Authors: David A. Hardy
Tags: #science fiction adventure, #hard science fiction
Now that the subject had been raised, everyone suddenly felt several degrees hotter, and some began to discard clothing.
“This could get interesting!” muttered Beaumont. Aurora glared at him good-naturedly.
The “incoming message” alarm sounded from the comm desk. Distorted by crackles and bleeps, and at times almost inaudible, the voice of Mission Control wanted to know if they were all safely under cover. Orlov reassured them that they had done all they could. While his message, repeated several times in case of communications problems, was on its way, another message came though:
We know you won't be able to act on this for a while, but here's an update on the analysis of the data you've been sending. At least it'll give you something to occupy your minds!
Nothing new on the appearance of the constellations. You'd have to travel at least a hundred light years to see noticeable changes in, say, the Big Dipper, and at that distance the Sun would be lost in a naked-eye view. You have to appreciate that we're not normally geared up to looking at this sort of problemâour space probes travel only light minutes, or light hours at most.
But another team has been looking at the geography and geology of the alien planetâas much as could be seen. And...well, are you ready for this?
They think it's
! There are differences, apart from the obvious onesâthe vegetation, the presence of the city, and so on. And some geological features are not the same as they appear to us. But the experts say that the chances against those which do match up appearing in the same positions on another world are, well, astronomical.
They say the figure-of-eight city encircles two of the smaller volcanoes on Tharsis: Uranius Tholusâthat's the one in the foregroundâand Ceraunius Tholus, the bigger one, looming behind it. That would make the city really vast; it would cover an area of hundreds of square kilometers.
Needless to say, not...
[a burst of static]
...agrees with this analysis, but I have to say that it looks pretty convincing. The constellations wouldn't look any different than they would from Earth at the same period, as you well know. Present thinking is that there must have been a brief Martian civilizationâor a colony from another star, maybe?âmillions of years ago, and all trace of it has since been obliterated by volcanic activity, the flash floods, the erosion of dust storms, and so on. Only the main volcanoes are still in the same place. Oh, we think there's an impact crater missing on the flank of Ceraunius, though we might be seeing a lake there instead.
All that doesn't bring us any closer to explaining the binary star, of course. We're still working on that....
Meanwhile, I'm putting my money on the next mission landing close to Uranius Tholus, with an archaeological team on board.
Good luck with the SPE, you guys. We're all rooting for you.
Mission Control, out.
This news did indeed give the team something else to distract them from the solar storm, and there was much discussion. Then Minako, who had been preoccupied with her meteorological monitor board, looked up and said: “It may be due to the solar flare, or it may not, but the weather on Mars is getting stirred up too. We've only been getting wind speeds of around ten meters per second lately, but that's going to rise to fifty, sixtyâmaybe even higher.”
“Will that matter?” asked Lundquist.
“Probably not. If the speed is high enough it might cause âsaltation'âyou know? Sand grains skip across the surface and propel smaller ones into the atmosphereâwhich is why the sky is pink. We might be in a bit of a fog for a few days. Interesting!”
Her face was as animated as anyone had ever seen it.
As if on cue, the view on the big screen, which Aurora had flipped from the seething image of the Sun to an outside camera, showed a dust devil rising from the desert. Two or three others swirled into life, and together they marched in formation across the landscape, twisting and interlinking, like weird genies released from their bottles.
* * * *
Three hours later, the view had been almost entirely obliterated, and, when the dust clouds did clear briefly, the landscape rocked as the camera was shaken on its mounting.
Something metallic flicked into view and vanished, but appeared again, and again.
“The Blimp! This stronger wind is getting under it and lifting it. I hope to God the gusts don't shake it right off,” said Beaumont.
“Damn, damn! I should have anticipated this, and fastened guy ropes to anchor the Blimp,” said Orlov angrily. “I was in such a hurry to get us under cover.”
Now they could hear and feel the wind buffeting the Hut.
“I'm surprised at its power,” said Aurora in a pacifying tone. “Oh, I've seen the numbers. But somehow you can't believe that such a thin atmosphere could have the strength to create this much effect, Well I can't, anyway.”
“It has the strength to lift thousands of tons of fines high into the atmosphere,” said Minako rather scathingly.
Suddenly from one edge of the screen there fountained a huge shower of red soil. A large area of metallized fabric appeared and began flapping like a pterosaur's wing. The airship was shaking loose, and minute by minute their shielding was being torn away.
“I'm going outside,” said Aurora firmly.
“You can't possibly. I won't allow it. It would be sheer suicide,” said Lundquist.
“I agree. I forbid it also,” said Orlov, equally firmly. Beaumont was likewise shaking his head.
“Oh, fine, so we all get a heavy dose of radiation and contract cancer,” said Aurora. “Very sensible. Very clever. Don't you see? I'm the only one who
go outside, because the chances are very good that my body will be able to counteract any adverse effects.”
“You don't know that,” argued Lundquist. “The effects of radiation are very different from those of bacteria, or injuries. I'm still against it.” But his voice was becoming less confident.
“I don't see why. It seems that my body is able to protect me, period. Anyway, if I'm willing to take the risk and everyone is helped, who are you to stop me? I'm going.”
Suiting actions to words, she marched into the airlock.
Orlov moved to stop her nevertheless, but Beaumont laid a hand on his shoulder.
“I'm afraid she's right. I'm the last one to want her to go into danger, but it's her decision, and it's probably the only hope for the rest of us. I think she has a good chance....”
Lundquist capitulated. “Even so, I'd better make sure you have this.”
He held out a clip-on radiation meter, which Aurora took.
Two minutes later the monitor screen showed a space-suited figure looming through the ruddy haze, head down and walking with stumbling steps.
* * * *
The Sun glared balefully, a red eye in a blood-colored dust bath. Aurora was still amazed, despite her scientific education and knowledge, at the apparent thickness of the dust being raised all around her. Above her, the sky pulsated with curdling billows of chocolate brown, of rust red, of burnt umber, while flickering shafts of sunlightâamber, gold, orangeâspotlit her intermittently. Even at that stressful moment she experienced a brief flashback to the concert with the Gas Giants.
The wind tugged at her suit, and it was hard to walk. She trudged to the area where the Blimp was being torn free. Already quite a large section of shiny metal tank was exposed intermittently as the fabric flapped in the wind.
Almost weeping with the effort, she pushed one of the water-filled elevators back into placeâa task which would have been impossible under Earth gravity and was difficult enough even here. Then she grabbed a corner of the main Blimp and pulled a whole layer, the length of the Hut, free. The wind snatched it viciously from her hands, but she caught it and managed to attach a length of nylon cord, taken from one of the rovers' lockers, to the exposed layer.
Lacking any pegs, she tied the cord around the biggest rock she could handle, then piled other rocks around and on top of it, building a small cairn. She repeated this process at other points, then got a shovel and began covering the Hut with regolith again. Finally, and feeling she might collapse at any momentâthis job really needed at least two peopleâshe folded the final layer of metallized plastic back over the top and secured it, so that hopefully it would hold the soil in place and prevent it being blown away.
Over the next few draining minutes, her consciousness occasionally seeming to dim, she fought her way right round the Hut, ensuring that everything was as secure as she could make it.
At last she staggered back to the airlock.
The inner door to the suiting-up chamber slid open after several eternities, and she almost fell through. She slumped into the nearest chair.
“OK. You were right. I should have stayed in here in comfort,” she joked feebly, peering up through a deep red fog at Lundquist, who was standing over her looking concerned. He reached for her arm to take her pulse.
“Oh, go away, cool it, Bob. My mum always said âhard work never hurt anybody'. Think how fit I'll be tomorrow after all that exercise.”
Her eyes closed, and instantly she fell asleep.
When she awoke, with a jumbled dream-image of the usual gowned figures still in her head, she was in her own cot. She got up, feeling sore and stiff but otherwise well enough, and made her way to the tiny bathroom.
* * * *
A little while later, as she entered the Refectory, heads looked towards her, then quickly away. Her fellows had obviously been deep in discussion.
“You've been dead to the world for over twelve hours!” said Lundquist. His face fell, and his voice was grave as he continued. “Sorry. I could have phrased that better. But you may as well know: I'm afraid you've absorbed over two thousand rem. That's a lethal dose, Aurora. I've given you an injection, and you certainly seem all right so far. The only thing we can do now is waitâwait, hope and pray.”
prayed for you,” said Orlov, his face ashen. Then, obviously to take their minds off the subject, he added, “Things have been happening while you've been asleep. For one thing, the solar storm is over. And so is the one outsideâthough the air's still pretty hazy. But that was expected. What wasn't is that we're going to move on.”
“What? Move where?”
“Yes. Mission Control has given us our marching orders. You can watch the recording if you want to, but in a nutshell they say they've been looking carefully at our reserves of consumablesâpropellant, food, oxygenâand that we have enough for a small hop. Care to guess where they want us to go?”
“Got it in one. Those two volcanoes are way up in the northern hemisphere, of courseâtoo far to travel by rover, even if we had the fuel. Mission Control have picked out a landing site for us, just to the west of Uranius Tholus, on a smooth area just before the ground breaks up into the cracks and grooves of Ceraunius Fossae. They're having some problems with the launch vehicle for the next mission, and don't want to waste our last few weeks on Mars having us perform routine tasks when we could be taking a look at what might be the site of that double city. So, tomorrow we move. Today, we pack.”
“We're leaving the Hut as it is, I supposeâand the Greenhouse and other experiments?” asked Aurora.
“Yes, we have no option. We can take a few of the smaller items with us, but that's all. We'll have to take the S-band antenna, of course. So let's get to work. Not you of course, Aurora, if you don't feel up to it.”
“No, I'd rather help than laze around here.”
Aurora started to get up, but then a wave of giddiness swept over her. She dropped back into her seat.
Lundquist was at her side in an instant.
“You stay here,” he said, taking her wrist.
Aurora refused to go back to bed, but found herself confined to the Hut while the others packed up what portable equipment they could and loaded the Lander. She watched them on the monitor and kept in radio communication.
“I'm afraid we're going to have to leave most of our rock samples here,” said Orlov.
This decision would affect Minako, Beaumont and Verdet as well as Aurora. “I'm sorry,” he added apologetically, “but we've got to save weight wherever we can. We're taking the two bodies, of course. Fortunately, we were very economical on fuel when we landedâotherwise we wouldn't have enough to spare for this little jaunt.”
He went into the
with Beaumont to program their sub-orbital flight.
Lundquist came to check up on Aurora, who was dozing. “I'm a bit worried that you might not be able to take the strain of the launch,” he said.
“Oh come on, DocâI'll be fine. I'm just not used to all that physical work, that's all. I'm
, for chrissake! But just give me another night's sleep.... Anyway, it'll hardly be a high-gee launch, will it?”
“True. OK, we'll see how you feel tomorrow. It's an early start, by the way, so you'd better get back to bed right away.”
* * * *
At 07:00 next morning Aurora got up and folded her cot and duvet. She still felt weak and rather queasy, but, since she didn't want to be responsible for any delays in their plans, told Robert that she felt better. He seemed fairly satisfied with the readings on his diagnostic instruments.
The team took a last look around the interior of the Hut as they suited up. Orlov made a final check of the automatic instruments which would be left working, relaying their information to the Orbiter via the smaller satellites.
After ushering the others out he followed them, then closed the outer airlock.
* * * *
The campsite was a wave-patterned beach of bright and dark in the early-morning light. The longest shadow was cast by the big, vaguely conical Lander, which crouched on its legs like some monstrous spider crab. Much smaller shadows, like parasites, crawled up its side and were swallowed by its open, red-glowing maw. Below, as always, Earth-people had left litter and pollution to mark their passing.
The ladder withdrew. The hatch swung closed. A wisp of pale vapor appeared near the base of the
and became an expanding smoke-ring. Had anyone been standing on the sand to observe, they might have heard a thin roaring sound as, briefly, reddish flame flickered around the venturi. Only robot cameras watched, impassively, dutifully converting their electronic images into digital information to be reconverted and watched many minutes later by the waiting millions on Earth.
Dust and sand erupted from beneath the Lander. The legs flexed. The gap between them and their shadow widened. Within that gap the landscape wavered and distorted through a bluish haze, like a mirage.
For a long moment the spaceship hovered, balancing on a column of pale violet, diamond shockwaves, as though deciding whether to sink back down to the sand. Then, with startling rapidity, it shot upwards and arced across the bright orange sky, became a white star, and was lost to sight.
* * * *
To Aurora, it seemed that no time passed before the view through the porthole of Arsia Mons was replaced by the much smaller cone of Uranius Tholus, with the larger Ceraunius Tholus directly to its south. The two volcanoes, she knew, lay to either side of the latitude line of twenty-five degrees north.
The motors whined, and the
was dropping towards the plain. To their left appeared scores of long fractures running roughly northâsouthâtectonic patterns belonging to the crater of Alba Patera, already out of sight below their horizon to the northwest. The shadow-filled cracks, growing in detail as they drifted below, had an almost hypnotic effect, one replacing another but each successively growing larger, larger....
“Three hundred meters. Looks rough down there. Taking manual control.” Orlov's face was strained as he tersely exchanged parameters with Beaumont. Beaumont had asked if he could make this landing himself, but Orlov had overruled him on the basis of his own greater experience. Aurora thought Beaumont had seemed relieved: they couldn't afford to take chances at this stage of the game.
Below, overlapping folds of lava were a highly uneven and not very promising landing field. Scattered boulders, some the size of a small house, were going to make the task even more difficult.
“Fifty meters. Impact crater down there. Right. Three forward. Twenty metersâdamn! Right.
“No, NoâUP! There's a boulder right under our legs!”
“OK, OK. No! It has to be here or we're into reserves. Picking up dust. Five. Fourâcontact lightâ”
There was a grinding crunch and the craft tilted alarmingly. Then came a deafening screeching sound inside the cabin as they skidded horizontally in the moment that the landing pads touched the surface.
But only for that moment.
Then there was silence.
The silence actually wasn't a silence, Aurora discovered as her ears recuperated, but consisted of the dying whine of turbines, the ticking of cooling metal and many other sounds. The tilt of the cabin floor told her the steepness of the angle they had landed at. She hoped it would permit them to take off again safely. But Orlov, his face beaded with sweat, was grinning around at them through his beard.
“Congrats, Boss!” said Beaumont, pumping the Russian's arm. “For a minute back there you had me worried!”
Piece of cake!” claimed Orlov.
Around them a miniature dust storm swirled. By the time it had almost cleared, the hatch was open and they began to emerge.
* * * *
Feeling partly disgusted, partly relieved, Aurora found herself confined to her reclining couch in the Lander while the others unloaded stores and began to set up the Igloo on its new site. All she could do was watch them on the small monitor screen, and listen to them chat as they worked.
She still felt physically weak, but she was mentally active.
At least she could rotate the view from two cameras to cover 360 degrees. At first, she looked at the scene scientifically. Both craters were partially submerged under younger lavas, so, like rocky icebergs submerged in an ocean of solidified magma, much of them lay beneath the apparent surface.
Then she began to feel excited. The scene seemed...
âand not just from having seen the alien film, she was sure. She began to long to set her feet on the ground outside; already she seemed to feel the ancient planet calling to her.
If Earth was held in the protective hands of a caring goddess called Gaia, as some believed, who guided the destiny of Mars? In the minds of humanity, Mars had for centuries been associated with warfare and destruction. Even its tiny satellites were named Fear and Panic. But Aurora felt that men (yes, menânever women!) had for too long imposed their own subconscious fears and bellicose nature on this little world, just because of its supposed resemblance to the colors of blood and fire. No: she imagined an ancient, benign god, waiting patiently and trustingly to welcome lifeâeven in the form of humanityâwhenever at last it came. Or had it already come and gone? If so, gone where? Perhaps they were about to find out.