A Martian Odyssey, part 2 (fiction).


Part 1 of our story by PZ is here.

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A Martian Odyssey, part 2

Nothing prepared Key for this moment. Neither their formal education nor diplomatic experience qualified Key for the operation the Spaceborn were now proposing. They felt unprepared in other ways, too. Jimin’s sudden disappearance added more weight to an already weighty mission, but that wasn’t all. Key, like every Marsborn, knew next to nothing about Earth.

The children of Mars were abandoned by Mother Earth so long ago, the primal wound had healed over, even if the scar ran deep. Marsborn schoolchildren learned only that the once-strong bond of interdependence between the two planets had been severed cleanly by Earth’s own hand. She had cut the cord with such ferocity and finality there was nothing for her burgeoning progeny to do but erase all but a diaphanous vision of her. Except for her occasional looming into range of its ground-based scopes and solar eclipses, Earth had become utterly inconsequential to the Marsborn.

Not so for the Spaceborn. The distance from Martian gravity required by the Spaceborn had provided another kind of distance as well: a perspective quite literally above it all.

When Earth withdrew itself from the colonizers, she did not go quietly. Instead, every station, satellite, probe and craft within her impressive firing range was blasted into spacedust. Collectively, these were host to legions of unsuspecting Spaceborn. And the Spaceborn, for all of their disparate lifeforms and cultures spanning the solar system, still held one thing in common: a long memory.

Spaceborn schoolchildren learned early and often of Earth’s unprovoked massacre of their peaceful and productive ancestors. Spaceborn casualties of that horrific event were honored on day 500 of the Martian year, the number representing the approximate number of vessels lost. And the first such event marked the official, permanent system-wide sync to the Martian calendar and the end of Earth time. Ancient Copernicus exonerated one more time, the world no longer revolved around Earth.

Unsurprisingly, keeping the memory of Earth’s violent treachery alive among generations of Spaceborn had some repercussions. For one thing, whereas the Marsborn viewed Earth as a non-entity, if they even gave the blue dot any thought at all, the Spaceborn viewed Earth quite differently: as an enemy. The disparity caused no small amount of friction between Marsborn and Spaceborn, as every so often it gave rise to conspiracy theories that had to be quickly quashed, lest someone act to destroy the enduring relationship between them. However, it was not lost on the Spaceborn that Earth could easily have done considerable damage to critical installations on Mars, perhaps even put an end to the colonization project for good. Yet Mars survived unscathed, while the Spaceborn nursed their wounds and mourned their dead for centuries. Whenever sparks began to fly, cooler and wiser heads had historically prevailed. For the most part, all that remained between them was a healthy, mild suspicion right alongside an abiding respect, driven in part by amity and in part by mutual benefit. It was an arrangement that kept everyone on their best behavior.

But the most significant consequence of the Spaceborn worldview was the overarching priority to never again be attacked – unaware and undefended – by Earth or by anyone else. This would mean, among other things, that the Spaceborn would oversee the development of advanced defensive technologies as well as some slick artillery of their own. But after a thorough analysis following a deep dive into Earth’s history, the Spaceborn had come to a conclusion as unexpected as it was unavoidable: wielded properly, there was one weapon superior to all others, in all places and all times. That weapon was information.

With the Spaceborn maintaining all of the routes and communication channels connecting the farthest inhabited moons to the inhabitants of Mars, there were ample opportunities to develop and deploy information collection technologies along the way. Over the centuries, the Spaceborn inevitably became the keepers of inconceivably vast troves of information obtained via a virtually undetectable surveillance network. Sharply honed bots and algorithms continually trolled through endless seas of data, and when called upon, would instantly deliver a state-of-the-art, up-to-the-minute dossier on anything in the solar system that moved. Including, of course, anything that moved on Earth. Or Mars.

In a small meeting room in Wei station, Key began to methodically absorb and analyze what facts he could from the scene in front of them. Here were two struggling Spaceborn who said they had just attempted a rescue and recon mission at the Martian pole, the site of an Earth vessel landing. This was a fool’s errand, doomed from the start, as any Spaceborn or Marsborn could tell you after one look at these hastily slapped together prosthetics. Key knew, from many long, late-night conversations with Jimin, that the same Spaceborn technology that enabled the successful colonization of distant moons could easily enable two non-adapted Spaceborn to travel the Martian surface for a brief mission, or even a long one, should this be deemed a high enough priority.

And what, Key mused in his mind, could possibly be a higher priority than an Earth vessel landing at the Martian pole, the station going dark, their own diplomat sent on a stealth recon mission and having not been heard from since? 

And what about these two Spaceborn? Key studied them carefully. When their ridiculous mission failed – if there even were any mission – why seek out Key? Matters such as these would most certainly be of interest to those at much higher levels of the collective than a career Marsborn diplomat and these two apparently expendable Spaceborn. They were underequipped for a pit stop on the planet, much less a rendezvous with a brutal Martian winter, and terrain populated with bandits and giant bugs. Not to mention a potentially hostile Earthborn landing party.

But the most troubling question to Key was why the Spaceborn had kept all news of an Earth vessel landing on Mars a secret – for a week. Two months, if one counted from the nanosecond its launch trajectory was picked up by Spaceborn surveillance systems. That would instantly render a report to the highest circles of Spaceborn governance. Who else knew?

Ditya made a gentle, barely perceptible motion with her head. The message, though, conveyed without words, came through unmistakably: yes, we know what we are asking of you, and we are deeply sorry, but you are the only Marsborn we trust with this.

“I have…concerns,” Key said cooly. “And questions.”

Afia locked eyes with them, and said, “We understand. You don’t know us. We don’t know you. But here we are. And unfortunately, we don’t have much time.“

Ditya began to wheeze a bit now, the weight of the Martian atmosphere crushing the fragile membranes that supported breathing just fine at zero G.

“What you need to know about me is this,” said Key. “I would fight my way through the planet’s core for Jimin.”

For a moment, Afia and Ditya seemed more at ease. Key clarified, “Not for the Marsborn, not for the Spaceborn. For Jimin.” They continued, “What I need to know from you is everything that has happened from the time Spaceborn systems fired up the alert on the Earth vessel’s launch trajectory, to this very minute. And I mean everything.”

Afia spoke gravely, “Yes, we agree. There is no time to waste. We have fitted our transport with an encrypted channel to Ditya and myself only. We can begin to brief you as soon as you are underway.”

“One more concern,” Key said as all three moved toward the exit. “We are all at a complete loss when it comes to the Earthborn, after centuries of isolation.”

Ditya’s voice found its strength again, and let go with a wry chuckle. “Key,” she said, “I can brief you on anything you want to know about the Earthborn.”

“Now how would you know anything about that?”

Ditya seemed to grow smaller and more shrunken by the minute, yet she had now taken on an air of gravitas, speaking to Key as if he were her student.

“My dear,” she said softly. “I am old, and I have played many roles in my lifetime, official and unofficial. And what I know about the Earthborn could fill a gas giant.”

Key was stunned. The door slid open and transport guides swiftly slid the Spaceborn into waiting gel couches. They would finally have some relief from the Martian gravity, and soon enough they would feel at perfect ease in orbit. Afia and Ditya were sure of that, but of little else. This trip to the Martian surface had been an enormous risk, and nothing had gone to plan. What awaited them once that airlock opened in orbit was anyone’s guess.

Key made their way to the transport without being noticed by anyone who knew them – they hoped. Once strapped inside and cleared for departure, they heard Afia’s voice, crisp and clear. “Key, are you ready? We can begin the briefing shortly.”

“Yes,” they replied. They were eager to get started.

“But first, I’m afraid I have some bad news. Ditya has…died, Key. She’s dead.”

“I – I don’t know what to say,” Key replied.

“It’s just that she gave everything. She risked everything…” Afia’s voice trailed off.

“How did it happen?” Key inquired.

“That’s just it, I don’t understand,” Afia’s tone was strained with anxiety now. “Ditya was fine when we locked in for the jump to orbit. All her vital signs had stabilized, and the gel sensory web indicated the all clear. But when we arrived at the station and the airlock opened, she was… lifeless.”

“I am so sorry,” Key responded. “We can put the briefing off for a bit if you need some time.”

“No,” came the answer. “This mission was the culmination of Ditya’s life’s work. It is imperative that we continue.”

“Very good, then,” said Key. “I am standing by.”

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Part 3 is here, by Abe Drayton at Oceanoxia!

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