The Hosts of Mars

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      2049. 22 years after the original settlers had landed on Mars, where they had since been followed by more and more pioneers looking for the next frontier of civilization.

      A lot had changed since they arrived, they were now a few hundred strong, and the first generation of Martian born babies were entering adulthood.

      Maia would celebrate her 50th birthday tonight. In Earth years. By Mars’ count, she was younger by half. Still, she was the eldest of the mission, and had learnt so much during these years. Her son, John had grown into a fine young man. He was named after John Carter of course. He wasn’t the first born here, but was the first to have survived. He always had the will to explore more, despite the dangers, he wanted to make the planet his own.

      She knew he was destined to greatness. She had a dream a long time ago, one dream that made her enlist into the program. She’d dreamt of Mars as a lush planet, that mankind had managed to terraform with a vaporous atmosphere, more dense than on Earth, but breathable. The light of the evening sky was misty and a pale grey-green. Maia hoped she would live to see her dream come true, that somehow they found a way to venture out and breathe the new air, having succeeded in making the best out of the immense resources of the red dust planet.

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        A major solar flare was under way. It would blackout the communications with Earth for some time, but for everyone here, it didn’t matter too much. The timelag for communications to travel the Mars-Earth distance still made them too cumbersome for a regular use —much like snail mail was to their parents who were born with the digital area of instant communication.
        The real thrill was that they lived close enough to the pole, and with some luck, there was some chance of spectacular views.


          John was about to leave the pod for the airlock when a sharp voice startled him.

          “Where are you going on your own Johnny? You know the rules!”

          He could tell she was only pretending indignation. She had this fun smirk at her pursed lips that he knew by heart. She was most likely vexed at not being asked to come along for the venture past curfew.

          At 15, Yz was 5 years younger than him (in Earth years), and only half his height, but her brains were razor sharp, as well as her tongue. She was also a gifted mechanic, and a fearless young girl.

          They exchanged a conniving smile. No more than three minutes after, she was back, silent as a cat, and suited up for the harsh environment of Mars.
          Over the years, small adjustments had been made to the suits, some purely out of fashion, but the main elements remained the same, which little change from one Earth cargo to the next. Ensuring their survival at minimal cost to their movements and senses.
          Survival outposts were also planted all across the area, so as long as they stayed at safe distance to their pod, they were in no real danger.

          The sand scooters were always free to take for a ride. A matter of life and death, it would be a crime to put locks on them. At any moment, anybody could be in dire need for a ride. And besides, in all that expanse of land, where to run to?


            Under the cold starlight, John enjoyed to drive on the dunes, off the well-run tracks, glancing back from time to time to check on Yz. He had spent many years in his youth following his mother’s husbands, as they were assigned his guardianship in turns, and would take him around for their various outposts assignments.
            He’d learnt the topology of his land in much details, and had a few of his own favourite places. Without knowing, he’d name them like his ancestors would have of the unspoiled lands and mountains of ancient Earth. The Rabbit Head, the Meditating Monkey, the Buddha’s Butt… Of course, none of these names were official, but everyone would know exactly what place he was pointing at, even without knowing the geoquadrant designation.

            Tonight, for the magical display of lights, he needed a magical place, and he knew just where.

            There was a ring of old stones past the Buddha’s Butt. They were mostly hidden from sight, although the place was at a higher altitude and could be seen from afar. He’d discovered them by chance, two or three years ago. He didn’t come too often, as the access wasn’t easy.
            The stones were nested inside a plateau of collapsed land, like an old caldera. They were huge boulders of unequal sizes, forming a quasi-perfect circle, more than two hundred meters wide. It felt doubtful they’d been erected by men, but somehow the eerie place seemed possessed by some sort of vibrant intelligence.

            “I’m going to show you something” he told Yz after stopping the sand scooter.
            “Of course you are. Don’t be so mysterious!” she retorted. “Where is it?”
            “A few clicks up the hill, shouldn’t take long. Just follow me carefully and mind your steps, the stones are slippery.”


              The climb wasn’t too difficult, and the continuous release of oxygen of their insulated suit was still plenty enough to keep them going for hours. “Look!” John pointed out the spot, a few hundred meters below, on the other side of the edge of the caldera.

              “It’s going to be quite a show” Yz said, pointing at the sky behind it. Aurora lights were starting to dance.

              It took them twenty more minutes to get down to the stones circle.

              As they approached, John was struck by a sensation, a mirage most likely. At first, he thought it was a reflection on his suit’s helmet, but a second look confirmed his impression. Under the solar shower, the huge stones seemed to glitter.

              “Is this…?”
              “Water? It looks like it.” John touched the wet surface of the stones, after the suit had analyzed it as non corrosive. “I’ll take a sample to the lab… Water in this place seems… out of place.”
              “What about us?” Yz replied grinning widely. “What are we, if not out of place?”

              John smiled, relaxing for the first time since they’d left the pod. There was little air to taste outside of the suit, but he could taste his surrounding, and enjoyed the wide wild rocks and stones that seemed so full of life under the dancing lights.
              They sat in the centre of the standing stones.

              “Don’t you find fascinating that even water on Earth have been found to be older than the Sun itself?”
              “Leaves one to ponder, for sure”


                It had been two months since the aurora. They had started to refer to it as the Cloud Aurora, since after it, rocks had started to leak moisture in all manner of places.
                Long, thin clouds had begun to appear just a month after, and the atmosphere composition seemed to alter itself as well, irrevocably.

                Everyone was busy doing analysis, sending reports to Earth and extrapolating on data. But John was more interested in running more explorations and extending the area of his scouting.

                Tonight, a new commercial ship from Earth would arrive. Mostly rich tourists bored with Spain or Italy, but a bit of fresh blood too, most likely winners of a stupid settler raffle. It had taken them years to arrive; it was hard for John to imagine being crammed in suspension, floating through endless void and cold space for so long.

                But then, he himself was quite excited being here to monitor the inexorable changes set in motion on the red planet.


                  Commercial Spaceline MX757#33, Mars orbit

                  Finnley, the board computer of the mothership had started to wake up the suspended animated bodies in preparation for the landing as per its usual instructions.
                  The craft had arrived in vicinity of the planet just a day ago (counted in SET, or Standard Earth Time), and was in stationary orbit over the main settlement and de facto capital of Mars.
                  Smaller pods would be flown from there to land the various cargo and the travelling guests, as soon as they would have had time to acclimate.

                  Everyone was becoming quite excited, and hungry as well, once the initial shock was passed. Finnley’s synthetic voice was as smooth and silky as the modelled butt of her twenty one robotic bodies.

                  All of her guests were accounted for. A large number of them were sent by a rich Covenant of Holy Elietics, which hoped to enlighten the natives.
                  A second group was sent by a mining corporation for prospecting purposes.
                  Finally, travelling in the economy section were a pair of winners from a worldwide raffle that sent people to a promised new life. It was believed to be largely a scam, but the one-trip tickets were valid. That was the only thing that was provided to the winners, the rest was up to them.

                  Finnley had been craftily programmed to display a wide range of human emotions, although she didn’t really feel them as human did. If that were the case, she would have logged in her journal her feeling to be in a great hurry to get rid of all the now terribly noisy humanity in her ship.


                    Mother Shirley, the head of the Covenant, was smoking in her private capsule despite the strict restrictions and despite the health risks, at her ripe age of 99.

                    She liked to quip that nobody had ever told her what to not do and lived to say the tale. She had smoked since age 45, after the death of her third husband, the only one she had shed a tear for. Never turned back since, and maybe it was the reason she was still alive after all. Smoked like a mighty salmon.

                    She grinned painfully at her reflection. Ugh. Despite all the beauty treatments, she was starting to look like a decrepit mummy. No amount of wariki body butter and ant royal geel would do the trick now. She had to resort to more extreme measures after no doctor would dare to try a peeling on what skin was left on her face.

                    The acrylic mask was always prickly at first, and took a few uncomfortable seconds to adjust. It was now firmly set, and sure, it restrained a bit the movements on her face,… well, she was never one for laughs out loud anyway.

                    With her shaking scrawny arms, but her grip strong as ever, she attached the limbs of her exoskeleton, and with now more assurance, finished to dress in proper garments on top of her fishnet corset.

                    She was all set for the morning sermon. She would have to strain her voice a bit, and for that the smoke had helped too. She had a lovely raucousness in her vocal chords that made all the old farts of the Covenant thrilled by what she said in hypnotic stances.

                    After that would be done, most importantly, they would go forth to the promised land, and she was to spend her glorious next century on a new empty planet she could mould to her vision.


                      “Did you hear the noise?”
                      “No I didn’t hear anything”
                      “I swear I heard some squeaaa… But you know that already, don’t you” He looked at her suspiciously. “What are you hiding there?”
                      “Stop that, you perv’” She was wrapping her arms around her bosom in a protective manner.
                      “I’m not like that” He moved a few inches away from her, with his back to the gritty metallic wall of their small capsule.

                      Prune was starting to feel bad for the other guy. “You’re Hans, right?”
                      He nodded. Everybody knew their names, it was part of the contract. They also had to accept to be filmed as part of the raffle company’s advertisement plan. So, there was little they didn’t know about each other, despite not having been able to speak to each other until now.

                      The suspension process the company had rented was not the high-grade version, too costly. So they had to age, unlike most of the other richer travellers. Which made it odd, as Hans had grown a huge beard and even two years of aging had made them slightly different. Almost like strangers. There was a comfort in that, knowing they each held something private, a capacity to be someone else, be worthy of being known and explored. Nothing like what mockery the TV show had made of them.

                      “You won’t show me? Don’t worry I won’t tell.” His voice was light, you couldn’t have told he was more than 40.

                      She unzipped her track suit’s pink jacket, to reveal a little ball of fur.

                      “It’s a small piggy. They’re so fragile, I think I did something stupid. But I promised my gran to not leave it. I couldn’t break that promise.”
                      “Don’t worry Prune” Hans said reassuringly “We’ll find a way to keep it safe.”

                      F LoveF Love

                        Prune had only just managed to get 157 — Mater had liked to call all the guinea pigs by numbers; she said it helped her keep track — safely back inside her jacket when a loud screeching alarm went off. The next moment Finnley’s smooth voice, programmed to convey anxiety, reverberated around the ship

                        “Code Red, Code Red. Leave whatever you are doing and assemble in Area 12. I repeat leave whatever you are doing and assemble in Area 12.”

                        Prune and Hans looked at each other uneasily and began to run.

                        F LoveF Love

                          “God damn it, my headpiece! I forgot my headpiece!” croaked Mother Shirley when she heard the command to assemble in Area 12. She looked around desperately for the final piece of her attire but it was nowhere to be seen.

                          Mother Shirley hated to be seen without her headpiece. Other than a few wiry grey hairs, she was bald—a fact which under normal circumstances her veil and wimple disguised admirably. It was a devil of a thing to get on though.

                          As the alarms sounded for a second time, she grabbed a pyramid shaped receptacle from the small desk in her capsule, and placed it on her head, where it perched precariously.

                          “God help us,” she grumbled, as she stiffly creaked her way to Area 12.


                            Area 12 was easy to locate. The whole ship’s design was shaped like a clock, with the 12 quadrant at her helm, with the main deck. It was also where, everyone had been briefed after boarding, the main emergency exits were located.
                            Something serious must have had happened for the Code Red to have been triggered.

                            Captain Rama Shivakumar was trying his best to gather information from the central command, but Finnley was reacting very unusually. Quantum computers and artificial intelligence was still a rather new technology. Remarkably efficient, but its bugs were terribly difficult to understand and fix, and certainly above his pay grade.
                            Ram’s second in command, Karthikeya Uthayashankar was coordinating the crew’s efforts to sweep the ship for clues. It seemed that Finnley’s sensors had panicked at some unusual and very localized electromagnetic pulse, which could have seriously damaged the navigational systems and put everyone’s lives in dire straits.

                            By looking through the logs, the pulse seemed to have originated from Area 6, in the quadrant that was reserved for the honoured guests, currently occupied by Mother Shirley and her following.

                            “Captain Ram, did you find anything?” Karthik enquired, fidgeting at the prospect of having to manage beside his crew of ten fellow men, a unruly herd of thirty snotty travelers. He seriously doubted that in times like this, the 21 finnleys would be of sure-footed help to them.
                            “Relax, Karthik. The computer most likely overheated. See, it already has adjusted its parameters, and there isn’t much we can detect now that’s out of normal.”
                            “And what about the passengers, Captain?”
                            “We’ll send them to Mangala. It’s only a day before schedule, it will be fine.”


                              Prune’s journal

                              The quarantine wasn’t as long as expected, we’ll be on Mars tomorrow. The Indian guy didn’t explain much of what happened. Maybe it was just a drill.
                              Anyhow, Hans has kept his promise, and the guinea pig is fine. Somehow, it seems to have grown stronger in space. Maybe the lesser gravity?
                              Mater would have liked it.
                              Speaking of Mater, I got that strange feeling she’s with me somehow. Funny, come to think of it, she was always the one talking about the spirit world. Was never really sure if she was well in her head when she finally opened to me about it (everything else showed that yes, she was nowhere near senility, even before death struck).
                              If someone should chose to play poltergeist after all, who else than Mater. Way to go Ma!


                                Mother Shirley was about to ferociously complain about the lack of consideration and utmost rubbish of a service, when she felt suddenly possessed by a will much stronger than her own.
                                Relax, old cow, and go with the flow

                                That was most unusual, and it rhymed (surprisingly). Maybe it was blessed Mother Virgin who finally chose to speak through her faithful and humble servant.

                                All she could hear was a blissful laugh that seemed infectious.

                                She glanced at the group that was massing around the shuttle after adjusting their breathing apparatus. A young woman caught her eye. She was one of the scandalous raffle’s winner. Mother Shirley was about to start an inner rant, when the voice resounded again in her head.

                                You should take good care of this one, Shir. The voice was commandeering.


                                  Maya was overlooking the crops when her son arrived.

                                  “The kales are adapting well to the soil. I didn’t expect them to arrive so fast.”
                                  “I wonder what they’ll taste like, they seem to have that unusual purplish tinge to them, nothing like those in hydroponics…”
                                  “The water we extracted from those rocks seems to contain a very interesting blend of minerals, could be that… we know so little about this place. All of this, these changes, it’s very exciting, to think of the prospect…”

                                  John hugged his mother.

                                  “I came to ask you if you would join the welcome party tonight?”
                                  “I thought it wouldn’t be before another day?”
                                  “The ship apparently had some trouble and felt it would be safer to land their cargo one day ahead of schedule.”
                                  “Really? That’s so unlike them, to be in advance… Well, as you know, my social agenda isn’t too busy, so I guess yes, I’ll join. If only to see what this new batch looks like. We have to give a nice impression if we want to get more of them to stay as settlers. The machines are helping fine, but it’s not enough.”
                                  “We’ll see, last I heard, there are about 10 miners and about the same of religious nutters. The miners are there on a contract, but some usually take well to here and chose to stay. We’ll see…”
                                  “What about the upgrades they promised?”
                                  “Yeah, they talked about that too, saying they had to fix some bugs before downloading the new AI. They’ll leave some of the cybernetic bodies here too, see if they can support the stress. I’ll ask them to assign one here to help you with the plants.”
                                  “That would be lovely, thanks Johnny.”


                                    Being a distinguished host, Mother Shirley had been assigned one of the Finnleys bodies, the one with the number 21 plastered on its forehead.
                                    “Twinnie,” she called in her croak of a voice “do the thing!”

                                    Finnley 21 rolled her eyes to connect to her inner source, which was the main computer board, and a stream of random words started to flow down like colander water:

                                    half leading usually jack gave legs secret stick
                                    light plan fell yourself elizabeth sometimes child
                                    downson recovery management karmalott surprise early

                                    Shirley clapped her hands gleefully like a child. “How wonderful Twinnie, you’re my personal Oracle, the words of the Mighty Goddess of War have never felt so close and special to me.”
                                    Mother Shirley looked undisturbed by the lack of response from the cybernetic body, and went on “Now, will you, help me adjust this headpiece, it chafes at the temples.”

                                    F LoveF Love

                                      ”Here’s one for you!” cackled Mother Shirley. She was in a great mood now her headpiece fitted so comfortably. Finley 21 was going to be very useful. ”Knock knock”

                                      Finnley 21 rolled her eyes again.

                                      ”Who’s there?”


                                      ”Shirley who?”

                                      ”Shirley you must know. You’re a computer!”

                                      Mother Shirley broke into guffaws of raucous laughter.

                                      That wasn’t the slightest bit amusing. The voice in her head sounded very stern.


                                        Godfrey was a supervisor of the miners team. After the landing, and the greetings by the locals, the lucky draw had him and his team assigned to the sulfur mines, which were vital to the colonies to fertilize the plants.
                                        For him, hardly lucky at all.
                                        Rotten eggs and smelly fish, he thought, at least one of us will be pleased

                                        Norbert!” he called “Are all the equipments ready to move?”
                                        “One more cargo, and we’re good to go.”
                                        “OK, everybody, let’s get ready to move.”

                                        Somehow, the outlook didn’t feel as bad,… almost a breather of fresh oxygen and freedom.


                                          “So what’s around there to do?” Prune asked Maya at the welcome party.
                                          She gauged the woman, who had an air of de facto authority, and seemed open and friendly with everyone. A bit too much to Prune’s tastes to be honest.

                                          “Whatever you feel like. It’s the magic of it. It’s all open, all up to us to build the world we want.”
                                          “Sounds like a hell of a lot of work to do.” Prune snickered against her will.
                                          “That’s the thing. It’s only work if your heart isn’t in it. For most of us, it’s our life’s purpose, and we quite enjoy it. Not to say there aren’t some days we’re tired of it…” Maya smiled, “but we make the best of it anyway.”

                                          Prune didn’t think of anything clever to retort, and didn’t want to look into all those years of resentment after her family for limiting her. Maybe her family was for nothing in it. The thought of it was terrifying.

                                          Maya broke the uneasy silence with lightly compassion “And what brought you here? I mean, apart from the obvious… The real reason you took this harrowing trip to nowhere?”
                                          Prune shrugged, and almost immediately started to giggle uncontrollably while catching her stomach. Stop it, stop it she whispered to her stomach.

                                          Maya smiled. “You should let it out. It’s been a while I haven’t seen one. They’re so cuddly and cute.”
                                          Prune stopped speechless with surprise.
                                          Maya laughed “The hair on your clothes is a bit of a giveaway. Come on, don’t worry, the quarantine is pretty relaxed here.”

                                          Prune let the little guinea pig out of her jacket, and it squealed in delight. She let a smile open her face “It’s the last surviving one of my grandmother’s. I just couldn’t leave it…”

                                          Maya rose from her formica chair, and took her arm. “Come, I’ll show you the crops. We have some fantastic kale, I’m sure it’ll love it.”


                                            Karthik was feeding some nonsense to the AI, while inspecting the logs of the central intelligence.

                                            Finnley was listening with great interest to the teleporting stories of Togi Bear in Outlandis that he was spinning.

                                            Dear Lord, he said after his maintenance routine was over, I wish they had an opening for creative writing, so that someone else can take this silly job. Blathering all this nonsense is exhausting.

                                            Sadly, it was known to be the only thing that would keep the AI evolving and learning, and operating the mothership.
                                            New information to sort and sieve through was the AI’s purpose. As much as humans were feeding off food, they fed off information.


                                              It was good to get off the ship and finally arrive. Lizette had been having doubts during the long journey, wondering if she had made the right decision. Admittedly she’d been bored back home on earth and was ready for a new adventure, but once on board the ship, the doubts had crept in. Often she had woken up in the night during the journey in sheer panic, feeling trapped, but had managed to calm down and look on the bright side. The settlers needed her unique skills and her usual unbridled enthusiasm, and it would do nobody any good if she gave in to moments of fear and confusion.

                                              Finnley 8 had helped her adjust her suit, which seemed cumbersome and restricting ~ Lizette normally preferred to wear next to nothing back on earth. But with her customary sanguine attitude, she quipped to the robot, “Well, at least I don’t have to wear a bra underneath all this bumph!”, to which Finnley 8 made no reply.

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