Author: Rick Tobin

“May I speak frankly?” Preston Daniels stood before Secretariat Chrisom, ruler straight, staring at the Marscape beyond his superior’s office windows.

“With care, Preston. You always have delicate propositions, often nothing to do with our mission: input, output, and throughput. So if it doesn’t have to deal with those three, step lightly.” Chrisom’s crest of graying hair topped his lanky, weathered face and chiseled frame. Fat was an annoyance he never tolerated.

Daniels cleared his throat while noticing Chrisom rest his palms down on his imposing chair, covering arms like eagle talons. Chrisom’s knuckles squeezed tight. Daniels felt like prey.

“The Union should carefully reconsider moving deeper into Cassini crater in Arabia Terra. A continued movement of crop development there is driving indigenous life forms to migrate into agricultural outposts. Cerra Cordova was nearly decimated by Strongian mites two months ago. Survivors are still being treated. We’ve just removed the pestilence from soybean crops. That was a major output loss, sir.”

“Yes, yes…history. We’ve managed it. Get to the point. Do you need funds for more spraying? Those funds are tight this time of year, but if needed…”

“No, sir,” Preston interrupted. “It is far more serious. If we push into Cassini we’ll encroach deeper into breeding grounds of the Talus Worms. Those monsters…just one bite on the ankle. Many would perish without the antidote from Berthold. People say he lives in Cassini.”

“Berthold! Berthold! How many times must I remind you to not mention his name here? For six months, I’ve pulled this planet together, while all I’ve heard is that ridiculous myth—a phantom that cures field workers and then disappears. Rubbish! And then I receive a message that he is demanding reparations for ill peasants working in advancing territories. I’ll tell you, Daniels, it’s the beginning of another worker uprising. They’re using this imaginary fairy tale to extort company profits. Well, I won’t have it!”

Chrisom leaned forward, slamming his fists on the red stone table. Just then, his administrative support popped her head around the meeting room door.

“Sorry,” she whispered lightly, fearful of her new boss’s temper. “Your wife’s called several times in the last ten minutes. She says it’s an emergency.”

“Damn her, anyway,” Chrisom snapped. “I told you not to interrupt me! You’ll learn. It’s always an emergency for her. She hates this place, new garden of the cosmos or not. Should have left her and my daughter to sweat out the summer in Canada. Tell her I’ll get to her in a few minutes…now go!” He twisted back to pounce while glaring at Preston.

“I’m sorry for the imposition, sir,” Preston continued, “but my research shows that Berthold descended from The Thirty. If that’s true, and he’s alive, using our clearing weapons on Cassini could kill him. Our Mars Charter specifically protects his genetic line for all time. Besides, his secret worm anti-venom would die with him. Those creatures are reportedly already burrowing through our strongest walls, invading the central city. If Xanthe became infested, none of us could survive.”

“What thirty colonists did three-hundred years ago is of no concern to me. I don’t care. Engage the clearing weapons. There will be no more discussion. Do you hear me? Keep quiet about Berthold, The Thirty and those stinking worms. I don’t need any rumors reaching Earth.” He pointed to the door.

“All right, sir.” Preston pushed a button on his arm computer. “Done. Drones have started bombardments.” Chrisom’s distressed assistant rushed past Preston as he cleared the doorway.

“Secretariat Chrisom, please contact her. Something serious has happened to your daughter.”