Refugees from the Sun

This is where I'm intially trying out the lastest story I am working on: a full-blown novel well on its way to being done called The Refugees from the Sun. Enjoy! And if you like what you read, or if you have any suggestions or anything to say, drop me a line. Beware though that it is still a novel under construction, so things may change in the final version.

But till then: I HOPE YOU ENJOY!

Refugees from the Sun -  SYNOPSIS:  

(expected: WHENEVER)

Refugees from the Sun is a science-fiction novel  I'm currently writing .

It tells the story of how "I" lands on the Moon to do some illicit business, and subsequently gets embroiled in the local uprising against the undemocratic dominance of the Earth, which leads him to being shanghaied into the Earth's warmachine as punishment for his rebellious activities.

While he's making his slow way to the Earth's most distant outpost - a little world called Ceres, which is the focus point of a bitter cold war between the Solar System's two superpowers - he picks up a blip on the ship's radar screen, which turns out to be a horrible discovery that will change the face of the Solar System forever!

Completly written in the 1st person, the Refugees from the Sun is original and unique science-fiction, showing the many beautiful and weird sights to be seen in our own little Solar System, which is a place where the humans are all too alien ...

Start with chapter 1: Welcome to the Moon

Refugees from the Sun

A romance of many planets

by Erik Schrama

Part 1: Welcome to the Moon

Let’s take a closer look …

Somewhere in the middle of the south of the spiral-arm Galaxy we all live in, which is called the Milky Way, there lies a little solar system consisting of a single, yellow star, around which eight planets slowly circle - or nine or thirteen, depending on whom exactly you ask this.

Around this gently spinning ball of blue water and white clouds that is the third planet out from this small yellow sun, a luminescent grey little moon makes its monthly rounds; and somewhere on the lifeless, dusty surface of this miniature world (halfway between its equator and the north pole, to be exact) lies an ancient crater which is the size of a continent: A giant, yawning hole in the ground that is no less than one thousand, one hundred and forty-five kilometres wide and twelve kilometres deep! Which is big enough to be easily seen from the surface of the planet around which it endlessly spins, without needing any kind of equipment beyond the naked eye. So big, in fact, that they don’t even call it a crater, but instead they call it a “sea” – the Sea of Rains, or, in the local language: Mare Iridium ...

And somewhere in this chaotic yet sterile sea of grey rocks, moondust and dark, shark-teethed mountains, which has all been the result of some relatively large heavenly body that had come crashing down from the skies around here some aeons ago, and permanently stamped its mark into the surface of this deep-frozen satellite, lies a smattering of a couple of hundred or so smaller craters, like the bullet holes left over from some ancient cosmic drive-by shooting. Of these craters, some are quite big (like the crater Plato, which is roughly the size of Belgium), and some are quite small, and inside the natural stone walls and under the big, dull plastic dome that covers one of the smaller ones of these tiny, lonely islands of life that lie in a virtually endless ocean of grey rocks, grey sand and grey dust, lies a surprisingly ancient, decrepit and ruinous, yet bustling city.

From high above the city, I could see all of it clearly, far below me, as I looked through the tiny round window of the white commercial spaceliner that flew low over the dome of the city, then dipped with a sickening, gutwrenching twist, and let itself fall into a giant crack in the ground that looked like the gates of hell, but turned out to merely be the city's spaceport.

When I came staggering out of the terminal building and finally stood within the crumbling city walls which is also the caldera of the crater, and underneath the dull plastic dome of this little city, I got a very strong first impression of walking into a giant amphitheatre, big enough to make the Coliseum run for its mother. What I also discovered there, standing high on one of the terraces that line this crater’s walls like the thread of a lightbulb and looking into the centre of town, was a vista of ancient crumbling skyscrapers that rose up before me like a concrete forest, reaching up to almost but not quite meet the dull plastic dome that covered the city like the lid on a pot, surrounded on all sides by an endless labyrinth of streets and little alleys - all of which seemed to have been blessed with copious amounts of cracks, bumps and potholes. And as it happened to be, these streets currently appeared to be the undisputed domain of the local goddess of total chaos and disorder, utter lawlessness, and just generally bad behaviour – she who is the very embodiment of Anarchy!

@Like most denizens of the Solar System, I am well aware of the fact that the modern inhabitants of the Moon have - oddly enough - many gods they believe in. This is often attributed to the fact that they're a bunch of fanatical heathens up here, who had long ago developed their own private religion, often by borrowing a large page or two from the already established faiths down on the Earth, and by deftly blending them with the sort of religious realisations you can only get from standing on the surface of another planet and staring out into the measureless depths of space for any protracted length of time. In fact, many different gods and goddesses peacefully coexist on this little world of theirs, and the locals have a pragmatic way of picking those deities for worship whom they feel are doing the most for them, currently, and are the most likely to give them a good return on the investment of their spiritual capital in the long run - even if the origins of these supernatural beings can ultimately be traced back to a number of completely unrelated and wildly diverging faiths and spiritual traditions, most of which happen to flatly contradict each other, too.

The locals are a pragmatic bunch, truly, even in matters of the faith.

I am well aware of all of this. I am also not very interested in any of it, not really, as I am not a native of the Moon myself, and therefore do not feel the overwhelming need to prostrate myself to a collection of little idols. I am, however, currently being forced to feign an interest in the history of this place, as I am sharing the alley I am in with a man who is indeed a native of this barren rock, and who is currently enthusiastically informing me that, around here, they take a fair amount of pride in the historic fact that they have always been willing to rise up in open rebellion against the presence of any foreign occupier - which, up here, has always and forever meant the Earth.

“No matter how little actual success these little revolts usually end up having, though” the man added, sounding a little sad, but mostly just angry.

Walking through the city, I could see it all before me. Something I had noticed, however, was that these here streets were currently - and for the moment, at least - under the shaky yet determined control of the angry mob - in a much more practical and much less metaphorical way - who were quickly taking over control of this fragile and long neglected heap of moondust, rock and mud, grey-baked brickwork, concrete slabs and huge metal crossbeams that hold up a massive plastic roof, which together make up the Moon’s largest urban settlement and also its de-facto capital city, which is located within one of the few craters of any useful size for urban development that exist in the great bowl-shaped basin that lies smack on top of the southern pole of planet Earth’s great, pockmarked, barren Moon, which is otherwise also known as “Luna” (“at least that's what us locals call it,” fumed the man, “even though those damn Terrans still insist on calling it the Moon”) and which was currently under the ever increasing control of its ordinary citizens, who were done and fed up with those arrogant Earthlings lording it over them all day every day, and pushing them about like the bunch of big bullies that they really are; and it is these ordinary men and women who are currently making practical and effective use of their own blood-encrusted fists, as well as a wild assortment of improvised cudgels and bludgeons, homemade slingshots, flying halfbricks, re-purposed sporting materials, "liberated” police-issue nightsticks and riot shields, homemade Molotov cocktails and even thick gloves with coils of barbed wire wrapped tightly around them, that are meant to grip the skin of you foe and tear away at it, all this to even the score a little and try and exact a bit of bloody revenge against the Earthers, in their next futile attempt to liberate the Moon from the Earth’s decades-long colonial, corporate and military chokehold.

For the moment, however, the complete absence of any sort of law and order - or even a modicum of common decency for that matter - clearly seemed to be the preferred option for these rebellious locals - who were normally as dull as heck - as far as their ideal form of local government was concerned, rather than being forced to endure one more day of the endless, monotonous grey drudgery that is everyday life in Earth's largest industrial colony.

Everywhere. With the notable exception of a handful of outlying craters and underground lava tunnels that long ago had been adapted to operate as giant greenhouses, and that were filled to overflowing with vast stretches of artificial farmland and slowly undulating ranges of as yet unharvested fruit and vedgetables: Giant farms that stretch like miniature, private fiefdoms across the artificially muddy floors and underneath the gleaming domes of those tiny little craters that lie just outside the little city’s dusty spacewalls like small, round islands of flat, fertile countryside; where corn grows taller than a man, and where the law is whatever the semi-feudal head-farmer, who is the DIY-king of a selfmade agricultural kingdom topped by a see-through dome of shiny, hard plastic, that is designed to keep in the warm air and keep out the deadly cold, and is hemmed in between a sprawl of urban development on the one side and an airless dark mountain range on the other, says it is.

But I did not need to be there. At least, not yet. Because I knew that that stretch of domed and underground farmland was the one place on the Moon where I would not get what I need, what I came here to get, so … 

Meanwhile, back in the city, the traditional protectors of Lunar society and its three pillars of Justice, Peace and Order, and thereby also of the Earth’s longstanding presence and deeply rooted interests on the surface of the Moon, in other words: the Federal Border Guard - that local branch of the Earth Space Navy that was itself half armed defence force and half police department, and had been established almost a century ago now, in order to keep the peace and enforce the law across Earth’s many airless frontiers, to go deep into the starry wilderness and defend the rule of law and justice; but whose duties had expanded over the decades, to such a vast extent that, years ago, they had been handed the mandate to take over as this barren satellite state’s regular police force – in lieu of anyone more suitable who wanted the job - charged with watching this rabbit's warren of streets, squares and back-alleys, while manning the spacewalls of this insular crater-city, as well as keeping a close eye on the other lonely specks of domed land that together make up the minuscule inhabitable surface of this giant, grey satellite - were, for the moment, being forced to retreat head over heels before a sheer wall of angry local people. 

Watching from the sidelines, and from the cover of a couple of dumpsters that had been conveniently tucked away in a side-alley somewhere, I observed how the police were attempting to systematically retreat into a few isolated islands of official government control, such as city hall, from where they might try to continue to fight the angry mob. From my hiding place (the metal side of which proclaimed such gems of arcane wisdom as: They Are Watching You, Killroy was here, and a badly drawn example of a man’s private anatomy), I could, however, see that while they were in the process of rushing back to safety, they were also teetering on the brink of being completely annihilated, by being subjected to a storm of poorly aimed flying halfbricks, that sailed through the air like solid rain, and by repeatedly being clobbered over the head with a variety of makeshift bludgeons, ranging from simple iron bars that had been wrecked of the burglar-proofed windows of some back-alley watering hole, to blood-encrusted baseball bats, and everything in between. It was brutal ...

As, through the course of the day, the officers of the completely outmanned Border Guard got drawn into more and more running (or at least bouncing) battles with those recently created citizens’ militias who euphemistically referred to themselves as the neighbourhood defence committees, as well as some of the city’s most venerable and long-established street gangs; some of which had been sent forth into what currently remained of civilised Lunar society by those members of its citizenry who, for years now, had secretly been plotting to liberate themselves of the last vestiges of Earth’s colonial rule on the Moon, and towards the founding of an independent Lunar Nation,

- I sympathise with these guys, I really do, and they are, in fact, part of the reason why I'm here today –

while other fighters were sent into the fray by those who harboured a secret loyalty to those fanatically collectivist, arch-communist, blatantly imperialist, and fiercely anti-Earth-minded inhabitants of that distant fourth world that orbits this little yellow sun - which is a small, red planet with seriously big ambitions - whose recent history of fighting for their own independence against the expeditionary forces of planet Earth clearly appealed to some of the more independently-minded inhabitants of the Lunar colonies; as they, at this very moment, did not even have a say, let alone a vote, in any of the big decisions that were being made for them by this so-called democratic, liberal and inclusive government that ruled them all from far.

I know where they are coming from.

As well as the fact that Martian society and its cooperative economic style, together with their thoroughly egalitarian “Martian way of life” were more to the liking of many of the Moon’s largely blue-collar inhabitants, who toiled daily under a system of taxation without representation - especially compared to the Earth's approach to modern life, with its utter devotion to their own odd Frankenstein ideology, which seemed a strange blend of the ideals of free market capitalism, Western social democracy and modern day colonialism, mixed in with a zealotic defence of the system of indirect democracy as the only possible kind of true democracy (but only for those who are themselves of the Earth, of course), judging every other political arrangement as just plain wrong; as well as complete ecological restoration and the protection of the natural environment, of course,mas long as all the negative side-effects of this economic miracle growth that powers their little consumers' paradise could be easily disposed of on some other planet or random heavenly body somewhere else, preferably one that is very, very far away - not to mention all of its atmosphere and excessive force of gravity and trees growing just about everywhere on the surface of the Earth, and the general Earthish ways of doing things on top of that, which are all just so utterly alien to a little girl who grew up in a domed crater city on the south side of one of the larger Asteroids, could ever hope to be.

Furthermore, the Martians’ sacred promise and continuing struggle to once and for all unite all of mankind living outside of the Earth’s atmosphere into one glorious, unified empire under one rusty red banner, seemed exciting and romantic and daring and idealistic and worth fighting for to all those people on the Moon who like that sort of thing - something that had never been done before in the history of mankind, not even tried. Even though, when push came to shove, the idealism of the Moon’s revolutionary leaders tended to stop far short of the dream of a single united humanity under the benevolent and totally relaxed rule of Mars, and instead tended to focus more on the ideals of being able to pay their own taxes to their own elected government officials, rather than somebody else’s - be it the Earth’s, or Mars’.

I can relate to that …

Which was fine by me, as those were the people I had been looking for in the first place: the true revolutionaries, who do not want to be part of anybody else's empire, except their own; as I happen to be neither a citizen of the Earth nor of Mars myself, but from a little rock far beyond the orbit of the Red Planet, and halfway to Jupiter, I had recognised that what they wanted and what I wanted had become beautifully synchronised.

As it goes with almost every revolution, riot, or uprising, for some reason there always seem to be a fair number of people around who’re just standing on the sideline, lurking in the shadows and busy scheming in the background, and this conflict was no different - I know this, because I happen to be one of them - and I knew that the Mooners never really trusted the Martians and their good intentions. Still, they were grateful enough to accept any sort of help the Martians were willing to throw the Moon’s way, as it was the only meaningful form of support the Moon’s revolutionary cause was ever likely to get from anyone, anywhere - at least, that's what they thought - and the Martians were happy just to be able to cause a bit of mischief in Earth’s backyard, even though they too never seriously believed that the Moon might actually succeed in breaking away this time around.

Anyway, for obvious reasons there currently existed a lot of anti-Earth sentiment on the Moon; not just because the Martian enemy had insidiously offered the Moon’s disgruntled inhabitants a prospect of some kind of true homerule, as a very distant and almost completely autonomous member of the greater and united Martian Commonwealth, instead of the current reality, where they were little more than just another voiceless colony and subject nation of the Earth’s slowly fractioning colonial space-empire (in much the same way that Napoleonic France had tried to “assist” the Irish in ridding themselves of the British Empire, a long time ago and far, far away; or the Japanese had “liberated” the Indonesian archipelago from the Dutch colonialists during World War II; which was much in line with the way the Martians saw it) in a hopeful but hopeless attempt to turn the Moon’s urban society over and, if at all possible, depose the Moon’s tyrannical Terran governor; who had been sent here from distant Earth - which is still some 385,000 kilometers away, even on a good day - to keep an eye on things.

Earth … which had been the undisputed owner of this little grey satellite, ever since that little blue planet’s newly and forcibly united government had decided to step up their colonisation campaign of the inner and more easily reachable regions of the Solar System, in an effort to try to compensate in some small way for the sudden and dramatic loss of centuries worth of independence and the freedom to choose their own course in the world that some of their member nations had experienced, after the bulk of them had decided to join - willingly or not - the newly united Federation of Earth; in a bloodyminded effort by some of its more disillusioned recent admissions to try and rebuild their once mighty and more-or-less sovereign empires on some of the other worlds that had become recently available to them; even though these grandiose plans tended to end up as little more than a heavily watered down carbon copy of the original thing ...

Eventually, these efforts to get as far away as possible from the autocratic new world order on the Earth resulted in the founding of several tiny habitats on the dusty surface of the Moon, which were at first little more than big, square, grey brick cellars dug out deep into the frozen Lunar surface, with a rocket launch/landing site on top of the roof. These subterranean bunkers, however, were quickly followed by fully fleshed out moon-bases, which eventually evolved into real domed cities built into the Moon’s largest craters, especially those of the deep south, where you can find deep gashes into the Moon’s tortured surface that offer plenty of protection against the everpresent threat of space radiation - which is a form of free-flying X-ray energy that can cook you alive in your spacesuit, if you are unlucky enough.

The inhabitants of these settlements and cities (who were, by now, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original settlers) came - as time went by and the ancestral links connecting them to the old Mother Planet grew weaker and weaker and more diluted with every year, and in the end consisted of little more than the Earth’s most popular sitcoms and soap-operas, that people from all over the Moon would tune into on a daily basis - to the shocking realisation that their most profound and deeply felt feelings of love and loyalty no longer lay with their father’s father’s father’s distant fatherland somewhere on the endless surface of the Earth, but with their new homeland of the Moon! And it was this startling realisation that, in turn, inspired these people to endeavour to try and create a single, united and independent nation on that distant and barren satellite - which was a noble and righteous cause, and ultimately also a futile one ...

Still, those first and second objectives they managed to get right off the bat though, since the Earth's government was at this point more than happy to drastically simplify the administration of its largest industrial colony, by merging all the little national colonies into one big satellite state, with one governor, one police force and one law; but the latter, however, they didn’t manage, as a result of a complete unwillingness on the part of the Earthers to let their main industrial zone and spaceport that connects them to the rest of the Solar System split off from the Mother Planet, let alone the strategic nightmare an independent Moon would represent; which would've been eerily similar to that time, long ago and far, far away, when the island of Cuba had turned itself communist and found itself perfectly placed to bomb uranium heck out of the continental United States, with nuclear missiles courtesy of the Soviet Union, of course. Only in this case, Cuba would be the Moon, the U.S. would be the whole of the Earth, rather than just a big bit of it, and the Soviets would be Martians, but beyond that it’s really all the same …

This general anti-Terran feeling shared by the various denizens of the Moon was most of all the result of the several hundred thousand Earthish soldiers who had been continuously stationed on the Moon since just about forever. None of these soldiers were members of the Border Guards though, which is the only branch of the Earth Space Navy that is recruited exclusively out of people from the other side of Earth's atmosphere, like a space-age version of the French foreign legion, which mostly means Moon-natives, as well as a handfull that came wandering in out of the Asteroids, or that had come running from the new social order on Mars; and because of that fact the Guards had to constantly find new ways of dealing with a chronic manpower shortage, as the rest of the Moon's general population generally considered the officers of the Border Guard to be the worst kind of traitors: Mooners working for the Earth, pfff ...

No, these were all Earth Space Navy soldiers that were stationed on the Moon, be it Marines or regular sailors, or even a few shifty members of the Federal Intelligence Service passing through on their way to something dark and unpleasant, no doubt; all of whom seemed to have an inborn knack for causing lasting feelings of deep resentment among the natives, it just came natural to them, not just because they were a bunch of uniformed strangers carrying heavy weaponry, who simply refused to learn to speak the local language instead of their own personal varieties of complete gibberish, but most of all because they tended to view the Moon as little more than a colony that should be forever grateful to the Mother Planet for its continued existence, and its population as a subject nation of the Earth that existed only to serve them.

The infrequent times these soldiers were allowed to actually leave their bases and barracks and interact with the locals - most of the time in a quest to get inexpensively drunk and laid - these sorties usually ended badly, with the Guards either having to place the serviceman in question under arrest because he had just tried to brutalise a local woman, or having to escort him back to the safety of his barracks because he was about to get lynched by an infuriated mob of locals out for blood and justice, as a result of some real or imagined slight or transgression of the local code of behaviour, which holds that you should’t molest somebody’s wife, girlfriend or daughter, and the fact that you’re wearing a uniform while you’re doing it doesn’t mean you allowed to. Which is why the people who ran the Moon Colony on behalf of the Federation were initially hesitant to send in the Earth Army to help quell the current rebellion, because they had the presence of mind to realise that sending a bunch of grunts into a bloody riot would be likely to just make a bad situation so much worse.

Which is why they had arranged it in such a way that the vast majority of the Federal soldiers had been stationed in bases that were as far removed from any of the Moon’s major population centres as they could possibly be, and, if at all possible, were located smack in the middle of some airless, lifeless, dust-filled desert somewhere, surrounded by several impassable mountain ranges on all sides.

Which is why it was up to the Border Guard to keep the peace on this riotous rock, for as long as they were able to, and to quash any little rebellion or riot that might flare up from time to time. Such as this one. But not forever. Because at some point, the Moon's Earthish masters, far down in the Federation’s capital of Cape Town, would undoubtedly reach the threshhold of their capacity to stomach such continued impudence and disrespect for their rule, and decide that enough is enough, damn it, would throw all caution to the wind and send in the full strength of the Federation’s military juggernaut to crush this latest uprising and restore order to this little worldlet, which was planet Earth's factory floor, after all.

Because production needed to continue - it was vitally important for the health of the Earth’s consumer economy that the Federation’s industrial hub keep on churning out cheap consumables; and seeing how the Border Guard was faring right now, that moment would be coming sooner, rather than later ...

Besides the Moon, however, the continued efforts undertaken by these soldiers’ homeworld’s neonatal government to colonize the rest of the presently reachable Solar System had also led to the final conquest of distant and eventually heavily modified Mars, which had been the first planet in the Solar System, outside of the Earth itself, to have been successfully conquered by that species of walking primates native to that distant blue marble in the sky - the Moon doesn’t really count in this equation, as technically speaking it is not a planet, but, indeed, a moon; even though, at the same time, it is still bigger than Pluto, which is considered a dwarf planet.

At the time that the first intrepid settlers started to arrive on the Red Planet, the complete and utter lack of any form of arable land among the endless, airless deserts of Mars was something that really had to be dealt with, and quickly, if the new colony were to be able to survive on its own.

Which it did, because it was … 

This was largely thanks to a group of free-thinking and enterprising Martian engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs and inventors, who had been attracted by the government of the young Martian colony to figure out a way to get out of Mars' crippling reliance on Terran food shipments. Which they did. Unfortunately, this was also a group of intelligent and highly driven people who knew how to recognise a golden opportunity for making a tidy profit when they ran into one. This group, led by the enigmatic billionaire D.C van Doorn, realised that they could rule this liquid rock as a private, corporate kingdom - with Earth’s clandestine support, of course - once they were done cracking and transforming and reshaping this little world named Ceres – which had been named after the Roman goddess of the hearth and home, and which, coincidentally, also happens to be one of the nearest permanently inhabited neighbours of the distant, floating rock I myself was born and raised on - rather than having to hand it back over to the Martian authorities once they were done with it.

As Mars, which was still under Terran military occupation at the time, and fighting desperately for its freedom, did not yet have the military resources at hand to take full control of Ceres; and the Earthers, on the other hand, did not have the political will, as they, at the moment, already had their hands full trying to keep the Martian Rebellion down, and suffered from an acute lack of desire to get sucked into yet another unwinnable swamp war on some insignificant little bog of a planet located on the outer edge of nowhere-in-particular. At this point, Mars was already turning out to be the Earth's second Vietnam - metaphorically speaking - and the Earthlings really did not feel the need to add a second Afghanistan or Iraq as well.

So, after mr. van Doorn and his merry band of planetary engineers had first radically, violently transformed this utterly uninhabitable, deep-frozen dwarf-planet called Ceres - which is a strange little world, I know, that lies just beyond the path of planet Mars; it’s strange, because it is the only celestial body currently making its way through the Asteroid Belt that is simultaneously both big and massive enough to have become spherical all by itself, instead of looking like an abstract sculpture of a diseased potato made by some surrealist artist who earlier on in life had lost his mind - which is the more usual shape for an Asteroid - and is therefore the only Asteroid that is not really an Asteroid, but rather qualifies for the official label of dwarf planet instead, at least according to the I.A.U. (the International Astronomical Union) meaning that Ceres is indeed a real planet, albeit a tiny one; but which is also very strange because, next to its round shape, it also possesses a deep, liquid and relatively hot ocean, that not so long ago lay buried beneath a thick shell of solid ice, until this frozen crust was cracked and shattered into a billion pieces of melting ice, in the most macho way possible: By bombing it to bits with hijacked Asteroids, until the ocean underneath was revealed - revealed into a wholesale producer and exporter of seafood - lots of fish, about a hundred different varieties of seaweed, shrimp and various mollusks; all of which had been introduced here from the Earth’s various hot and seething oceans in order to provide healthy and wholesome nourishment to the Martian working masses - the newly installed government of the Earth beheld from afar the conclusion of this monumental and epic experiment in planetary engineering, the final result of which had been an entirely new pelagic world of endless seas and islands, soaring cliffs and mountains, and an endless supply of life no less, and came to the history-altering conclusion that it had become about time for the Earth to do some territorial expanding of its own again, deep into the as yet unclaimed wastes of the Asteroid Belt this time, before all the good and bountiful spots had been hijacked by the new and forceful Martian Commonwealth, who were hungrily eyeing the rich natural deposits of the Asteroid Belt as potential fuel for the further industrialisation of their own barren homeworld, and to that effect had already managed to establish a solid foothold in the region, with their new agricultural colony on Ceres; which had been settled by Martian colonists to begin with, of course - although what the Martian leadership in Olympus Urbs had not known, was that they had all been handpicked by the plotters to be more or less amenable to the idea of an independent Ceres - but had subsequently been seduced by the Federation to abandon the newborn People's Commonwealth with offerings of much cash and weapons, and of course the promise of freedom - Terran style.

Still, promises are cheap to make, and after a brief and bittersweet taste of independence, where mr. Van Doorn had ruled as a benign god over his new people, Ceres had been returned to Mars, near the final and bloody conclusion of the Martians’ own war of independence against the then United Nations of the Earth, after the Red Soldiers had come over in swarms through the gulf of space to thoroughly crush the short-lived Independent Republic of Ceres there: That rats’ nest of traitors, religious fanatics and enemies of the working class, founded by those rebellious Martian bourgeois engineers who had been put there by Mars in the first place to give that little artificial world its current form, instigated and directed by that traitor, evil genius and enemy of all freedom loving people everywhere: D.C. Van Doorn! Or so the Martians said.

After its eventual reconquest, which was swift, efficient and utterly merciless, the Martian leadership decided to put the little planet to some good use - as a giant improvised POW camp. The thing is, at this point in the narrative they had a bit of a problem on their hands, as they had captured so many Earthish soldiers after the final and ignominious surrender of the UN’s military on Mars, but now they had no idea of what to do with all these people, as keeping them imprisoned on Mars and feeding them until their old age didn’t seem like such a hot idea, and neither could you just shoot them all, although there were some who suggested it … Let alone what to do with those Cerese rebels that remained, those who had fought for the economic and political freedom of their young world and its people, but who hadn't managed to either make a beeline back to the Earth during the latter stages of the Martian invasion of their world, when things really started falling apart for them and the Red Horde seemed to overwhelm everything like an neverending army of red ants, or get killed there …

In the mean time, the invasion of Ceres had been a rough wake up call for us, us Asteroid Dwellers, who so desperately wanted more freedom for those big floaty pebbles that we inhabit, drifting at the edge of nowhere in particular; and with freedom, I mean: Freedom from both Earthish hyper-commercialism on the one hand and Martian forced “solidarity” on the other; as we had no desire to either get crushed underfoot the Martian jackboot, nor become the thralls of Earth's voracious and predatory export economy.

From not so very far away, we silently observed the hopeless struggle of the Cerese people against the Red Hordes, and learnt some harsh lessons from the experience; we decided that if we ever wanted to stand even a fighting chance against the Solar System’s two largest colonial superpowers, we would have to first figure out some subtle way to divert their attention effectively away from us, and onto somebody else; to in some way play them out against each other, so that we might slip unnoticed under the radar and get the space we need to manoeuvre in, in order to finally break out of the shackles of tradition, ancestry and political necessity that bind our little rocks to either one or the other of these two star-empires, while they were too occupied with fighting each other to pay too close attention to the rest of the universe around them.

After the unfortunate loss of their recently acquired little ally in the Asteroid Belt, the Earthlings decided that they should to try and compensate for this highly unfortunate turn of events by stepping up their own efforts to colonise the outer fringes of the inner Solar System; which they tried to achieve as quickly as possible, by establishing as many little mining colonies and naval bases and listening posts and other tenuous footholds in the Asteroid Belt as the Earth Space Navy could possibly pull off - which, coincidentally, is how many of our homes got settled in the first place - but especially by investing large quantities of time, money and effort to “liberate” the newly established Martian POW-camps on the surface of Ceres - as the Earth’s electorate simply could not live with the idea of valiant Earthish soldiers rotting away in some hellhole of a Martian internment camp, or so the politicians said ... in a slowly escalating tit-for-tat dance of death that seemed all too familiar to those of us who read our history; only this time, when planet Earth would take this worldlet and its people back under its mighty, interplanetary wing, it would not be as a mere proxy - not this time - since that obviously hadn’t work the first time 'round, but as a fully fledged protectorate of the Earth; sort of like an outerspace edition of Puerto Rico, which officially had been a part of the United States, although technically more akin to a colony, until it suddenly wasn’t either anymore … or how the United Kingdom had fought bravely to protect the extremely relative liberties of the Kingdom of Belgium against the aggressive ambitions of the German Empire during the 1st World War, sort of, but not quite … In the mean time, this little world had already switched hands twice now, and the Earth took it back from Mars once more in a brief but bitter spacewar that was fought out mainly about taxes and tariffs and import duties and Asteroid mining rights and all kinds of seemingly boring stuff like that - which nevertheless make the world go round - much like the United States and the United Kingdom had fought out a brief and brilliantly pointless sea war right after the successful conclusion of America’s own war of independence against Britain, which also had mostly been about lost money, burnt egos and a last desperate attempt to get even-Steven, and regain some lost honour ... but could not have been made possible without the multitude of heavily armed men - and in this case also heavily armed women - who suddenly found themselves sitting in their barracks on the Moon with nothing much to do anymore, except to polish their rifles and watch daytime TV.

Which ended up being a quick little war that the Martians, unfortunately for them, failed to win this turn 'round. Too bad for them ... And also too bad for the Cerese, as Earth's latest victory had turned Ceres into something that was, at the end of the day, little more than yet another distant colony on the outer fringes of Earth's increasingly fraying interplanetary empire - just like the Moon, if you think about it ...  Well, let them have it, I say, for now at least. The Martians will even the scales again, when they think the time is right for it; they always do ...

All of this frantic activity was being undertaken by the Earth's government in an unprecedented effort to compensate as much as was humanly possible for the unforeseen and dramatic loss of their planet's erstwhile Martian crown colonies in the bloody and protracted war of liberation that had been fought out there, in bloodsoaked trenches dug deep into the frozen, red dirt; in cracked and shattered domes scattered across the windswept surface of the planet, in lava tubes turned into incinerators, and in the vacuous skies high above the blood-red plains of Mars, whose proud and redblooded natives had one day realised something important, something that was akin to a national enlightenment, as they had come to the earth-shattering conclusion that their most fundamental and deeply rooted feelings of love, loyalty and that feeling of being at home lay firmly invested in the Red rather than in the Blue … And it was this moment of national insight that eventually led the denizens of that big red desert to once and for all cast off the rule of Earth’s sprawling celestial empire - whose proxies in the field often behaved less than liberal or republican while they were in control - and join together to form a nation of their own, here on this red rock. In turn, this had led to a relatively brief, but all-out war of independence and attrition that had been fought out there in those red and dreary deserts, the sands of which had been stained only the redder by the Earthlings’ flowing blood.

After the successful conclusion of this conflict - for the Martian side at least - a certain number of these Martian revolutionaries, who belonged to a more reactionary (or call it conservative) wing of the resistance that believed that democracy was nothing more than a conspiracy of the rich designed to pull the wool over the eyes of the poor (and they weren’t necessarily wrong, too), had come up with the idea of erecting an actual, real, old-fashioned kind of throne in the new capital city of their planet – after the city of Olympus Urbs had been efficiently wiped off the map - apparently after having been inspired by some ancient movie one night, and to go to the greatest and most inspiring resistance leader they currently had and put him right on top of it - a man called Sam Ngubu, by the way - to solemnly declare him to be the first Emperor of Mars; like a small Latin-American nation acclaiming their national liberator as el Presidente for life - I know what it sounds like - only on a much, much grander scale; since the first human being destined to be the absolute, godlike ruler of an entire inhabited planet could surely be nothing less, right? And this was going to be the new Empire of Mars after all, the very antithesis of everything that the Earth stood for.

But it was not to be ...

To be precise, those members of the Martian underground who fought for the establishment of the First Martian Empire followed a train of thought which reasoned that: As the Earth's style of representative democracy had completely failed the people of Mars at any rate, in a spectacular fashion, no less – after all, it had been the Earth’s democratically elected leaders who had ordered the UN to mercilessly crack down on the Martian Uprising, let’s not forget that - they might as well do away with the entire concept of democracy as it stood; as it was nothing more than a fallacious political ideology that looked good on paper, but had proven to be nothing less than a complete disappointment in the real world, at least as far as the people of Mars were concerned ...

Nevertheless, Mr. Ngubu, that Great Leader of the Martian Resistance who had been destined by popular acclaim to be the newly crowned first Emperor of Mars, blankly refused to accept any of that … Unusual for a man of such limitless power, popularity and infinite reach, but in his heart of hearts, he had remained a loyal adherent to the merits of popular democracy; in short, he was a populist and a died through the wool demagogue, as well as a trueblooded Martian patriot, a romantic idealist and a freedom-fighter. In short, he was a man who loved his native planet, Mars, and who wanted to see it bloom and prosper and flower into something beautiful, something never seen before in this Solar System. More specifically, however, Fate had decreed him to be a specimen of that rare and increasingly elusive breed of men, who had been awarded all the power in the world, straight from the hands of the cheering, applauding masses, but had not been totally corrupted by it …

At the same time, however, neither did he want Mars to stumble headlong into the same beartrap that the Earth had blindly trod in, and was now unable to break free of like a German panzer stuck in a Russian swamp or a sozzled American tourist who had blindly stepped into an Amsterdam canal - ending up with a pseudo-democratic system that looked shiny and put together on the outside, but was partial at best under the hood, to put it kindly ...

Of course, it also helped that he was a realist who had a thorough understanding of the current political reality on Mars, and knew for a fact that his being elevated to the glory and status of the first Emperor of Mars meant that he would most likely be dead by the weekend, as his old comrades in arms and “colleagues” from the other resistance groups would be less than thrilled to see him come sailing by them to get himself crowned and anointed and all that pointless crap as their sovereign lord and supreme leader. Yes, he might be a veteran of a hundred bloody, gasping battles, but that only increased his fondness for remaining alive ...

So instead, after waking up one morning, and while having his breakfast that included a big bowl of cornflakes and a large pot of Martian tea, he took the decision to order Mars' new secret police department to pay an impromptu midnight visit to the homes of the known ringleaders of this imperialist and bourgeois conspiracy, to have them lifted off their beds in the dead of night, whereupon they were to be quickly tried and deported to a life of endless hard labour on the newly regained penal colony on Ceres; as Mr. Ngubu had a very specific vision for the future of Mars, something that would benefit all of Mars, especially those parts of the Martian population that had been ground into the red dirt before the Revolution - and kings, queens and emperors simply did not fit into his picture, and neither did the mental image of him sitting with his royal ass on the red velvet cushions of a gold-encrusted throne, with his throat slashed from ear to ear and the other resistance leaders bickering over his still warm body over whose turn it is now to rule the planet …

In fact, instead of becoming the new, godlike Emperor of Mars, he would much rather settle for becoming its defacto military overlord, especially if that meant he could save himself from a red smile in the end.

So they got raided by the police in the dead of night, and quickly put before a judge, sentenced and put on the first prison transport that was bound for the Asteroids; and serves them right too! Because I ask you, honestly, what kind of an idiot would willingly bend his knee and pledge his eternal allegiance to some upstart in an ermine dress and a shiny, pointy, metal hat? I mean, think about it!

Still, it’s ironic when you consider the fact that without those confused and misguided souls - who had been stabbed in the back by the very same person they were trying to elevate to absolute power and near-godhood no less - my own family would have never have been able to rise to the top like we have, like the scum on a pond, to become what we are now: the absolute rulers of the lonely little asteroid of Vesta; as many of these Martian outcasts did, in fact, not end up in the work camps on Ceres, but were diverted to live out their lives in the wastelands, toiling away on any number of barren, airless rocks far away from home, where they somehow - through their sheer determination and force of will - managed to impress upon the rest of us, even those of us that originally hailed from the Earth, their own peculiar vision of what society should look like and how it should function; a merciless vision that taught that the concepts of aristocracy and feudal lordship - outdated on Earth and outright banned on Mars - weren’t just the natural human state of affairs, but were actually morally stainless ideals, as they simply represent a man’s natural right to provide for his family (somehow it’s always men) to its full and logical extension, even generations down the line - which fitted in well with the highly mercantile, dog-eat-dog society that had evolved among the Asteroids, something that resembled the American frontier at its worst, or the Caribbean during the height of the pirate era, the Moon during its first wild and tentative colonisation attempts, New York during the dotcom bubble, or Hong Kong during pretty much every single moment of its long and twisted history. What failed on Mars would work on the Asteroids, because our grandparents realised they could make this dubious yet venerable bit of social theory work for them, when they made a grab for ultimate power on their respective rocks in the sky, and rule them like the kings of ancient Earth never did.

So, after having these imperialist troublemakers deported to the edge of inhabited space, and thereby neatly avoiding another potential civil war on Mars, Mr. Ngubu and his fellow resistance leaders, who each controlled their own vast corner of the Red Planet’s surface, decided to put their heads together and pool their virtually infinite military resources, as well as their near-complete control of Martian society, to install themselves as the first Planetary Council of Mars. This was a collective head-of-state unlike any that existed back on the Earth (well, except for one) but quite fitting for a nation whose official ideology embraces the concept of collectivism and the communist ideals like a sacred dogma, even though they had been clever enough to rebrand their official ideology as Martian Cooperatism, as the Underground’s great and clever ideologues realised that the original parent ideology had proven itself to be less than exactly flawless in practice, either - like all things Terran - but on Mars, they believed they had been able to work out the kinks. Now, you have to understand that the gradual evolution, acceptance and even adoration of such a cooperative and interconnected way of life is only natural on a planet like Mars, or to be expected, at least, you might even say inevitable, really, as this is an ideology based on the collective experiences of all the people living on a planet where everybody is constantly dependant on everybody else to survive, even for something as basic and necessary as having oxygen to breath or clean water to drink; but, unlike Earth’s traditional style of communism, this Martian mutation nevertheless embraces the competitive drive as well; that instinctive urge that all human beings share, that subconscious desire to want to do better than everybody else who is alive, shall ever live, or has ever been alive; that fierce, basic instinct that has allowed the human race to stretch itself out and put a man on the Moon, and decades later one on Mars for an encore.

And so the Martian Colonies became the Martian Commonwealth instead, ruled by a Planetary Council that contained within it all the major players of the Martian saga (well, all the ones that were still alive at this point, at least), and which was headed by Mr. Ngubu, on a more-or-less first-among-equals basis, which had the practical result of making him not only the effective commander-in-chief of the newly integrated Martian Army and Spaceforce, but also the de-facto president of the Martian government - although he downright despised the title of president as being wholly too Earth-centric, as well as utterly unreflective of the new political reality on the Red Planet. In fact, he much preferred to be simply called the Chairman … which was a good, traditional sounding communist title, was empty enough to be filled in as required, but, thanks to Mao Zedong, still had that ring of communist allpowerfulness; and even though this arrangement meant that he did have to share his powers of state with the various other members of the Council – which he thought was infinitely preferable to another civil war – at the end of the day, he still ended up as the most powerful man on Mars by far - Mars, which was destined to become Earth’s greatest rival in just about everything; but most of all when it came to the burning question of who exactly owns the mining rights to those mineral-rich bands of rock, rubble and dirty ice that together form the Asteroid Belt.


You see, the problem is that Mars claims this wide and dispersed ring of floating rocks as the natural, logical and indivisible border of its own national territory - seeing that there is no such thing as international waters in outer space, not since the demise of the old UN’s Outer Space Treaty, and seeing that the great bulk of the Asteroids can be found floating around pretty much exactly halfway in between the orbits of Mars and the next planet out, which is Jupiter; a planet that remains firmly in the grip of the Federation, thanks to a large Earth Space Navy base in orbit of one of its many moons.

On the other hand, there's the Earth, who are of the granite opinion that this entire ring of rock and dust belongs to the sovereign territorial space of the only permanently inhabited human colony of any significant size, and “independent” nation, that can be found in this neighbourhood in the first place: Ceres. Which is the only big rock currently making its slow way through the Asteroid Belt that is both big and dense enough to have been able to condens itself into a perfect sphere, instead of looking like a bad doodle of a malformed potato, sketched by a severely colourblind two year old child, and on those grounds alone qualifies for the official title of dwarf planet - which is essentially a kind of consolation prize for celestial bodies: Hey, you may not’ve made it as a real planet, but it’s the fact that you tried that matters. Here, have a balloon! According to those people who actually receive some kind of remuneration for deciding what celestial body floating out there through the inky blackness may or may not be called a planet - some people have just the oddest ways of making an extra buck on the side. As you know, beyond its unusual shape, this little world also possesses a deep and relatively hot liquid ocean that once lay buried underneath a thick shell of deepfrozen mud-ice, before it got forcibly cracked, shattered and molten, in order to quickly provide a virtually inexhaustible source of reasonably fresh food for the Martian masses to feed on, in a way to compensate for their own red homeworld’s complete and utter and total absence of any usable fertile land whatsoever, due to that planet being covered from pole to pole in endless deserts, large parts of which - essentially the entire southern two-thirds of Mars - have never been touched by oxygen, yet.

But back to this little blue-and-purple world, Ceres, that not so long ago had been settled by an army of Mars’ unwanted and undesired: The great mass of prisoners-of-war they had taken during their long and exhausting war with the Earth, as well as the scores of rebels they’d captured during their bloody reconquest of Ceres, who at the last moment had decided they would rather be alive in prison than free but dead, and now the Martians didn’t exactly know what to do with them all, as there were just so many … let alone their own world’s legion of heedless critics, political dissenters and public traitors; in fact, everyone who was stupid enough to be openly pro-Earth on post-Revolution Mars, or was just suspected to be, as all the real counterrevolutionaries who fought the new order on Mars were simply shot, or hanged, or disappeared without a trace, as well as all those lost souls who’d been banished from the surface of Mars during the Ugly Years of relentless on/off civil war that followed right on the heels of Mars' long War of Independence.

But unfortunately for the Martians, the Earth Space Navy came and liberated this dwarf-planet not long after that, in an all-out effort to spring their brothers in arms and bring them back home from this watery hellhole, which currently resides under the Earth's “special protection” - which is just another way of saying annexed, in an unofficial yet very effective way; like the old DDR had been de-jure an independent country in its own right, but de-facto a frontline outpost of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, from the personal perspective of the natives of this little world, all of these changes meant that, for the first time in years, they were theoretically able to do whatever the hell they wanted to do and go wherever the hell they wanted to go; although,in reality, they needed to heed what the Earth told them, or they would end up with a bunch of battleships in orbit and tanks rolling down their streets in no time at all.

And so this little world was tried, convicted and condemned by history to become just another semi-free part of what little remained of Earth’s rag-tag empire in space, the only other pieces of which that had been left by now included Mercury: a boiling world covered in endless mine shafts and bunker cities, that were dug deep into the surface of a blasted world that embraces the sun like a sunflower on ecstasy, as well as Jupiter’s most outlying moon of Callisto, which skulks around the edge of Jupiter’s vast system of Moons like the ugliest girl at the ball (which is crazy, as that “honour” clearly goes to pizzafaced Io) and offers such a splendid harbour for any putative future expeditions into the outer Solar System - which is the reason why this icy rock was colonised by the Earth Space Navy to begin with, with the intention to set it up as a nucleus for the further occupation of the Jovian moons, with a clear plan to set this great pink ball of gas and wind up to become Mars’ great future rival for domination of the Asteroid Belt, with the Federation’s encouragement and massive support, of course. But all of that was still in the far and distant future; as right now the Earth’s Jovian operation was still little more than a tin can spacestation circling a dreary little outpost tucked away under a plastic dome, stuck half on top and half below a giant snowball spinning through the void, really.

Time to get back to the Moon though ...

So, rather than trying to win the upcoming local elections in a fair fight, by playing according to the rules as they had been laid down, and convincing the Moon's denizens to give them their support in a more-or-less free and fair contest (which they could’ve done), those that desired to be the new powers-that-be on the Moon decided to send in their own private little militias instead, to try and create a situation of utter chaos and lawlessness, and thereby generate a vacuum of leadership and law, in a classic political manoeuvre which would have the locals clamouring for some saviour to deliver them from the anarchy and violence that engulfed their little world, and so prepare the colony for a hostile takeover, carried out by those citizens who wanted this satellite state to switch its historical oath of allegiance and ancestral bond of loyalty from one of the Solar System’s superpowers (the one that shines like a delicate green, white and blue marble above the sharp-edged Lunar horizon) to the other (which is a bright but distant red disk that currently looms at the far side of the sun). Just like the local fanatical loyalist factions who sent in their own soldiers, as they (much like Taiwan’s traditional attitude to China) valued their orbital homeland’s ancestral connection with that invitation-only private club of money-grubbing, freedom-loving, democracy-preaching, nature-worshipping, world-invading, colonialist base-traders and ecowarriors out on that third rock from the sun: the blue planet’s united but completely schizophrenic Federation of Earth, rather than the blatantly imperialist communists of the red planet’s Martian Commonwealth, who insidiously promised the more independently minded inhabitants of Luna, who were an official part of the Federation even if they often did not feel like it, their long-awaited and long-dreamed of freedom from Earth’s cultural, military and economic domination, as long as they were willing to accept the military protection of their Martian cousins, of course. Which was a tempting offer, as the Reds were, by the way, currently the only inhabited planet in the Solar System to have managed to completely rid themselves of the Earth’s insidious colonial influences ...

So, unlike the rebellious inhabitants of the Moon, at least these bloodied Martian warriors could boast an excellent success rate when it comes to getting rid of colonial oppressors in general and heavily armed Terran soldiers in particular. And the Moonlings knew it: In response to this underhanded “Martian invasion” which they observed (which was pretty much a public secret amongst the natives) and being completely aware of the ins and outs of this bit of disastrous recent history for the Mother World, the local loyalist factions decided to send in their own adhoc militias to try and stop these backstabbing traitors from making any sort of headway in the carrying out of their dastardly, underhanded and downright treasonous plans; although, after they had successfully fought out a few pitched street skirmishes (well, their soldiers, of course, not they themselves) and various neighbourhoods of the tiny urban area had either been successfully defended from the neighbours or conquered and annexed into their private territory - the overactive minds of these little urban overlords invariably started to wonder how to best run their recently acquired slice of the city, and started to paint brightly coloured pictures of all the good and noble things they might be able to achieve if only they would be in control of this entire miniature metropolis, rather than the handful of neighbourhoods, or even the single building, they occupied now.

So, in the end, both extreme ends of the local political spectrum - the supporters of planet Mars versus the supporters of planet Earth, with the supporters of an independent Moon standing at the sideline and hurling rocks at the supporters of the other two sides - had declared unofficial war upon each other, and the provincial Moon Colony – which upheld, at least officially, the basic principles of impartial justice, non-discrimination and complete equality before the law, no matter what shade of black, white, yellow, brown, tan, grey, or whatever the colour of your skin might be; in other words: The Earth did not care what you looked like or where you’re from, as long as you realised that you work for them, and nobody else. Even though daily reality often proved that this was not quite true, but at least those were the basic ideas that lay at the foundation of the Lunar colonial state, and that’s what the Guards tried to live up to, as the colonial administration believed that justice, fairness and democracy are not necessarily the same thing - got caught right in the middle of a political perfect storm that raged across the surface of the Moon as well as the motley collection of loose junk that hangs around this cloudy blue planet like a thin planetary ring, consisting of both new and ancient satellites, antique orbital habitats and discarded spaceship parts, and balls of loosely packed refuse.

The members of the Border Guard, which was the local police force dedicated to protecting this giant necklace consisting of a single, shining, enormous pearl of a moon surrounded by a thousand tiny man-made satellites that together orbit the big, cloudy planet that hangs large and heavy at the centre of it all, like an overripe cosmic fruit; which was also the only police force that this moon and this city had available to defend law and order, considered it their sacred, godsgiven duty to break up every single skirmish and brawl they came across on their daily patrols through the city, and to arrest every single rioter they could lay their hands on; and so quickly ended up fighting a protracted urban war.

On my walk through the city, I could regularly see them do battle in the city’s streets and squares and back-alleys, against what appeared to be three separate opposing rampaging mobs: On one side were the pro-Mars gangs, on the other were the pro-Earth militias, and in the middle were the Lunar rebels; three different little armies consisting largely of those people the Guard was supposed to be protecting in the first place - the people of the Moon. Now, the Guards’ main headache stemmed from the fact that the shifting membership of these loose citizen outfits seemed completely unwilling to invest much time or thought or effort in the basic concept of using “a measured response to a difficult situation”, like the Guards themselves had been instructed to do during the onset of the troubles on this urbanized rock. These instructions meant, practically speaking, that as a uniformed member of the Guards’ riot squad, you simply cannot telescope your nightstick out and use it to bash in the skull of the nearest random citizen you find, just because you think that he or she is acting in an annoying or disrespectful manner towards you, or just because you really, really want to, ‘cause you don't like the look on his or her face; meaning that these policemen would very often find themselves facing superior numbers and superior firepower, or at least superior clubbing and brick-hurling power, while they themselves had nothing more lethal at their disposal than cans of tear-gas and rubber bullets, to defend themselves against a mob of angry seething people armed to the teeth with makeshift cudgels, pocket-catapults and homemade petrol-bombs.

By the time the battered members of the Border Guard's impromptu riot brigade finally - through a nightmarish night that had been washed with blood and trial – managed to get some kind of a good, effective routine worked out on how to best deal with this city full of angry, armed folk, who seemed to all be out hunting for anyone wearing a uniform - which was to first completely smother the affected area under a thick, suffocating, cloying green blanket of teargas, than advance on the hordes of bloody rioters with shields and nightsticks raised, under cover of smoke, attack dogs and water-cannons, in a multi-tiered formation that had been lifted straight out of the Roman army's field manual, and finally proceed to beat the living snot out of anyone who's still left standing and isn't wearing a recognisable police overall - by the time they’d figured this out, however, the Guards had already been practically decimated; with bruised, bleeding and concussed Guardsmen filling the stretchers, benches and awkward plastic chairs of hospitals, clinics and Guard-stations all over the city; and the provisional Revolutionary councils and improvised Loyalist block regimes who were, for the moment, in complete control of their respective neighbourhoods, were the only thing close to a government that had been left standing in the rubble; the only form of authority that was still present and able to order about the bewildered, beleaguered and terrified citizens that still inhabited these ruinous parts of the domed little town.

Even so, many of the more naturally restless and opportunistically minded individuals who lived there - who possessed the “entrepreneurial spirit”, if you will - chose to reject this newly imposed order, which they figured was just replacing one dictatorship with another, and anticipating that it wouldn't be able to hang onto power for long anyway, found the solution for all their life’s present problems and difficulties in a frantic outburst of violence and virulent anarchy and looting; as they figured that: “After all, who needs another authoritarian government, eh? Looking over your shoulder all the time at whatever you’re doing, when you can just as well make your own damn decisions, be your own government, as it were ...” said the man I was hiding behind the dumpsters with, while I could see rocks and flaming Molotov cocktails sailing through the air above the main street ...

“Just take control of your life! Take whatever you can find or need or would like to have and run like hell before either the shopkeeper with his shotgun or the new incarnation of authority on the block shows up to blow you away!”

“And you better run fast,” he continued, “run like the devil's hot on your heals and don't ever get tempted to look back at the mess you've left behind! I know it sounds evil, yeah, I know, but free food, fancy new electronics and the latest video-games, or highly illuminating pharmaceuticals, if you know what I mean ... or even a living, breathing woman, if you're so inclined, and as long as she's not holding a repurposed breadknife to skewer your guts with if you take a step closer,” he said with a knowing leer “and if you don’t care much 'bout the suffering of others, either …” he added with an evil grin; which made me so uncomfortable that I thrust my hand deep in my jacket pocket and grabbed hold for dear life of the switchblade I'd secreted there, just in case I might need it ...

“And as long as either the murderous competition or the local embodiment of the new law in town doesn't manage to catch up with whatever you're trying to get away with, my lass, so far, yours can be a life of previously unimaginable, splendid luxury!” he concluded.

Having said what he wanted to say, he grabbed the baseball bat he had lying at his feet, jumped up from behind the dumpster he’d been hiding behind, and rushed into the main street – one bounce at a time - straight at the nearest person wearing a police overall he could find, in order to repeatedly bash him over the head with his improvised weapon. It was a brutal sight; the man went down, and it didn't look like he was ever going to get up again, either.

Still, not my business though. I hadn't come here to witness the riots, after all, or to see Terran policemen beaten to a pulp, or to see living history being made; I had come here for business, pure and simple, and it was time to get on with it. And that meant getting up from behind this dumpster, and taking a mad sprint out of the alleyway to the other side of the street, where I might be able to find my way out of the urban warzone and towards the office I needed to be at. The only trick would be to not get hit by any of the rocks that had decided to screw gravity, or rubber bullets that went the other way, or Molotov cocktails, or anything made airborne by means of a slingshot, and also to not get caught up in the fracturing police line that was trying desperately to hold the end of the street, where I could be certain I would be pounded into a bloody pulp and hauled bound and gagged into the back of a waiting meat wagon, for the heinous crime of not wearing a police overall in plain sight … If I could just achieve that, I'd be home free. To be honest, I am more than a bit nervous at the moment. But here goes …

Objectively looking at it, the only citizens of the city - other than the hooligans, the rapists, the looters, the new, petty dictators of kingdoms stretching no larger than a block of flats, and the urban warlords - who were actually able to generate some kind of advantage or profit for themselves out of this whole chaotic situation - which is why it helps to follow the money if you want to find out who’s ultimately responsible - were the corporate bosses: the various presidents, CEO’s and chairmen (and this being the Moon, only a single chairwoman) of the Moon’s big, big trading companies and industrial conglomerates, whose spaceborne as well as landborne enterprises kept the vital flow of goods, people and money alive and flowing between the different and distant worlds that lazily orbit this superheated ball of yellow gas, that can be found at the very centre of this little slice of the cosmos inhabited by the human race, as well as between the multitude of tiny, insular, domed habitats of the Moon itself; and had been doing so for the past century or so, ever since the foundation of the various Lunar colonies by a group of daring scientists, explorers, entrepreneurs and inventors from the Earth, who had quickly managed to transform this little grey satellite into planet Earth’s main spaceport, linking the Mother World to the rest of the Solar System, as well as into planet Earth's great assembly yard and industrial zone in the sky - a second China, but even bigger - where everything got manufactured from vacuum-cleaners and feather dusters to giant battlecruisers, and everything else you can find in between.

I know all of this, because I happen to be one of ‘em, sort of…

Years ago, I had the bright idea of using the rather strategic location of the rock that I was born and raised on - which is an outlier called Vesta - to start up a small business mining for precious ores on some of the Asteroids in the immediate region. This sounds more impressive than it really was, as I started out with little more than a second hand spacesuit and an electric shovel; but there was a niche to exploit, because no-one except the government was doing it at the time, and I toiled and scraped, and with some pride I can say that today I practically own it all, the entire colony, as well as a little defunct shipping company that I managed to buy with the profits ... Which is why I had come to the Moon in the first place, because everybody knows that the Moon is the transport hub of the Solar System, and it is here that the bulk of the Solar System's shipping and transport companies are based, and bought and sold like cattle. To explain the relative difference between the Moon on the one hand and Vesta on the other to someone who's never even left the face of the Earth, think of it this way: if the Moon is New York, then Vesta would be Djibouti … A real out of the way place that most people have never even heard of, let alone would be able to find it on the map, and who’s main claim to fame is that it is slightly easier to get into than its immediate neighbours, which are Eritrea and Somalia, respectively.

But with this sudden and noticeable absence of any kind of law-enforcement or central authority on the Moon, whose responsibilities included keeping the big corporations in check and playing by the rules, on top of the unexpected departure of the Federation’s own colonial viceroy - also known as the Governor of the Moon, who had long ago been sent up here from the Federation’s great capital city of The Hague; and who was an official whose job could basically be summarised as: constantly looking over the natives’ collective shoulder to see what they’re currently up to, and make them adhere to the rules the government of the Earth had, over the previous century or so, laid down for all to follow, whether they like it or not, like some kind of upjumped traffic cop - but who snuck out of her office one morning and fled back to the relative safety of the Earth; without this constant level of state control, the big company bosses could, for the moment at least, do exactly what they felt like doing, without having to explain both themselves or their actions to anyone, least of all to the Earth, as its local representative on the scene seemed to have presently decided to trade in the Moon with its neverending chaos for the relative safety of the Mother World.

Of course, as the old saying goes: kharma’s a bitch, and the inevitable outcome of all this anarchic chaos and violence would likely to generate some big problems later on down the line, both for the regular citizens of this miniature world as well as its unauthorised, provisional rulers; as at some point, the tab would have to be paid. And while the city was burning around them and the streets were turnded into a battlefield, the company bosses – which included me, as of this morning - realized that this blessed state of government non-interference could not last for very long, as a power-vacuum is a vacuum, after all, because it craves to be filled by the first person who comes along to fill it - but this period of unexpected grace might just last them (well, us, I guess) long enough for the successful completion of some of their own nefarious goals and purposes, whatever those might be ... before the Federation’s political leadership would finally come to the conclusion that it was time to awaken the Earth's ancient and monstrous warmachine from its imposed slumber, like some Lovecraftian god reaching out a slimy tentacle from the depths of the oceans, in order to restore order to the Moon, one way or another.

It is just that I hadn't quite managed to find out yet what those plans exactly were that were being plotted by the big bosses and boards of directors of the Moon’s biggest corporations. I knew that they were there, for sure, because the Moon's various markets and spaceports were abuzz with rumours, but I hadn't yet been in business on the Moon long enough to have been invited into the inner circles of power, not that that was ever likely to happen, to be honest, because the Moon's social upper crust consists almost entirely of an old boys' network - who all know each other from college and hardly a lady amongst them - where one hand washes the other, and I am not an old boy … Besides that, the shipping company I had bought had been as good as bankrupt when I acquired it, which is why I had been able to buy it to begin with, as even during its good times it hadn't been a runaway commercial success. So, I wasn't in the know at this point in time, but no matter, because I had my own plans to content with, after all …

So, the pale-skinned inhabitants of this pelagic yet bone-dry world, whose oddly ashen-grey skintone is a relatively harmless side-effect of the body altering drug they need to take three times a day to maintain their continued health and wellbeing in an environment where humans were never meant to be able to survive in the first place, not even for a second, were caught up in a freshly excavated ring of hell that they had expertly managed to dig themselves into, where they were roasting like a bucket of chestnuts on Christmas Eve. At the same time, behind their backs, and behind huge oakwood doors that were thickly engraved with scenes depicting the native gods of trade and industry (which is freakishly expensive up here, I can tell you, as all wood, except bamboo, has to be boosted up all the way from the Earth, which will set you back a few shekels) these ambitious devils of trade and industry were plotting their takeover of this little world, or something like it, no doubt. But at this particular moment in history, however, as far as I know there wasn't a single living soul in the city yet - well, perhaps one, but no more - who was able to come up with a way out for the citizens of the Moon, a way to rescue themselves from this infernal place and ascend from all this chaos into a better and brighter tomorrow; but that was about to change …

But who can say what exactly lies at the root of all these troubles and bitterness on the Moon? As an outsider looking inwards, I would have to guess that the rampant inflation of the Earth’s, and therefore also the Moon’s, national currency could be to blame - which, by the way, was called, rather uninspiredly, the Geo - which meant that, if you had been dealt a bad hand by life and had the bad luck of living on the Moon, your life's savings might’ve become suddenly virtually worthless, while it was simply sitting at the bank overnight. Or it could also have been the vicious public backlash of a disastrous military adventure recently undertaken by the government of the Moon’s big, blue-green-and-white “ally” in the sky, against the pig-headed inhabitants of some rocky, little red planet far away that should not have been able to defend itself against the full military might of the Earth, but had, anyway. Which had eventually resulted in the bloody reconquest of a tiny little mudball on the very edge of civilization, the subsequent loss of a large part of the Earth’s warfleet as they got socked by the Martians on their way back home, widespread peace protests in cities all over the planet, as well as chaos on the streets ... Or perhaps it was just the inevitable consequence of those unpredictable loops of inflation, price increases, money shortages, banks-gone-bust and government bailouts that humanity’s economy seems forever be destined to follow, like a hamster running around its little wheel until it keels over in exhaustion, going nowhere fast …

Or it could, of course, also have been the inevitable result of those taxes the colonists were being forced to cough up for the pleasure of being ruled by the government of a planet that was far, far away from here - no fewer than three-hundred eighty-five thousand kilometers away, on a good day, still - and whose interplanetary interests meant little to nothing to the members of this dusty and insular race, as long as they did not have a vote in the further plans of the government of the nation that ruled them all from afar, in return. Or perhaps I'm just being too narrowminded, and it probably was just a combination of all of the above, or even more than that, right?

Still, it wasn't all that bad, you know, as thanks to all these recent financial and economic setbacks that had practically crippled the people of the Earth and Moon, I had recently managed to squeeze my way into the shipping business, for a bargain, after all …

Whatever the underlying reasons for all this nastiness and violence that currently raged like a forest fire on the surface of the Moon might be, it is clear, however, that this whole ugly, unfair situation - including the continuing inability of the colonists to take charge of their own world because their colonial overlords simply would not let them, including the growing awareness among the inhabitants of the various separate ethnic colonies on the Moon that no-one particularly cared about them or was going to take care of them if they themselves would not do so, as well as the continuing strife between the “native” inhabitants of the Moon on the one hand - smarmy grey-skinned bastards the lot of 'em - and the multitude of political refugees and traders and economic migrants from Mars and the Asteroids – which includes both the one I'm from myself, as well as the Earth’s new client state of Ceres - on the other, who arrive here whenever and however they can manage it, which makes them the gastarbeiders from outer space, I guess - all of it had simply become too bloody much for the  Moonlings to be able to handle any longer; and although it is hard to pinpoint what it was, exactly, that set off this mighty ruckus that was going on, it is, however, clear that - one extraordinary morning in the brief history of this little, dusty world - all of these normally hardworking and quiet grey people woke up in their cramped little tenement apartments, tucked away underneath the great plastic domes of their cities, and decided to hell with it, that it was just too much to deal with - whatever “it” exactly might be.

The precise moment this outbreak of public anger, discontent, anti-foreigner, anti-Earth, anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism, anti-everything feeling first exploded outwards through the caves and tunnels and domed cities of the Moon - the moment that the match was struck that lit the fuse that set off the bomb that would blow the Moon off its sockets - happened in the very early hours of a sharply illuminated lunar morning that followed a pitch-black lunar night, during which something otherwise rather unremarkable occurred, in the greater scheme of things.

And even though this one little occurence would be destined to set off a lot more than just a couple of riots, or even a protracted civil war on the surface of a little worldlet that is located in a snug and comfy orbit around planet Earth, and which was both politically, culturally as well as geographically speaking sandwiched in between the Solar System’s two mightiest empires, who for all the world looked like they were about to go to war with each other, once again, it was not an event that was noticed by a great many people. In fact, only a handful of humans knew about it. But they were the right ones …

Chapter 2: To Mars and beyond

Two years later ...

Somewhere halfway between the planets of Earth and Mars, a little spaceship - which looks a bit like a spinning oil drum with its rear-end on fire – slowly finds its way towards the edge of the inner Solar System.

The person who is in command of this machine, who is the captain and master of this little ship - in short, who’s the boss around here - well, that would be me ... Despite what I do for a living, and despite where I’m from and what I look like, it is sometimes said that I am not a very interesting person to be around, and a bit of an odd duck too ... or so people keep telling me. Actually, it's mostly my girlfriend who keeps telling me this, and she’s the only one, but thank god that she's quite literally a million miles away right now, the little nag, in our cramped little apartment on the Moon, lying in our bed, no doubt, watching my TV and eating my food.

Beyond that, I am also very tall. Over two meters, in fact, as well as thin and lanky; which is not a perfect combination if your home is a spaceship, and your bed is a little hole in the wall. Because it means you bang your head, knees and elbows quite a lot. Still, that's the price you pay for being born in a place where gravity is something that happens only to other people.

On top of that, I am also the proud owner of a thick, unruly tangle of black hair that is piled on top of my head like a big, black cinderblock. And believe it or not, but it takes me quite a lot of work every day to keep it like that … My girlfriend once told me that whenever she looks at me, me with my black hair and my nose like a sword and my faintly Indian lines, I give her the impression that I really belong in ancient Babylon, building pyramids or watering the Hanging Gardens or being the Pharaoh's favorite pet or something, like a modern reincarnation of Cleopatra or Mary Magdalene, rather than in command of a modern-day, state-of-the-art warship. Anyway, underneath all that hair, you'll find a pair of mother-of-pearl eyes, not quite blue and not quite green, and in the middle of it all, there hangs a thick, sharp, almost Greek nose - which is a family feature - which supports a pair of flimsy, round-framed Ghandi spectacles, of the kind you usually only find perched on the noses of die-hard Third World intellectuals or members of the Russian mafia.

Neither of which I am, of course.

But what I am, however, at this moment early in the artificial morning, is sitting on the edge of my little shelve-like excuse for a bed, already wide awake, listening to the sound of a familiar voice emanating from the little tinny speaker next to my pillow, which belonged to that particular member of this ship’s crew who is officially known in the annals of the ship as the Communications’ Technician, but who was privately referred to as Commie - both as a casual shorthand for his function aboard the ship, as well as his decidedly foreign sounding name, which is Constanzo Ming (how he ended up like that, I can only hazard to guess - Italian mother, Chinese father?) and last but not least, as a convenient way for the rest of the crew to playfully make his life a living hell by habitually calling him a communist, and therefore also a Martian spy; and whose sacred duty it is to keep a constant eye on the ship’s lines of communication: Those invisible strings of radio-waves that keep the sailors on this ship connected to both their homes and their homebase on the distant Moon, which is the place where most of our families and friends (except for mine, of course) can be found, as well as the place from where this ship got its orders exactly where to go, when to go there and what to do when it finally got there; and who worked very closely with the Radar Technician, whose duty it is to constantly monitor the various instruments and other devices that are designed to inform the pilot of this ship if and when something new appears in the direction that we are currently heading in; which includes the ship's main radar system - housed in its own big dome stuck to the front of the ship like the bright red nose of a clown with a severe alcohol problem - as well as the vast batteries of scanners, sensors, probes, and all the other listening and measuring devices that line the outside skin of the ship like a case of chronic athlete’s foot, or had been secreted away around the various metal folds on the inside of the ship - and who reached out through the ship's intercom to his captain - which would be me - from his duty station up in the nerve centre of the ship, with a brief but important bit of info.

It is interesting to know that the Radar Technician - this man who was in control of the ship’s electronic eyes and ears, and would’ve been high up in the crow’s nest had this been a 18th century pirate ship, which it isn’t - was privately referred to by the rest of the crew as the Rock; not so much as some kind of poetic description of what he got up to aboard the ship, of course, as that would have made him the R.T., or the Arr-Tee, or Artee, or Arty, or something like it, but rather as a direct reference to his rather amazingly chiseled physique. Which was something glorious to behold, I tell you …

Beyond working out like a maniac in the ship's tiny gymnasium whenever he could find the time, the Rock's daily activities largely revolved around him keeping the ship's central computer up and running - yes indeed, the most physically imposing and outright buff person on this ship was also its chief computer wizard! Unfortunately for him, though, this very complicated electronic system - which is so amazingly advanced that it does make me sometimes wonder if it has become truly intelligent, or is just an example of some very good programming - had of late, however, developed the rather unfortunate habit of completely and unexpectedly shutting down whenever the hell it seemed to damn well feel like it, the stupid machine ... Which is, however, not a small problem in a fully automated environment such as a military-grade spaceship, but which is what happens when the interplanetary peacekeeping organisation that employs you opts to fit its warships with a computer operating system made and sold by a company who are solely in it for the money, and nothing else.

Anyhow, this rather brief bit of info that Commie wanted to relay to me was just to inform me of the fact that - according to some of the very large telescopes which form an integral part of the host of listening stations that, for decades now, had been placed in the skies over the Earth as part of that planet’s extensive collection of man-made moons (which may be insignificant in size, compared to their massive, natural sibling, but not in usefulness) and whose job it is to observe, track and log any and all comets, meteors, shipping traffic, satellites and anything else that moved through, in, or near the Earth’s local space, and subsequently pass on the particulars of whatever they thought needed looking into to any ship of the Federation’s border patrol that happens to be near it - which would be us: the Federal Border Guard, that locally grown organisation that had been created almost a hundred years ago to both patrol and defend the airless fringes of Earth's lingering colonial empire; all those little nooks and crannies where the regular Space Navy just couldn't reach, but with specific emphasis on the Moon and the Asteroids - that an unidentified flying object had just appeared far ahead and slightly to the left of us.

Which was quickly confirmed by the following update, which came from the Rock himself, who told me that a new blip had indeed appeared on his little green screens. Those little green screens being the ones that were wired into all the various instruments aboard this ship that are continuously prodding and poking and sniffing about the surrounding space through electronic means.

Even though I know that such a sighting - of an unidentified flying object drifting silently through the void - is a perfectly ordinary thing out here in this distant region of the Solar System; as even in the otherwise empty stretches between one world and the next, like the relatively narrow gulf of empty space that separates planet Earth from its single, big, luminescent gray Moon, or the vastly wider gulf of nothingness that separates this one large, semi-cultured miniature world orbiting the Earth from all the other planets and moons and planetoids that are to be found spread throughout the Solar System, such as Mars, Ceres, Mercury, Titan, Pallas and of course my own lovely Vesta, there are still plenty of big rocks, giant balls of floating loose junk and rubble and dirty cosmic ice-lollies that litter the space-lanes: those celestial trade-routes and gravitational highways that connect the now once again forest-infested homeworld of the human race - Earth - with its various colonies in the rest of the Solar System; since the basic guiding philosophy of the United Earth's government was, and had been ever since the founding of the World State, a kind of rabid, militant nationalism, which, however, also managed to be both capitalist and green simultaneously, somehow … This amazing accomplishment, to combine a voracious profit-based export economy with a devotion to fanatical ecological restoration, this they had accomplished by simply outsourcing their pollution to the Moon and Mars, which is how the Earthers had chosen to apply a firm stance on ecology and sustainability and how everything possible needed to be done to save the planet from another world-wrecking ecological disaster, such as the one that had led to the hasty formation of the Federation in the first place, in order to deal with a seemingly unending chain of unprecedented and frankly spectacular natural, financial, social and military disasters that had touched the lives of everybody - including Mars’ war of independence against the U.N.’s Martian Authority, which had been the straw that broke the camel’s back. All of these disasters, one after the other after the other, had made it abundantly clear, at that time, for the bulk of the regular, normal people of the Earth, that greater cooperation between the various countries, alliances, political blocks and economic associations of the Earth had not just become necessary, but vital for the continued survival of the human race on Earth.

Years before the unprecedented creation of the world’s first truly global government, which had come hot on the heels of the U.N.’s dismal and pathetic failure on Mars, there had already been a general feeling that things were going quite badly for Mother Nature, and would only be getting worse from this point on, unless some drastic action were taken. This sense of urgency was buoyed by a global grassroots movement, which was truly revolutionary and often enough also quite violent, and it was this feeling of “something must be done” that had led to the surprisingly rapid creation of humanity’s colonies on the Moon and Mars and Mercury, as well as a sizeable portion of the population and industry of the Earth being subsequently “encouraged” to move away from their original homelands, where their ancestors had roamed and fought and bred for thousands and thousands of years. Without a doubt this was not what the protesters had wanted to happen, but at the end of the day, it was easier for the various national governments of the Earth to colonize another world than to look at themselves through a critical lense, to do some soul searching and make the necessary changes at home … Nevertheless, this was the largest human migration ever, at least since the population transfers in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when Europe had reordered itself like a deck of cards after a particularly violent game of crazy eights, and was mainly achieved by the simple method of offering these underprivileged people the promise of free passage and free housing on a brand-spanking new planet, so as to “replant” them in these new and isolated little colonies, where the combined pressure of pollution and population could do little harm to a landscape that was already stone-dead anyway.

It was either that, or just give up on capitalism and the luxery of living in an industrialised consumer society, and just become fully communist, in a decidedly medieval way …

As far as the people who had stayed behind on planet Earth were concerned, though, they were utterly convinced that what they had done was a wonderful and almost entirely altruistic thing. Don’t forget, from their point of view, they had simply given all the poor and underprivileged and suffering and starving people of their world a chance for a new and better life on a brand new planet. Who, on the whole, went, as staying behind to live in grinding poverty, having to struggle to survive for another day is no real alternative to being the proud owner of your own little home, even if it is just a rinkydink little apartment on the 34th floor of a squalid, soulless tenement building in a crowded little city under the cover of a giant, plastic dome, somewhere in the middle of an airless, blood-red desert on the pockmarked surface of a completely alien world, rather then living sandwiched in between the open, blue skies of the Earth on the one side and the grass and dirt of the fields of your ancestral home on the other, like whatever God you believe in had originally meant it to be.

To be sure, the single biggest mistake the Earthers had made in all of this, was to entrust this entire, massive operation, including the building of the domed cities with their countless homes, and the basic structure and life support mechanisms of the colonies themselves, but also the efficient moving of tens of millions of human souls to another world that is on average still some two hundred and forty million kilometers away, providing enough food to eat to the newly arrived starving masses on a completely barren world that possesses no fertile soil at all, maintaining security in a society that consists entirely of uprooted people of all different nationalities, ethnicities, faiths, philosophies and creeds mixed in with each other, as well as everything else that was required to bring this entire operation to a good end, into the care of the Earth’s various multinational corporations - who were by now quickly becoming known as the multiplanetaries. Which was a boneheaded move that fitted in well with the rather myopic neocolonialist-ecocapitalist Earth-first philosophy that formed the fundamental basis of Earth's modern way of life. And, indeed, it did turn out to all be a big mistake, as these corporations quickly became thoroughly hated by the average Martian as the source of bad, artificial food (that looked like plastic and tasted like rubber), as well as crappy housing (that looked like they’d been built by Ikea on the Friday shift), mind-nuking employment, uninspired entertainment (that was completely unfunny even by modern Martian standards), news networks that were unapologetically pro-Earth, lacklustre security to the masses, as well as an incredible amount of corruption. While all this misery and stress was coming to a seething roil in the overflowing cities of the Red Planet, the Earth’s government showed itself to be far more concerned with trying to handle the aftermath of the U.N.'s utter failure to adequately deal with the greatest natural and social disaster their world had ever seen, and its immediate political and social fallout, which, to add to the merriment and to make things even more fun, had quickly devolved into the most devastating financial catastrophe the world had ever experienced; something that made the Great Depression, let alone the Great Recession and Credit Crunch of the early two-thousands, look like little more than a mild cashflow malfunction. This was what the Earthers thought was important, beyond their national obsession about protecting the Earth’s natural environment, of course, and Mars with its social problems was barely a blip on their screens …

But that would change, as all of this together lay the foundation for a largely authoritarian, but, oddly enough, also almost totally democratic political system on Mars. In short, it is a world where the Chairman, the Planetary Council and the Martian Cooperative Party are always right - in that order - and where profit-generating corporations were more than welcome to come and do business on the planet, as long as they are willing to give something back to society for a change, or else piss off back to wherever they’d come from. So yes, private companies who generate massive profits from trade and industry were most welcome on Red Mars, because the Martians figured that the fruits of your labour are meant to be shared with the rest of the world, after all, but also because they realised that the revolution wasn’t going to spread itself ...

And indeed, from the very kickoff of the Martian Revolution, scores of idealistic, hopeful people from all over the Solar System – but especially from planet Earth - came in droves to this new cooperative, communal haven of Mars, looking for a better and fairer society where all human beings are considered equal, after the political sensibilities of the Earth had started shifting further and further to the extreme ends of the political spectrum.

But back to the present day; because these obstacles in space are never a problem you cannot handle with a bit of inspired steering, and my pilot is someone who knows what he’s doing. Even so, the reason why I was already wide awake when I got the heads-up from Commie about the new contact far ahead of us, was simply because I had been lying half awake in my cramped little bed all night, expecting it. Waiting for the inevitable arrival of something, waiting for a little nugget of information to slide into my brain like a coin in a coin slot - as I had had the strangest feeling in the middle of the night, from about three o’clock in the make-believe morning, all through the long artificial night (since the keeping of time in the best traditions of the Earth is utterly irrelevant in an environment that knows neither natural nights nor days, which, therefore, have to be imposed on the medium for the sake of preserving the sanity of anyone who is forced by circumstances to travel aboard a spaceship, or, for that matter, live on a place like the Moon, or something like it, like Vesta or Pallas or Hygeia, or even the red planet’s stunted twin-moons of Phobos and Deimos) when I knew I really should have been sleeping, instead I was lying half awake in my little dark slit in the wall, waiting for something to reach me at last.

Upon receiving this precious bit of information, I somehow knew in my gut that this time it (whatever it was) was destined to become a very, very big deal indeed, for all involved, before this day was out. I just got that feeling, in the depth of the night, and it didn't want to escape me.

As a rule, I sleep with my curtains wide open, but my windows bolted firmly shut. This is not such a weird thing, considering there is no breeze to speak of on the other side of my window for me to let in. Instead there is an unsurpassed view of the universe as it dances wildly about the ship, just outside of my window. It's funny, but I know a fair amount of people who have to travel through space on a more-or-less regular basis, but who are still completely unable to stomach this wild scene of planets and stars racing around like a merry-go-round, giddily chasing each other through the night’s sky. Still, a normal human body is unable to maintain its continued health and wellbeing living in a continuous absence of gravity, even for a short while, at least not without taking those addictive little purple pills that have grown quite commonplace on those colony worlds of humanity that can be found lying at the edge of inhabited space, and have been allotted a smaller dose of gravity by Mother Nature than the big blue rock has that the human species originally evolved on, of which that dusty, frozen sandbox that orbits planet Earth is a perfect example; which is why the sky seems to endlessly roll around you when you look out of a window set into the side of the rolling, revolving, revolting hull of a spaceship that's either shaped either like a thin, long cigar with fins on one end and a big knob on the other (which makes ‘em look like Gaia’s private “toy”, if you ask me), or like a couple of tins of baked beans in tomato sauce that have been welded together on the fly, which are roughly the two basic shapes that any modern long-range spacecraft can come in. In the end, though, it is a choice you have to make: Either you opt for healthy living in fake gravity, or you choose a steady and undisturbed view of the galaxy in all its starry, whirly, twinkly splendour. But you can't have it both …

Out of experience, I can tell you that most living, breathing human beings, who enjoy being healthy and whole of body and soul, choose to settle for option number one, and just do their best to try and avoid the very few windows one can find on your average interplanetary spaceship. But then, of course, there are also those intrepid (and somewhat foolish) souls who are actually capable of stomaching the view, who can take the visual onslaugh with a smile - like the veteran space traveller, like me, if I say so myself … To be honest, I do rather enjoy this crazy view, and a little part of me is secretly convinced that it somehow gives me a closer connection to everything else that's going on in outer space - in realtime, if you will - all the things floating through it and all the people travelling through it, continuously.

Early this morning, half awake but still half dreaming, I had felt something new and unknown come floating into the width and breadth of outer space as it was encompassed by the widely cast net of my subconscious mind; it had felt, or had looked like something that I could not quite make out what it was, but that, I concluded in the fuzzy logic of my half-dream, might just be a side-effect of my current state of not being completely awake yet … Still, I felt certain that there was something new out there, in the vast expanse of blackness outside my window, and that it came drifting closer to me and my ship with every passing minute and with every beat of my heart …

In fact, my mother had the gift of dreaming things that are true, or, at least, that are going to be true at some point in the not too distant future. At least, that’s what she told me when I was a child. Truthfully, I do not know if I really believe such things are actually possible, but then, I don't really know that they are completely impossible either, do I? All I know is that my mother told me she had the gift, and she certainly seemed to know everything I did all the time when I was young, while I was doing it … And it sounds crazy, but sometimes I get the feeling I might have it too. That is what my mother told me, at least, when I was little; and with all the logical, rational thinking in the world, I cannot shake the occasional feeling I get that my mind is a few sizes too big for my skull.

“Perhaps it’s just a cultural thing,” I mused out loud in the privacy of my darkened cabin, “or perhaps not …”

This heady mixture of realisation, conviction, belief, childhood memory and doubt that, for reasons I myself did not yet fully understand, I found both intriguing and deeply disquieting at the same time, was the trigger that my semi-sleeping brain had been waiting for to get going and start to wake up from its slumber. Slowly, my thoughts shifted themselves back into their familiar patterns, like a pair of glaciers slowly crashing into each other over the span of several thousands of years, and started bubbling up to the surface of my suppressed consciousness like a big pot of my mama's stew on the stove, until I finally emerged like Nessie on the placid shores of my consciousness, in a kind of crash-induced lucidity, as if my living cerebellum were composed of random bits and bobs taken from the insides of a supercomputer, that could be rebooted at will, rather than greyish wobbly bits that need to slowly rise through the thick fog of sleep if they want to have any chance of getting through the next day as a cooperative and productive whole.

So, when the voice of the ship’s resident computer wizard rang out from the little speaker of my cabin's intercom, like a Chinese gong going off on the insides of my head (as the clearly sadistic designers of this ship had strategically placed the little communication panel next to the head-end of my little bookshelve of a bed) to inform me of the newly registered contact he was currently observing on his little green screens, I was already sitting hunched over on the edge of the tiny slit in the wall of my cabin, which looks more like a tiny black hole that's trying to eat part of the wall, but is actually my bunk-bed; bent over double, not because I'm a lifelong smoker and was having my early morning bronchial blowout, mind you - beyond the fact that I find smoking a foul habit, doing so is also strictly prohibited aboard all spaceships, as smoke screws up the air-filters that recycle the ship's atmosphere, which allow the crew to breath during our extended tour of the Solar System, which is nice - but merely as a practical consequence of my above average personal height – which is above average on Earth, that is - combined with the low, low ceiling of my coffin-like bed, which I believe was designed with a midget in mind, and was busy trying to squeeze myself into my dark blue spacer’s uniform with the lovely bright red bloodstripe on the side of my pants, that labelled me as working for the Federal Border Guard - that particular government agency that had been created not so long ago to protect the integrity of Earth’s borders and its colonies’ - which includes the Moon of course, but also the vast stretch of empty space between here and Mars and its smattering of desolate colonies and outposts - and let us not forget the Federation’s semi-independent protectorate of Ceres as well, that lies far beyond Mars in the middle of the Asteroid Belt, and is protected by the awesome might and self-serving loyalty of those armed forces that belong to the Mother World of every human being: Earth - in return for certain goods and services, of course … With some trouble, as yes, I might be physically up and about at this godawful time in the morning – according to the little alarm clock at the side of my bed, the time was four hundred and thirty two in the morning - but that did not mean I was awake and lucid yet; as I have to admit that I'm virtually incapable of any coherent mental activity until I get my first cup of coffee in the morning.

With the only clear giveaways of my rank being the big red badges on my shoulders, the red name tag on my left chest, and a small red insignia on my lapels, as well as the captain’s traditional baseball cap, the front of which spelled out the name of my command in big scarlet letters on a dark blue field: HYPATIA - named after a great female philosopher from ages ago, who had been a famous teacher of Greek philosophy in ancient Alexandria, but had subsequently been ripped to shreds by a bloodthirsty mob for the simple crime of being a woman who knows too much – typical, I say; and, of course, there’s my smooth, coffee-with-a-touch-of-milk coloured skin and mother-of-pearl eyes, that sit right in the middle of a delicately traced Greek face that can be found hiding under a towering pile of unruly black hair; all of which together makes me look like I belong in ancient Egypt or ancient Greece or Persia or one of those places - so my girlfriend tells me - like someone who should be making a living building pyramids or selling amphoras full of olive oil, or something, rather than commanding a warship on a secret mission.

Of course, to be honest, I had not exactly volunteered to join the Earth's monstrous warmachine, y'know; I am a proud native of the Asteroids after all, of Vesta, to be precise, which got its start in life as a colony of Terran dissenters; and all my life I’ve been working hard to turn my home into a fullblown nation of its own, independent from the Earth …

In order to achieve this, I had come to the Moon, almost exactly one year ago today, where a little shipping company was waiting for me, which I had saved from bankruptcy by buying it on the cheap-cheap. This little outfit didn't possess much in the way of assets, mind you: It didn’t have any money left, and its entire operational fleet consisted of a single rusty, beaten up old freighter, named after some old Egyptian god - the Horus, I believe it was called - beyond there was also a shambolic little office building in Port Leibnitz and a reinforced bunker-slash-warehouse hidden somewhere out in the endless Lunar desert, but that was all okay, 'cause even though it wasn’t much, it was all I needed at the moment, anyway …

Years of digging for precious ores and doing business around the Asteroids had left me with a whole bunch of useful business contacts, most of them local, true, but some of them stretching as far as the Moon and even Mars … And it was a good thing I had them, because long before I came staggering out of that spaceport from Hell into a city that looked like an active warzone, a wild idea had gripped my mind that I realised could help us loosen the Earth’s iron grip on the Asteroids, once and for all. To put this plan into motion.    , I had used these contacts to first find the leaders of the anti-Earth resistance movement on the Moon, then to find a willing supplier on Mars, then to find a way to connect the dots …

Next, all I had to do was fly my new toy back the Red Planet, fill 'er up to overflowing with Martian laser rifles, grenades and rocket launchers, fly the whole load back to the Moon, while dodging the few Federal patrols that are out there, and sell it to the Resistance at cost price … This would have massively escalated the ongoing crisis there, as I knew that the rioters were currently using little more than sticks and rocks and their bare fists; of course, the result I aimed for was to effectively divert the attention of both the Earth and Mars away from the Asteroids and firmly onto the Moon, as the Terrans wouldn’t have known what hit ‘em, and the Martians would’ve recognised this as a golden opportunity to get up to some mischie in the Earth’s backyard, which is of course what I was trying to achieve here, and what us ‘Roiders wanted: That nobody paid us any attention that we didn't need, or hadn't asked for.

Of course, that's where it all went wrong … To be honest, I never even made it back to the Moon. Still, it had seemed like such a straightforward plan ...

Lucky for us, if that's how you’d like to put it, the captain of the Border Guard warship that intercepted us proved himself to be an individual who was surprisingly open-minded to the plight of the struggling entrepreneur who tries to make a decent living for himself by facilitating interplanetary commerce under exceptional and often difficult circumstances, which includes government interference in the principles of free trade and the brotherhood of all of humankind everywhere (or in other words: a smuggler), or perhaps he was just working a promising angle to secure his bonus at the end of the year, which he surely would get for recruiting a whole 'nother spaceship into the Guards … Lucky for us that they are an organisation that is forever struggling with a chronic manpower problem. Or perhaps it was more basic than that, and he was just being motivated by the hope that he might get lucky tonight if he were a bit nice to me; what can I say? It wouldn’t be the first time that a man did something  stupid out of sheer, blind optimism …

No matter, for whatever reason, he made me his offer that I couldn’t refuse, and his offer was straightforward: Either we sign up with the Federal Border Guards right this minute - don’t think about it - go through some of their basic training, and help them patrol the Federation’s slice of outer space, or we all spend the next twenty years in a maximum security labour camp buried deep underneath the surface of the living hell that is Mercury … Either that, or prove to the rest of society that I've seen the error of my ways, and that I'm willing to reaffirm my loyalty to the Earth's noble cause in a more concrete manner ... Well, if you were in my shoes, what would you pick?

It's a temporary setback, that's how I see it; but I haven't exactly given up on my hopes and dreams and aspirations of freedom yet ...

But looking at my crew, I know I made the right choice, no question about it; my crew, who - on my climb up through the ship - consequently saluted me in that somewhat anarchic, anti-authoritarian and lacklustre way so common to all true technicians, engineers and assorted technical people – a nod here, a pair of fingers raised halfway to the temple there, or nothing at all, (due to the crewman in question just coming of a 36 hour shift trying to keep the engines from exploding in a giant radioactive fireball, and therefore being currently completely and utterly disconnected from the outside world, as a result of chronic fatigue) that will always set them apart from Earth’s professional soldiers, with their spit-polished uniforms, military mannerisms and complete lack of empathy for other living creatures that had been hammered into them by some psychotic drill sergeant with a god complex during their basic training.

God I hate those fascist assholes. All the time busy invading other people's planets ... As a faithful daughter of the ‘Roids, you know, I distrust any man who would place himself above me just because he’s holding a gun. Luckily, they didn't force me to do more than a month worth of basic training in their little academy in some godforsaken crater on the Moon somewhere, seeing that I already owned my own spaceship and the papers to prove that I know how to use it, which shortened the road I had to travel significantly, and saved me quite a bit of time - or else I might’ve snapped and brutally murdered someone out of sheer frustration. Or perhaps I had actually lost my mind during the little time I spent at the Space Academy, and I’ve mentally blocked it out, and that's the reason why they gave me my own ship back, because now they’ve got something to hold over my head … Would you put it beyond them?

Anyway, not many of those psychopatic assholes around here, thank goodness, since the Hypatia was never intended for proper military use, but had originally been built as a humble space-freighter, and nothing more, and only later in its life had been converted into the sort of small warship that was officially designated as a “blockade runner” in the books; because that is exactly what it does, usually …

Running blockades, which means dodging bigger, meaner, heavier warship that are trying to enforce it to bring supplies to those who need it - like a legitimate form of smuggling. And in our case trying to break through that particular big blockade that the Martians have been trying to enforce around Earth's fledgling protectorate of Ceres, in an effort to try and starve them out, I guess, in lieu of any better ideas.

Beyond this dangerous calling, however, this little ship also spent quite a lot of time just “listening" …

It listened closely to those worlds in the Solar System that are self-declared enemies of the Federation and its quasi-independent Lunar state - which was mostly just Mars and its various Red spawn in the Asteroid Belt.

It also listened to those worlds in the Solar System that normally claimed to be more-or-less friendly to that big blue-and-white marble in the Lunar sky, even though all of these little worlds were directly dependent on the Mother Planet, like Mercuy - just to make sure that the friends of the Earth stayed friendly.

It scouted out the big rocks and rings of waste and piles of rubble and century-old, malfunctioning spaceprobes and floating rubbish-tips and antique, obsolete satellites with their smugglers and scavengers and miners and occasional pirates and general lawlessness that lie in thick rings far above the cloud tops of that white-and-blue world.

But it was especially put to work observing the empty stretch of space that separates the rich, now once-again verdant planet Earth – largely thanks to the united Earth’s basic philosophy, which, in a nutshell, is a form of green capitalism, which means a firm stance on the importance of ecology and natural regeneration and how everything needs to be done to save the planet from another ecological disaster, such as the one that had led to the hasty formation of the Federation of Earth in the first place; which, in turn, had led to the amazingly speedy creation of the Terran colonies on the Moon and Mars and Mercury (which proves that anything is possible if you just put your mind to it) as well as the idea of “encouraging” the great majority of the Earth’s population and industry to move away from their original homelands on the Earth and into these newly founded colonies - from the warzones on the outer fringes of the inner Solar System, as well as the virtually uninhabitable mining, penal and military colonies that make their slow orbits around the Sun just beyond the path of Mars, and all together form the Asteroid Belt; the largest inhabited rock of which is a dreary little watery world named Ceres - a rocky little miniature world that had been molten and flooded and nearly blown up during its recent history, and which is Mars' nearest permanently inhabited neighbour, geographically speaking, only a lot smaller and a lot further away from the sun; “New Australia”, it is sometimes jokingly called, because your ancestors could not possibly have gotten in without having a criminal record first.

Of course, that was something that had not been hard to get in the bad old days of good ol’ Mars, which had used its many Terran POWs - whom they had captured during the revolt and the following endless war of attrition on that little red planet - as well as its many ordinary prisoners, criminals and political troublemakers who had been thrown into jail during the many revolts, riots, armed conflicts and small wars that had surrounded the forging together of the various national and ethnic colonies of the red world into a single political whole, to quickly populate the biggest of those distant, ragged balls of ice at the outer fringes of the inhabited Solar System (after the Martians had reshaped this icy worldlet into one that was actually capable of supporting life) where they were destined to spend the rest of their natural lives toiling as farmers, fishermen and manual labourers; until the Earth had come along and liberated its desperate, overworked and brutalised population during the short but fierce war that had followed hot on the heels of Mars’ own victorious struggle for independence, during which the Earth Space Navy had reached out and handed the Cerese the chance to spit out the bridle, to go at it alone and build their own nation instead; albeit with lots of clandestine “support” from the Earth, of course, who were all too happy to extend their economic as well as military protection to the inhabitants of this unhappy little world.

Naturally, the Earthlings were overjoyed to see Mars lose control of their one major source of fresh food. What they hadn’t considered, of course, was that this sudden shift from being occupied by the Martian Commonwealth to being firmly within the Earth’s sphere of control, opened up a whole new can of worms, as it offered the miserable inhabitants of this Martian ex-prison a new legal escape route to try and make it back to the Mother World, some of whom were getting rather anxious living so close to an openly hostile empire that was busy arming itself to the teeth, and had already managed to enslave their watery dwarf world twice during its short but incredibly rocky history, and chose to take their chances on planet Earth, rather than staying behind on Ceres to help to rebuild the nation, like the conquering Earthlings had actually intended to happen. Well, don’t want to sound like a smartass, but you know what they say about good intentions.

But then, for those of us who read books rather than play video-games all day long, history teaches us that these sorts of wars of liberation never really end up achieving their intended results - at least not the ones that are stated; examples of this are replete throughout human history, from Vietnam and Iraq and Mexico, all the way down to ancient Roman times. It seems that whatever you're aiming for, that's the one thing you're not going to get. And to add insult to injury, your good (or bad) intentions might actually end up having consequences you couldn't have possibly imagined in your worst nightmares …

So, from the depths of this little purple-blue world, a tsunami of refugees emerged, heading as far away as they could possibly make it from this impoverished and isolated Martian ex-colony. If they could even manage to make it off the surface - which was already quite a challenge in itself, and mostly involved either stowing away in the cargo hold of any outbound cargoship they could break into, or paying their life’s savings to some dodgy smugglers in a third hand space shuttle - their first hurdle would be to try and make it as quickly as possible past the gauntlet of Mars itself, which lies roughly halfway between the Asteroids and the Earth, where big, mean, red-hulled warships lurk to pick off any little ship that strays too close. And if they managed to make it past that, then it was a straight shot all the way to the fabulously rich planet of Earth and its heavily industrialized Moon, where they always need cheap labour, rather than stay behind on bucolic and provincial Ceres, where an almost complete absence of flat land forces the people to live in bamboo huts or shacks of wood, stone and corrugated iron plates that cling like fleas on a wet dog to the towering sides of the enormous trees that quite literally grow into the sky there, rising like living skyscrapers from rocky little islands that lie in the middle of the all-surrounding world ocean, thanks to that dwarf planet's extremely low gravity – which is even less than the Moon's - as well as a handful of genetically engineered redwood and kauri seedlings that were smuggled off the Earth years ago and put into the Cerese soil; this idea had been motivated by the insatiable Martian appetite for high quality hardwood, to use in the building of some of their most beautiful buildings - specifically that majestic creation of red and yellow stone in the new Martian capital, that had been designed to have been the Imperial Palace, but became the Planetary Assembly instead - which, like so many green things, also doesn't grow on Mars; or else live like moden troglodytes in caves drilled deep into the steep sides of the rocky little islands that are the only landmasses available to live on, and which are a far cry from the wide and flat and oxygenated northern lowlands of Mars itself, let alone the endless forests and plains and tundras and velds of the Earth.

Still, I can only imagine how those people must have felt utterly cramped and claustrophobic living in their little stone huts and shacks and tree houses, living their lives either in caves or clinging to the side of some giant tree stuck on top of a mountain right in the middle of an endless, heaving world ocean.

This new human tsunami, however, which consisted almost entirely of impoverished, undernourished and overworked people desperately trying to escape a world that was still pretty bare and hopeless - because you cannot turn a prison into a paradise overnight, no matter how much you might want to - that had been left by its former colonial masters with little more than an endless supply of work that still had to be done, as well as chronic hunger, ethnic conflict, drug abuse, disease, poverty and low-grade weaponry, towards the only place they reckoned would be sympathetic to their plight; since they remembered well how the Space Navy had one night descended from the skies to free them from their incarceration, and they were aware that the Earth was the only planet in the Solar System that had openly declared themselves to be a loyal friend and ally of the beleaguered people of Ceres - the Earthlings had even taken Ceres under their mighty wing as an official protectorate, and a sort-of part of the Federation, right? So what’s there to lose? In fact, there was only one aspect of the Earth that made them curse their bad luck from the deepest pits of their communal soul, ‘cause why the hell did the promised land still have to be a full two-hundred and seventy million kilometres away from this place, to begin with?

So, during the last war between Mars and Earth, which had basically been a kind of interplanetary grudgematch, this little floating beachball of sea, sand and chlorophyll had reverted back to the more-or-less benign protection of the Federation of Earth, which had publicly sworn to defend its newly regained independence from the Evil Empire that had been responsible for imprisoning their ancestors on this bleak and liquid rock in the first place. Unfortunately for the Earthlings, that “Evil Empire” - always a favourite phrase with a specific kind of politician - still possessed effective ownership of the vast bulk of desolate, frozen and mostly itinerant mining colonies that lie in dusty rings just beyond the orbit of Mars; except for a handful of little outposts that had been settled by some colonists from Earth, of course, which includes my own home of lovely Vesta, and except for the distant and heavily upgraded fortress-world of Ceres, which had - with Earth’s unceasing support - so far managed to hold out against Mars’ steady encroachment, driven by an unwavering desire to re-annex their lost possession; which is a gripe the Martians had been nursing ever since the Earth had freed the local population - sort of - so they could build their own nation, instead of being a tiny blip in this massive Red Empire - well, that was the official line, at least. This, however, had turned Ceres into a bastion of Terran power out on the outer fringes of the inner Solar System, as well as a nail in the coffin of Mars’ increasing ambition to unite the whole of the Asteroid Belt under its leadership. In the mean time, all of this political to-and-fro had transformed little Ceres into something new, something that resembled a new and much wetter version of Casablanca: a place where refugees and political dissenters from all over Mars, as well as the various Asteroid colonies, were drawn to on their way to a better and hopefully more profitable place; a place that, for all its poverty and problems, has more freedom, less backbreaking labour, and an infinitely better climate than the one they'd just come from, far away from the constant threat of Mars' military ambition, or even Earth's paternalistic meddling. Indeed, Ceres was very much the South Africa of the Solar System ...

So, at the same time that hordes of revolutionary-minded Earthers and Lunars were coming to Mars in search of a fairer and more equal society, you could also hear the Cerese cry “Freedom at any cost!” as they left their homes in droves to find a better life, better work and better protection against the looming threat of Mars’ aggressive military spending, towards the planet that had effectively kidnapped Ceres from the competition.

Rather ironic, I thought.

Back to the now, though ...

There are a lot of unnamed objects floating around in outer space that urgently need some looking into, and especially drifting silently around this cloud-covered little planet. It is a task that the Hypatia is extremely well-suited to do so, stuffed to the brim with various antennae, gadgets and receivers and with its segmented, metallic blue skin covered head to toe under a thick blanket of sensors and satellite dishes, which had all been installed to enable us to listen in on anything or anyone who's out there; as well, to be frank, as a fair assortment of cannons and missiles and other varieties of heavy weaponry, just in case the current object of our scrutiny were to decide he doesn’t really appreciate being looked into too closely, and come to the decision that some positive and immediate action is in order, from his perspective, to rectify the present situation.

In fact, it was, for a ship that had originally been designed to haul freight and do nothing more, but had since then been intensively modified into something that looked more like the illicit lovechild of a mobile observatory and a Caribbean dope smuggler's fastboat, rather well-armed …

Even though it had received a thorough make-over, this ship still retained much of its original looks as an unassuming, ordinary cargo-hauler, at least on the outside, which was a useful feature, as this should make it possible for us to slip through any quick and cursory inspection, as long as nobody was paying too close attention. Still, the Hypatia was hardly the most subtle or covert in its class, and if you payed a bit of attention, even if you don't know exactly what to look for, it's not hard to guess what the intended purpose of this craft might be.

Although you might assume it would be, this absence of any real stealth capability wasn’t much of a problem for us though, since the Earth’s vast armada contains a variety of other spacecraft that have been purposely designed to really look the part, everything from q-ships that look as harmless as a fly but are fitted with a nasty surprise for any warship or privateer who strays too near, to sharklike stealth spyships that are all angles and are virtually invisible, and are far more suited for playing these games of cloak-and-dagger and hide-and-go-seek to the death. Instead, our superficially harmless look was good enough for the straightforward purposes of the Border Guard; good enough for the Hypatia to look innocent from a distance - just another ugly little freighter plowing the spacelanes - but perhaps also just ever-so-slightly threatening when you come up close, just to serve as a gentle reminder to anyone who is watching that the eyes and ears of the Earth Federation are everywhere; that they lurk around at the edges of what is going on, and observe all that's happening. Hell, we even get to take the odd prisoner here-and-there, which is always a nice break from the monotony, when, during our long, dark patrols in the void between the planets, we stumble on some rickety boat filled with refugees making the endless, hopeless escape from besieged Ceres to free and liberated Earth; well, more free than Mars, at least …

Although, to be honest; the many Red revolutionaries who take the same trip but in reverse, who're heading for the aptly named Red Planet, would be likely to disagree with this statement, I'll bet.

This being such a little ship, which is intended to do little more than skulk about the borders of the enemy’s territory, hang around at the edge of a fight in progress and report from a safe distance what's going on inside of it (and even snag the odd stray with a well-aimed missile), or run the gauntlet with a hold full of whatever the Martians don't want the Cerese to get their hands on, meant that the daily trip from the glorified cupboard that is my private cabin up to the ship’s bridge is invariably a very short one. Which is one of the practical advantages of living aboard such a claustrophobically tiny ship; although, thanks to the utilitarian nature of modern space travel, the standard layout of any ship almost by default consists of a small, rotating wheel where the crew lives (as well as any occasional “passengers” that we’ve might have picked up on the way), which is connected through a central axis to a bigger, counterrrotating cylinder where we store our cargo and vital supplies, and is the place where you’ll also find the various machineries that are required to sustain life in an environment where there's neither much oxygen nor heat to go around, like air scrubbers, a water reclamation system, and the waste disposal system. All of these are spinning around a central axis, which is basically the spine of the ship, because that's the only way we know how to create artificial gravity, which is something you need if you want to remain hale and healthy, and want to keep your bones intact and your muscles from shrivelling up like a bag of old raisins. In turn, this central axis is capped by the fiery nuclear inferno of the engine block on one end, and a big sphere containing the bridge and docks on the other. This is the practical reality on board of almost any modern spacecraft, and has caused most of the sections that are designed for the crew to have a rather claustrophobic, industrial and intensely cramped feel to them, like you’re living in a giant anthill, and you’re one of the ants ...

Even so, on the whole, veteran space travelers like myself generally don't really mind the daily reality of living in what boils down to an immensely oversized can of baked beans; if it means I can make it to either the bridge or the toilets with a minimal amount of time and effort lost, then I, for one, am willing to learn to live with a chronic shortage of space to live and work and breath and sleep in.

Which means that as I came clambering down the long ladder that leads from the outer wall of the ship all the way down to the central axis, past the various little corridors that run in endless rings around the circumference of the ship - like an endless Escher illusion, so that you always end up where you’ve started off from - where the cabins of the various members of the crew can be found, as well as the medical bay, the little hydroponic farm and the single “guest room” that had been installed on this ship (which is a climb I have to make because this little ship isn't big enough to have an elevator installed) and then hand over hand up the long zero-gravity tube which runs along the central axis and gives access to all the various other component parts of the ship, and up through the hatch and onto the bridge - which is a crowded little space that was bathed in a sea of soft orange light, and seemed to be filled-up entirely with green and blue and red computer screens and keyboards - it was essentially the upper hemisphere of a vast metal blue orb, with a few thick triangular windows set at regular intervals into the thick metal hull - nothing much had changed yet, except that the unknown object had drifted a little bit closer in the intervening time.

On my velcro slippers, which I had to wear in the zero-gravity environment of the ship's bridge, either that or float around like a jackass, I tried to silently slip behind the back of a crewman whose amazingly chiseled physique had been crammed into the seatbelts of his utility chair, and whose little, bespectacled eyes were professionally fixed to the round, green TV-screen in front of him: The Rock, also known as the Radar Officer, whose job it is to read and then interpret the various signals coming in from both the ship’s main radar and its cornucopia of other sensors, scanners, antennae and telescopes. Without disturbing his epic concentration, I tried to sneak a peek over the man’s broad shoulders at the screen, to see what he was looking at. Even so, his well trained senses proved far too keen for him to be snuck up on and not notice it happening, and of course the crick-crack-crick from my sticky slippers didn’t exactly help to muffle my approach either, as he quickly glanced over his shoulder to see what annoying little insect it was that was buzzing at his ear. Looking back, I should’ve known it was pointless trying to be inconspicuous and silent when every step you take is announced by a great ripping noise that sounds like the movement of the continents fast-forwarded a billion times, which sounds more or less as if you’re removing the world's greatest sticky plaster, over and over again.

I have to admit, though, I was intrigued by this incoming object I could see before me on the little green screen, not just because in my half-sleep I had felt its importance radiate out through the gulf of space and time, or so I had thought in my dream, but also because, even at this far-away range, the ship's sensors showed me that the fundamental shape of the object was not quite regular, like a spacecraft or artificial satellite would be, nor was it completely irregular, like what you could expect a comet or a rogue asteroid to look like; in fact, from this distance, it seemed to look very slightly like some kind of fat, flat, flying pyramid, only with its ground floor, where the base of the pyramid would have connected with the golden sands of the Egyptian desert, curving around like the outside of a sphere; and a sort of broken ring at the back of it, two semi-circles that followed the curves of the body of the object like the flares on a hot pink Chevy. Which was a highly unusual shape for a comet, sure, but not entirely impossible, statistically speaking, I guess ... as the Rock reminded me that comets come in a staggeringly wild variety of shapes and sizes; some of the more fantastic-looking ones even have surface features that resemble human faces, if you look at them through your eyelashes and use your imagination a bit; although the sciences of astronomy as well as geology had so far managed to conclusively prove that these wonderfully shaped rocks had all just been the result of wild, random coincidences in the end, pure flukes; and ancient and speculative alien civilizations had had nothing to do with either their creation or existence, whatsoever. So they said.

It was a bit like people who look at fuzzy aerial pictures of the Great Face of Mars and swear on everything that's holy to them that they're seeing the face of some kind of alien woman staring back at them, with bulbous eyes, hollow cheeks and a thin slit of a mouth; but when you're there on the ground, though, it becomes hard to avoid the sad realisation that it is really nothing more than a couple of sand dunes and big red rocks in the desert, and as exciting as, well, a rock can be, really ...

And I am no geologist. Still, the little shape that had popped up on our screens, like a little emerald dot that seemed far too straight and angular for nature to have ever produced, even when viewed through the long range telescope at this vast distance, occupied my attention like nothing else could; enough for me to issue an immediate order to the ship's pilot to stray from the officially prescribed itinerary, that had been handed to us by the Border Patrol's Headquarters only a month or two ago, and which would have taken us from our new homebase on Luna straight to the biggest inhabited celestial object that can be found floating across the wispy necklace of rocks and dust and ice that hangs suspended halfway between Mars and Jupiter, on a long, dreary, neverending supply run to bring much needed relief those “allies” of the Earth that are stuck out on one of the most lonely and distant outposts of human civilization: the distant, watery rock of Ceres, which lies further away from the Sun than any other inhabited planet in the Solar System; and ordered the ship’s pilot to make a slight course change, so as to intercept the blip tout suite.

Chapter 3: Towards the Intruder

Some three weeks later, somewhere in the vast, empty stretch of existence that separates Earth and Mars, and about ten minutes from

the sun as the crow flies by warp-drive - if it would've have existed outside of science-fiction as well, of course - and two light-minutes (which is the measure of the distance that light travels in exactly one minute, so like a light-year, only much, much shorter) away from the location in space from where we'd first spotted the intruder, these two objects that were both far too straight and neat to have been produced by nature met up with each other. However, before we could make actual physical contact, first the Hypatia would have to do a bit of tricky manoeuvring. To be precise, the ship would have to swing itself around in mid-flight, so it would be flying with its ample butt aimed forward, then ignite the blue-green fires of its great engines in order to slowly start to slow down, slow down even more, slow down to a crawl, slow down to a stop, then stop entirely, then reignite the inferno of its massive engines and keep on burning them in order to regain speed. Throughout this entire process, the interior of the ship shook as if there was a point-9 earthquake going on. But unfortunately for us though, this was the only way this ship has of reversing in its tracks, as spaceships are usually built to go forward only.

Copyright Erik Schrama 2021


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© | Erik Schrama  | eschrama.com | 2021

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