Read Aurora Online

Authors: David A. Hardy

Tags: #science fiction adventure, #hard science fiction

Aurora (11 page)

BOOK: Aurora
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“Vitali! Your right foot! Wriggle your toes again!”

Orlov did as he was told, incredulously, then rotated his whole foot. He swung himself off his bed and placed the foot on the ground. The other stuck out in front, being encased in a light but rigid plastic cast.

“Help me up,” he said, his voice tight. They took hold of his arms and got him to his feet, while Lundquist reached for Orlov's aluminum crutch and held it out to him. The Russian knocked it aside and took an awkward, stiff step forward. Then another. Lundquist and Aurora walked alongside him; then she loosened her grip. Orlov almost fell, then lurched forward, right into the Refectory a few paces away.

He grinned at the open-eyed, open-mouthed faces that were turned towards him. “Good evening, my friends! Yes, you see before you a miracle! It appears that Dr. Pryor can heal not only herself but others.”

“Oh, now, look!” protested Aurora. “We don't know it was anything I did. I mean, it's just as likely you were going to get better by now anyway. Isn't it?”

Orlov's face was serious now. “I
felt
it,” he said quietly. “I wasn't asleep, you know. When your hand passed over me, I could feel a—a sort of tingling warmth in my bones. And then it was like an electrical iron!”

He reached down and unsnapped the cast from his left leg. Flexing the limb, he said: “Hmmm. It doesn't feel quite right yet, but—” He walked in a circle around the tiny room, limping only slightly.

Lundquist spoke wearily. “Before you start doing the cancan, Vitali, sit down, will you? I want to examine that leg.”

Aurora was trying to avoid Beaumont's eyes, but could feel them upon her.

“I think you ought to tell them, Anne,” he said softly.

She looked around at their puzzled, expectant faces, and sighed. “Damn! Oh, all right. I suppose there's no point in postponing the inevitable.”

And once more she poured out the whole story, or as much of it as she thought they needed to know.

When she had finished, there was a stunned silence. Then Claude Verdet exploded: “This is a total fairy tale. I don't believe a word of it! Is it supposed to be some sort of joke?”

“Any of you can check Anne's records. I did.” said Beaumont. “They go back as far as 2000, which is what you'd expect by looking at her. But the ones for more than a few years ago—well, they're plausible, all right, but anyone with even a remotely suspicious mind can tell there's something wrong with them. And then there are a lot of correlations with an Alison Petrie who seemed just to sort of...fade out around the time that Anne Pryor started becoming prominent. You can trace the whole ‘ancestry' back if you know what you're doing. Anyway, Claude, you've seen with your own eyes how her arm regenerated—and now there's Vitali. You can't argue with facts! Can you offer a better explanation? Anne's something special.”

“But if all this is true it means that you're a phony, Anne! Your degrees—your doctorate—you haven't earned any of them....”

This was Minako, almost glowering. Aurora had noticed a slight, veiled hostility from the meteorologist before, but had put it down to the fact that, as the only other woman on the expedition, she might resent Aurora's blonde good looks; Minako herself was short and thickset, with a rather coarse complexion, and looked a full decade older. Perhaps, though, her jealousy was not personal but professional?

“Oh, don't worry, I'm fully qualified,” said Aurora airily. “I claim nothing that I haven't worked hard for and earned. The only things that are phony about me are the
dates
on my forged documents and computer records. Haven't I proved I can do my job as well as any of you?”

There were nods, and nobody else seemed prepared to argue.

It was already well into the early hours of the morning, and everyone now appeared inclined to go to their beds and think over this strange development in private. Before they parted, though, Orlov said: “I think we should keep this among ourselves—at least until we've discussed it again. We don't want Mission Control to think we've all gone off our—what is it you say, Bryan? Oh, yes—off our trolleys!
Nyet?

Nobody disagreed.

ARTIFACT

It was 07:30 Mars time; the fact that the Martian day was so similar in length to Earth's—Mars rotates in twenty-four hours and thirty-seven minutes—made life easy from the point of view of sleep periods and the like. The crew were packing the rovers for their return to Base the following day. Already the Blimp had been deflated, despite complaints from Aurora that she had never been allowed to fly it—Orlov had half-promised her she could do so back at Base Camp. For the moment, at least, the rest of the party seemed to have accepted her extraordinary story; there was little they could have done otherwise.

“Only one more night here,” said Beaumont. “It feels like going home from a holiday. Er, Vitali?”

Orlov looked up from strapping together some tripods. “I've a feeling you're going to ask of me a favor.”

As he often did when broaching “fringe” subjects, Beaumont looked at the floor as if embarrassed. “It's just that there's something I've been wanting to try, and this is my last chance,” he said.

“Go on. I'm listening.”

Beaumont hesitated, then said: “Dowsing.” He hurried on, as if expecting to be laughed at. The other crew-members, who could overhear the conversation clearly on their phones, stopped what they were doing and gazed at him with a variety of expressions. “I've tried it back home, and it does work. Nobody seems to know quite how, and sometimes it doesn't—especially when you try to subject it to scientific conditions—but trying it here couldn't do any harm, now could it?” He was almost pleading. “I mean, if there's something in that canyon, some...
focus
, I might be able to find it.”

Orlov shook his head, and for a moment Beaumont thought he was refusing. But he saw the resigned amusement on the man's face.

“Yes, all right,” said the Russian. “Anything for a quiet life. But do you have the equipment for this?”

“All I need are two lengths of metal wire or rod. One to one-point-five mil in diameter and, oh, thirty centimeters long.”

Finding such items proved more difficult than Beaumont had expected, but finally he was allowed to cannibalize a spare telescopic aerial. All watched with interest as he cut two pieces to the same length and bent them, less than halfway along, to a right angle.

“I've never tried this with gloves on,” he said as he walked across the nearby ground in a straight line, elbows bent, holding the rods like some old-time cowboy with a pair of six-guns.

“Are you expecting to find water down there?” asked Minako skeptically.

“Oh, no, of course not—not
here
! But that's the interesting thing about dowsing. It's not just about water. You can find whatever you want—or try to. You just, well, sort of ask questions. But I'll have to go to the canyon to do it, because that's the point of interest. What I'm hoping is that I'll find some evidence that our seismometers were perhaps not sensitive enough to register—of underground stresses, or electrical currents. Something like that.

“It's a strange thing, you know, that stone circles and other megalithic sites often seem to be a focus not just for earthlight phenomena but for the energies that dowsers detect. I've felt it myself at the Rollright Stones.”

Seeing the skepticism on their faces, he turned away sulkily.

“Well, I
have
. You'll see.”

Claude Verdet muttered: “Are you sure you're not a doctor of parapsychology?”

If Beaumont heard the remark, he ignored it.

* * * *

Later in the day—there was no need to wait for darkness, Beaumont pointed out—he, Aurora and Orlov walked once again along the canyon. This time the sunlight shone down brightly, bouncing off the sepia and ochre rock faces. When they reached the spot, Beaumont marked out a rough grid by dragging his foot in the sand, and began to walk in straight lines holding his two bent rods quite loosely in his hands, the longer arms parallel and pointing straight ahead. He had stripped the ink containers out of two ballpoint pens to use as plastic handles into which the rods fitted, free to rotate.

For the first three traverses, nothing happened. Then, as he walked close to the spot where Orlov had fallen, the horizontal rods moved smoothly inwards until they crossed.

“Ahhh,” he breathed.

“Is that the equivalent of a hazel twig pointing downward?” asked Aurora.

“That's right. Will you put a marker here, please?”

She obediently placed a green golf ball on the spot, and he continued walking.

There was no further sign of activity; the rods continued to point straight ahead.

After three more traverses Beaumont stopped. “Right. Let's see what we've got here.”

From a pocket in his suit he produced a crystal pendant which Aurora could remember seeing around his neck. Walking back to the marker, he held the pendant like a pendulum in one hand over the spot. It began to oscillate.

“Is it water?” he murmured, apparently to himself.

The pendulum continued to swing.

“Metal?”

The pendulum began to rotate clockwise. Inside his helmet, Beaumont nodded,

“Now, how deep is it? Is it more than ten meters down?”

No response.

“More than five meters? More than two meters? More than
one
meter?”

He looked surprised.

“If this thing's telling me the truth, whatever it's found is only a few tens of centimeters at most below the surface. In which case....”

He began to dig in the soft fines. Soon he had excavated a sizeable hole, and his arm could hardly reach the bottom. Orlov and Aurora stood at the edge, looking down.

“Damn. Ah!” His gloved hand rubbed the sand off something solid. At first it seemed to be a smooth boulder, but as he wiped the fines off it became obvious that it was metallic. It looked shiny, new.

“Help me scrape the regolith from around this, will you, guys?”

The other two knelt around the hole and scooped out sand and dust. Slowly, a spherical object was revealed.

“I don't believe I'm seeing this!” said Orlov. “Hang on a moment! I must take some pics before we go any further.”

Aurora thought of asking Beaumont if he'd buried the object there himself, but bit back the joke.

Orlov said: “Wait here. I'm going to call the others.”

He scrambled up a scree slope which he hoped might be high enough that his radio signal wouldn't be blocked by the solid rock walls all around. Seen by the two below, his suited figure sparkled in the sunlight as he climbed higher and finally stopped, one arm hooked around a rocky crag.

Although conversation was faint and scratchy, he succeeded in making contact.

“They're on their way,” he told Beaumont and Aurora as he clambered back down.

Soon afterwards the others arrived. Verdet used his video camera to record the moment when the object was lifted clear of the hole. It stood a little over a meter high and consisted of two joined spheres, one about seventy centimeters in diameter and the other not much more than half that, and partly embedded inside the larger one. Both were of a shiny but greyish metal and almost featureless. The smaller sphere had a black band running round it and a small circle, full of dust, inscribed in its top. From the bottom of the larger sphere, and apparently molded seamlessly into it, extended three elegant, narrow fins or legs, presumably to serve as a stand.

Suddenly the little party became aware of a familiar rushing sound, as of a distant waterfall, in their helmets. Looking up, they saw that, even though it was full daylight, the lightform was faintly visible against the shadowed wall of the canyon; it was transparent enough that they could see the rocks through it, and gave the impression that it was fizzing. Aurora was reminded of a firework set off in daytime.

The light floated lower and hovered, and again the globe elongated into a shape which could almost be human, though even Aurora could not have sworn to this now.

There was surprisingly little conversation. Everyone seemed too stunned for words.

Then Orlov said: “Well, I think I can speak with some authority when I say that we shan't be moving from this camp for some time after all. We have to stay where the action is, don't we? So we'd better get back and start unpacking again.”

“There go the comforts of home!” muttered Beaumont. “Do you think we should take this—whatever it is—back with us?”

“I don't see why not,” said Verdet. “We've taken measurements all around, and got plenty of still and video records of where it was found. We can test it better back at camp.”

This time Lundquist had remembered to bring the collapsible stretcher in case of emergencies. They appropriated it to carry the artifact.

“Is it OK to lie it on its side, though?” asked Aurora. They all assumed that its intended orientation was as found when buried, with the engraved circle on the small sphere at the top.

Orlov shrugged. “Maybe it will tell us if it doesn't like it,” he said.

As they placed the structure on the stretcher the lightform hovered close by, as though monitoring their activities. It followed them as they marched away, then seemed simply to fade.

“I feel sad,” said Minako.

“You think this thing and the light are connected in some way?” asked Beaumont.

“Well, don't you? It seems logical, doesn't it?”

“Yeah. Maybe the—the object.... What are we going to call it, by the way? Maybe it's done its job.”

Aurora said, “I think it's some kind of beacon.”

“Could be,” said Beaumont. “Beacon. That'll do as well for a name as anything, for now.” Then, to Orlov: “Look, it doesn't need all of us to carry it back, does it? I'd like to carry on dowsing over a wider area. After all, where there's one object there could be more.”

“OK. But you're not staying here alone. I want to go back and examine this thing. Anne and Claude, will you stay here? I want one of you up on that scree slope. You can contact the camp from there; and be sure to make a report at least every five minutes. We don't know what we've got here, so whatever you do keep in touch. Is that understood?”

* * * *

Beaumont continued striding across his grid for nearly an hour, with no further reaction from the rods. Heaving an exasperated sigh, he sank down onto a boulder.

“I'm going to take a drink, then I'll move along the canyon, over that hump.” He indicated the low, sandy hill which rose towards one side, where a talus slope began to rise, narrowing in an inverted V towards the rim.

They all took a rest, then Verdet reported to Base what Beaumont was about to do.

Almost as soon as Beaumont stepped onto the incline, his rods jerked violently together.

“Wow! What's this?” he exclaimed, obviously surprised by the strength of the reaction.

He continued crisscrossing the low hill, but his rods refused to part. “Whatever's down there, it's
big
!” he said squeakily. Verdet repeated this into his helmet mike for the benefit of those back in the Igloo.

By noting where the rods allowed themselves to be separated and where they stayed insistently together, Beaumont and Aurora marked out a rough circle nearly ten meters across. Then, to the surprise of the others, Beaumont snorted with laughter.

“Sorry!” he said. “But this suddenly reminded me of an old black-and-white movie I saw on TV once. Must have been made in the Fifties.
The Thing—
that was it! A bunch of scientists were at the North Pole or somewhere icy, and they marked out this circle—a shape they could see under the ice. It was a flying saucer—of course! Hey! I hope we don't find a creature like they did. It was a sort of human carrot, and if I remember rightly it was after their blood. That was before Spielberg started making movies where the aliens were goody-goodies....”

Aurora smiled patronizingly. “Yes, well, we don't want to let our imaginations to run away with us, do we? Don't you think we ought to call the others here, to see what it is we've found?”

Verdet called Orlov to ask what progress was being made back at camp. He reported to Beaumont and Aurora that, the Igloo having now been repressurized, Orlov and Minako had shed their environment suits. They were avoiding touching the Beacon, limiting themselves to various instrumental tests. There was radioactivity somewhere within, it appeared, but not at any dangerous level, and there was a strong magnetic field. Nothing else, so far.

“You may not have noticed,” added Orlov, “but the Sun's getting low. You'll be in shadow very soon down there, and by the time we got to you it would be virtually dark. So I suggest that, as long as the area's well marked, you come back here to the Igloo now and we'll all go out again early tomorrow.”

Verdet agreed on behalf of the other two.

Before they returned, Beaumont walked over the area holding his pendulum. It told him that whatever lay below him was metallic, and deeper than the Beacon had been. The depth was no more than two or three meters, though, according to the pendulum.

“I can't be sure, but there might be an even bigger mass buried below. There's something peculiar about it. Maybe this is just the tip of the iceberg.” As it often did when he launched himself upon a theme, his face lit up with enthusiasm. “Hey, perhaps we've discovered a whole Martian city, buried down there!”

“Careful! We're getting into the realms of fantasy again.” warned Aurora.

“Well, don't you think all this
is
pretty fantastic?” he retorted.

* * * *

Early next day the party, short only of Verdet—left to man the communications desk and with instructions not to touch the Beacon while alone—straggled along the canyon. By the time they reached the circular area Aurora and Beaumont had marked out the previous day, a widening band of amber sunlight was creeping down the wall to greet them. They had brought trolleys packed with tools, extra oxygen and food packs, with the expectation of a long day ahead.

BOOK: Aurora
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