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The Wisdom-Goddess Star



Copyright © 2018 by Francis Bass

All rights reserved.


Cover font “Viafont” by JLH Fonts.

COVER PHOTOS: Top left, “Pallas imaged by HST in 336nm UV filter,” courtesy of Hubble Space Telescope/STScI. — Top right courtesy of NASA/JPL Horizons. — Bottom left courtesy of DAMIT/Astronomical Institute of Charles University. — Bottom right courtesy of Urhixidur/Wikimedia.


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Table of Contents


The Wisdom-Goddess Star

Afterword




M year 8. Phobos. Gold district. The offices of The Light, the largest satellite-based news agency in the International Martian Program. The meeting room, festooned with hardcopies of articles and photographs. Eighteen writers are crammed around a large black-topped table which was probably meant for a lab, among them Alexander Irving. Each writer fidgets with sweaty fingers, waiting to propose their next story or editorial. Yu Zhi, editor-in-chief, stands before them, briefing them on the week to come, assigning some stories, offering others up to whoever is interested. Finally, she turns the floor to the journalists.

“Any other ideas?”

The man seated next to Zhi at the head of the table makes his proposal first, and slowly the focus slides around the table. The ideas are fluff tacked onto fluff.

A survey of Phobos cuisine.

Interviews with newly arrived immigrants.

Moers wants to start doing theatre criticism, since an improv group just started in the Zinc district.

Throughout, Irving keeps his hands folded on the table. He does not need to consult his notes. He has been preparing this proposal for weeks. He has researched the location, the travel costs, the potential interviewees. He is finally presenting it today, now that the Pallas pass is just ten days away.

“Irving, anything?” Zhi asks.

“I would like to write an exposé on Pallas.”

The writers who have already made their proposals have been murmuring, but they stop now. O’Bryan, an old Terran with enormous glasses, chuckles slowly.

Observer has already done that,” Zhi says. “A very popular piece.”

“I read it,” Irving says. “It was fluff.”

“It was human journalism.”

“I want to do something informative. I want to dig into the reality of Pallas. Not just tour around the lab and shake hands with the governor.”

“We can’t pay to shuttle someone out to Pallas to do a story the Observer already did,” Zhi says. “Raj, do you have anything?”

Irving sits back and glares at the tea and Danishes at the center of the table. The babble of his coworkers washes over him. Analysis, rhetoric, feelings. This is the state of human journalism in the IMP, while hard news is left to AI reporters culling data from thousands of sources into clear and objective articles.

“Excellent,” Zhi says. “That’s all then, you can all go. Take some pastries on your way out. And Irving, can you stay?”

Irving looks up, surprised, nods. Zhi sits down across from him at the massive black table.

Yu Zhi. Born in China, graduated from the University of Hong Kong, applied to the IMP and gained membership at the age of 12 (25 TY.) Moved to Phobos and founded The Light after teaching at the University of Mars for two years. Her eyes are dark. They demand attention.

“What’s wrong?” she asks.

“Wrong?”

“Don’t glare at my pastries and expect me not to notice,” she says. “What’s wrong?”

“I want to do real journalism.”

“You do real journalism.”

“Something objective,” Irving says. “Something without spin.”

“Then you were born in the wrong generation.”

Irving glances at the food, feels the cool gaze of Zhi, and quickly faces her again.

“Irving, you do excellent work here. I know I push you to put more of yourself in your writing, but your restraint—I do value it. But if what you want to do is deliver just the truth, without comment, then you should not be in this profession.”

“But this is—on Pallas, they don’t have long-range communications set up yet. For right now, the only way to learn about what’s happening there is to go there, and no one is doing it. I know that reporting is not a human job anymore, at least not in the IMP. But this is a chance to—Pallas hosts the largest population of lower-class immigrants ever in the IMP, and no one is talking about it. I want to talk about it.”

Zhi smiles. “I wish you would write this passionately in your articles.”

Irving realizes how far he’s leaned forward and settles back. “We’re coming up on a pass with Pallas. It’ll be cheap to travel there. It won’t be this close to Mars for another year—it won’t be close to anything for another Terran year. The time to do this is now.” Irving thinks for a second. “Please.”

Zhi nods. “I want a written proposal. And you need to be working while you’re on the transport, too, so figure out some stories you can do there.”

“Thank you,” Irving says. He stands, grabs a raspberry Danish, and exits.


* * *


2 Pallas. Third most massive asteroid in the solar system, with around 0.3% the mass of the moon, and 2x10^6% the mass of Phobos. Orbital period of about two and a half M years, four and a half Terran years. Named for Pallas Athena, an alternate name of the Greek goddess Athena.

Pallas is the newest acquisition of the International Martian Program (officially acquired in M year 7), with plans to develop it into the hive of laboratories and educational facilities that Phobos was meant to be, before the tourism boom. It is the largest celestial body ever acquired by the IMP, with the exception of Mars itself. Funding for the expansion and acquisition was unanimously approved by the member states of the IMP, with the exception of the US, which has staunchly opposed all expansion into the asteroid belt.

The colonization of Pallas is the first major IMP project to make use of the Per Aspera Ad Astra program, recruiting a thousand new members from working class, low income, secondary education backgrounds.

Due to its highly eccentric orbit, Pallas only nears Mars once every year—half as frequently as most Hungaria colonies—making it the most isolated colony in the IMP.


* * *


Zhi approves the proposal, and in nine days Irving is aboard The Paris, a small shuttle with only one restaurant. The trip is just fifteen days, and Irving interviews some of the crew members, piecing together a story about the life of a steward on a transport vessel. He also fiddles with a short piece on the mythological namesake of Pallas. He gives up on the piece because it is infuriatingly shallow and derivative and short.

When The Paris docks with Pallas, Irving is greeted by Jonathan Hare, director of media for Governor Patil. Hare is short, middle-aged, Terran, British. He wears a gray tweed suit and white shirt, crisp and wrinkleless.

“Hello, Mr. Irving from The Light! It’s a pleasure, sir!” A firm, quick handshake.

“Likewise.”

“I have a meeting coming up, but if you meet me at the plaza in …” he flicks his hand up and reads the time off it, “an hour and fifteen, let’s say, I can give you the tour.”

“Thank you,” Irving says. “That sounds good.”

“Absolutely. Good day!” Hare waves, then stalks away down a corridor. Irving looks around him. He’s in an intersection with three corridors and a ladder leading away from it. A blue sign with a bed icon is bolted to the frame of one archway. Irving follows a series of these signs down several turns, shortly arriving at “the plaza.” A big cube of empty space, with vacant arcades all around. Only the arcades on the ground floor have anything behind them, which can be glimpsed through windows, and which are labeled by black and white signs. One side the administrative offices and quarters for the civil servants. Another side the housing for the researchers. The other two sides composed of restaurants, shops, and guest lodging (the final blue sign is stuck against the door of this section.) The plaza itself contains picnic tables welded to the ground, an artifact of the first phase of colonization, before the artificial g.

Irving checks into his room. Typical Shengli architecture—compact, windows everywhere, pleasant pastel colors. His luggage has not yet arrived, so he checks the time—15:05 UMT—then goes out to look around. He gets coffee at a café which doesn’t have a name and doesn’t appear to have any workers either. The whole place is empty. Irving has only seen six people since he got here, including the concierge and Hare. He thinks he glimpses someone passing by a window in the offices, but it’s too dim to tell. In the piece for The Marineris Observer, the writer (Anton Petrov) noted the “soft, warm lighting.”

It’s dim. It’s the result of a conservative energy policy. Irving squints at everything.

Soon bored, he leaves the plaza, and wanders into the labyrinth of gray halls and long white lights, trying to search out the worker’s quarters. Their stories are the ones he’s most interested in learning. Using a map does not help much. Frequently he comes to doorways with orange signs advising that a construction zone is ahead, and unauthorized personnel may not enter. He tries to open one of these, but it is locked by a key scanner.

As he attempts to navigate to a strange icon on the map (a library? A VR theater?) Irving wanders into a desolate room, unlit, with power tools scattered about it. Something enormous sits at the center of the room, stretching up into darkness, surrounded by scaffolding. Irving takes a small pen camera from his pocket, tucks it behind his ear, and starts recording. He could use optic recording from his implants, but the footage would be too muddy. He needs something that will pick up every little trace of reflected light splashing into this room from the hallway, so he can later enhance the footage and find out what he’s looking at.

Irving checks the time. 15:50. He’s been wandering for forty-five minutes and found nothing but an abandoned construction site. He turns around and exits, his camera still recording.


* * *


The tour that Hare gives Irving must be the same one Petrov went on. First the labs—mostly studying physics and engineering. Second the governor’s offices—Irving meets, shakes hands with Governor Patil. He’s tall for a Terran, just a little shorter than Irving. He has no time to talk, but agrees to an interview tomorrow afternoon. Finally, Hare takes Irving to meet the workers.

The common room is generously large, for construction workers. A few AR tables. Two couches. A TV screen. Two computers. Hazy yellow light. It’s a quarter of the size of the plaza, and a dozen times more populated. Irving has to squeeze by at least one person to move from anywhere to anywhere in the room. The workers, who just finished for the day, greet him and Hare kindly. Most of them drink from white ceramic mugs, either alcohol or tea. They talk loudly to be heard over one another. Hare leaves for a meeting with Representative Biswas, and Irving begins interviewing the workers. Some of them are engaged at the computers or the AR tables, but six sit on the couches, and Irving pulls a chair up to face them, and starts asking about their work. He speaks in Mandarin, which they all speak to varying degrees, and takes notes on his phone.

Mostly from India and China.

All Per Aspera.

Four years to become full citizens.

Aggressively positive.


* * *


Irving’s hotel room. The lights dim even more to create the illusion of night. Irving goes over his footage of the construction site on his laptop, turning up the gamma to make it brighter. He realizes that the room did not have a proper ceiling—above him was the rocky matter of Pallas itself. He ups the contrast, and the thing in the middle takes shape. It’s a familiar, slightly conical shape. A long-range communications relay.

Irving’s pulse goes faster.

Pallas does not have one of these. Irving made this trip because Pallas does not have one of these. If they did, every worker, scientist, and bureaucrat on Pallas could publish information to the web, and reporters could generate Pallas news stories from it all.

But Irving is—and he was—looking at the relay that Pallas supposedly does not have.

Irving’s fingers rattle on the keyboard as he searches for the grant given for the colonization of Pallas. He finds it. Under the heading of “Phase 2 Colonization” is a sum of money marked for the installation of an LRCR. Digging through enough digital muck reveals that the equipment for the relay was shipped to Pallas two hundred days previously—so the device has been sitting, inactive, for over a quarter year.

Irving replays his interview with the workers, searching for some hint from them of suppressed information. Why are these people not allowed to communicate with the rest of the IMP? What is Monner, the subcontracted construction company, or Governor Patil, afraid they will say? But the workers are cheerful, upbeat. The only negative comments are about the food, and they express satisfaction and even pride for their living conditions.

Irving falls asleep with his eyes burning. His interview with Patil is at 15:00 tomorrow, but he’ll have plenty of time to speak to the workers before then.


* * *


08:00. Irving awakes to his alarm, slips out of bed, heads for the worker’s district. He ignores a burst of messages from Jonathan Hare inviting him on more banal lab tours—Irving only has five days on Pallas (four left now) to take advantage of the small window of cheap transportation, and he will not squander them. He knows the way now, and he soon reaches the cafeteria. A large, low-ceilinged room. Comfortable enough for Terrans, a head-scraping nuisance for Irving. The workers he met yesterday and several more are eating. He also notices, at the far end of the room, a line of workers with large backpacks exiting through a door with an orange sign.

Two of the workers he interviewed yesterday, Chanta and Bijay, call to him in English as the last of the backpacked workers leave the room. Irving goes to sit with the two.

“Good morning,” he says.

“You wake up early,” Bijay says.

“I wanted to talk with you. I found something, and it made me wonder. Is there some secret here?”

Bijay and Chanta stare blankly.

“Secret?” Bijay says. “A thing that other people don’t know about?”

“Yes. Something the governor, or Monner, wouldn’t want people to know about?”

“Is this why you came to report on Pallas? To find a secret?” Chanta asks.

“I found something, and it doesn’t make sense, and I want to know why.”

The two eat their eggs. No acknowledgment.

“Who were those people with the backpacks?” Irving asks.

“Shift B,” Chanta says.

Irving leans forward. He frantically checks his camera to make sure its recording—it is—then asks, “Who is Shift B?”

“The other workers,” Bijay says.

“Other? Please, explain, what do they do, where do they work, what are those backpacks for?”

“We don’t know much more about them than you,” Chanta says. “There’s more of them than us. They’re working on expanding the residential areas—or, what will be the residential areas.”

“And the backpacks?”

Bijay laughs. “Why do you care about the backpacks?”

“I haven’t seen you guys with backpacks. Do you know what’s in them?”

“Probably construction equipment,” Chanta says.

But the backpacks looked massive—and why would they bring construction equipment into the cafeteria? “Could they be transporting something out of the cafeteria?”

Neither Bijay nor Chanta respond, though Chanta continues to look at him as she drinks water.

“Could they?” Something illicit? Something from the labs? Something to be kept away from reporters from The Observer or The Light, or from IMP inspectors?

Bijay and Chanta remain silent, glance at one another. “I guess,” Bijay says, shrugging. They seem more confused than secretive, so Irving takes a different tack.

“Why were they in the cafeteria?”

“To eat,” Chanta says. “They have breakfast before us.”

“No, dinner,” Bijay says. “They’re on a different schedule.”

“You don’t know that,” Chanta stabs an egg with her fork.

“Yes I do! I saw their leftovers once, they were having burritos.”

“That could’ve been breakfast.”

“Do either of you know anyone on shift B?” Irving asks.

“No,” Bijay answers for both of them. “They have quarters out in the residential area.”

“The residential area is their quarters,” Chanta says. “Much nicer than ours. Bigger, I mean.”

“That’s a rumor,” Bijay says. “They have quarters just like ours.”

Irving cuts in before another pointless argument starts. “You’ve never interacted with any of them though? Never?”

“Just Representative Biswas,” Chanta replies. “He was one of them, you know, before he was elected.”

“Chanta’s boyfriend,” Bijay wags his fork at her.

“I wish,” Chanta raises her eyebrows. “I’ve only ever said ‘Hi’ to him, when we were doing work on the plaza.”

“Shift B isn’t a very talkative bunch,” Bijay says. “At least not with anyone outside of shift B.”

Something is wrong. Something is heart-grippingly off-balance, and Irving feels it. It’s a fresh facial bruise, loudly unacknowledged. It’s a deposit of organic waste on a planet devoid of life. It’s a long-range communications relay that is fully installed, but offline. It’s an intense tug pulling Irving to probe deeper.

But he won’t get more out of this group of workers. “Thank you,” he says, and stands, smacking his head into a light.

He returns to his room and begins to prep for his interview with Patil.


* * *


Governor Gotam Patil. Age 34 (65 TY.) Began his political career as a representative of India on the IMP funding council, when the committee was still based on Earth. One of the top hundred richest people in India before he was appointed governor of Pallas. Patil oversaw the bidding process for contractors to undertake the colonization of Pallas, ultimately awarding the contract to Monner, who promised speed and efficiency. His decision proved wise, with the laboratories up and running within just a half year of colonization.

Irving sits down to interview him in the interior of a tea shop without a name. Patil is a large man with black and silver hair and attentive, focused eyes. Patil orders a cup of green tea, Irving a cup of Earl Grey and a bagel. Patil aggressively waves down Irving’s attempts to pay for his own food, Irving acquiesces.

Irving begins with the career questions. What were the challenges of the funding committee? Was it inevitable that it be moved to Mars? Why did you want to be governor?

“The Martian Program is something I’ve believed in firmly from the very beginning,” Patil responds, putting out each word with steady precision and control, “even before I was a part of it. It is, in many ways, our next step as a human civilization, but it is a step that is going to take careful judgment, and strong leadership. I wanted to do my part, so I ran for a seat on the committee. And Pallas was another step that I wanted to be a part of, so of course when representatives began to discuss appointing me as governor, I couldn’t decline.”

“Couldn’t decline” is a funny way of saying “my political machine produced a massive amount of literature promoting my appointment and I expedited the pet projects of several representatives to secure their votes.” Irving doesn’t want to put Patil on alert just yet though, so he nods, and moves on to current events. What is your administration working on now? What are the labs working on? When do you foresee Pallas being fully colonized?

“Pallas is an enormous body of matter—it’s the largest the Martian Program has ever acquired, by far. ‘Full colonization’ is not as clear a goal as it was with, say, Phobos, for instance.” Patil taps the table in front of Irving when he say ‘Phobos’ and makes direct eye contact, the way a human connecting with another human would. “When all of Phobos was excavated, and all the life support systems were fully installed, that was full colonization. But doing that on Pallas would take many years longer—perhaps centuries—if that is even what the IMP decides to do with it. Just like Mars will never be fully colonized, neither will Pallas.”

“Well what would a better phrase be?” Irving asks.

“The big goal we’re talking about here is, ‘post-laboratopolis.’ Of course, the scientific research is the driving goal of the Pallas colonization, and the IMP as a whole, but we hope to eventually expand beyond this, to allow room for businesses and workers outside of the scientific sector—like journalists, for instance.” He taps the table in front of Irving again.

“And when do you foresee Pallas achieving post-laboratopolis status?” Irving asks.

“Within six years, I think,” Patil says. “We’ve made great progress already, I’m sure we’ll continue at this rate.” Patil drains the dregs from his little cup, leaning back. It is time to strike.

Irving says, “I notice you have a sort of shift system among your workers, a shift A and a shift B—shift A working on expanding the labs, while shift B is expanding the residential sections. Was this something that Monner came up with?”

From the word “shift,” every inch of Patil’s skin has stiffened, and his face is like a plaster mask as he says, “Yes.”

“I haven’t gotten to meet with any members of shift B, could you tell me about them?”

“Tell you about them?” He asks. “What would you like to know?”

“What’s the benefit of having this separate group?”

“Perhaps you should ask the spokesperson for Monner.”

“I will. I wanted to ask you first.”

“Well, I’m afraid I’m not the best authority on all the minutiae of labor organization, so I wouldn’t want to speak out of turn. Now, I have to be going, it has been a pleasure Mr. Irving—”

“Could I get one more question out of you, sir?”

Patil stands. “I really have no time—”

“A short one.”

“Just for a second.”

“Why have you not activated your long-range communications relay?”

Patil does not react this time, already hardened. “Well, that would take some time to explain, I’m sorry, I do have to be going now.”

“Thank you Mr. Governor.”

“Thank you, Mr. Irving.”


* * *


07:30. Irving’s alarm wakes him. He jumps out of bed, anxious to get out to the cafeteria early enough to talk with shift B. He has three days left before his return trip to Phobos. He walks down the quiet, barely lit corridors, and enters the cafeteria. The room is dangerously crowded. All throughout are workers, most sitting at tables and eating, some kneeling on the floor rolling up sleeping bags and packing them into backpacks. Irving checks his camera. He’s recording it all.

He notices one crowded table at the center as a man in a black suit rises from his seat there. Irving recognizes Representative Biswas—the first and only representative of Pallas in the Assembly. Biswas says something to the group, and they respond in cheerful cries. He smiles and makes for the door, noticing Irving as he does.

“Representative, sir,” Irving stutters.

“You’re that journalist, yes?” Biswas says, flashing white teeth. “The Light?”

“Er, yes, do you think—would you have time in the next few days to sit down for an interview?”

“Yes, absolutely. Drop by my office sometime, if I’m not there my secretary can schedule it. Good day.” Biswas exits. Irving is stricken, wondering if he should chase after him. Instead he goes to the crowded table, still chattering, in good spirits.

“Hello, excuse me, I’m a journalist from The Light, would anyone—”

“No English,” a few say. They all look to be south Asian. Irving feels chilling echoes of Terran colonialism looking at their sunken eyes and blistered hands. “English? Guānhuà?” Irving calls out. He only knows the two languages. For as much time as he’s spent interviewing Indian immigrants working in Phobos, he’s never bothered to learn Hindi because the workers always knew English or Mandarin. But these ones don’t.

“English!” a woman yells. Pale, dark-haired. She’s already devoured her breakfast, and has her backpack on. She wears a bulky gray heavysuit, as do all the workers in the room. Irving approaches the woman’s table, where she and two men who look European are sitting.

“You speak English?” Irving asks.

“Yes. A bit,” she says. She’s Russian. “Who are you?”

“I’m Alexander Irving, I’m a journalist from The Light. Do you mind if I sit down?”

“Journalist? Why? Why are you here?”

Irving eyes the seat across from the woman, uncertain if he should take it. “To report on you—the workers of Pallas. Is this where you sleep?”

“Yes.”

Irving sits down next to the larger of the men. He smells rancid and musky. “Can I get your name?” he asks her.

“My what?”

“What is your name?”

“No.”

Irving notices a line of puffy scar tissue wiggling across the woman’s face. “Where did those scars come from?”

“The drills. They spray this … stuff. It is hot. It burns skin.”

“You don’t have masks to protect you from that?”

“Sometimes it goes through the mask.”

“And Representative Biswas knows about all this?”

The woman glares at him. “Yes,” she says.

“Well why hasn’t he said anything, why hasn’t—”

“He has been in the capital. He only returned ten days ago!”

“He didn’t know? He’s been Representative here for how long?”

“Since the start,” she snaps. “But we were told our situation would be temporary then. And he left soon after we elected him. He has been gone for a year. That is how Pallas is. It is not like Phobos and Mars, you just go back and forth whenever you want. We are out here at the end of the system.”

Irving nods mutely. “I didn’t mean to disrespect him. Do you know what Biswas is going to do, knowing that—”

“He is going to tell Monner to treat us right. Already, he has gotten us more sleeping hours, minimum payments—”

“You weren’t getting paid before?” Irving says.

The woman looks at him, at his clean, button-up shirt and white pants and pen camera.

“You want to come in and do some story about the horror of Pallas—you do not bring Biswas into it. Biswas is one of us. He came here on the Per Aspera program, just like us, and he helps us.”

Irving nods fervently. “I won’t defame him, I promise.”

The woman nods, and makes the smallest smile for a second. “My name is Maya. I will not give you my last name.”

“Thank you.”

“You are from Mars,” Maya says. “You can tell people on Mars, this is—”

“Okay, go-a go-a go-a, time to work!” Someone yells.

The workers rise from their seats en masse.

“Who was that?” Irving looks around for the person yelling.

“Li,” Maya says, standing. “The supervisor. He keeps us with the schedule.”

“And he speaks English?”

“No. Just pidgin. Everyone speaks a little pidgin.”

“Is he from Monner?” Irving stands as well.

“No. He is just another one of us.”

Everyone begins to press toward the door through which Irving saw them leave the other day. Irving sticks close to Maya. “Do you mind if I follow you, and continue to ask you questions?”

“Yes. People will listen to you. You are from Mars, so they will pay attention when you write about us.”


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