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Hide and seek

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ARTHUR C . CLARKE’S

 

VENUS PRIME

Arthur C. Clarke is the world-renowned author of such science fiction classics as
2001: A Space Odyssey
, for which he shared an Oscar nomination with director Stanley Kubrick, and its popular sequels,
2010: Odyssey Two, 2061: Odyssey Three
, and
3001: Final Odyssey
; the highly acclaimed
The Songs of Distant Earth
; the best selling collection of original short stories,
The Sentinel
; and over two dozen other books of fiction and non-fiction. He received the Marconi International Fellowship in 1982. He resides in Sri Lanka, where he continues to write and consult on issues of science, technology, and the future.

PAUL PREUSS

Paul Preuss began his successful writing career after years of producing documentary and television films and writing screenplays. He is the author of eleven novels, including
Venus Prime
, Volumes 1 and 2,
Secret Passages
and the near-future thrillers
Core
,
Human Error
, and
Starfire
. His nonfiction has appeared in
The Washington Post
, the
Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday
, and the
San Francisco Chronicle
. Besides writing, he has been a science consultant for several film companies. He lives in San Francisco, California.

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Introduction
by ARTHUR C. CLARKE

 

T
he wise science fiction writer prefers to operate in galaxies far, far away and long, long ago, where he is safe from nagging critics–like the small boy who once told Ray Bradbury he had a satellite moving in the wrong direction. (“So I hit him.”)

However, by exquisitely bad timing, the setting of
this
novel occurs practically next door and tomorrow afternoon. Desperate attempts to persuade publisher Byron Preiss to stop the countdown for a year or so have been of no avail. By the time these words appear in print, Paul and I may have to eat some of them.

When Phobos was discovered in 1877, it not only made obsolete Tennyson’s “The snowy poles of moonless Mars,” but it presented astronomers with a phenomenon they had never encountered before. Most satellites orbit their primaries at substantial distance, in a fairly leisurely manner; our own Moon takes almost thirty times longer to go around the Earth than the Earth takes to revolve on its own axis. But here was a world where the “month” was shorter than the “day”! Mars rotates in twenty-four and a half hours (to the great convenience of future colonists, who need make only minor adjustments to their watches and circadian rhythms), yet Phobos circles it in only seven and a half!
Today, we are accustomed to artificial satellites which perform such feats, thus rising in the west and setting in the east (see Bradbury,
supra
), but the behavior of Phobos was quite a surprise to late-19thcentury astronomers. It was also a bonus to such writers as Edgar Rice Burroughs; who can forget the hurtling inner moon illuminating the ancient sea beds of Barsoom?

Alas, Phobos doesn’t hurtle very fast, and you’d have to watch for some time to see that it’s moving at all. And it’s a miserable source of illumination; not only is its apparent size a fraction of our Moon’s, but it is one of the darkest objects in the Solar System, reflecting about as much light as a lump of coal. Indeed, it may be largely made of carbon, and altogether bears a close resemblance to the nucleus of Halley’s Comet, as revealed by a whole flotilla of space probes in 1987. It’s not much use, therefore, during the cold Martian nights, to warn travelers of approaching thoats, seeking whom they might devour.

(The erudite Sprague de Camp once pointed out a very peculiar feature of Barsoomian ecology: the fauna apparently consisted almost entirely of carnivores. The poor beasts must have suffered from acute malnutrition.)

In “The Wreck of the Asteroid” (
Wonder Stories
, 1932), explorers first landed on Phobos and had a lot of fun bouncing around in its approximately one-thousandth-of-an-Earth gravity. Until one of them overdid it, achieved escape velocity–and started to fall helpless toward the looming face of Mars . . .

It’s a nice, dramatic situation, which author Lawrence Manning milked for all it was worth. The crew had to make an emergency take off and race after their careless colleague, hoping to catch up with him before he made yet another crater on Mars.

I hate to spoil the fun, but that just couldn’t happen. Small though it is (about 20 meters a second, compared with Earth’s 11,200) not even an Olympic high-jumper could attain the escape velocity of Phobos–especially when encumbered with a spacesuit. And even if he did, he would be in no danger of falling onto Mars–
because he would still have the whole of Phobos’s eight thousand meters per second or bital velocity
. His trifling muscular contribution would make virtually no difference to that, so he would continue to move in just the same orbit as Phobos, but displaced by a few kilometers. And after one revolution, he’d be back where he started.

In
The Sands of Mars
(1954), I brutally turned Phobos into a minisun (by carefully unspecified technology) in order to improve the climate of Mars. It now occurs to me that this was a trial run for blowing up Jupiter in
2010: Odyssey Two
.

Soon after the appearance of “Hide and Seek,” another British science fiction writer asked me rather suspiciously: “Have you ever read C. S. Forester’s short story ‘Brown on Resolution’?”

 

“No,” I answered, truthfully enough. “I’m afraid I’ve never even read the Hornblower books. What’s it about?”

Well, it seems Brown was a British seaman in the First World War, armed with only a rifle, who managed to keep at bay a German cruiser from his various hideouts on a small, rocky island. (A rather similar story, one war later, was made into an excellent movie starring Peter O’Toole. In
Murphy’s War
, the hero was still coping, more or less single-handed, with Germans.)

I’m sorry to say that I still haven’t gotten around to Forester’s story and missed the chance of discussing “Brown” with him when we once dined together in the magnificent Painted Hall of the Royal Navy College at Greenwich. Which was a pity, as it would have given me a chance of trotting out one of my favorite quotations: “Talent borrows–but Genius steals.”

Decades before the Viking spacecraft gave us our first close-up views of Phobos, it was obvious that a hunk of rock only a few times larger than Manhattan could possess no trace of atmosphere, still less harbor any life. Yet unless my memory has betrayed me completely, I seem to recall that Burroughs once had Mars invaded by marauding Phobians. The economics–not to mention the ecology–of such a microcivilization boggles the imagination. Once again, I fear, ERB hadn’t done his homework.

(I am still prepared to repeat a statement that I made many years ago: ERB is a much underrated writer. To have created the best-known character in Western–and perhaps world–fiction is no small achievement. The Mars novels, however, should be read before the age of sixteen: I hope to revisit Barsoom in my rapidly approaching second childhood.)

Nevertheless, Phobos once featured rather spectacularly on the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) agenda. Back in the sixties, the Russian astrophysicist Iosef Shkovskii–best known to the general public for his collaboration with Carl Sagan on SETI’s sacred book
Intelligence in the Universe
(1966)–made an extraordinary suggestion about the little world, based on the long-established observation that it is slowly falling toward Mars.

I have never decided how seriously Iosef took his theory; he had a considerable sense of humor–which he needed to survive as a Jewish scientist in Stalin’s time (and a lot later)–but this is how his argument went:

The slow descent of Phobos is due to the same effect that finally brings down close artificial satellites to Earth–the braking effect of the atmosphere. A satellite made of dense material will survive a long time; one with low mass per volume will be brought down more quickly, as was demonstrated by the ECHO balloon, and later by SKYLAB, which was essentially an empty fuel tank.

Working backward from the drag figures, Iosef calculated that the density of Phobos must be
much less than that of water
. This could only mean that it was hollow. . . .

Well, it seemed unlikely that Nature could make a hollow world some tens of kilometers across. Phobos must be a space station, presumably constructed by the Martians. Which, added another scientist, is why they’re no longer around. They went broke building it.

Alas, the Viking photos showed that Phobos is undoubtedly a natural object, but its surface does show some puzzling peculiarities. Much of it is covered with parallel grooves several hundred meters wide, so that it looks like a ploughed field on a gigantic scale.

I cannot help recalling that when the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli reported “grooves” on Mars in 1877, he chose the unfortunate word “channels” to describe them. What a lot of trouble the mistranslation caused–and how chagrined Percival Lowell would have been to learn that his beloved canals have now turned up not on Mars, but on tiny Phobos.

Arthur C. Clarke Colombo, Sri Lanka
Prologue
D
are Chin was not a nervous man, but he was edgy tonight. Mainly it was that damned plaque, the

infamous Martian plaque. It had been discovered ten years ago, somewhere near the edge of the north polar ice-cap, no one knew where exactly, because the guy who found it wanted to keep it a secret. And he had, long enough to blow himself up in a drilling accident.

The plaque was a mirror-finish scrap of alloy the size of a broken dinner plate, inscribed with line after line of undecipherable symbols. Its discovery and authentication had proved that beings who could write–everybody assumed the inscriptions were writing, though nobody had proved it–had been hanging around Mars a billion years before humans evolved on Earth.

The plaque was sitting downstairs in the middle of Town Hall right this minute, as I had been for most of the last ten years. Not a copy, which would have been sensible, but the real thing, unique in the universe so far as anybody knew, and therefore truly without price. The rationale for exposing the real thing instead of a copy was that it was one of the attractions that drew tourists to Mars, and who would steal it anyway?

Tonight Chin was staying late to guard it. He had better things to do, or at least other things to do. Chin was the assistant mayor of Labyrinth City, the biggest settlement on assistant mayor of Labyrinth City, the biggest settlement on Mars–a town that needed water on a planet where what little water there was went straight from ice to vapor in the dry, thin atmosphere, a town whose people needed to breathe oxygen on a planet where atmospheric pressure was less than one percent of Earth’s, and needed to stay warm on a planet where during heat waves the temperature rose to a toasty minus five degrees centigrade, a town which needed to dispose of its sewage on a planet where there were no native microorganisms to digest it.

Besides dealing with these everyday challenges to the town’s infrastructure, its administrators somehow had to manage an unmanageable, unmeltable pot of residents–a third of them permanent citizens, the working-class roughnecks, with another third transient, mostly rich tourists, and a final third which floated, consisting of ivory-tower types, scientists, and Council of Worlds mouse pushers.

The pile of yellow hard copy on Dare Chin’s desk would have reduced any administrator who believed in the perfectibility of humanity–as he was supposed to, being a card-carrying member of the Interplanetary Socialist Workers Party–to anger, tears, suicidal depression, or all three. The local roughnecks, with a two-to-one ratio of men to women, got drunk and cut each other up just about every weekend. The tourists daily got themselves cheated, robbed or mortally insulted. The scientists and bureaucrats, supposedly possessed of the best educations, had the morals of feral cats and spent their off hours playing spouse-, companion-, and child-swapping games.

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