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First Settlement

It’s been called that since before her time, and used by the same smugglers who taught her the art of barter and trade, men whose corpses never deserved iron markers on the summit, or any such lofty remembering, but bodies destined to mummify where they lay… where she’d left them.

Dark moments here… yes.

These are ghost lands, for her and for those idealistic adventurers who came hundreds of years before her, all of them surrendering to its brutality, in the end.

“You’re spooked,” Clara says again. “And you’re tired. And you need a drink, for fuck’s sake. You got the sentinels in place. There’s nothing more you can do out there. Time to come inside.”

“Copy that.”

“Copy what? You coming in, or not?”

Petra releases a frustrated breath through her teeth. “Coming.”

She forces it, slinging her rifle over her shoulder and turning away from the softening glow of dust and chill, from the summit and its glinting reminders of human frailty. Night’s coming. And not the kind that calls for rest, either. They’ll be no rest in this darkness, just staring at screens, watching for pings or heat shadows, trying not to think of what idiocy will come from high minded ideals and pissing off Assaulters.

She pushes the pace a bit, quickening her descent on the trail, her boots crunching over icy soil, stepping lightly between the rocks, mind cycling through a hundred scenarios, none of them good… all the way to First Settlement’s gate.

The elevator waits under a metal housing structure, its heavy platform scarred with age, ready to lower her into the tube on a pair of massive hydraulic cylinders. It can carry people, vehicles, or equipment. It’s not particular, but it is sensitive, indicator lights glaring yellow as she steps onto it.

It unlocks at Clara’s command and drops slowly into the murk, sinking below a thick layer of dark basalt and into its riveted metal channel, caution lights flashing. It lowers through two gate locks, a vehicle bay, and a storage depot, taking another five minutes to reach the floor.

Jolting once, it sets down on a metal pad. The passage lamps flicker on, illuminating a wide path to the settlement. Petra walks the distance in silence, her gaze set on the white shine of cylindrical habitat modules ahead, external tanks, metal stairs and round windows, life where it shouldn’t be, power humming through cold stone veins.

She climbs the stairs and the entry door unlocks, giving her access to the adsorption chamber. Shut the door and gases hiss, floor grates warm up, the combination diffusing whatever’s on the suit, drawing the calcium perchlorate into the adsorption filters, sensors checking for contaminates, bio or otherwise.

A green light appears on the control panel, and the inner door slides open, offering a row of benches and lockers. Petra sets her rifle against the wall and unlocks her helmet, dismantling the suit with tired resignation, then tossing wet socks and glove liners onto a shelf without much regard for what’s going where.

She moves to the hatch and the young Assaulter’s already there, looking exasperated, which appears to be what he does best, or at least the only thing he seems to do in her presence.

“Sentinel drones?” he asks—or outright accuses—as she ducks into the open hatch, into fluorescent lighting and warm air, the walls sectioned by access panels and antique computer screens, pipes, fans and silver insulation, more like the inside of an old orbiter or surface lander, function before beauty.

She shakes her head. “Not going to fire on your Colonel unless he fires on me, but we got others after us. Sentinels are the best chance we got.”

“They’re a security risk.”

“You’re referring to their hackability. The encryption on these is new.”

“Compared to what? All your equipment belongs in a museum.”

“Maybe, but the encryption is new.”

He hesitates at that, like he can’t grasp how wrong she is. “This is not going to end well. This place is indefensible.”

“It’s a stone bunker.”

“It’s a collection of plastic tubes, inside a shallow cave, with an unconcealed access shaft which can be bombed to scraps of metal and toxic air.”

It does sound bad, when he says it like that. Petra frowns. “I thought you guys never gave up.”

“You have to contact Voss.”

“Not gonna. How’s our girl?”

Logan stares at her a moment then looks away, striving for focus, rubbing his hand over his jaw once in frustration. “I don’t know. Better than I would have thought. Sleeps too much, doesn’t eat enough, doesn’t say anything… but other than that, she’s fine. Detox went well. She doesn’t seem to have any lingering problems. Medically, I think she’s fine.”

“And mentally… ”

“I’m no expert.”

Petra nods. “I’ll need to talk to her.”

“Yeah,” he says, tired. “Good luck with that.”

The compartment hatch is open, and inside it’s some vision from the distant past, from the delicate rituals of willow house women with their bamboo mats, their tea kettles, and their incense, pastel silk and golden statues, childhood memories that were never clear to begin with, but somehow manage to come rushing back when the timing is all wrong.

Petra frowns, watching Niri through the open hatch.

The girl is meditating, sitting cross-legged on a blanket which she’s folded along the floor grate. She’s cleaned up well, dressed in a white tech suit, her hair tightly braided and shining in the dim light, hands resting on her knees, eyes closed, mind in some other lofty dimension.

Buddhism, or some such.

It makes sense, with her coloring—skin so smooth and dark—that she should come from one of those places of ancient and timeless religion, flowers in the water, life after life, as if one can’t be plenty brutal enough. It’s the kind of deep thinking that leads to time wasting, and no real answers for what can’t be known, a veneer of calm laid over the nothingness.

Petra releases a tired breath and steps into the compartment, choosing a nearby chair to sit in, and a moment to wait, having been scolded as a child for disturbing such quiet interludes with the divine.

The girl doesn’t draw it out, however. She bows her head a bit then casts a curious look up at Petra, like she’s a different girl altogether, all straightened out, her eyes burning with a secret she’s anxious to share.

“You understand,” she says. “The process of awakening, the dhyāna.”

“I’ve seen such before.”

“But you do not believe in it?”

“Never really tried to.”

Niri nods, glancing over the compartment, its confines cold and green-tinged in the weak glow of florescent tubes. “My mother was a teacher in the ways of the dukkha, the suffering that comes from impermanence, from the struggle to control that which changes, that which we cannot hold onto, or protect.”

She drops her gaze then, maybe thinking of the mother which couldn’t be held onto, or protected, or the chaotic tide which upended all she knew. The miles are easy enough to see, drawn in faint circles under her eyes, betrayed in the way her hands rest heavy on her knees, as if it’s a long illness she’s recovered from.

Petra watches her for a moment. “So that’s where we’re at? We’re thinking about things not being permanent, so not worth the struggle? Not worth the fight you gave Voss? Frustrating all those big Assaulters?”

“That was a mistake.”

“A what?”

“Grief,” she says softly. “My mother, my father… to be taken away… I was fighting against it, but I succeeded only in producing anger in myself, like a child, like one who is ignorant. I accomplished nothing. My mother would say that I merely created additional suffering.”

Petra nearly sways back in her chair. “

The girl looks at Petra, and for a moment she struggles, like the concepts are so big that there’s no way to describe them. “It is the suffering of attachment, the suffering that comes from holding onto that which must be let go. I still feel this pain, yes, and it is difficult to bear, but these men had a purpose in bringing me here. It is different here. The things I hear… ”

Petra looks askance at the pipes over their heads. “What things?”

“This world is different.”

“This world? You mean Red Filter?”

“Yes. There is something here. I can feel it now. They brought me here for a reason, an important reason. What has been lost to me, has been lost. Anger will not replace it. Anger will only poison the future. Anger poisons the soul.”

“And allows for the kicking of asses that need to be kicked. Let’s not forget that. Anger is sometimes the only thing standing ‘tween survival and capitulation. And that’s no small thing.”

“There’s wisdom in all forms of emotion,” Niri concedes, like she’s talking to someone younger. “But we—I—must temper mine with compassion, especially now, when it matters most.”

“Compassion for who?”

“For you,” the girl answers without thought. “For your crew, those you care about, those who risked everything for me. For Logan, and for the men he cares about. For all of you.”

“None of us are in need of such,” Petra says, fighting irritation. “We all got reasons for doing what we do.”

“What is your reason? Why are you protecting me?”

“You were on my ship. Had to make one choice, or the other.”

“This was not the easier way.”

“Depends on what you want to live with,” Petra says, words clipped and tight. “A girl treated like cargo, like she’s got no voice, no strength… life throws that in your face once, and maybe there’s nothing you can do about it. Life throws that in your face again, and you damn well better figure it out. I got enough bad dreams without hearing your screaming.”

This last part is harsher than she intends, and somewhere, down deep, she regrets it. Easy enough, for those so young and innocent, to follow the path of the Earthbound Buddha, loving all enemies and staring up at the stars with such bright eyes. Easy for those souls to pass into further existence, ascend into the light, reaping the harvest of good deeds and pure thoughts.

Harder, for a soul like her, having planted not just a few seeds of anger, but dark forests of such, to pass into anything but one of those hungry dimensions that all priests warn of, filled with the shadows of unresolved fear and murderous intent, a way for the punished to be punished again, purely because that’s become their mindset, the terrain of their spirit, the only reality the heart knows.

There is no atonement, no forgiveness, in religions of the old East. There is only the reaping of what’s been sown, in this life or the next. And so now she’s sitting here, breathing the same air as the first dead, in a compartment where they murmured of things gone wrong, of errors and miscalculations, of dreams slipping away into the darkness, and she’s watching this girl teeter on the edge of her own uncertain future, and the hell inside is raging.

“You’re thinking of giving yourself up,” Petra says, intent on keeping her tone softer than usual. “But you don’t know what you’re giving up to. Lots of mysteries in life. You think you belong here? Okay. Best to figure out why first, before you go putting your life in the hands of the Block.”

“You don’t understand,” the girl whispers. “You don’t hear it.”

“Hear what?”

“It can’t be described. It has no name.”

“No? What’s it sound like?”

“Home,” the girl says, and she’s serious, the weight of the words absolute, no give or take. “It sounds like home.”

“Mars is no home for humans,” Petra replies. “Not even I believe so, an’ I was born here… shouldn’t know anything different. Tubes can be home for a while. The palaces of Fort Liberty, or New Beijing, can make for pretty bird cages, but death smiles through every window, just the same, and there’s no forgetting it. This world is death for us, her moods swinging from eighty degrees to one-fifty below zero, face desolate, harrowing, with storms of toxic dust that last for months, gusts that’ll rip you off the ground, carry away equipment, crash whatever flies. This is no benevolent mother. So, whatever you hear… it isn’t ‘welcome home’.”

“But it is,” Niri says, lowering her voice as if this is the secret. “She
a benevolent mother. And she wants us here. She wants all of us.”

All us of us… ?
It makes no sense, some kind of sick joke coming from a girl who’s never taken six unassisted steps across red plain. Petra gives a half-shake of her head, summoning the last bit of patience she’s got, which is far less than what the Earthbound Buddha had when dealing with his unenlightened flock. “Think you got your karma mixed up. This isn’t Earth. This isn’t anything like Earth. This mothering rock is good at filling graveyards and corporate bank accounts. Our machines, being made of metal, have a more spiritual connection to iron soil than we do. There was no time for you to really see it in the light, but—”

“I don’t need to see it,” Niri replies, unshakable. “I can hear it.”

Petra stares at her, now fully aware that Voss was right. Logan was right. The girl can’t hear anything above the sound of her own crazy, and that’s the end of that. No further diagnosis needed. Maybe it gets better, maybe it doesn’t, but lives now hang on what the captain decides to do about it.

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