Authors: David A. Hardy
Tags: #science fiction adventure, #hard science fiction
She was quite oblivious to the fact that Beaumont came in through the outer airlock while she was playing. And he did not betray his presence, but stood behind the thin plastic curtain-wall of the Refectory, listening to her playing, his lips twitching in a smile.
The negative side of her quick recovery was that next day, once Orlov saw she was fit, he gave her a severe lecture on the dangers of making extended sorties unaccompanied, of getting out of radio contact, and of generally not obeying rules. She accepted this harangue meekly, and finally, seeing that she appeared contrite, he took pity on her by praising her resourcefulness in placing the golf balls.
“If it hadn't been for those we might not have found you before your oxygen ran out,” he said. “Now, what's all this nonsense about dancing lights?”
Aurora had tried to tell her story once she recovered consciousness, but Lundquist, assuming she was delirious, had tranquillized her. Not before Bryan Beaumont had heard enough, though; and with his mystical streak he had immediately started plaguing the others with theories about UFOs, energy life forms and other not very scientific suggestions. When they poured scorn on him he claimed that he had only been joking, but it was obvious to all that he had been more than half-serious.
Lundquist had summed it up when Beaumont had left the room for a moment. “Wishful thinking!” he'd said with a grin.
“I promise you,” she told Orlov now, forcefully, “I wasn't seeing stars due to a blow on the head, I wasn't delirious, and it wasn't imagination. At first I just thought it was the Blimp, come to find me. But it was like a glowing sphere, white with a reddishâblue tinge....”
“You mean violet?”
“No, I don't. There was red and blue light in it, but not mixed. SorryâI can't explain it any better. And I'm supposed to be an artist! Anyway, every time I moved towards it, it moved away. And it sort of weaved about, and bobbed up and down, like thisâ” She waved her hand, gracefully. “And then it justâshrankâand vanished.”
“You didn't manage to photograph it, I suppose?”
“Come onâI was hardly in any state to think about my camera.”
“No. Sorry. Well, I suppose I'll have to mention it in my next report to Earth. But I really can't give it much emphasis without more evidence. You do see that, don't you?”
Aurora nodded. “Sure. Can I go outside now?”
“Ha! I don't know if I should let you! Yes, OKâbut just stay in contact from now on, you hear?”
Aurora was on her way to the suiting-up chamber of the Igloo when she was waylaid by Bryan Beaumont. His face bore an expression which puzzled her. Serious, yet with a hint ofâwhat? Triumph? Whatever, it was obvious that he could hardly control his impatience.
“Can you spare a moment, Anne?” he asked.
“I was just going outside.”
“Oh. Well. I did rather want a word.” He pushed back his unruly sandy hair.
Aurora sighed. “Is it about those lights?”
“Eh? Oh, noâalthough I would like to talk to you about those sometime too. No. You see....” He appeared almost embarrassed for a moment, and looked about him as if checking that they were not overheard. Then he said in a rush: “During the last couple of days I've beenâsort of making a few enquiries. I looked up your records in the database. Yes, you almost caught me once with your info up on the screen. And then I got a friend back on Earth to check a few things. And, well, it rather seems, doesn't it, that Anne Pryor didn't exist before around the year 2000?”
Aurora flushed. “How
you pry into my records?”
“Look, I was just kind of interested at first. After all, you must admit, you're a bit unusual, what with your arm growing back and all! No, let me finish!”âas it seemed Aurora was about to interrupt again. “Yesterday I heard you playing my minisynth. How come you never told me you could play! You're good, aren't youâas good as your lookalike! Yes, I also spent some time watching my disc which includes stuff I'd collected about the Gas Giantsâpartly from an old tape my father had of an archive recording off some old rock channel on TV. Andâcome on! I don't see how you could
Aurora, but you must at least be related. Are you her daughter, or what? I mean, apart from the fact that you look a bit older, you're the spitting image. Those violet eyes....”
Aurora was silent for a long minute. “You must realize that whatever you're suggesting could be disproved in a moment,” she said. “For instance, it just happened that my records were destroyed in a fire in 1999. Butâif you can wait until tonight, I just might have something else to say....” Then, as she saw his face light up: “I only said
“OK. It's a date.
“Dream on, boy!”
* * * *
But that night there was more excitement. Minako had taken out the Blimp during the afternoon. She had less flying experience than the others, and had intended to make only a short trip to accustom herself to the controls. But, as everyone else had found, the experience of seeing the network of canyons unfolding beneath her had been so fascinating that she'd not wanted to come down. There was no particular reason for Orlov to insist she did, so, as long as she kept in radio contact, he let her carry on.
However, as the shrunken Sun was almost touching the horizon he was about to radio her to tell her to get back within the next few minutes when her voice, unusually high and excited, came over the speaker.
“I saw a light down below! I went quite low over the spot where we found Dr. Pryorâit's quite wide thereâand was about to switch on my lightsâfor a second I thought I hadâwhen I saw this ball of light moving about right below me, down in the dark canyon. I went even lower, and it sort of skipped out of the way and disappeared. ButâI think I got a shot of it before it did!”
While they were eating their evening meal, Claude Verdet brought up the digital image he had made on the computer screen. It was not very impressive, but it showed an overhead view of the aptly named labyrinth of intersecting canyons. The desert was redly sunlit, with boulders casting long shadows, but the gorge was in darkness.
Except in one place, where a spherical light-source cast enough illumination to make the walls visible. Had the watchers not known that none of them had been down there it could have been an astronaut aiming a lamp upward. Indeed, one could almost imagine a pale figure behind the light.
“You know what they're going to think, back on Earth, don't you?” said Beaumont, examining the screen closely. “âIt's a fake'âthat's what they'll say. They'll say we've done it to keep interest alive in the Mars project and ensure funding for the next phase.”
“We'll all swear an affidavit if it comes to that,” protested Aurora. “Surely they'd have to believe us then?”
“With any luck, maybe we'll get better evidence, anyway,” said Orlov soothingly. “But it means we're going to have to set up a night-watchâwith instruments, at least.” Apart from the airglow experiment, they'd been switching off pretty well all the instrumentation at night up to now.
Minako added, casually: “If you send them my pulse and blood pressure graph for the moment when I saw that light, they'll know it was something unusual!” For Minako, it was almost a joke.
It was time for Orlov to make his daily transmission to Earth, and he left, taking Verdet's video card with him. The rest of the evening was spent in heated argument, theories about the light or lights being put forward by one and torn apart, or occasionally supported, by the rest. Although Aurora several times felt Beaumont's eyes on her, there was no opportunity for them to have a personal conversation. She found she felt quite disappointed about that.
After an hour or so, Orlov returned. “The folks back at Mission Control seem quite interested in the lights,” he informed them with conscious understatement, “though not exactly over the Moon.” This was greeted with hoots of derision, as were all such corny remarks. “Anyway, tomorrow we're to set up a video camera on the surface, rigged in such a way that it can cover the valley floor with a wide-angle lens. I think I can arrange a mechanism that will alert us if it picks up anything brighter than someone lighting a cigarette.”
“Somehow I don't think you're taking this seriously!” commented Aurora.
“What's a cigarette?” asked Verdet gloomily. He had been a heavy smoker back on Earth. There had been a strict no-smoking policy since they'd left. Smoking would have been impossible outside anyway, in the thin, oxygen-poor Martian atmosphere, and anywhere else there was too
oxygen in their canned air for a naked flame not to be dangerous. Even without these considerations, it'd have been highly anti-social to fill their communal living and working spaces with cigarette smoke.
After a moment Verdet joined in with the laughter of the others.
* * * *
The next night they at first clustered around the viewscreen to watch the image from the video camera. But, even though its sensors could be adjusted to show wavelengths from infrared to ultraviolet, nothing out of the ordinary appeared. Eventually they lost interest, and left it up to the alarm system to tell them if there was anything worth watching.
Beaumont caught Aurora's arm as she was about leave for her tiny cubicle. “Yesterday you said you might have something to tell me,” he reminded her, his voice hoarse.
She stood for a while, her eyes on his face, then led him to her cubicle. “I like you, Bryan,” she said once they'd got there, “though I don't much like the way you've been digging into my past life. I suppose you've discovered that I'm British too? Scottish, actually.”
“Well, actually, noâthough I did have a strong suspicion, from your accent.” He emphasized the “actually” with an upper-crust accent. “So where were you around 1972? I could go on digging, you know. Even your initials are the sameâA.P.âthough in your recording days you were known as just âAurora'. Of course, only a rock-music freak like me would see any connectionâI guess you just got unlucky....”
Aurora hesitated, playing with a lock of blonde hair. Then a mixture of expressions crossed her face: stubbornness, quickly replaced by resignation, submission; relief?
“I was in London. I'd been dossing around, getting into drugs, all sorts of shit like that. Then I met this guy who was in a groupâyes that's right, the Gas Giantsâfound I could play, and the rest is herstory!”
“Hers...? Oh, yeah, I get it. But how
“As a matter of fact, I was thirty-twoâbut I looked about sixteen or seventeen, as you know. I've always looked younger than my age.”
“Well, sure, but that means you'd have to be....” He did a quick calculation. “Seventy-eight? Jeez! This is crazy! I mean, I sort of knew itâwell, I thought itâbut...it's got to be impossible!”
“So's growing a new arm. Do you think I don't find it all impossible, too?”
“You mean even you don't know why? You're sure you're not the result of some secret Nazi genetic experiment, or something?”
Aurora smiled faintly. “Not that I know of. I age slowly, I heal quickly, I don't get ill or catch diseases, and, as we've now discovered, I seem to be able to regenerate new limbs. My theory is that I'm some sort of genetic mutation. In which case there must be others like me, somewhere.”
Bryan sagged back in his plastic chair, gazing at her as she sat cross-legged on her cot. “I can't take it in,” he said weakly. “Tell me some more about yourself. Will you, please?”
She plunged right in and told him her life story. The whole saga tumbled out. Her childhood, the rock scene, her late education and jobs. He let her go on until he knew just about everything there was to know about her. When she had finished it was after two in the morning, and they were both whispering, as everyone else was asleep. Snores in different pitches came from the direction of Orlov's and Verdet's cubicles.
“Incredible!” Bryan breathed at last.
Aurora grinned at him. Bryan's cheeks were flushed, and he was running his fingers rapidly through his hair. She realized once again how fond of him she'd grown over the previous months. Now, after the last few hours, they were closer than they'd ever been before.
“I'm sorry. I shouldn't have made you tell me. But....”
Aurora leaned forward and gave him a sisterly kiss. “It's all right. To be honest, it's a relief to tell somebody at last. D'you know how long I've been keeping this to myself?” The atmosphere between them was charged now. Bryan kissed her back. Then they kissed again, and it lasted longer than either of them had expected.
When at last they broke apart he looked embarrassed. “Tell you the truth, I've always fancied the pants off that girl on the record sleeve.” He stood up. “I'd better go....”
“Yes, I think perhaps you had,” she said, smiling at his departing back.
* * * *
She awoke, somehow surprised and even disappointed to find herself alone, inside her sleeping bag. Had last night been a dream? Noâit all came back to her. It was such a relief finally to have confided in someone. But her relationship with Bryan Beaumont could never be the same again....
She relaxed languidly for a while, then got up and took what passed for a showerâa sponge-down in a liter of water from a metered instant heater. Oh, for a real, tingling needle-shower, she thought. She supposed she should be grateful that it was her turn, since even this facility was rationed to one shower per three days per person. Long ago there had been much more water on the surface of Mars. Someday, when humankind decided it was time, there would again be more. For now, it was locked up underground.
It seemed almost strange that work at the camp continued as normal. Life took on a new dimension for Aurora. She rarely had an opportunity to be alone with Beaumont, and when they did go into a huddle in the Refectory she felt that everyone's eyes were on them, and that there must be gossip.