Authors: David A. Hardy
Tags: #science fiction adventure, #hard science fiction
The days passed, until their researches around Noctis Labyrinthus were almost completed and only a little aerial mapping remained. In two days they should return to Base Camp.
And all this time the light in the canyon had not reappeared.
Next day Aurora went to Vitali and announced: “I want to go down the canyon again, to where you found me.” Seeing that he was about to interrupt, she continued quickly, “Look, that light was real, and we can't just leave here until we've found out some more about it. I know it may sound crazy, but I have a feeling that it might be triggered when someone passes close by. That's why the video camera up at the rim has never seen anything. Well...look, I know it's a long shot, but this whole thing is pretty weird, isn't it? It's got to be worth a try?”
Orlov grinned, his teeth white in his black beard, and held his palms towards her in surrender. “What took you so long? OK, OK! I was going to suggest that we took another look at that spot, anyway, since that's where Minako saw the light too. But no solo trips this time, right? A party of us will go see.”
Aurora smiled. “Thanks!”
That night, an hour before sunset, four figures descended into the gloom of the canyon and set out at a brisk pace along its floor. They slowed as they reached the wider area, with its hummock of sand, in which Aurora had been found. No light appeared.
“Let's go on a bit,” she suggested. “I found a cave with icicles in it down here. As you know, that particular cave collapsed on me, ahem, but there might be others there. I didn't have much of a chance to look.”
They traversed the floor, passing over bedrock, then sand, then more rock. No further caves were found.
Finally, Orlov said, “We'd better get back.”
As they neared a corner where the gorge turned in a forty-five-degree bend, Claude Verdet, who was leading, stopped and pointed. His voice came softly in their helmets. “Look. Seeâahead there?”
The jutting rock was limned by a soft glow.
They moved towards it, treading softly as though their footsteps might scare something away. The glow brightened, silhouetting the features of the cliff.
They rounded the corner.
And there hovered the ball of light, just as Aurora had described it. It was about two meters from the ground, but as they advanced it rose to twice that height and bounced softly up and down.
Belatedly they remembered their cameras and other equipment, and began making recordings and taking measurements. The sphere sank slowly lower and, as they stood still, approached them.
“It's like an animal, wanting to come close, but wary,” Minako whispered.
Bryan's going to be
sick he missed this,
thought Aurora. But he and Lundquist had had to stay behind, Beaumont to send their daily message to Earth, the doctor to make his medical report.
The sphere elongated slightly, its interior sparkling. Its color pulsated, first a reddish tinge predominating, then blue. Suddenly it became pear-shaped and split into two, like a dividing amoeba; then the two halves merged again into one. The ball faded to a dull red, rose higherâand winked out.
There was a collective sigh.
Verdet was the first to speak. “
” he breathed.
“Beautiful!” agreed Orlov, while Minako merely nodded, unable to speak.
Aurora, too, said nothing. She felt only a great sadness that the light had gone.
Orlov spoke, more briskly. “Come on, let's get back. I'm going to send this stuff to Mission Control tonight, and ask them to agree to a longer stay at this camp.”
Mission Control agreed.
* * * *
Now that the evidence was incontrovertible, the news of the lights broke on Earth. The newspapers, the newscasts and the internet were filled with excitement. Hard copies of some of them were printed out in the Igloo and passed around to much merriment and some annoyance.
LIFE FOUND ON MARS?
MARTIAN UFO DISCOVERED
GREAT BALLS OF FIRE!
ASTRONAUTS HAVE SPOTS BEFORE THE EYES!
Not surprisingly, theories were hatched in abundance. After a while most of the crew ignored the popular press, which seemed to be fixated on alien life forms, tiny spacecraft and Martian ghosts, and concentrated on the reports of scientists who, like themselves, were studying all the data: the wavelengths of emitted light, spectroanalysis, electrical potentials, radioactivity, and anything else they could discover. Beaumont did still browse through the mass media, partly for amusement but also just in case anyone did come up with an interesting idea, he said. Most of the others (including Aurora, privately) thought he protested a little too much.
However, among the expedition members it was Beaumont who came up with the best hypothesis, backed up quite quickly by scientists on Earth.
When he first advanced it he appeared almost sheepish. “As I think most of you know,” he said, “I've taken a sort of interest in UFO phenomena for some time. Not that I believe in little green men or anything like that, of course!” he added hastily. “But you must admit there are some interesting cases, and they need explaining. Well, the best explanation I've found is earthlights.
“It has been known for, oh, thirty or forty years that lights and glows in the sky have been associated with various areas around the world. In England, for example, there's Glastonbury Tor, Silbury Hill and the whole Warminster region. In Utah there's the Uintah Basinâthe locals call them spooklights there. And so on. In some cases, records go back hundreds of years concerning balls of lightâsome say “like a rising Harvest Moon”, that sort of thingâwhich bob around certain hills or mountains. Sometimes they're round, sometimes cigar- or rocket-shaped; which is why lots of people thoughtâstill thinkâthey're spacecraft. Going further back, they were called Will 'o the Wisp, or thought to be ghosts, spirit lights, or whatever.
“But genuine researchers suggested they might be due to ball lightning, or some sort of plasma effectâor to “earthquake lights”, associated with tectonic activity. That doesn't mean there had to be an earthquake in the area; quite the opposite, in fact, because a quake releases energy quickly. It seems the lights and glows can be caused by low-magnitude seismic activityâany kind of gradual release of pressure that has been building up in underground rocks, modifying local electrical conditions.”
“That's right enough,” confirmed Aurora, interrupting his long, eager sermon.
“It could be a piezoelectric effectâyou know, when you put pressure on some types of crystal, electrical charges are formed on their surfaces. You could easily get 10,000 or even 100,000 volts per square meter in rocks below ground. It might be due to friction, or to the fracture of rocks. But there's research going on all the time, and whole new areas of geophysics are appearing.” He looked embarrassed. “Well, you all know that, don't you! But whether it's friction, heat or pressureâthere's an effect called rock-crush, tooâI'm sure you see the point. If it can happen on Earth, why not on Mars? After all, we had evidence of seismic activity when Anne found that steam-vent at Arsia.”
Claude Verdet spoke up. “I've come across some of this research, too. But I understood that it's more likely to be an atmospheric effect. Isn't it true that, when some fracture lights were spectroanalyzed, they found no trace of elements from the rocks, only from the air?”
“Apparently,” replied Bryan. “They tried experiments in the laboratory in various gases and in a vacuum. The spectra showed distinct lines from the gases. But there's no reason why the Martian atmosphere shouldn't produce the same sort of effects as Earth's, is there?”
“None that I can see right nowâexcept that it's so thin,” said Verdet with a frown. “But we obviously need to set up some new experiments, don't we?”
Everyone agreed with this, though Orlov seemed highly skeptical of the earthlights hypothesis. However, he couldn't suggest any better idea, and they certainly needed to find out as much as possible.
That afternoon they set out again, armed with new apparatus, some of it jury-rigged by Verdet and Beaumont with Aurora's help. For a while it had looked as though she would have to remain at the Igloo, but Minako took pity on her and swapped duties. So she was with the four men as they approached the famous spot.
As before, nothing happened as they approached. The sky above the canyon glowed a dusky crimson, which rapidly became purple, then almost black, with a scattering of bright stars, while the ragged strip of light on the uppermost parts of the wall shrank to a broken line and vanished. For a while they explored various small tributaries using their halogen lamps; then Orlov gave them the order to return.
Suddenly there was confusion. Orlov stumbled over a boulder in the darkness. As his huge bulk crashed down, the ground beneath him gave way and he disappeared into a crevasse barely wide enough to take his body. They all heard his cry of pain. Then he lay still.
At almost the same moment a glow appeared almost directly above him. This time it was not a solid-looking ball but indistinctâan amorphous mass inside which seemed to be a swirling motion.
Lundquist took charge. “Claude, help me pull him out. Carefully now! You two”âto Beaumont and Auroraâ“there's nothing you can do for him at the moment, so carry on with your experiments. Vitali wouldn't want you to waste time!”
Aurora whispered, “Well I'm glad it wasn't me again...,” but no one seemed to hear her. For one thing there was a rushing noise, like the wind through trees, in their headphones.
The light was solidifying now, its pinkish glow taking on a roughly spherical shape. Then it elongated, as before, and seemed about to split. But instead it hung like a vertical dumb-bell, its outline pulsating. A windblown eddy of fines wriggled its way, snakelike, along the floor. The light moved in the opposite direction.
With a shock, Aurora realized that it was taking on a human shape. Wasn't that an arm, beckoning? “Look! It's a figure!” she cried aloud.
There was a moment's silence. Then Beaumont said doubtfully: “Well, yes, I suppose it
look a bit like one. But don't get carried away!”
Verdet and Lundquist had laid Orlov on the low sand-hill. He moaned loudly enough to be heard above the roaring noise which rose and fell in their helmets. Lundquist waved Verdet away as he examined his patientâas well as he could, with both of them encased in suits. His first priority was obviously to ensure that Orlov's suit had not been punctured in the fallâthe big Russian had fitted into the crevasse like a cork into a bottle. But the suit was intact.
Verdet had heard Aurora's comment and Beaumont's response. “Sorry, Anne, I have to agree with Bryan. It
a curious shape, but a figureâ?”
Aurora was certain that for a few moments she had seen a gowned figure, its hidden feet not quite touching the ground, gesturing her to approach. But she was wise enough to keep her silence; she didn't want her crew-mates to start questioning her sanity.
“Come on over here!” called Lundquist. “I need your help now. Can you leave your instruments recording? I should have thought to bring a stretcher, but I didn't. Damn. If we all place a hand under him, though, he won't be difficult to carry in this gravity. I've splinted his left leg as best I can, but the main thing is to keep him as level as possible.”
As they retreated, looking back over their shoulders, the light resumed its spherical shape, rose, dimmed and flickered out.
* * * *
Orlov lay on his cot, his face white. His leg was broken, but would heal in time. Far more significant was that he had no feeling in either leg. It seemed that the lower part of his spinal column had been damaged, and he could not walk. This was not just a personal disaster for him but a major crisis for the expedition as a whole. The rest carried on with their duties; it was all they could do.
There was desultory talk, in private, that it would be interesting to see if the strange “Martian force” that had healed Anne's arm would work for him too, but as the days passed and they were due finally to return to Camp One, there was no sign of improvement.
Aurora visited Orlov alone one evening while the rest were in the Refectory debating the light. He appeared to be asleep, long black lashes lying on his rather swarthy cheek. For a moment she saw superimposed on his face her brother's. They were as dissimilar as one could imagine, except that both had dark hair. Steve's face had been long, ascetic, bespectacled. Orlov had regained some of his color, and had not lost his appetite, so his face was still round, yet with high cheekbones, and bushy eyebrows and a full beard.
She suddenly remembered once more the story of how Steve had been paralyzed as a small boy until being cured when that strange “German” had touched him. Supposeâ? Like many people, Aurora had during her long life had little contact with serious illness or injury other than her own. As an adult she had never witnessed a serious automobile accident or a plane wreck; had never even visited a hospital.
Tentatively, she reached out her right hand, and ran it over her crewmate's legs and round to his pelvisâhe was lying half-turned on his sideâand then on into the small of his back. Was it imagination, or did she seem to feel a heat that was more intense than his body temperature?
“Why, Anne, I didn't know you cared! And we all thought you and Bryan were an item!” His eyes opened, and a smile played briefly over his lips. Then he frowned. “But, if I may ask, what
you doing, exactly?”
Her hand jerked away as though scalded.
know about Bryan and me!
“IâI'm sorry. I thoughtâmaybeâI could help. Stupid of me, but....”
A sharp voice came from behind her. “Help? How, Anne?” It was Lundquist. “I just came to check on my patient, but I must say that Iâ” He stopped.
“Do that again!” he ordered.
Aurora was confused, not knowing whether the order was addressed to her or not.