Written by Allen Crowley and Mike Acerra
“To me, the thing that is worse than death is betrayal. You see, I could conceive death, but I could not conceive betrayal.”
The sounds of the interior of the Tesla Metafora slowly intruded on Maggie’s consciousness drawing a small distance from what was the insanity of the last hour. She had just seen creatures living on Mars. Not just the strange maggot like the one Dean had found on their farm, but big ones. A colony, or hive or nest of them. These creatures had killed many people including her husband.
Were those Smurfit techs at the mine head even dead? Her cold brain calculated. No. That wouldn’t make sense. The people she and Dean saw in the mine were very much alive and in some kind of a stupor, like the fly in a web, or the paralyzed spider being eaten alive by the wasp’s larva.
But this seemed even off that familiar ghoulish pattern of apex predator and prey. The people in the domes didn’t look like they were being eaten as much as they were being repurposed for some other metabolic mission. They could even have been conscious for all she knew, and aware of their situation. Why not? What would be the point of shutting down their brain functions? Couldn’t they be networked too?
Here she was again, trying to think like the most monstrous thing she had ever seen, the thing that killed Dean. She felt herself bumping on the bottom of that pit of despair once more.
She had left Dean behind with those things, letting this apparently automaton Tesla whisk her away to safety.
Her perineal frustration with herself blossomed again, her belief that she is a cold and calculating monster. She didn’t want to turn out like Avrom Alison. She desperately clung to her dwindling faith. But what did faith and humanity mean in the face of those creatures? She saw in them a singularity of purpose that turned her veins to ice. They seemed not only to be surviving on this desolate planet but thriving.
She tasted the salt in her mouth from her dry tears. Her unanswered prayer for a miracle uttered only minutes before seemed like hours ago. What would she tell Sheila and Lincoln? She looked at her helmet on the pumpkin orange carpeted flooring of the Tesla. Then she looked at the lever that would decompress the cabin. Checking out was so much easier on Mars than it had been on Earth. Near instant asphyxiation from the Martian vacuum was always a press of a button away.
The “Thump” on the roof shocked Maggie out of her reverie. Those things had reached her. The things that got Dean. The things that webbed those people to the roof of the mining dome. Those things.
Fear quaked through her, bringing to mind all those fears she had faced before. Leaving home for the AirForce Academy, becoming a pilot, agreeing to marry Dean and move to Mars. Dean.
She faced her fear and stood from her kneeling child pose. She braced herself as her head rose to window level, expecting to see the Tesla surrounded by those obsidian-spiked devils. A thought raced through her that gave definition to new and deeper dread- these things offered something far worse than death.
She looked through the first and then the next six oval portals. Nothing. Just a typical Martian afternoon.
A series of beeps and a green light indicated that the survey drone had landed on the roof. She had completely forgotten that it had been launched.
The call to action that had been ingrained through military training had gone dormant after ten years as an algae farmer, snapped back like an electrical breaker. The call was clear and muscle memory shot her into action.
She quickly pulled down the flimsy aluminum roof access ladder and locked it into the floor with her foot. She placed her mining helmet on her head and twisted the collar seal to her E-suit. After double checking her air, she decompressed the Tesla. The top hatch was in reach without stepping on the ladder and she quickly opened it once the pressure match signaled green. She climbed.
Hoisting her body onto the roof of the Tesla, she saw what she had been too afraid to hope for. Dean’s motionless body laid there. His suit appeared to be sealed. Behind him the large drone was perched and clamped to the top of the vehicle. The drone looked different, as if it had shed something. That’s it. It had jettisoned its exploration sensor package to carry Dean. The multi-million dollar price tag of that sensor pack flashed through her mind, but only long enough to reinforce that Dean was worth it.
She dragged Dean to the hatch and climbed in first. As she reached the last rung on the ladder she gave his limp body a hard pull. He came into the Tesla and fell on top of her. She took the fall and gently rolled him onto the floor beside her. She studied his face. His lips were blue.
Maggie jumped up and fastened the hatch. “Computer, represurize!” she shouted into her helmet, hoping the Tesla was paying attention and would abide her request.
She left Dean on the floor and moved to the driver’s seat to manually repressurize the cabin. By the time she reached the pressurization controls she could hear the hiss of air already entering the cabin. Demon Tesla was paying attention. She moved back to Dean.
With a beep and a flash of green light, the pressure reached one atmosphere. She removed her hardened helmet and released the latches on Dean’s lighter fishbowl style head gear. Dean immediately drank in a long cold breath of air. He continued breathing hard and the color returned to his face.
“Dean, Dean, Dean.” She felt the surge of adrenaline-fueled anxiety tempered by the endorphins released from getting positive signs from Dean. He was breathing. Color flushed his face. His eyes blinked.
“Those things!” Dean gasped.
“It’s OK baby. It’s OK. We’re safe here. We’re in the Tesla. The drone brought you back.”
Dean struggled to a sitting position. He looked around the interior of Jessup’s 16 passenger vehicle as if to confirm Maggie’s words. Then he grabbed her and kissed her. “I thought I’d never see you again.”
Maggie kissed him back and for a moment all the terror went away. “I thought I’d never see you again.” They stared into each other’s eyes for a long moment.
“Those things aren’t L-Phage, Dean.”
Dean looked into Maggie’s green eyes and could see they were fixed on a far away point. That thousand yard stare of hers. “No?”
“Not by a mile. This isn’t like the work we did on the moon. It’s more like...”.
“More like what?” Her pause triggered a greater fear in him. Had somebody taken V’rom’s already dangerous idea and weaponized it?
“More like project manna.” She stood. “We’ve got to get back to the farm before that thing can grow or mutate or do whatever it does. I don’t even think it’s a larva you found, Dean. I think it’s a full grown parasite. I think that one of those things, upon coming into contact with people, will turn into what we just saw in the mine.”
Dean looked at Maggie and then at the Tesla.
“Jesus, Maggs. We’re gonna need more help.”
As the Tesla tore down the mining access road at nearly 200kph putting distance between them and their recent nightmare encounter, Dean tried to contact Jessup while Maggie stewed in her private thoughts.
“I can’t get a signal. Looks like our comms are down.”
Maggie hadn’t heard him. Her focus had turned back to the thing in the mine. Every life form is a physics engine, designed to prolong it’s inevitable demise by staying around long enough to perpetuate its own kind. But what she saw didn't jive with this. This thing seemed to be playing a different game. As if fighting entropy were the lleast of its concerns. And that would make sense, if it was the manna technology Avrom Allison was toying with twenty years ago. Not a creature but a package of creatures that could seed an ecosystem.
And one of those things was in her home.
Their plan had been to use it as evidence to confront the corporate authorities of illegal bioengineering mining operations. That now seemed like a quaint concern given the developments of this morning.
“Hey look”, Dean said, pointing over to the neighbor’s place. “Jessup parked our truck at Sherm’s place.”
Maggie scanned the narcotics farm. She noticed something odd. ”That old rocket is gone. What do you think they’re up to?”
Before he could speculate further Maggie Shook his shoulder. “Dean, look. The Aldrinville police.” From the edge of the farm they could see two police rovers parked at their hab.
Dean focused on their destination. “What the hell are they doing out here?”
They shared a look. Their minds raced along similar tracks but neither one spoke. Had the creature escaped? Were there casualties? Had the thing breached their pressure seal?
Dean slowed the pace but not too much. Getting dust on the solar collectors seemed like the least of his concerns at the moment. They rolled to a stop next to the pair of police vehicles. Even with the suspension lowered the massive Tesla dwarfed them.
Maggie exited first. Dean followed closely. The screen on the policeman’s uniform stated to go to IF channel two. The Tenderlys complied , switching inter-suit comms to infrared.
“Margret and Dean Tenderly?”
“There’s something going on with our radio comms. That’s why we asked you to switch to IR. Is this your domicile?”
Again they nodded.
“Since we’re contractors with the Aldrinville Police Department, I’m obligated to inform you that we are here to execute a public safety inspection of your home, based on reports sent from Venezuela Liberte. We’re coordinating with their law enforcement division, Federal Enforcers De Venezuela Liberte.” The words scrolled across the chest mounted video screen as he spoke them.
Dean blurted out. “What does the Free Vee want with us, they have no jurisdiction here?”
“Dean, the kids are in school there.” She turned her gaze back to the police officer. “What’s this about?”
“Apparently, ma’am, your son brought something dangerous to school. Do you know anything about that?”
She shuddered and shared a glance with Dean. The images of what they had seen that morning at the mining facility combined with the thought of the kids taking that thing to school squirmed through their brains. They shook their heads and looked at each other. “Come inside officers. Please tell us what happened.”
The four officers followed them inside. There was no breach in the hab. Dean and Maggy looked immediately to the kitchen table. The jar containing the organism was still there where they had left it this morning. It was still sealed. Each breathed a sigh of relief as they popped off their helmets and hung them near the door.
Maggie ushered them over to the kitchen table. “Please have a seat.”
“Mind if we have a look around?” said the sergeant.
“Of course not. We’ve nothing to hide.” Maggie sat at the table and motioned to the sergeant to sit across from her. Of course, what was hiding in plain sight was the L-Phage in the jar on the table.
Dean was not in as obliging a mood as Maggie.
“Now wait an algae scooping moment…” Dean said aloud.
“Sir, I think the reason for the inspection will be clear once I explain what happened at the school today.” The sergeant stepped toward the table and waved to the three officers to go on about their inspection.
Dean and Maggie looked at each other, then at the jar, and back to each other.
“Dean, let’s find out what’s going on.” Maggie patted the seat next to her. In the corner of her eye she saw the sand shift in the jar, but no sign of the phage yet.
“According to the Free Venezuelan authorities, your son, Lincoln, brought some sort of rifle to school today. Did you know anything about this?”
“What?” Dean and Maggie blurted out together.
“So you didn’t know he took a gun to school?”
Dean looked at Maggie. “We don’t have any weapons here.”
“I think whatever he had was something he had built himself.”
“Holy Mackerel. Did you ever look at his Fall Project? He took it to school today.” Said Dean, with an inward stare, as he was piecing together the events of the last few weeks.
“No,” Maggie said, sure that each of them thought the other was supervising it. That was probably Lincoln’s intent. She turned to the officer. “He’s been working on a project for school. There was supposed to be a big show-and-tell-style demonstration in his Entrepreneurship Class today. But I had no idea.”
“I thought he was making some kind of automated machine tool. Yeah, he took a heavy bag this morning that he said was his project. I certainly didn’t think …” Dean thought hard and remembered the conversation the night before with his brother-in-law and his son. Something about worm gears.
“But even if his project was a gun, Lincoln wouldn’t hurt anyone.” Maggie looked at the sergeant. “What happened?”
“Like I say, according to the report we got, your son, Lincoln, brought in the rifle and was firing it in class. The principal said that he held this class hostage, until he and two others tackled him and rescued the students.”
“What? Held the class hostage?” Dean was incredulous. “That principal is an idiot.”
Maggie turned her head away from the jar where she thought she’d noticed something odd about the phage inside before it disappeared under the soil again.
“What does that look like?” She said to the officer. “ Him standing in front of the class with his gun? That could just as easily have been him doing a show and tell.”
“That sounds a lot more like Lincoln.” Dean said.
“I hope you’re right and this is all a big misunderstanding, Ms. Tenderly.”
“Hey Sarge!” one of the officers shouted from Lincoln’s room. “We got something.”
The three at the table stood as the three officers walked into the kitchen. One spread out what looked like a paper schematic for a sort of science fiction looking automatic rifle. At the top of the page it was labeled M.R.W.A.R.. There were small boxes of text pointing to different aspects of the design. A second officer dropped two handfuls of electronic components and hardware on top of the diagram.
“Those look like they’re from my MiG welder.” Said Dean.
The third officer pushed back some of the electronic parts and pointed to the cylinders in the drawing. “Does your MiG use a cylinder feed Mr. Tenderly?”
“Jesus, when he asked if he could use the Welder, I just said, put it back when you’re done.” Dean dropped into his chair.
Maggie sat beside him. “It’s not your fault, Dean. You know how he is.”
“He’s like you.” Dean blurted out, and they both burst out laughing a little too hard. Tears coming into their eyes.
The sergeant sat down, staring at what he considered to be two very frazzled parents.
“It does look like your son designed and perhaps built a working prototype for this project.” He turned to the three officers. You three, image all this, over there on the floor. We don’t need to confiscate any property.” He turned back to the Tenderlys, who were staring at the table apparently in shock. “I’m sure the principal and by now the authorities have confiscated the device and are piecing together what’s really going on. No one was hurt as far as I can tell from the last report I got.”
“What about Lincoln?” Said Maggie looking intently at the jar, then lifting her eyes, “I’m sure he didn’t mean anyone any harm.”
“We don’t know anything about your son’s intent. Probably, like you say, ‘a misunderstanding’. He’s obviously a smart kid. I’d be proud as hell if my boy could design and build something like this. Ninth grade, right?”
Dean looked at the jar and noticed something that should not have been. Instead of the creature he had captured yesterday there was a mealworm with what looked like makeup on. Dean sprang to his feet and sent the chair crashing to the ceramic floor. The chair clattered behind him. “That little shit!”.
“Whoa, don’t be too hard on him, mister. You got a really smart kid here, he just needs to use a little more common sense.”
Maggie stood and grabbing the jar of regolith walked over to the counter.
She had seen it seconds before Dean but was still processing this.
She examined the creature in the sealed sample jar. The fat little mealworm from her lab had been tattooed with a black sharpie and something had been glued to him to look like - not upon close inspection- the worm Dean had found. She knew she needed to contact her kids.
“Can we call the school and speak with our children?” Asked Maggie.
“I would get them on the horn for you if I could. It’s the damnedest thing. We got no communications.” Said the sergeant.
“What do you mean, “no communications”?” Said Dean, thinking about the Tesla’s comms problem.
“I mean zip zilch nada. Even lasar-sats are off line.”
“Maybe a system reboot’?” Dean speculated aloud.
“Maybe. Or an alien invasion. It is Halloween, afterall.” Said the sergeant. The only one laughing.
“Well officers. If you’re done, we need to be heading to Free Venezuela to pick up our children.” Said Maggie, setting the jar in the sink and standing with her back to the counter.
Dean straightened his chair and pushed it under the smart table. “You can put those things up here gentlemen. I assure you; they will be a topic of discussion this evening.”
The sergeant stood and rapped the tabletop with his knuckles. The three officers moved the items, placing them in a heap.
Maggie made a beeline to the airlock and donned her helmet. She offered the airlock to the first two officers, then threw Dean’s bubble style helmet to him. He caught it. They all cycled out in pairs, a reverse order of the way they came in.
Outside Maggie was surprised to see a general utility buggy parked with the Tesla and the two big wheeled police cruisers. She tapped the sergeant on the shoulder and held up two fingers.
The sergeant nodded. “I’m on channel two.”
Maggie aligned her face plate with the officer. “I don’t know these folks. I’d like you to stay and signal them to channel two.”
“Serve and Protect. That’s what we do.” He walked toward the two men that were climbing from their vehicle. He pointed to the communication monitor on his chest. “Gentlemen please communicate on IF Channel two.”
Maggie looked at Dean. He shrugged. They followed the police sergeant toward the men and their vehicle. It was clearly marked with the SMC logo of the Smurfit Mining Consortium and the men had on Smurfit suits. Though not the kind like Jessup used to wear for mining. These suits seemed more militarized. This had to be about the site earlier today.
“Hello Officer. We have some business with the Tenderlys. No need to involve the police. Hello Mr. and Mrs.Tenderly.” Said the man. His bulk stretched the limits of the suit.
“Can you state your business?” Said Dean. “What’s Smurfit interested in with us?”
“We wanted to ask you some questions about your whereabouts earlier today.” Said the large man.
“I’d love to help you out, but right now we have a family emergency we need to tend to. Why don’t you stop by tomorrow.” Said Dean.
“That won’t do. We need to speak to you now.” The man puffed out his chest and stared at Dean.
“Like I said, We’ve got places to go. So if you’d get in your rover and drive off our farm, that would be great. I’m sure these officers won’t mind escorting you. We were all just leaving.” Dean felt the veins in his temples pounding. He was ready to jump somebody.
Two of the officers walked to their rover. Maggie was surprised to see them return with net guns. They were basically canons that fired a weighted net that expanded to full diameter at about five meters. The mass and velocity of the projectile could knock a full-grown man to the ground under the net. Typically, these weren’t considered legal under the network of agreements that regulated weapons on the planet, but lots of municipalities maintained a couple, “just in case.”
“Whoa, officers, we don’t want any trouble.” The second man spoke up.
The two men backed toward their vehicle. After a couple of steps, they turned around and marched toward their Smurfit Rover that they had parked in front of the Tesla. When they did, the Tesla’s elevated itself on it’s six legs. It began rolling slowly toward the rover. The span of it’s six independent wheels and the height of the vehicle’s belly demonstrated that the Tesla could straddle their rover easily.
The two men stopped. So did the Tesla. The police chuckled.
Dean piped up, “Looks like our rover is ready to go.”
The Smurfit reps climbed in their rover and fired it up. The Tesla lowered itself back to the ground. The side airlock opened.
“Thank you, officers. Not sure what that was all about, but I trust you’ll escort them out of here?” Said Dean.
“Yes ma’am. All the way to Station City.” He motioned to the two officers with the netguns, who responded by returning to their rover and starting it up. “You two have a safe drive out to Free Vee and … don’t be too hard on the boy.”
The sergeant climbed into the other police rover. Both Aldrenville rovers turned on their red and blue lights and followed the Smurfit truck away from the farm.
Dean and Maggie climbed into the airlock and into the front seats of the Tesla. It started moving and fell in line behind the police rovers, as they buckled in.
“This thing’s got a mind of it’s own. That’s for sure.” Said Dean.
“You mean Demon? You betcha. Demon, take us to ‘Escuela Anna Katherina Vivas Venezuela Libertada’” Maggie tried in her best Spanish.
The Tesla broke away from the convoy at the next turn and started speeding up as it climbed on the hard packed road that they had driven this morning.
Maggie used the smart screen to get an update on what was going on. But the screen instead asked if she’d like to work offline.
“Dean, I’m getting a network down message.”
Dean looked over at her screen.
“Yeah, I know. The cops said the comms aren’t working.”
“The comms are actually working, Dean. They’re just not getting any signals. There’s no cloud. Tesla’s receivers got nothing on EM or sat links.”
“Well that’s not even possible.”
“Unless someone is jamming us.”
“Us, or the whole goddamned planet.”