Authors: David A. Hardy
Tags: #science fiction adventure, #hard science fiction
The hillock was made of fairly loose sand and dust, together with some rocks, and soon a haze filled the air as they scooped and dug away at it. The crevice into which Orlov had fallen, only a few meters away, was in bedrock, and it soon became apparent that it was the narrow end of a crack that rapidly became wider, ending in a dust-filled crater.
And in the crater was....
How were they going to tell Earth? It was fortunate they could transmit images. Otherwise no one would believe them when they reported that they'd found a flying saucer....
Well, not quite a saucer, but near enough. The object was certainly circular, but it was shaped more like a doughnut or an old-fashioned home-baked pie. On its upper surface, where the central hole curved down into the interior of the vehicle (if that's what it was), grey metal merged imperceptibly into transparent perspex or something similar. This rose, in the center, to a low dome. The Perspex-like material was slightly yellowed and a little scarred, making it milky and translucent in a few places. Peering through it, they could dimly see an instrument panel inside what could surely only be a cockpit or control cabin some three meters across.
As they began to excavate the underside, it soon became evident to them that this was more complicated than the top surface, being scalloped or terraced in a number of concentric rings. As they continued digging they came across obvious signs of damage. The vehicle was not horizontal, but tilted at an angle; at its deepest point, where it was almost embedded in rock, the metal of the underside was badly crumpled around a hole which seemed to have been some kind of storage area, perhaps for a rover or similar very large vehicle.
* * * *
Back in the Igloo that evening, the whole crew gathered in the Refectory. Orlov had ordained that they all take showers, in view of their physical exertions, and they had changed and eaten. Now they were slouching in their chairs. He had made his report to Earth, and sent as much data as he could. The response had been predictably stunned. He had left the scientists and media “experts” to mull over the news.
Now it was time for their own inquest.
Since it was thanks to him that the discoveries had been made, everyone tacitly agreed to let Beaumont have his say first.
“I think it's pretty clear, isn't it? What we have here is an alien spacecraft that has made a crash landing. Its crew managed to throw out, or plant, a distress beacon to attract the attention of a rescue party. Which, for some reason, never came.”
“Mmm, yes, that does seem a plausible explanation,” agreed Orlov. “But it begs a lot of questions. Why doesn't the Beacon, if it really is a beacon, put out radio waves? Why didn't another expedition come after the first? Why did they come to Marsâa dead world? Why didn't they make contact on Earth? They'd obviously have been capable of doing that if they'd wanted to.”
“Perhaps they did,” said Bryan. “Let's face it, there have been enough reports over the years ofâwell, you know, UFOs and all that....”
“For God's sake, let's not get into all that crap! But there's another point,” said Verdet. “The craft is so small. Surely much too small for a starship. I can't believe that it could have contained enough fuel, no matter what they might have used. It's not as if it were a ramscoop, or something exotic like that, using interstellar hydrogen for fuel; they'd have needed to bring their own fuel with them wherever they went. And it's not big enough to contain enough air, whatever they breathe, however efficient their recycling, for them to reach the Solar System from another star. Don't forget, they would have had to travel at least five light years and more likely twice thatâthere are nine or ten stars within ten light years or so of here. Probably they'd have had to come a lot further than that.”
“Perhaps it's only a sort of landing shuttle,” suggested Beaumont, apparently not put off by Verdet's earlier comment. “Maybe there's a mother ship still in orbit out there somewhere.”
“Oh, come off it,” said Lundquist. “There's no way we wouldn't have detected an object that big, anywhere in this part of space, with all our probes and deep-space scanners.”
“You're forgetting one thing,” argued Beaumont. “Mars does have two quite peculiar satellites, and we haven't got round to taking a good look at them yet. Maybe one of them's an asteroid ark. If we were to send a proper expedition to Phobos, which is in a really odd, low orbit for a
satellite, we might find that, deep below its dark, carbonaceous exterior, there lie tunnelsâliving quartersâmotors or some sort of drive mechanism....”
“Steady, boy,” murmured Aurora.
“Anne...Aurora, you haven't had much to say so far,” remarked Orlov.
“No. To be honest, I'm feelingâwell, a bit overcome by it all. I can't see anything wrong with any of the arguments we've heard, really, yet I don't think any of you have hit on the answer. But I'm afraid I can't suggest anything better. I'll...I'll need time to think about it.”
“Anyway, if Phobos were some kind of generation-starship or ark, surely we'd see some sign on its surface,” said Minako.
“You mean like âPLEASE ENTER TWO BY TWO'?” said Beaumont with a grin.
Minako ignored his interruption. “We've got plenty of high-definition images from unmanned probes, after all. And, even assuming you're right and this is a shuttle that crash-landed, why haven't we picked up anything from the mother ship itself?”
“I know you all think I've got too much imagination,” said Beaumont carefully, “but sometimes that's what you need at moments like this. Don't you see? All this could have happened centuries ago, before we even had radio. Or thousands of yearsâmillionsâback in the days of the dinosaurs, even! I know that UFOs and flying saucers are dirty words nowadays, but you can't deny that ship
sort of disc-shaped, just like the ones that people have seen for centuries.”
“Which have never contacted anyone except some hicks out in the sticks,” drawled Lundquist. “And which, if I might remind you, you've already explained away very nicely as being due to earthlights.”
“Just because someâor even mostâexamples of a phenomenon can be shown to be due to one cause doesn't mean that it's the
answer,” snorted Beaumont. “There could be many explanations for similar-sounding reports.” He became aware of the scornful looks around him and added: “I'm just acting as Devil's Advocate really, you understand?”
“Anyway,” Aurora interposed, “it doesn't really look as if our Marslight was due to rocks fracturing or rubbing together or whatever, now, does it? Not now we've found the Beacon.”
The discussion continued for another hour, but everyone felt tired and eventually they decided, one by one, to call it a day.
It was as well that they'd turned in early, for they were woken before dawn by an unscheduled message alarm from the comm desk. The news of their discovery was filling the media back on Earth. There was widespread public hysteria.
After centuries of waiting, Earth knew that it was not alone.
...People are reacting in different ways. There's a huge rise in the sales of books and data-wafers on astronomy, exobiology and SETIâthe search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Radio astronomers have been “listening” for signals from other stars since the 1970s, with no success, even after they set up a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon. And a huge increase in the membership of UFO societies and what are sometimes spoken of as “nut cults”.
The presenter smiled disarmingly so as not to offend any member of her audience.
At the same time, many people are turning to the churches. Some just want to know the answer to the question: “Did God make the creatures who came in that spacecraft, as He made usâand do they therefore have immortal souls?” This is a question which theologians were trying to answer long before we had this concrete proof of the existence of life beyond Earth, so it will be interesting to see if they come up with anything new.
New religions are springing up, too, mostly based on the “Was Christ an astronaut?” hypothesis. They believe that the brilliant Star of Bethlehem which the Three Wise Men followedâmeaning that it
âwas a “mother ship” in low Earth orbit and that Jesus came down from it by some method, presumably as a baby....
* * * *
Orlov grimaced disgustedly and turned down the volume. “What the hell have we started?” he asked no one in particular. He selected more random sections from the recording that had been transmitted from Earth, commenting: “Lots of UFO reports.... Texas farmer's wife abducted by alien in a gown.... Spherical lights over Stonehenge...what rubbish! Come on. We've got work to do.
“Claude, you'll want to look over their life-support system, and Bob, we might need your biological expertiseâwell, who knows? There may be bodies in there. I have to go, too, because we'll probably need an engineer if we're going to get inside the ship. Bryan: your...special skills have proved pretty useful so far. That leaves Minako and Anneâis it OK if we keep calling you Anne?âto deal with the comm desk and see if there's anything new to be found out about the Beacon. Is that OK with everyone?”
Minako and Aurora eyed each other a little warily, but everyone nodded. The field team departed, laden with tools and instruments. They were planning, en route to the spaceship, to put a relay on the canyon rim so from now on there would be direct radio contact between the two groups.
Minako busied herself with the communications desk. Aurora, feeling rather depressed at being left out of the main action (but it was for the first time, she consoled herself), went over to the table where the Beacon sat.
Wearing surgical gloves left out for her by Lundquist, she tried to lift it and found that, even allowing for the low Martian gravity, it was remarkably light. By swinging it gently, she found that most of its mass seemed to be centered somewhere near the base of the large sphere. A power source, perhaps. From the depths of her memory came an image of a doll she had once owned, for some reason called a Kelly; you could knock it, hit it, kick it, but it always swung upright. Probably you could have done the same with this if it hadn't been for the tripod of thin legs on which it stood.
She took one of these in her hand and gently pushed, then gave it a screwing motion. Still with no sign of a seam, it silently vanished into the sphere. Almost simultaneously the other two did the same. She snatched her hand away, the other still supporting the artifact. But there was no real need, she found, for the Beacon did indeed remain upright, balanced on its low center of gravity. It rotated at the slightest touch.
Suddenly she felt a compulsion to touch the Beacon with her bare flesh. She knew it was against her instructionsâbut what harm could it do? If the thing was going to pick up any micro-organisms, it would have done so by now; they had no isolation procedure for anything this large. It seemed unlikely that it would itself hold any contamination not already present in the rocks and dust of Mars.
She peeled the thin, transparent glove off her right hand. For some reason she thought of Bryan. Nowadays he touched her hand whenever he couldâbut spacesuits were so impersonal! She imagined Mars with a breathable atmosphere, and the two of them walking hand in hand down the canyon, without a care in the world, a light wind ruffling their hair. For months they had breathed nothing but canned air. And it was becoming a bit stuffy in here, to say the least. Minako, she had noticed, had a strange odor; or perhaps she used an unusual perfume?
She sighed, then glanced round guiltily. Minako was still at the desk, screened from her. She could hear Orlov's voice from the speaker, describing the ship, with its transparent dome on top. Somewhere a relay clicked and a motor hummed. It was never quiet on this expedition, she mused. Even alone, out on the surface in a spacesuit, there were noises from the circulation system, or the radio. Or her own amplified breathing.
To reassure herself that she would not be observed as she conducted her illicit experiment, she popped her head round the door into the radio section and asked: “Any news from the dig?”
Minako looked up. Did she look guilty, too? If so, why? She said: “Not really. They've nearly uncovered the rest of the ship, and they're making tests. Vitali's looking for some sort of door or handleâsome way to get inside it. How are you getting on?” She did not really sound interested. Aurora told her about the retracting legs. Minako nodded, and Aurora withdrew.
Back alone with the Beacon, she reached out her naked right hand (Her
hand: was that relevant? Probably not.) and touched the artifact. If she had expected something spectacular to happen, she was disappointed. It did not spring open, there were no sparks, no electrical shock.
The surface was warmer than she'd expected, and it seemed to become faintly warmer stillâand wasn't that a faint humming, felt rather than heard? Then she realized that the black band around the upper sphere was no longer black. The change was not great, but it now glowed an intensely deep ruby red. An image popped into her head: a bubble, or dome?
Aurora became aware of a faint crackling sound behind her, and wheeled around. The lightform was hovering there. As before, but much more quickly, its spherical shape elongated, became pear-shaped, and took on a distinctly human form. This time there was no doubt about it. It was a white-gowned figure, with pale hair visible under a hood, pale eyes gazing straight at her. It was semi-transparent, like a hologram. And it was beckoning.
Aurora spoke, softly. “What do you want?” She moved forward a step, and the figure shied away, like a frightened animal. Yet still she felt that it wanted her to approach.
She took another step, very slowlyâ
If it goes away much further it'll pass right through the outer wall,
she thoughtâand reached out her right hand.
A tingling shock ran through her, and her brain seemed to turn cold, then freeze solid. The room vanished and she saw what seemed to be a close-up of the surface of a soap bubble, its sheen a play of shifting yellows.
Then she slumped to the floor.
* * * *
At the excavation site, Orlov had found a very slight depression in the skin of the craft, and had been pushing his palm against it, hoping that it was some sort of lock. All to no avail. He had just sat down to take a sip of fruit juice with glucose when the transparent dome disappeared.
He thought it might have retracted into the metal skin, but if so it had been too quick for his eye to follow. He noted the time on his watch and tongued his recorder. Then he shot off some pictures, both flat and holo.
What had caused the sudden change? Nobody had been closer than a couple of meters at the time. He imagined an ancient mechanism, perhaps triggered by something he had done minutes ago, coming out of its long sleep and becoming activated. Perhaps the electrical systems of the craft were solar-powered, and were only now recharging in the weak morning sunlight after having been buried for millennia?
The other three had noticed the change at last and, with startled exclamations, were gathering around.
Suddenly Minako's voice came through their helmet phones, sounding worried.
“Base Camp to field party. Dr. Pryor has just collapsed, near the first artifact. I don't know what happenedâI just found her. Come in, please. Over.”
Lundquist instantly took charge. “Roger, Minako. This is Robert. Is she still unconscious? Over.”
“Yesâno. I think she's coming round. A moment, please.” Obviously off-mike: “Are you all right, Dr. Pryor? What did you do?”
There was a pause, and some sounds off.
Aurora's voice, rather shaky, came next. “Sorry to scare you, folks. I was examining the Beacon, and that light appeared behind me. IâI touched it.” She omitted to mention that it was with her bare hand. “I got some sort of shock, and passed out. I know it was silly of me, but it seemed a good idea at the time. The light's gone now. Oh, yeah, that black band around the little sphere? It was glowing a dull red just before the light appeared. But it's black again now. Er, over.”
Orlov's heavy brows drew together.
“I rather think you may have done more than you thought,” he mused thoughtfully. “What time was it when you touched that thing, do you know? Over.”
“About eleven-ten, as near as I can say. Why? Oh, over.”
“Well, at exactly eleven-eleven and fifteen seconds, the central cockpit of the spacecraft opened. Don't you think that's rather a coincidence? Over!”
A babble of conversation broke out then, until Orlov bellowed “Hold it!” loud enough to burst their eardrums.
“Anne, if you're quite sure you're OK, let's clear the airwaves now and get on with our jobs. I suggest you take a restâand don't touch that thing again. Roger? Over.”
“Roger”ârather reluctantly. “Over and out.”
Shrugging away the conundrum, the big Russian engineer got back to work. He crawled gingerly over the curved torus shape, and peered down into the cockpitâfor by now it was obvious that this was indeed a cockpit. There were two reclining seats made of some black plastic material which still looked supple, and an instrument panel which contained surprisingly few controls. The panel was likewise black, but set into it were pale grey keypads and some clear crystals which he could imagine as glowing lights. They sparkled in the yellow sunlight which blazed down from the sky above.
There were two rectangular panels that might have been digital readouts, but they were blank, and what was obviously a large blue-grey viewscreen, nearly two meters across and half that in height, which followed the curve of the wall. It too was blank. Below and to the left of the instrument panel was an oddly shaped recess: two hollow hemispheres making a figure-of-eight, the upper being smaller than the lower. The same shape appeared as a symbol emblazoned above the screen. It had some characters inside it.
Orlov looked back at the other three questioningly, and seemed uncharacteristically unsure of himself. “Anyone object if I'm the first to go inside?” he asked.
“No, of course notâyou go right ahead. You're the boss!” said Lundquist, and the rest grunted agreement.
Orlov gingerly lowered himself down into one of the seats, wondering how he would get out if the dome suddenly reappeared above him. It didn't.
The seat could have been designed for a human. It was just the right height and at the right distance away from the control panel for his arms to reach the keypads. The viewscreen was just below his eye-level, but he could have seen the outside view through the canopy, had it been in place. As a pilot, he approved. He felt that he could fly this thing right awayâif only he knew how, and if it still worked.
He gazed around. There was a short section of curved wall uncovered by instruments; surely an access door for the rest of the ship. He stood up and examined it for handles or other signs of an opening. But, as with the exterior, there was nothing but a slight depression, and, though he placed his hand on this and pressed, nothing happened. He sighed. It looked as though they were going to need AnneâAuroraâagain. But why? She had proved to be a total enigma, yet she seemed to hold the key to all this, somehow. Indeed, but for the presence of her and Bryan, the team would now be back at Base Camp, taking rock and ice samples.
“Damn!” he suddenly exclaimed.
“Anything wrong, Vitali?” asked Lundquist.
“Nothing in here. Funny what you think of at the oddest moments. Here I am in the middle of the greatest discovery of the generationâof
generation, most likeâand I've just remembered I made a mental note to do something about our supplies. With everything that's been going on I'd forgotten all about it until now. Unforgivable of me.”
The others immediately knew what he was talking about. There was a logistics problem with their current situation. They were supposed to have gone back to Base Camp days ago. Naturally, they'd brought more supplies than they'd expected to have to use, but, with the protraction of their stay out here, now even the reserves were running low. They were going to need more food, oxygen and water very soon.
Verdet said: “So someone's going to have to take a rover and collect some stuff. No problem, is it?”
“I can't let one person go alone. It means we're going to lose two people for a while. Oh well, it can't be helped. We'll discuss it back at the Igloo.”
Orlov climbed out of the control cabin, slid down the curving metal until his feet hit the ground, and walked a few meters, taking in the whole scene. The craft was now fully exposed except for a buried section near the damaged portion, which lay on bedrock. He went over to Verdet.
“What are your feelings about this?” he asked. “It seems to me that it couldn't have hit from much of a height, or the damage would be greater. I'm not even sure that it made the crater it's lying inâI think that might be a previous meteor impact. Either that, or the lower part of that ship is a
denser than it looks.”