Read Aurora Online

Authors: David A. Hardy

Tags: #science fiction adventure, #hard science fiction

Aurora (8 page)

BOOK: Aurora
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The black shape turned out to be a cave entrance, angling down into the canyon wall and giving every impression of having been formed by water; there were even wavelike striations in the entrance. She ventured cautiously inside and turned on her suit lamp. It was reflected back in myriad points of light. Ice crystals, and—yes, icicles! Here where the sunlight never reached, melt-water filtering down from above through crevices had frozen and grown down, like stalactites, perhaps over thousands of years, maybe much longer even than that. She felt like a tomb robber or a vandal as she snapped off the tiniest sample for later analysis.

She continued to make her way along the passage. Even the ground beneath her feet was now ice-covered.
Careful: it's slippery here....

Even as she had the thought her feet were swept from beneath her, and she hit the ground with a body-shaking thump which knocked the breath out of her. As she tried to rise she felt rather than heard a rumbling sound, and the daylight vanished as the roof fell in.

Aurora felt exasperated rather than afraid. This was the second accident she'd suffered that had been caused by the collapse of a roof—the previous one being the roof of a lava tube. She'd be getting a reputation for being accident-prone.

Well, I don't appear to be hurt,
she thought,
apart from a bruise on my new arm.
She'd fallen rather heavily on that arm.
Nothing broken, anyway. Of course, if something were damaged it would probably heal or grow again...but not if I run out of air first! Going to have to dig myself out....

It did not take long to realize that this was easier said than done. She was wedged awkwardly, giving her little room for movement. Plus the chunk of roof that now blocked her way out was huge—far bigger than she'd realized—and even in low gravity she wasn't going to be able to move it.

A MARTIAN MYSTERY

Back at Camp One, the crew were getting worried. Vitali Orlov had called them together in the pressure dome, the Igloo. “The last contact I had with Anne was over four hours ago. Communications were getting a bit weak and intermittent, and when I couldn't get through any more I assumed it was just that the canyon walls were blocking the signal, and she'd realize this. But she must be well into her second can of air by now, and I'd have expected her to be back in range.”

Bryan Beaumont asked: “What about Claude? Shouldn't he be back by now, too?”

“According to the original plan, yes, but he was doing such good work and having such a good time that I let him stay up longer than scheduled. It's OK—he's still in radio contact, and he's on his way back.”

“Well in that case cannot we ask him to keep an eye out for Dr. Pryor?” asked Minako. She never used first names when talking about people, though she sometimes did when talking to them.

“Yes, I already have,” replied Orlov.

Even as he spoke, the Blimp hove into view, now reflecting the rays of evening sunlight which streamed across the plain and threw the canyons into purple shadow.

Orlov spoke into his microphone. “Come in, Claude. Any luck? Over.”

“Sorry. I've been down as low as I dared, and used my floodlights, but there's no sign of her. Afraid I can't stay up much longer; the batteries are getting low, and the solar cells won't be charging much now. But I have enough power for one more sweep of those tributaries to the north, in case she strayed into them, if you wish? Over.”

“Roger, Claude. Do that. But don't take any chances—and be down before sunset, right? Over and out.”

As the airship maneuvered so that its tail elevators faced them, then drew away, Orlov snapped, “Right, I think it's time to organize a search party. I've been cooped up in this place all day, so I'll lead it. Bryan, will you take over here? The rest of you, get suited up—those of you who aren't already—and we'll go down into the canyon. And bring extra lights.” Then, grimly: “Oh—and, Robert, I don't need to remind you to bring your first aid kit....”

A few minutes later, as he lowered his helmet into place, Orlov grimaced and said to Beaumont, only half-joking: “Damn that woman! Why can't she obey the mission standing orders—never get out of radio contact? And why can't she stop getting herself into trouble?”

“She gets very wrapped up in what she's doing,” said Beaumont in her defense. “But she knows her stuff. Anyway, personally I think she'll come walking in any minute with a faulty radio.”

“I know, I know. And I just hope you're right.”

The party picked their way severally down the talus slope to the floor of the canyon and slow-footed along it in a straggling line. They could travel much faster than Aurora had, since they were not stopping to examine and collect samples, but they didn't go so fast that they didn't take time to shine their flashlights into every likely crevice and offshoot.

“A person could get lost here and never be found,” said Minako pessimistically.

“It must be being so cheerful that keeps you going!” came Beaumont's voice over their radios. He was monitoring their progress.

“Please! Keep the airwaves clear in case Anne is trying to contact us—unless anything important comes up,” ordered Orlov.

After that the party moved along in silence apart from an occasional muffled oath as someone stumbled over a rock. The gorge was almost entirely in darkness now. Phobos appeared over the western rim for the second time that day, on its endless journey towards the east. The little moon's dim light did not help. Their figures flickered like pale wraiths as light beams glimmered from silvery suits and swept away again.

* * * *

Aurora was, to her own surprise, having some success. Recognizing that she could never hope to move the slab of rock that had blocked the original entrance, she was probing at the roof directly above her. This consisted of loose rocks and something like shale. Stones were raining down on her, bouncing off the visor of her helmet, but as long as none of them cracked it, she felt she might be able to break through to the surface.

She tried not to think about the fact that she only had two hours of oxygen left. This would barely have been enough to get her back to camp even if she'd already started walking. Once again she cursed herself for an idiot, and resolved to go by the book in future.

“If only I get out of this alive, that is,” she muttered. She twisted to get a better grip on a rock, and winced as she realized that her leg also hurt. The rock shifted, came loose and fell—straight towards her helmet.

She ducked her head out of the way as much as she could in the limited space.

Then, with a crash and a shower of debris, the whole roof fell upon her.

Her heart thumped as for a moment she thought she'd been buried alive.

However, she calmed herself swiftly. She was on Mars, not Earth. On Earth her strength would have been unable to move the mass of rubble, but in the lesser gravity of Mars she found she could—with a colossal effort—wriggle free and clamber up the slope of fresh detritus to the surface.

Only a thin line of sunlight now illuminated the rim of the canyon. A fine spindrift of dust from the desert caught the rays and formed swirling trails which twisted against the russet sky like cirrus in an Earth sunset. She located her trolley and grasped its handle with her right hand, changing her mind rapidly as pain shot up her arm. She swapped hands and triggered the little motor; so long as she was on a relatively flat surface, the motor would give her greater speed.

I must look a sorry sight!
she told herself wryly. Her suit was stained and dirty, though fortunately not torn; her helmet's faceplate was scarred. She was limping. Although the temperature around her was already over 60º C below zero, she was sweating with effort.

“Horses sweat. Men perspire. Ladies
glow
!” she told herself. It was something her mother had used to say. Thinking about her mother brought back the image she had seen when—was it only that morning?—the Blimp was taking off. She remembered that for many years her mother had been proud of some silk underwear she had made, she said, from a German parachute. The parachute from a—what was it? A land mine? The thing had landed on their house when Aurora was a tiny baby—too young to have any actual memory of the event. But memories of what she had been told as a little girl were returning.

There was something about a barrage balloon—red-lit from below; a crackling roar—and a German parachutist who had helped them. And her brother Stephen, walking. Poor Steve. He had died of cancer only last year; she had not been able to go to his side, much as she had wanted to. How could she, when she looked like his daughter or even his granddaughter? She had been keeping in touch with him only by an occasional phone call and e-mail.

She shook a bead of sweat out of her eyes and wrinkled her nose. Ugh. The inside of her suit was becoming decidedly smelly. Where was she? Her mind was wandering, and she was nearly exhausted. Oh, yes, Steve. As a boy he'd been paralyzed from birth, and then he'd got up and walked after being buried when the roof fell in on him, or something. (Well, it had been
her
turn to be under a collapsing roof this time!) The story had all sounded very unlikely; and yet, in the light of her own recovery from a severed arm, did it really seem so impossible now?

Could there be something
special
about her family? Or was it—? Yes, that must be it. Stephen must have had some of the same quality she had. But no, no, that couldn't be the truth. He had aged naturally, and he certainly hadn't beaten cancer—though he'd been eighty-six when he died. Perhaps you got only one chance. Perhaps the—the talent, or whatever it was, burned out after one apparent miracle? Would she start ageing now, and heal no better than anyone else? But then she seemed to have had several lucky escapes already, to say the least....

Her mind spun, in a turmoil. Her faceplate had misted up, the suit's circulation and cooling system unable to cope with her exertions, and her eyes smarted as salty sweat poured down her face. She couldn't go much further.

A bright glow swam blearily across her visor, growing and spreading. A wave of relief washed over her. “The Blimp!” she shouted, rushing towards the light. Of course! They'd have asked Claude to look for her when she was overdue.

She operated the built-in wiper inside her faceplate, and at the same time flicked on the radio. There was a crackling hiss of static (a diminishing roar; a blue-white flash against a dark sky). The light, now that she could see more clearly, seemed peculiar. It could only be described as white tinged with reddish blue. It was brilliant, and she could not make out the outline of the airship behind it. Yet the light itself seemed to be spherical, with—yes—with scintillating points moving inside it, like tiny glittering mirrors. And a mist swirled around its edges. What was going on?

She stopped, still several meters away from the light. It moved up and down, quite rapidly. She took a step towards it, still uncertain what to make of it. It moved away from her, undulating with a strange, switchback motion. She spoke into her microphone: “Come in, Claude. Is that you? This is Anne Pryor—stop messing about, will you? I'm about done in!”

The only answer was a rushing noise which grew louder and faded, it seemed, with the motions of the light. With startling abruptness, it blinked out, only to reappear fifty meters away. It pulsated, and now appeared more orange in color. Suddenly it swooped upwards, hovering near the rim of the canyon, so that she could see every detail of the rocks. Then it either shrank in size or flew away from her so rapidly that she couldn't tell which.

It dwindled to a spark, and vanished.

Aurora sank to the ground and wept; with disappointment, with frustration, with sheer exhaustion. Yet even as she tumbled into the depths of despair part of her mind was nagging at her excitedly.

If this hadn't been the airship—and it obviously hadn't—then what
had
it been? Could it be some form of life, or maybe even a Martian machine?

But her brain was overloaded—with memories, with sensory input, with wild theories and, again, with exhaustion. It responded with the gift of unconsciousness.

* * * *

The search party had reached a place where three canyons branched off from a wide amphitheater.

“How on Earth—damn that expression!—how the hell are we going to find which branch she took?” asked Robert Lundquist.

Orlov, as he had done time and again, tried to contact Anne on his radio, with no more success than before. His flashlight beam swept into one of the branches, moved on, then swiftly swept back. He gasped.

“I think there's a—a—
plant
over there!” he exclaimed, moving towards the green object. For a second he thought it was some sort of phosphorescent fungoid growth. Then the virtual image of his imagination flipped his vision to reality and he recognized it for what it was. A golf ball.

“I think I know which way she went,” he said. “And, if one of us tunes in our RDF, we might be able to find her more quickly. You do it, will you, Minako? I want to keep this frequency clear for speech.”

Not too long afterwards they found Aurora lying slumped against a low hill of sand. At first they feared she was dead, but Lundquist quickly checked for vital signs and pronounced her alive, if not completely well. He connected a new oxygen tank. Orlov and Minako lifted her onto a collapsible stretcher, and the party made its way carefully back to the Igloo.

* * * *

Aurora's fears that she might have lost her powers of recuperation proved groundless. After only a day in bed she became restless and wanted to be up and about again. Lundquist allowed her to take on the task of keeping an eye, or ear, on the intercom, in case of urgent messages—a very light task.

There was something she had been wanting to do. She got out her paintscreen and gazed at it for a moment, wondering when she would have an opportunity to go outside again and use it. Then she brought it to life. On the screen was the painting she had done based on the view from orbit.

Yes, she had been right, no doubt about it. The scene she had created mainly from her imagination was almost identical with the area of the canyon where she had had the encounter with the strange glow, apart of course from the lighting conditions. She shook her head and switched off the screen.

Bryan Beaumont had brought with him, for relaxation, a minisynth—a tiny keyboard capable of producing the most incredible range of sounds. Last night he had been entertaining the rest of the crew with it in the Refectory—the tiny communal eating area of the Igloo. He was not a very good player, to be honest, but personal talents were encouraged and appreciated when most other entertainment was of necessity canned. He had left the instrument there, and since everyone else was outside Aurora switched it on and ran her hands over the keys.

It was almost the first time she had played any instrument since 1972, and a half-smile of nostalgia quirked her lips as she ran through a version of “The Seagull”. She wondered what Synth or Herbie would think of the technology of this instrument compared with the old—what was it? Ah, yes: the old Moog. Were they still alive? They could well be, though they must by now be in their late seventies or even eighties. Did they still listen to rock music? She laughed aloud at the thought of Herbie, perhaps in an old folks' home, nodding his head and annoying his neighbors as Hawkwind's “Silver Machine” blasted from his speakers.

For a moment images crowded the edge of her subconscious. She had pushed them away when the Blimp first lifted, and she pushed them away again now. They made her uneasy. But somehow she knew that one day she would have to let them in once more.

BOOK: Aurora
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