Centuries into the future, Mars has been successfully terraformed and colonised by hundreds of thousands of people. Generations of colonists have allowed Mars to develop its own identity, to acquire a marked cultural diversity, and to grow increasingly independent from Earth.
More details about this background are provided through the viewpoint of the first characters to be introduced: Anthony Dillinger, a member of the democratically elected Martian High Council, and his wife Martha, a history teacher at a branch of the Martian High College.
As the history of Mars has been a basically peaceful and uneventful one, free of civil wars or major social unrest, the destruction of a power plant, too brutal and unexpected to be a mere accident considering the measure of safety precautions taken, comes as a complete surprise. This surprise turns into gut-wrenching shock as it is indeed revealed that the accident would appear to be a terrorist attack. This stunning revelation causes a crisis in the High Council, and it also marks a turning point in Anthony Dillinger's life, both professional and private. He is appointed as President of a Crisis Committee, and swears to deal with the problem using whatever means prove necessary.
As Dillinger starts his investigation, the responsibility for the attack is claimed by a hitherto unknown organisation calling itself Red Skies, which presents its action as the first in a series meant to undo the colonisation of the red planet. A wave of incomprehension and indignation washes over Martian society : why would anyone undertake such an outrage, why would anyone want to carry out such unMartian actions, why would anyone want to destroy something built with so much blood, sweat and tears?
Before Dillinger's Committee has been able to do any serious work, a second terrorist attack is successfully mounted : this time an enormous water supply is the target, an especially vulnerable element in Martian society. Consequently everyone is now convinced of the menace this mysterious Red Skies movement represents for the well-being of life on Mars, or even its very survival. Dillinger realises how much is at stake, not just for the Martian colonists' future, but also for his political career.
Dillinger's puzzlement increases as a series of unsettling revelations hits him. Firstly, Red Skies presents its agenda to a disbelieving public: Mars must be deterraformed! Indeed, so they claim, the terraforming and subsequent colonisation of the red planet was an act of sacrilege, Mars should not and can never be another home for mankind, and Red Skies will not rest until Mars has been returned to its original condition, pristine and unsoiled by human presence. Earth is mankind's domain, and the rest of the universe should not be tampered with.
Secondly, although the vast majority of the Martian colonists is outraged by Red Skies' plans, the terrorists appear to have a small but vociferous following - tiny groups of political extremists and malcontents who are disappointed by Martian society, dropouts left by the wayside on the road to freedom, fulfilment and fortune, the rewards that were promised to everyone but remained out of reach for some.
Thirdly, Dillinger's Committee does not agree on any common viewpoint, strategy or even a proposal for a press conference stating the Committee's aims and progress. As a result Dillinger comes in for a lot of fierce criticism. The reasons behind this lack of cooperation within his own ranks are as yet unclear to him.
He has the distinct impression that Martian society is no longer, or has perhaps never been, a unified bloc working towards a common goal, and that there are things going on beneath the deceptively tranquil surface that he must yet discover. He is forced to admit that his picture of the Martian political and social landscape is incomplete, and that his duties as Committee President will be a lot more exacting than initially assumed. The solid ground on which Martian society and his private life appeared to be built, now proves to be quicksand - and he might be the first one to be swallowed by it.
Several weeks have gone by. It has now become abundantly clear to Dillinger that certain members of his Committee are actively obstructing his work rather than merely failing to cooperate properly. He suspects some of them have hidden agendas, or represent organisations that are out of sync with the official government policies. Sadly, however, he remains powerless to resolve the excruciating situation he is faced with, and is criticised with increasing sharpness.
As Red Skies keeps attacking key sectors of Martian society (power plants, water supplies, agricultural and industrial facilities) and gets away with it unpunished, a rift divides the political world of Mars: some call for open talks with Red Skies, inviting them to discuss their viewpoints in the hope of reaching a compromise. Others adamantly refuse to negotiate with terrorists whose actions have already caused the loss of a large number of lives, and are convinced the problem can only be solved by obliterating Red Skies - whoever and wherever they may be. As virtually nothing tangible is known about them, no short term solution of the problem seems likely.
To Dillinger's shock and dismay, a similar rift divides his own family, as his daughter Brenda, a brash and idealistic twenty-two year old girl, openly admits her support of Red Skies, stating that "it is people like my father who push Mars in the same direction Earth went, down a slippery path of corruption, social deterioration, blatant consumerism, pollution, and, eventually, self-destruction. Red Skies may be too radical in its intentions and methods, but at least they offer an alternative worth considering." The media immediately seize upon the potential of the situation : a rich and powerful father at a critical moment in his career, thwarted by his good-looking and bright revolutionary daughter. Dillinger suffers immensely from the schism that is tearing apart his family, and from the media who shamelessly exploit it, without any respect for his privacy.
Dillinger realises he may be approaching the end of his political career - and also that its outcome will leave him a broken man.
Months go by, and the political climate of Mars worsens with every passing day. Dillinger has retired from the Committee, officially for health reasons, as it seems utterly pointless to waste his energy in fighting this losing battle. Also, the situation with Brenda has traumatised him, and he needs time to recover emotionally.
The overall picture is blurring : Red Skies is mounting bolder and more frequent attacks, and there seems to be no stopping them. It is clear they must have some support - perhaps from Earth? The government is divided into a plethora of factions, all with widely different opinions and strategies, but ultimately proves totally unable to deal with the situation. The public is growing increasingly worried as Red Skies' actions disrupt life on Mars to the point of becoming a threat to basic survival.
In a last-ditch effort to cut short Red Skies' progress, a plea for help is proposed, to be directed to the United Nations back on Earth, the old mother planet. Unfortunately, too many parties are opposed to this solution, as it would be an admission that Mars cannot solve its own problems and is still dependent on old Earth - and as Martian independence is sacred, no help may be asked or accepted from outside.
Brenda Dillinger starts her "Red Mars" movement, helping people to organise their lives without the amenities of a prospering colony world. In a society increasingly plagued with power cuts, water shortage and other emergency situations, her movement meets with rising success, as it provides, without any explicit agreement with the terrorists, an infrastructure and a logistic underpinning of Red Skies' ultimate goal.
Anthony Dillinger is considering his future: will he pick up the thread where he left it? Should he adopt a radically new outlook? Should he try to lead Brenda back to reason, or sever all links with her, however painful that might be? He is still trying to make up his mind as his wife is killed in a Red Skies attack directed against an air filtering facility she was visiting with some of her classes.
Although he has become a disreputable public figure with a track record burdened with many embarrassing and questionable elements, Dillinger returns to politics. The death of his wife, deeply tragic for a man who has already lost his daughter, albeit in a less literal way, has stirred him back into activity - his sole outlet for vengeance.
The political landscape of Mars is more fragmented than ever before, and the High Council is totally unable to control the situation. Politicians are losing credit fast, and the first indications of rising panic and anarchy are becoming clear.
Dillinger discovers, through channels that cannot be qualified as reliable sources however, that Red Skies has strong ties with certain Earth-based organisations which consider a thriving Martian colony as a thorn in their side. Out of envy, strict political beliefs or religious dogmas, they are supporting Red Skies with all the necessary means, financial and otherwise, and may even be responsible or at least co-responsible for its rise into existence. Dillinger realises he cannot reveal this news without hard evidence to back up his claim - so he sets about finding that evidence.
In the meantime living conditions on Mars deteriorate at an alarming rate. Almost all the settlements scattered on Martian soil are facing basic problems : air, water, food, electricity, amenities once available in quantities more than sufficient, are becoming irregularly available or even scarce.
Some strata of Martian society advance the idea of retreating to the old underground shelters and habitats, unused since the early days of colonisation. Of course this is not feasible for the current total population of Mars, which exceeds by far the maximum subsurface capacity, and if the deterraforming will indeed run its course, it will by no means do as a long term solution.
Others advocate a return to Earth, a proposal that causes mixed and highly emotional reactions. Many refuse to consider this option, preferring death on Mars to survival on Earth, shameful and intolerable as the latter choice would be, an admission of incompetence and failure, of independence gone awry. There can be no going back to the old mother planet, where they would not be welcome anyway.
Dillinger sees not only his political career, but life on Mars in its entirety fall apart around him as Red Skies continues its holy mission to undo the terraforming and colonisation of the red planet. Will they succeed in rendering the atmosphere unbreathable, in lowering the temperature and freezing all the water on the planet, in reinstalling the original arid climate? Will they manage to "cleanse" the red planet of its human presence, to use their choice of words?
Dillinger swears he will do everything in his power to counter their moves - but realises his power is limited, and that avenging the death of his wife will also entail fighting his daughter, a heart-rending dilemma if ever there was one.
Mars is in turmoil - and that's putting it mildly. The first few batches of colonists are shipped back to Earth, those who have lost all hope of a future on Mars. They are scorned and booed as traitors, and are met on Earth with mild enthusiasm, doomed to remain "former Martian colonists" and second-rate citizens. They quickly realise that not only have they lost their future on Mars, but also that they don't have any bright prospects on Earth.
Back on Mars the die-hards are putting their shoulders under a task of vast proportions that must be finished before long : the old underground habitats, dating back to the early days of colonisation, have to be brought back into operational condition, hydroponical gardens, air and water processing plants and similar basic facilities must be rebuilt.
Red Skies is becoming more active than ever before, due to the crumbling of Martian government and law enforcement : they can carry out their destructive actions without having to bother about being detected, halted and arrested. Mars has very much become their private playground - and they're playing to their hearts' content. Not only are they continuing their active sabotage of everything that made the Martian colony liveable, but they're also attacking the efforts towards rebuilding the subsurface habitats.
Anthony Dillinger now heads a team called Underground Taskforce that helps all those who wish to retreat into the old subsurface habitats, rather than give up and return to Earth, an unbearable humiliation worse than death on "free" soil. Dillinger considers his new activities to be the only political work worth doing in the current context, the only viable way to fight Red Skies. He also harbours hope that it may bring him closer to his daughter, who is still actively promoting a gradual retreat from "over-colonised" Mars - in a sense, her goals and ambitions are inching closer to her father's, however unconsciously.
The identity of Red Skies has finally been revealed - now that it doesn't really matter anymore. The movement's hard core consists of political and religious extremists, for whom Mars holds no real promise anymore, and their backers are Earth-based groups with a grudge against the prospering colony, a grudge that is economical for some, political or religious for others.
For Dillinger the fight goes on - he will not give up unless there is no other option. His political career has been rekindled, the blame of bygone days been removed; once again he is a man with a mission, determined to do whatever it takes to achieve his goal.
Time passes. It becomes clear to everyone now that Red Skies will achieve its goal : a long term process has been set into motion, and although its effects will not be felt before some time, it is too late to stop or revert the process. Mars is on its way to becoming once again an arid world where human life is not possible, where oxygen is scarce and water is only available in frozen form, where temperatures are too low to support unprotected human presence. Sometime in the foreseeable future, Mars will truly be a "red" planet again, its surface unmarred by human cities, its red skies unseen by human eyes.
In the meantime, the hardliners put up fierce resistance against Red Skies and the climatological effects of their strategy. While large numbers of colonists choose to be shipped back to Earth, grudgingly and mainly for want of a better option, those who remain are now tightly organised and more determined than ever to stay on Mars as long as possible.
Anthony Dillinger rises to the top of the Underground's political hierarchy, and achieves the successes he has always wanted in his political career, even though the circumstances may not be those he would have preferred. Red Skies is still active, but the subsurface habitats are harder targets to hit as they are, because of their very nature, built to withstand any problem a hostile environment can come up with. All things considered, the Undergrounders aren't doing too bad.
Dillinger's main ambition, on a more personal level, is getting in touch with his daughter and restoring a normal relationship with her. In the light of the recent developments on Mars, she is evolving more and more into an ally rather than the radically opposed enemy she used to be. He has been able to keep track of her "career", knows her whereabouts, is fairly certain about how he can establish contact with her, but hasn't yet actually done so. He's waiting for the right moment, and he will feel when that time has come.
It is becoming clear that the members of Red Skies will soon be facing a major crisis : if Mars becomes indeed uninhabitable, what will happen with them? Will they die here, satisfied in the knowledge their goal has been reached, or will they somehow make it back to Earth and devote themselves to new ambitions, if they manage to escape the law, possibly with forged identities and so on?
Time goes by. A status quo has been reached.
Small pockets of Undergrounders keep the bold dream of colonisation alive in a number of subsurface habitats, scattered all over Mars. They keep in touch, support each other, and desperately try to convince themselves they are enjoying the pretty Spartan lives circumstances force them to live, and can do without the luxuries they used to have before the onset of the deterraforming.
It is unclear where the members of Red Skies have disappeared to. They are no longer active on Mars, but then of course their task has been completed : the climatological processes they have initiated will now do the rest, a slow but steady evolution back to its starting point. Some claim Red Skies' followers were shipped back to Earth with unregistered shuttle flights, others say they are hiding somewhere in a secret enclave below the Martian soil, and yet others are convinced they have committed collective suicide, the crowning event of their bold plan to cleanse Mars of human habitation, a ritual marking the end of their involvement in their grand dream of deterra-forming the red planet.
Still somewhat hesitantly, Dillinger is finally ready to make up his mind about getting in touch with his daughter, who is now living in an underground habitat not too far away from his. It must be possible to arrange a meeting, and to restore a normal family relationship - or as normal as possible after all that's happened between them and with the planet they live on.
Now that everyday life for the colonists has regained a certain stability after endless turmoil-ridden months, they can sit back and take stock of their situation and ponder about what the future has in store for them. Their biggest concern is: how long will they be able to stand their ground as conditions gradually worsen? When will the day come that life will be impossible on Mars, even underground? And what will they decide then?
Anthony Dillinger finally gets down to establishing radio contact with his daughter, and after a few lengthy and rather laborious conversations, that perhaps deserve to be called negotiations, Brenda Dillinger agrees to meet her much-maligned father at a precise moment and a well-designated spot. They are to meet on Monday, the fourteenth of September (Martian calendar), at eleven o' clock in the morning. The meeting is scheduled to last for an hour, after which they will return to their home base. Any future meetings remain very much in doubt - although it is Anthony Dillinger's firm hope that his daughter may reconsider this decision if their first meeting proves fruitful.
On that fateful Monday, Anthony and Brenda Dillinger leave their respective habitats with a Mars buggy, and they drive to the meeting point halfway between each habitat. When they arrive there, Anthony leaves his buggy and boards his daughter's vehicle for their one-hour reunion.
The first few moments are somewhat disconcerting: Brenda proves to be rather unemotional, even downright cold, as if she is meeting a stranger wishing to negotiate terms of trade rather than her father craving to reestablish contact with his long-lost daughter. Gradually, however, Brenda loosens up and cracks begin to appear in the armour of her composure, and eventually she lets her iron self-control lapse, and father and daughter end up in each other's arms. The tone of their conversation takes a sharp turn, the differences in opinion and in course of action that divided them in the past seem forgotten, and for a moment it looks as if this reunion, originally scheduled not to exceed an hour, may extend for a considerably longer time.
Anthony suddenly notices something is going on beyond the cozy confines of the buggy, and to their dismay they find out a sand storm is raging outside, and their buggy is quickly being covered with red dust. Brenda rushes to the helm, and manages to manoeuvre the buggy out of the mass of sand threatening to cloak it. They both realise they will have to take shelter from the storm, otherwise they might end up trapped under a smotheringly thick layer of sand. Anthony's buggy, its roof scarcely visible as it protrudes through the shifting dust and sand, can by now be considered lost.
Brenda drives for a while, expertly steering the vehicle through the raging storm that all but obscures the landscape around them, and going in the general direction of where she remembers a range of hills to be that might offer some protection. Unfortunately, at one point the buggy takes a dip and skids off a slope and ends up stuck in the bottom of a sort of ravine. Meanwhile the storm rages on unabated, and before long their buggy is totally buried under the sand. Brenda tries her radio, but to no avail.
They realise they are stranded, marooned beyond hope of recovery. The chance that search parties find them in time is negligible: their buggy is isolated, out of visual range and impossible to reach by radio. Search parties will not be sent out anyhow before serious concern arises as they fail to return - several hours from now. On their own they are helplessly trapped in their vehicle; there is no way they can leave the buggy and claw their way up to the surface, which may by now be a few meters away. It is now clear that as soon as their air supply runs out, it will be over for them.
Anthony finds solace in the symbolism of this long-awaited reunion, a reunion in death, a meeting that marks the end of their lives, as it does of the fulfilment of their careers and ambitions. In a sense this deadly culmination of their twin fates has a tragic sense of achievement. It is a fitting end for the entire Dillinger family, a bizarre closing ceremony after an emotional ritual cleaning them of all guilt and sorrow and their largely unconscious desire towards vengeance for the wife or mother, respectively, they have lost to the cause that defined their entire being, guided their every action, dominated their every thought. In a sense they have gone full circle.
Red Skies turned back the clock of terraforming and colonisation. The Dillingers, each in their own personal way, did what was within their power to respond to this fact and succeeded, up to a certain level, in doing what they set out to do.
Now that Red Skies is no more, and that the remaining colonists will no doubt eke out a living on "their" planet for as long as they possibly can, and that their own business can be considered as finished, Mars is allowed to swallow them.
Mars, their home, the only place where they would want to die, now that their ambitions have been carried to their limits and they have no real other "home planet" to settle on. Earth has never been featured in their plans, and is not in their minds even in their final moments.
But Mars is.
Mars, of which they will now truly become part. Forever.