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Authors: David A. Hardy

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BOOK: Aurora
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The inside of the warehouse was a revelation, though. Emerging from a short corridor, Aurora found herself surrounded by glass booths, some containing stand microphones, others chairs and music stands. Fluorescent tubes hung from the high ceiling, while thick black electrical cables snaked in all directions across the wooden boarded floor, on which stood several huge speaker cabinets. In a gallery right across one end of the room, with a metal stairway leading up to it, were more glass windows, behind which brightly lit figures moved about.

The band, with other helpers and hangers-on, rapidly set up their equipment. Aurora noticed that the drum kit was placed in a booth of its own, and saw Doug fitting a pair of headphones over his bushy hair. When she found that she was expected to do the same, she became agitated.

“No!” she cried. “If I can't have everyone
with
me, I don't play.”

The studio engineers tried hard to get her to change her mind, but she was adamant. So the rest of the band were clustered around the synthesizer, microphones were rearranged, and, after the usual twangs and toots of tuning up, the recording session began for real.

The first number lasted twenty minutes. Although as soon as she began playing Aurora fell into her trancelike state, she did see one of the figures in the control booth pick up a telephone several times. Shortly afterwards, people began to file silently into the studio. All but a couple of red lights in the actual studio were dimmed, leaving the control room a bright oasis.

The second piece was also over fifteen minutes long and, when it finished, after a respectful silence of a few seconds in deference to the tape machines, spontaneous applause broke out.

A tinny voice spoke from nowhere. “
Far out!
We don't even need any overdubs. But you'll have to do some shorter numbers—three, four minutes, five max—if you want to put out a single.” Aurora saw that one of the men behind the long control panel in the glasshouse was speaking into a microphone with a long flexible neck. It looked like a goose, she thought.

“Let's do the vocal?” suggested Ginge, hopefully. He had written the lyric, and was rather proud of it. Another batch of onlookers surged through the door while the red RECORDING light was out.

“OK, the vocal. Then
The Seagull
—and let's keep it short,” said Herbie.

Lefty sang the lead vocal; he had a good blues voice, hoarse yet tuneful. Doug, with a mike slung over his drums, joined in the chorus line. To everyone's surprise, for she had never done this before, Aurora pulled over a nearby live microphone and began to sing, wordlessly. Or was she singing in some foreign language? It didn't seem to matter. Her voice, while not strong, was pure and clear. She sang a strange harmony to the middle-eight bars, playing the melody line on single, gliding notes. The result was ethereal.

Once again there was wild applause at the end, and it was obvious from comments she heard that these studios had never witnessed such scenes before. Or such music. The effort was taking its toll, but Aurora couldn't recall ever feeling so happy.

At the close of the next piece, though, Lefty looked concerned, for she was white and strained. “Can we call it a day?” he asked the control room.

The recording engineers were bemused. The Gas Giants had been in the studio for less than two hours. Yet there was certainly enough material in the can for an album, and for the A and B sides of a single. A double-sided number one single, too, or they'd trade in their headphones for brooms and go street-sweeping, as one engineer put it.

From the crowd came cries of “No, more—more!” and “Keep it going while it's hot!”

Lefty scowled at them and pointed to Aurora. “Look at her, can't you? She's about all in.”

He unplugged his bass and put it into its battered case. This signaled the rest of the group to follow his lead. Aurora revived enough to help a little, though she still looked shaken.

She spoke once. “Thanks, Lefty. You're a real rock.”

When they had left, the studio seemed even emptier than usual. Little groups of people stood around aimlessly for a while, discussing what they had just heard and the rosy future of the band, then drifted away.

* * * *

“Ladies and Gentlemen.... Guys and Gals.... Let's have a big hand for...the Gas Giants!”

The curtains rolled back and there was a scatter of clapping as sound began to fill the auditorium. Most of the audience had never heard of the band. It was only the support group, after all. The bar remained full to bursting. Latecomers straggled in and stumbled along the rows of seats, forcing grumbling sitters to stand.

The stage was bathed in ripples of violet, blue, green, yellow light which changed and pulsed with the music. Herbie had proved to have no mean talent with electronics now that Synth no longer monopolized the equipment, and his second guitar seemed no longer needed. He operated a kind of keyboard which produced changes of light instead of sound. The band had broken with the convention of patched jeans and T-shirts, and all wore close-fitting black, including Aurora; though her costume was more in the nature of a cat-suit, against which her bright hair shone.

The audience hardly noticed. At first this was because they were talking among themselves, as they normally did during support acts. But very shortly there was a chorus of “Ssshhhh!” and the late arrivals started getting angry glares. In no time the listeners were being carried away on wave after wave of soaring sound, lifting every one of them out of their humdrum, everyday existence, making them forget troubles, ills, quarrels petty or serious, and at the same time welding them into one great corporate entity which was part of the music.

There were no separate pieces of music or songs this time, nor need for applause. For the two thousand people in the theater, each in his or her own way, gave back as much as they received. But the music changed and flowed, so that at times everyone present was silent and sad, at others joyous, bright-eyed. Management, usherettes and bouncers stood at the sides, relaxed; for, despite the electric, emotion-charged atmosphere, there was no hint of rowdiness. A BBC television crew, setting up cameras for the headline group, hastily started filming.

Not everyone agreed on what happened next. To some, it remained a really great concert, the best music they had ever heard, with an unusually good rapport between musicians and audience. And even those who saw the “visions” did not all agree on what they saw. But to most of the latter:

The music was a mighty silver waterfall, leaping and cascading down, down, amongst the crags of a tall volcanic mountain whose peak was lost in the clouds. It crashed, it rushed, it roared, and then it split into myriad streams which splashed, gurgled, tinkled between moss-covered rocks.

The stream which was the music entered a dark cave, where it flowed in echoing darkness for a while, then light reappeared, emanating from globular shapes—fungi?—on the walls of the cavern: blue, green, purple. As the light brightened, the rivulet widened and figures became visible, bathing naked in the now-warm water. Other tributaries swirled in, half-seen through wisps of steam, from gullies among the rocks. Strange, fern-like plants sprang from the banks.

In a sudden glare of sound the torrent sluiced straight down a hillside in the full light of day; yet this daylight had an unearthly quality. The stream broadened, and meandered through open countryside. Trees lined its banks, trailing yellow-green leaves in its swirling surface. On the left, the land rose to a huge, flat-topped hill. Many white-robed people were making their way up its slopes. Among them ran nude and bronzed pale-eyed children, youths and girls, laughing and dancing. The music seemed to swell as though joined by an orchestra and choir from outside itself, rolling down from the rim of the hill....

The people in the auditorium blinked, collectively, as the music seemed to falter. The scene blurred. There were low metal buildings, an interminable flat expanse of sand. Some of the audience felt they were being carried in strong arms. Then the view tilted upward, up over curved metal plates.

Confusion.

Noise.

Pressure.

Red darkness.

Black darkness.

For a long time, total lack of sensation.

Sudden shock, pain. A surge of movement, forward; then falling. Somewhere far off, as though seen through crystal, violent blasts of light: red, yellow, white, red again. Darkness. Falling, falling. Gentle hands lifting, lowering. A jolt, a hard surface below.

Noise!

Fear!

There was a startling crackle and a shower of sparks, and the music stopped abruptly. Aurora reeled back from her instrument, fell into the drums and was caught by Doug, as limp as though she were a rag doll. The curtains were hurriedly lowered. There was a cursory announcement that someone had been taken ill.

After a long and uneasy pause the main band came on and played their usual set. It was one of their best performances, but they played to an apathetic and unresponsive house.

Next day the critics in the musical and national press virtually ignored them. They wrote of the incredibly talented debut performance of this unknown support group, and of the unfortunate collapse of their beautiful young female keyboards player (whose age was given as 16). A few mentioned the almost psychical effect upon the audience; others, practical men and women at heart, wrote of the effective pre-recorded orchestral and choral tapes which had augmented the live performance, and of what must surely be a breakthrough in back-projection, suggesting a new holographic laser process producing lifelike and three-dimensional moving images of scenes and people.

The rest of the Gas Giants' tour had to be cancelled, of course, but, thanks to all the publicity, both the single and the LP, rush-released within the week, were immediate hits, remaining in the charts for months. Even so, everyone who had been present at the concert—or at the recording studio, or at the Grotto Club—agreed that, fine though the records were, they failed to capture the intensely personal atmosphere of the live performances. Something indefinable was missing.

Aurora was missing, too. The Gas Giants brought in Herbie's younger sister, her hair bleached blonde, and mimed to their tapes on
Top of the Pops
. But without Aurora they seemed like insensate marionettes.

A few months later, they dissolved the band.

* * * *

Lefty often relived that night in his dreams. He saw Aurora reach into the electronics-filled innards of the synthesizer, seeking...seeking
what
? Some new sound? Who knew?

He had shouted uselessly: “Aurora—DON'T!”

The shock from the full mains voltage had sent her flying backwards. As Doug had carried her inert body into the dressing room, he'd known for sure she was dead.

But she wasn't. After they had loosened her clothes and, in lieu of brandy, poured a measure of scotch from Ginge's hipflask down her throat, she had revived quickly, and sat up. It seemed to Lefty that something had gone from her face. As she changed into her street clothes and walked to the door her expression was blank, reminding him of the first time he had seen her.

Little girl lost.

“Where do you think you're going?” he asked.

“Back up to Inverness, perhaps. I think maybe I'll study for a while; try to get into university. I'm wasting my time here.”

“Wasting your time? But what about the band! We're gonna make it big, can't you dig that? You can't just walk out on the rock scene now, just like that.”

“Rock?” she said. A faraway look flickered in her eyes and then was gone. “Oh, yes, rock,” she'd said coldly as she'd closed the door behind her. “That's all that matters, isn't it?

“Rock....”

ACT THREE

ARSIA MONS

Rock. Rock and more rock. Black rock, ochre rock, amber rock. Nothing but rock everywhere you looked. Anne Pryor chipped at the flank of Arsia Mons with her geologist's hammer and carefully placed the latest fragment in her sample case. She spoke the identifying data into her helmet mike, tonguing on the recorder; writing was difficult wearing the gloves of the Mars environment suit. That said, the flexible and almost skin-tight Mars suit was a big improvement on the bulky Apollo suits. For a while it had looked as though the type of “hard suit” produced by ILC Dover with Hamilton Sundstrand, as used on the International Space Station, would be pressed into service here too. But, although in space legs are almost superfluous, here on the surface of Mars mobility and freedom of movement were paramount.

The colors around here, she mused for the umpteenth time, were surprisingly drab. Despite her training, she had still expected rich reds, oranges and yellows—the colors that appeared in just about all the photographs and space art she had seen. But the reality—at least in this locality—was mainly pale brown, with variations into buff, yellow and tan. The scenery in the central area of Iceland, where she had spent some weeks on a field trip, had been very similar. And almost as cold....

That was an exaggeration, she acknowledged wryly. Tharsis was
cold
, even for Mars.

That was one of the reasons why the area had been chosen for the expedition. The strange parallel ridges on the lee side of Arsia Mons, looking curiously like ploughed fields, had turned out to be a recessional moraine; that is, dirt and rubble left behind by a glacier. It had been known for many years that clouds often blew over the volcano; these precipitated as storms of ice crystals. And the ice stayed where it fell on these high slopes. It had been building up for a long time.... She had seen similar layered glaciers in Iceland, too; those had been caused by the ash from repeated eruptions. One of her tasks here was to see if these layers on Arsia Mons could have the same cause.

Apart from that, Arsia Mons was the southernmost of a set of triplets, three shield volcanoes of very similar size, the other two being Pavonis and Ascraeus. To the northwest stood the far mightier Olympus Mons, which towered above the plain to a height ten times that of Earth's Mount Everest. Olympus Mons was
too
big, really, for it was impossible to take it all in, except from out in space. Earth's largest shield volcano—Mauna Loa on the big island of Hawaii—provided a similar visual effect, dominating the landscape only as a long, low hill. But the volume of Olympus Mons was over fifty times than even that of Mauna Loa. There was evidence that there could have been thermal activity in this area, millions or possibly just thousands of years ago. Ever since the highly controversial discovery in the mid-1990s of “fossil life” in a Martian rock—ALH 84001—found in the Antarctic and the
Pathfinder
and other unmanned missions that had followed, scientists had hoped for The Big One: the unequivocal discovery of life on Mars.

It might seem hard to believe, but even working on an alien world like Mars could become commonplace after a while. Not boring, precisely, but, even so, as Anne Pryor worked her mind kept drifting back to the events that had led her here.

* * * *

After leaving London, Aurora had gone back up to Scotland, as she'd said she probably would. For a while she had stayed with her brother Stephen; but he was now 40, and looked it, with his receding hairline, greying hair and bifocal spectacles, while she still seemed like a teenager. It was bound to cause comment, especially as Steve's wife, Brenda, was hardly any older than Aurora and yet looked nearly as old as her husband.

So she didn't stay there for long; just long enough to recuperate and review her plans for the future. She decided to go back to school and try to make up for all her wasted years.

With her artistic talents it hadn't been difficult to doctor her birth certificate; she wanted to avoid questions about the disparity between her real and her apparent age. Looking at her, no one would think to query her new age of seventeen.

Many times, as the years passed, Aurora did puzzle over her own appearance. (When anyone commented on her youthfulness, she would quip: “Ah, but you should see the portrait in my attic!”) There was nothing she could do about it, and nor could she explain it; so she supposed she should just be grateful.

And she was never ill. Oh, her body protested when she abused it, as she had done back in the late Sixties, but she had never caught even the usual childhood diseases like mumps, measles or chickenpox, let alone anything more serious. What should she do? Tell a doctor that “I look too young and I'm never ill”? At best she would become a guinea pig for medical research, at worst a freak for the media to parade before a sensation-hungry public. No, best to keep a low profile, and, when necessary, keep moving on....

Sometimes, though, she did feel very lonely. Was there really nobody else in all the world like her? More: her brief time with the Gas Giants seemed to have left her almost drained of emotion. It was as if she had packed a lifetime of what most people would regard as normal, personal feelings into that short period, but that her near-death experience had then wiped these from her brain.

As she had once told Lefty, she was clever at scholastic matters as long as she put her mind to them. And this she did. Within a few years she had a crop of O- and A-levels to her credit, and she followed these up by applying for and obtaining a place at Birmingham's redbrick university, which her enquiries showed to be one of the best for scientific subjects.

Aurora's appetite for education was insatiable now, and the more she crammed into her brain the more her ability to learn seemed to expand. But she would stay with one subject for long periods, often sighing with frustration at the amounts of data available, impossible to assimilate in one lifetime. On the other hand she did not let this deter her; if her appearance and her physical and mental abilities were any guide, she could well have a very long lifetime ahead of her in which to absorb it all. She studied chemistry and physics, finally obtaining her doctorate in astrophysics, specializing in asteroids, comets and impact craters.

She also took a course in computing, and spent many hours in the evenings doing her own private work, much of it on the internet. Linked to computer networks all over the world, she could hack into the files of record offices and create a succession of new identities for herself, at the same time planting a virus program that destroyed all traces of her previous identities and then of itself, as and when it became necessary.

For another five years Aurora stayed around universities, largely cocooned from the realities of life, doing research and some lecturing. At last she decided that it was once again time to experience the real world. By now she had been forty-eight, but looked perhaps twenty-two. During all this time she had formed no strong personal relationships, though generally she seemed to be well liked. Some men, spurned, put about a rumor that she had lesbian tendencies, but she laughed these off. The plain fact was that she simply was not interested.

Unable to find a fulfilling job in Britain—or, for a while, any job at all for which she was not “overqualified”—she left for the United States. There she found the climate—cultural, scientific and atmospheric—much more to her liking. She had flirted with NASA but found it lacking, dogged by problems as it had been since the
Challenger
shuttle tragedy, and moved on to the California Institute of Technology. In the academic atmosphere of CalTech she seemed to be in line for a professorship, only to find that this time her declared and apparent youth worked against her, despite her obviously superior experience and qualifications. She had left in high dudgeon and found a position as a geologist in a California oil company, GeoTek. The job mainly involved using advanced computer techniques and high-definition satellite imagery, but there were enough field trips to keep her interested and satisfied.

The personnel at GeoTek consisted mainly of bright young men and women, and she fitted in well. For a while. Whether it was real or imagined she couldn't tell, but after a time she began to feel that her colleagues were looking at her strangely, and so she left. A number of similar positions followed. She worked on an ocean-floor mining project; then for an environmental organization doing research on the hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic; then there was a spell among the observatories on Mauna Kea on Hawaii....

Her stay in the Pacific Islands sparked an interest in volcanology, and for some years she visited the Earth's wildest places, researching plate tectonics and continental drift. She gradually found she preferred these desolate and rugged areas to the more populated areas of Planet Earth.

She took up painting again, as a hobby, and produced some spectacular canvases of volcanoes, rift valleys and glaciers; accurate yet romantic, some of them were almost worthy of comparison with nineteenth-century American “field” artists of the Hudson River School, like Frederic Church and Thomas Moran, who had travelled to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or Antarctica and exhibited their massive canvases to an awed and sometimes disbelieving public. They had been responsible for these areas becoming National Parks.

Always Aurora kept half an eye on what was happening in the field of space research, hoping for a resurgence in interest in manned missions, such as had fired mankind in the 1960s and 1970s, but the picture was dismal. Still, she was at JPL when the Voyager images came in from Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, becoming excited by the volcanoes and geysers on Io and Triton.

Several times she had to call upon her secret computer program in order to explain away her appearance and start a new life, but it was difficult, and she lived in constant fear of meeting someone who had known her twenty or more years ago. She had become an expert forger, with the help of computers and high-definition printers. She changed her appearance, too, more than once, growing and cutting or even dying her hair, sometimes wearing glasses, other tricks.... Also, in order for her to get work, each new self needed qualifications. Really, though, this was only a matter of altering the name and dates on the genuine ones she possessed—no one would be likely to query her abilities once they saw her results.

Increasingly she experienced that feeling, which she had once mentioned to Lefty, of “searching for something”. The problem was, she had no idea what it was she was searching
for
.

Meanwhile, the world changed.

There were upheavals in Eastern Europe; the Berlin Wall came down, Communism was all but banished from the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union itself fragmented into a loose confederation of independent republics. To those space buffs who had seen a collaboration between the USSR and the USA as the only hope of a manned mission to Mars, it seemed that their dream was shattered. The “fossil life” controversy and the astounding high-resolution images from Mars Global Surveyor, which in 1999 provided indisputable evidence of water on Mars, briefly gave hope that the USA would go it alone with a manned mission, but the public—and thus the government—was divided on whether it was worth the expense.

For a while it had seemed that NASA's much-vaunted “faster, cheaper, better” policy of using small, unmanned probes would win the day. But the arrival and prompt disappearance of both the Polar Lander and the Climate Orbiter—switched off by little green men, jeered the media—showed clearly that, while perhaps faster and cheaper, this method was certainly not
better
. The losses proved a blessing in disguise for those who had always wanted humans, not machines, to be the ones to explore the red world.

Eventually a sort of stability returned to the Soviet Republics. East–West trade flourished in an open-market economy, and somehow the European Community also settled most of its differences. The year 2001 became famous—infamous—not for bases on the Moon but for the horrific events of September 11th, and for a while all governments were side-tracked by the so-called War on Terrorism. At best it seemed that an uneasy truce existed between the nations, but eventually governments turned to the idea of an international space extravaganza to divert the eyes of the world from their own problems, to boost investment and employment in technological areas, and (the official line) to foster goodwill and cooperation among nations. Fortunately the latest Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, was in favor of space travel; the spectacular demise of the space station Mir in 2001 had left his country with an unrivalled amount of experience of living in space, but no way to use it. Putin did not like his country's demotion from a leading power in space to an also-ran.

A joint project was announced, involving the USA, Japan, the former Soviet States, Europe (from which the leading partner was France) and Canada, which latter, early in the twenty-first century, had tripled its spending on space research—in other words, basically the same countries as had been involved in the building of the ISS. Britain, of course, was not a partner this time around, since its governments had stubbornly refused to invest in the adventure of space—and had thus allowed some of the country's best brains to depart abroad.

In 2001 Aurora joined the Mars Society which, under its dynamic leader Robert Zubrin, seemed to have the requisite drive and the best ideas for a manned mission. Such was the groundswell of interest that NASA was eventually persuaded to allow some collaboration with such organizations, and even industry; multinationals became involved, noting the plethora of opportunities for sponsorship and commercial endorsements of products to be used on the first mission. For
all
contributions, expertise and experience were valuable; and the Mars mission was going to be expensive—though this aspect could be put into perspective by comparing it with the $12 billion spent every year in the USA and Europe on perfume, almost the amount of NASA's budget....

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