Read Aurora Online

Authors: David A. Hardy

Tags: #science fiction adventure, #hard science fiction

Aurora (19 page)

BOOK: Aurora
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Refusing further hypnosis, at least for that night, she stumbled off to bed, white-faced. Her husband followed her, trying to speak reassuring nothings to her.

The others remained, talking among themselves.

DISRUPTION

The next morning Aurora was depressed.

“I was a failure, wasn't I?” she said to Beaumont.

“Not at all,” he replied. “That session was invaluable. We learnt things we didn't know. Like the fact that some of your memories—perhaps implanted memories?—are not yours but those of someone else, perhaps your own father's. Or was it a ‘Father' in the religious sense?”

“No. I don't think so. I felt better after I'd had a cry. But I know it's still in here.” She tapped her temple in frustration. “How the hell are we going to get at it, Bryan?”

“I've had an idea about that. But I'll tell you about it later. I want to think on it a bit more.”

Orlov came in from the comm desk. He did not look very pleased.

“Mission Control want us to go back to Camp One,” he said without preamble. The other team-members raised their heads. “They say there's nothing more we can achieve here, with the equipment we have on hand, and we could do more harm than good if we continued to poke around. Oh, not in so many words did they say that, but it's what they meant. They'd like us to continue with our original scientific program until it's time for us to return. Work on the alien ship will continue when the next team of so-called experts arrives. How do you become an expert on alien human life? That they could not answer me!

“It shows how much they know. They wanted us to take the Beacon back to Earth with us. I said, in the first place it seems locked in position inside the ship now, and in the second it appears to be essential for operating many of the mechanisms on the ship. That's not all. Only Aurora has been able to operate it. They've been putting out appeals on all the media, on every channel, every e-group, for anyone who resembles Aurora in physical appearance, or has had any kind of experience with ‘visions', or has healing or regenerative powers, to come forward.

“They've had to stop that. They're blaming me. Well, it's true I did suggest it—but they would have thought of it anyway, wouldn't they? Of course, every crank has been coming forward. Some bleached their hair. One even wore a long wig!

“They couldn't afford not to check any of them out, of course, just in case there is a genuine alien among them. But they have drawn a blank.”

What Orlov said next surprised Aurora.

“How do you fancy staying here on Mars, Aurora? Or at least coming back here very soon?”

She turned a worried face towards him, not sure if he was joking or not.

Orlov did not seem to notice, but continued: “Robert, they want you to seal up the woman's body, making sure it's totally airtight, and one of the babies, complete in its capsule. We are to bring them back to Earth. It may mean taking fewer rock samples with us than the original plan demanded, but that's taking second place now, of course.

“They actually seem serious about a couple of us staying on the surface. They're looking into the logistics of it at the moment. They'll probably ask for volunteers, but....”

He turned to Aurora again.

“There will probably be a gap of only a month or so between us leaving and the next team arriving. Mars has a really high priority—at last. I'm afraid the military are in on the act—will they never learn?—but at least it means they are putting all their efforts into their new high-energy booster, and all our governments have high hopes for what they'll learn from the advanced technology we've got down here. Oh yes—Bryan, you'll probably be pleased to know that the next mission will make a stop-over on Phobos. It seems some scientists are taking seriously your idea—only they're calling it
their
idea, no surprises there—that Phobos might be the mother ship, a hollow asteroid ark left in a parking orbit.

“Well, I think that's about all. It's enough, isn't it? We have our orders. Start breaking camp.”

* * * *

Rover 1 was only half-an-hour from the landing site when an emergency signal blinked on its dashboard. It meant a message had come in from Earth which was so important that it needed attention at once and couldn't wait until they got back to base, so had been relayed to the rovers.

Orlov flipped a switch.

Aurora, who had been dozing as she bounced in her seat over the rocky ground, woke to hear Bill Emmart's voice begin talking, fast and urgently:

Mission Control to Orlov. You will need to act immediately; this message will be delayed reaching you because that duff relay satellite will be the one overhead to you when it arrives. I'll keep sending, so that one of the others will receive it.

Our orbiting solar and X-ray telescopes have shown an increase in radiation levels from the Sun. Could mean an SPE. It might be nothing, but signs are it's gonna be a monster one, and the stream is heading your way. There's been a big group of sunspots building up for a while.

Vitali, we suggest you start protecting the Hut the moment you get back. You know how. You'll have an hour at most before levels get dangerous—if they do. We'll be monitoring the situation, of course, and we'll send you regular updates.

Good luck, guys! Over and out.

“Roger, Bill, we got your message,” said Orlov. “Bloody hell! What timing! Well there's nothing we can do until we get back—then we'll get right onto it. Keep us informed. Out.”

The team was already feeling tired and sweaty after their long drive, but an SPE—a Solar Particle Event—was an ever-present danger on a long mission such as theirs.

Orlov contacted Rover 2 and said: “Did you all hear that message from Earth?”

They had, and had woken Lundquist, since as physician he was likely to be needed if the flare did indeed prove to be a bad one.

Verdet said: “I know we were all briefed before the mission, but what are our chances, Doc?”

“It depends on a lot of factors. The atmosphere will only shield us to a small extent, but as long as we can get under cover we
should
be OK. Otherwise, there's the risk of radiation sickness—bad sunburn, loss of hair. Verdet—you all know the score.... Plus a greater chance of getting cancer in future—the hazard of that is twice as high for you women. Sorry about sexual equality and all that, girls, but that's the way it is.”

Nobody laughed.

At last the two rovers, separated by only a few hundred meters, came into view of Base Camp. The Sun was setting almost directly behind the conical Lander, and the two half-tanks which formed their living- and working-quarters glittered golden in the evening light. As the Sun sank, the glow leaked rapidly from the sky, whose color passed through a sequence of amber, rose, magenta, ultramarine, and finally near-black. Stars sprang into view as if flicked onto a dark canvas by an invisible brush.

When the Sun rose again, its light could well be accompanied by a hail of particles and electromagnetic radiation of all wavelengths as a shock-wave in the solar wind exploded in their direction.

As she stepped down from Rover 1, Aurora arched backward, hands on hips, trying to ease her cramped neck-muscles. As she did so, stars moved across her field of view, through the transparent faceplate. “I wonder which one it is?” she mused aloud. “Is it even in our universe at all?”

It took some time to unload all their equipment and surplus stores. The precious Mylar tubes which contained the female astronaut and the dully gleaming cocoon holding the baby were taken into the stores section, where the temperature was kept uniformly low by the simple expedient of its having a silvered outer skin to reflect the light and heat from the Sun.

As decreed by the Mission Plan for such an emergency, the first thing they did to protect themselves was to unroll the Blimp and spread it out. Next, the big elevators—wings, effectively—which served as fins for steering in flight, and were separate compartments, had to be pumped full of water from the electrolysis plant. While they were away, this had filled a large tank and shut itself off automatically. The fins were then positioned, with difficulty, to where they would give the best shielding effect outside the Hut.

The next job was to drape the flaccid Blimp itself over the Hut. Its main job was done and it had been fully tested; now its silvery fabric would provide extra shielding. It was large enough to be folded back and forth several times, but they deliberately gathered it into horizontal pleats, using cords running through special loops, to create a highly crenulated appearance.

Both rovers were jacked up and their back wheels, with their thick metal-mesh tires, were removed and replaced by a simple device: a sort of partially enclosed paddle-wheel with a movable, funnel-like spout near the top. Set spinning, these scooped up Martian regolith and showered it, like a snow-plough, over the Hut. Using shovels, the team helped make sure this was evenly distributed. A fold of airship material was lapped over each layer and taped into place, so that it retained the soil and prevented it from falling off. Orlov made sure that the Hut was covered by a sandwich over ten centimeters deep before they cut the motors.

“We'd better cover the Greenhouse, too,” said Lundquist. “A dose of radiation could throw all our results out—or even kill our samples.” The Greenhouse was his chief responsibility aside from his duties as physician. It consisted of a series of plastic domes which housed a variety of edible plants and vegetables growing in Martian soil to which controlled nutrients had been added, under a carefully monitored atmosphere. Future colonies would have to rely on agriculture for survival; also, certain plants had been selected for their ability to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. An oasis of green would be psychologically uplifting, too.

Panting with exertion and streaming with sweat, at last they entered the Hut, which Lundquist had already brought up to full pressure. Tired as they were, they had to undergo the ritual of vacuuming their suits and belongings to remove as much of the insidious fines as they could leave in the airlock. A shower would have been better, but water was too precious.

Inside, and de-suited, some sank gratefully into seats, others went off to attend to personal matters. All obviously felt depressed that within a few days, their mission had slipped from high excitement into routine—and now into danger.

* * * *

Next morning the Sun rose looking no different from usual, casting the webbed shadow of the big S-band antenna across their camp, the sand pocked with thousands of tiny dark craters: their footprints.

Orlov activated the Orbiter's instruments to transmit the telescopic image of the Sun down to them via the relay satellite currently overhead so that they could see it on the big screen.

There was no doubt about it now. A patch of the Sun's photosphere, normally at 6,000º C, had heated to several million degrees. X-rays, ultraviolet light, cosmic rays, magnetic fields—all were way above norm. The speed of the stream of particles in the solar wind, normally up to 400 kilometers per second, would now be doubling.

“This one could reach a thousand rem. Maybe even twice that,” said Lundquist. “You realize we deliberately planned this mission during a period of low solar activity, to try to avoid this? It's damnably bad luck. But the Sun's no respecter of persons....”

“What would a dangerous dose be, again?” asked Verdet gloomily, like someone probing at a sore tooth.

“A maximum of six hundred rem is recommended. But, don't forget, that's the amount to be absorbed by your skin over your whole career in space. You may remember that one reason for the choice of a, well, mainly middle-aged crew, was that none of us intended to have any more children.”

Minako, as a meteorologist, seemed far too interested—indeed, excited—to be worried. “This will be affecting radio communications from Earth,” she said. “If the flare was aimed at Earth they would be seeing the aurora at night, too.” She looked round at Aurora. “Oh, yes! How appropriate.”

Aurora smiled weakly. Minako continued: “But it's not, whereas
we
are in a direct line. I doubt if we'll get any aurorae here—the magnetic field is too weak. But it might be worth looking, all the same.”

From the expressions on their faces, Aurora knew she was voicing a thought that had occurred to many of her colleagues. “You know, looking at this sight I can't help thinking of that alien ‘movie'. That was speeded up, of course, but those sunspots, the bright faculae—those writhing prominences....” She tweaked the controls so that the glare of the solar disc was darkened but the beautiful foliation of the magenta-pink flames dominated the screen.

Orlov, who had been selected for his expertise as a pilot and engineer and had only basic training in astronomy, said, “I am sure this is stupid question, but is no way our Sun could become nova like one which destroyed that planet?”

From his suddenly assumed thick accent it was obvious that he was really talking to make conversation. Minako apparently took him seriously. “
No.
Our Sun will probably never become a nova. In five billion years' time it will expand into a Red Giant, and will swallow up the inner planets, including the Earth and Mars. But by then humanity will have changed out of all recognition—if it still exists at all—and will surely have found other homes out in the stars. If the Sun were ever to become a nova, it would be after the Red Giant stage. But current thinking is that it will become a planetary nebula for fifty thousand years, then a White Dwarf—and stay that way just about forever.”

“Oh, good, so we can all breathe easy!” said Beaumont with an attempt at a grin. He obviously found her serious answer and earnest manner amusing.

Minako stared at him, reddening.

To change the subject, Verdet said, mopped his brow, “I'm not breathing so easily—is it me, or is it getting hot in here?”

“Yes, that is the problem with having to shield the living quarters. We can't use the normal temperature-control system on the outer skin,” said Orlov. “We're shielded from sunlight, but we're all producing lots of watts inside. We've got the emergency air-conditioning unit working at full blast. I'm afraid we're just going to have to put up with this until the danger is past.”

BOOK: Aurora
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