Anna Cornucopia, in infostate, goes off to investigate her past at the U of Mars in Valles-New Shanghai. Everyone else who needs to resleeves. The team agrees to take a job for the Barsoomians, in trade for safe egocast passage back to Parvarti. Apparently a redneck saboteur has gone missing after an anti- Planetary Consortium mission. They want him tracked down. He called in to say that he was on the run from some PC goons, and coudn’t make any of the established safehouses, and would instead lay low with some “old world religious weirdos” that he had recently met, who shared his anti-corporate views. The Barsoomians need to know if he’s safe, and if not, what info has been compromised.
The A-team (minus Lena and Iskra) starts looking into it, and finds out that someone else is walking around in his body. They track it to a black market body brokerage called Les Goules, operating out of the slum side of Pembroke Gardens, as well as a black lab off of one of the nearby tented souks. The brokerage seems to be getting the bodies of the losers of the Guanxi fighting pits, where combat morphs face off against illicit transgenic experiments from the biolabs across the river in Quinjiao. However, they find no record that their saboteur was in the fights. They trace Les Goules to the lab, but decide to hold off on entering until they get some surveillance, and can pick up their weapons.
Meanwhile, the B-team (Lena and Iskra) manage to eventually track down some Franciscan monks who do a free feeding in a park in Pembroke every few days, as well as a prayer service after. Looking to confirm that these are the correct “religious weirdos”, Iskra pries and uses psi to convince them to trust her, and blatantly advertises her supposed anti-corp views. She gets an invite to their hidden mountain monastery, along with Lena, but they lose wireless as soon as they enter the black windowed buggy that will bring them there, and start to feel more like prisoners. They get off a quick call for help.
The rest of the group decides to deal with that, and leave Les Goules for now. They do some digging and call in favors, and find out that their is apparently a group of alpiner morphs living atop Arsia Mons, in the near corner of the TITAN Quarantine Zone, in some sort of monastery that was recorded lost in the Fall. Smugglers use the tunnels in the lower parts of the mountains, but Les Goules are known to operate higher up and are also known to shoot first, and sell the bodies after, so noone really goes up there. Thinking they have the connection, the team grabs their gear and heads out.
They find the place with no problem, and after some scouting locate the start of a steeply ascending mountain pathway, hard to see until they’ve spotted it’s markers: disassembler aeolians, seemingly pulled from the wastes and planted as waystones. They climb, and eventually reach a guardhouse, encountering 2 bearded monks and demanding to see their friends. The monks fire rockets from wrist- mounted launchers and the team takes some damage and kills them.
Meanwhile, Lena and Iskra have been brought up the same path, and herded into a stockade, after failing to convince the head of the order of their pure intentions. He seems a bit delusional, and is also levitating in midair with no visible explanation, which they find distressing. He is much physically larger than the other, more ascetic-looking monks. Once the gunfight starts below, the monks haul their prisoners into an observatory, where they find themselves being strapped into a large mechanical cross hooked up to a farcaster with a large antenna. Iskra tries to play them but ends up merely convincing them to put her in first. Her ego is stripped from her stack and cast forth into the grim darkness of space, possibly to some distant destination: they spied a Latin inscription over the doorway reading: “To the Machine Gods, Under Distant Stars.”
Meanwhile, the team fights their way up the path and into the mountain-top compound, killing many monks. Pran is nearly killed, but they manage to stabilize him. They reach the observatory just as the monks begin uploading Lena, and are hauling Iskra’s living (but unkown to them, empty) morph to what looks like a well-shaft. They slay the remaining monks, including the leader who has some sort of field that slows projectile weapons (also disturbing). He is ranting about his duty to save them all, and how they have been left behind accidentally. He ceases levitating after Frank shoots him in the face. Frederik decides that some Lena is better than no Lena, and disconnects her from the farcaster mid-transmission, leaving them with a semi-sentient, drooling, gamma fork. They hope to get something out of her, at least.
Investigating further, they find that the antenna seems programmed to keep aimed to a specific coordinate, but it is not any point they have heard of- either a secret station outside the solar system, or an exoplanet, but not one known to the public. Or maybe just nothing, empty space. They contemplate whether it is better if Iskra was sent somewhere or nowhere. They also find a series of digital (and physical) texts, that seem like lunatic ravings of some sort of Technocreationist machine god cult. Apparently, they have been using their outreach programs to snatch people up, forcibly upload them, and send them to…. wherever, since the Fall. They trade the then-empty morphs to Les Goules for supplies. This explains the “wellshaft” tunnel that they find, containing a body-sized container that seems to descend, elevator-like, into the stone. They wait for Pran to heal up a bit before investigating further.
After everyone is conscious, or as close as possible (Iskra being an empty shell and Lena an occasionally useful gamma fork), they decide to send Frederik down the elevator to scout it out. He reaches the bottom after a slow descent, including some angled traverses through the rock (which blocks comms). Upon reaching the bottom, he is asked for the password, and ko’d with SMG fire when he can’t anwser & his gun jams. With his last action, he ets the elevator to ascending again. They decide not to try again just yet. They also notice that the head monk’s body is twitching and spasming, and seems to be either regenerating or mutating.
They copy what remains of the dead head monk onto Iskra’s blank cortical stack, using the monk’s ego bridge. Pran rigs an explosive, and they send it down the chute with the body of the head monk, destroying both the elevator shaft & the body (as well as whoever was waiting at the bottom, if anyone) very effectively. They decide to spend the night there, rather than descend in the dark, and take turns on surveillance. Wong keeps watch a little further down the mountain with the drones, and says that he saw someone surveilling them from a distance, but noone approaching.
They re-rig the farcaster in the morning to use to overcome the comm blackout in the TQZ, and Pran makes contact with Firewall. They thank him for the intel (and the promise of the monk’s ego), and offer to arrange extraction from the Zone, which they accept. They are to rendevouz with some smuggler’s in a cave system near the mountain’s base, but are warned off of pursuing Les Goules in their current condition. They descend, and find that their buggy has been sabotaged with some cleverly concealed explosives (luckily Pran spotted them!). Pran disarms the trap, and they meet the smugglers and escape. They report in to Firewall, and hand over the stack, as well as getting hired on for another small job before they leave Mars. Frederik also reports the existence of the monastery and farcaster to the Barsoomians, as well as telling them what happened to their saboteur. They thank the team & tell them that they can ‘cast out whenever they’re ready, probably via this newly uncovered mountain fortress.