Authors: David A. Hardy
Tags: #science fiction adventure, #hard science fiction
Beaumont looked round at her curiously.
“Anything wrong, Anne?”
Aurora pulled herself together. “No, IâI just realized I'd forgotten something. By the way, I've meant to ask you before: why do you always play that old music? You can't even have been born when that stuff was around.”
“Oh, I was practically weaned on it. My old man had a great record collection, and I've always found it more interesting than the sterile mush that passes for music nowadays. Or neopunkâthat seems to be an excuse for anyone who can play three discords on a synguitar! No, you take the disc that's playing now. Can you believe it, my parents met at that concert, in London, England! They said it was the most incredible gig they ever went to. Yet the groupâthe Gas Giants, they were calledâwas only a support act, and they just vanished soon afterward. Weird, isn't it? They....”
He was obviously all set to go into more detail, but Aurora made to move on. Before she could, Beaumont picked up the flat plastic case which had held the disc and peered closely at it. It held a smaller reproduction of the original album sleeve.
“Hey, d'you know something? That girlâAurora, she called herselfâlooks just like
, Anne, except her hair is much longer. See?”
Aurora pretended to look at it. “Mmm, I suppose she does, a bit. Anywayâgotta go.” She swung away abruptly, Bryan's gaze boring into her back like a laser beam.
Why was she always being reminded of that damned concert? Against her will, her head was again filled with those strange images. To take her mind off them, she decided to make a painting of Noctis Labyrinthus, based on the overhead video view, and see how accurate it turned out when she got there. She loaded the disc and found the image she wanted.
It would be the first time she had painted since the accident, and she took up the light-brush with some trepidation. But she need not have worried; very soon she was applying deft strokes. She had unhesitatingly chosen a spot among the complicated intersecting rifts, and the scene which took shape was so real that she might have been there in person, right now. She used the airbrush effect subtly, and fog swirled over the lip of the canyon and softened the outlines of the broken cliffs beyond.
The air in the Hut was stuffy, heavy with odors of cooking and bodies and the acrid smell of electrical apparatus, plus of course the ever-present Martian dust. One of the Apollo astronauts had said that moon dust, inside the module, smelled like gunpowder. Mars dust, Aurora thought, was like a combination of damp dog and paprika. She yawned, closed her paintscreen, and decided to take a look at Mars in real time. She reached out to switch over to the orbiting cameras, then changed her mind and decided to use the big high-definition flatscreen on the far wall of the Hut. As she passed Beaumont he looked round almost guiltily and blanked his computer screen.
As was normal, the big screen showed the outside view. It had not been considered worth the technical problems or expense of fitting actual windows to the converted fuel tank. She watched a large, rather dim star raise itself blearily from the western horizon. As it rose higher it revealed a misshapen disc. Phobos. She knew the inner moon would pass through more than half of its cycle of phases and set four and a half hours later in the east, to rise again eleven hours afterwards. Then a smaller but brighter star appeared and overtook Phobos. That, she knew, would be their Orbiter, waiting to take them home but meanwhile completing the best high-definition survey of the whole planet ever made, either working autonomously or, if they needed to choose a specific areaâpreparatory to a ground exploration, for instanceâunder human guidance.
Both the orbiting and landing craft had names, as was customary. There had been much argument over them. Gods such as Ares were always warlike, so had been ruled out. Finally, the orbiter was named
and the lander
, after the two early astronomers who had been the most prolific and influential observers of the red planet. True, Lowell had also been responsible for many misconceptions, with his assertion that the canals he claimed to see were artificial watercourses, created by intelligent Martians...but at least he had brought Mars into the public's awareness, and its imagination. The crew generally ignored these names, however, and rarely called the two craft anything other than Orbiter and Lander.
The fact that the Orbiter was passing overhead would not prevent Aurora from seeing the other side of the planet in real time. Three small satellites had been placed in strategic orbital positions so that the whole of Mars (apart from small areas around the poles) could be viewed at any time. The satellites also served as communications relays. Unfortunately, one of them had failed to achieve its proper orbit, so there were occasional blind spots. This was not one of them but, even so, not only was the great asteroid-impact basin of Hellas almost certainly obscured by dust but it was currently night on that part of the planet.
It wasn't Hellas she wanted to look at anyway. She keyed in the appropriate coordinates and there was the huge, dark cone of Olympus Mons, rising above a sea of ochre suspended dust. From it long dark streaks extended northwards, just as they had in November 1971 when the unmanned Mariner 9 probe first arrived. Already the Big Three volcanoesâArsia, Pavonis and Ascraeusâcould be seen thrusting their peaks above the clouds. Perhaps the planet-wide dust storm was starting to subside, and their expedition could soon start?
Aurora stepped down from Rover 2, walked forward a few meters, and looked over the canyon edge. This felt like a school outing, and she could imagine laying out a picnic on the flat area of sand to her right.
Spam sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes to eat like an apple; but no one
remembers the salt....
Hayashi Minako sat on a boulder, assembling an anemometer. Nearby, Bryan Beaumont examined chunks of basalt. Claude Verdet was already a tiny figure in the distance, his long legs letting him bound over boulders and narrow crevices like a mountain goat. Rover 1 was still approaching over the plain of Syria Planum, completing its 700-km journey.
At first the walls of the canyon dropped steeply, revealing varicolored layers of lava flows, but then the slope became more gradual as banks of talusâdebris flaked off over millenniaâpiled up, leading down to the floor. There were several spots where it would have been quite easy to descend to the sandy bottom. In places the bedrock seemed to be exposed, though it was possible, instead, that large boulders had fallen from above and, partially buried, were mimicking patches of bedrock showing through. That was something for the first traverse to discover. The signs of erosion, presumably by water, were quite clear.
The big question to be answered was: were there any signs of life down there? The sometime presence of water was beyond doubt. Could there be fossils, no matter how primitive? Or, better still, might there be living organisms? The results from probes like Britain's
and later unmanned missions had been inconclusive to many scientists, sadly.
Meanwhile, the most important item was to unload and set up the Blimp. Aurora set to with a will, unpacking the incredibly thin but strong material of the envelope while Vitali Orlov erected the struts for the cabin and motors.
“Why can't we use a proper airplane?” Aurora asked, more to make conversation than anything else.
The Russian engineer pulled a face. “Oh, when we decided early in mission planning that only way to explore large area of very difficult terrain is from air, we looked at various designs for aircraft, but no good.” Orlov normally spoke perfect English, with an American accentâhe had spent some years studying at MITâbut occasionally, especially when he felt he was “lecturing”, his sense of humor led him to parody the stereotypical Russian.
“Plane would have to travel six times faster in Mars air than it would on Earth to give same amount of lift, yes? Would need two-and-half times as much power, too. Then there is power-plant. Air-breathing engine with propellers or jetsâno good! Have to use rockets, electric power, or glider? Need be glider with bloody big wingspan. So, no plane. Many problems. No runway. Small range. Big wings hard to pack to bring here too. You see difficulties?”
Aurora nodded, then said “Yes. I see. Well, anyway, I can't wait for my turn in the balloon.”
balloon! Is what we call hybridâpart lighter-than-air, part aerodynamic airship, yes? And needs only quarter of powerâless, evenâthan on Earth. Is filled with hydrogenâquite safe: no oxygen in Martian atmosphere to make explosion. Electric power for propellers from solar cells. Easy!”
The envelope was almost laid out on the desert. “But it's enormous!”
The gasbag was in fact just over 100 meters long. But only its size was intimidating. It was being filled with stored hydrogen from the electrolysis plant back at Base; this was extracted from water-iceâH
Oâwhich of course produced twice as much hydrogen as oxygen. The latter was used for their life-support packs. Once the bag had been inflated and the cabin attached, the Blimp floated above the ground, tugging gently at its tethers in the light wind. It was obvious the Blimp was going to be a joy to use, and simple to operate.
By the time the task was finished, the Sun was settling redly into a bank of haze, back in the direction from which they had come. The remains of the dust storm created a splendid display of colors, with separate layers of orange, crimson, magenta, violet and Prussian blue swirling towards the zenith. Stars appeared, and Aurora wished she had time to fetch out her paintscreen. Later, she told herself, shooting off a few frames with the tiny digital camera she always carried on her suit.
The crew spent the night in their rovers, which were relatively large and well equipped. Tomorrow they would erect another inflatable, this time full of oxygen, as a pressure dome. Officially, this should have been their first job, but they had all been eager to see the Blimp aloft, and one more night of slightly cramped discomfort would do them no harm.
* * * *
Their camp was not in the best position for a test flight, as they were near the top of the Tharsis bulgeâthe volcanic upland area that dominates Mars's northern hemisphere. This meant that the atmosphere was even thinner here than elsewhere on the surface. But nearly all of their flights would take them westward, towards Valles Marineris, and where it was safe to do so they would actually be descending into the canyons, within which the air was actually measurably thicker than up on the surface.
Such was the excitement among the crew that straws (actually lengths of electrical cable) were drawn to see who should be first to go aloft. All of the members of the mission had, as an essential part of their training, several hours of flying experience back on Earth, but that would be of little help when it came to controlling this strange craft in an alien atmosphere. The Blimp could carry only one person plus about 50 kilograms of equipment. The two women tried to claim an advantage, on the grounds that they were lighter, but were promptly told that they would have to take their chances along with the men.
It was Claude Verdet who drew the lucky short straw, and his thin black moustache almost met his ears as he beamed with pleasure. He settled himself in the fragile-looking cabinâactually no more than a framework, open at the sides but with a transparent plastic shield curving from front to back. The propeller, angled downward for takeoff, began to rotate, the tethers were released, and the Blimp surged upward.
The silvered gasbag rose quite rapidly for a few meters, then hovered, a bright alien object against the dark sky, the rosy early-morning sunlight illuminating its underside.
Aurora was suddenly overcome by a wave of emotion and staggered, clutching at the side of the rover next to her for support. She had a powerful feeling of
; what could it be?
She saw the dirigible superimposed on an image of a broken brick wall, a crooked chimney stack, flames, blackened wooden rafters pointing to the sky at unlikely angles. There was a roaring noise in her ears. Other pictures crowded at the borders of her consciousness, demanding to be let in, but she swept them aside.
Some of her colleagues were looking at her strangely, or with concern, and Robert Lundquist, wearing his stern possibly-a-medical-emergency face, was advancing towards her.
Aurora waved him away, almost angrily.
“It's all right. I'mâOK. Just went weak for a moment. Didn't sleep much last nightâmust be all the excitement!”
She managed a weak smile.
“Are you sure?” asked Lundquist. “Is your arm bothering you?”
“No, really, Bob. It's nothing.”
But her mind was whirling. It hadn't been one of her flashes, even though it had possessed something of the same quality. After all, the flashes had to be products of her imagination, didn't they? This had felt like an actual experienceâa memory.
She brushed the frantic thoughts aside and concentrated on the Blimp's ascent.
Verdet had now angled the propeller so that he was slowly turning to face down the canyon. He gave them a wave as he moved off, and his voice, high with excitement, came over their helmet phones.
The view is amazing from up here. The canyon keeps subdividing for as far as I can see. There's still some fog further off, though, hiding the floor, so I'll wait âtil it burns off before I try to go higher and take mapping photographs. Meanwhile, I'll put this ship through its paces, OK? Ohâover.”
The Blimp dwindled in the distance, occasionally rising or falling, or turning to explore various tributaries. The rest of the crew watched it until it became a silver star, then they quietly dispersed to go about their various duties.
Orlov stayed at Rover 1. He was in charge of erecting the living quarters and also setting up the communications link, which would relay voice and pictures through its powerful transmitter to the big S-band dish at Baseâwhich had been left unmanned, except for computers, digital recorders and robotic maintenance equipmentâfrom where they would be beamed onward to Earth. As radio waves took nearly twenty minutes to reach the home planet, conversations were impossible, and unless there was an emergency transmissions from either direction were sent in daily bursts.
By mid-morning, having completed various chores around the camp, Aurora set off on her own to explore the canyon floor, taking samples as she went. She had already noted several spots where fan-shaped slopes of debris reached almost from rim to floor, making it quite easy to descend, though she still took great care. Her progress was made more difficult by having to take a trolleyâa small cart which was normally pushed or towed, but which had a small electric motor for use when required. It carried a spare oxygen pack, water and food tubes that could be plugged into her suit, and her geological equipment and sample containersâareological rather than geological, strictly, but few bothered to make the distinction.
From time to time she reported her progress to Orlov, who seemed glad of her company, if only by voice. The colors here were more interesting, with clearly visible layers in the walls revealing ash and lava flows. Her feet sank, sometimes several centimeters, into soft sand (or “fines”, as it was technically known) and dust, some of it no doubt blown from above, some eroded from the walls. Much of the time she walked in violet-tinted shadow, but the sunlight reflecting off the walls above gave her plenty of light. A glint of white on some ledges suggested ice or frost that had not vaporized.
She was reminded of other gorges that she had explored in her long life, particularly the Gorge of Samaria on Crete. But she didn't expect to find stepping stones across a river in this canyon! She smiled to herself. That trip to the Greek Islands had been an interesting one, with much to intrigue a volcanologist. She mused about Knossos and SantoriniâThera, as it was sometimes knownâand the legend of Atlantis. Although shunned by orthodox scientists, the idea of ancient civilizations, perhaps as advanced as humans were today, yet becoming extinct due to some natural or manmade catastrophe, had always held a fascination for her. Once, many years ago, the very world on which she was now walking had been the focus of humanity's hopes of finding another civilization, but they had been dashed with the advent of space probes. Still, one never knew....
“Hey, Vitali, I think I just saw a little green man dodge behind a rock!” she said into her mike. The only response was a crackle.
“Vitali? Come in, Rover 1!”
Looking back, she saw that she had made a number of twists and turns. The canyon was deep, overhanging in places, and her radio signals were undoubtedly being blocked by its walls. Her suit radio was much too weak to reach the Orbiter or any of the satellites, so could not be relayed by them. She cursed herself for not thinking of that earlier. Indeed, she realized, she would have to be careful not to get lost without the aid of radio to guide her. But then she reassured herself: the tracks left by her feet and the thick tires of the trolley would help her retrace her steps.
She continued on her way, still picking up samples, for a while, then sat on a flat rock to attach a container of self-heating soup to the connector on the front of her suit. Moments later she was sucking the soup through a tube. It was not exactly delicious, but was welcome for all that. The yeasty smell of it filled her helmet until drawn away by the suit's circulation system. She looked down at the container. Green. Sometimes she yearned for a sight of green grass, or a tree. Or of blue sky.
She glanced at the oxygen readout. About half an hour left before she needed to change the tank. She moved on. Shortly she found herself traversing an area of what appeared to be bedrock, swept clean of dust by a wind that swirled through the canyon, funneled by walls which at this point were close together. She could see the little eddies and dust devils which it raised as the gorge subdivided yet again into left and right forks.
Near the junction, was that a smooth rock or a beached whale? Yes, and just near itâsurely those were three or four seals, sunbathing.
Aurora became aware that a red light was blinking inside her helmet. It was time to change her air, before she really started hallucinating. She sat down, her back against the trolley, reached over her shoulder and unclipped the oxygen module from her pliss pack (PLSS, portable life support system, known as “pliss” since Apollo times), sealing its tube. Placing the almost spent unit aside, she pressed her back against the new one until she could clip it on. Oxygen hissed briefly as she opened the tap, then its flow again became unobtrusive. The new air tasted metallic. She put the used tank back on the trolley for recharging. As she did so, she noticed a transparent plastic tube of bright green balls, left from her last golf game.
Gazing at the rock over which she was now travelling, it occurred to her for the first time that her footprints were no longer visible. Remembering, with a smile, children's stories in which the hero had paid out a ball of string in order to find his or her way back, she decided to place a golf ball at strategic points on her way. Their microtransmitters would help guide her back along her route.
The sunlight was now striking only the top few meters of the walls, bouncing down as an amber glow. She must turn back soon, before sunset. But there was an intriguing black shape up ahead, and she wanted to investigate that first....