“We must leave Mars today!” one of the holographic heads shouted on the conference call.
Trillion von Nichol had to turn her head to see who was speaking because there were so many people holographically projected around the enormous circular table. The fact she was seeing faces she’d never met before meant this meeting had consequences. Trillion found herself disagreed with many of the disembodied floating heads, although she knew their opinions didn’t carry much weight. It was Peter’s opinion that mattered ultimately – he was the one footing the bill. “Peter, what do you think?”
Dr Peter Atreus was almost ninety – but he didn’t look it. Perhaps his dark skin gave him an advantage over some of the other team members whose lighter skin meant they looked twice his age, despite being half it. Trillion thought he was living proof of the saying ‘black don’t crack’.
Peter looked down, as if he was unsure about what he was about to say. “Just because Earth elected a Luddite, doesn’t mean we have to leave Mars today – we’re not ready!”
Trillion shook her head. It always amused her when her colleagues used the word ‘Luddite’. She found it ironic that earlier today she had to wheel into the conference room a physical screen just because Peter refused to have a holographic projection recorder installed in his home office. “Peter, let’s not call them Luddites. I’m sure, to them, we’re the luddites.”
Atlas Tupu turned towards her. He was just as old, but much better looking than Peter; the two of them had worked together for years to create this mission. “What should we call them then?” he challenged.
She shrugged, not wanting to get into this argument again. “Never mind.”
She watched Peter’s mouth move, but no sound came out. “You’re on mute, old man.”
The red mute symbol disappeared from his screen. “There’s nothing to fear in the Fermion Party. As with all political parties, they had to use extremist language to please their voter base. They might be the biggest political party on Earth, but this is Mars.”
She could understand half the group’s fear. Everyone on the conference call would eventually become a von Neumann probe. And stopping them was one of the campaign promises the Fermion Party had made.
It was true that they all hated the Fermion Party. But there wasn’t much they could do. Besides, she didn’t want to leave yet. She hadn’t said goodbye. She wasn’t ready.
The arguments began to get heated. Even Icarus started yelling. Icarus Kishida was a short Japanese man who loved getting up to mischief. “Those are not extremist beliefs anymore, Dr Atreus! We must accept the fact that these views are now mainstream political views on Earth. Killing Mars is now a mainstream talking point!”
The atmosphere was getting intense as different people began yelling on the call. Trillion tuned out, only hearing bits and pieces of it as her mind wandered to the idea of leaving today. She was a backup to the backup explorers, and now they spoke like she might be getting her own spaceship. It had felt as though she would never leave Mars – but now that politics were involved, suddenly she might be travelling the galaxy. Did she even want to leave?
“I won’t calm down.” Atlas said, his raised voiced pieced through Trillions train of thought. “Yes, it’s unlucky that they can’t afford to visit another planet because their subscription costs in the simulation are too high, but that doesn’t mean they have to stop us from travelling the Milky Way!”
“Atlas, don’t strawman.”
“Peter, I’m not strawmaning their situation. It’s the truth. And it’s exactly why we need to launch the colony ships ASAP. If we don’t have independent colonies of humans, then we are at risk of lunatics like these destroying us!”
Trillion struggled to concentrate on Peter’s reply as she was distracted by something moving behind him. She strained her eyes, searching the darkened room for the source of the movement, then gasped as a murky figure crept slowly into view, with a barrel of a gun aimed directed at Peter. Trillion jumped to her feet, white with fear as she pointed at the screen with urgency. “Dr Atreus! Dr Atreus!”
The room went silent as everyone noticed the man, helpless to do anything. Yet, they could see everything. Hear everything.
The gunman was unaware he was on camera. “Peter, you’re breaking multiple treaties outside of the metaverse,” he said darkly. “You left us no choice.”
Peter spun around. “You have no authority here!” he bellowed in surprise.
How did he smuggle a gun onto Mars? Trillion thought.
Interplanetary travel was still highly regulated. It wasn’t like driving across a boarder. The multi-layered security checkpoints made international flights look like a walk in the park. And meant smuggling an unregistered chocolate bar was impossible… let alone a gun. “Peter, the gun isn’t real. There are no guns on Mars.”
Peter must have realised it too. He was slowly walking towards the man, hands raised slightly as if surrendering.
The man had quite a speech, but Trillion had heard it before. All those crazy Fermions believed the same thing.
“Life isn’t meant to explore the stars,” the man continued. “If it was, we would’ve been visited by aliens already. You know this, Peter. You know the answer to ‘Where are all the aliens?’ is ‘They’re in the metaverse’. There are an infinite number of virtual worlds. Why the obsession with this one?”
“You mean the real world!” Peter said harshly, as he inched closer to the intruder. His face showing distain at being lectured to. But the slight tremble to his hands betrayed his confident veneer – revealing his fear.
He lunged forward and the two men wrestled for a moment, the man with the gun clearly stronger. They fell to the floor and rolled out of view of the camera.
Bang! The gun went off.
Trillion’s brain moved a million miles an hour. What had just happened? Was Peter shot? She was in shock. She heard voices shout out for Peter.
Trillion’s own cry was drowned out by everyone speaking at once.
The video call disconnected abruptly, and all the holographic images disappeared. Trillion gazed aghast at the three others with her in the conference room – Icarus, Atlas, and Angelique. All four of them were scheduled to monitor the Isaac Arthur Mars base over the weekend.
Icarus stood beside Trillion, holding his phone up in the air. “I just lost signal.”
Trillion looked at the others of them in shock. “How did they smuggle a gun onto Mars? They’re illegal here. Who would use a gun when one missed shot could expose you to the vacuum of space?”
Icarus pointed at his head, as if to say, ‘only crazy people’. “Someone who doesn’t care about holes in habitats. Someone who isn’t planning on being here long enough to deal with the consequences.”
“Someone not from around here,” Angelique added.
All three of them looked towards Atlas, all knowing what this meant but not wanting to voice it. They knew those people were from the Fermion Party. They also knew they didn’t have much time. If they’d taken out Peter, then the rest of them were next.
“We planned for this, team,” Atlas said. “Peter didn’t believe it would happen. But it looks like they’re moving in on us.” He pulled something out of his pocket and handed it to Trillion. A key card. “Take this. It will get you into my office. There’s a safe in the corner. Behind the seat, in the wall. You’ll find twelve solid plastic boxes about the size of matchboxes. Those are the two-factor authentication codes. Grab the four with our names on. There will also be a pair of in-ear buds, use those to speak with our Ships AI. Give them the authentication codes and tell them to prepare for take-off. Take Icarus with you and hurry! Meet Angelique and me at airlock F twenty-seven.”
Trillion looked at him incredulously. “What are you going to do?”
“We’re going to get our spacecraft ready,” Atlas said grimly, a determined look in his eyes.
Just then the door to the conference room swung open, revealing another man with a gun.
He pointed it towards Atlas, Icarus, and Angelique – unaware that Trillion was standing behind the door. The three captives raised their hands as one.
As the gunman slowly walked into the room, Trillion knew this gun was real. She no longer questioned the need to leave Mars today. In that moment, she knew she had to stop him, and they had to get going. She steadied herself; she had to do something before he saw her.
She drew in a deep breath and lunged towards his arm in an attempt to knock the gun out of his hand.
She managed to get one hand on the barrel, her momentum carrying her forward as she slammed into the door. She kept her grip on the gun, but the man wouldn’t let go. Somehow, she managed to wedge his hand in the door, and the man screamed in pain as Trillion’s weight slammed the door into his hand. He let go of the gun in agony as he tried to dislodge his hand – but with his fingers wedged, it only made his situation worse.
Icarus and Atlas added their weight to the almost closed door. Removing all hope the man would ever use his mangled hand again.
Trillion fell, the gun now completely in her possession. She breathed heavily as the adrenaline and anger coursed through her veins.
Angelique knelt next to her. “Thank you.”
Angelique Komene was the youngest in the group, but she was one of the hardest-working people Trillion knew, which made it shocking when she found out that Angelique used to work in real estate. The only thing Trillion disliked about Angelique was her ginger hair. Trillion had red hair – a much brighter shade of red too – and she hated that their flaming hair was always the first topic of conversation whenever they walked into a room together.
A few moments later the team had gathered themselves.
Trillion held onto the gun as they opened the door releasing the man’s hand. “Who are you?” she demanded, pointing the weapon at the stranger.
He stared blankly, clutching his hand.
Angelique cracked. She kicked his broken hand. “You killed Pete!”
The gunman started talking after that – he was 23, maybe 24; young and filled with hatred. Filled with extremist views.
They interrogated him but he didn’t know much. He was part of the Fermions. It was a full-on attack of Mars – at least to them it was because the intruder didn’t recognise Mars as an independent planet. They had hacked into the satellite systems, shut off all internet access.
They learnt that he was to move them into the prison cells and wait for further instructions. He guessed they were to be transported back to Earth.
He wasn’t very useful for learning more about the plan but he was full of derogatory terms, calling them names, trying to argue that humanity had already ruined Earth, it didn’t need to go and ruin other planets.
The team tied him up and removed his phone and watch.
Atlas reiterated the plan. “We need to move fast. We don’t know how many of them there are.”
Trillion handed Atlas the gun. “You and Angelique take this. You might need it where you’re going. Icarus and I should be fine without it. Good luck”
The two teams parted ways without looking back.