the fate of all things
by
david england

Following on from The Sons of Eris, the Baroness and her new spouse set out upon the track of the Prometheans... and face a stark dilemma

Part I

A Secret of the Ages

 

“Penny, my love,” the young man commented off-handedly.  “We really must do something about these drapes.”

            Lady Penelope Hillcrest-Conner, Fifteenth Baroness Botelier, looked up from the book she was reading.  Slanting orange-gold sunlight of an autumnal afternoon filtered through the fabric coverings of the study windows of her London townhouse, casting dappled shade on the far end of the couch where husband of seven months reclined casually in the corner.

            “Elias, my dear,” she said with a bemused look.  “Those drapes sufficed for my grandfather and for my father.  I am quite sure that they will suffice for you as well.”  The curtains in question, a gift to her paternal grandmother from one of the tenant villages of her family’s Martian estate, had weathered the years well.  The vaguarity of fashion notwithstanding, the native yurga fibers from which the fabric had been woven were notorious for their durability, a characteristic which had suited her father’s sense of frugality when he’d inherited the family properties many years later.

            “I am quite aware of the arrangement of power in this marriage,” Elias Conner rejoined playfully, “without your underlining of that fact.  I had only thought that you might allow me to be in charge of something.”  He placed the back of his right hand against his brow and closed his eyes in faux anguish.  “Even if it were only the drapes.”

            Penelope laughed, picking up a throw pillow from the armchair next to her end of the couch and chucking it her husband.  “You, good sir, are being an ass.”

            She found herself smiling, too, at his dramatics and verbiage.  Despite the radical alteration of their relationship and its drastic shift from employer and employee to wife and husband, those years of ingrained habit had proven themselves a challenge for him to break at first.  His “my ladys” had become “my loves” in an effort to ease that transition, though by now she was fairly sure he’d accommodated the change.  Its continuance made her somewhat suspect that he simply enjoyed the flowery language.

            Shockwaves issuing forth from their sudden and unexpected union were still propagating through social and family circles, although the intensity of the initial reaction had subsided to a great degree by this point.  Its public presentation as fait accompli certainly hadn’t softened the blow, but it was the shattering of tradition and decorum which had shocked observers most.  Some of her family, with many of whom Penelope’s relationship had already been strained, were so scandalized by her marriage to a member of her staff, much less the orphaned son of a Venusian laborer slain in a police raid, that they had sworn never to communicate or associate with her again.  One particular letter from her Aunt Margaret had been especially lengthy in its condemnation of her marriage and equally specific in regard to the nature of their future relationship.  Penelope admitted to herself that she was not entirely displeased by this turn of events.

            Elias grinned broadly as he swatted the pillowy projectile aside with a casual sweep of his arm.  “Be careful, my good woman,” he chastised her amiably.  “This ass is your lawfully wedded husband, whom you swore to love and to cherish--”

            “But not obey,” Penelope pointed out.

            “No,” Elias admitted, his brow furrowing in exaggerated thought.  “I do believe that bit got left out somehow.”

            Penelope swallowed another laugh with a most unwomanly snort, shaking her head in mild exasperation as she considered her youthful husband.  Nearly thirteen years her junior, Elias was still months away from his twenty-first birthday, but had been forced to mature early in life.  The issue of his survival as a child on the back streets of the Venusian capital city had allowed nothing less.  As she looked at him now, though, she saw the man that boy had become.  A thick mop of cinnamon-colored locks gave him a rather dashing air and his deep brown eyes, warm and kind, frequently glinted with a devilish wit.

            And he loved her.  This was a fact she knew in her bones.  He loved her.  Not Penelope, Baroness Botelier.  Not Penelope the mistress of a Martian estate.  Not Penelope the owner of Themis Holdings, Ltd.  But Penelope the woman.

            She remembered so very clearly how, less than eight months ago in this very room, she had proposed to him after their return to London, in the wake of their near-disaster in the more remote regions of Martian space and Elias’ desperate confession of love in those minutes which both of them had been so sure were going to be their last.  The moment of her question had assumed a veil of surreality.  She recalled rising from her seat, not quite within her body yet every sense heightened as he stepped over to her.  She recalled the scent of his skin, the electricity of his touch as he had caressed her cheek, as he had brushed her hair behind her ear, and then leaned in to kiss her.

            Penelope had never been one to abide by the strictures of tradition in other aspects of life and their passionate embrace had quickly escalated to the point of retiring to her bedchamber.  Neither of them had been particularly well-versed in the practical aspects of physical love, as their mutually-awkward fumblings soon revealed, but they learned in short order.  Both had found their release far too soon, but the evening had only yet begun and they managed to satisfy their ardor several times before drifting off into a contented sleep, cradled in one another’s arms.  If Mrs. Porter had been shocked to find the two of them entwined beneath the sheets that next morning, she said nothing of it, rolling in a cart laden with coffee, juice, and sliced fruit as though it were the most normal thing in the world.

            Penelope’s longtime housekeeper had halted her cart at the foot of the bed, picking up a small plate of orange slices, strawberries, and grapes, then proceeding to place that plate on the side-table next to her mistress.  Penelope had sat up against her pillows, covering her breasts with the bedcovers, but had kept her expression just as nonchalant as the older woman’s.  Mrs. Porter returned from the cart and held out a steaming cup. “Your coffee, my lady.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Porter,” Penelope had replied casually.  Sipping her drink, she’d watched out of the corner of her vision as Elias’ eyes widened when the housekeeper had repeated the process on his side of the bed and had nearly choked with laughter at the shock on his face when Mrs. Porter had similarly offered him a cup with a prim “Your coffee, sir.”

And then with a curt nod of satisfaction, her housekeeper had departed, but not before Penelope had plainly heard the woman mutter under her breath: “Finally.”

“I do suppose we’ll work it out,” Elias continued, breaking into her thoughts.  He settled back against the couch again.  “After all, now that we’ve survived our honeymoon, the challenge before us is to figure out how to get through the humdrum of everyday existence without the excitement of being caught up in interplanetary intrigues, stumbling across cults bent on the domination of space, or escaping madmen who are trying to kill us.”  He gave her a lopsided, rakish grin.  “How ever shall we manage?” 

            It had been on an inspiration of hers, with which Elias had enthusiastically agreed, that the two of them had travelled to Mercury, there catching up with Lorelei’s Remembrance and Captain O’Rourke.  Then, on the final leg of the carrier’s cargo run as it returned to Mars, the captain had married them on his authority in a maritime tradition stretching back centuries to the wet navies and merchant fleets of Old Earth.  She had seen to the filing of the appropriate registrations and newspaper notices in Barsoom, allowing news of the event to spread from there on its own.  The effects of that news among the chattering classes of the worlds had been interesting to observe.  More than one comment about the breakdown of society’s structure had been mentioned: that the son of a common laborer might wed a peer horrified many.  Her husband had taken the whispers in stride and she could not have been more proud of how he blithely ignored rumors as well as any aristocrat.

From there, the newlyweds had embarked on round-circuit tour of the settled system, partly to remove themselves from the environs of Martian society, but also as a true celebration of their nuptials.  Penelope, always prudent in the management of her funds, had felt that her father would have would have approved of the expense.  But that honeymoon had, by what influence of the stars she could not tell, turned into yet another one of their adventures as the two of them had stumbled upon the malevolent plot of an old adversary of hers and had barely escaped with their lives.  Such had been her birthday.  

She smiled softly at her husband, considering his question in a much different light than he had intended it.  An unease fluttered in her gut as she thought of the secret she carried and wondered at the challenge of finding the best time to tell him.  The voice in the back of her mind chided her quietly.  Was there any best time, in the end?

Quietly, she took a breath, resolving herself.  “About that humdrum life--” 

            A subtle clearing of the throat interrupted her and she turned to see Mr. Porter standing in the study doorway.  A quiet amusement danced in the older man’s eyes, along with something that Penelope could only read as approval.  The Porters, who had served as stewards of the family’s London townhouse since her very early childhood, were well into their sixties now, yet gently deflected any notions of retirement or pensioning whenever Penelope had attempted to raise the subject.

            “Yes, Mr. Porter?” she inquired.

            The amusement in Porter’s eyes became clouded over by a look of perplexity.  “There is a gentleman here to see you, my lady.  At least, I believe he is.  Shall I show him in?”

            “Of course,” Penelope replied, wondering at the odd phrasing.  “Thank you.”

            “Very good, my lady.”

            “I wonder what that is about,” Elias commented after Porter had left.

            “Likewise,” Penelope responded.  “In any event, we will find out momentarily.”

            Porter reappeared.  “Professor James Talbot, my lady,” he announced as he stepped aside to make way for their visitor.

            The professor proved to be an elderly gentleman dressed after the fashion of a previous generation.  Though obviously cared for, his jacket had nonetheless seen better days and the cuffs showed a light fraying. White wisps of hair flew in all directions, despite an apparent attempt to impose order.  His face was well-lined with age and his dark eyes were lively, though he looked about the study in a slightly confused manner.  While Mr. Porter had relieved the man of his top hat and overcoat, he had retained his walking cane which he used as apparent support.  Penelope guessed him to be in his seventies at the very least.

            Penelope stood as their guest entered, Elias mirroring her.  “Thank, Mr. Porter,” she said to the butler.  “That will be all for the moment.”  Porter gave a polite bow of acknowledgment before departing, gently closing the study door behind him.

            Turning to their guest, she gestured to an armchair.  “Please have a seat, Professor Talbot.  I am Baroness Botelier.  I understand you wished to speak with me?”

            “I thank you, my lady,” the professor replied in a surprisingly robust voice as he crossed the room.  “But I am afraid that there must have been some confusion.  I had asked to speak with your husband.”

            Penelope and Elias exchanged a puzzled glance.  “I must admit that I am indeed confused, my dear sir,” she said slowly, gesturing toward Elias.  “This man is my husband: Mr. Elias Conner.”

            Now the professor looked more perplexed than ever.  “My apologies, my lady,” he responded.  “I am thoroughly puzzled.  I thought I had been told that Botelier was in residence.”  He looked from Penelope to Elias and back again.  “Is Lord Charles not about?”

            “I bear the title Botelier,” Penelope said carefully.  “My father has been dead for nearly ten years.”

            A look of shock spread over the older man’s visage.  “Oh dear,” he murmured as he sank into the vacant armchair.  “Oh dear, oh dear.  I suppose that explains why my messages were not answered.”

            Elias and Penelope exchanged another questioning glance as they, too, took their seats.  Elias leaned forward.  “Pardon me, professor,” he queried.  “What messages?”

            Their guest did not answer immediately, but continued to stare forlornly at some point in the distance.  “Professor?”  Penelope prodded gently.  “Professor Talbot?  Could you please explain to what messages you were referring?  I certainly have not received any communications from you.”

            Talbot’s eyes refocused on her.  “I do beg your pardon, Lady Botelier.  I’m afraid that your news came as something of a shock.”  He shook his head.  “No, you would not have received any communications from me, for none were sent to you.  At least, none were sent in the conventional manner.”

            “I confess I do not understand, Professor.”

            “Lord Charles had requested my assistance on a most fascinating but equally secretive project,” their guest explained.  “It was some time ago that we last spoke--ten years, it would seem--and he had suggested certain avenues of research that I might explore.  These avenues proved to be extraordinarily fruitful and I fear that I became so intrigued that I lost all sense of time.”  He looked between his two hosts.  “If either of us wished to contact the other, he was to place an advertisement in the agony pages of the Times in reference to a Mr. Alfred Peabody of Gloucester for the first issue of the month.  I posted such an advertisement several times over the years, as I wished to provide Lord Charles an update on my progress, but I never received any reply.  My estate is a humble one in the Hebrides.  Its remoteness is ideal for a certain solitude and freedom from distraction, useful in my researches, but that isolation does come at a cost.”

Penelope motioned for him to continue, her curiosity well and truly piqued at this point.  “What of this secret project of my father’s?”  

            “Oh, it is indeed a great secret, my lady” the professor replied.  “A secret of the ages.”  He leaned forward conspiratorially.  “Atlantis.”

 

###

 

            Penelope’s disappointment was palpable.  “I’m sorry, Professor,” she said shaking her head.  “I served as my father’s assistant for many years and know something of his studies and, in particular, of his final projects.  Given the avenues he was exploring, I simply cannot see how he would have been investigating a mythical island, no matter how famous the legend.”

            Talbot’s eyes practically twinkled.  “Who said anything about an island, my lady?” he replied with an impish smile.

            “I am confused, Professor,” Elias spoke up.  “Were you or were you not referring to the island of Atlantis and the fragmentary legend mentioned by Plato in his writings?”

            The professor nodded.  “That is indeed the legend of which I am speaking, Mr. Conner.  But I would propose to you that the legend does not pertain an island.  Rather, it is a masked reference to a planet.”

            “Come now, Professor,” Penelope responded.  “With due respect, I cannot see how that is a reasonable interpretation.”

            “If you understand the symbolism--” Talbot began.

            “With sufficient allegory,” Elias cut in, “anything can be made to represent anything.”

            The professor smiled knowingly, shrugging off the interruption.  “What you say is quite true, sir.  Yet one must approach legends such as this with a certain flexibility of mind, shall we say, in order to make allowances for the imagery and language having passed through countless generations and human epochs.  Please understand that the fragmented references we possess are themselves echoes of a story which was already an ancient legend in Plato’s time.”

Penelope considered their guest with a growing curiosity.  “In that case, please explain.”

“The most important element to this kind of interpretation,” the professor replied, launching into lecture mode and raising a forefinger indicatively, “is to find the proper key that will unlock the knowledge trapped within the imagery.  We must imagine ourselves as ancient peoples receiving stories from our past that we cannot fully comprehend, yet attempting to preserve those stories to the best of our ability by retelling them in forms and with images more understandable to us.”

Talbot paused for a moment to verify that his audience was following the thread of his argument, then continued.  “Consider how you might explain the aether to one who had no conception of such a thing.  Even in our own language, we speak of ‘currents’ and ‘waves’ in aetheric space, drawing on familiar imagery of sea-faring.”

“So you are suggesting,” Elias commented, “that the waters of the ocean beneath which Atlantis was said to have sunk refer instead to the aether of space.  Not as allegory, but rather as imagery used by a people who knew nothing of space travel.”

“Exactly,” the professor agreed.  “And yes, Mr. Conner, I do realize the full implications of that assertion: namely that there were those who did know of space travel in those most ancient times.”

“However,” Penelope observed, “Plato’s reference clearly indicates that Atlantis lay ‘beyond the pillars of Herakles.’  I do not see how one can transport the Strait of Gibraltar into the aether.”

“You have a quick mind, my lady,” Talbot nodded approvingly.  “I can see now why Lord Charles spoke so highly of his daughter.  What if I were to say that the pillars to which Plato referred were in fact Herakles’ shoulders?”

“I fail to see how that changes anything.”

 “If I may,” the professor coaxed.  “What did Herakles once bear upon this shoulders?”

As Penelope paused in thought, Elias’ eyes suddenly widened.  “The vault of the sky,” he interjected. Penelope looked over to her husband with a puzzled expression.  “The eleventh labor,” he reminded her.  “Herakles was charged with gathering the apples of the Hesperides.  Entering the sacred garden was death to any mortal, however, but Herakles convinced the titan Atlas to perform the task while he held the dome of the sky in Atlas’ stead.”  Elias turned to the professor.  “By saying ‘beyond the pillars of Herakles,’ the legend is placing Atlantis somewhere in the heavens, in the aetheric ocean of space.”

“Excellent!” Talbot beamed.  “Now I ask to the two of you: of what planet do you know which is said to have been destroyed in a great cataclysm thousands upon thousands of years ago?”

Now it was Penelope’s eyes which widened in comprehension.  “Prometheus,” she said quietly.

            “I believe, my lady,” the professor nodded, “that you are beginning to see the direction in which my research has gone.”

            “My father was exploring the possibility of alternatives to vulcanite crystals when he was murdered,” Penelope observed thoughtfully.  “The theory of Prometheus as the progenitor planet of the Belt figured prominently in his investigations.”

            “Yes,” the professor agreed.

            “But how does the legend of Atlantis tie into the crystals of Vulcan, Prometheus or not?” Elias inquired.  “I don’t see the connection.”

            “The answer to that question, Mr. Conner,” Talbot responded, “goes directly to the nature of the avenue of research which Lord Charles suggested those many years ago.”

            “And what might that avenue have been?” Penelope asked, guessing that she knew the answer.

            “Why, the vanished Ancients of your native Mars, my lady.”

            Penelope nodded at the professor’s reply. During those first explosive years of the space age, British explorers on Mars had discovered the mysterious and haunting ruins scattered across the vast northern lowlands of the Red Planet. Largely eroded by countless dust-storms and other ravages of the elements, only fragments of a strange, glyphic writing survived, tucked away in sheltered corners of a ruin or engraved on a buried stone marker.  No one had ever been able to decipher these symbols, nor did anyone have a notion of what the Ancients looked like as no remains were ever located.  Some decades ago, most scientists had come to adopt the position that the engravings represented a proto-writing system at best, most likely primitive pictorial representations akin to cave drawings.  Few respectable researchers expended any effort in further investigations these days, leaving the field open to amateurs and those of a more speculative mindset.

            It was, to be sure, precisely the kind of puzzle which would have proven irresistible to her father.

            She looked at Talbot squarely.  “Don’t tell me that you alone have been able to decipher the meaning of the Ancients’ glyphs, something which has repelled the efforts of generations of previous researchers.”

            The professor smiled off-handedly.  “Only in part, my lady.  But in essence, yes.”

            “How exactly?”

            “I was armed with a tool those generations of researchers did not have.”  He gestured broadly.  “In true scientific method, I proposed to myself a working hypothesis, a base from which to build, and then labored to assess from the data available whether my hypothesis was supported or contradicted.”

            Talbot paused for a moment.  “Or, to correct myself, I posed a different working hypothesis than the one those prior researchers had unconsciously adopted.”

            “What hypothesis would that have been?” Elias asked.

            “I considered an alternative possibility of how that writing system came to be and whom the vanished Ancients might have been.”

            “You certainly have a flair for the dramatic, Professor,” Penelope observed.  “While I appreciate the suspense, please explain.”

            “I do apologize for that, my lady,” Talbot acknowledged with a somewhat sheepish grin.  “It is unusual for me to have an audience so interested in my work.”  He settled back into the armchair.  “In essence, the difference was this: rather than assuming that the glyphs were the primitive, proto-writings of a native Martian population climbing from the darkness of prehistory into the light of civilization, I considered the possibility that the engravings were a vestigial and degraded form of writing from an immigrant population of a higher culture which had slid into ignorance and decay.”

            “Prometheans,” Elias said carefully.

            “Exactly, Mr. Conner,” the professor nodded.  “Imagine the scenario described by the fragmented legend come down to us, both through Plato and other mystic writings.  A powerful people; a great land--by which we understand to mean the planet Prometheus; a titanic cataclysm which destroyed that planet, ‘sinking beneath the waves’ of aether, as it were.  The vast majority of the inhabitants killed in that destruction, but a small, scattered remnant surviving, fleeing into space.”

            He looked to Penelope.  “Some must have found their way to Earth, for how else could the legend have reached us?  But I’d suggest that others, perhaps even most of those survivors, found their way to the Red Planet, settling there and becoming the ancestors of those we know as the Ancients.”

            Penelope felt an excitement rising within her.  “That is a most fascinating supposition, Professor,” she said.  “If I may ask, what insights were you able to gain from it?”

            “I cannot take full credit, my lady,” Talbot demurred.  “Your father provided the impetus for the pursuit of that line of inquiry.  I merely followed up on the questions which he had the insight to pose.”

            “That is very gracious of you,” Penelope replied.

            The professor acknowledged her compliment with a small nod.  “Using the hypothesis I described as a starting point,” he continued, “I was able to guess at the possible meanings of a small subset of glyphs.  While this was a mode of trial-and-error, and most certainly resulted in a number of false trails, I was able over time to construct the barest outline of the writing system, even if a good many of the characters remained a mystery.  Based on the various drawings of the known artifacts and the rudimentary grammar I had developed, I uncovered fragments of a story of unimaginable breadth: fantastic technologies, unbound hubris, tragic consequences.  If my notes are at all an accurate representation of the Promethean saga, the inhabitants of that planet had discovered a means of harnessing a power which lay at the heart of the planet itself.”

            “How?” Elias asked.

            Talbot shook his head.  “My translations were quite limited in scope and I am unsure that the Ancients themselves understood much of what they wrote by the time the engravings were made.”  He looked back to Penelope, his expression intense.  “But this brings me to the crisis which compelled me to seek your father out, my lady.  For my research, my data, my notes have all been stolen!”


Part II

Twists and Turns

 

            “Stolen?” Elias exclaimed.  “By whom?”

            Professor Talbot shook his head slowly.  “I cannot say, Mr. Conner.  The scoundrel certainly left no clue as to his identity.”

            “When did the theft occur?” Penelope asked.

            “As best I can determine, between a week and five days ago.  Once a month, I take the ferry from Lochmaddy to Stein, both to acquire provisions as needed--I hire laborers to bring these supplies back to cottage from the port--as well as to maintain a certain contact with the outside world.  It was on these trips that I would check the Times for any communication from Lord Charles.”

            “You were being observed,” Elias commented.  “The culprits had been watching you, getting a sense of your habits, and only then selecting an opportune time to act.”

            “You have no live-in servants?” Penelope inquired gently.

            Again the professor shook his head.  “No, my lady, I do not.  There is a village-woman from down the way who cooks a midday meal and does general cleaning twice a week, but I am otherwise alone.”

            He glanced back over to Elias.  “I fear that you are correct, sir, in your suggestion.  I took not great pains to disguise my coming and goings, for I have never had any cause to do so.  My cottage was securely locked when I left seven days ago.  It was still closed up when I returned two days later, but the door was no longer bolted.”

            “An ordinary door-lock would prove a small obstacle to one who knew what he was doing,” Elias pointed out.  “I ought to know.”

            Penelope fought the urge to laugh at the professor’s confused reaction to her husband’s last statement, settling for a small smile instead. “What puzzles me, Professor,” she said, bringing his attention back to her, “is the length of time you must have been under observation.  In order to have established your routine, this individual or these individuals would have to have been watching you for several months.”

            Talbot nodded.  “I do see your point, my lady.  Your conclusion makes sense, certainly.”

Penelope looked from the professor to her husband.  “This was no ordinary burglary.  Someone has gone through a considerable amount of effort to obtain these materials.”

“But who?”  Talbot wondered, his puzzlement evident.  “Who would be interested in my interpretations of the Atlantis myth and the Ancients of Mars?  I labor in obscurity, my lady, and have come to find that obscurity rather comforting.  This notion that I have been the object of some espionage operation is most disagreeable.”

“There may be considerable forces at play here, Professor,” Penelope explained.  “And the balance of power which has long governed the system of worlds and empires is beginning to shift.”  She glanced quickly to Elias before returning her gaze to the professor.  “The resources which support that balance are entering into a much more precarious phase.”  She paused pointedly.  “Any number of imperial powers might be interested in your theories.”

Elias leaned forward in his seat.  “Professor Talbot, I have been wondering about something.  You’d indicated that you’ve been working on this project for some time, nearly ten years, correct?”

“That is correct,” the professor affirmed.

“That is my problem with this whole affair.”  Elias looked over to Penelope.  “Why now?  What would prompt someone to burgle a remote cottage at this particular moment in time to steal research notes on a legend as old as the human race when that research has been going on for a good decade already?” 

Penelope’s mouth was set in a firm line.  “Certainly, there have been shifts of late in the broader forces among the powers, but you do make a good point.”  She turned to Talbot.  “Professor, can you think of any reason?  Any particular aspect of your findings which might prompt these people, whomever they might have been, from observation to action?”

Talbot shook his head.  “Nothing comes to mind, my lady.  I’ve been working on any number of avenues over these years.”  Then he suddenly stopped, his visage taking on a distant expression.  He raised his right hand, shaking his index finger slowly in an indicative motion.  “My apologies, Lady Botelier.  On the other hand, I just recalled something which may indeed be the answer to your question.”

“What might that be?”

“It was well over six months ago,” Talbot explained, “which is why I did not think of it immediately.”  At Penelope’s gesture, he continued.  “I had just completed a translation of glyphs from one particular set of fragments that appeared to be of a particularly sacred nature.  It was one of those small breakthrough moments that the lonely scholar finds worthy of celebration.”  He gave a small smile.  “I went down to the village pub to commemorate the day with a pint or two.  Even at my age, one can appreciate a good ale.”

Penelope, who relished a solid stout herself, nodded in response.  “I can understand the sentiment, Professor.”

“While I was at the pub, a young man struck up a conversation with me. I did not recognize him, but as I did not patronize the pub on any regular basis, this was hardly anything unexpected.  The young man commented on the fine day--unusual in that the weather that day had been fairly bleak as I recall--but in my rather jubilant mood I replied that it had been a very fine day indeed.  With only a minor amount of prodding from my drinking companion, but without going into any great detail, I explained how I had completed the translation of a certain text pertaining to the religious beliefs of the Ancients of Mars.  The young man was surprisingly open to this topic of conversation, which in truth encouraged me to explain a bit further and I told him of the fragmented story I had partially pieced together of the Sacred Mountain identified in the text.  After some hours, my companion excused himself after thanking me for the enjoyable conversation and I made my way back to my cottage.  I thought nothing more of that incident until just now.”

“Why was that particular translation of note?” Elias inquired.

“It was but one portion of a longer text of which I possessed only fragments.  What excited me about this one segment, however, was that it was the first text I had been able to translate using my newly-constructed grammar that identified a physical location.”

Penelope’s ears perked up.  “What location would that be?”

“The text itself,” Talbot replied, “referred to ‘the gods’ who had come down from the heavens and settled in the land, far above the lower beings.  I took this to be reference to the ancestors of the Ancients, fleeing the destruction of Prometheus.  In any event, the text gave particular reverence to the Sacred Mountain on which these gods first established themselves.  It was the identification of this place that excited me so, for if one could identify the first landing places of the Prometheans, one might be able to locate actual artifacts and proof of their existence.”

“Was this sacred mountain named?” Penelope asked.

“The professor blinked.  “Not in so many words, my lady, but there can be little doubt as to its identity.  Our own myths are themselves reflections of stories handed down from ages immemorial.  The sacred mountain is, of course, Mount Olympus--or, we would say, Olympus Mons.” 

 

###

 

            Two weeks later, the rugged, rust-colored landscape of her native planet rolled beneath them.  The cabin of the Promise hummed with the vibration of the craft’s atmospheric engines.  At the conclusion of the professor’s visit, it had been decided that she and Elias would return to Mars, booking last-minute passage aboard the liner Faerie Queene departing that following afternoon.  Only standard accommodations had been available at such a late date, but Penelope gave little mind to what many of her class would have seen as a significant inconvenience.  To speak the plain truth, she rather enjoyed the ten days’ passage as “Mrs. Conner,” mixing and mingling with the other passengers in subtle incognito.  She and Elias portrayed themselves, truthful so far as it went, as a newly-married couple returning from their honey-moon.  It became something of a game, as each would have to pay attention to the details given by the other so as to not contradict their story.  

            But all the while, the final portion of the professor’s visit had played in her mind.  Talbot had been keen to provide them with what information he could impart from memory regarding his understanding of the great mountain.

            “The Ancients held the mountain as sacred above all other things,” he’d said carefully.  “No holy site I’ve found referenced in their tales bears so much significance as Olympus Mons.”

            “I don’t know where we’d even begin,” Elias had observed, obviously overwhelmed by the prospect.  “That ancient volcano is indescribably massive.  Is there anything you could tell us that might narrow the possibilities down a bit?”

            Penelope found herself in agreement with her husband’s assessment of the situation and looked over to Talbot.  The older man put his finger to his lips in thought and considered the question for a long moment before nodding slowly.

            “I believe that I can, Mr. Conner,” he indicated.  “One of the more peculiar aspects of the Ancients’ religious writings is that the direction of southeast bears a particular nobility.  Given that the direction is not a primary cardinal compass point, one might speculate that some artifact of history provides its basis.”  He looked at the two of them.  “I would therefore suggest that you begin your exploration on the southeast slope of the volcano.”

            Progress by airship was much less rapid than by aethercraft, although the Promise was capable of both modes of operation.  As the two of them had discussed their options, Elias had suggested a compromise alternative, utilizing their vessel’s aetheric flight in a high arc to bring them most of the journey from the family estate, allowing them to proceed the following day to reach their intended destination fairly fresh.  They decided to stop that first evening at the city of Korsoom, located in the midst of the Erebus Montes, a line of low ridges which lay at the edge of the Amazonian Plain due west of Olympus Mons.  The massive volcano itself perched on the western edge of the great Tharsisian Uplift, that mysterious elevated region which made up a significant portion of the unexplored highlands that dominated the southern hemisphere of the planet.  Tharsis itself contained not only the great mountain, but the Tharsis Montes as well as the vastnesses of the Syrian and Solarian Plateaus.

            Since the first explorations of Mars by the British in the early 1820s, settlement had focused on the extensive Vastitas Borealis, that sweeping lowland region which covered most of the northern hemisphere.  Penelope’s family estate was located just off the edge of these lowlands and where the southern edge of Isidis Basin hooked into the beginnings of the highland region, where the landscape began its ascent toward the Syrtis Major Plateau to the west and the Hesperian Plateau to the east.

            “Penny?”  Elias’ voice broke into her thoughts.  Penelope blinked rapidly as her awareness snapped back to the present.  “Are you okay over there?”

            She gave a small smile and nodded.  “Yes.  Just thinking about this adventure of ours again.”  She shook her head.  “What little we understand of it, in any event.”

            “No argument there,” her husband agreed, returning his attention to the Promise’s console.  “What do you think we are going to find when we get there?”

            “I must admit I haven’t a clue,” Penelope replied.  “Quite possibly very little of substance.  Given how few artifacts of the Ancients have been recovered from the two major excavations and handful of scattered sites that have been discovered, one has difficulty imagining even older artifacts surviving in any meaningful way.”

“You don’t believe the professor’s theory to be valid?” he asked.

“Not at all,” she responded.  “I can see how he might be onto something.  Certainly, someone else has made that determination.”  She gazed through the forward viewport.  “If there is even a remote chance that his hypothesis is correct…”  Her thought trailed off.  “We need to determine the facts, one way or the other.”

            Elias nodded.  “I agree.”

            Penelope surreptitiously observed her husband in the seat beside her, his features a bearing the effortless concentration of a seasoned pilot.  He’d been flying atmospheric craft for quite some time now, and had received his initial license as an aether pilot not quite a year ago, so this jaunt of theirs across the planet was well-within his realm of experience.  That unease fluttered in her belly with a new-found insistence.  She’d hesitated to this point, but he needed to know before they got to the mountain.

            “Elias, my love,” she said, masking her anxiety with a blanket of nonchalance.  “May I ask you a question?”

            “Of course, Penny.”  Elias gave her a quick glance before returning his attention to the controls before him.  “What is it?”

            “Are you hoping for a boy or a girl?”

            “What do you mea--” His question cut off suddenly and he whirled in his seat to face her.  “Are you serious?”

            Penelope nodded.  “Yes.”

            “But how, when…” he sputtered, suddenly scrambling to find his bearings in a suddenly-altered landscape.

            Penelope laughed in spite of herself.  “I’m quite sure you know how, my dear.  As to when,” she shook her head.  “I can’t pinpoint the exact day--there are so many possible candidates--but from my body’s rhythms, I’d guess about two and a half months ago.”

            Elias’ shock slowly transformed into joy.  “That’s amazing!  I’m--”  He cut off for a second time and threw his hands up in the air in exasperation.  “And you’re telling me this now.  As we’re heading into unknown danger on the far side of Mars with who-knows-what waiting for us inside an ancient volcano.”  He looked at her levelly.  “I have half a mind to turn the Promise right around and get you home.”

            “You will do no such thing,” Penelope replied.  “I’m two months pregnant, not deathly ill.  And we’re in this adventure together.  Not a safe life, remember?”

            “That’s entirely different.”

            “No, good sir, it is not.”

            He looked at her levelly for a long moment, his eyes narrowing.  Then his face relaxed as he let out a resigned sigh.  “I’m not going to win this debate, am I?”

            Penelope gave him a reassuring smile.  “You always were perceptive, my dear.  Don’t worry.  I have no plans on dying anytime soon.”

            “It is hardly your plans I’m worried about,” he replied.  He cast her a wary glance before returning his attention to the forward viewport and the pilot’s console.  “For better or worse, they said.  In sickness and in health, they said.”  He shook his head slowly.  “But what if your wife is byalt-shit crazy?”

She patted him on the arm.  “Now there, my love.  Think of how bored you would be with a sane wife.”

Elias smiled wryly.  “I’m not going to comment.”

Penelope nodded.  “A wise decision.”           

 

###

 

It was late morning on that second day of their trek when their destination first appeared on the horizon.  The sheer size of the volcano made itself felt as they were able to see it long before they reached it.  The mountain grew steadily larger as they approached, gradually filling the viewport.

            “Southeast slope, the professor said,” Elias commented as he adjusted their course to bring them around.  “Almost the opposite side from here.  The wilds.”

            Penelope nodded.  Most of the settled worlds had large, unexplored regions yet.  Here on Mars, it was the southern highlands.  On Venus, it was both the open World Ocean and the great northern continent of Laurasia.  Mercury’s Fireworld and Iceworld hemispheres were as unknown as they were nearly uninhabitable.  And the fragmentary nature of the Belt left much room for discovery yet.  Even on Earth, the deeper jungles of Africa and South America still held their secrets. If the Ancients believed that slope of the mountain to be particularly holy, its forbidding geography certainly did not contradict that status.

            The Promise made her way around the bulk of that massive mountain, the terrain of the slope unfolding itself slowly to them as they went.  Penelope kept her eye on their heading.  As the instrumentation indicated that they were approaching the southeast face, she heard Elias grunt.  “Well.  What do you know?”

            She looked up from the console.  The uneven slope of the ancient volcano filled the viewport, but her eyes immediately found the cause of her husband’s comment.

            A jagged crevasse opened in the side of the mountain, running almost directly upslope, from the lower right of Penelope’s view to the upper left almost beyond sight.  Narrowing at the further ends, it presented a sizable gap on the ground at the point they were approaching.

            On the far side, well-tethered to the rock, a dirigible lay at anchor, unmarked and apparently unattended.

            Elias looked over to her.  “It seems that at least one part of our hypothesis has been proven.  Certainly, someone else is following up on the good professor’s ideas.”  Elias considered the terrain as the crevasse drew nearer.  “What do you think, Penny?”  he inquired.  “It would appear that this is a good location from which to proceed, but would we want to anchor on the same side of the chasm or the opposite?”

            Penelope thought for a moment.  “My instinct is to take a defensive stance,” she responded.  “Having something between us and our unknown companions would seem wise.”

            “I can’t say that I disagree,” Elias replied, his hands moving to the controls.  With practiced motions, he made the adjustments necessary to alter their vessel’s course, bringing the Promise into a gentle descent on the near side of the long crevasse.  “We won’t be able to reach them, but neither will they be able to reach us.”

            “My thoughts precisely,” Penelope concurred.

            A short time later, the Promise’s grappling gear firmly gripped the Martian mountainside, the anchorage augmented by the multiple tethers Penelope and Elias staked into the rock.  Fortunately, the well-known Martian sandstorms were rare at these altitudes, though her husband had selected a somewhat sheltered location nonetheless.

            The final tether secured, Penelope saw Elias stand and look downslope, or rather in the downslope direction.  He shielded his eyes with his hand, examining the horizon, his expression thoughtful.

            “What is it?” Penelope asked.

            Elias shook his head.  “Nothing really.”  Turning away from the southeastern vista, he commented.  “I was just thinking about what the professor had said, about that direction being considered holy.”  He shrugged.  “Wondering if there was more to this crazy theory out there in the wilds of Tharsis.  But we’ve enough to deal with for now.”  With that, he made his way toward the crevasse.

            “Be careful,” Penelope called out as Elias edged closer to the jagged lip of rock.  Her husband looked back at her, his eyes showing mild annoyance.

            “You are hardly in a position to be admonishing anyone about safety, my love,” he pointed out with a shake of his head.

            Penelope ignored the gentle rebuke.  “What can you see?” she asked as she approached his position carefully.

            “Many options,” Elias commented, pointing.  “Look.”

            The unmarked airship bobbed lightly in the wind on the far side of the canyon, some distance back from the opposite edge.  On the rock face below, several large openings yawned at various depths, scattered along the length of the canyon wall.  Glancing downward and to the sides of their position, Penelope could spy what appeared to be similar openings on their side of the canyon as well.

            Elias’ arm shifted position.  “See there?” It took Penelope a moment, but then she spotted the rope which trailed down the far side, laying against the steep rock face.  “It would appear,” her husband observed, “that the others gained access to the mountain’s interior through that tunnel there.”

Penelope nodded.  What remained unanswered, of course, was the identity of these others and what their intentions were.  Turning to Elias, she inquired.  “Can you see an opening on this side we might be able to reach from here?”

He peered over the edge, his gaze traveling from left to right slowly.  “I think so.  There is a bulge in the canyon wall below us where the rock face slopes inward a bit.  I think we can get to the opening of the tunnel--or whatever these things are--just to our right here.”  He brought his eyes back up to hers.  “I’ll get rope from the Promise.”

Elias returned to their vessel, disappearing within for a time before stepping back out into the Martian sunlight bearing a large coil of rope.  He then secured one end of the rope to the nearest of the stakes tethering the Promise to the mountainside, uncoiling its length as he approached.  As he reached the rim of the crevasse, he tossed the coil into the expanse and Penelope watched as the line unfurled itself and fell against the steeply-sloped rock.

“Ready?” Elias asked.

“Always,” she replied.

“I can at least lead the way,” her husband commented as he took the rope in his hands.  “Let me scout a path first and then you can follow after.”  He looked at her with a small smile.  “For once.”

One corner of Penelope’s mouth quirked upward.  “Of course, my dear.”  She motioned toward the canyon.  “Fulfill your manly role.”

“Thank you,” he replied.  “See you in a few.”  With a curt nod, he slipped over the rim of the canyon and began to lower himself down the rock face.  After another moment, he had disappeared from her sight over a projecting ledge.  She watched as the rope twitched and shifted with his continued descent, then stilled.

“Penny?” his distant voice called up after a minute.

“I can hear you!” she called back.  “You found a spot?”

“Yes,” he replied.  “I’m on a ledge here.  This tunnel looks as promising as any.”  A moment of silence, then: “Go ahead and come down, but watch your footing.  There’s some loose rock just over the edge.”

“Understood,” she responded.  “I’m coming down now.”

Penelope took the rope in hand and turned her back to the crevasse, letting her weight rest against the restraint and slowly easing herself back until she stood at an angle to the steep slope of the rock.  Glancing over her shoulder, she  walked backward in small half-steps at first as she passed beyond the initial ledge.  Just as Elias had cautioned, her right boot slipped a bit, sending loose stone skittering into the air behind her, but having been forewarned she’d shifted her weight almost immediately.  Past that point, the view below her opened up and she spied her husband some distance away yet, his expression indiscernible  but the stance of his body clearly communicating his concern.  She resisted the impulse to wave, settling for an assuring smile.

“It’s alright, Elias,” she called down to him.  “You can stop worrying.”  She was freely rappelling now, taking several yards of rock-face with each bounce.

“I’ll stop worrying,” he replied as she neared his position, “when you’re back at the estate and decide to stay put for the next seven months or so.”

She landed gracefully on the ledge next to him.  “And why, dear husband, would I do such a thing as that?”

“It will be harvest-time, of course,” he deadpanned.  “Oh yes--and you’ll be having our child.”

She looped the rope around a projecting rock.  “Come on now, dearest.  We’ve an adventure yet before we have to deal with the prospect of child-rearing.”

Elias followed her into the mouth of the broad tunnel, the beams from their electric torches illuminating the floor ahead of them.  “Somehow, I’m thinking that the child-rearing is going to be no less hazardous an affair,” she heard him say to himself quietly.        

 

###

 

            “This is an unusual cave,” Penelope commented as the two of them moved deeper into the ancient mountain.  She played her beam across the floor in front of them.  “What do you make of these formations?”

            The tunnel itself was easily twenty feet in width, if not more, and at least two-thirds that amount in height, forming an elliptical tube through the rock.  The floor which Penelope had noted looked like batter flash-frozen mid-pour, wrinkled  and rugose.  They could walk over the surface readily, though the rippled rock caused weird shadows to shift about their ankles as they moved.

            Elias played his beam upward along the sloping walls of the tube-like tunnel.  Ridges part way up ran parallel to the floor as far as his light could show.  “Off-hand,” he replied, “I’d guess this to be a lava tube.”  His beam returned to the folded rock of the floor, illuminating debris fallen from the tunnel roof.  “An extremely old one, I would say.”

            Penelope nodded.  That would make sense, she thought.  And would naturally lead toward the heart of the ancient volcano.  As the pair made their way along the tunnel, she glanced at her husband.  His body radiated a subtle tension, his expression focused but his thoughts clearly elsewhere.

“You look distracted,” Penelope observed.  “What’s on your mind?”

            Elias gave a rueful chuckle.  “You mean other than all of this?”  His arm swept wide, indicating the rock surrounding them.  “Other than my very willful and pregnant wife pursuing this adventure which may or may not involve ancient secrets that might or might not impact the course of human civilization?”

            Penelope stopped, standing in the middle of the passageway with her arms crossed.   “Yes, my dear Elias.  Other than all of that.”  Looking at her husband levelly, she resisted tapping her foot. “There is something else bothering you and I would like to know what that thing is.”  She paused pointedly.  “We are partners, remember?  And partners share themselves with each other.”

            Elias had halted a step beyond and now turned to face her.  “In the context of everything else, it hardly compares,” he replied, shaking his head.  “I can manage my own issues.  You’ve enough to worry about without my burdens being added on.”

            Penelope did not move.  “No, good sir.  That is not how this marriage works.”  She stepped to him, her hand coming up to touch his cheek.  “Share and share alike,” she said softly.  “For better or worse.”

            Elias took her hand in his, his eyes falling to the tunnel floor behind her.  “I grew up hard and fast on the streets of Aphrodite,” he said after a moment.  “I don’t know the first thing about raising a child.”  His gaze rose to meet hers.  “How could I possibly be any kind of a father?”

            “Oh my dear, sweet husband.”  Penelope had to put her hand to her mouth to hide a smile.

            Elias frowned.  “I’m serious, Penny.  Being your husband is one thing, though admittedly even that was only a fantastic dream for the longest time.  But this child will be your heir, whether we have a boy or a girl.  What do I know about being father to a future baron or baroness?”

            Penelope nodded as she recovered from stifling her laughter.  “I know you’re being serious, my love.  And I understand.”

            “Then what do you find so humorous, in that case?”

            “I laughed,” Penelope replied, “because I am in the same position you are.”  When he quirked his head, obviously perplexed, she continued.  “Do you think I have any idea how to be a mother?”  She gestured widely with one hand.  “You at the very least have some memory of a role model--I never knew my mother.”  She looked into his eyes and then leaned in to kiss him gently.  “As we always have, we will find our way forward.  Together.”

            They continued further into the depths of the immense mountain.  After a time, Penelope realized that she felt something had changed in the air about them.  It wasn’t humidity, she realized, but rather the light.  She stopped abruptly, her husband following suit a moment later.

            “What is it?” Elias asked, curious.

            “Turn off your torch,” she replied, extinguishing her own beam.  Elias complied and the air plunged into darkness.

            But only for a moment, a soft luminescence making itself known as their eyes adjusted.  Penelope examined the walls of the tunnel.  Thin veins of light proceeded along the surface of the rock, merging and branching in a subtle web.  Looking back along their route, she could see the veins having begun to appear some time before, but much more sparsely distributed.  As she peered ahead, she could see the web becoming more dense and the light more robust.

            “Incredible,” she heard Elias whisper in amazement.  “This is beautiful...almost as if--” He cut off and looked at her.  “It is almost as if the rock were alive.”

            Penelope had a difficult time disagreeing with that sentiment.  “It is little wonder that the Ancients would have considered this mountain sacred,” she observed.  “In any event, it would appear that we won’t be requiring the use of our torches for the time being.”

            At that moment, a low rumble sounded in the far distance, well ahead of them.  Penelope felt the slightest of shudders beneath her feet.  She turned toward her husband, whose face wore a concerned frown.

            “I don’t care for the sound of that,” he said.

            “Understood,” Penelope replied.  “But our answers lie in that direction, regardless.”  When Elias’ frown only deepened, she prodded him with her torch.  “We’ll be careful.”

            “I’m not altogether sure that you even comprehend the meaning of that word, my love,” he responded, indicating the holstered pistol on her right hip.  “But alright.”  He gestured forward.  “It is not as though I’m going to be able to change your mind anyway.”

            As they continued, the subtle web of light twining across the walls and ceiling of the tube-like tunnel did indeed grow, finally levelling off at a low, dusk-like illumination.  Not daylight, but ample enough for the two of them to see clearly.

            The tube continued.  After some considerable time, their path came to a junction, where a second tunnel joined theirs on the right and the larger, joint tunnel continued in the inward direction which Penelope had come to think of as “upstream.”  They halted at the junction and considered their surroundings.

            “It seems obvious which direction we should be heading,” Penelope observed.  “But I’m concerned about finding the right path going back out again.”

            Elias nodded and fished into the small pouch which hung from his belt.  “I have just the thing,” he replied, extracting a small hammer.  Moving to the side of the tunnel by which they’d come to the junction, he chipped an “X” in the rock, just at eye level.  “If we mark  each junction,” he said, “then we can retrace our path on our return.”

            They proceeded in this manner, the junctions seemingly becoming more frequent as they progressed toward the heart of the mountain.  Another tremor in the distance vibrated the rock beneath them, more strongly now.  It was several hours and many junctions later that Elias had begun to chip yet another mark on the wall of a particularly complicated four-way branching when he stopped, his hammer poised in mid-strike.

            “What’s wrong?” Penelope asked.

            “Look at this,” he replied, pointing at the rock-face next to a neighboring downstream tunnel.  A large “^” had been similarly chipped in the stone.  “Someone else has been through this way.”  He looked at her.  “I think we’ve come across the path of our friends from the other airship.”

            They followed the significantly wider tunnel deeper in, toward the heart of the great mountain.  As the tunnel curved to the right in a gentle arc, Penelope could envision the flow of magma slicing through the rock.  She began to wonder how far they’d progressed.

            Suddenly, Elias stopped and after a moment, Penelope saw why: a section of the tunnel floor ahead had collapsed into a void below, leaving nothing but a narrow ledge of rock along the left-hand wall bridging the gap.  The chasm was only thirty yards or so across, but unfathomably deep.  That ledge, less than a yard wide at most, was the sole connection to the seemingly-solid floor on the far side.

“Now I really don’t like the looks of that,” Elias stated emphatically.

“But…” Penelope responded after a moment.

“But there’s no other way through,” he acknowledged with a shrug.  He looked at her intently.  “I’m going first, though.”

“If you insist,” Penelope replied, suppressing the urge to smile at her husband’s tenacity.  She doubted that he’d take it well.

“Alright then,” he nodded.  “Follow close behind me.”  With great caution, he stepped onto the shelf of rock, proceeding slowly as he tested each step forward before committing his weight.  After long minutes, they had progressed nearly the entire length of the narrow bridge of rock.  Elias was a yard from the far end when another tremor shook the mountain, far more powerful than the ones they had felt before. 

            Penelope felt the ledge give way beneath her and she scrambled for purchase as the rock crumbled.  Elias twisted, catching her with a desperate backhanded grab even as she tumbled away from the rock-face into the yawning chasm beneath them.  Her body jerked as her husband’s grip arrested her fall, her feet kicking uselessly in empty air.  Elias’ body was turned awkwardly, his left hand holding hers even as his right held onto an outcrop of rock with equal desperation.

            “Penny,” he said through gritted teeth.  “You’ve got to make a grab for the ledge.  I don’t know how long I can hold on.”

            Her heart beat at a breakneck pace as she reached for the lip of rock with her free hand, coming away with only air.  A second attempt fared no better.  She could feel her husband’s hold begin to slip.  She fought to keep her voice from trembling.  “I love you, Elias,” she said as she made one final lunge for the stable ledge.

            Once again her fingertips only brushed the rockface.  Then, as her hand fell away, a raw-hide glove closed on her wrist and, with a well-levered heave, pulled her onto solid tunnel floor.  Penelope gasped for a breath, her eyes cast downward, not quite believing herself still alive.

            “Thank you,” she began, as she looked up at her timely rescuer.   “Who--”   And cut off abruptly.

            “You are most welcome, Baroness,” Xavier Dubois replied with a courteous bow.

Part III

Reckoning

 

            “What are you doing here?” she demanded.

            “Now, Baroness,” Dubois replied with a tight smile.  “That is hardly a necessary question.  All of us know exactly why we are here.”  He looked between Penelope and Elias.  “But I would like to take this opportunity, as unusual as the setting may be, to congratulate you and Mr. Conner on your recent marriage.  I hope that the future brings you much joy.”

            “Your death would bring me much joy,” Penelope replied as she stood, the words leaving her mouth before she had a chance to stop them.

            Dubois inclined his head.  “As I said at our last meeting, there will come a time when this issue between you and I will be resolved, Baroness.”  He gestured at the cavern walls about them.  “Allow me to suggest that this is not that time.”

            Penelope considered the man as her husband spoke up.  “You are proposing,” Elias commented, “that it would be more useful if we cooperated in our efforts to find a way out of here.”

            “Exactly,” Dubois agreed.  “We are both looking for the same things: first, any surviving ancient technology of Prometheus which might be buried here, and second, a means of returning to the surface.”

            “What interest does the Hephaestus Corporation have in stories of Prometheus?” Penelope asked pointedly.

            “You already know the answer to that question, Baroness,” Dubois replied.  “Despite the assurances given to the peoples of the worlds, the Vulcan mines are entering into their final phase of viability.  Even with the mechanization made possible by your government’s investment, we are only delaying the inevitable.  There exists another two decades’ worth of feasible supply, three at the most.  We must find an alternative source of power to fuel our civilization.”

“And you believe the myth of Atlantis and the theory of Prometheus is such an alternative?” Elias asked.  “Are you so desperate as to be chasing such things?”

“If you did not believe there was a possibility of the professor’s supposition being true, you would not be here, Mr. Conner.  And so I find myself in excellent company.”  He eyed Penelope’s husband carefully.  “And to your second question, if I may answer bluntly, the answer is ‘yes.’  If the Prometheans could build as advanced civilization as the myths suggest, then they may provide us with a possible path forward.  We can leave no stone unturned, as the saying goes.”

“None of this speculation matters for the moment,” Penelope interrupted.  “Until we actually locate evidence of Promethean technology or artifacts of that technology, the point is moot.”  She looked about.  “And I’d suggest that we get moving, if we are to do that, and find a way out of here as well.”

Dubois nodded.  “I cannot disagree, Baroness.  I had proceeded only a short distance along this tunnel here when I doubled back to you.  It appears to lead further into the ancient volcano and, I’d warrant, the likely direction of our goal.”

            The three explorers moved even further into the great mountain.  The tunnel was many times the size of the one Penelope and Elias had originally entered and she considered that they had travelled well upstream of the path the ancient lava flows had taken.  A rushing sound could be heard in the distance.

            “What is this?” Dubois halted suddenly.  Turning on his torch, he cast the beam upward.  Penelope and Elias stopped just beyond the American, turning back to look at the object of his question. When she followed the line of light, Penelope spotted the dark, jagged opening at the top of a mound of rubble along one wall of the lava tube.

            “There seems to be a void of some kind,” she said.  Turning to her husband, “Give me a boost.”  Elias nodded and helped her onto one of the larger chunks of rock which formed the base of the rubble mound.  Smaller debris skittered to the tunnel floor as she climbed toward the opening, but the mound itself seemed reasonably stable.  Sticking her head into the void, she looked around in wonder.

            “You have to see this,” she called down to the two men before disappearing into the space beyond.

            Penelope stood upright as Dubois and Elias joined her.  The cavern was unlike anything they had experienced thus far, the walls of the space having been finished in clean vertical surfaces that bespoke conscious design.  The resulting hall was perhaps half the width of the lava tube they’d been traversing, about twenty feet, and the uneven, finished ceiling was about half again as high.  The hall ran for a good thirty feet in either direction, terminating at both ends in debris of collapse.  It would appear that what they’d discovered was one segment of what had once been a much longer structure.

            The surfaces of one wall were completely covered in elaborate carvings, the other bare yet obviously smoothed stone.  A web of light covered that bare wall, gently illuminating the space.  As the three of them gazed upon the bas-relief etchings, Penelope felt a sense of awe envelope her.

            “These are not quite the characters of the Professor’s grammar,” Dubois observed carefully.  “They are...more refined somehow.”

            Penelope nodded slowly.  Though she had not seen Talbot’s notes, she had seen specimens of the Ancients’ artifacts on display at the Royal Museum in Barsoom.  These characters were subtly different.  But something else held her attention even more tightly, for the mysterious language was not the only thing represented.  While what appeared to be a narrative in the unknown language covered the bottom half of the wall, a pictorial display was set above.  A vast, flowing mural illustrating, she assumed, the story being told below.  Even without understanding the language of the Prometheans, she could follow the thread of the tale.

            The sequence of the mural’s panels, Penelope realized after several minutes of contemplation, worked from right to left.  It was apparent that whatever story the mural sought to tell began at an earlier point, as a partial panel could be observed emerging from the rubble-clogged end of the hall.  The first complete panel showed what appeared to be an aerial view of a metropolis of some kind.  Perhaps a major city of Prometheus, assuming this was indeed the work of refugees from that planet.  Structures representing a dizzying array of geometric shapes filled the panoramic view, though dominated by pyramids, cubes, and spheres.  These structures were connected by a network of straight paths radiating over the landscape, more densely packed in some regions than others.  Transportation?  Penelope wondered.  Some kind of rail network?

            The next panel of the sweeping mural seemed to focus on one of these structures in particular: a comparatively large hemisphere, opening upward like a massive bowl, with a smaller, complete sphere nestled within and oriented so as to be concentric with the outer shell.  The paths or lines radiated from its base in all directions and were especially dense there, noticeably more so than around any of the other structures depicted in the previous panel.

The third panel, now halfway along the length of the segmented hall they’d stumbled upon, showed a different collection of structures.  The focus here seemed to be a large tetrahedral pyramid surrounded by congruent structures of half to one-third its size.  Here again, pathways or networked lines connected the outer ring of smaller structures, with radial spokes connecting the central tetrahedron to this ring.  A sigil of some kind was emblazoned on the face of the central tetrahedron toward the viewer and Penelope got the sense that this was an administrative center of some form.  That impression was strengthened by the next panel, almost a sub-panel as the framing clearly indicated that it represented an exploded view from within that central tetrahedron.

And displayed the first depictions of the Prometheans themselves.

They were incredibly thin.  Even without the benefit of a frame of reference, Penelope would say that the Prometheans were of extraordinarily lean build, with long limbs and angular joints.  The heads were shaped like a rounded isosceles triangle pointed downward with disproportionately large circular eyes staring black and void.  No mouth or nose were indicated, although it was difficult to tell if this were a stylistic choice of the engraver, perhaps constrained by scale, or else an accurate depiction of Promethean features.  Given the fine detail evidenced elsewhere in the mural, Penelope found it difficult to imagine anything but the latter case.

The scene showed a trio of Prometheans on a central circular platform or dais surrounded by a multi-tiered audience of others, as though in an auditorium of some kind.  The expressions of the beings were invariable, though the three appeared to be gesturing to the crowd in some manner and the central figure of that trio held his long arms aloft, his seven-fingered hands spread wide.  In prayer?  In command?  In a plea for calm?  Penelope could not tell.

            The final visible panel was as elongated as its predecessor was brief.  The engraver once again returned to the broad vista at the outset of this sequence, with its wide depiction of what Penelope had come to understand as a major Promethean metropolis, if not its capital city, but she found herself momentarily confused.  At first, she thought the panel might have suffered damage from which the other panels had been spared, only then to realize that the cracks in the landscape and the broken geometry of the structures were intentional elements of the engraving.

            Penelope had to step back in order to take in the breadth of the scene.  Shattered structures were strewn across the landscape.  Enormous fissures yawned wide and hungry, swallowing whole buildings.  Chaos and destruction reigned.  Individual Prometheans were also shown, tiny figures fleeing in scattered directions.  At the upper left corner of the panel, she spied several small ovoid shapes against the Promethean sky.

            Beyond this, Penelope could infer little more, as the subsequent panel and whatever information it might convey disappeared into the collapsed rubble of the other end of the hall.  The outline of the story, however, was impossible to misunderstand.

Dubois walked slowly and deliberately along the length of the hall behind her, then returned to the beginning and repeated the process.  Penelope watched as he carefully cast his beam and his gaze along every segment of the carvings’ tale to better illuminate the scene, both the lower script and the upper mural, lingering over no one section but taking it all in evenly.

“Astounding,” she heard him say.  “Simply astounding.”

Her own examination had further extended to the rubble clogging each end of the hall segment, confirming her suspicions that there would be no progress made by either of those two routes, which left only the original tunnel by which they had been travelling.  After she had satisfied herself on that score and learned what she could from the murals, she turned to her companions. “Gentlemen?” she queried.  “It seems to me that if we are to discover anything further, we will have to proceed along our previous route.”

Elias nodded.  “It would appear so.  I cannot see how we could make any headway through this,” he agreed, motioning toward one of the hall’s ends.

“As much as I would like to see more of these carvings,” Dubois concurred, “I believe you are correct, Baroness.”  The American turned toward her, his expression dispassionate and calm.  “I suppose we will have to make note of this location for later exploration.”  With those words, he moved to the ragged opening and carefully climbed back down.  Penelope followed a moment later, with Elias close behind, and the three continued once again along the broad lava tube.  The distant rushing sound grew steadily louder as they progressed through several more junctions.  And then, without warning, the tunnel ended abruptly, opening into an vast space ahead.

###

 

            The cavern was immense.  Even in the dull glow, the jagged rock walls stretched upwards into the shadow and beyond sight.  Beyond the short ledge on which they stood at the mouth of the tunnel, the floor of the passageway fell away into empty air.  Even before she looked down, the rising heat told Penelope what she’d see: a great river of molten rock flowing in its course and emptying into a wide pool before draining again through another opening on the far side.

            “Look!”  Elias shouted, pointing to their left.  Penelope followed the line of her husband’s gesture and gasped.  There, partially embedded in the cavern wall somewhat below their elevation, was a metallic structure.  A narrow, precarious-looking shelf of rock led from their viewpoint along the perimeter of the cavern to the craft, less than a quarter of the cavern’s circumference.

            The vessel was shaped rather like an inverted dinner plate or teacup saucer, with a bulbous hemisphere at the center.  No craft of the known worlds was constructed in such a fashion.  It could only be a Promethean ship.

            “Can we make that crossing?” Elias asked, indicating the walkway.

            “Can we depart this place without having made the attempt?” Dubois countered.  “We must try.”

            With that statement, the American stepped past them, carefully beginning to make his way along the shelf toward the wreckage.  Penelope looked over to Elias, who nodded in reply.  “After you, my love.  I’ll watch your back.”

            Penelope picked her way with care, following Dubois at a distance.  A quick glance behind her confirmed that Elias trailed her more closely.

            After many nerve-wracking minutes, the trio stood before the derelict vessel.  Dubois wasted no time scouting the portion of the hull accessible to them for an entrance, a cry of triumph rising from his lips as he met with success.  A circular opening, dark with shadow, contrasted with the metallic sheen of the craft’s exterior.  Whatever mechanism operated the doorway remained unseen.  Dubois produced his electric torch and a beam of yellow light cut into the darkness.  Without looking back to see if Penelope and Elias were following, he stepped within and the vessel’s interior echoed with footsteps for the first time in tens of thousands of years.

If the aperture through which the three humans entered the vessel was any indication, Penelope’s impression of the Promethean’s stature from the depiction on the mural was an accurate one.  The size of the circular opening was easily twelve feet in diameter and the high ceiling of the short corridor was obviously designed to accommodate beings of significantly greater height.

            And that corridor was indeed short, extending only ten paces or so into the interior before opening into a vast space.  Beams from three electric torches cast about the high-ceilinged chamber, attempting to capture a sense of its dimensions when a sudden low light illuminated the scene.  The three humans looked at each other in amazement and Penelope was certain that she detected a subtle hum that lay just below the threshold of her conscious hearing.

            “This vessel simply cannot still be operational.”  Penelope shook her head in disbelief.  “It must be over ten thousand years old!”

Dubois nodded.  “I share your incredulity, Baroness,” he responded.  “And yet....”  The American gestured at the unseen light source somewhere above them.  “It would seem there is some level of functionality indeed present.”

Perhaps,” Elias joined in as he surveyed the softly-illumined space, “this is some form of stand-by or emergency mode.”  His gaze met Penelope’s.  “While we know next to nothing about the Promethean’s physiology, this seems like minimal lighting to me.  Not to mention that the vessel is wedged in the wall of this cavern.”

Penelope considered the point.  “My question, however,” she pondered aloud, “is what power source could possibly remain functional over such a vast amount of time?”

Dubois casually indicated a structure at the central area of the vessel’s interior chamber.  “My guess, Baroness, would be that it involved this device here.”

Penelope followed the American’s gesture and understood his meaning instantly.  Dominating the center of the space, a structure stood high above them, a structure which--incredibly--was already familiar: a large hemisphere, cupped upward like a bowl, with a smaller sphere nestled within and oriented so as to be concentric with the outer shell.

“From the engravings on the wall of that cave,” Elias whispered in awe.  “That was a power plant.”

“That would be my assessment as well, Mr. Conner,” Dubois agreed.  “According to the scraps of legend, those of Atlantis--the Prometheans, we now understand--possessed incredible technology.  And from the good doctor’s translations of the legends of the Ancients, we know that this power harnessed by the Prometheans came from the heart of their world.”

“Vulcanite crystals,” Penelope observed.

“Exactly,” the American concurred.  “Except that the crystals and the power which lay within them are apparently not unique to Vulcan after all.  Rather, it just so happens that at this point in the development of the solar system, Vulcan is the only planet whose poles remain open to provide access to the interior.”

“What you’re talking about is the Eisenhopf Progression,” Elias observed.  “Younger planets in the interior of the Inner System and older planets at its outer edges, but a common trajectory of development.”  He looked to Penelope, his brow furrowed.  “But I thought that according to that theory, the Belt was the result of natural processes.  The death phase of the Inner System planets, as it were.”

Penelope nodded.  “That is my recollection of Eisenhopf’s conjecture as well.”  Her gaze travelled upward, taking in the structure towering high above them.  “I am beginning to wonder, however, if Professor Eisenhopf was not mistaken in that aspect of his hypothesis.”  Her eyes cut over to Dubois.  “Come now, monsieur.  Surely the researchers of the Hephaestus Corporation have not been idle all this time.”

Dubois inclined his head in acknowledgement, a wry smile on his lips.  “Indeed not, Baroness.”  He considered the Promethean device with a calculating look.  “We have long suspected that the crystals were not a unique artifact of Vulcan, merely the ready access to them.  We discouraged Eisenhopf’s approach in scientific circles even as we embraced its core idea.”  He shrugged.  “A necessary sleight-of-hand in the interests of my nation’s security.”

“If I might suggest,” Penelope commented levelly, “at this particular point, our interests align.  Perhaps we might take this opportunity to speak plainly.”

Dubois’ eyes glinted.  “Touché, Baroness.  In that case, I will say that our research into the underlying power of the crystals had yielded fascinating speculation, but little in the way of concrete results.  Until, that is,” he looked at Penelope, “you succeed in locating the sample your father had hidden away.”

“You know about the results of that research?” Penelope inquired, mildly surprised.  “I thought that to be a closely-held secret.”

“We are not without our resources,” Dubois stated enigmatically.  “In any event, with the information provided by examination of that sample, certain new avenues of research emerged.  The central hypothesis of our scientists today is that the core of each planet, wherein these crystals are formed, is imbued with a potential energy, a stored power, which we have been harvesting by means of mining the crystals directly and then consuming in our civilization’s aether engines.”

“Ch’i,” Penelope said simply.  “Prana.  Life force.”

“If you wish to anthropomorphize the issue,” Dubois shrugged.  “We prefer to take a more objective view of the matter.”

Penelope saw her husband’s eyes widen in a sudden understanding.  “My God,” he said quietly.  “The chieftain.”  He looked over at Penelope, intense.   “His dying words.  ‘All worlds as one.’  He was talking about the planets as living beings.”  Elias’ gaze shifted to Dubois.  “We’ve been slowly killing Vulcan all this time.”

“I would argue that ‘killing’ is a bit dramatic,” Dubois countered.  “But certainly, our mining operations have been in the context of extracting a finite resource, yes.”  He examined the vessel’s power plant once again.  “It would appear, however, that the Prometheans have found a more effective method, extracting the potential energy from the center of their world without having to physically mine the crystals themselves.”  He shook his head in wonderment.  “And as incredible as it might seem, my guess is that this mechanism is performing that very feat even now.”

“But Prometheus has long since been destroyed…” Elias protested, trailing off.  Then he turned to the American suddenly.  “You’re saying that this device is tapping the energy at the heart of Mars?”

“Yes, Mr. Conner,” Dubois replied calmly.  “That is precisely what I am suggesting.”

Penelope stared at the Promethean mechanism looming over them.  “I believe it would be important to note, however,” she observed after a moment’s contemplation, “that the crystal sample my father retrieved from the Belt--from the remains of Prometheus--held no trace of this life energy.”  She looked to Dubois pointedly.  “Those crystals were dead.”

“If the present hypotheses of our scientists are even remotely accurate,” Dubois replied, “the amount of energy present within a planet of even modest size is unimaginably vast.”  He gestured broadly at the technology around them.  “The Prometheans must have been extracting that energy at a considerable pace for quite a long time.”

A shudder rocked the vessel, much more intense now than the previous tremors, and Penelope had to grab at what appeared to be an arm rail--set at eye-level, she observed absently--in order to keep her balance.     

“I’m getting the feeling that our visit here needs to be a brief one,” she commented.

Something flickered in Dubois’ eyes and he nodded.  “As much as I’d prefer otherwise,” he responded, “I think you are correct, Baroness.”  Another tremor followed, hard on the heels of its predecessor.  Dubois moved to the far side of the Promethean device.

            The craft vibrated as yet another quake shook the cavern and the floor took on  dangerous tilt.  This tremor did not subside as the others had done, however, and the rumble of the rock filled the air.  Penelope’s eyes met Elias’ and she nodded.  “We need to get out of here,” she shouted over the clamor.  Glancing over to the American, who remained intently focused on the Promethean machinery, she called out.  “Dubois!  We need to move--now!”

            “I hear you, Baroness,” he replied, continuing his visual survey of the vessel’s inner workings.  “Go.  I will follow.”

            Penelope shook her head, but turned to make for the ship’s outer hatchway, exiting directly behind her husband.  Quickly moving away from the vessel, it became apparent to both of them what the fate of the Promethean craft was to be.  Another tremor loosened the last of the cavern wall’s hold on the relic and the disc-shaped vessel began to slide free.  At what had to be the last possible moment, Dubois appeared in the circular portal, leaping to the safety of the rocky ledge even as the ancient spacecraft slid away behind him.  Tumbling into the open air, the ship was briefly highlighted against the backdrop of the molten lake before diving into the liquid rock below.

            Penelope watched as the magma slowly devoured the Promethean vessel.  The secrets that had been lost for tens of thousands of years were now lost to humanity forever.

 

###

 

            The shuddering of the rock around them continued and the three explorers made their way along the narrow ledge, returning to the mouth of the tunnel by which they had entered.  Great chunks of cavern wall broke away, falling into the lake of magma below.  They raced through the lava tube, a cloud of debris and dust billowing behind them as the tunnel partially collapsed.  Finally, the tremors subsided, although they had blindly traversed several intersections by that point and were well off the route by which they had come.

            Penelope looked about as she leaned against her husband, coughing to clear her lungs of dust. Then she stood bolt upright, glancing rapidly this way and that.

            Dubois was nowhere in sight.

            The realization that the American had once again slipped away struck her like a hammer blow and she let forth a torrent of curses.  As her oaths subsided, a subtle clearing of a throat caught her attention and she glared in its direction, her expression softening somewhat when she saw Elias observing her in the pale luminescence of the tunnel with a slightly bemused look.

            “What?” she asked pointedly.

            “I’d just like to note for the record,” her husband commented, “that when our child comes forth into these worlds swearing like an inebriated aetherman on leave, it is quite apparent which parent will have been the root influence.”

“Ass.”  She smiled wearily at him, then her face became more serious.  “Dubois is gone.”

Elias nodded.  “I noticed.  The man is adept, I’ll grant him that.”  He reached out and touched her cheek gently.  She closed her eyes and held his hand against the side of her face, letting out a long, slow breath. 

“Girl,” Elias said abruptly.

            She opened her eyes, her expression confused.  “I’m sorry?”

            “You had asked,” he pointed out, “whether I was hoping for a boy or a girl.  So I was answering.”

            “Firstly,” Penelope responded with a shake of her head, “I had asked that question a considerable time ago.  Secondly, why a girl?”

            “I had to think on it,” Elias replied.  “Not that it matters what I hope for one way or the other, really.  The goose is already in the oven, so to speak.”

            “Kindly refrain from referring to my uterus as a kitchen appliance, good sir,” Penelope commented drily.  “Or from conjuring up images of large birds cooking therein.  I’m still coming to terms with the immanent bloating of my body as it is.”

            “You are and will always be beautiful,” Elias countered.  “Even more so as a new life grows within you.”  He gestured broadly.  “Like a radiant sun…”

            “Stop.”  She swatted his arm.  “You can wax poetic months from now when I’m laid out on the couch like a great flopping walunis floundering on some Venusian beach.  We have to get ourselves out of here first.”

            “You always did have an excellent sense of priorities, my love.”

            “And you,” she rejoined, “have done an excellent job of evading my other question.  Why a girl?”

            “Oh that.  Simple.” Her husband’s eyes held hers steadily.  “So that your firstborn and heir can be just like you.  Imagine the havoc that your line could continue to wreak on the plains of history.  Plus,” he confided with a grin, “it would be all the more entertaining when the child does start swearing like a drunken aetherman.  Martian high society would have conniptions.”

            Penelope smiled.  “I rather like that thought, I must admit.”  She looked at her husband levelly.  “I suppose that you’re going to make some terribly practical suggestion now, such as our need to focus on getting back to the surface?”

“I was, actually.”

 She shook her head.  “Where would I be without you?”

“Oh, probably lost somewhere in a maze of tunnels beneath an ancient Martian volcano,” Elias responded.  “But without the charming company of yours truly.”

“Have I ever mentioned you can be an ass?”

“You have,” he affirmed.  “But a loveable ass.  And one who adores you, which ought to make up for a good bit.”

“Perhaps,” she admitted.  “Okay then, my loveable ass of a husband, I suppose we should find a way out of here.”

“Agreed.”  He motioned down one of the tunnels.  “This one appears to have the strongest breeze.  Seems as good a choice as any.”

            They moved along the tunnel without further discussion.  The current of air against her face told Penelope they were at least generally moving in the correct direction and they navigated the intersections they encountered on that basis.  The sharp disappointment at Dubois’ escape began to subside somewhat, gradually folding itself into the familiar dull ache she’d carried for nearly a decade now.

            The air around her changed again and she realized that the web of light was slowly fading away.  Elias clicked his torch on and the beam sliced through the deepening gloom.  Penelope’s joined a moment later and the two of them moved more slowly now.  After yet another junction, Penelope saw a point of light ahead, the fresh breeze quite strong now.

            They stepped from the cavern into the open air.  A narrow ledge projected from the rock and into the great crevasse.  From the slope of the lip of rock above them, Penelope realized that they had somehow managed to end up on the same side of the canyon as they had entered, though how far up or downslope from their vessel she could not say.  A steep, but navigable pathway climbed the rock face to their left, offering means to make their way back to the Promise’s anchorage.  The crevasse was not wide at this point, perhaps forty yards, but its depth seemingly limitless, descending into darkness far below.  Movement on the opposite slope caught her attention.

            “Dubois!” Penelope called out, bringing her pistol up.  “Stop right there.”

            Her adversary had apparently exited from a similar cavern on the far side, somewhat below the one she and Elias had found, but he had already begun his ascent toward the surface.  At her command, he paused at the jutting outcrop he’d reached and turned towards them.

            “Penny…” Elias began.

            “Elias,” Penelope cut him off, her gaze firmly on Dubois.  “You are my husband and I love you dearly, but do not cross me on this.  I have waited for nearly ten years now.”  Her grip on the pistol tightened.  “Ten years!”

            “You may wish to listen to you husband, Baroness,” Dubois replied across the chasm.  “And consider what I have to offer in exchange.”

            “I am hardly offering to defend you, sir,” Elias responded coolly.  “I merely wish my wife to consider her actions carefully before taking irrevocable steps.”

            “What would you have that would be of interest to me?” Penelope asked, her voice level.  “What could you possibly offer that I would spare your life?”

            Dubois gestured calmly, his hands open.  “Why, nothing less than the salvation of our civilization.”

            “What do you mean?” she demanded.

            “Your father was not the only student of Giordano Bruno’s art of memory,” Dubois replied.  “I have worked for many, many years to develop my faculties of recollection.”  He tapped his right temple.  “In here, I have stored a visual replica of the Promethean’s writings and the mechanism from the Promethean vessel.  With those images and the good professor’s research as a starting point, we will decode the Promethean documents and gain access to their technology.  Then we, too, will be able to harness the power which lay at the hearts of the worlds.  The crystal mines of Vulcan may be in the wane, but vast new resources will become open to human exploitation.”

            Penelope shook her head curtly.  “The Prometheans destroyed their planet with that technology you would unleash,” she called out.  “How would our path be any different?”

            “There is no alternative,” Dubois responded.  “Our system requires this power to continue.”  He gestured broadly.  “Consider the consequences: chaos, ruin, the inevitable decline of our system, the loss of that balance you hold so dear, the end of all that humanity has achieved.”  He paused, looking at her intently.  “Think on it, Baroness.  We have the opportunity to save our way of life, to continue humanity’s pursuit of its destiny among the stars.  Our civilization does not have to die!”

            A calm came upon Penelope as she stood perched on that ledge, perched at the precipice of action.  Time slowed to a crawl.  She considered the man facing her across the crevasse: the murderer of her father, yet one who had also honored him; her adversary, her rescuer, her child’s rescuer.  One who would be both the savior and the destroyer of human civilization.  The fate of humanity weighed heavily in the palm of her hand.  And in that stillness, as after a ferocious storm, a quiet voice spoke, certain and knowing.

            The pistol cracked, sharp and loud in the high Martian air, echoing endlessly from the surrounding rock.

Dubois’ eyes widened and his expression shifted to one of mild surprise as a rich crimson stain blossomed on his shirt, expanding rapidly across his chest.  His body bent forward at the waist, almost in a bow, as he fell from the ledge and into the great crevasse.  Penelope’s eyes followed the tumbling form as Dubois’ body grew ever smaller, fading from sight as it slipped into the shadowed depths of the planet.

            “Death,” she said quietly, “is the fate of all things.”

 

>>  This Precarious Balance