This is the third installment of this month’s chain story, written as part of our legal fundraiser. You can find part one here, and part two here. I’ll link to part four when it’s available. If you enjoy the story, or Freethoughtblogs in general, please consider donating to our legal fund!
“I’m afraid this briefing will be, well, more brief than you’d like. Ditya possessed a wealth of knowledge about the Earthborn and their activities. I will fill you in as best I can, but…” Afia trailed off.
Key closed their eyes, allowing a moment for Afia’s grief.
“Afia, did Ditya not keep files? Surely she did not keep all her knowledge to herself!”
“I- She… She had files, I’m sure. Yes. But they are unavailable right now. Beyond the mission itself, I’m afraid you’ll have to rely on our historical knowledge of the Earthborn.”
Key frowned, staring ahead at the closed gates of the vehicle bay. They didn’t know Afia, but it seemed odd that the death of one person, however unique, could simply erase all recent knowledge of the Earthborn and their ways. What they knew from history was… grim. The massacre of the Spaceborn showed all too well the extend of Earth’s capacity for bloodshed, and their high gravity meant that they were capable of feats of physical prowess far beyond what even a hardy ranger like Key could achieve. The primary lesson from Key’s history classes was that the Earthborn were dangerous. Beyond that, all they knew was that any efforts to get close enough to see what was happening on the surface were met with destruction.
Key didn’t even know when the last such attempt was made.
“Have there been any recent attempts by the Spaceborn to contact the Earthborn?”
“What do you think? We have not forgotten what they did to us!”
Afia’s tone of confusion and dismay was gone, replaced by an edge of righteous hatred. Key nodded to themself. It had taken nearly a century for the Spaceborn to reconnect with each other in the wake of the devastating attack, and to this day, their stations were all designed to be difficult for Earth-based weaponry to reach, or even impossible for Earth-based sensors to detect.
The Earthborn had made it clear they wished to be left alone, and the Spaceborn had been all to happy to comply.
“So what can you tell me?”
“Ditya has been working to monitor Earth for many, many years now. We always knew they might someday attempt to reclaim the solar system for themselves, and it seemed only prudent to be prepared.”
“Ditya’s obsession did not… sit well with everyone.”
“There are those even on Mars who feel that the less we think about the Earthborn the better.”
“Yes. Disagreements on this subject among the Spaceborn can be heated at times.”
Key shifted in their seat.
“So, the mission. It is urgent, yes?”
“Yes,” said Afia. “And I’m sure you’d like to get moving.”
“Jimin may need help.”
“Of course. My apologies, I’m still more than a little flipped around by Ditya’s… Passing.”
“Her memory will never fall.”
“Her memory will never fall. Yes. Thank you.” There was a moment of silence, then Afia continued.
“We know Jimin landed safely at the polar research station, but we do not know what they found when they arrived. We monitored the Earthborn probe and it seemed to have a gentle landing, for all the design is unfamiliar to us.”
“Their technology has changed over the centuries.”
“As has ours. It was to be expected.”
“Please continue.” Key closed their eyes again. Committing Afia’s words to memory.
“All attempts to contact the station have been futile, including Jimin’s attempt to make direct contact. I would prefer that the outcome of this expedition result in Earth resuming its isolation. That would be best for everyone. Others… Well, the desire for revenge is still present among the Spaceborn. If knowledge of this Earthborn excursion to Mars were to get out, it could cause trouble. We only came to you because of Jimin’s trust in you.”
“Understood. Is there anything else I need to know?”
“Only… Only be careful. I do not know what you will find there. Communication may be difficult until you reach the polar station. From there it may depend on what condition the equipment is in.”
“Fly- Drive safely.”
Key pressed a button on the console and the gates slid open, allowing the transport to glide out into the snow, its treads kicking up white billows around the vehicle. In summer, when the northern hemisphere thawed and the circumpolar bogs formed, transport was usually made by hovercraft, skimming over the soft ground and pools of water. Now, though, the terrain was frozen solid, and the expanding ice created a jagged landscape that would damage the skirts of a hovercraft. Getting out for repairs meant exposure to both bitter cold, and to wandering predators like the spiders, which would be drawn to the relative warmth of the vehicle and its occupant.
Key checked the console readout. The temperature was at -30 degrees Celsius, and it would probably drop further as the Martian night continued. As they drove, they kept an eye on the topographical display, that showed the terrain beyond the reach of the transport’s headlights. Even in the dead of winter, the polar bogs could be treacherous for a land-bound vehicle. Gaps in the ice were not uncommon, and Key knew from experience that there were pockets of thawed bog under thinner ice, where thermal activity from micro-organisms created oases of relative warmth.
As they drove, Key considered their situation. Ditya’s death was suspicious, and Afia seemed to be withholding some information. What could Key piece together?
Jimin was involved. Key’s spindly legs started bouncing with anxiety, and they began nudging the transport to move a little faster. Jimin was in danger. Jimin was- No. Think. Analyze. Jimin needed all of Key’s skills as a ranger, not Key’s worries. Jimin was involved. What had Jimin said about the Earthborn in the past? What had they said about the Spaceborn?
Jimin was joyful. Jubilant. Jimin was intense, even brash, but not aggressive. Not vengeful. They had discussed the Earthborn, from time to time, but Jimin seemed to lack even a trace of the anger that had sharpened Afia’s tone. When Jimin talked of the Earthborn, they pondered how they might have changed. They pondered what life might be like on a planet with such intense gravity. They wondered if the Earthborn might ever seek reconciliation.
Jimin, for all their forthright pride, was a diplomat to their core. Their mission had to have been a diplomatic one. Jimin was too friendly, and too curious to be on a mission with no chance of open dialogue.
Key’s legs stopped bouncing, and they slowed the transport a little. Jimin wasn’t a fighter. They would go into a dangerous situation, but not into combat. If Jimin went to the research station, knowing that there were likely to be Earthborn present, they must have had some reason to think it was safe to do so. Jimin’s involvement meant that someone – even if it was only Jimin – thought that this was going to be a peaceful encounter.
Key stopped the vehicle and closed their eyes.
A peaceful encounter between the Earthborn and a Spaceborn diplomat, at a Martian research station. This was an effort to re-open communication between the three species.
That was why it was secret.
That was why it was at a polar research station in the winter. The Marsborn were playing host to this meeting, and whatever faction was involved was working hard to keep it secret.
Key looked at their map. They had only covered a dozen kilometres, but there was a limit to how far or fast they could travel at night. And they would need rest at some point. They would stop at the edge of the boglands, and rest till dawn. They nudged the throttle and the vehicle trundled forward again. As they turned to go around a drift that had formed around a shrub, a dumpy isopod scuttled out of the headlights. Key smiled. For all the Marsborn had adapted to their cold little planet, it belonged to the arthropods. Key’s birth parent had been a molecular biologist, and had often complained about how unfair it was that so many bugs had developed their own versions of antifreeze to allow them to function in the frigid night. There was a puff of snow and two jointed limbs lashed out and grabbed the isopod. Key blinked rapidly, their heart fluttering. That mantid would just as happily eaten a Marsborn. They drove on, glad for the safety of the transport.
Jimin would have laughed at the mantid’s sudden movement. Jimin laughed at most things.
Key smiled, and drove on. The next ten kilometres were uneventful, and they slowed to a halt at the boundary between the scrublands and the borean tundra that surrounded the North pole. They swiveled their seat around to face small space in the back of the transport. Containers were fixed to the floor, and clearly labeled. Key purred happily as they selected a Spaceborn ration pack. Their friendship with Jimin had taught Key to appreciate the care that the Spaceborn put into their food. Martian food was well enough, but the Spaceborn seemed to feel that food should double as entertainment. Even rations for an expedition were rich in both nutrients and flavor, with a variety of spices and textures that never failed to delight. Jimin had joked that Key only liked hanging around them for the food. It certainly didn’t hurt.
They turned out all the transport’s lights and swiveled the chair around again, gazing up at the glittering sky as they ate. The vehicle was warm, and the seat designed to be comfortable even for a being unused to the gravity of a planet. Key drifted off shortly after finishing their meal.
They were roused by the sun shining brightly on the snowy landscape. Glancing out the windows, Key saw that snow had piled up in a drift against the western side of the transport. That meant that the space underneath it was now a sheltered, slightly heated cave. They started the transport’s engine and examined the console. After a moment they found the control for the external alarm, and activated it. The vehicle whooped and honked, and Key felt it rock slightly. Leaning over, they saw several large, black and red Rovers scuttling off toward nearby shrubs. Key took a deep breath and let it out. They were unlikely to try to eat an uninjured Marsborn, but their defensive spray could cause extensive chemical burns, and Key was unsure what it would do to a transport. They checked the diagnostics, but there was no sign of any problem. Either the beetles hadn’t sprayed, or the stuff couldn’t harm the ceramic that made up most of the transport’s outer casing.
Out on the tundra, Key had to increase the tint of the windshield to prevent the light from blinding them. The wind blew dry, powdery snow around constantly, and it seemed to catch and magnify the already bright sunlight. In the scrublands, Key would not have hesitated to travel on foot. As a seasoned ranger, they could move faster across the rough terrain than the transport, but when the Spaceborn delegation had said Key should use the vehicle, they hadn’t argued. For a journey like this, speed was less important than safety, and the supplies, warmth, and shelter of the transport made the journey far easier. The topographical readout told Key that there was a squat column of ice ahead. Some pool that had kept its water till the end of the summer had frozen solid, rising up above its banks as the ice expanded. Key drove around it, and realized that with the blowing snow, they could barely see the obstacle, even just a couple meters away. The lack of visibility was dangerous. Key blinked rapidly. How had the Spaceborn thought they could make this journey?
The first day was uneventful, but maddeningly slow. After ten hours of driving, the only notable change was the shift from blinding white billows to purplish ones as the sun set, to white again, illuminated by the transport’s headlights. Key had covered another 150 kilometres. It would probably take another two days at least to reach the research station. With luck, the rest of the trip would be uneventful. One advantage of the constantly billowing snow was that it was unlikely that any bandits tough enough to live out here would be able to see Key’s transport unless Key happened to drive right into the middle of them. Key looked at the rations. The vehicle’s climate control and the rich food of the Spaceborn meant that the prepared supplies were far more than Key would need for this journey. They had packed for the appetites of two Spaceborn, and with the transport doing all the work, Key needed about one third of the daily rations needed by the Spaceborn. If they did encounter any bandits, the transport would be a haul they’d tell their young about for years to come.
The next morning, there were no bugs sheltering under the transport, but a crust had formed over the windshield that Key chose to melt off, rather than getting out. The wind was still blowing, and it was still hard to see what was around. Key knew they were being spoiled, but it was too nice and warm in the transport to leave. It was the one nice thing about this whole affair.
That, and they might be able to save Jimin.
Around midday, Key’s hopes of an uneventful journey were dashed. The wind died just as the topographical readout showed what looked like a domed homestead dead ahead. As the snow settled, Key squinted out, adjusting the magnification on their goggles to see what lay in store.
The column of smoke was not normal.
Key had had no direct dealings with the residents of this homestead. They seemed to primarily desire to be left alone, and Key was never one butt in where they weren’t wanted. They didn’t think it was a bandit den, but such things were difficult to tell sometimes. The roof of the dome had been completely destroyed from above. This was not normal banditry. Someone had attacked this homestead from the air. Key groaned, and began suiting up to investigate. They had their flare gun already, loaded with flash-bangs to deter predators and bandits alike. In the back of the transport they also found a Spaceborn energy caster, which they slung over their shoulder. The weapon was heavy, designed for use in zero-G, but it provided a more lethal option, and might even help if the attackers returned.
Key drove right up to the edge of the dome and got out to investigate, flare gun in hand. The entrance was a rubble of broken and melted glass that gave off no heat. Whatever was smoking inside, the attack was at least a couple days ago. There was a faint smell of smoke and ozone, barely present in the cold air. Jaw clenched tightly, Key entered, eyes darting around for any sign of trouble. The attack had caved in two or three subterranean levels of the homestead, creating a hemispherical crater. Key could make out the ruins of planters, soil and crops spilled out as they broke and fell.
They hopped down onto a flat section of floor, gazing around at the ruin. Why would anyone do this?
“He- Hello? Is anyone alive?”
They heard something shift and raised their voice.
“Hello? Do you need help?”
They sprang backwards as a rover poked its big, black head out of a hole and clicked its mandibles.
“Gwan! Get out of here!”
The large beetle scuttled obligingly away, disappearing into a hole in the wall of the crater. It looked like the remains of a utility tunnel, exposed by the devastation. Rovers meant carrion, so Key carefully approached the hole. Sure enough, there was someone inside, or at least most of someone. Key felt a pang of guilt as they realized that they recognized the clothes, but didn’t know the homesteader’s name. The guilt was replaced by a wave of nausea as they saw that the rover had been enjoying a hearty meal. They grabbed a nearby board and put it over the corpse’s torso and head, hiding the grisly spectacle. It helped a little.
Clutched in the corpse’s hand was an old radio receiver, with its cable broken. When the attack hit, the homestead had been trying to communicate with someone. Was that the cause of the attack? A response to it? Key shuddered, and glanced at the tunnel. The beetle was there, watching. Key dug their camera out of a pouch and began taking pictures, of the wreckage, the melted glass, the caved in floor, the corpse, and the radio remnants. They didn’t have the time or ability to fully investigate this tragedy, but they needed at least some evidence.
Key was reluctant to draw conclusions on so cursory an investigation, but they couldn’t shake the feeling that this monstrous deed was done to silence the victims. They took a deep, shaky breath, and hopped back up to ground level. They turned back to the waiting rover.
“It’s all yours, I guess. I hope you leave something for investigators, if we ever manage to send any.”
Back in the warmth of the transport, Key sat in silence, thinking. They were still sure that Jimin’s mission – and Ditya’s had been diplomatic in nature, but they were now certain that Ditya had been murdered, either by the same people responsible for this attack, or by associates of the attackers. Whatever was going on, at least some of those involved were willing to commit assassination.
Key looked over the wreckage again. Assassination, and acts of war.
As Key continued driving north, they kept glancing a the sky. Was there some sort of airship up there? Was it Spaceborn, or Martians? Confronted with the events of the day, Key could imagine some factions in either group being responsible. Could it be the Earthborn? Ditya had only mentioned a probe so that seemed unlikely, but…
The sun began to set, and the transports lights turned on automatically. Key turned them off, navigating with their own night vision, and the aid of the topographical readout, till they found a column of ice taller than their transport. They parked the vehicle against it, hoping that would make them harder to spot from the air.
Sleep was hard to come by that night. Key shifted restlessly in their seat, starting awake at the faintest of sounds. By dawn, they were unsure they had gotten more than a couple hours of sleep across the whole night. They ate a full meal for breakfast, along with a strong stimulant. Refreshed by the drug and the food, they carefully pulled away from the wall of ice, and resumed their meandering journey northward. They kept a nervous watch on the sky, making slower progress than the day before, but by midday it seemed that nothing was coming. As the sun began to sink back below the horizon, they saw a dark smudge ahead, and stopped. At full magnification, their goggles showed what appeared to be a crashed ship of some sort. It was difficult to discern the design from the wreckage, but with no indication of life, Key decided to investigate. They parked a short distance away, and approached, Spaceborn energy caster in hand. They moved cautiously, every muscle vibrating with nervous energy. By the design and insignia, it was a Spaceborn vessel of some sort, but Key had never seen its like. The rear portion, which seemed to hold the engine, had broken away from the rest, and seemed to be in the process of slowly sinking into a steaming pocket of bog that had been cracked open by the crash. From the way the air rippled around the machinery, Key guessed that it would keep that section from freezing over for some time to come. They carefully stalked around the thawed area to the vessel’s cabin, on the other side.
There was a hissing, clicking sound, and Key leapt backwards just as the two arms of a mantid darted out from the wreckage. The insect emerged, mouthparts working, and began stalking toward Key. With a grunt, they lifted the energy caster and fired. The air rippled, and a few cables on the wreck jerked and melted. The mantid darted at Key and struck again, its needled arm opening a gash in Key’s shoulder as they leapt to the side. They hit the ground and rolled as the mantid scuttled toward them. They kicked out, causing the mantid to pause for a moment, heaved the caster up again, and fired from a mere two meters away. The mantid’s thorax split open with a shrieking gush of steam, and it collapsed, legs thrashing.
Key lay in the snow, torso heaving as they watched the predator’s death throes. A stab of pain reminded them that while their first shot had missed, the mantid’s strike had not. Gingerly, they parted the torn fabric of their sleeve to see the damage. The cut was deep, but Key’s thick blood was already slowing. Mantid cuts didn’t carry any poison. The biggest danger was the loss in integrity of Key’s insulation. With a grimace, they stood, giving the still-thrashing insect a wide berth as they staggered to the ship. They peered inside cautiously, but there were no other unexpected occupants.
There were, however, two Spaceborn, both dead, and one partially eaten. Key closed their eyes for a moment, before examining the corpses. They had had to deal with dead bodies before, but it still provoked a wave of nausea. Key muttered thanks to the stars for the low temperatures that kept the smell to a minimum. When they examined the intact corpse, it became pretty clear what had caused the crash. The Spaceborn vessel was designed to work in atmosphere, but it had come from space. From the crumpled look of the pilots’ bodies, Key guessed that they had come in, destroyed the homestead Key had found the day before, and then been killed, or at least debilitated by the pull of gravity as they tried to return to space. They had made the same mistake as Ditya and Afia, and they had paid for it with their lives.
Again, Key took pictures. It could not have been a coincidence that they had found this wreck so close to the research station. They shuffled back to the transport, and cleaned their wound, before taping it closed. They took a repair kit out of its case, and in the welcome heat of the transport, they patched the tear in their inner and outer layers. Training, and years of experience had taught Key that putting off a repair like this could mean frostbite or hypothermia, if circumstances led them into the cold. This was not a time to neglect their training.
Jimin might need their help.
Repairs done, they looked at the map. 120 kilometres to the research station, and the sun would set in just a couple hours. They were less worried about attack from the air, but it seemed like approaching in the cover of darkness might be wise. They ate another meal, and set off.
As the sun set, they kept their lights off, navigating mainly by map and topographical display. At 50 kilometres out, their lack of sleep caught up with them, and they took another stimulant to stay awake. It worked, but worsened their already mounting anxiety. They were so close to finding out what was going on, but there were so many unanswered questions. Was Jimin even alive? Was this the beginning of a war with the Earthborn? Was it a war with the Spaceborn? Was it a war between the Spaceborn?
At last, as the sky began to glow with pre-dawn light, they saw the silhouette of the research station in the distance. They parked the vehicle, checked their repairs, and stepped out into the freezing air. They climbed onto the roof of the transport and maxed out the magnification on their goggles, bringing the station into focus.
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