caused Jimin to start coughing. Key noticed knobs on the corners of the aquarium and pulled them out. The sides of the aquarium dropped down. Key then moved Jimin to a seated position. Jimin bent over and coughed up more fluid.
“Are you okay?” asked Key.
Jimin took some deep breaths. “Yes,” Jimin replied breathlessly. “We weren’t sure when you would arrive. So he had to put me in this thing.”
“Wait. Who put you in this?”
Jimin coughed. “You don’t know?”
“Great. This is not how I expected this trip to go.”
Jimin chuckled after coughing. “Yeah. It’s was supposed to be a simple exchange. But I know something was off when that General greeted me.”
A hissing sound came from the probe. They both turned and saw the sphere opening.
“Did Ditya tell you anything about him?”
“Him? Ditya died before she could brief me.”
“Died? Was Alfia with her?”
“Oh, This is even better!”
“You don’t want to know.”
The cold condensation clouds cleared inside the sphere. Key saw an alien sitting inside. It looked like a humanoid, but its eyes were tiny. Its skin was a faded tan color with black patches of frozen rotten flesh. It wore a black jumpsuit with unfamiliar patches.
“What do I want to know?” asked Key.
“That’s the Earthborn’s representative.”
The Earthborn casually rose, cracking the ice that had accumulated on its uniform and skin.
“That’s an Earthborn?”
“Not exactly. That’s the body of an Earthborn. It’s under the control of a Chorus member.”
“Yes, they’re the Earthborn’s thinking programs.”
“Programs?” asked the Earthborn. “You think of us as mere programs? Pieces of code trapped inside metal boxes?”
“You speak our language?” asked Key.
“Yes. Though your language, like your species, has deteriorated over the centuries. It used to have the anarchistic poetry of English. Such a pity.”
Key pretended not to hear that comment and stepped towards the Earthborn.
“I am Key, Ranger and diplomatic liaison for Wei Crater Trading Center. They/Their. You are. Chorus?”
“They/Their?” The Earthborn asked sarcastically. “Are you claiming to be a transcended being?”
The Earthborn looked at Jimin. “Tell me there are more intelligent Martians.”
Jimin nervously chuckled. “They’ll get it.”
“Until I ‘get it,’” said Key. “Let me explain something. On Mars, we consider it polite to say your name and pronouns before discussing business.”
The Earthborn paused. “How can I put this in a way you can understand? I am an aspect of Archive, a voice in the Chorus. This body served a male biological function before its death. So you can call me Archive. He/His.”
“Archive,” said Key. “I would welcome you to Mars, but I can’t ignore the carnage that seems to accompany you.”
“They were offerings from Losk.”
“Not anymore. Losk refused to honor the Terrestrial Alliance. I hope you won’t make that mistake.”
“Terrestrial Alliance? You killed these scientists because of this alliance?”
Archive stared at Key for a few moments. “Jimin. Please educate this Martian.”
Jimin walked up to Key, and nervously smiled. “Sometime after the separation, the Earthborn created several super-intelligent programs to replace their governments. They are collectively called the Chorus.”
Archive glared at Jimin.
“Over the centuries,” added Jimin. “They became something beyond mere programs.”
“We are sentients—neither flesh nor machine. We can inhabit both forms, but we are neither. We consider them canvases.”
“Canvases? You consider us canvases?”
“I do not consider you a canvas. Yet. Due to the constraints of this body, I could only install a basic aspect. Losk’s offering allowed me to upgrade myself. Martian brains have limitations, so I need to use all of Losk’s scientists.”
“They were living–”
“Were living,” said Archive. “They no longer need their brains. I do. Again, they were an offering. If this offends your simplified understand of justice, then take comfort in knowing that I appropriated Losk’s brain as well. Now, I need you to stop wasting our time and honor the terms Terrestrial Alliance!”
“Key,” said Jimin. “If you give him what he wants, we’ll save many Marsborn lives.”
“You should listen to your three limbed friend,” said Archive. “Because the Sisters do not appreciate your existence like the Chorus does.”
“Sisters?” Key looked at Jimin. “Who are the Sisters?”
“It’s hard to explain,” said Jimin.
“You might want to try!” protested Key. “Because it looks to me that these…things–”
“We are not things!” Archive yelled. “We are the Chorus. That you would think of us as enslavers offends me! Even if I take your limited intellect into account. We have never enslaved humanity. We love humanity. We serve humanity. They created us to protect the Homo Sapien genome from those who want to defile it. From that command evolved our love for the true humans. Our love commands us to provide care for humanity because they cannot care for themselves. It compels us to purge those who want to distort its essence. Humanity acknowledges our love and their debt to us by maintaining our physical forms. That love compelled me to travel to Mars to meet the disgusting degenerate offspring of humanity’s heretics.”
Jimin spoke up. “He’s here because the Earthborn are on the brink of extinction.”
“We cannot let that happen,” said Archive. “I will not let that happen.”
“Oh my. You confirmed this?”
Jimin nodded. “It’s true. They’ve almost exhausted the resources necessary to sustain the Earthborn and the Chorus. Their terraformers are breaking down. Large swaths of Earth are uninhabitable. Famines and pandemics regularly ravage the population. If we don’t do something, the Earthborn could go extinct in a matter of years.”
“Some of us have been secretly helping, Key. We couldn’t be open about this because, even after all these centuries, many Spaceborn will never forgive the Earthborn.”
“The Severing was necessary to protect humanity’s integrity,” said Archive.
“Regardless,” said quickly said Jimin. “It’s considered treason to help the Earthborn at all. I’m sure some of our leaders think that extinction isn’t a strong enough punishment. Some of us, including myself, do not agree. Yes, the Chorus is…unpleasant. Still, I will not let their unpleasantness condemn millions to their deaths. Because all of us, Earthborn, Marsborn, Spaceborn, are part of the same human family. We have to help our fellow humans.”
Archive shook his head.
Jimin continued. “That’s what brought me here.”
Key replied, “If you believe we are all part of the same family, then why did a Spaceborn ship attack a homestead?”
“Because Mars’ representatives refused to abide by the terms of the Terrestrial Alliance,” said Archive. “The Sisters did what was necessary.”
“Why is it necessary?”
“They were trespassers. The treaty clearly–”
“Wait!” interrupted Jimin. “Let me try to explain it to him. Then we can get things back on track.”
Key folded their arms. “I am listening.”
Jimin coughed. “First, I had nothing to do with the bombings.”
“I can believe that,” Key replied. “Who are these ‘Sisters’ then?”
“As I was saying, there are Spaceborn who want to save the Earthborn. However, there are several factions among us. Each faction has its agenda and reasons for wanting to help the Earthborn.”
“One of those factions calls themselves the Sisters of the Chorus. They don’t just want to help the Earthborn. They have embraced the Chorus’s ideology. Specifically, their beliefs about individual identity.”
“Their philosophy is hard to explain. They share the Chorus’s belief that each person’s identity is determined solely by biology. Well, to be more exact, they believe our identities are based on our reproductive organs.”
“They want us to be defined based on our reproductive organs. That means that sole impregnators must identify as male, and offspring carriers must identify as female.
They both looked at Archive.
“Seriously?” asked Key as they dropped their arms.
Archive replied: “To ignore or devalue gender is to promote the degradation of humanity.”
“And you claim to be transcendent?”
“Key!” said Jimin. “The point is that the Sisters don’t just follow the ideology of the Chorus. They want to overthrow the Spaceborn governments and turn over the Solar System to the Chorus.”
“Humans should not leave the Earth,” said Archive. “Machines can effectively harvest the resources of other worlds.
Key faced Jimin. “And you work with the Sisters?”
“Not knowingly. I thought the Sisters were an annoying but harmless fringe group. I didn’t realize I was wrong until I arrived here.”
Said Archive, “Unlike Jimin’s associates, the Sisters recognize the sins of their ancestors and want to atone for their crimes against humanity. Their penance will be to help us secure the resources of this and other solar systems. By the terms of the Terrestrial Alliance, Mars must assist us in this endeavor.”
“What alliance?” asked Key.
“I’ll need the crystals to explain it to them,” said Jimin.
Archive walked back to the probe and picked up a metallic case. He gave it to Jimin.
“Since you have fulfilled your part of the exchange,” said Archive. “I give you the requested archive crystals.” Archive walked back towards the probe.
Jimin opened the case and placed their hand in the case. A few seconds later, they pulled out a crystal. A holographic projection appeared above the crystal of a document entitled: A statement of Alliance between the Colonial Government of Mars and the Earth Union.
“This is it,” said Jimin. “Before the separation, Earth and Mars signed a secret treaty called the Terrestrial Alliance. That’s why the Earthborn didn’t attack Mars. We’ve confirmed its authenticity. It’s kind of long, but I can sum it up. Earth agreed not to attack Mars in exchange for territory near the Martian North pole.”
Key moved closer to the treaty projection. Jimin expanded the hologram to include all pages of the treaty. Key examined the territorial maps.
Archive said: “This is the reason Earth turn the sands of Mars into a sheet of glass.”
“But this treaty was written before the formation of the Collective,” protested Key. “We cannot be bound by it.”
“Irrelevant. All Martians owe this life debt to Earth. I have come to collect it.”
Key looked closer at one of the maps. “So the sisters bombed this homestead because it was in your territory?”
“Yes. This crew of Sisters sacrificed their lives to save Mars from the forgetfulness of its leaders.”
“Save? Those homesteaders were innocent!”
“Regardless, more trespassers will die unless you complete the transaction. The Sisters, through Jimin, have provided me vital codes. I have provided Jimin with archive crystals. All Mars has to do is give the Chorus the territories promised in the Terrestrial Alliance treaty. We will then give you enough time to vacate them.”
“Why do you need these lands?”
“We need them to establish bases of operations. They will be part of our effort to reclaim the solar system for humanity.”
“The Chorus wants to build military bases on Mars?”
“Correct. We will not interfere in your internal affairs. We will reward all Martians for their assistance. It might also please your primitive sense of justice to know that the Sisters will leave the solar system after the war. They will mine other solar systems to provide resources for the Terrestrial Alliance.”
Key marched up to Archive. “If you think–”
“Your energy caster. Point it at me and shoot.”
“Just agree to honor the treaty!” shouted Jimin. “You don’t want to do this.”
Key stepped away from Archive.
“Please,” said Archive.
“Since you said, ‘please.’”
Key activated the caster, then grunted as they pointed it at Archive and pulled the trigger. The caster didn’t fire. Key looked at the caster and noticed an illuminated red light.
Archive rushed at Key. Before Key could reach, Archive kicked him. The kick sent Key tumbling into the air until they collided with the wall. Key collapsed, stunned for a few moments. Key started to remove the caster when Archive leaped across the room. Archive landed next to Key, then picked up Key with one arm. The caster dropped to the ground. Archive slammed Key into the wall, denting it. Key felt the vibrations of the Rovers scratching outside. Archive raise Key.
“You’re still alive,” Archive calmly noted. “I calculated correctly this time.”
“Don’t kill him!” yelled Jimin. “Please! Give me a few more minutes to persuade him.”
“I don’t need a few minutes,” said Archive. “Key just needs to understand their situation. Look at me, Key. This body I’m in. It’s a corpse, but look what’s it’s doing to you. It’s stronger and much faster than you. You can’t hurt it, let alone reach me through it. Why? Because this is a human body. The human body is the pinnacle of evolution. It reflects the perfection of the Homo Sapien race. This body is what your ancestors squandered. Your ancestors’ only redeeming value was to sign the treaty. Honor that treaty. Honor your ancestors. Prove to me that you’re worth it! That all Martians are worth it!”
Archive tossed Key across the room. They tumbled to the ground and stopped next to Jimin. Jimin started towards Key.
“Get back!” Key yelled at Jimin.
Jimin stepped back.
Archive looked down at Key. “Save your people. Give us the territories, or we will crush you like the bugs you have become.”
Key pulled out the flare gun fired it. The flare raced by Archive.
“Did I?” asked Key.
Key heard a sizzling sound behind Archive. Archive turned and saw the flare melting through the wall.
“Down!” Key yelled at Jimin.
Jimin dropped to the ground as the wall ruptured.
The rush of air pushed Archive back. Loose cartons and debris few towards the hole. Moments later, the air pressure in the dome equalized with the outside air pressure.
Archive straightened their stance. “Foolish. Did you–”
Archive stopped talking when he the increasing volume of clicking sounds.
“Move!” Key yelled to Jimin. Jimin gasped and then ran towards Key, clinging tightly to the carton of archive crystals.
Archive turned around and saw a rover crawl through the hole. The rover leaped at Archive. He caught the rover and tossed it to the ground. The rover splattered upon impact. Some of its defensive chemicals splashed on to the probe, dissolving two computer cables. Archive fell to the ground and convulsed. Other rovers started pouring through the breach.
Key and Jimin ran through the airlock.
“Keep going,” yelled Key.
Jimin ran to the other door and started opening it. Key pulled the lever, and the door began to close. Archive thrashed at the rovers swarming on to him. Before the airlock closed, Key tossed a flash grenade towards the caster.
“Seriously?” Asked Jimin as they shoved the door open.
“Go!” Yelled Key as they ran towards the open door.
Jimin ran into the hallway. Key reached the door when they saw the flash. Key dropped and rolled into the hallway. Moments later, Key heard a muffled bang, and the building shook. Jimin ran up to the door and closed it.
Cracking sounds interrupted Jimin. Key jumped up.
“Follow the green line!”
Key and Jimin ran down the hallways. This time the bodies remained motionless. Crashing sounds echoed behind them, followed by the footsteps of hundreds of rovers.
“This was your plan?” Jimin breathlessly asked.
The footsteps faded as they reached the garage door. Key rushed through the door and looked at the general’s body. They punched the general’s face. It didn’t move.
“What are you doing?”
Key turned and ran up to the transport and opened the door.
“Wait!” Yelled Jimin. “Don’t go in!”
“Let me check something.”
Key threw the carton with the archive crystals into the transport. The door closed, and the transport started. Key and Jimin stepped back as it drove away.
“Afia set it up so that once you brought the crystals on board, the transport would take you to a predetermined location. They probably would have killed you after you handed them over.”
“Killed me? They said I was the only Marsborn they trust.”
“That’s not saying much.”
Key kicked the ground in frustration. “How did you get involved in this mess?”
“Afia recruited me.”
“Is Afia a Sister?”
“No. Not at all. We thought this meeting was about making the initial arrangements to send humanitarian aid. We were going to use the information in the crystal to bribe some officials so they’d let us drop supplies undetected.”
“But if Ditya was a Sister? How do you–”
“They didn’t know Ditya was with the sisters. Not all cis are members of the Sisters.”
“Yes. Because I have more important things to worry about right now. Like warning the Triangle and persuading Afia not to kill you.”
“I think we have a more pressing issue.”
“What’s more important than–”
“How do we get out of here. That transport was our only way out.”
“You can borrow my transport. I’ll disable the autopilot before I leave.”
“You’re not coming with me?”
“There’s only enough supplies for one person. Besides, I need to go back to the station.”
“You’re going back alone?”
“Of course. Any transmission can be recorded and tracked. That’s why we don’t rely on electronic files and use couriers instead of electronic messaging.”
“All the more reason I should join you. You’ll need my protection.”
“You can join me later. Right now, I need you to warn the Collective.”
“What do I tell them? That the Earthborn are about to invade mars?”
“More like the solar system is about engulfed in war. Tell the Collective what you think they need to know. I trust you.”
Key paced in frustration. “How did I let you drag me into this?”
“Because you like me.”
Jimin walked up to Key. “We’re going to fix this. When the time is right, you can join me off-world. Then we’ll stop the Sisters and Chorus before they can start a war.”
“Look, Key. You know me. You know how much I care about Mars, and you know how much I care about you. Key, you’re the person I know who would jump into Maat Mons to save me. I’m the one who would sit through an entire Plutoian Consortium to save you. You know that. Right?”
Key looked into Jimin’s warm eyes. “Yes,” they said. “Yes, I know.”
Jimin lowered their head. Key leaned forward and touched Jimin’s forehead.
“You’ve saved me so many times,” said Jimin. “Now, let me save you.”
“Then we’ll save humanity,” Key replied.
They released each other and leaned back.
“Then we’ll save humanity,” replied Jimin.