Friday, October 26, 2012

Last Ship From Earth by Spencer Connor

In 2084, in a lonely outpost of humanity on Mars, a fledgling revolutionary group foments rumours of a terrible conspiracy among the colony's leaders; by Spencer Connor

Chapter One

Burgeoning life busied itself amid starships and within three vast city-domes on the red planet's surface. All ships were uniform in size, expressly constructed to dock with the station before departing downward. But this day, two of their number launched out into the ever-black, away from station and planet both. The silent dance of deep-space maintenance drones loading into their respective holds had seemed to take forever. Over a decade into commonplace, these mundane acts were always an awed spectacle to a child's newfound awareness.

"Ooooh, what's going on?"

William Hughes, venerable and well-dressed, chuckled while holding his toddler granddaughter up to peer out of a starboard-facing viewport. He glanced at his watch: 03:06. The spaceport itself was nearly deserted at this hour. "See those ships there?" he leaned closer, playfully conspicuous. "They're on a special mission to keep us all safe."

The pink-clad child sighed gleefully, blonde curls bobbing. "Really? Oh that's wonderful, Grandy!"

Smiling in spite of what he knew, he pinched her cheek. "Yes Delilah. It is wonderful."



The George W. Bush International Space Station orbiting Mars began construction in 2049 via remote drones. Astronauts headed toward the red planet in cryogenic-sleep via nuclear-thermal shuttle mid-2053, to arrive when the station was operational in early 2054. Cameras on the drones fed images back to NASA so they could monitor construction and make adjustments when needed. The subsequent international base on the planet itself was founded in 2072, never becoming the desired pioneer colony dreamed of by that long-deceased American President.

Presently, the colony was barely getting by - populated mostly by skilled volunteers longing for adventure, farmers, assigned United Nations Peacekeeping Soldiers and the wealthy. The latter looked to get in on the ground floor of new markets with substantial growth potential. Families of these pioneers mostly felt their respective countries either loathed or had forgotten about them when Earth's economy had plunged the world over. Trillions of dollars worth of resources had gone into space, making the colony and space station convenient targets during a perceived second Great Depression.

Years went by with little in the way of aid, supplies or mention of the colony in news sent via communications-beam from Earth to (and then from) the space station. But now there was a race between the United States, China, Russia and the European Union to reach them. Lesser factions within those major encapsulated Israelis, non-union Europeans, Australians, Canadians, affluent democratic Middle-Easterners, a selected handful of Africans and neighbors from the Northern Peninsula.

Earth was becoming unlivable. It was a statement of fact that pushed the major countries of the world to look elsewhere in order to perpetuate human existence. The recently modified James Webb Space Telescope had peered deeper into galaxies beyond the Milky Way, finding several habitable candidates. To have a realistic possibility at reaching any of those planets - even with nuclear-thermal rocket power - a beachhead was needed farther out from where they were. That was where the unpopular financial black hole that was the Mars colony came in.

An approximate 9.2 billion people lived on Earth as of March 10, 2084. Now a fraction of all that human life, a mere 41 million, fled the tumultuous planet for a new beginning... or perhaps, to perpetuate their established base nature.



"They're bringing armed forces, probably weapons of mass destruction with them."

William Hughes, the American Envoi of the Mars colony, turned to face the space station's senior officer. The single-malt scotch he was pouring for the two of them was forgotten in the general's otherwise militarily-appointed office. "Which faction?"

The general loosened his tie, running a finger about the white collar of his shirt. "All of them. Well, certainly the US and China." He tilted his head to the side. "Have you... heard anything, Wil?"

The envoi looked wounded though he searched his host's eyes for motive. He reached back for that drink, needing it. "Of course not, Marcus. Even if there were some way to bypass your security protocols to receive a com-beam without your knowing about it, I'd still have to bring something like that to your attention."

"Is that a fact." General Marcus Von Hägen folded his arms. Still lean and fit from years with the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces, the slight wrinkles and touch of grey at his temples failed to soften his features.

"Look, we can't be like them. If we start hoarding information and distrusting one another, there's no chance any of us survive this." He threw back the scotch in one burning gulp. "Just look what they've done to Earth."



Chapter Two

Three interconnected clear-steel domes looked out on a pewter-hued sky. At night, colonists had the oppressive ever-black above to remind them Man was all but rather tiny within its enormity - just like Earth. Peering beyond the domes' concave borders outward lay desolate red-orange terrain, soothing in its passive contempt for human life.

Legano exhaled, standing on a nearly deserted street corner mocked-up like Westside Manhattan in Dome-1. In fact each of the massive domed enclosures was modeled, albeit scaled down, after a famous city on Earth: Dome-2 was a replica of London; Paris, the city of light and its rural outskirts, was decided amid some resistance for Dome-3. Stoplights at the crosswalk finally changed with two contra-grav sedans hovering to a smooth halt. The lanky young artist carried his holo-tablet and stylus in a thin, black leather satchel under one arm, hurrying to his destination through the sparse dozens going about their way.

Above them, towering office buildings seemed to glower impatience for residents to fill their empty windows. Turning down a narrow side street, a row of identical brownstone-like buildings similarly stood mostly vacant, which brought a sardonic smirk to the artist's face. "Barely twenty thousand in a city built for five times that capacity. Someone actually planned this."

Bounding up the few steps of the third attached structure, the jimmied biometric door stood closed but yielding. Earthy smells of curry and paprika hung in the warmth as he took the internal staircase upwards to the second of three floors. Voices were now heard in one of the two apartments on the landing, in spirited if casual debate. All fell silent when his hand accessed the door panel.

Inside, three twenty-something colonists mused around mouthfuls of bean-stew and torn pita bread at a small round table. The apartment itself was beatnik-chic, complete with copies of impressionist art and poetic verse adorning the walls. Seeming out of place was the holographic image emitted from a wall behind it, some seventy inches across. A "mute" icon in its lower right corner revealed the lack of sound during an actively-beamed news report about finalists for Earth's World Cup tournament. Sitting barefoot on a memory-foam upholstered couch was their equally-youthful host, Kurana Bahrain. She frowned, a lock of dark hair falling across a bronzed vulpine face. "You're late again, Legs."

Legano spread his hands. "I was working. Not the shit job, but my real work and... time just got away from me. Have you heard anything about those starships?"

Kurana stood and crossed the room, her pale-green blouse over bellbottom jeans loose and comfortable. "Of course not. If Abigail's sister hadn't seen them with her own eyes, no one down here would have known. Nothing in the news about it either, so something's definitely going on."

From the nearby table her tall, whipcord brother Duran raised his head from a rapidly emptying bowl. "I can believe it. They only com-beam us nonsense, like celebs hooking up," he chewed.

Abigail Trosst, youngest of three petite, auburn-haired daughters of wealthy industrialists - they owned nearly a third of the buildings in Dome-1 - glared at the artist over a smoldering clove-cigarette.

"Well, what do you think it is?" Legano prompted.

Glenn, an employed miner who left the domes periodically in exploratory rovers, pushed shoulder-length hair away from his face. "Got me."

Kurana sighed. "It doesn't make any sense why they'd send orbital shuttles into deep space. Maybe you should ask your girlfriend."

A very unflattering portrait of this gathering's purpose struck like a sledgehammer. "Cassie's not my girlfriend! She's married, for Christ's sake." Legano took a step back, turning for the door. "I don't know what any of you think you could do even if we did know something was going on up there."

"Don't the people have a right to know, regardless?" Abigail exhaled a stream of smoke. "C'mon, she's got to know something. Up there eating caviar with Daddy the envoi."

Legano was incensed, laughing harshly at the spoiled trust-funder. "You're one to talk! Why don't we ask your parents?" The room went silent. Looks were exchanged that Legano didn't understand.

"She already has, genius." Kurana's voice was now a low, cutting whisper. "They didn't really tell her anything, but her father did say there was 'nothing to worry about,' that 'we'll all be safe soon.'"

His eyebrows drew together above a frown. "Soon? That sounds ominous."

Kurana's dark brown eyes narrowed. "Exactly. Don't think he meant to say it, but we're all in some kind of danger. And the people up there" - she pointed upward - "are apparently doing something to make us safe."

"Those orbital shuttles leaving like that sticks out like a sore thumb. They weren't made for interplanetary travel. Must have been retrofitted with nuclear-thermal drives," Duran supplied.

Kurana walked over, placing her hands on the artist's arms. "Legs... we think they may have found sentient life out here. They could be headed to the other side of the planet, or maybe one of the moons."

"And they're going to attack them somehow," Abigail vexed. "We don't know what's on board those ships, but it's probably soldiers, gauss guns and God knows what else."

Glenn chortled. "Kill what's different, like always. At least we're branching out to other species." Both Kurana and Abigail gave him a withering look. Duran busied himself chewing, wanting none of their ire.

Blood drained away from the artist's face. For all the desolate space of their antiseptic environment, at least there was peace (apart from whatever minor trouble he and his friends could get into). Starting a war with an alien race? He thought about the clear-steel domes, seeing them now as fragile, indefensible glass coverings against certain death in the void - a cold, unforgiving darkness where something was thriving.

"The envois and the military types are doing this, probably on orders from Earth."

"They should just leave whatever it is alone," Abigail muttered.

Legano couldn't breathe. His adjustment to living on Mars was difficult, but not uncommon: he'd needed therapy as a child to deal with a fear of suffocation. But now they could be attacked at any time by some unknown... something - it brought back his youth-born terror. Hyperventilating, he pulled Kurana to him and held her tight.



Chapter Three

PRE-EXODUS EARTH, MARCH 21, 2084: The big blue marble had clearly seen better days. Natural disasters had become a normal calamity visited upon the nine billion-plus inhabitants: shared unequally between the continents and their sub-countries lay a billion dead. Crushed, drowned or the slow wasting death of thirst and starvation. Nuclear reactors in the vicinity of shifting tectonic plates were shut down amid pressure from twelve of the twenty industrialized nations to prevent a frightful situation from becoming apocalyptic.

As vast colony ships were in final preparations to launch from two locations in the United States, Miles Thompson, the Secretary of Defense, volunteered to remain. Someone had to preserve order and continue working toward halting these violent climate changes, so let it be the widower - just so long as his children and their families had seats aboard a colony ship. Recorded messages by the actual President from Mount Weather would be slowly dispensed throughout the crisis, leading the frightened and angry American people to believe their leader was there, enduring with them - and why not? Any heartening solace was a boon to the now skeletal government.

The new White House Press Secretary entered the Oval Office, looking prim as ever. The silver-haired woman had a perpetual calmness that made her a sound choice. "Mr. President, there are new developments."

Sitting uncomfortably behind the desk of the President, Miles looked up from his reading, removing black-rimmed bifocals. He sighed. "Let's hear it then."

"There is increased pressure from the media for the President to comment on the alliance between China and North Korea. Also, there is a highly negative report about our refusing aid to the African Union from the Congressional Black Caucus."

"And by aid you mean seats aboard a colony ship, right? We don't even have the capacity to take all of our own people. Why haven't the other spacefaring countries come under fire?"

"Well, they have sir. But we - "

"I know, I know: America the Beautiful. Contact Mount Weather and have them ready the message from the President regarding the Northern Peninsula. In the meantime, if there are any weather patterns or seismic changes that will cost American lives, I want to know about it first."

"Yes, Mr. President."

He chuckled, in spite of himself. "You don't have to call me that, Jane." She nodded without speaking, a faint smile curling her lips upon exiting.



Riots had grown out of control worldwide, even in the Americas. Led by Great Britain, the European Union attempted a macro view, striving to save human cultures amid protests from some EU members angling for as many seats as possible. The scientific community continued to exchange information openly. Officials in Russia, the US and China weren't totally comfortable with this and some of the great minds simply "went missing" to the clamor and outrage of their peers. There just wasn't any time left for petulant sovereignty.

Earthquakes and tsunami destroyed most of Japan. Nine-tenths of its land mass plunged far beneath voracious waves - taking all six of their prototype colony ships with it. The Greek Isles suffered a similar fate, all its grand history washed away in the blink of an eye. Rebuffed by a tornado-battered US, the African Union pleaded with its European counterpart for a handful of seats. Granted, the African Lottery was born which, once those select few were chosen, incited renewed rioting all throughout the region. Most of those families provided seats were set upon and brutally murdered. The United States then promptly condemned the lottery.

As the global economy failed amid the violent changes in Earth's climate, China was the first to act on the need to abandon the planet. Combining resources with North Korea, they constructed twenty hive-like colony ships fitted with 100,000 cryogenic births each. The first five where readied for near-simultaneous launch, while they attempted to raise additional funds by demanding the United States pay the 2.3 trillion owed them in full. Ultimately, the decades-long smolder of distrust ignited into war. Only an emergency meeting of the G20 members averted shots fired between the two superpowers. Spies and electronic countermeasures on the other hand, were deployed with unabashed ferocity as the planet continued to churn.



Chapter Four

**/CBHT: redaction approved of indicated subtext. Transferal to standard synch-reception protocols. End.**

General Von Hägen entered the Communications-Beam Hub within the space station, a cobalt-blue darkened room with five send/receive terminals built into a cylindrical node near its center. Presently, only one of the lit terminals was manned by the Com-Beam Operations Manager, Lieutenant-Major Maria Vasquez - the very person he sought.

"Another message come through?"

"Messages from Earth are always coming through, sir. I've just streamlined another from the Russian President."

Marcus leaned against a nearby diagnostic relay panel jutting from the wall beside him. "Streamlined." He let the word hang in the air. "So that's what we're calling it now."

Maria swiveled the floor-mounted seat to look him in the eye. "What would you have me call it sir, redacting?"

"A small step toward Mars' sovereignty, for one thing. We can't allow Earthers to bring their wars to our doorstep. Or to exhaust our resources; they've practically abandoned us out here." He straightened, folding his arms. "You've seen the communiqués. Tell me, what would you do to protect the colony?"



In the weeks following Kurana's unburdened concerns, Legano tried reaching out to Cassandra. Her family had a posh residence on the faux Park Avenue in Dome-1, but he was told by a gossipy neighbor that they'd not returned from the station. I wonder if they're having caviar.

He fished a small rectangular device from his pocket. "Cassie, it's me again. Don't know why you're not returning my calls, but it's important. We... need to speak face-to-face."

Distraught by her lack of reply, Legano let unsubstantiated terror and bitterness become his collective creative muse. Subversive messages began to appear in all three city-domes. Poetic verse via laser-etched calligraphy from his illegally-modified holo-tablet's stylus decried the envois as deceitful warmongers orbiting above them like would-be gods. Peace symbols with the message "Respect All Life" were found in equal measure. Not long after, the police issued a global warrant for his arrest.

Once his face was splashed across external holographic walls everywhere, the word "WANTED" a chilling blood-red beneath, Cassandra tried to contact Legano. But it was too late - he must have ditched his personal com so he couldn't be tracked. Still, her frantic attempts to reach him did not go unnoticed.


Looking over colony police reports generously shared by the General, William sat within his rooms aboard the space station, scowling while wondering where his wife had gotten to. Hopefully, talking some sense into their wayward daughter - it was clear (at least to him) who was responsible for these misguided warnings. They'd pick him up, along with his degenerate friends to be extradited to the station. What an embarrassment for their parents. "Graffiti, here." he poured himself another drink.



Chapter Five

Audra Hughes loved dining out, though the options were limited on board the station. Most times, the finer eateries merely served as backdrop for schmoozing envois and senior personnel from the station. But now she sat gauging her own daughter's complicity in unlawful acts, if only to protect her.

Cassandra Hughes-Tennington emerged from a restroom speaking on her personal com, the softly-lit earpiece unobtrusive behind locks of long blond hair. Sitting down, the inference was a few words to her mining executive husband before she rang off. "Delilah's finally asleep. It's getting so she fights to stay awake in the afternoon."

Audra waited a moment before speaking. "Was that really Charles just now?"

Almost immediately Cassandra folded her arms, storm-clouds gathering behind her blue eyes. It was the same defensive posture she took as a tweener when her parents told her they were leaving Earth. "You and daddy chose this suffocating life and I'm supposed to be what, grateful?"

"Child, do you think your husband approves of your disappearing for days to spend time with those pseudo-bohemians? Why do you think he suggested moving to the station, the poor man." Her frown seemed more a pained expression. "Really, none of them, or you, have anything to complain about - just a bunch of spoiled children acting out in this wondrous place."

A staid waiter in dark slacks and a white shirt walked over but Cassandra waved him away, hissing at her mother like a coiled snake. "Mother, I had nothing to do with this - "

"They're all going to jail on federal charges. Public buildings were defaced." She reached a trembling hand across the table, covering Cassandra's in a gentle grasp. "Other things are in play, daughter. You must cooperate; just tell them what you know." Audra was suddenly tearful over the potential loss, of both her daughter and face in the community. "Think of Delilah."

"She's all I think of, despite Charles being her father - he was daddy's choice, mom. Not mine." Tears began to fall as she turned away, avoiding her mother's face. "You know, when I was younger I'd always wanted to see New York. The real New York. But like my marriage, I only have a pale imitation, looking out on a half-dead city day after day for years."

"Cassie..."

"Mom." She took a breath. "I'll do it, mom. For Delilah, and for you."



Chapter Six

EXODUS EARTH, AUGUST 19, 2084: The Wen Jiabao, first among a wave of Chinese colony ships to break orbit from Earth (despite covert actions to delay them by the United States) was now over five months into their long journey. A small rotation of eight pilots - two per three-week shift - manned the helm, a convex wall before them casting a forward image of space traversed. In a vast, cylindrical section beneath lay the hive-like cryogenic births mounted to the inner walls. Each of the ships stood six hundred kilometers apart spatially, as to avoid catastrophic nuclear-powered collisions.

Captain Li looked over the console, swiveled his chair around to shoot a sardonic look at his prim co-pilot, and stretched. Following the inputted flight path of several international voyages to Mars, the all-male crew merely served as monitors to the autopilot. "Do we really have to be qualified to sit here?"

After a moment of silence, First Lieutenant An-Pang Quan replied without looking to his superior. "I'll pretend that wasn't said. Sir."

"I know we're fortunate; our families are on board because of this assignment. It's just that at this stage, deep-space flights are kind of routine. The ship itself is huge, but mass doesn't really matter out here, so..." Li fell silent as his co-pilot quietly stared ahead at the convex wall. "Hey, don't get me wrong. I'm proud to be - "

"Sir, look at the display!"

Encapsulating the wide-view of the ship's forward wall was an uncharted asteroid field. Collision proximity claxons began to blare, in tandem with external radioactivity counters. An occasional shard of twisted hull-metal drifted silently within the looming mass.

"Manual helm control, Lieutenant!" The Captain roared, skimming through the astrogation readouts while his fingers blurred over release protocols.

"Proximity sensors were thrown off. Could be interference from hard radiation..." Quan supplied, as algorithms of spherical trigonometry raced through his head. "Charting a new path for you, sir. Inputting new coordinates clear of debris..."

Tense moments passed, claxons shut down so they could hear themselves think. Navigating past this obstruction without foundering their fuel reserves would be tricky - they might not make it to Mars, but would be within com-beam range. Both muttered curses under breath, knowing their ship's size would work against them in this instance.

"What is going on? If the sensors are right, some ship - maybe more than one - was destroyed out here. Did the Americans launch before us?"

Lieutenant Quan spoke as he worked, activating the ship's com-beam module. "We have to send word to our other ships! They'll be here in less than - "

Two large chunks of space-rock moved with sudden intent, slamming forcefully into the Wen Jiabao's propulsion and main body - then the deep-space drones propelling them self-detonated small nuclear bombs installed expressly for purpose.

Warning claxons came to life once more, forcing Lieutenant Quan to shout dreadful diagnostic results: "We've been hit! There's a breach in our lower hull... oh god, our people!"

The ship sped forward at an arc, leaking coffin-shaped cryogenic births. Captain Li fought hopelessly for control. His eyes grew wide with the knowledge there would be no new beginning. "Lieutenant, look at the display."

Quan looked up from his console in time to see the large mass as they plunged into it. Like a flower blossoming impossibly at night, the silent beauty that heralded the death of untold thousands was viewed by none.



Chapter Seven

Encrypted information from the death-drones seeding the new asteroid belt was fed to the lone person on the space station with its cypher: General Marcus Von Hägen. Looking over recent com-beams within his office, a drink to hand, approximately twelve ships had been destroyed - making the trap itself exponentially larger. But the grim victory failed to bring a smile to his face.

"It had to be done." Reaching to access the desk-mounted com, he called for his council of co-conspirators to meet. In turn, the five envois extricated themselves from respective obligations to attend: lean and haunted Kaneda Nogomuchi, forced to bear witness to Japan's destruction via com-beam; venerable Leo Blair, the last child born to a sitting British Prime Minister in over 200 years; Rostislav Borovsky, portly and calculating Russian who first proposed the notion of destroying all oncoming colony ships; the pensive and stylish Adrien Devareaux, siding with Borovsky which shocked Blair - at the council's inception, some complained that having both the EU and Great Britain represented meant the latter essentially had two votes out of the five. Rounding out the quintet was of course, William Hughes.

After the last entered, the door to General Hägen's conference room was sealed. At the head of a rectangular table, he stood in their seated attendance. "Gentleman: sorry about the impromptu call, but it's begun. I needed to look you in the eye, to make sure we are all still of a mind in this."

"We are," barked William.

"Although... was it necessary to also destroy the com-beam satellite relays? Without them there will be no future dialog with Earth."

Borovsky sighed. "Wake up, Kaneda! We've only had ourselves to depend on for years."

"Our decision was not easily made. Yes, cultures will be lost. A great deal of humanity, to say nothing of our own, is lost. But a price well paid if survival is the goal."

"Well said, Leo." Hägen supplied with satisfaction.



Com-beam Ops was abuzz with activity. All three terminals of the central receiving node were manned. Department admins milled about within and just outside the open door as two foreboding security officers began to walk over, armored vests a fluid black over dark-green uniforms. Lieutenant-Major Maria Vasquez turned into the cylindrical corridor in time to see the latter.

"Shit. Something's gone wrong." She began to run.



Cassandra procrastinated at the bar for hours, nursing a drink. Charles called twice in the interim, but given the way things played out with her mother, she assumed he already knew and was checking up on her. Frowning, she motioned to the bartender. "Vodka shots, for courage."

Nearly another meandering hour passed before she found herself standing outside one of the two security offices of the station, armed and armored guards to either side of the wide double-doors.

"Is there a problem, miss?"

"I have information regarding the fugitive Legano Salieri."

The guard on the right jerked a thumb over a shoulder. "Speak to the duty officer at the front desk."

The double-doors receded into the walls before reclosing behind her. As security hubs went, she assumed it was standard: lectern upon a raised dais behind a partition, an officer perusing information on the flat touchscreen of its console. Beyond lay the open-area chaos of officers logging reports at their desks, several hosting remorseful-looking individuals in neural-shock handcuffs. It seemed strange, because she rarely if ever heard about crimes committed on the station in the newsfeeds.

"Maybe we shouldn't raise Delilah up here after all," she smirked beneath the last vestiges of her liquid courage.

A brief conversation raised eyebrows - at her name, not Legano's - before she was decisively sent to the desk of one Sargent Jake Norton. Thankfully, the man just wore his uniform without body armor, clean-cut with sleeves rolled up and hands hovering over the desk-mounted computer. Her deposition rushed out after a hesitant start: of her former classmates and how they all felt adrift in the colony, how they sometimes did the stupid things young people do for excitement. Cassandra almost began to plead Legano's case before biting her lip silent with uncertainty.

Jake looked up from his monitor. Though her deposition was being recorded, it was always good to take a few notes in-the-moment of the officer's impression if needed for a trial. "It's okay Ma'am. Do you need a second, would you like a glass of water?"

I feel like an idiot. "No, I'm fine officer."

An old-fashioned door down the hallway banged open, raised voices spilling out from the sound-proofed enclosure. "...wasn't encrypted! Check the log, I didn't do anything wrong!" Emerging from the doorway was a tall woman with reddish-brown hair braided-back from a tan, attractive face. She slammed the door shut, walking over to Jake's desk looking angry, perhaps frustrated.

"Not a good time, Maria."

The woman looked Cassandra over. "No 'cuffs. Good. We need to talk, Jake."

Seething, the officer managed an icy, "Yes Ma'am," and stood, striking a few touch-keys on the desk interface. Looking to Cassandra: "I'll only be a moment, miss. My superior needs a word."

They disappeared down the hallway and into a nearby interrogation room. A soft tone sounded from the computer. Sitting there, curiosity got the better of Cassandra. Leaning forward to see the monitor, a file-folder was blinking on his desktop, an anachronistic tape-recorder icon spooling away. Glancing around casually, none were looking in her direction, so she reached over to the interface. Tapping the monitor over the icon, a white page opened with text sprawling across.

- Let's get this over with, Maria. That's William Hughes' daughter out there.

- Really? Does she know something?

- Not about this.

- Then she's not an issue. Listen, Avery read a raw communiqué from a colony ship and started running his mouth. Sixteen staffers have to be detained now until it's over.

- So that's why this place is so... no. Look, I don't want to hear about any of it.

- Jake... you want me to face this alone?

- No. It's just... they're killing millions of people. Something like this, the truth's going to get out. Then what? Avery works for you - to save his own ass, what do you think he'd say?

- What are you saying? That we should run or maybe play whistle-blower? "Brave" people like that end up dead. I want to live.

- In a world where those bastard envois and General Hägen are free to murder people fleeing Earth? Our homeworld is dying and no one knows about it...

The conversation continued but was a blur through Cassandra's sudden tears. Clearly Officer Norton didn't trust this Maria woman, to have recorded their conversation but - could her own parents be involved in a mass murder? Is this what Legano was trying to tell me? A wave of claustrophobic nausea caused the room to sway before she fought it down. No. I will not be weak!

Collapsing the page, she stood carefully and left the security office. Cassandra was halfway to the spaceport before realizing she was headed down to the colony in the hopes of finding allies.



Chapter Eight

"How did that signal even make it through, general?" William Hughes snarled through his personal com.

"All of the known com-beam relay stations between Mars and Earth were destroyed. Apparently, the Americans have at least one the global community is not aware of."

"So we're talking about some kind of spy-satellite, then? We need to have this thing tracked and found, Marcus." William reclined upon the upholstered leather chair facing a holo-wall set to run wildlife footage of extinct species from archival National Geographic broad-beams. "Seems like they don't trust us out here; it only proves our actions were right, Marcus."

"But now there is damage control to be done. And something else: it's believed your daughter has become involved. Do you know of her whereabouts?"

The American envoi struggled to sound calm, knowing how the general operated. "Just tell me where she is."



Smooth as routine, the drop-ship brought Cassandra and dozens of other citizens to Mars. Landing in the central port between the three interlinked clear-steel domes, an achingly-long process of disembarking to each of the city's ports commenced via rotation. It went in turn, meaning she would be last - Paris residing beneath Dome-3. So cliché that she'd had an affair in Paris. No more so than my empty marriage of privilege on Park Avenue. So far from Earth, just to be like everyone else.

Adjusting her personal com for newsfeeds, it appeared that "the anarchist" Legano Salieri was still at large, though his accomplices had all been captured. "Damn it, Kurana. You pushed him into this, didn't you?" she muttered, chewing her lip. As the great dais rotated, the clear-steel tunnel to Paris finally loomed beyond a busy spaceport. I'll have to ditch the com, preferably on a moving target.

Having no luggage, entry through their gates went quickly. She made her way toward a row of contra-grav taxis, entering one without waiting in line. Shouted epithets truncated at the door's close. A friendly gent barely her age, all red hair and freckles, sat behind the wheel.

"Where to, Ma'am?

"Take me to Monet's Gardens."

"Sure," he smiled. Tapping the touchscreen on the dashboard, he started the fare and activated the drive-assist. They flew just a few feet above ground, the engine unheard within the interior.

Cassandra allowed herself to lounge in the backseat after stressful thinking had balled her into a knot on the flight down. Okay Abigail. If the cops were allowed to pick you up, then I'm already done for.



Chapter Nine

Two uniformed officers ran through the station, headed for the Com-Beam Hub. After an ugly revelatory exchange, calmer heads resolved to do the one thing that might save them from becoming historic loose ends.

"This is your fault, Jake."

"I was afraid, Maria. Not that that matters now: Cassandra Hughes read our conversation and disappeared. Probably went right to her father's office."

Some stopped to look at the black-vested couple as they sped through the wide cylindrical corridors, grateful they weren't the target of such zeal. Maria motioned Jake to stop when the now-guarded door to the hub was just around the next corner. She took a deep breath. I'm doing the right thing.

Turning the corner and walking with purpose, the Com-Beam Operations Manager approached, a station security guard trailing. "Is there anyone inside?" she barked to the soldier on the left, undaunted that both wore face-obscured helmets and held gauss rifles at the ready.

"It's empty Madam," the filtered voice replied.

"Good. Incoming messages have to be dealt with; make sure I'm not disturbed."



Cassandra continued to knock on the door of a palatial country house less than a kilometer from the faux Gardens at Giverny. The old-style door slowly opened, swinging inward as Abigail looked up into Cassandra's clear-blue eyes - without heels, she was a head shorter.

"Cassie...? What are you doing here?"

"I thought your parents would send you away once our friends got arrested. Nice house."

The horrified look on the tiny woman's face told the tale. "Come in already!" She closed and locked the door behind Cassandra. "It's not like you haven't been here before. So, have you heard from Legano?"

"No."

The interior was anything but rustic. All the modern conveniences beckoned beneath high ceilings and sunken rooms. Abigail led her guest down the main hallway into a rear-facing living room with shuttered bay windows, sitting upon a leather couch. "I'm not supposed to be talking with anyone from our little group... wait, where's Delilah? Do your parents know where you've - "

"Abby, stop!" She held up her hands. "Just, stop for a second, okay? I need to tell you something." She pointed to an ear: "Is this place safe?"

"What? Of course we're safe." Though she sounded calm, her eyes were wild, darting.

"On the station... General Hägen and the envois, including my father, are doing something to prevent Earthers from coming here. They're killing them somehow."

The last strands of apocryphal calm were severed. Abigail jumped to her feet, shrieking: "Are you crazy? Who told you that load of bullsh - "

"Listen, Abby. I was sitting in a security station giving a deposition..."

Cassie's story unfurled and though Abigail argued what she read could have been staged for her benefit, the fact that both of their well-connected parents implied something big was happening in secret made it plausible. Shaken, Abby called for the voice-activated holo-wall to display current events. "Let's see if there's any new news."

A looped breaking report restarted: Legano was being led into the Dome-1 Police Station, neural-shock handcuffs pinning his arms behind him. The text crawl beneath stated that the anarchist had surrendered to authorities approximately two hours ago. Speculation then began on trial dates and who, if any, would be willing to defend him. Cassandra looked away, tears falling. On the second play-through, images blurred to grayed-out flashes as an audio only broad-beam message interrupted:

"…Repeat, this is United States Colony Ship Endeavor. Uncharted asteroid field found at following coordinates... Avoid at all costs! Weapons-grade levels of hard radiation... affecting sensors and collision-avoidance software. Remap flight path to -"

An explosion cut the message short. Afterward, a feed from within the space station's Com-Beam Hub went live. Cassie immediately recognized the woman centered in the frame.

"This is Lieutenant-Major Maria Vasquez. On February 1st at approximately 03:00 hours, a murderous act was initiated at the aegis of General Hägen and our five Earth-selected envois. It is believed that soon, the Earth will no longer be able to support human life. Several countries have built colony ships, bound for worlds beyond our solar system. But they would have to refuel from a point farther from Earth to conceivably reach those worlds. Our colony was to serve as that refueling station, used as millions depleted our meager resources with no promise of taking us with them. Catastrophic measures were then taken by the General, depriving us of a dialog with our homeworld. Two shuttles were sent to construct a barrier..."

Both women sat there, mouths hanging open in disbelief. Abby's personal com began to ring incessantly, calls in a queue altering the tones. Sirens blared, closing the distance as multiple police cars approached the house. Abby cradled her head between her hands. "Why did you have to come here, Cassie? It was so quiet."


Chapter Ten

Within a matter of hours, thousands of common working people took to the streets in all three city-domes. Painfully apparent was the fact that there was no city councilperson, mayor or other official to hear their complaints. Just policemen in riot gear, a wall of neural-shock shields with batons brandished. On board the station, non-military staffers questioned if they should remain at their posts, while most military did exactly that, awaiting orders.

Outside the obstructed Com-Beam Hub, General Hägen ordered the doors forced open. The two security guards with gauss rifles stood ready to advance once the kneeling maintenance tech breached the sealed door via laser-powered torch. Within, the two officers embraced, awaiting their fate.

"We did the right thing, Maria."

"For all the good it'll do us. Yay, we get to be dead heroes." Her smile was bittersweet as they kissed.



The impromptu conference call with fellow envois Leo Blair and Kaneda Nogomuchi spurred him onward. Adrien Devareaux moved with purpose, surrounded by imposing bodyguards. Some of the colonists they passed recognized him but thought better of impeding their progress. A child did shout "Killers!" pointing as his mother pulled him walking in the opposite direction. Reaching the corridor that lead to the Com-Beam Hub, Adrien's bodyguards drew their side-arms: gauss pistols as opposed to the Taser X-43s that security guards carried. In a clear voice, the soft-spoken envoi addressed the General, about to storm the room with two armed guards, a maintenance tech standing to the side.

"Stop, Marcus. Nothing will be served by her murder. Put down your weapons and come with us."

General Hägen's whiplashed look of incredulity was quickly replaced by outrage. "Wha...? Oh, I see what you're doing. Didn't you hear that the envois were implicated right along with me? Tell William this isn't going to w-urk!" All four men outside the Com-Beam Hub fell to a hail of magnetically-accelerated metal shards. Bystanders at the far ends of the corridor ran, screaming.

Adrien's bodyguards advanced; the access panel and the door itself had been cut away to reveal a hasty barricade of wall panels jammed against a workbench. The envoi sighed, looking down at his co-conspirator. Marcus' dead eyes were wide and accusing.

"You're safe now, Ms. Vasquez. No harm will come to you - in fact, as the face of this shocking revelation, we need your help."

After a period of silence, a female voice replied. "And who are 'we,' exactly?"


Chapter Eleven

Hundreds were injured amid the civil unrest of the three domes. Spirited pioneers of all Earth nationalities stood resolute, raising a unified voice on a dead planet. The plight of Legano Salieri was conflated with the broad-beam message. He was now an unsung hero striving against unadulterated evil with only artistic passion as his weapon. Hyperbole was indeed running high.

There were incidents on board the station, but with such a strong, obedient UN military presence, they were few and far between. William Hughes and Rostislav Borovsky were taken into custody, to be tried for crimes against humanity. Their three counterparts however, stood before a podium mocked-up within the general's conference room. Maria, Jake and Cassandra, holding little Delilah in her arms, stood with them. As planned, Maria did most of the talking during the live simulcast.

"I would like to ask everyone for a moment of calm, to listen. What has happened on these envois' watch is monstrous. We now know that nuclear-thermal resources were sent from Earth to refuel the colony ships, but repurposed by the General to make weapons of mass destruction. Yet, it was these three who bravely wrested control from the General and their peers. They saved my life." Her voice nearly broke, thick with emotion. Maria coughed it clear and continued. "Warnings have been sent out in all languages as of two standard hours ago in the hopes there are still colony ships out there. If Earth is doomed, then they - and we - are the last of humanity. The last of us. We must further sacrifice now in welcome, working harder than we already have to strengthen and renew the life known here on Mars."

Adrien glanced at Leo and nodded, approving of his words from Maria's lips. Maria herself reached a hand back, obscured by the podium. Jake grasped it briefly in his. She took another breath and pressed on.

"About that... most of us have been here for more than a decade. Children have been born and raised here. Our lives are no longer defined as being colonists from Earth. We are citizens of Mars."

The image of the Com-Beam Operations Manager appeared on every external hollow wall, with sound. In the faux Times Square her face reached some twenty feet across against the side of a building as crowds in the thousands hung on her every word. Upon her last words a heartening roar resounded, echoed by smaller groups within the domes. She looked into the conference room's recorder, out to the people in silence. Tearfully smiling then stepping aside, she was joined at the podium by Adrien.

The envoi took a moment - waiting for Maria's scripted hand of solidarity to fall on his shoulder. "Yes, we are citizens of Mars. And as such, we outdated, Earth-appointed envois will step down to make way for a true system of government." Adrien swept his hand backward toward the other two envois. "Democratic elections will be held in each dome to find purposeful servants of the people, for the people. Additionally, the three of us will never hold positions in governance again - such is our punishment in failing your trust." He pointed up. "And this station above will have a civilian appointed - again, by the citizens of Mars - to serve as its Chief Administrator. Never again must our military be allowed act with autonomy."



Cooling his heels in an isolated cell, Legano was oblivious to all that had happened. The sound of footsteps coming down the hallway of cells filled him with dread. My beatings will now commence. Then he heard a child's voice, murmuring a question. Arriving into view, two security guards flanked Cassandra, holding her daughter in her arms. His lips quavered her name but no sound escaped.

"You look horrible, Legs." She regarded her escort: "Can we get him out of there now?"

A guard input a sequence on the cell's translucent door and it receded into the wall. It was too surreal: somehow, Cassie had freed him. Legano fell to the floor and wept.

"Jeez," said the other guard. "Some 'brave hero' he is."



Chapter Twelve

Months passed. Development of a democratic framework for government was slow going but moved purposefully forward. The masses demanded that Maria be the space station's interim Chief Administrator, despite being a military officer. Yielding to pressure, she was honorably discharged by the highest-ranking UN officer remaining: Colonel Bryce, the station's Spaceport Director.

Amid the tumult of change, life attempted to return to normalcy with a silent hope for humanity found. Sitting alone at the spaceport, watching the orbital shuttles dock and maintenance drones surveying the station's surface, Legano raised a steaming cup of coffee to his lips.

"Oh, how sad. You're drinking alone."

Legano turned his head at the sound of the familiar voice. "You always keep me waiting, Cassie."

A neutral-grey mini dress clung to her over knee-high heeled boots. "Guess that's getting kind of old. Sorry," she pouted. "So how's the career coming?"

He smiled. "I can't keep up with the commissions. Would you believe Abby's parents bought two paintings and a sculpture for their summer home?"

Cassie sat down across from him. "What's not to believe about that family?"

They laughed together for the first time in weeks. A long uncomfortable silence trailed, forcing their eyes away from each another. Cassandra raised her head. "What do you say we kill the elephant in the room before it gets any larger? I've decided to move on, alone."

Genuine surprise bloomed across Legano's face. "You and Charles..."

"Are getting a divorce. All things considered, he's been rather agreeable with everything." She looked away. "Legs, I need to decompress. Delilah and I are headed back to the colony, probably for Dome-2."

He smiled ruefully. "Hmm, a London that never rains. It'll be good for her, Cassie. For both of you."



GWB INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION, 05:09 HOURS: The incessant alarm refused to die. "Snooze should mean half a standard hour," Maria grumbled, stretching to rise within her upgraded quarters. Walking to the shower, she turned, sneering at the blissfully unconscious lump still within the king-sized bed. "Bastard."

By the time her downed espresso finally kicked in, mid-morning inertia of administrative authority had her firmly in its grasp. By 16:34 hours, she'd had enough. Biometrically locking her files to leave for the day, a call came through on her office's emergency com.

"Ms. Vasquez, please come to the spaceport observation deck."

"Damn it, Avery... I'm not up for some office party."

"It's a ship, Maria. A colony ship's arrived!" he replied.

The station's stately Chief Administrator was out the door and running through the cylindrical corridors once again.

She was met with a crowded spaceport, everyone facing away toward the wide clear-steel viewing area. A baritone hum of murmurs resonated in the background as she looked over their heads to see the tardy, much-wandered titan initiating docking protocols with the station. Emblazoned upon its side was the flag of the United Kingdom.

Some in the crowd began to cheer as others departed in quiet conversation. But Maria strode forth to touch the cold pane and beyond it, eyes pregnant with the reflective glint of stars.

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