The Cults of Mars
Digging through the ghosts of humanity
Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. In fact I completed one of my Ancient Culture Finals on a Twentieth Century piece that said just that. I’m pretty sure it was this that helped me scrape through my Archeology and Ancient History degree. Not that it made a great deal of difference in the long run. The jobs available on Gentaru for Archaeologists are few and far between, it’s a relatively newly inhabited planet. I’m fourth generation here and my family were by no means early settlers. However, despite the lack of genuine need for my skills, my passion superseded the very sensible advice given by my father.
After a year, post degree, of working in a factory making parts for factory robots following my graduation I decided I probably should make an effort to do something with my life and at the very least get off Gentaru. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the planet, or indeed the job, but the impending sense of inertia began to hover over me.
Gentaru is a fantastic place to have been born and brought up on. It has a moderate climate, so moderate that you might say it’s boring. It’s never too hot, or too cold, it rains just enough and always snows during winter. The landscapes are similarly predictable. We have hills, but no mountains, no great rivers, no deep oceans but perfect rivers running into well proportioned seas. It’s almost as if it was put together by a very dull mathematician following a strict set of rules. The thing that makes this mundane outlook so unusual is the colour. For all that the structures of the planet are safe, the colours of the planet are wild and make absolutely no sense. If I take Earth as an example, generally speaking, before the 24th century it was blue sea, green land, yellow deserts, white poles, colourful plants. A degree of order. Gentaru is anything but. Our low lying vegetation grows in large patches and not only are they different types, they are completely different and contrasting colours. As I look out across my parents’ small holding I can see fields of yellow, blue, orange and purple stretching towards a stream. The water is clear like everywhere but the stream appears pink due to the stoney bed it flows sedately across.
Growing up with so much space to live in, to explore and with so little here that can pose you any sort of risk was a perfect childhood. But I suppose it was always going to be too safe, too dull. I had no great plans to become one of the exploratory types, being part of a settlement crew every five or six years. That was an exciting and dangerous life, well paid and well respected, but just not for me. Don’t get me wrong though, I had plans to see other planets. Like all humans there is a desire to see Earth at least once and I would make my pilgrimage at some point, however I had never sat and thought where I would like to go.
Providence took over, like it so often does in these situations and my choice was narrowed by an unexpected job offer. My University supervisor Professor Colxet had contacted me out of nowhere and invited me to his office. Intrigued by the invitation I didn’t hesitate and took my father’s old shooter on what you might call a ‘road trip’ all the way to my old haunts of Priblaxun University.
I docked and recharged the decrepit old shooter and made my way through the endless pristine gardens that lay between the buildings of the University. Priblaxun is in an area of particularly predictable weather and therefore much of the building design takes this into account. It rarely rains in spring or summer, you get all the rain in autumn and snow in winter. As a result the buildings tend not to have linking corridors but gardens which have retractable tunnels which go up during the autumn and winter periods. The gardens are filled with edible fruit plants which means snacking between lectures was always easy. I particularly liked the Lacripods here in Priblaxun, they didn’t grow at home but in the gardens of the university they were everywhere. I grabbed one as I followed the familiar route down to the History and Culture Department to find the professor’s office. I found the history faculty quite easily and was pleased to see the familiar face of the old cleaner shuffling down the corridor brushing up stray leaves. He nodded in recognition as I strode past him to the professor’s door.
Dr Ambient Coxlet had been a very good influence on me. I was by no means the best on my course but our shared interest in sports meant our supervisor’s meetings were more about the weekend’s matches rather than my dissertation. He was an expert in the archeology of the Earth’s Solar System. He specialised in the study of Venusian and Martian civilisations and he had encouraged me to focus my studies on “Post-Disprovenance Cults”. He was right, it was by far the most interesting area of study available to me and I spent a blissful year submerged in the terrifying worlds of the Machinacs, the Liberdons and the Virulitons. Three of the more interesting and violent groups of the 27th Century.
For those of you who aren’t fully aware of the religious turmoil of the 26th and 27th centuries here is a very simple catch up for you. In 2528 it was finally agreed that there was no god or great creator of any kind. This was called the Disprovenance. It was hoped that this would mark a turnaround in human relations, without organised religion, wars would stop, and for a while, they did.
However, though there was no god, the nature of the soul had been established for some time and therefore in the vacuum of religion so called “Death Cults” emerged. Their archaic behaviour made them very unpopular and so many cult members chose to head to the new Human Settlements on Venus and Mars. The Earth government had given huge amounts of money to individuals who wanted to settle and these cults pooled their money to create their own bio-blocks. The bio-blocks were the early means with which the settlers on Mars and Venus created their homes. Each settler was given an individual and enclosed area of 15 hectares however if you applied collectively your bio-blocks would be joined so as you can imagine these cults could take over massive areas and had large sums to develop their zones. At the time the government turned a blind eye to this seeing it as a way to quickly populate and develop the land but they were brewing massive trouble for later down the line.
Mars became riddled with dozens of powerful cults all vying for control over the limited trade on the planet and gradually these disputes developed into acts of disruption, then outright terrorism then this led to the first of the Cult Wars. They began in 2771 when the largest and most powerful group, the Virulitons, tried to annex the bio block of their neighbours the Corona, this was the trigger that set off over a century of conflict that eventually saw the fall of every one of the cults on Mars. The planet was split, the Northern Hemisphere, which had managed to stay out of the conflicts, largely carried on as they had and continued to develop their societies to the point that they are today. The South gradually became completely uninhabited, but the bio-blocks and the incredible buildings within them remained. Mars has been half a planet for nearly five hundred years, people rarely venturing to the South at all, even archaeologists and historians choose not to visit due to the risks involved in going into possibly damaged bio-blocks, there were also many weapons used that had either left toxins or had been left unexploded. Then there were the stories. The early investigations in the 30th Century had brought back blood curdling tales of curses, ghosts and possessions. Comparisons were drawn with the opening of the Egyptian Pyramids back in the 20th Century, but these incidents seem to have been far more consistent and provable. For example , the great Marsiotolgist Lipzit Angroset was one of the first to revisit and was first to reopen the Procelloan Palace. Within a year each member of his party had died in some form of tragic accident. Angroset himself was last to die and in the draft copy of his unfinished book on the palace there was a chapter about the warnings they received from a ghost child.
Plans to create a tourist industry around the South were quickly redrawn and for the next two centuries the visits were few and far between. As North Mars grew the talk began to suggest knocking it all down and starting again but even a century on there had been no progress.
Returning to Dr Coxlet and the reason I was sitting outside his office. We hadn’t had any contact since my graduation and even then it was a very brief conversation which felt as if he had made the same small talk thirty or forty times that day. When he contacted me I had been very surprised as I had by no means been the best or brightest student in my group and so as I sat looking at the images of ancient civilisations on the wall opposite his office I was still no closer to understanding what his proposition might be.
I spotted him way down the corridor. He was very difficult to misidentify due to his highly unique hairstyle, or indeed lack of style hair. It was so spectacularly untidy that it made less sense that it was untouched than if the follicular chaos was somehow crafted. It was clearly dyed in an attempt to return it to a youthful brunette, but it was poorly administered and had more of an appearance of a horse chestnut than the head of an ageing academic. He was a spritely older man who was utterly at ease with the world and existed in his space as if there were no cares in the world. His round friendly face was covered in creases especially around his saggy jowls which made him look like an old blood hound. He was always impeccably dressed in a 3210s suit despite it being 3267 and despite clearly having no need of one he carried a wooden walking stick that he claimed dated back to the 1900s on Earth.
In his characteristically languid way he made his way down the corridor towards me with a beaming smile on his face. He greeted me with a warm embrace that felt more collegiate than student and teacher and he ushered me into his office.
“Dartsic my dear boy, it is wonderful that you are here. Can I offer you a drink?”
He took a liqui-tok from the cabinet and handed it to me before taking one himself and sitting down in his large antique armchair.
“I’ll get straight to the point Dartsic. I’m an old man and in need of a younger fellow to do a job for me. I’ve secured a very large research grant to study the Viruliton Cult and while I have made significant progress using the documentation and data available there are things I need that can only be proven or indeed disproven by a study of the Viruliton Palace and indeed it’s whole Bio-block. I cannot do the journey to Mars successfully, let alone make my way to the Southern Hemisphere. This Dartsic is what I need you for. I have chosen you for your outstanding attention to detail and also your willingness to think more critically than your peers. In my mind you were top of your class but a bloody dreadful scholar, your essays were terrible. This is why I know you are the man who can by my eyes, ears and hands on Mars. Does this interest you?”
When I told him that it did, I noticed his demeanour change. He relaxed even more and he leant under his desk to retrieve a large box. He dumped it on the desk and lifted an e-graph up and turned it towards me.
He stopped for a moment and lowered his voice.
“I don’t think they lost, I’m certain they continued and moved from Mars and exist as a secret society even today. I have found images and designs on Venus, Brigtis, Lacranni, Forpenut and Daedalus that match early Viruliton scripts. There are design similarities in buildings on those planets. I am certain they exist, thrive and in some way still hold some form of power and influence.”
He returned to his normal voice and continued.
“Of course, this is not the study. The study is into the reasons the Viruliton leadership structure collapsed from a point of extreme superiority to not existing within a period of eighteen months, which conventional history has yet to fully understand.” He then returned to his lowered voice. “But of course if you don’t assume they disappeared then this becomes a different proposition all together.”
He continued to explain that all of my expenses would be covered, he would pay me a fee for the six months of the expedition and I would get credit on his article and any subsequent book. He also hinted that he had other possible expeditions in mind and should this work out we may develop a new working relationship.
The professor had already organised flights, accommodation in the Mars Hub in New Plymouth, transfers to the North Hemisphere border city of Tennletten and onward travel to the South. He explained that there were more people than many realised living in the Southern Hemisphere of Mars, mostly on the border. It was the large old cult areas that remained uninhabited. He had found a guide who would meet me in Tenletten and would take me the rest of the way. The guide was happy to take me as far as the Viruliton Bio-block but no further. It was at this point the Professor paused, sat forward and looked me square in the eyes.
“You do know why he won’t go in there with you, don’t you?”
I smiled back.
“Is it the ghosts or the curse?”
The professor sat back again and laughed. “Ah so you are not that concerned then. Good. Well I don’t believe in it either but I thought I needed to check.”
We talked more about the details before he handed me a bundle of e-graphs, maps and documents in various formats. He rose and showed me to the door with apologies that he had another lecture to give and promises that we would meet later in the week for a more in depth discussion and a meal. I thanked him for the opportunity and made my way into the corridor.
As I left I noticed the old cleaner had barely moved from where I had last seen him. I smiled and waved before heading off the campus and towards the shooter park from where I could head home.
My parents seemed genuinely pleased that I had secured a more academic role than my job in the factory. It was also a massively exciting to them as no member of our family had ever made the massive trek to the birthplace of humanity and they began making plans about how I could use this opportunity to visit Earth itself. Over dinner they offered to pay for any extra flights I needed and seemed more excited than I was. I hadn’t considered going to Earth but it now seemed an opportunity too good to miss. It wasn’t until after we had eaten and my parents had retired that the enormity of what I was about to do hit me. I had travelled quite extensively around Gentaru but I had not left the planet, I hadn’t ventured into my own Solar System never mind crossed a galaxy. I walked out of the rear door to our home and looked across towards the horizon. As I scanned across the familiar scene a small black silhouette caught my eye. I squinted in the diminishing light and spotted it was a person who had clearly noticed that I had seen them as they had turned and rushed towards another shape which was equally recognisable as a shooter. From this distance I couldn’t dream of making out any detail but the experience was slightly unusual and one I brought up with my parents over breakfast the following morning. They were dismissive and presumed that it was likely to be one of the overly aggressive real estate agents who spent their time harassing local to get valuations on their properties.
I worked out my notice at the factory and made my preparations for the journey buying everything I would need for not only a long intergalactic flight but a spell camping in an ancient bio-block on Mars. I met with Dr Coxlet twice, both times we barely spoke about the project apart from just before the bill arrived at the end of the second evening. We were talking about his son who was a Financier in one of Gentaru’s more affluent countries when he stopped and grabbed a napkin. He pulled a pen from his pocket and jotted a quick sketch which he folded and placed in my top pocket. Without allowing me to see.
“Whoever is following you has disappeared for now. The picture I have put in your pocket is what I want you to find. Don’t remove it till you get home. Memorise it and burn it. If anyone else finds it first my theory will be theirs. Take care dear boy and keep in contact.”
With that he settled the bill and left the restaurant. I sat there uneasily looking around to see if I could spot who he meant but all I could see were regular diners, waiting staff and the maitre D’. I left soon after the professor and made my way home in a taxi, furtively looking round for other shooters who looked like they were following. I didn’t see anything and decided that as I was not a secret agent of any kind it was a pointless exercise anyway. By the time I arrived home it was almost all forgotten and I slumped onto my bed ready to sleep. Before I did I remembered the napkin. I took it from my pocket and opened it carefully. It was a simple drawing of what looked like a twenty sided polygon with symbols on each face, underneath he had written ’key’. I committed it to memory and burned the napkin as requested before taking one of my last sleeps in the comfort of my bed for some time. But I did not sleep well, I dreamed hideous, haunting dreams of distorted faces and pained screams. When I rose in the morning, more tired than I had been the night before I had my first moment of doubt about the coming adventure. Had the Curse of the Viruliton sent me an early warning?
I soon put this aside and sorted my belongings together. My parents took me to the shifter station for the first part of my journey. From there I would take the shifter to the Fripsk Space Port and join the launcher which would take me to the off world Intergalactic Station from where I would board the ship to Mars. I loaded my things into the transport crate and handed it over before saying farewell. My parents appeared prouder of me leaving the planet than they had ever with any of my other achievements. I thanked them for the tickets to Earth and headed to the shifter. I settled in my seat and took a deep breath. This would be a long trip.