Prologue - The Cult
“Rejoice!” the young girl in white robes shouted to a silent crowd from an ornate red and gold podium. Families, bored teenagers, and a few homeless people looking for a warm seat and some complimentary snacks had filed into a small banquet hall. Everybody had seen the pamphlets recently. Thousands had been handed out by the red-robed acolytes standing in a line behind the girl with the knowledge that if even one percent of the people who'd seen them decided to follow up, they'd have a substantial audience.
The young girl continued her sermon. “I have come to bring salvation to the Martian people! For too long we've lived in poverty, strife, and squalor! My entire life, I believed we were simply being suppressed and subjugated by the jackboot of the Homeworld Empire, but now I know that's not true! That was never the case! It's been precisely four years since we made our alliance with the Homeworld, and we're still suffering! Many of you in the audience tonight are struggling to feed your children, feed yourselves, just to stay alive, and why? This isn't a problem on Earth!”
Shouts of “hear, hear!” and “yeah!” rang out from the assembled audience.
“On Earth, all of the children are cared for. On Earth, everyone has enough to eat and a place to sleep. On Earth, no one ever has to suffer as we Martians have suffered!”
The crowd cheered again and many of them raised their drinks, although the symbolic gesture was somewhat undercut by the fact that everyone was drinking iced tea out of plastic cups.
“And who's to blame for this inequality?” she asked.
Of course, the real answer was “the rich.” Mars had been carefully cultivated over hundreds of years so that each bio-dome would be able to support the population of a mid-sized Earth city. There should be enough resources that a household could have as many as ten people, and all of them would have a room of their own, three substantial meals a day, and enough water both for all of their drinking, bathing, and cleaning needs.
However, unfortunately, one of the many things imported from Earth in the migration to Mars was greed.
There had been the pioneers, mostly scientists and laborers who had agreed to establish the new societies on Mars in exchange for a place in that society. Then, there had been the Wagoners.
In Martian slang, a Wagoner was an incredibly rich person who had “jumped on the bandwagon,” or simply waited until all the heavy lifting had been done, and then had used their fabulous wealth to buy a large plot of land and set up a lavish mansion in a Martian bio-dome to prove how hip and cutting-edge they were. The people who could afford to do this tended to become even richer, since their mansions were built on what was supposed to be farmland for cultivating and growing crops. This drove down the food supply and made the demand skyrocket, and who was left to meet that demand? The people who were already rich enough to have products imported from off-world. With their profits, they'd buy up more of the farmland and convert it into commercial developments where they could sell their imported goods until everyone in the bio-dome was totally dependent on them for food. Since they held all the wealth, anyone who wanted to buy their supplies would have to work for them to get it.
This was all irrelevant on Earth, where food replicators, universal housing, healthcare, and education had almost completely eradicated poverty. Of course, they could have given these resources to the Martian governments and allowed them to do the same for their people, but centuries of animosity and war generally take more than four years and an ceasefire treaty to overcome.
This was the real answer to “who's to blame for this inequality.” It was not, however, the answer the young girl gave.
“We suffer for one reason and one reason alone! The wickedness in our own backyards! Our forefathers claimed this land, they worked hard to turn it from a lifeless hellscape into a verdant paradise, and what do we give them in return? Laziness! Irreverence! A lack of regard for what makes a Martian!”
A few people in the audience seemed slightly confused, but there were a few people saying “amen” as well.
“We suffer because we have not devoted ourselves to the betterment of our home! I've devoted myself to helping each and every one of you. I've made it my duty to feed the homeless, take in the orphaned, and strike at the powerful taking advantage of the disenfranchised. Some have called my followers 'angels,' and I appreciate the comparison, but we are just doing our Godly duty. We've been put on Mars for a reason. We honor the Red God and we do his bidding every day. This is why we and we alone have found prosperity!”
A few people in the crowd moved to leave, but were gently encouraged to stay by the red-robed acolytes. Others seemed genuinely intrigued.
“So,” the young girl continued, “if you're pure of soul, if you want to do good by your Martian brothers and sisters, then join us, and through the Red God we will lead our planet to prosperity!!”
There was some genuine applause from the audience.
“Now, if we may, I'd like our acolytes, my angels, to lead us in a short prayer.”
The acolytes raised their hands in unison, palms facing the young girl, to reveal they each had the image of a spider drawn on their hands in a paint made from Mars' red clay.
“All hail our prophet. May the Red God bless his people and the one true vessel of his voice. Blessings be upon our planet and upon our savior. Hail Ariadne.”
“This footage was taken earlier today by NewMo News 7's own investigative reporter Solomon Cho,” a news reporter who was almost too attractive to be remarkable read out from a small television screen, pushing the still frame of the young girl into the corner of the display, “and appears to show a young girl identifying herself as local folk hero Ariadne recruiting members to a new cult. We lost contact with Cho shortly after receiving the footage, and he has not been heard from since. Whether this figure is the real Ariadne or simply an opportunist attempting to capitalize on the folk legend is unclear, but one thing we can—”
The television screen fractured as it was hit with an unopened soda can, freezing the image of the cult leader behind the cracks.
“That TV was an antique,” Pilar sighed, slinking down into the beanbag chair she was sitting on.
Her wife, the real Ariadne had knocked her own chair over out of rage when she stood to throw the can at the screen. “I want her dead, Spacebreather,” Ariadne growled, glaring at the image of the pale young girl with bleached hair who grinned as she was venerated by her followers. “Do you hear me?”
“I do,” Pilar sighed. She was usually the hothead in their relationship, but after a few years, she'd learned to keep a cool temper on the rare occasion Ariadne was the one to fly off the handle.
“Mátala,” Ariadne hissed, “I want her head.”
“Anything you say, querida,” Pilar said, “but for now, we've got work to do.”
“It's just, I've worked hard to build this identity for myself as Ariadne, you know?” Ariadne said into the radio in her pressurized helmet.
“I know,” Pilar said, floating behind her. They approached the freighter with a team of their stealthiest crew members, known around the ship as “the Whiptails,” though right now only Pilar could hear what Ariadne was saying.
“I mean, we're supposed to be like the old stories about outlaws who stick up for the little guys! Robin Hood never asked for anything in return!”
“Robin Hood also wasn't a real—I can't have this debate with you again right now.”
Pilar and Ariadne placed a small triangular device on the airlock of the freighter, and a moment later, the door hissed open. The Whiptails circled around towards the thrusters on the back of the freighter as Ariadne and Pilar slipped quietly through the hatch and sealed it back up behind them.
“Do you get what I'm saying, though? We worked for years to build up all that good will, and some fifteen-year-old white girl with too much time on her hands just steals it to feed her own ego?” Ariadne ranted on as the ship jerked to a halt.
“Good, the Whiptails are done with the thrusters,” Pilar mumbled, placing the triangular device on the inner seal of the airlock. “And do you really think she's the brains behind this operation?”
Ariadne shrugged. “How do you mean?”
“I mean, how many fifteen-year-olds do you know who can successfully create and lead a cult by themselves?”
They moved through the corridor, slipped into the back of the passenger hold as quietly as possible, and concealed themselves behind a row of seats.
“How many fifteen-year-olds do you know who can successfully create and run a piracy ring?” Ariadne whispered.
“Fair point,” Pilar whispered back. “You ready?”
Ariadne nodded. “Yeah. Te amo, azúcar.”
“Te amo, mi tesora.”
They both drew their pistols and stood up.
“ALL RIGHT, NOBODY MOVE!” Ariadne shouted, startling just about all of the passengers in the freighter. “BE COOL, THIS IS A ROBBERY. OUR OPERATIVES HAVE DISABLED THE THRUSTERS, SO THIS SHIP ISN'T GOING ANYWHERE UNTIL WE GET WHAT WE WANT.”
“WE DON'T NEED ANYBODY TO GET HURT,” Pilar added. “BUT DON'T TEST US. IF ANYONE TRIES ANYTHING, THEY'LL BE DEAD BEFORE THEY HIT THE GROUND. DON'T EVEN SAY A WORD. ¿ESTÁ CLARO?”
Of course, this was a bluff. Both women knew it was sometimes necessary to shed blood, but the authorities were much more likely to prioritize murderers over thieves, so the crew had been trained not to kill when knocking someone unconscious would get the job done. Their pistols were actually devices called soul-stealers, which sent out a psychic pulse triggering the part of the human brain that makes a person fall asleep. Bystanders would think they were dead, but by the time they roused, Ariadne's Angels would be long gone.
“We want you to know why you've been targeted,” Ariadne announced. “The fall of the Homeworld Empire has triggered a new wave of wagoners—that's you folks—coming from Earth trying to make a quick buck off the 'untapped market' on Mars. You want to put a Shop-n-Go Grocery or a Carmine's Caffeination Station or a LazLabs TechStop on every corner, because you can afford to undercut the prices of Martian vendors.”
Pilar continued the speech they'd rehearsed six times the day before. “We Martians have to grow the food we sell, craft the clothes in our stores ourselves, make our tech durable because we don't have the resources to simply replace it when it breaks. The companies you run have replicators; your sales are pure profit. We have actual expenses for our businesses.”
Ariadne picked up the speech again. “See, the Martian people don't want you on their planet. That's why they've blocked your attempts to teleport to the surface. So you corporate fatcats all get together, load everything you need to set up shop onto a big freighter, and figure you'll just fly right to the surface and move into the city like a bunch of hermit crabs!”
“You dummies shouldn't have all gotten onto one freighter, is what she's saying,” Pilar said, “because now we only have to make one trip to steal all your shit.”
“So, fast as you like, get into the escape pods,” Ariadne ordered. “You'll be heading back to Earth, and we'll be taking this freighter with us. Please leave your wallets, purses, and any jewelry or accessories so expensive that you need insurance for it on your seat before you leave.”
“Form an orderly line and nobody needs to get shot,” Pilar called back to the passenger hold. “Whiptails, show our guests to their ride.”
Six girls, all in their mid-teens and holding guns like Pilar and Ariadne's, emerged from the shadows, causing several of the terrified business executives to jump in their seats. All three dozen execs had guns shoved in their backs, and filed towards the escape pods.
Once they were all in a pod, Ariadne turned to the oldest of the Whiptails, a Chinese girl with a gelled pompadour who'd earned the name “Sweettalk” because her incredible charisma allowed her to charm just about anyone. “Is the crew taken care of?”
“Yeah Cap,” Sweettalk replied. “Two pilots, a chef, and a bartender. They volunteered to be tied up so they don't get fired for cooperating with us. Smart group. They're in the pods. I took down their addresses. They'll be receiving an anonymous monetary gift taken from the profits of today's job.”
“You rock my socks, sugar.” Ariadne smiled. “Oh! I almost forgot! Is there an intercom that lets us talk to the people in the pods?”
Pilar rolled her eyes and sighed.
“Yeah, why?” Sweettalk asked, gesturing at a small microphone next to the hatch.
“She's going to tell them that—”
Ariadne interrupted her by shouting directly into the microphone. “TELL PEOPLE IT WAS ARIADNE'S ANGELS WHO ROBBED YOU!”
“Strange thing to do in a robbery,” Sweettalk muttered.
“Let her have it,” Pilar sighed and muttered back.
“THE REAL ARIADNE. NOT THAT FAKER FROM THE NEWS,” Ariadne shouted into the mic.
“Oh,” one of the younger Whiptails, a 13-year-old black girl named Taryn, said to Sweettalk. “I was hoping she wouldn't hear about that until after the mission.”
“You and me both,” Sweettalk replied. “I'm willing to bet that's why the TV in the lounge is broken.”
“That TV was an antique,” Taryn sighed. Another of the Whiptails, a quiet girl named Ghostrunner whose face was so regularly obscured by her black hoodie that most of the crew didn’t actually know what she looked like, laughed quietly at this.
The escape pods began to detach from the ship and drift back towards Earth.
Ariadne kept yelling, “YOU TELL THEM THAT GIRL IS AN IMPOSTOR, DO YOU HEAR ME?”
“I'm sure Ariadne and Fastwing can fix it up good as new,” Pilar said flatly. “Oh, for Christ's—Ariadne. They're gone. They left. They’re way out of range. They can't hear you anymore.”
“Ugh,” said Ariadne, “I guess you're right. Come on, let's take this ugly freighter home. This is a big score. Maybe finding something useful in the cargo hold will help me shake this lousy mood.”
“Like a new TV?” Sweettalk muttered. Taryn laughed.
“Please don't instigate,” Pilar sighed again. Ariadne was perhaps the one person she knew who was more stubborn than her, and she would undoubtedly be the one tasked with improving Ariadne's bad mood.
“Bring us back to the station, Spacebreather,” Ariadne snapped. “Sweettalk, Taryn, I want you to scour this ship, find me whatever snack foods have the words 'cheese' or 'blast' anywhere on the package, and bring them to me for the ride home.”