Authors: David A. Hardy
Tags: #science fiction adventure, #hard science fiction
Naturally, Aurora played a full part in the debate, and did no more sketching that day.
As the Sun sank, the crew-members piled into the cylindrical rover and drove back towards their base.
The going was tricky, especially in the low sunlight, which cast long, slanting violetâblack shadows. The slightest depression looked like a deep crater. Hayashi Minako switched on the powerful headlight as she edged her way cautiously along a ledge formed by a lava tube, her rather pudgy face, framed by dark hair, intent as she concentrated on driving, peering through the Plexiglas bubble of the cabin.
Suddenly, with no warning apart from a crunching sound heard through the chassis of the vehicle, the roof of the tube beneath them collapsed. The rover teetered along for a few meters at an alarming angle, then rolled over completely. It clanged against scattered boulders, overturned again and came to rest on its side in soft dust.
The crew picked themselves up.
“Is everyone OK?” asked Verdet.
There were cries of “I think so” and “Just bruises, I guess.”
Then they became aware of the fact that Aurora lay deathly pale. The right sleeve of her spacesuit had been ripped open on a buckled and jagged piece of bulkhead. Blood gushed from her shoulder, and white bone protruded. Someone grabbed the First Aid box, and before long was applying a tourniquet and pad. Fortunately, the cab of the rover was pressurized, and, although badly dented, its outer skin did not seem to have been fractured.
With difficulty, they winched the rover upright, and in a purple twilight the vehicle limped back to base.
* * * *
At first it seemed that Aurora was back in that strange yet familiar dream she had known before. It had reappeared several times since her brief yet spectacular sortie into the world of rock musicânearly always when she was for some reason at best semiconscious. She had come to call the experiences her “flashes”. But this time the white-gowned figures stood around looking down at her gravely. There was no music or gaiety. Behind them, the slopes of the volcano (could it be Olympus Mons? No, surely it was too smallâand it was clad in green for more than two-thirds of its height) were wreathed in clouds. Suddenly the view was blotted out. Brilliant violetâwhite light flared, too painful to look at. She tried to cover her eyes, but her arm would not move....
* * * *
She screamed, and opened her eyes to see the tiny sick bay, partitioned off from the rest of the Hut. Robert Lundquist, the mission's only qualified physician, leaned over and pushed her back into her pillow.
Much later, he gave his patient the news. “Anne, my dear, I don't know how else to break this to you. If we were back on Earth a surgeon might just be able to help you. But there was nothing else I could do. Your arm was severed at the shoulder. IâI've had to amputate it. I am so, so sorry.”
Aurora sat up on her cot, trying to eat breakfast with her left hand. She was determined to play as full a part as possible, even with only one arm, and had already made a start on learning how to write, use a computer keyboard and perform other everyday tasks one-handed. If only it hadn't been her right arm! Reflexively, she wriggled phantom fingers. She had heard of this phenomenon, but still was surprised by it each time it happened.
Lundquist pushed aside the plastic curtain and entered the makeshift sick quarters. “And how are we this morning?” he asked with a rather forced smile. He looked typically Swedish, Aurora thought. His wavy yellow hair was thinning at the temples. He was pleasant, but spoke only when necessary. His family had been American for several generations; had his wife been here she could probably have sewn the arm back on and connected the necessary nerves and blood vessels, for she was a leading surgeon.
“Well, I don't know how
are, but my shoulder's giving me hell,” said Aurora. “I guess I'll live, though. Won't I?”
“Oh, yes. You're fit and healthy, and you didn't lose too much blood. There's no infectionâit's just the muscles and nerves knitting.”
She tried to lighten the mood. “Hmmm. That's neat. I never did learn to knit even when I had two hands.”
Lundquist looked relieved. “I don't see why you shouldn't get dressed today, and perhaps have a go at getting the database up to date. That's if you feel like it.”
* * * *
She began to make herself useful to the team by performing tasks which, if they were honest, the other members would rather were left to someone else anyway. But she itched to get out onto the surface againâitched as much as her shoulder didâand began to pester the physician.
Finally he announced that it was time to remove the special dressing that had been in place for the last couple of weeks.
As he examined the pink stub at her shoulder he frowned.
“What's the matter, Doc?” asked Aurora worriedly. She didn't like Lundquist's expression.
“Oh, nothing, probably. It's healed remarkably well in such a short time. It just doesn't look how I expected, somehow.”
“What do you mean? What's wrong with it? Don't keep me in suspense!”
Lundquist peered closer. With a look of relief, he said: “No, it's nothing. Just my imagination, I guess. The scar tissue's formed an unusual pattern, that's all. Sorry to scare you....”
* * * *
Two more weeks went by, and Aurora persuaded Claude Verdet, who was also their life-support officer, to modify her spacesuit, removing the right sleeve and sealing the shoulder, preparatory to her first venture back out into the open.
First, though, Lundquist had to make a final examination to be sure that the newly healed flesh would not be irritated by the wearing of a suit. This time his frown did not go away.
“There's something very strange here, Anne. I thought it was my imagination that first time. But it wasn't.”
Aurora looked down at her exposed shoulder. “Come on, Doc. It feels fine now; just twitches a bit now and then, that's all. And it looks OK to me. What could be wrong?”
“I didn't say anything was
, exactly. But what I thought were odd-shaped wrinkles in the scar tissue definitely look like five little...buds, now. I can't believe I'm saying this, but.... Oh, hell, it looks as if, impossible though this seems, you're growing a new arm.”
Aurora laughed nervously, and looked uncertainly from Lundquist to Verdet and back. “Come on, you two! Is this supposed to be some kind of joke?”
“No, it's not. I don't know what to make of it. All we can do is see how you go on. I certainly don't think you should worry about it.”
Then Lundquist turned to the other man. “But I don't think you should take the sleeve off that spacesuit yetâjust in case.”
* * * *
Naturally, the story of the new arm became the main subject of conversation, with many theories being put forward to account for the strange phenomenon. Robert Lundquist favored the idea that it was something to do with the low gravity, or even that the long period of weightlessness during the voyage out had had some effect on the metabolism, somehow causing stem-cell regeneration. The problem with this theory was that it was in no way borne out by the zero-gee experiments that had been carried out in Earth orbit over many years.
Bryan Beaumont, who tended to have a mystical streak, thought it must be due to some property of Mars. “Could be there's something in the magnetic field; or maybe she's ingested some Martian mineralsâyou all know how that dust gets everywhere, despite our precautions. Or the air itself, maybe?”
His theories grew wilder. “Hey, perhaps there are micro-organisms in the air? Tiny little alien doctors! Orâwhat do they call them?ânanobots? Whatever it is, it just has to be to do with Mars itself. New limbs don't grow, back on Earth. Well, not on people, anywayâonly on lizards and things.”
Lundquist, whose main role on the mission was as biologist, scoffed at the idea that some sort of microscopic form of Martian life could be responsible. But he had to admit that he was as baffled as everyone else.
As for Aurora herself, she watched, bemused, as day after day the stump of her shoulder elongated and grew. At first it was soft and quite flexible, but as time passed it became more rigid and developed an obvious elbow joint. Tiny nails, like those of a newborn baby, appeared on the ends of the stubby fingers. It was weird, incredible, mind-boggling...impossible!
Yet, knowing what the others did not know about herself, Aurora saw it as an extension of her own “strangeness”. As if in daydreams, memories of her younger days came back to her.
* * * *
She was sitting in the passenger seat of the old green Morris Minor. Her mother was driving. They were going to see Granny Petrie, who was in an old folks' home and wasn't long for this world, her Mum said. Her grandmother often didn't even seem to know who they were. Stevie quickly got bored with these visits, and often got into troubleâlike the time when he stuffed the ancient Mrs. Blenkinsop's ear trumpet full of tobacco from Mr. Wallis's tobacco pouch. And had been about to light it when their mother noticed and hastily grabbed it from him. So Mum hadn't really objected when Stevieâor Steve, as his dignity now preferred him to be calledâhad claimed a prior arrangement to stay overnight camping out in a tent in the garden with his friend Duncan.
A big carâa Daimler, Aurora recognized from a previous car trip with Stevie, who'd kept up a running commentary on all the vehicles they passed (there weren't that many in their part of Scotland in 1950)âwas waiting in a side road for them to go by.
waiting. It was turning directly into their path!
Aurora saw her mother's foot jab at the brake. Too late. They ploughed into the side of the Daimler, slewed across the road. A horsebox, coming in the opposite direction, caught them a glancing but violent blow. The noise was terrible. They lurched to an abrupt stop in a ditch.
Her mother's head had gone through the windscreen, and the steering wheel was embedded in her chest. There was blood everywhere.
Aurora realized that some of it was hers....
* * * *
Aurora blinked tears from her eyes and shook her head. She must have suppressed that memory all these yearsâand no wonder. She had believed until today that she had come out of the accident without a mark, whereas she knew now that she'd had a broken arm, internal injuries and many cuts and abrasions. She had been in hospital for only two weeks, but while she'd been there the news had been broken to her, none too gently, that she no longer had a mother. Or a grandma, for Granny Petrie had passed away on the spot upon hearing of the death of her favorite daughter-in-law.
Of course! That had been the beginning of Aurora living in homes, and running away from them, and becoming generally wild. But she remembered that, before she'd left the hospital, the doctor had commented that she was lucky to be alive, and expressed amazement at the speed with which her injuries had healed.
That hadn't been the only occasion, either. Other incidents now came to mindâlike the time she had plunged a hand into the synthesizer at that strange concert. She couldn't remember why she had done it, now, but she could still see the shower of sparks, smell the burning flesh, see the startled and horrified look on Lefty's face, eyes white and wide in his dark face. She should have died, with full mains voltage passing through herâbut she hadn't.
She saw now that it had been only a matter of time before this ultimate test was reached. And, if she hadn't been on Mars, out of reach of Earth's modern medical techniques which could in all probability have re-attached her old arm, she might still not have discovered the truthâor passed the test.
Aurora mopped her brow with her left hand. The memories had left her drained and trembling. She needed a drinkâbut there wasn't any booze here. Perhaps something medicinal, though?
No. She banished the thought. She was surely old enough to know better!
* * * *
Somehow the media back on Earth got to hear about Aurora's arm. The crew had agreed to keep the information quiet, at least for a while, until they were quite sure what was happening, but someone must have leaked it. Accusing glances were cast about the small base. Who among them had a secret but lucrative contract with the TV and videomedia companies? Bryan Beaumont was the most likely suspect, as he had worked as a journalist for
and other scientific journals and popular e-mags. But he denied it. More likely Mission Control had been the source of the leak.
It didn't really matter, Aurora pointed out. They couldn't have kept the news to themselves for long, anyway. As it turned out, the media's attention worked in their favor, since this human-interest story produced far higher viewing figures on the home planet than had the report of a short-lived steam vent or any of their other geological or meteorological discoveriesâimportant though those were to the scientific community.
Even so, she wished the spotlight had not been drawn to her.
Or did she? Was there, deep down, a secret wish for her strange story to become known, so that she could stop masqueradingâand perhaps some sort of explanation might come to light? It was in the lap of the gods now.
At last the dust settled and life at the base got back to normal. Although, actually, as far as Mars was concerned, the dust did not settle. As was common at this season, a planet-wide dust storm arose, and for a while operations outside the Hut and the Lander became difficultâsometimes impossible. As Spring had come to the southern hemisphere, the dust storm had started in the great 1,800-km basin of Hellas Planitia (what an asteroid impact
must have been!), right around the other side of the planet. Soon the whole of the little world was shrouded in an ochre haze. Only Hayashi Minako, the meteorologist, was daring to go outside. Wearing a special environment suit, she was setting up equipment to record the wind speeds, density of dust and other data. Since she was outside anyway, she also tended the electrolysis apparatus, set up nearby to extract oxygen and hydrogen from water iceâone of the reasons for choosing this site. The oxygen was used for life support, the hydrogen would be needed later, and both could be recombined in a compact fuel cell to provide power when the solar cells were inactive.
The rest of the teamâincluding Aurora, whose arm was now almost normal, apart from its baby-pink coloringâtwiddled their thumbs impatiently. They were awaiting the opportunity to send out an expedition, using both rovers, into the tributaries of the Noctis Labyrinthusâa vast network of canyons and crevasses which lay to their east, and which was connected eventually to the mighty Valles Marineris, the 4,800-km-long seismic rift in which America's Grand Canyon would have been utterly dwarfed and lost.
Noctis Labyrinthus, the Labyrinth of Night! Aurora shivered with anticipation. Both the artist and scientist in her yearned to go there. As they had passed over it in orbit, awaiting instructions to land, she had gazed at it through the telescope to see clouds of fog form in the steep valleys as the early-morning sunlight struck east-facing slopes and vaporized ice which had formed there during the night.
Bryan Beaumont had a penchant for rock music of the Sixties and Seventies, and among the private possessions he'd been permitted to take on board with him had brought, instead of the modern sound-cards, old-fashioned compact discs of what had once been LP records. To pass the time, even while he worked in his cubicle to catch up on collating lava and ash samples, he played music by some of what had once been known as “progressive” groups, such as Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Grateful Dead, UFO....
In keeping with his taste in music, Beaumont's appearance was boyish. His thick, reddish hair almost always looked uncombed, as he was forever pushing it back out of his eyes. His manner was exuberant, and he became almost excessively enthusiastic about anything which took his interest. Unfortunately those interests tended to stray into areas usually thought of as pseudoscientific, sometimes earning him the censure of his colleagues. There was no doubting his high intelligence, nonethelessâwhich was perhaps why they tolerated his excesses. As the mission progressed, Aurora realized that she found him quite attractive, but he never appeared more than orthodoxly friendly towards her, and her own inexperience in romantic matters meant that she never felt able to make a first move. In any case, she rationalized, that kind of thing was all much too difficult in the close confines of the base.
As Aurora passed him one day she stopped in her tracks. For a moment she stood frozen to the spot, goose-flesh rising on her back and neck as the memories came flooding back. He was playing the Gas Giants' album!