The rover trip from Outpost Echo near Mars’ southern polar ice cap to the Restricted Zone—colloquially described as New China—in Planum Chronium was tedious and uninteresting. It took more than eight hours, and the four astronauts aboard the driverless transport used the time to file digital reports, though the contents of the backlog would more than keep them occupied for the return trip and then some.
Spectra was the junior member of the team, having only arrived on Mars little over a standard month ago, but that’s precisely how she’d gotten the choice assignment. After the six-week journey between worlds, she still had more of her Earth-adapted muscle mass than the long-term crew at Echo. No one was really sure what they’d find when the entered the RZ, and physical strength was of ability of many that might be needed.
When the government on Earth collapsed—which it did shockingly, terrifyingly fast—the taikonauts in the RZ went silent. The encryption on their signals had never been broken but the traffic was still monitored, and after the collapse it simply ceased. Nothing inbound or out. And then, exactly 90 standard-days later, they left. A train of super heavy-lift Mandate 6 rockets launched continuously for hours and hours. The RZ was abandoned.
For close to three decades, New China had expanded to an area more than 20 square kilometers, but what was happening there was impossible to know. Only the launchpads were above ground. The size could only be estimated by the bubbles of flash-blasted ground that would suddenly appear as the occupants constructed an underground labyrinth of unknown depth and purpose. Solar and wind energy were apparently not the power sources, for nothing of the sort stood on the surface.
“Entering the RZ. Thirty minutes to the launch pad access area. Heads up.”
Spectra and the rest of the team put down their tablets and took stations at the rover’s windows. And reluctantly, they each in turn eyed the pulse rifles in the equipment locker.