The year was 2261. The Third World War had ended twenty years before. Mankind had emerged anew under the leadership of the United States of Earth (the "America" had been dropped when the British Isles, Germany, and France had each applied for statehood in 2041, at the start of the war). By the close of the war, the USE was the sole sovereign nation on Earth, and had adapted to fit the role of world government as well as its structure would allow. The final peace (and the subsequent admission of the aggressor nations to the Union) was signed in the new world capital of Vienna, and a feeling of unity and celebration swept the globe. Attention was turned to the exploration of the stars after President McDonnell's rousing New Frontier speech of 2250, in which he called upon humankind to resume its halted development of interplanetary flight and establish a permanent research base on Mars by 2270.
The faster-than-wartime pace of the Ares Project researchers and their incredible accomplishments astounded the world. Medical advances raised the life expectancy from 90 to 130 for the average human being. By 2255 nuclear fusion as a power source was perfected; by 2257 fusion drive could accelerate spacecraft to relativistic speeds. In 2259, a communications revolution came about as the IDSTAR (Instantaneous Data/Speech Transmission And Reception) system was introduced, enabling instant communication from any IDSTAR unit to any other IDSTAR unit, no matter the distance. The IDSTAR system was exactly what was needed for interstellar communication. With all the technology in place, the search began for a team to establish their research base on Mars.
In 2260, the search for a team was over, and its members were announced to the world. The commander of the mission was Captain William C. Jacobs, 54 years old, a decorated veteran of the War, career naval officer, and astronaut with a rich, commanding voice and a strikingly calm, cool demeanor. Ares 1's pilot was 27-year-old U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Trevor Paine, arguably the best military pilot in the world, able to adapt to anything the simulators could throw at him with his trademark erratic, seat-of-the-pants style. The medical specialist, on board to treat the more major problems that could arise, was 32-year-old Dr. Valentine Schroeder, an excellent doctor by anyone's standards. The scientists were each jacks-of-all-trades, each with degrees in several interrelated disciplines and each superbly qualified. The biologist/biochemist/anthropologist was 34-year-old Dr. Thomas McAllister, and the geologist/meteorologist/geophysicist was 29-year-old Dr. Andrea Lin.
On May 31, 2261, the massive Trans-Orbital Shuttle lifted off the launch pad at Banjul, carrying the five explorers and most of their provisions. The shuttle's payload was transferred to the Ares 1 spacecraft at the Alan B. Shepard Memorial Space Station, and on the three hundredth anniversary of United States manned spaceflight, Ares 1 ignited its fusion engines and departed into the unknown.
1: The Signal
SIX MONTHS LATER
Paine let out a sigh of relief when the IDSTAR console displayed the "MESSAGE SENT" screen. He slouched back in the chair and sighed with a smile before putting on his pressure suit.
He was taken a few hours later while outside the base camp buildings trying to restore power to the launch pad area and radio beacon.
Tony awoke with a start. Someone was calling him on his neural comm chip, even at this ungodly hour.
"Dr. Antonio Luciano," said the unemotional, computerized figure that appeared to hover before his eyes.
"Your presence is requested as soon as possible at the Banjul launch complex."
Tony answered with a sigh, "I don't suppose you'll be paying my way."
"That matter has already been taken care of. Pack some bags; I must inform you that this shall most likely take some time."
"Great." Tony stopped thinking about the call, and the chip shut off again. He told the closet to put something together for him for a few days, washed up, grabbed the bag now hanging from the closet rack, and walked out.
An hour later, Tony's air-taxi landed at Banjul. Several NASA technicians were there to greet him hastily, worried expressions on their faces as they hustled him inside to the main building of the complex.
The men led him to the observation deck of the Mission Control room, a massive space with row after row of computer terminals, viewscreens, displays of all sizes and shapes, and a Plexiglas outside wall overlooking the launch pad. The various technicians and controllers below scurried about like ants, each completely engrossed in what they were doing, brows furrowed and heads lowered, constantly staring at the screens. The technicians who had led him to the observation deck scurried away as quickly as they came, and the far door opened immediately afterwards. An older, stocky man in a business suit walked hastily in, speaking in hushed tones as he moved to a seat.
"Dr. Luciano, I presume. I assume they" - he gestured towards the door - "told you what happened already." It didn't take Tony long to realize that this was Karl Sanger, head of the Ares program.
"Actually, no, I was about to ask you myself. Why did you call me here?"
"Some hours ago, we received a signal from Lt. Paine on Mars. Something has happened."
"What has happened exactly, Dr. Sanger?"
"We have lost contact with the team since the message was sent, and it seems apparent from the message that they are not the only intelligent life on Mars."
Tony sat in shocked silence for a moment, then spoke more hesitantly. "May I see the message?"
"I thought you would ask that. It is here." Sanger tapped a button on his wristpiece and the wall to their left displayed the message:
BANJUL: SERIOUS PROBLEM. LIN, VAL TAKEN BY UNKNOWN BEINGS. MCALLISTER MISSING AFTER ATTEMPTED RESCUE. JACOBS REMAINS WITH ME. BASE LOSING POWER ACROSS THE BOARD. SEND HELP IMMEDIATELY. SOS. PLEASE HURRY.
"Where do I fit in all of this? I don't see why I'm needed," said Tony.
"You are one of the best forensic physicians in North America, Dr. Luciano, and the only one with any spaceflight experience. We need you on that rescue mission. We need you to find out what happened."
ONE WEEK LATER
There was no crowd at this launch; no distractions; less chances for failure. The shuttle lifted off to greet a gleaming new Ares craft, this time with two habitat pods attached: one for the rescue team and one for the people they hoped were still alive on the planet.
Waiting aboard the station was the mission commander, Tony's old friend James Wilkins, a veteran astronaut who flew his first spaceflights with Tony back before he was scratched from the roster.
"Tony! I hadn't expected them to send you! Long time no see, buddy!"
"Yeah, good to see you too, Jim. Hey, I may have pissed off the flight director one too many times, but I still have my space-legs...somewhere."
Wilkins shared a laugh with his friend as they headed to their new ride.
The technicians on the space station briefed Tony and Wilkins on the modifications to their craft.
"The ship you will be riding is equipped with an experimental propulsion system, known since its inception as Orion. As soon as a safe distance is reached, a large metal shield will deploy behind you, and a series of nuclear charges will be detonated behind it to provide the force necessary to transport you to Mars in a matter of days. You should feel about 5 to 10 bumps as each bomb goes off behind you." The rescue team of two boarded Ares 2 and activated their maneuvering rockets a few minutes later. At 1300 kilometers out, the shield deployed like a giant metal flower, and the first of the bombs floated out the back.
WHUMP! It detonated with a flash and a noticeable jolt. WHUMP! WHUMP! WHUMP! Earth grew steadily smaller in the window between flashes. WHUMP! That was it; they were on their way, smoothly now, for three days.
When Ares 2 reached Mars, the crew cabin detached and landed near the still-operational radio beacon of the Ares 1 base camp. It was completely empty.
FOUR DAYS LATER
Adam Nine offered the texts to his captives as he tried to explain what they were destined to become. He recounted to them the tale of the first Adam and the first Eve, survivors of the Arrival on this planet. Their comrades dead and their craft's propulsion destroyed, they made Mars their home, fathering Adam Two and Eve Two to continue the line. He told them of his childhood obsessions with the technology of Adam One and Eve One, how he explored for himself the inner bowels of their old craft, discovering the Renewal Device, his daily logbook entries, his transformation into his current self because of exposure to the Device. He then told them of their destiny, about their own transformations before the Renewal Device...
Almost as soon as the lander touched the rusty soil, Tony and Wilkins were in their suits looking around the base camp for anything unusual. Wilkins first searched near the garage area while Tony went to the habitat and laboratory area. His right hand rested unnaturally on his taser, the only weapon that was known to work in any environment against organic life. Generations of spaceborne war had shown that. The airlock to the living quarters opened and he passed through. The whole place seemed untouched. His hand left his side near the taser and he checked each room meticulously. Jacobs's room was first; the bed was made (like any military man, he thought with a smile) and everything was neat and tidy. The only thing out of place was the chair in his office alcove. From the look of things, it had been pushed to the side forcefully, as if Captain Jacobs had gotten up very fast. Tony looked at the computer terminal to see if he was working on anything; the display showed the latest weather logs. Somebody must have called to him with something urgent. He radioed Wilkins.
"James, have you found anything unusual?"
"The whole base is pretty well-kept, except for one thing."
"The American flag is missing."
"That's the only thing? The flag?"
"Yeah. The flag."
"Creepy. But everything else looks OK?"
"So far, everything's fine."
"Hm. Okay...let's meet up in the cargo area."
Tony went on to check the other rooms; they were all as they had been left, no sign of forced entry or scuffling in the room. He continued through the corridor to the rec area, and there he saw Jacobs.
Or what was once Jacobs.
Tony knelt beside the body and checked for injuries. None except for a massive blow to the solar plexus, crushing his rib cage and collapsing his lungs. There were traces of blood caked around his mouth, but the body was very clean otherwise. No open wounds, nothing.
"You need to see this. Come to the rec area."
"Understood. On my way. There's nothing much else out here. One rover's gone, I guess McAllister took it. Whatever hit this base, all it did was take out the flag and disable the intercom system between the rovers."
Tony thought for a moment. "Can we fix it?"
"With a little time and some luck. Banjul's gonna have to talk us through it though. I saw we fix it, maybe find out where our Scottish friend went."
"Something troubling you, man? You're not your usual jolly self."
"I found Jacobs."
"Ah," was the quick, unemotional response. "Let's have a look."
Wilkins stepped in through the airlock and walked over to Tony.
"Jesus. What happened?"
"Apparently he was hit really hard in the chest by something. It was enough to collapse both lungs...he suffocated, Jim."
"Have you found anything else yet?"
"No. I haven't searched the labs yet. I found him and radioed you."
"All right. Let's see what we can get from Captain Jacobs here. We'll do a quick look-see of the labs, then get to work on that comm system."
"Sounds good." They took Jacobs' body to the medical lab and examined him more closely. He had definitely been in a fight with something, but it was a short fight before whatever it was hit him in the chest. They carried him outside and buried him in the red sand, planting an American flag as a marker. They checked the labs, all of them completely as they were, nothing unusual, then went outside to work on the intercom unit.
After several hours of clipping, soldering, fusing, tweaking, and staring at the electronics in the unit with Banjul on the horn, they got the box working and tied into the radar system in Ares 2. Tony and Wilkins called it a day and went to their lander to sleep.
4: The Tribe
Adam Nine crawled silently toward the Amrik fortress. There was a pile of rocks close to the fortress now, with a Death Sigil on it. The Amriks were beginning to construct walls! How could this be? He had taken the three light ones and killed the dark one. More must have come with the second fallen star four cycles ago. He destroyed the Death Sigil on the rocks, scattering its frayed pieces to the wind and replacing it with his own Sigil of Renewal, to deter the Amriks from finishing the wall. He then departed as quietly as he had left.
Wilkins had decided to get an early start in the morning, and he was the first to see the evidence of last night's events.
"Tony, come see this. The flag we left at Captain Jacobs' grave has been ripped apart. Look what's there now." Scratched into one of the rocks was an elaborate triple-circle symbol: the universal sign for biologically hazardous material.
"Oh my God."
"Yeah. This definitely needs some investigation."
"We have the comm fixed. Fire up one of the rovers in the garage; I'll tell Banjul what we're going to do."
"Gotcha. Maybe this is what McAllister went after."
"Maybe. In any case, we need to get after this. Whatever put this here, it has had contact with humans. There's no biohazard material anywhere in Ares 1 or Ares 2. So..."
"Oh man. I think I have an idea. I'm setting up the rover's nav system to pick up any sources of nuclear radiation. I'll tell you why on the way." Wilkins and Tony climbed into the rover and drove off in the direction of the vague footprints left by whoever carved that sign. As they got farther from the base, a strong source of radiation began to appear on their scopes about half a mile beyond a mountain ridge 2 miles to the east. They followed it and Wilkins began to explain.
"Near the beginning of the war, about 190 years ago, the enemy developed a very powerful genetic weapon. They called it the Renewal Device; it was designed to greatly increase the strength of anyone exposed to it within a few days. But it also made them extremely impressionable, fast learners, easily taught. In short, it made the perfect soldier, and as long as they got to him first, he was theirs to command.
"Thankfully, they never used it. We captured the research base where they developed it about a month after our intelligence agents found out about it. However, we learned after the war that the enemy had sent a team of pilots in a spacecraft with one of the devices to serve as a fallback plan. When our search parties turned up nothing and this 'doomsday craft' didn't even show up in orbit for a century and a half, we assumed they were lost in space, or not there at all, a bluff.
"I'll tell you one other thing. The research lab that we captured was also the place where the enemy developed the Orion propulsion system."
"Oh my God. You think that this craft, this team, used their Orion to come here?"
"Yeah. I also think that in the two centuries since they've been here, something happened. I'd be willing to bet that there's a whole lot more people there than the original team. I also think it's safe to say that something happened to destroy or degenerate the little micro-society they built here when they had all their children. Somehow the Renewal Device went off, and they became a sort of cult, adopting that Biohazard logo as their symbol, and destroying all traces of our Flag, for obvious reasons."
"They were taught that we are the enemy."
"Exactly. To sum it all up, be glad we have our tasers with us."
Adam Nine gathered his captives outside and stripped them of their pressure suits. It was not fitting that they accept the Renewal while so heavily insulated from the environment. Besides, he had told them, after the Renewal it shall make no difference. He made them stand outside to receive the Renewal, and went inside to activate the Device. Once he closed the switch, however, he realized his error. The Device would not deliver its gift of Renewal to the captives as peacefully as it had him, when he spent the sleep periods as a child breathing its purity from the leaky hose. The beeps of the countdown clock rang in his head as he sprinted to save his future Adam and his two future Eves. The explosion knocked him flat on his back, and sent his three captives flying against the far rock face, as if the explosion itself was not enough to kill them.
In tears, Adam Nine, last of his kind, retrieved his logbook from the derelict spacecraft, sat underneath one of the wings, and began to write his final logbook entry.
Today the Device failed. The continuation I had hoped for my new kind is dead, crushed by the explosion of the Renewal Device. So it was a weapon after all. I am now truly the only one left. Tonight I go to the Amriks to give them my log, and then I shall activate the Orion Bombs still left aboard. This book is now the only evidence that I ever existed. May whomever reads it know the history of my people now, and the name of Adam Nine.
The rover's powerful nuclear-electric motor hummed quietly as it scaled the mountain ridge. Inside were Tony and Wilkins, silent and tense with the realizations that they had come to not long ago. They continued towards the radiation source, hoping it was yet also praying it wasn't the enemy Renewal craft.
"Contact!" Wilkins pointed to the radar screen. A blip had appeared 500 yards to the north and begun to steadily approach. A smaller blip appeared from it and accelerated toward them. "Incoming!" He spun the rover around on its six wheels and headed straight for the new contact. A large boulder flew over their heads and landed with a heavy thud behind them, shattering into several pieces as it slammed into the dust. Wilkins punched the throttle and the rover lurched forward at full speed. They began to see what their mysterious attacker was. It was the other rover, with the painted flag scratched off and a makeshift catapult mounted on top.
Tony grabbed the radio. "Rover 1, Rover 1, this is Rover 2. If this is you, McAllister, cease fire. We are from the US."
A few seconds passed and the rovers closed on each other, then came the static-filled reply, in a heavy Scottish accent. "Identify yerselves."
"Captain James Wilkins and Dr. Tony Luciano of Ares 2, sent to rescue the crew of Ares 1." McAllister's rover turned out of their path, spun around, and pulled alongside them.
"What crew? They're all dead. I'm the only one left."
"We found Captain Jacobs back at the base camp. You're saying you know where the others are?"
"They took the others, which is as good as dead in anybody's book."
Tony and Wilkins shared a look. "Where did they take them?"
The reply did not come for almost a minute. "You can see it on your radar scope. Follow me."
The two rovers turned back east toward the radiation source. "Is it the Renewal Ship?"
"I'm pretty sure of it. As you can see, whoever lives there got to my rover."
"That's why I'm so sure this is the Renewal Ship. Everything we've seen points to it."
The large radiation source was now only a few hundred yards away, and Tony could just begin to see it in the distance. Towering in front of them was a giant heap of twisted metal that could have once been a spacecraft. It was half-buried in a gigantic mound, presumably the ground it tore up when it landed. Debris was strewn everywhere. Wilkins started to put on his pressure suit, but Tony stopped him, pointing to the middle of the wreck.
"See this?" Tony used the rover's manipulator arm to pick up a chunk of mangled, scorched metal from the ground. Emblazoned on it in bright red was a fragment of the Biohazard symbol. "The Renewal Device has been detonated, and we don't have any portable oxygen with us. You breathe any of that air and you might get whatever residue there is into you."
Wilkins put down the suit and held Tony's arm for a second in a gesture of silent thanks. A call came in on the radio from McAllister.
"Keep your eye out for any of these people. The ship was designed to hold a crew of five, though I don't know how they could have survived this long."
"Understood." Tony looked up at the ship and studied its shape. It was definitely an old modified space bomber from the war. She was long and thin, with stubby wings (or what was left of them) for atmospheric flight and large windows near the cockpit. The craft was broked in two where the bomb bay used to be; the apparent detonation of the Renewal Device had blasted that section of the ship completely apart.
"There's no visible propulsion system," Tony said.
"Hmmm...so it would seem. Do you think maybe it was sheared off in the crash?"
"Perhaps...let's see what we can glean from the debris field. McAllister, keep an eye out for us."
Tony's rover drove over to the main debris field and slowed to a crawl as his and Wilkins's eyes combed the ground for clues. They both eventually spotted a large chunk of metal, slightly curved and several feet across.
"This ship had an Orion system. That's how they got here."
Tony was silent. Having found what they needed, they drove back. As they returned to the crash site, he spoke up.
"That means, then, that there could be nukes still aboard."
"The source of the radiation."
McAllister's voice interrupted their conversation. "I think you two ought to see this."
Wilkins steered the rover over near a rock face where McAllister was parked.
There were three bodies on the ground: two women and one man. No pressure suits.
Wilkins was the first to speak. "My God."
"From the look of things, I'd say they were standing next to the craft when it blew up," Tony added somewhat hesitantly. "Hell of an explosion."
McAllister knelt in the rover cockpit and paid his silent respects to his comrades. Meanwhile, Wilkins turned his rover away from the bodies.
The rock that hit the cockpit Plexiglas was nearly big enough to crack it. Tony jerked up and looked around to see who threw it.
There was an extremely large man walking towards them, wearing the tattered remains of an enemy flightsuit. He held in his hand a small notebook and a pencil, which he held out to the rover's manipulator arm.
"My God, look at that, he doesn't need a pressure suit," said Wilkins.
"He must have undergone the Renewal. Look at his size."
"More importantly, look at his book. It's written in English. The guy learned how to read and write. Take the book, Tony. He wants us to have it. I think it's a diary or log or something."
Tony extended the arm and grasped the book. The man let go once he had a grip on it, then waved his hands as if to say "Go away." He pointed to the wreck and swung his hands in rapid circles to signal "Explosion."
"He's going to detonate the Orion nukes still aboard! He's going to kill himself!"
"Let's get the hell out of here! McAllister! Time to haul ass!"
"I heard. On my way!" The rovers sped over the ridge and out of sight, towards the base camp.
Adam Nine walked inside the craft to the bombs that he had wired together. He set the timer for 30 minutes and went to the cockpit to wait. The end had come, but he welcomed it, knowing that he would not be forgotten.
Tony floated near the window of Ares 2 as they orbited the planet for the last time. There was a flash from the surface, and a visible shock wave. Once the three men saw that, they steered Ares 2 out of orbit, ejected a bomb behind the shield, and blasted off towards home.