Authors: David A. Hardy
Tags: #science fiction adventure, #hard science fiction
This went on for several more minutes until Orlov exclaimed, “Stop, stop! Surely that's enough?”
The normally quiet and reserved Lundquist seemed to realize for the first time how long he had been talking, and grinned. “Yes, of course. Sorry! Got carried away. Go ahead and transmit that.”
Orlov did so, along with other details of the discovery. He played down the dowsing aspect, Aurora noticed. She glanced at Beaumont and saw that he'd noticed this as well.
They waited with some trepidation the forty minutes or so before they could expect a response from Earth, still on the far side of the Sun in its orbit, though now getting daily closer.
When it arrived, the message from Earth was all that they had expected:
...please transmit video and visual scans at earliest opportunity. On no account allow contamination of or by crew. Ask Dr. Lundquist to make personal contact with us as soon as he is ableâour Chief MO, Dr. Sodhi, wants to ask some questions.
There was more of the same. Then came a message from Bill Emmart which they had
...story of Dr. Pryor's healing of Commander Orlov, and of her apparent ageâand other unusual attributesâhas somehow leaked to the media. We are attempting to trace the source, but no luck so far. I'm afraid she'll have to face a full inquiry on her return, though in view of her achievements on this mission it may not be too great a worry! However, the TV and media are having a field day, as you can imagine.
I don't know how this new discovery of yours will affect things, except perhaps to take the heat off Anne. At the moment, the rock-music world has gone mad, and the Gas Giants' album is being re-released along with some video footage someone's found. Anne'sâI mean Aurora'sâface is everywhere!
There's a movement to send invalids to Mars; they seem to think that Mars is some sort of Lourdes.... Meanwhile, you probably won't be too surprised to learn that the second Mars mission is being brought forward, and enlarged, using a Venus swing-by to reach Mars more quickly. You'll be gone before they arrive, of course; though there has been a proposal that a couple of your crew-members might be able to stay on the surface until the second expedition gets there. That would allow you to bring back the, er, body. But it's only a suggestion so far.
Mission Control, out.
The team-members stared at each other.
“Damnation!” said Aurora.
Orlov looked furious.
Lundquist, still inside his tent, seemed disgruntledâhad they really believed his report?
Beaumont, after a momentary look of panic, seemed almost gleeful. “Now the shit's really hit the fan! Don't you see? This is going to make all those hide-bound-fogey scientists, living in their ivory towers, open their minds at last! Every aspect of science is going to be affected!”
“Have you quite finished trotting out the clichÃ©s?” enquired Orlov. “Because, if you have, we've still got work to do. For a start, would you like to report the latest developments to those two in the roverâand find out how they're getting on? They should be halfway to Base by now.”
Bryan switched wavelengths and made contact with the rover. Minako and Verdet reported tersely that their journey was proving uneventful, and they were preparing to stop to rest for the night.
“D'you think Minako's safe with that Frenchman?” asked Beaumont when he had switched off.
?” countered Aurora. But her attitude to him did not seem as warm as usual.
A little later the four of them retired, exhausted by the day's events. But none of them slept much. Their dreams were haunted by strange images.
Especially Aurora's dreams.
INSIDE THE SPACESHIP
Next morning at dawn, fog rolled down the canyon, undulating like a soft, pink quilt over a restless sleeper. The same three as yesterday waited for the Sun to burn it off before they departed for the spaceship, taking the Beacon with them. They left Lundquist behind to continue his tests on the dead female astronaut and make his full report to Earth.
Once they'd reached the spaceship, Orlov climbed into the cockpit first. Beaumont lowered the Beacon carefully to him before he and Aurora got in as well; there was plenty of room for all three. Orlov gingerly slid the Beacon into its hole. It fitted so precisely that it looked as if it had been molded there.
With no sound or warning, the transparent dome appeared above them.
“Hey!” cried Beaumont, leaping up and pushing at it with his hands.
“Don't worry,” said Aurora, speaking with a calm that surprised her. “If it opened once it will open again.”
“I just hope you're right,” said Orlov. “But what made it open and close? We've been taking for granted that it needs your hand on the Beacon to get this thing functioning, Anne, but it looks as if we were wrong. So
's controlling it? And suppose it runs out of powerâwhat do we do then?”
Aurora pointed at the Beacon. “If you were right about this thing opening the canopy the first time,” she said, reaching towards it, “it must act as some sort of remote control. It should work here, too.”
She touched the smaller sphere confidently with her gloved hand.
She touched the larger sphere.
Still no result.
They tried to remove the Beacon from its recess, but now it appeared to be welded into place, seamlessly.
“Great! We're stuck. Let's try the instrument panel,” said Beaumont, a note of desperation not far beneath the surface of his voice, no matter how flippant he tried to sound.
Every control was dead, unresponsive.
I'm surprised we're all being so relaxed about this,
Bryan's obviously scared shitless, but none of us are remotely near panic. It's almost as if the ship itself were telling us we'll be OK....
Orlov changed his suit comm channel to that of the Igloo. “Hello, Robert? Come in please, over.”
The only sound in their phones was a wash of static overlaying a tinny squawking noise.
“Damn, damn! We shouldn't
have got inside!” said the engineer angrily. “One of us should have remained outside at all timesâwe
He turned back to the Beacon and tapped it as sharply as he could with his gloved knuckle. It made a dull echoing noise. He tried to grasp it with both hands.
“Hold on!” said Aurora. “Do that again.”
“Knock on the Beacon.”
He did so, and it made the same sound. “That's just the sort of noise it made back at camp. Oh, you mean it shouldn't, now that it's so firmly in place?”
“No, Vitali, you idiot! Just
âwe shouldn't be hearing it at
“Unless there's air in here. And plenty of it,” said Beaumont. He paused. “So who's going to take their helmet off?”
“Nobody. Their air could be poisonous to us,” said Orlov firmly.
“Robert says that astronaut is human,” said Aurora. “If she is, surely she must have breathed the same air as us.”
“But it could have gone bad, or changed, or something, in the length of time this thing's been lying here,” said the engineer firmly. “Even if it
less than a century, it's been sealed up here.”
“So we all die of suffocation in our suits,” said Beaumont. “Nice one. You're not thinking straight, old chap.”
He put his hands to his helmet.
Orlov moved as if to stop him, but Aurora put a restraining hand on his arm. “If he takes it off just for a momentâjust enough for a sniffâit shouldn't do him any harm. Don't forget, Robert hasn't found any harmful micro-organisms on either the Beacon or the bodyâand it's hardly likely there's cyanide or something in the air.”
“All right,” said Orlov grudgingly. “But I take no responsibility.”
Once again, in the face of an unknown quantity, he had become indecisive and nervous, Aurora noted. Quite unlike his usual bluff, confident self. At such times his Russian accent thickened, yet he spoke English even more correctly, if anything.
Beaumont lifted his helmet.
His nose wrinkled. Then he opened his mouth and took a deliberate breath.
“Best air I ever tasted!” he said. He winked at Aurora. “That's from an old movie, too. Remind me to tell you about it some time.”
“Are you sure?” asked Orlov worriedly.
“Oh yes. It was
When Worlds Collide.
” He raised his palms towards the glowering engineer. “Sorry, sorry! Come on, try it for yourself. There's a sort ofâsort of
tang to it. And it's cold. But it's as good as anything I've breathed on this trip so far. Better, in fact. It's beginning to stink a bit in the Igloo, don't you think?”
The others removed their helmets, Orlov very slowly, as if ready to replace it at the slightest hint of anything untoward. The accentuated rise and fall of his chest betrayed his anxiety further. Aurora felt her own heart racing.
“Phew. Well, that will help a lot,” Orlov said at last, the taut muscles of his face relaxing. “And isn't it getting quite warm in here, too? It should be freezing, surely?”
“Never mind that. We still have to get that canopy openâand find out what's in the outer part of this ship.”
Orlov looked round at Aurora, surprise on his face. She was removing the upper, torso section of her suit.
“I know we're celebrating a bit,” said Beaumont, “but there's no need for a striptease, is there? Not that I'm complaining, you understand.”
Ignoring him, Aurora reached out her bare hand and touched the Beacon. Almost at once, the black band glowed dull red, pulsing a little.
After a few moments its glow became steady and then the canopy vanished.
They dived for their helmets, but they'd hardly had time to move when the canopy reappeared again.
“What did you do?” asked Beaumont.
“I haven't told you before, but when I touched this the other day, back at camp, I'd taken my glove off.” Aurora glanced guiltily at Orlov. “OK, OK, I know I shouldn't have, Vitali, but it seemedânecessary.”
“It's all right,” said Orlov with a wry smile. “You needn't apologize. Or explain. I've gotten the message by now that you're a law unto yourself, here on Mars.”
“Hmm. Well, anyway, it seems that it needs to be touched by bare fleshâor perhaps it's just that its power is low, so it needs that extra human contact. I'm just guessing....” She looked from one to the other, hesitating.
“I hate to say this, but as to how I did it, well, I just
. Honestly! I literally thought
, visualizing the canopyâand it
. And it comes back to me now: just before I passed out, back at the Igloo, a picture of the canopy had come into my head. Even though I hadn't seen it by then. I thought I was just imagining it after hearing your descriptions, and then I fainted so I forgot all about it.”
Orlov said, “Can you open the canopy again, Anne? We'll have to put on our suits and helmets for a while, until you close it once more. I must try to contact Robert. It will be interesting, afterwards, to see how quickly the air refills this chamber againâassuming it does.”
It took the three of them a few minutes to work out how Aurora could safely touch the Beacon with her bare hand yet keep her suit on for when the air rushed out and the Martian cold rushed in. In the end it was Aurora herself who pointed out the obvious. It was cold on Mars, but not
cold: she wasn't frightened about exposing her hand on its own to the environment for a few seconds. She picked up her suit and removed the padded outer mitt from the end of one of its flaccid arms. Underneath there was an airtight inner glove, silk-thin but made of material that offered adequate insulation against the chill for up to a few minutesâthe system had been designed to allow astronauts to perform any emergency fine manipulations with their hands in the depths of space. The inner mitt was course integral to the arm of the suit; she borrowed Beaumont's belt-pick to cut it loose. So long as she always kept the outer glove on, the inner was redundant.
The three of them donned their suits. None of them could stop looking at Aurora's exposed hand. It was alive and yet outside the confines of any manmade structure. Whatever their brains told them, their instincts were yelling that this was an anomalyâa supremely vulnerable anomaly.
“The Beacon itself is going to be cold,” said Beaumont abruptly. “As cold as the air. It's going to freeze the moisture on your skin. Your hand's likely to stick to it....”
She shook her head at him. “It's got its own warmth,” she said. “That's another thing I found out.”
Fixing her gaze earnestly on Orlov's, Aurora reached out to the Beacon.
“See?” she said, rapidly pulling on the thick outer mitt. “Nothing to it.”
Her ragged breathing, loud in their helmets, belied her words.
Orlov grinned at her, then popped his head above the level of the cabin and spoke to Lundquist, explaining what had happened. The physician was relieved to hear from themâhe'd been trying to raise them without success.
“I think we could just about hear you,” said Orlov. “You sounded like Donald Duck. There seems a lot of static in here, though. Can you hear it? Over.”
“Yes, it's still there, but way in the distance. You're coming through loud and clear now. Over.”
“We're going to try to close the canopy again, so don't worry if we go off the air for a while,” explained Orlov. “With any luck, we'll have more news about the interior when I speak to you again. Over and out.”
“Over and out,” concurred Lundquist.
“OK, Anne, do your stuff,” said Orlov, nodding.
The band was still glowing ruby red. More relaxedly this time, Aurora removed her glove and put her fingertips on the Beacon, thinking:
A moment later the dome once more covered the bright sky with its pattern of scars and milky markings.
Beaumont started to tap the Beacon in a regular rhythm. Slowly the “thunk” became louder. As soon as he was satisfied the cabin was once more fully pressurized, he took off his helmet, clutched his throat and made a strangled sound, his tongue protruding, eyes wide.
Beaumont, behave yourself! This is a serious scientific expedition!” said Aurora, turning away to hide her smile.
Orlov chuckled briefly, but then sobered. “Anne's right. A bit of fun's OK for lightening the tension, but there's such a thing as crying `Wolf!' too often.”
“Right-oh, message received.” Beaumont did his best to look apologetic.
Ignoring their byplay, Aurora placed her ungloved hand in the small depression on the blank wall and frowned in concentration.
Acting on a hunch, she went over to the Beacon and put her hand on it instead, still focusing her thoughts on the wall.
There was an audible
and a section of wall openedâbut only a little way. It stopped, leaving a gap of some fifteen centimeters.
Beaumont and Orlov grasped either side of the opening, pulling hard, trying to widen the gap.
The sides of the opening wouldn't budge.
The band on the Beacon had turned black again.
“I think it gets exhausted,” said Aurora. “It must recharge itself somehowâperhaps just from solar power. Though it wouldn't have got that when it was under the sand.” She looked exhausted herself, her face drained of color.
“Doing that takes it out of you, doesn't it?” said Beaumont solicitously, putting an arm around her shoulder.
“Yes. It was the same when I played with the Gas Giants. I used to feel physically washed out after every rehearsal, every gig. Mental powers, whatever they are, seem to require a lot of energy.” Fitting actions to words, she took a long swig of glucose drink from her suit pack.
Orlov unhooked his suit flashlight and shone it through the gap now opened in the cabin wall. Peering, he let out a long, low whistle.
Beaumont and Aurora stepped to his side. The bright halogen beam reflected from three curved rows of seemingly semitransparent ovoids, placed one above another, but staggered. There must have been at least three dozen.
“Eggs! It's like in
!” said Beaumont. “That's another classic old movie, you know,” he added for Orlov's benefit.
“Can't you be serious for a moment?” said Aurora vexedly.
Beaumont looked contrite, but only briefly. It was obvious he was in his element. “I wish we could get inside.”
Aurora, the color returning to her cheeks, touched the Beacon again. As if in sympathy, the red color glowed once more along the black band, but fluctuating. Her brow creased. Then, with a faint rumbling sound, the panel opened completely to form a doorway over a meter wide. As with the canopy, none of them saw it actually move.
“Abracadabra! Your wish is my command, oh master. I mean, mistress,” muttered Beaumont.
“In your dreams,” drawled Aurora automatically.
The three stood around the entrance as if afraid to go inside. In the end Beaumont was the first to put a foot over the threshold. As he did so, light came on in the shadowy chamber. It had no apparent source, and it faded in graduallyâlike dawn on a stage set. Within a minute the entire area was bathed in a soft yellowish light, not unlike early-morning sunlight.