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Authors: David A. Hardy

Tags: #science fiction adventure, #hard science fiction

Aurora (5 page)

BOOK: Aurora
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NASA, true to form, insisted on a launch date of 2028, meaning that humans would be on Mars to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.

Attempts had already been made to convert the formerly Soviet military–industrial complex to more peaceful ends, but it is not always easy to beat swords into ploughshares. There were many stories about what had happened when manufacturers of military rockets turned to making bathroom fittings and suchlike; the results had been disastrous, with poor-quality equipment being made by workers with low morale and no real interest in the product. How much better to put such expertise into making the power-plants for the motors of a Mars mission.

Yes, Mars was the answer. But this time, to satisfy the world, the mission had to be no mere Apollo-like landing—pick up a few rocks and return to Earth within a few days. That would in any case have been impossible, due to the orbital dynamics of such a mission—though, thanks to the development, mainly by the Johnson Space Center, of a new plasma drive that achieved a temperature of one million degrees Celsius contained by a magnetic bottle, the journey could take three months instead of the six or more that years earlier had been envisaged by planners whose horizons had been limited to chemical propellants. Chemical propellants would still be needed to take the ships above the Earth's atmosphere and to land on Mars, but the plasma drive would be effective for the journey in between. The higher acceleration possible with the plasma drive also solved the very serious zero-gravity problem. The crew would be constantly under one-third gravity, since they would be under power all the way. And neither would they need to depend upon solar panels for electricity.

Even the first flight would be a long-stay mission of over two years. Also, a commitment had to be made to establish a permanent base, small at first but eventually self-supporting. Robot landers would be sent ahead to set up a base, and to deposit supplies. Another incentive was that Mars could then become a staging post for the asteroids, where Earth's industry would find mountains of minerals, such as almost pure nickel–iron, there for the taking. Further valuable materials would be available from Mars's two moons and from the surface of Mars itself. Martian soil contains forty per cent oxygen chemically bound up with iron (hence the rusty color of much of Mars), plus magnesium, sodium, sulfur and chlorine, while the atmosphere contains nitrogen. Carbon is available aplenty from the asteroids and from Phobos, the nearer satellite.

Aurora had found the whole prospect completely exciting, and impossible to resist. It was as if there were something—something stronger than herself—dictating to her that she must take part in the great Martian adventure, and doing so became her obsession. She had had little difficulty in obtaining a position back at NASA, and quickly she got to know all the right people.... She had made sure she passed all the fitness and aptitude tests—which she did with no problems—and ended up as a member of the geology team. Not as a British member, of course; she had become an American citizen years ago. She wasn't the only one in this situation: the Canadian member, Dr. Bryan Beaumont, a volcanologist as well as co-pilot of the Lander, was also of English descent, his parents having emigrated just before he was born.

So here she was, on Mars. Now known as Dr. Anne Pryor, she was seventy-eight and looked perhaps thirty-five.

She had come up with the theory that she must be one of a new breed of human, resistant to both time and disease. What other answer could there be? She took to scanning the media and the more specialist journals for reports or even hints that others of her kind existed, but with increasing disappointment and puzzlement. If they did, they were keeping as quiet as herself. Sometimes she felt a deep loneliness, but she knew no way to relieve it.

* * * *

Anne Pryor, Aurora, came out of her reverie, suddenly dazzled by low evening sunlight blazing through a cleft between two lava outcrops. Near the shrunken Sun the sky was a washed-out blue, but the color shaded through deep pink to a deep indigo only a few degrees higher.

It must be time to return to the Hut—an empty propellant tank which had been parachuted down and landed on small retro-rockets and inflation bags. Sectioned into two halves, the Hut contained living and sleeping quarters plus a laboratory and an admin and communications center.

A rising plume of ochre dust showed that the rover was approaching on its daily round to pick up crew-members who'd been left at various locations.

Aurora packed up her equipment and walked a few meters to where she would be easily visible to the driver.

* * * *

The next day was a rest day for Aurora. Recreational activities were very important on such a long mission, to avoid boredom and the stress of working continuously in close proximity with the same people day after day. Some of the crew spent hours recording messages that were squirted in one short burst on the radio link to their loved ones on Earth, or composing e-mails. Others read, watched video films, wrote, played chess, listened to or played music, or engaged in various games—the physical ones being made more interesting by the low gravity and, when played out of doors, by the thin atmosphere.

Golf was a favorite, out on the desert. Players used a ball which was less massive than its Earth equivalent and made of a plastic material full of holes, like a sponge, so that in the one-third gravity it travelled about the same distance as a normal ball back home. The Martian golf ball was fluorescent green so it would show up against the reddish terrain. Even so, lost balls were common. Since the supply of balls was not inexhaustible, each also contained a microminiaturized radio transmitter, similar to those sometimes used on Earth to tag birds and small animals.

Aurora enjoyed a game of golf herself, but had decided to become the first artist on Mars. (Not the first in
space
, for Alexei Leonov and Alan Bean had long ago beaten her to that landmark.) Before leaving Earth she had tried to inveigle a friend who worked in the laboratories of a paint company (had she but known it, a distant, multinational descendant of Dobson & Dart, next door to which she had lived as a small child) to produce pigments and a medium which would work in sub-zero temperatures and a carbon dioxide/nitrogen atmosphere with a pressure only one per cent of Earth's. All attempts had failed. A polymeric paint with an electrically heated palette and “brush” had been the most likely contender, but even with it the results had been lumpy and unsatisfactory. Chalks or pastels could be made to work, but she never felt that they produced “real” art.

So instead she used a device which had become popular with avant-garde artists on Earth: a “canvas” which combined computer graphics and the latest flat-screen technology. It was less than a centimeter thick. The brush was a type of light-pen which could be adjusted by touching a key-pad to produce wide, flat strokes, thin pen-like lines, or gradated airbrush effects—or anything in between. With a virtually infinite range of colors, the resulting image could be saved and its crystal matrix finally fixed so that no further changes could be made, accidentally or even deliberately. Once the key-pad unit was unplugged and detached, the image became a one-off, permanent work of art, ready for hanging.

So now she was back on the southern flank of Arsia, sitting on a light metal stool just inside the entrance to a lava tube, the tube's opening serving as a natural frame for the terrain which she was attempting to capture. As she had done many times before, she marveled at the
realness
of the scene before her. At times it was easy to forget that she was on an alien world and to find herself thinking that she was back in Iceland or Kamchatka. Then, with an overwhelming wave of emotion, she would realize where she actually was. She had seen space art back on Earth, of course—had even tried her hand at imaginary planetary scenes herself—and of course she had seen the photographs taken by the unmanned rovers and airprobes which had preceded the manned mission. But observing the landscape for hours made her see minute details—textures, veins, cracks, color differences, qualities of light and shadow, reflections—which would otherwise have gone unobserved. No artist based back on Earth, and no photograph, could hope to capture these in the way that she could.
Yet some scientists wanted to send only robots to this world,
she thought.
How absurd! Those scientists must be as soulless as the robots they thought we should send. And as lacking in imagination....

Against the dark cave entrance the sky was a luminous lavender. Below it an intersecting network of small crevasses was proving difficult to sketch. She had already blocked in some weird formations of twisted lava that formed the foreground.

To the east, against the slope of the volcano, a pale plume rose. She glanced at the watch built into the sleeve of her silvered suit. Surely it was too early for the rover? Yes, of course it was. The angle of sunlight was telling her that it was only early afternoon. And surely, anyway, that plume was too white to be dust?

Intrigued, she got up and, in an astronaut's slow-motion steps, picked her way across the rugged ground to where the haze was still visible, over a kilometer away. By the time she was within a few meters from the spot her pulse was racing. From a deep pit surrounded by a rough cone of tumbled lava, a nebulous mist rose, dissipating quickly in the thin air.

Aurora tongued her radio-mike on. “Pryor to Base. Pryor to Base? I think I have an anomaly here.”

“Anomaly!” The unemotional language of science.

“Roger, Pryor, Base here—Vitali speaking. What do you have, Anne?”

She was glad that it was Vitali Orlov who was on duty, as she had formed quite a friendship with the bluff but genial Russian engineer. Of course, like the rest of the team she was grateful to him, too, for having got them down to the surface safely: he had been the pilot of the conical Lander. A genuine democracy existed among the crew, since each was an expert in at least two fields, and took his or her responsibility to the rest very seriously, but Orlov was nominally in command of the landing party, having seniority because of his much greater experience of space travel. He had helped build and had served in the International Space Station, and had flown many Soyuz flights to and from that.

“I suggest that you get some of the geology team out here, a.s.a.p., Vitali. I've got some sort of activity coming from what looks like a hornito.”

“Activity? Have you got your water-bottle filled with vodka—or is it bourbon?”

“If it wasn't full of water, which it is, it would be a good single malt whisky! No, listen, I'm quite sober, and dead serious. Now move your ass and get someone out here right away with instruments and cameras—especially video.”

There was a beep and a second voice broke in: “Rover 1 here, Claude speaking. We're already on our way over in your direction, Anne. Our seismometers picked up a small quake—only about two on the Richter Scale—about an hour ago, but we hadn't been able to pinpoint it. So, thanks for your input; you can go back to your daubing now!”

“Anne here. You have to be joking! I'm not about to miss this, rest day or not!”

Twenty minutes later the rover appeared over a low scarp, bouncing across the uneven lava on its metal-mesh “tires”. But, by the time it had drawn up and its own dust cloud had dispersed, the white mist had disappeared apart from a few fitful puffs. The funnel-like walls of the little cone were crusted with a rime of ice crystals, glittering like tiny diamonds.

French geologist Claude Verdet was the first to give his opinion. His choice as a crew member had been a masterpiece of political diplomacy. To be sure, France had a big stake in the mission, but so had Germany, and the Germans had provided much of its ground support. Claude, although French, had been on attachment via ESA to the Sänger company in Germany for some years, and was thought of as part of their establishment. In addition, he was of Creole ancestry and black enough to satisfy the vociferous organizations on Earth who insisted on the inclusion of minorities in just about every undertaking. Such political considerations might have had to be overruled on the Mars mission, where everyone's lives might at any moment depend on one or other individual crew-member; fortunately Verdet would have been the natural choice anyway.

Aurora grinned wryly. Up here on Mars such concerns as race, nationality and skin-color seemed a very long way away—which of course in a very literal sense was true. Distance made them seem even more ludicrous than they already were, which took some doing. The lucky—politically speaking—coincidence of Verdet's blackness had never crossed her mind until he'd mentioned it himself.

“The way I see it,” he was saying, “a slab of rock down below gave way under stress, and allowed an underground cache of ice to come into contact with a heat source. Maybe radioactivity—could be it even released a pocket of magma. The ice flashed into steam—
et voilà
!”

As usual, not everyone agreed, and the discussion became heated, turned into an argument that continued on through the afternoon. The most exciting aspect of the discovery of this heat source, and underground water, was the possibility of
life
—their main reason for being on Mars, after all. So far only microscopic worm-like fossils, similar to those found on the meteorite on Earth, had been discovered, and these were certainly not the sort of conclusive evidence they'd been hoping for.

What was needed was proof of indigenous Martian life, preferably still alive! As Viking had discovered, the surface of Mars, its regolith, had been thoroughly sterilized by the presence of peroxides. But the discovery, also in the late 1970s, that weird forms of life thrive in the absence of sunlight and oxygen around sulfurous undersea volcanic vents called black smokers had expanded the parameters considerably. Life exists in rocks a kilometer under Earth's surface, and can lie dormant for up to 40,000 years until water arrives to reactivate it. Indeed, Earth has a greater amount of biomass beneath than on the surface. So hope was still high that some form of life would be found on or beneath Mars.

BOOK: Aurora
11.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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