Authors: David A. Hardy
Tags: #science fiction adventure, #hard science fiction
I agree. It seems it must have come in at quite a shallow angle. Maybe it was trying to land in the desert, but couldn't make it, and had to fly along the canyon a little way. But something else is bothering me. I've been running some tests on the skin. It's an alloy, but nothing too unusual: nickel, steel, titanium, carbon, a few other traces. But I've also been looking at the erosion patterns, and at signs of oxidation by all the peroxides in the Martian soilâit's pretty corrosive stuff. Well, I've got a positive result on both, but....”
He looked at each of them in turn. They looked back expectantly.
“How long would you say this ship has been here?” he asked.
Beaumont replied, “As I said the other night, it could be millennia. Granted, it wasn't buried very deeply, but with the winds on this planet blowing the dust around, that doesn't prove much, does it?”
“It's that very dust which creates the problemâor, at least, the erosion the dust causes. That and oxidation. You see, both tests agree that this craft can't have been here for more than about a century. That's with a margin of error of, oh, plus or minus fifteen years at this stage. But I'd opt for less than a hundred years.”
There was silence at this. The four men stared mutely at each other. This wasn't a result they'd expected.
Then Orlov said, “Well, anything's possible, of course, though that's pretty recent. As we said before, you'd have thought that Earth would have seen or heard something from them. But there's always an explanation. Those flying saucers of Bryan's, for one. Wasn't that term coined in the 1940s?”
“Hey!” yelped Beaumont, “Don't lump me in with the ufologists! Mind you, you've got to admit they have a point when they say the reason nobody in authority's been contacted might be because the aliens have a non-intervention policy.”
“I was about to say, couldn't you have misinterpreted your test results in some way?” continued Orlov, looking at Verdet. “I mean, if that alloy is more resistant than you're assuming it is, that would change everything, wouldn't it?”
“True.” The Frenchman nodded. “But I don't think it's the answer. Wherever this thing comes from, metals are metals. It doesn't contain any âstrange unknown element', like you read about in sci-fi stories.”
“Used to,” muttered Bryan, wincing. “And it's
, Claude, not âskiffy'.”
“Nothing. Forget it.”
“Anyway, Claude,” said Orlov, “I'd like to go through those results with you when we get back.”
“Sure.” But Verdet did not look happy about it.
Deciding which two crew members were to return to Base to fetch supplies was difficult, but it was finally agreed that Verdet and Minako should go. Aurora and Beaumont seemed essential around the alien craft; Orlov's engineering knowledge might yet prove important; and Lundquist, as physician, needed to be with themâin addition, his knowledge of life-support systems was almost as great as Verdet's, and it was always possible that his knowledge of biology and allied subjects would be required.
Rover 2 set off soon after dawn, the early morning sunlight sparkling off its bubble canopy. A miniature dust storm obscured its progress as it drove almost directly into its own long shadow.
Hardly had it disappeared from sight than a message warning flashed on the comm desk. It was William Emmartâhimself a US astronaut, and an old friend of Orlov'sâat Mission Control.
Vitali, United Press and TV have asked us to confirm the contents of a press report they have received, from an unrevealed source. And I'm not surprised. Isn't it enough that you've discovered an alien ship, and Martian ghosts, without all this stuff about Dr. Pryor healing you of a broken leg and paralysis? And her being nearly eighty years old into the bargain, with forged records! Come on, guys! What are you trying to do to us? This
all a joke, isn't it? Please tell me it is! Over.
Vitali leaned close to the microphone. “Sit on it, Bill, please. We'll get back to you later. Over and out.”
He looked round at the other three. Aurora and Beaumont were about to suit up ready for the day's examination of the alien craft. Lundquist was to remain by the comm desk today, and also intended to examine the Beacon microscopically.
“OK, who's the joker?” asked Orlov. He was obviously angry. He continued, caustically: “You all heard that. Correct me if I'm wrong, but we did agree to say nothing about that little incident, did we not? So who's got themselves a little contract on the side, writing for the popular press?”
He looked pointedly at Beaumont.
Beaumont reddened and looked away, but firmly said, “Not guilty.” He turned to Aurora. “You know I wouldn't do that...?”
“Don't look at me,” said Lundquist. “I'm still trying to come up with some sort of rational explanation, and I'm the last person here to want this sort of story to get around. Christ! This whole expedition's become some sort of pantomime! I'm sorry, Anne,” he added quickly, “It's not your fault, and I'm only too aware that you did more for Vitaliânot to mention yourselfâthan I ever could have. Come to think of it, I could well be redundant.” He softened this with a grin. “But we came here as a scientific expedition, expecting to do some research, prepare the way for a later permanent base, see how much water lies below-ground as permafrost, stuff like that. And look what we've got ourselves into. I sometimes wonder if I'm dreaming. Perhaps we all are....”
As Lundquist ran out of steam, Orlov said: “In that case it must be one of those two on the rover.”
“I can't see Claude sending that message.”
Aurora thought of Minako's veiled hostility to her, and remembered the woman's guilty look when Aurora had walked in on her at the comm desk, but she remained silent.
Lundquist, however, said: “Minako has always seemed rather keen to volunteer to remain here on comm duty.”
“Whichever of them it was, I think we'd better say nothing until they get back. Then, perhaps, we'll hold an inquest. Let's get out in the fresh air. Well, you know what I mean.”
* * * *
Beaumont had been widening the area of his dowsing, in case any more artifacts or other evidence might be scattered around. Having failed to find anything in the local tributaries to the canyon, today, after dropping the rest off by the spaceship, he drove Rover 1 to the desert just above the site of interest. The others would, at the end of the day, climb the scree slope for the drive home.
Aurora was not sure what she could do that might be constructive, so she stayed close to Orlov as he climbed once more into the cockpit, which had remained open.
“Curses!” he said. “I meant to bring the Beacon back here with us today. There's not much more we can find out about it back at camp, and I still think it may have acted as some kind of key to open the canopy of the spaceship.”
“You do realize,” said Aurora, “that we've never found a trace of radio waves emitted by that thing? Anyway, if it was something I did back at camp that caused the canopy to open, the message would have had to have passed through a hell of a lot of rock. Our radios couldn't do it.”
He shrugged. “Maybe they didn't use radio. Nothing about them would surprise me anymore.”
She climbed down into the cabin with him. Having examined the control panel and its various instruments, she placed her hand on the slight indentation in the wall that he'd said he felt sure must somehow control the door's opening mechanism. Like the Beacon, it felt warm to her touchâand did she feel the same sort of faint vibration?
She pointed at the big figure-of-eight-shaped recess under the instrument panel, noticing it for the first time. “Vitali,” she said eagerly, “I think we've just discovered....”
“Yeah,” said the Russian. “I was just coming to that very same conclusion myself. Looks like that's where the Beacon belongs.
curses on me that I didn't bring it today! We'll have toâ”
At that moment Beaumont's voice came over their helmet phones, loud and excited. “Can you two drop whatever you're doing? I think I've found something interesting here!”
Vitali and Aurora looked at each other, and wordlessly clambered out of the cabin. She gazed up at the canyon rim. The ascent would have been a stiff one under Earth gravity, but did not look too difficult here, especially as the scree slope served as a ramp. They started climbing.
Small flakes of rock shifted under their feet, and little avalanches of sand cascaded back into the canyon. They had to hold onto larger rocks, testing them for solidity, as they pulled themselves up to the serrated edge. For the final part of the ascent they had to go up over a series of platforms or terraces of rock very much like sedimentary layers, dusted with fines, where the level surface of the plain had apparently slipped and sunk several times, creating a set of giants' stairs with treads perhaps a meter deep. A curved bite had been taken out of the rim at the top.
As their heads peered over the edge, they could see Beaumont as a tiny figure nearly a kilometer away.
“He might have driven over to fetch us!” said Aurora crossly as they tramped towards him, their feet sinking a centimeter or two into the soft regolith, the duricrust crunching like dried mud.
Beaumont was kneeling by something, looking at it intently, and making gentle scooping motions with his hands.
When they reached him, they found that he had excavated quite a deep hole, itself inside a wide linear depression which stretched away from the canyon rather like a dried-out stream bed, though quite straight.
“I think this was a small crevasse, originally, but it's filled up with sand,” he said by way of greeting, not looking up. “I started by dowsing along it, just out of interestâI thought I might be able to detect how deep it went. About five meters, as a matter of fact. But two meters down....”
He pointed to the bottom of the hole he had dug.
A metallic-gloved hand protruded from the dust.
For a moment Aurora felt as if her eyes were whirling in their sockets. Giddiness washed through her. It wasn't possible! She re-focused. The glove was still there, and it looked so much as if it had come from one of their own spacesuits that for a moment she visualized a crazy scenario in which Verdet had murdered Minako and buried her...or vice versa.
She shook her head to clear away the fantasy.
Orlov took holos of the gloved hand from various angles and then they started to dig deeper.
The rest of the arm appeared, then a helmet. It was a transparent bubble, though, like the canopy of the spacecraft, it was yellowed and slightly opaque.
Soon they could see the top of a head. The brow was mottled ochre and brown, but the cranium was covered quite thickly by grey or white hair. They unearthed another arm, then the shoulders.
“It reminds me of when I fell into that crevice down there,” said Orlov. “I wish we had Robert with usânot that I'd expect him to be able to do anything for this poor fellow, but....”
More digging, and more of the torso came into view, then a leg, which seemed to be twisted at an awkward angle.
“I just don't believe this!” said Beaumont. “He's got to be
There was no doubt that the figure was of human proportions, with head, jointed arms and legsâeven five fingers. The head, when they were able to see the face through the yellowed plastic, was discolored and wrinkled, and reminded Aurora of a mummified ape she'd once seen in a museum. But then how would a human astronaut look after being buried on Mars for unknown centuries? Or was it less than a century? No one really seemed able to accept Verdet's findings on that.
The suit was made of a silvered material, very much like their own, and, far from being hardened and cracked, it seemed even more supple than theirs. It bore no insignia or other markings, although there was a small black box on the chest. The backpack was slim and curved, unlike their angular pliss equipment, but it was dented as if by some sort of blow.
It took a lot more careful work before the figure was completely free and could be removed. They kept Lundquist informed on progress, and he in turn passed on the information to Earth, together with Orlov's acid addendum that this was a piece of news that had been “officially” approved for general release.
Lundquist was almost beside himself with impatience to examine the astronaut's body, so they strapped it carefully to the carrier on the back of the rover (“But don't bring it inside the cabin, in case of contaminationâin either direction,” he had instructed them) and headed back to the Igloo.
Soon they saw its white dome, half-shadowed, rising above the horizon like a third, but Moon-sized, Martian satellite.
* * * *
Inside the Igloo, Lundquist had rigged up an isolation chamber using transparent plastic sheeting and an electric fan to produce an invisible curtain of air. Any bacteria or other micro-organisms from the alien body would be filtered out and could later be examined with his tiny electron microscope. Inside, he wore an environment suit which would be decontaminated after use.
The others stood around, like family visitors at a hospital, powerless to help but impatient to know the result of the operation. Through the tantalizing reflections on the gently undulating plastic they watched as the physician, after completing his examination of the exterior of the spacesuit, unclipped the black box on its front and laid it aside.
Then he removed the helmet. They crowded closer for a better view.
Two cloudy greyish eyes stared back from deep sockets. The face was wrinkled, the skin waxen and yellowish. A few flakes of dried flesh dropped away from it abruptly, making Aurora jump.
she said to herself.
The spacesuit opened easily, with no obvious zip or Velcro fastening; it simply peeled apart. The figure had worn some sort of undersuit, but this seemed brittle and tore almost at a touch. Lundquist placed samples of the material into sealed containers.
After what seemed an eternity, most of the body had been uncovered.
“I don't believe any of this!” said Lundquist into his helmet mike. “It just has to be some kind of hoax.” He peered out at Orlov. “Are you sure the Soviets didn't send a man to Mars sometime in the Seventies, and keep quiet about the mission because it ended in disaster? Your people used to do that kind of thing, you know!”
Before Orlov could reply, Lundquist continued: “Actually, I should have said âsend a
to Mars'. This cosmonaut, or whatever it is, is a human female, about thirty years old when she died, I'd say. Oh, there's no doubt about it”âhe spoke above the hubbub of conversation from outside his “tent”â“and don't start talking about parallel evolution, please, Bryan! I'll need to do a scan of the skull, but from what I've seen already I know that the pattern of the teeth is fully human. Look: on each side, two incisors, one canine, one, two premolars. OK, no wisdom teeth, but that's not unusual. There's no doubt she's human. And look at the ribs.... There's no chance that an alien species could develop in exactly this way. This lady was born on Earth.
“Mind you, there are a few trivial differences, but even those could be confined to this individual. The toesâsee?”
He had pulled the spacesuit right off one leg. No one paid any attention to Aurora's sudden hiss of indrawn breath.
“They're hardly there,” Lundquist continued. “Very short and stubby, and practically joined up into one. But I've seen similar variations beforeâin the children of radiation victims, for instance. There are a few other minor oddities, too, but nothing that suggests she's not human.
“Vitali, if you're eager to make a report to Earth, you might like to take down a few notesâsave me getting out of this suit? There are some more tests I want to make before I do that....”
Orlov grabbed a notebook and pen and tried hard to keep up with the medic's rapid-fire commentary.
“I want to make sure the medical specialists at Mission Control know this report is absolutely official and authentic,” the burly Russian remarked to the rest during a rare pause. “Otherwise there's no way they're going to believe it. Let's face it, they won't anyway!”
He carried on writing, moving his lips as he did so, echoing Lundquist's words in an undertone. “Remarkably good condition...no bacterial decay in tissues...probably frozen very quickly...some breakdown of cells due to ice crystals...probably protected by the fact that it was buried...kept at fairly constant low temperature....”