Trees adapted to the red soil brimmed with fresh purple needles of the sort that would disintegrate rather than fall. As quickly as they were gone, so were they replaced by fresh buds. Outside the windows of the gondola, the needles danced like waves on water and put her in mind of the artificial beaches of Loma Bay. She had tickets to visit again in two months and was counting the days. It would be two weeks this time—she had finally negotiated those extra two days of paid leave—and she would spend every hour of it on the sand.
She rubbed her hands together, a subtle reminder of the balmy conditions of Loma Bay. It was cold at these altitudes, and no manner of heater could keep the gondola above freezing. This was, ironically, an improvement on the situation. Ten years ago she would have been required to wear an environmental suit, but now she could wear regular cold-weather attire. The atmosphere was absolutely warming up—it was happening faster than anyone had expected…
She smiled. Of course it was changing—the mauve trees down below were a testament to that change. They were genetically modified organisms based on the cedar which had been specifically engineered to thrive in the ash-like soil at the bottom of the crater. Down here, the gases constantly vented down into the crater from its rim accumulated in sufficient quantities to create atmospheric conditions reminiscent of a mountainous environment. Some very particular examples of flora prospered in those conditions, given sufficient moisture. The experiment had, in part, proven the sustainability of continued mass plantings in settled craters. But it had also brought to the fore an apparent pattern. The atmospheric gases which overflowed the crater rim were beginning to affect the larger, global atmosphere, and so in turn changing the aereal climate. They were inadvertently terraforming the planet.
One of the screens before her pinged with a message. Without looking she accepted it and a moment later the comm, set to speaker, crackled to life. “Okay, we’re good down here. I think it’s going to be another hour or so.”
She cringed and reached out to the transmit button. “I’ll hold you to that.”
On the other end of the comm Geoff laughed into the mic. “That’s fine. How’re you holding up?”
“I’m fine,” she said, though she would prefer to be flying. It would keep her mind off the cold.
“You sure you don’t want to come down?”
“Yeah, Tess, it’s wonderful. The trees are beautiful—you should see them!”
She smiled. That was Alana—she always saw the best in any situation. Even a routine atmospheric check in. “Thanks, but who’ll keep Drake company?” she replied, looking around for the subject of her query. Drake was a black Korat one of the grad students had brought aboard a few years back. The charcoal cat was a generally grateful passenger but did not suffer fools gladly, and as far as he was concerned, Tess was a fool.
“Okay,” Geoff said flatly—and that was that. The comm clicked off.
She rolled her eyes. Geoff was such a drama queen—he was so obsessed with getting her attention that he just kept tripping over himself. More than once she had broken off an ill-conceived attempt at getting a date and had long since written him off. Too bad Drake thought the world of him, otherwise she’d get rid of the cat.
Or more maybe she should get rid of Geoff.
Her radar pinged an approaching object. She frowned. There were few airships out this way, and even fewer aerospace ones. She tapped the indicator on her screen and a window opened with the other’s identity, but where it should have listed a name was the word, UNKNOWN.
Still frowning, she tapped the comm screen and changed to an open channel. She tapped the hailing tones programmed to ping any communication systems within a given radius of the airship and tapped to transmit. “Hailing, hailing, this is airship Pasiphae to unknown aircraft. You’re approaching our port bow now. How do you read?”
She waited. Tess was the first to admit that she was not especially patient, particularly when it came to waiting on other people. Here she had begun to train herself to wait, either counting silently or humming a song. But this was different, because rarely had she ever had to wait on the pilot of an aircraft barreling down on her. So she could be forgiven when a pair of heartbeats later she called again into the comm, “Hailing, hailing, this is Pasiphae to unknown aircraft. You are moving directly on our position. How do you read?”
“Hey, what’s going on?” Geoff’s voice said over the cockpit speakers.
Through the windows she saw the unidentified airship turn hard to starboard, bringing its broadside to bear—and when she saw it, she froze.
Amid the trees, the moisture in the air formed beads of water on the visors of their suits which clung to them as though to life itself, only moving when wiped away. That just added to the problem since everything down here was coated in a fine layer of rusty dust that was transformed to a clay-like mud on contact with water. The dust was all over their suits, even their gloves, and now it smeared in red across his line of sight.
He sighed and looked around for some inspiration.
“Use the needles,” Jinn suggested, seeing his predicament. “They’ll get most of it off.”
“Good thinking,” Geoff said and reached for a branch.
“Don’t do that!” Alana cried.
“No, it’s not. These trees are much more delicate than the ones in closed environments.”
He shook his head. “It is,” he said and took hold of a nearby branch. Without breaking it off, he used the needles like the bristles of a broom to wipe the mud from his visor.
“Oh.” Even through the visor of her suit, he could see the dumbfounded look on her face. “I thought… Never mind.”
Geoff began to respond, but then his headset crackled to life. “Hailing, hailing, this is airship Pasiphae to unknown aircraft. You’re approaching our port bow now. How do you read?”
He craned his head to peer up through the canopy. Overhead he saw the large silhouette of the Pasiphae hovering at anchor—and then he saw the other ship. It was approaching from behind them and would pass right over them.
It would hit the Pasiphae.
“Hailing, hailing, this is Pasiphae to unknown aircraft. You are moving directly on our position. How do you read?” Tess said into the comm, a hint of panic in her voice.
He clicked the transmit button on his chest. “Hey,” he said, “what’s going on?”
The strange airship suddenly banked away, just avoiding the Pasiphae and bringing it alongside her.
“Jesus,” someone cursed.
Then he saw a flash of light from the side of the airship reach out and strike the Pasiphae. In the blink of an eye, the massive dirigible balloon was enveloped in a curtain of fire as something exploded in the airship’s gondola.
He saw it happen so quickly that he hardly registered what had happened before the Pasiphae began to fall like a stone out of the sky.
“Shit, shit, shit!”
Everyone was screaming or shouting at the same time, while Geoff could only keep staring at the spot where the Pasiphae’s gondola had exploded. The afterimage of a fiery projectile leaping from the strange airship to theirs was burned in his mind’s eye—when he blinked, he could see the split second before the Pasiphae went.
“We have to go!” Alana screamed into her mic and grabbed his arm. “Come on!”
Overhead the frame and balloon of the dirigible were collapsing to the crater floor. Once it caught on the tops of the trees, its momentum would catapult the remaining airborne sections down with deadly force. He had seen it happen before, a minor crash over Elysium — though never on the receiving end.
They ran and ran, never looking back as branches slapped at their suit and squealed on their helmets.
“What the fuck was that?” Jinn called. “What the fuck happened?”
“Just run!” Geoff said, and only then did he look back.
The lowest part of the frame finally reached the highest branches, and as he had predicted, its rapid downward momentum—and the sudden stop caused by catching on a tree—ripped the rest of the dirigible from the sky. It crashed through the upper canopy, slicing branches with the ease of a lumberjack’s axe, sending them tumbling down on their heads. The last thing Geoff saw was Alana being struck by a falling tree before darkness overtook him.
Isaac Taylor had never been a fan of baseball, but when the Stellar Series came to your hometown, it was hard not to get excited. Everyone, from the poor to the rich, was out wearing their finest Blue Sox gear as the home team prepared to take on the Honshin Tigers in the final game of the series. It was going to be a great game, and everything was going to go right. He had taken the day off from work specifically to go, and he had even managed to convince Veronica to also take the day off. She was not by any stretch of the imagination a sports fan, but like him, she was willing to jump on the proverbial bandwagon when it came to the home team.
He took one final glance at himself in the mirrors of his lobby before going out into the mass of people making their way to the Hawk Bank Stadium. The security services had closed off most of the roads in the inner city to vehicles and wheeled traffic, ostensibly as a way of clearing traffic congestion during events, but in reality to minimize property damage in the event of a riot. Blue Sox fans were known to lose their cool over certain calls and, who would guess it, losses. So far it looked their way, but it was impossible to tell against a team as experienced as the Tigers.
He threaded his way past parents with screaming children, boyfriends arguing over directions, a trio singing loudly and, by the smell of them, drunkenly—and through it all he made his way for San Pedro Square. There, beneath a tree they both liked, he had proposed to Veronica and would now meet her so they could make their way together to the Stadium. He drew his phone from a coat pocket and was about to begin a text message when a call came through, a call—he realized by the number—from work.
No, he thought and silenced the call. He was off work today and would not take a call. If they needed him that badly, they would call back. He just hoped they wouldn’t leave a voicemail…
San Pedro Square was four blocks from his apartment building, built over a block of housing that had burned down in the early days of settlement in Thrasis. It was now ringed by double rows of mauve cedar trees and abutted bars and cafes on three sides. It exemplified the sort of laidback living that made this part of Thrasis City so popular with younger people, of which he hoped he was still a part. It was directly in front of Madeline’s bar that he saw his wife-to-be, busily doing something on her phone—she was a busy little bee, he thought.
He crossed the road and stepped into the plaza proper in time to avoid a passing police drone hovering what he thought was too low. Whoever the pilot was did not see things his way, and now at head height proceeded to fly among the crowd, quickly disappearing among a sea of faces. He found the practice of drone policing difficult to stomach when it was done this way, but he was always aware of his own impotence to do anything or even have an opinion on the matter. As it stood, it was nothing extraordinary to fly a drone at head height—it was a privilege only law enforcement had—but to then be hounded by one simply because the A.I. believes you resemble someone wanted for questioning.
That had happened to him, and the whole matter had set him off to the police and their drones.
She looked up and caught his eye. The vaguest hint of a smile crossed her lips and she acted to finish with her phone so that once he approached, she had it put away and was looking up at him. “Hi,” she said, and they kissed. “How are you?”
“I’m good.” They kissed again, and he smiled at her. “How are you?”
She rolled her eyes and sighed. “I was looking at work—”
“Don’t do that…”
“—and they really need this proposal by Monday. If I start now—”
He silenced her with another kiss, but when he pulled away she quickly continued,
“—then I can be finished in time. But if I wait…”
“It can wait.”
She looked pained by his words. “Really?”
“Yes,” he reassured her. “It can. And besides, I—”
It was then that his phone chimed again—not a message, but a call. He reached for his pocket.
“No work?” Veronica eprovingly.
He looked sheepish. “Call it a slip up.” He drew the phone from his coat pocket and looked—work again. Frowning now, he pushed to answer.
Seeing his thumb on the answer button, Veronica threw her hands up in dismay. “Really?”
He raised hand finger and said into the phone, “This is Taylor.”
The voice on the other end was a familiar one—his boss. “Iz, I need you to come in,” Bradley Stovall said over the line.
“Hey boss,” Isaac replied, keeping his tone hopeful. “You know, I’ve got those Blue Sox tickets, and Veronica—”
“I need you to come in.” It was an order, not a request. “Something has happened, and I need you to talk to some of the survivors.”
“Okay,” he said and locked eyes with Veronica. She stared daggers back at him. “No problem,” he said flatly. “What is it?”
“I’ll tell you when you get in,” and Brad ended the call.
Veronica was still glaring at him when he returned the phone to his pocket. “I guess you get what you want,” he started with a crooked smile. “I have to go into work.”
Her face dropped. “What?”
He tried on a grin, thought better of it, then nervously grinned anyway. “That was Brad, and he says he needs me—”
“It’s your day off!” she exclaimed. “What the fuck, babe?”
“Wait,” he said, “I thought you wanted to—”
“Your job shouldn’t be dictating our plans, babe,” she went on as if he hadn’t spoken. “This keeps happening to our plans, and now we’re supposed to enjoy the Blue Sox win and you have to go to work?”
The grin was gone now, replaced by a grimace. “That’s pretty much it,” he said. “I guess you can go watch the game alone.”
Isaac gave a waning grin. He was going to be delayed.
“The dirigible struck the treetops at a reasonable click. The frame deformed upon impact, sending debris from the frame down here,” the investigator said. Her voice was muffled by the oxygen mask she, like all the others, wore over her nose and mouth. The forest floor around them was littered with the mangled remains of the Pasiphae, the closest piece of which towered over them like a tree-sized spear. “The balloon held most of it together, which is how it took out so many trees.”
“And the pilot?”
The investigator shook her head. “We found her remains and had them taken out with the others.”
There was an audible sigh from the back of the group, and then someone asked, “So they’re not here?”
“They were medevac’d a few hours ago,” the investigator replied. “The pilot’s remains went with them.”
Some of the other detectives took notes on their handhelds, but for Isaac no amount of notes could make up for what had suddenly become a wasted trip. “To Tharsis?” he asked.
“No,” the investigator said, looking up to see who had asked. “They were taken to Elysium.”
Before she had finished speaking, Isaac was already working on his handheld. He would have to pull stings to get a flight out, otherwise he was here for the rest of the day and the survivors’ interview would have to wait for tomorrow. And if that happened, Brad was not going to be pleased with him.
He detached himself from the group without anyone noticing and let the tour of the crash site continue without him. Free of the crowd, he had a better view of the site. Here the forest floor was covered with fallen branches from where the aircraft sheared off the treetops. Amid the branches were pieces of debris from the airship torn in large ribbons. It took him a moment to realize that what he was seeing were parts of the balloon that had come raining down after the branches. The exterior of the balloon was made of a thin alloy specially designed to resist the omnipresent red dust. The first Arean dirigibles had been made with standard inflatable materials, like any regular blimp, but it was found that the micron-sized dust particles could pass through the material, slowly weighing the balloon down until it was no longer airworthy. The rigid exterior of the newer classes of Arean dirigibles were not entirely impervious, but the frame allowed the crew to clean the inside between flights, greatly expanding the dirigible’s flight time.
This particular airship, the Pasiphae, was a relatively new model based on the venerable Z-41. It was built by the Theon Raymond Corporation and purchased by an airlift company for a decade until sold at auction to Marineris University for a fraction of what it was worth. The purchase gave the university reach which no research team since the First Landing had held before. It gave them access to a range of properties outside the confines of the Marineris metropole, including the little-explored craters of the southern highlands. Here they teamed with settlement corporations in the process of terraforming craters. The corporations provided the infrastructure, while the university was charged with the creation of the settlement’s biosphere. The corporation would benefit from the expertise of the university faculty and the free labor from interested students, while the university gained millions in grant money.
The crater he was in was nearing the halfway point in its development. Within a few months the atmospheric gases would condense enough to make the air breathable. Unlike most other craters, this one was not destined for settlement. Here Marineris University had fought tooth and nail to keep the biosphere under their direction as part of ongoing experiments into engineering flora specifically adapted to the Arean soil. This would serve as the university’s crowning achievement, a flagship experiment which would showcase the not just Arean flora, but even Arean fauna—animals engineered specifically to consume the new vegetation. It was an attempt to recreate the results of natural evolution, as if Mars had always had vegetation and animals to populate it.