Air inside the new laboratory was cold, but fresh, Kurt immediately noticed upon entering. Someone was kind enough to set down a few plants in the corners, hooked to an automated irrigation syatem.

Any plants that he had in the past were tended to by Maya, his wife, who now had left with the DEHumans over six months ago.

His green thumb was nonexistent, so he was glad that the government had provided him with that. Working on the ancient Harpy ship had concluded that it was brought there to study earth, and to function as a gateway.

Still other scientists were crawling all over it. Or rather through it, using the remote controlled robots on lease from the policeforce.

His attention was soon redirected to antimatter research by President Kinsey and the senate. Two way communication with RV-p296 was reestablished shortly after the linkers had left, and continued on. To his disappointment an ambassador, and office of communication, had been appointed, he was no longer directly involved in the MISR.

 

Although only working on antimatter research, his new office was in the formerly abandoned Valles Marineries settlement, his old lab remained without an atmosphere to ensure no, or at least less, tampering with the quantum entanglement device.

“Thank you,” Kurt turned to the lovely young woman in uniform that had showed him to his new office. “this place is great.”

Saluting with a smile she turned on her heel and marched out, another uniformed woman entered. “Doctor Braun?”

Whom else was she expecting? “None other.” He smiled, looking around the room to find a place where he and his guest could sit.

“Good, we need to speak.” She pointed at a group of chairs around a table. Obviously she knew more about his new place than he did.

“I am General Regina Marston.” She introduced herself as they sat down. “Since when do we have Generals?” He jokingly asked adjusting the chair.

“We are new.” A feigned smile was flashed.

“Well then,” he returned the smile, equally artificial as hers, “what can I do to please you General?” Did I really say that?

Amused she raised an eyebrow. “Antimatter is what you can do for me. And are supposed to.” She gestured around, implying that the two of them worked for the martian government with the same agenda. “It is,” she interrupted his speech about the ban on antimatter by raising a hand.

“It is no longer, first. Secondly, we need another entanglement device.” Baffled he stared across the table. The room was completely silent, except the AC.

“May I ask what for?” A genuine smirk appeared on the General’s face. “The president said you’d want to know. Against my recommendation, he ordered me to give you full disclosure.” The relatively short woman stood up, her blond hair was tied strickt in a ponytail. “There is more at stake here than just power for Mars. Estimates say that the colony can be powered with the the geothermal reserves for quite some time.” He had worked briefly on those estimates, he knew all too well that the geothermal reserves lasted for generations to come.

“If I had to guess, General, I’d wager you want antimatter for either weaponry or, and that’s my peraonal favorite, a ship.”

An honest smile appeared on her lips as she stopped her pacing around the table. “The question now is not if you can, or if you will provide it, but how soon.”

Reclining in his seat Kurt looked Regina Marston up and down. “No, the question is rather, what quantities are we talking about here?” He too got up now. “Another question for the feasibility of your ship is one of storage against creation. Do you want to traverse the universe with large quantities of a highly volatile substance, suspended in a magnetic field, at danger of annihilating your vessel if power levels drop, or do you want to carry the technology and resources for making more of said substance?”

Intrigued Regina nodded with raised eyebrows.

Now she understood why the President had insisted on giving him full disclosure. “Phoenix. Are you familiar with it?”

All color seemed to fade from Kurt as she mentioned the name Phoenix. “A black project from the early days of Martian history. Based on the Ark1 designs. Abandoned when first the resources to build it where not available, and later shelved when the number of people on Mars exceeded the number of people that could be put inside it.” Recounting the facts he knew about Phoenix, Kurt sat down again, as did Regina.

“Please tell me you’re not building it.”

With her eyes half closed she gently shook her head giving Kurt reason to hope.

“We’re finalising it.” She threw a tablet on the table. A sturdy old model of a tablet, with dents and scratches, but otherwise durable.

With shaking hands from a sudden rush of adrenaline he picked it up and looked at the open page.

Ark3, codename Phoenix, construction start 32 after settlement. “Robot mining and construction are a tricky thing. Even when it was discontinued, the robots used were not deactivated, although half of them were diverted to other use, the people in charge decided against it. They closed the door, turned off life support and access tunnels, after they left, and no one ever was the wiser.” She gleamed with a victorious smile.

Kurt was left astonished. He returned his attention to the tablet in his hands. The Ark3 had the capacity to carry but a fraction of the martian population, but with its capabilities of fast travel they could ferry them all to RV-p296.

“RV-p296, they frown upon antimatter use. As far as I know, the MISR had to fall back on solar power and surrender it’s antimatter storage and engine to destruction.”

Again the General flashed her fake smile. “That is of no concern for you at the moment. First we need the ship operational.”

Again glancing at the tablet Kurt scratched his head. It made sense now that both the president and senator Adele Farrington, wanted him to make more antimatter. Off the records though.

He took a glance at some of the dimensions the Ark3 had. It stil seemed wiser to take only a little bit of Antimatter with them, and create more as they traveled.

In his mind the scientist already did the first calculations, estimates for the required quantities, until his conscious mind took over and commanded him to halt and inquire.

“The Ark3 will lift off from the surface?” He had not noticed that several minutes had passed, and the general had sat there, quietly observing him.

“Yes. Martian gravity is lower, which allows for the ship to be built on and launched from surface.”

“Gravity lower or not, there’s still a lot of thrust required, the storage tanks are not designed to take that sort of beating. The way you want it, can’t be done.” He looked at her, only now noticing she had looked at him in an interested way.

“In addition, I’d need to know what kind of distance you want to cross. Are you going to use the antimatter generator for normal power requirements as well? There should be other systems in place in case of catastrophic loss of containment, and I’m not talking batteries here. I strongly recommend a remodeling of the Ark3 to make use of at least one fusion reactor, a thorium fission reactor, and the capabilities of creating more antimatter on the journey.” He put down the tablet, pushed it back to her.

Begrudgingly Regina looked at the tablet.

Slowly she understood.

Doctor Kurt Braun was not going to merely comply, give them antimatter in a container, and semd them off, potentially to blow up in a horrific antimatter annihilation explosion.

Good.

“The plan is to travel to RV-p296, as well as other destinations of interest. It is not a ferry meant to take the martian population someplace else than where they are now.”

I knew it. Raising his eyebrows Kurt leaned back, eagerly staring at her. “You need an accelerator, containment, reaction chambers need to be redesigned, as those designs are from the ship of doom. I could provide you with my own designs, but I’m sure you already got them.” He smirked, more to annoy than out of a real reason to smile.

Swallowing Regina nodded, taking the tablet into her hands, pressing a few buttons. Entering a security code.

Handing the tablet back. “Your revisions had been anticipated. When you launched the MISR first revisions of the reaction chambers had been made.” Revealing that the ship had already begun to be redesigned, she now returned the fake smile.

Sighing in frustration Kurt did not even bother to look at the tablet. “Alright, cut the crap.” Crossing his arms in front of his chest. “Why do you dance around the bush here? Let’s cut to the chase. What exactly do you want me to do here?” Finally his suspicions about the project had been confirmed. His involvement was not to be restricted to just providing antimatter and a quantum entangled device for instant communication.

The hardened contours of Regina’s face became softer. “Do you want to see the Phoenix?”

Intrigued he raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps, as soon as you told me what my involvement here is.” He would’ve liked nothing more than to see the Phoenix.

Again Regina took the tablet, again she punched in a security code, returned the device. Spontaneous laughter erupted from Kurt after reading the first few lines. “Out of the question.” He giggled. “This scientist stays on Mars, borderline mad as I may be, I’m not going to board that ship.”

Bewildered Regina stood up. Without a word or greeting she left, followed by Kurt’s continued laughter, concluding he truly was a mad scientist.

The president would need to find another genius to help them in perfecting the Phoenix.

 

Although tasked with the ominous antimatter research, Kurt enjoyed relative freedom in his daily routine.

Leopold often stayed with Tracy, so even in his off hours he had time to waste. Most of which he used to dig through databases concerning the Phoenix, and the era in which construction of it began.

“Pa?” Startled he let out a shriek, as he had to do a few illegal tricks to obtain the data, he was a little on edge. “Yes?” He tried calming himself.

“Tracy dumped me.” He sat down, putting his feet on the table.

Putting his hand on his son’s shoulder Kurt leaned back in his chair, also putting his feet on the table. “That sucks. Why?”

“I don’t know.” Leopold nestled with his hands. Trying to distract himself from his loss the young lad pointed at the tablet Kurt had been handking a moment before. “What are you doing?”

“Classified.” His father smirked in a way that told Leopold everything. Immediately he knew that not even his father was supposed to know. “Can I have a look?”

“No.” Kurt also looked at the table. “But you know my security as well as I do.” He winked.

A knowing smile on his lips Leopold jumped to his feet and came back a moment later with his own tablet, it took only a few minutes for the lad to access his father’s network and data. “Is this for real?” He looked up a moment later.

Glancing at the youth over the edge of his tablet, Kurt sighed. “I don’t know what you are talking about. The reality of some things is not to be negated.” Again a wink, which his son answered with a broad grin.

 

Both sat for hours lurking over datasheets, specs for the Phoenix, revisions of the plans and martian history. “Nice myth, Pa.” Leopold stood up at about two in the morning, followed by a heartily yawn. “But with the latest containment chamber, it is just that. A myth.”

Walking off to his bedroom Leopold yawned again, leaving Kurt baffled. At fourteen his son thought he knew something about containment chambers? Was this a joke?

Intrigued he drew up the latest revisions and took a look.

 

“Your help will not be required.” Regina was stonefaced again, the dim lighting of her office did only highlight her hard features. “I know, I haven’t exactly been forthcoming three weeks ago.”

“Six.” Regina corrected him. Six? Was it truly that long? “What ever. The containment chamber is not going to hold.”

“Our scientific head of construction says otherwise.”

Kurt formed a fist, why would she not listen? “Who is your genius?”

“Doctor Fineman.”

“Fineman is an idiot. The magnetic field density is all wrong, with this setup the Phoenix would not even make it to orbit.”

Regina let out a sigh of annoyance. “I’m not going to ask how you obtained the latest data on the project, I will forget this ever happened. And I suggest you do the same.” The general moved her hand to end the conversation.

“At least take a look at the sepcs, you can always say that you were not sure and contacted me about it. I was after all cleared to receive the initial information.”

Telling him that she’d take his words under consideration Regina ended the conversation, leaving Kurt alone in front of his screen.

A lot of thoughts wandered around Kurt’s mind in the semi dark confines of his office.

The new place had a few advantages over his old place. It was cleaner.

Not because he was a hopeless case in terms of cleanliness, which he was, but the nature of the rock surrounding him.

Not the volcanic rock, that dumped tons of dust into the rooms. It was, when the lights were turned up, brighter.

Still, it had the touch of underground bunker.

Everything on Mars had that.

Everything on Mars was just that. No matter where he went, it all was a bunker, it all had the touch and feel of dust. Kurt never knew anything else but that.

Until he saw footage from the ships.

The three Orion type ships, with their five rings, the Ark type ships with the two rings. Their interior was neat, tidy and clean. Entirely different from Mars.

Footage from RV-p296 was as unbelievable to him as videos and pictures from Earth, but the atmosphere, the touch and feel of the ships was close.

Within his reach almost.

Why did he decline the offer to work on the project? Why deny himself the opportunity to flee from the bunkersystem that was Martian life?

He glanced to the door that led to his quarters, where Leopold had gone to his room and slept. His son, yes. Could he take him on the Phoenix? If so, would there be people in Leopold’s age range?

 

Morning light shone in the garden. It was a new creation, as the former cult settlers of Valles Marineries had not built for one originally.

Still it already had grown in, the trees and shrubs brought in from the main settlement, had thrived and rooted well.

It was nice for Kurt to be surrounded by the plants, with no walls visible. Unlike many of the gardens in Olympus mons, that were just that. Gardens in a room.

“How do you like the artificial sky built here?” A familiar voice disturbed Kurt from his morning pondering. “Very nice, General. Let’s one forget that we’re deep under ground.” He nodded to the vacant spot to his side on the bench. “But I suspect you had not come here to chat about artifical skies.”

“No.” Regina sat down, imitated his behaviour when she found him, in leaning back, squinting at the sky and enjoying the illusion of sunlight on her skin.

“You were right.” She half mumbled, half sighed. “About the containment chamber. You should really get aboard the project.”

Kurt turned towards her, leaned his face on his left hand. “I think so too. But there are ties keeping me on Mars.”

Regina also turned, leaning on her right. “Your son, Leopold? It is possible for him to come on the journey as well. We conscripted a few people with families, they are all coming. I know for a fact that there will be youths in his age.”

There was a warm smile on her lips and honesty in her voice that convinced Kurt she was being truthful. “Alright, I will join in finalising the project, and perhaps joining in on the flight of the Phoenix. But, I always have to think of Leopold first.”

Agreeing on his responsibilities as a father first, and a scientist second, Regina nodded. Again she turned to the simulated sunlight. “Do you hear that?” A noise echoed through the garden. “A bird.” Kurt replied dryly.

“A cuckoo.” There was something playful in her voice that Kurt had never thought possible in her. “We dug through archives and archives, until we found a suitable sample.” With the same playfulness in her eyes and smile she turned back to the scientist next to her. “This garden, is sort of a test run for the Phoenix gardens. If you thought the gardens aboard the Orion ships and the Kismet were great, wait until those of the Phoenix are operational.”

Kurt could not help but gift her with a faint smile. The Phoenix was a long way from going operational. She sat on the ground.

Most of its interior was slanted, or upside down. Only a minor fraction was upright. The gardens, would take a while until becoming usable.

 

Turbulent shaking kept Kurt’s mind busy. Keep your eyes shut. Keep your eyes shut. Against his own mental mantra he opened his eyes. In the chair next to him was Leopold. He had a breathing mask strapped over his nose and mouth, like him.

In other chairs were other people. All with face masks, most clenching tightly the armrests of their chairs.

Rattling grew less intense.

A short fleeting feeling, as if a wall of fire passed through him, washed over him. They had taken off. The shaking was mostly from Phoenix overcoming its own inertia, amassing enough force with the engines to push off of the martian soil.

Pressed into the back of the seat Kurt felt the acceleration weigh him down, exert more force on him. Again he closed his eyes and thought back on when he first saw the Phoenix standing upright in the old magma chamber of a smaller volcano.

 

After Regina had cleared him and Leopold for the mission, once the lad had agreed on the lunatic idea his father proposed, he was taken aboard a cab.

From the Valles Marineries settlement, the ride went back to the old settlement in Olympus Mons, ending at a dead end tunnel.

After a minute or so, a gate behind the cab closed, atmosphere was drained from the tube, and the rock wall ahead of them slid to the side, revealing a hidden passage. Much faster than he was used to, the cab then proceeded onwards.

At the end of the ride a group of armed men and women awaited them. No one without a security clearance could go further. Computers could be hacked, terminals tricked. A group of imposing armed guards, could not be fooled so easily.

From the platform there was a short walk through a series of airlocks, until he stood in the magma chamber. Gazing up the impressive ship that stood there.

To that moment he had assumed the Phoenix was sitting on its belly, now he saw that it was standing upright.

“All systems have checked out so far.” Doctor Fineman reported when he saw Regina and Kurt. There was disdain for Kurt in his gaze, but he kept it to himself.

Disapproval in her eyes Regina took the tablet he was holding towards her, gave it to Kurt without even looking at it. “Thanks Dr. Fineman.”

Kurt glanced over the tablet and the displayed data. It seemed to check out.

But he also was too distracted by the shiny ship that stood before them. During the last days he had been inaugurated on the history of the project, that had been kept offline for obvious reasons.

Production of the first parts had begun soon after it had been conceived. Construction site and transport there had been erected using as little manpower as possible.

All the walls he had seen so far were crudely cut from the rock. Nothing had been smoothed to please the eye. Little to no decoration.

The facility had a large air refinement plant. CO2 scrubbers, plants, mostly algae, running on geothermal energy.

“What do you think of her?” Regina leaned into his view.

“She’s a beauty. I can’t wait to see how she ticks.” He expressed his eager curiosity.

“General?” A man with grimy clothes approached her. He had dirty hands, not grease, but soil. “All plants have been prepared, and are currently in storage.” He smiled, mimicked a salute and marched on.

“That was Doctor Washington.” Nodding, but still too fascinated by the ship before him to truly listen, Kurt stepped closer to the Phoenix, his head bowed back to look up. “She looks different than the other ships of the Ark type.” He noted recalling images of the Ark1 and Kismet. There were still the iconic rings of the terrestrial ship design, but also a bullet shaped spear head at the top, not another ring.

“Yes.” Regina stopped next to him glancing at the top too with squinted eyes. “It’s an experiment, and a risk. As well as part of Phoenix’s mission.” Her attention turned back to his asking expression. “Come on.” A genuine smile on her lips she stepped on a conveyor belt leading to the Phoenix.

 

The weight pushing Kurt deep into his chair lifted. A small gravitational force was still noticeable, but it grew less and less with each passing moment.

Sitting in the common room of the alpha ring Kurt looked to his son, noticing the relief in the youth’s expression.

After a few minutes an announcement from the General told them to remain seated as the rings were engaged.

Kurt felt a slight tuck to the left as the ring began motioning. The sensation soon faded, replaced by the centrifugal push outwards, simulating gravity.

After a while the force reached martian levels, where it remained.

Over time the force would be gradually increased to reach the same force as earth’s gravity.

A delicate process, as the Martian humans were not used to handle that sort of gravity, both mentally, and physically. Not long after, the all clear was given for them to leave their seats.

Impressed with the clear and easy lift off Kurt gladly stretched his legs. As did Leopold.

“Welcome to Orbit.” Regina approached the two. “We will be leaving Orbit in two hours, start the journey to pop by the RV-p296 system.”

Confused Leopold had thought that they were to remain in Orbit for weeks until the ship and it’s interior had settled in. “I’ll explain later.” Kurt winked, following the general. They had poured over the plans of the ships for weeks, so Leopold knew the way to their quarters.

 

An animated video was displayed on the screen in the office where Regina had sat down with Kurt. It showed the head of the Phoenix detaching from the main ship, descending into the atmosphere of an alien world. “…fully equipped with deflective tiles to withstand the heat of atmospheric entry the Phoenix’s head is a landing craft designed for entry and take off from alien worlds.” A voice over explained.

“It houses the bridge of the ship, once detached, controls are handed over to the auxiliary bridge in the alpha ring. The main body of the Phoenix functions as a station in space during the time of a landing mission. In case of loss of the spearhead, the Phoenix still is a fully operational ship.”

Kurt raised an eyebrow. He made a note in his mind. There were questions he had about the functionality of the head. Not so much regarding its function as a landing craft, but as a lived and worked in part of Phoenix while in space. “Based on the exceptional advances in the field by Doctor Braun, the spearhead uses artificial gravity, rather than the rotation of it.” Scratch that note.

More animation showed the spearhead dock again. According to the simulation both parts of Phoenix could function independently from one another, as ships. The spearhead was limited in range, or speed at least, however, since the antimatter engine had been installed in Phoenix’s rear. Containment chambers could be detached as well and jettisoned in case a failure of containment was imminent.

A safety feature that eased Kurt’s mind and concerns. Special valves had been installed as well so the antimatter in the chambers could be vented at high pressure, away from the ship, without losing the chambers.

Automatically the lights in the room turned brighter again as the presentation came to a close. They sat in a small room, in a small building next to Phoenix.

“Based on my work? What work would that be?” Immediately he turned to the General next to him. “You drove the MISR to its target using what, besides antimatter fuelled warping?”

“Gravi” he stopped his brows moved close to one another. “Did you perfect it? For use as artificial gravity?”

“Fineman did it. All plants for use aboard the Phoenix are already in storage in the spearhead. Mars’ own gravity is, of course, cancelled out.”

Giving Fineman credit for doing something right was not hard for Kurt, the man was after all not stupid.

But he began to question himself what they needed him for now. Except his mistake with the containment chamber configurations, Fineman seemed to be more than capable of handling the Phoenix.

“We want Fineman to stay on Mars.” Regina stood up. “He already agreed on the details of his new assignment.”

Slowly it dawned on Kurt. “He is to build more ships. Antimatter powered, with artificial gravity under their decks.” Neither uttering a confirmation nor a dementy, Regina just smiled and walked out.

 

Fascinated by the clean walls and floors, no rock in sight anywhere, Kurt strode to the control centre, right by the bridge, where Regina had went. After it had been revealed to him how the gravity was created in the foremost part of Phoenix, he acquainted himself with the facility. The artifical gravity was powered by the fusion reactor in the spearhead, to keep it running once separated from the rear.

In addition to it not having power prior to activating the antimatter generator.

Although the technology to cleanse the air was the same as on the ground, Kurt noticed it smelling differently. A hint of a smell he related to new technology was lying in the air, but he also noticed the lack of a dusty scent. The smell of rocks. Although a certain earthy flavor was hanging in the hallways and corridors, as the gardens were finally set up proper, the air lacked that distinct odour of rock he never truly had been able to place, but that always had been there.

The control centre was a well lit room, following the arch of the ship’s nose, at which’s center sat the bridge, a few people sat there and monitored their stations.

“Doctor.” Someone greeted him, he had not found the time to learn their names yet. “Hi, just checking on the gravity field.” He smiled enthusiastically.

“Everything about that is in the green.” A dark blond man shouted from his station. Oddly enough, Kurt remembered him. Linus Tuovinen, head of the engineering department.

As far as he understood it, Phoenix was his baby.

Linus knew every part and system of the ship, which would ensure frequent encounters with the man. “Great!” Kurt beamed. A little uncertain he glanced around the room.

There was a workstation for him, he just did not know where. “This way sir.” Linus got up and approached with a kind smile. Seldom had Kurt seen a man with a full beard, somehow it seemed to be frowned upon in martian society.

“Thank you.” Little more than a cubicle awaited him. No one had a better workspace in the room. Most did not even have the cubicle. In three rows the desks with monitors were lined up, facing all in the same direction.

“We’re ready to initiate the matter-antimatter reaction on your command.” Linus sat down at the adjacent desk. “General Marston gives the commands, I’m just keeping an eye on the engine.”

An amused smirk appeared on Linus’ face. “Aren’t we all?”

 

As tasked by the general and the president, Kurt had made the antimatter required to get them going, but it was released into the containment chambers only a week before the launch. The entire complex had been evacuated during the fueling process, and an engine test right after it had been completed, to see whether the calculations regarding the vibrations during liftoff held, or not. “Switching on the the accelerator.” Kurt pressed a button on the shiny touch panel that was his desk. At the moment the chambers contained barely enough antimatter to make it to RV-p296. They would need to make more to journey back. Or else where.

“Reaching operating levels in fifteen minutes.” Linus read from his display. An initial run was scheduled before they took off, in case it did not function properly, they would not be far from home.

On Kurt’s screen a message appeared. It was a multimedia message from Leopold. “Sometimes everything happens for a reason, thanks for convincing me to take the journey!” Attached was a picture of him and Tracy standing in a hallway on Phoenix. A knowing smile on his lips Kurt turned his attention back to the work. He had seen Tracy and her family on the passenger manifest of Phoenix a while ago, had hoped that the two would meet on the ship sometime, not before take off and get to talking.

“We’re good to initiate the first run.” Linus woke him from his daydreaming train of thoughts. “Good. Initiating.”

It took a few minutes, after which the detectors showed antimatter being created, and siphoned off to containment. With a broad, almost victorious smile, Linus asked whether he could have the honor to tell the General.

 

“Attention all hands, this is General Marston. We received the go from President Kinsey. I must say that I am proud to be here with all of you. On this day we all set new limits for all of human kind.” Well phrased, thought Kurt. It acknowledged the fact that the DEHumans already had set such limits, but those did not see themselves as part of the same species any longer.

A glance at the timer on his screen told Kurt that the two hours were almost up. Only a few seconds left to go.

“An exciting time lies before us, we will further not only the limits and boundaries of our species, but also our knowledge. Mankind now truly enters the interstellar age. God speed, everyone.”