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by Christopher Clagg
Six months up we lost Rene, and the first of the two crawlers we had. Two months later in quick succession we lost Gerard, Clemmens the German, and Armstrong the first American. London Control of course got us within two hours of shutting down and evacuating, before we had a reconfirm from the Americans that they were still go. London quietly relayed the confirm and washed their hands of us after that, calling us the "American" project. It made Andreeson laugh since he didn't give a damn for the Brits who were overseeing the project to begin with.
Maggie didn't say anything. Just popped her redhead in the door, when the news came back up that we were still go, and asked with a flat-lipped look on her face: Anyone going out, then? I've got rock samples, and Ferrough? You going to look for water or let us all die of dehydration?
It was a joke, the search for mineral bases, for elemental life, for anything near Earth-like that would show us that we were not alone in the universe.
She looked at me then and it took me a bit by surprise. Six months up and she doesn't say jack, then in the space of two months she talks to me like I was her long-lost cousin or what. She was hard as nails and the last thing I wanted was a super riding my case while I tried to do my job with her thinking it was hers.
I grunted, getting up from the chair where I'd parked myself every waking hour that I wasn't either sleeping or in the mess hall. Or re-running lab tests I had done eight weeks previous, since the accident, when we'd been put on hold.
She turned then without a grin or a word, zipping up her parka. She fitted her faceplate and oxygen canisters and then stepped through the air lock toward the outside door. I zipped up, following, picking my equipment belt off the wall peg next to the lock as I spun the door lock, listening as it hissed back, the seal quick-snapping, then the door cushioning open.
Through the transparent tube wall of the outer lock the sun glared; the lenses of my goggles automatically began snapping down through the spectrum to accommodate the brightness, but it was only momentary, as the dust storm shifted, blowing huge amounts of sand into the thin air. The light suddenly darkening by several magnitudes. The goggles re-shifted then, cycling back up as I continued down the twenty-foot lock toward the door that Maggie stepped through then quickly closed behind her. The shifting gears of the door mechanism click-clanking then fading into silence in my earphones. Ten feet more, I spun the outside lock back and stepped outside. Moving quickly aside as the door pulled back, resealing itself.
The bright and dark moved around me like shadows on the moon.
I lost twenty, probably thirty pounds as a refracting magnetic field swept over where I stood, then moved on. For an instant I was lighter, halfway through a step that suddenly became too easy to overstep and lose my balance; I pulled back, but then suddenly as the field shifted away I was heavier, and in mid-step as my leg came down I shifted my weight forward, so I wouldn't suddenly land on my face. I smiled, not the first time peering through the shifting sand to see if I could see Maggie ahead.
In broken segments of distance, five, then twenty, then ten feet, the sand shifted between the light then shadows. I saw her red-scuffed white parka as she stopped, turned, holding her hands up in front of her and began signing.
There was a long pause as the wind shifted, while the sand haze obscured her, then finally: <...careful!>
Language had become a personal, abbreviated thing here. A shortened version of speech that had its own intricacies and subtleties. Its own code between individuals. Her posture in the signing was as strong a modifier as if I could hear the concerned tone of her voice.
I raised a hand giving the OK sign, then turned away from her white-red silhouette, and started moving south. I checked the direction by running my left hand across the surface of the barracks to my left as I counted steps. Twice losing weight but then gaining it back, once at almost three times my normal weight. On my way to the water trough, a place you could find with your nose, but never with any instruments. Out here in the moment-to-moment shifting sands, the light, the shifting shadows, the magnetic fields, instruments were next to useless. Five-trillion American dollars on the first Mars expedition, and we were making it all work with a little spit and ingenuity.
I laughed, but couldn't hear myself as the wind snatched my voice away.
* * *
The water trough was a mile out. A gouge in the sand/stone surface that stretched eighty yards by fifteen. Far enough out, in this place, to get lost, get killed, die five feet from the edge of the trough rim and never be found.
It was as much an art as science, surviving here. With us Earthers crawling all over the planet as if it were some red version of Earth. Trying to understand it. In the end it would prove out as much gut instinct as any rationalizations of why things worked or they didnt.
I counted off 5,000 steps, with no wall to guide me for more than 4,900 of them, stepping off the last sand step to the edge of the troughs stone edge. It extended in front of me another twenty feet before the shelf fell off into a straight crevasse that extended down what we had initially estimated as a quarter of a mile. Dropping out of sight and sound. But you could still smell the water.
How did it get here, and why? What rules applied here? Or was it all simply chance? We havent found answers for those questions, yet. But we still work at them. Mars had ice caps, once, perhaps that had extended as far as only a thousand kilometers from the equator. It made no sense in terran formation comparisons that it could happen. But it did here. Given the planets own particular set of rules, its own set of circumstances. We were just scratching the surface of those interdependent intricacies now. Trying to stay alive in an alien environment and figure out why things worked the way they did.
I stopped wool-gathering abruptly, before I got myself killed by not paying attention to something new and changing that might be suddenly violent and deadly. It was almost always something new. Something we had never expected or guessed at. Something that existed here in the framework of a few small variables and nowhere else.
I walked the remaining twenty feet across the stone, feeling the roughness, perhaps some of its age, and stepped off the ledge and fell twenty feet, turning around in mid-air to face the falling wall, I extended a hand with a piton and silver leaded coil of rope.
Sticking the piton into the cliff face.The rope spun out, inches from my hand, idly I thought that if my hand ever got caught in the wire... even an instant... I would lose it.
The light faded, turning black in front of my eyes as the rope went taut with my body slamming into the harness in a sudden stop.
Inside my parka I was sweating, breathing too quick, trying to calm my heart rate from the fall. I reached out a gloved hand touching the stone, feeling through the rubberized cloth the push of water rushing down the cliff face. I smiled, uncapping a plastic sample bottle on the side of my belt, quickly filling it, then bringing the capped clear tube to my goggles and peering at it.
It was sandy, tinted. But with what? I smiled, that was a question for another day. I spent the next thirty minutes filling bottles, then strapping them to the inside of my jacket, where in case I fell or died or never came back, they would at least find the samples preserved.
Maggie had laughed when I had told her that after Rene had found the trough, after we had lost him and I had replaced him in collecting the samples.
<Im not kidding.> I had signed, standing on the edge of the trough watching the sunlight fade then brighten.
<Youre too cynical to die!> she had signed back. That had made me laugh.
We had walked back to the barracks then, and I noticed that she didnt once get lost. Which reminded me of poor Rene. Of how dedicated and smart he was. But he got lost very easily.
After taking the samples I spent the next six hours climbing out. Clambering up the face of the cliff with my arms and legs cramping up, back up to the edge, finally, where I crawled over the lip, falling onto my back while the sand swirled over my head.
The world was pressure here. Moments of air and sand pushing against your chest, then gone. Weight that suddenly appeared then just as quickly disappeared. I turned on my microphones briefly, but there was only static. So I clicked the switch back off, feeling the silent Martian world of pressure and weight return. Where sound and light becomes as arbitrary as wishes in storybooks. Which is to say, not at all.
After I caught my breath I stood, turning in the swirling sand storm, looking west. Turned, then turned back... it felt west. Then struck out, moving through the blowing sand, the jagged rocks, the shifting weight, the brilliant light alternating against the utter darkness, counting each step as I moved forward.
One of these days I would get turned around and step back over the edge of that damned cliff. I smiled. Well, that would be the end of that, wouldnt it. Except that I never did. I never got lost. That was the difference, I think, some unknown thing inside some of us and not in others. Something that made it easier to deal with living here, made all the confusion somehow understandable, more natural.
Some of us were amphibians and not just fish.
* * *
I spun the handle of the door to the airlock, with the mechanism clicking reverberations against my hand as I rested it against the surface of the door. Waiting while the lock cycled back and the door hushed open. I stepped through into the tubeway feeling my weight shift six or seven times before I made the inner door and getting it open. Then stepped through again, this time into the static universe of the shelter. Which approximated the size of a small trailer park in the middle of some Texas middle-class town.
Inside, the temperature was a constant 70. Sound droning in a constant wash of background activities. I left my ear plugs in to dampen the clatter, pulling my goggles off and stuffing them into a pocket as my eyes readjusted to the constant light. Across the room Burtrum Ingles waved saying something... his lips moving. I signed back.
<Tired. Catch something to eat, sleep. Later.>
I grinned weakly, pushing through the common room into the smaller hallways with their inter-connected walkways, back toward the other barracks with their labs. With the mess hall, infirmary, and the small PX in the last inner ring. Beyond those were the sleeping quarters.
Burtrum waved me off, his grin sliding into a puzzled line, but I just smiled, turning away, too bone-tired to talk to anyone. Too tired to do anything other than eat and sleep for ten hours, then come back to the world and try to make sense of some of the samples.
Maggie had made it back from the cliff face that was a half-mile west of the barracks. It would have proved a wind-break in the same climate on Earth, but here, it didnt matter where the cliff wall was, or how small or how large. The storms moved, not with the wind around dynamically shaped objects, but from the magnetic fluctuations between the sand storms in the atmosphere and the polarized magnetic fields that those storms generated on the surface as they moved across the planet.
Mountains didnt stop sand storms. The sand storms just moved over them. I smiled. Like everything else on Mars, the storms had their own minds. Maybe the mountains did as well.
I met Maggie in the mess, sitting down with my coffee and hydroponic vegetables, as she sat her tray of eggs and sausage down on the table, glancing at my lunch tray , but didnt say anything. Not saying, "Oh you're the vegetarian".
I started to tell her, to explain that it was time to get used to what we could supply firsthand if we were ever going to consider a long-term colony here. But I waved the thought off.
I held a thumb up, grinning.
<Went good today, twenty samples. Ill have them in the lab in another thirty minutes, take a shower, climb back into some dungarees then hit the microscopes.>
She shook her head, smiling at the archaic word.
We didnt really use microscopes anymore, but it was still a phrase we all used. Like ice boxes, or Xeroxes, that passed along a feeling of what we did in the most basic way.
<You?> I signed
She moved her lips as if she were going to speak for a moment, then looked at me, with the plugs still in my ears. For some reason I had started keeping them in the last several weeks. She sighed, accepting my small idiosyncracies, then started to sign. Her fingers forming abbreviated pictures in the still air between us.
Maggie had spent the better part of the day digging samples at St. Helens. It was the local name we gave to the god-forsaken half-blasted mountain that was supposed to shield the camp, but never did, which lay in varying degrees of obliteration across the landscape two miles from the barracks. Maggie said she thought originally that it had been volcanic activity that had subsided some millennia ago. Except that the trace radiation of the surface debris was not any older than samples she had used the crawler to dig out several hundred feet down.
<How could this be?>
I smiled but didnt say anything.
Mars was upside down, what could I tell her? Everything here was somehow different, skewed, layered, complicated beyond what we expected. One more little mystery seemed hardly out of place.
I patted her hand, eating quickly then got up heading for the doorway of the kitchen where the disposal slot framed an empty metal wall. I pushed my tray through until it disappeared, then headed for my room.
Behind me Maggie sat, eating slowly.
She was smart, she would figure it out.
I smiled, letting the thought go, wishing suddenly for a long, hot bath. Maybe all of a hundred and twenty seconds if there was enough water for a full shower.
I could live with that.
* * *
I was halfway through the lab tests, staring at pixelized scans of salt traces and mineral ores, water and... that something else that we didnt recognize. I smiled.
Par for the course.
I shut down the display, then powered up the re-test algorithms of the test program itself on the other monitor. Rene had originally laid down the program parameters when he had started the water tests. It was natural to assume there would be trace elements of things we would recognize. But what about the things we would not? How had he supposed to account for those?
I had tried tweaking the parameters, but I was no programmer. I could widen the spectrum of half a dozen test areas that were known without even getting close to whatever the unknown values were.
Was it atomic weights?
Or variations on elemental properties?
It didnt matter what I tried, it was like shooting geese in the dark. Most of the time, I was bound to get nothing at all.
I pushed the display away, dimming the screen, leaning back in the chair, suddenly tired, sipping at my cold coffee.
The door of the lab cycled open then, an underlayer of sound reverberating through my ear plugs. I turned, watching as Maggie stepped through. She was wearing a one-piece white utility that contrasted nicely with her short reddish hair.
<Find anything?> she signed.
I smiled at the seemingly sudden novelty of unbroken sentences that didnt have shifts of light or sand obscuring them. It was funny that staying outside for extended periods made the static environment of the barracks almost alien.
I shook my head, gazed at the monitor where the algorithm blinked across the screen, I patted the seat next to me.
<Wanna look at a program for me? Im trying to isolate something...>
She grinned, signing back,
<Sure, why not? Who needs sleep, right?> She laughed.
I relinquished the chair next to me, glancing at my watch. It was 1:30 a.m. local on an eighteen-hour workday. That meant I had already crossed over into tomorrow and would have to wait to get some sleep some time after getting back in from another sample run. Sometime late tonight.
I almost laughed, but didnt. Instead I just brought the sample screen back up, staring blankly at the foreign trace element in the legend, which represented the undefined area of the scan. The blinking epithet that simply said over and over [Unknown].
I was tired but I loved it.
This is what science was.
Finding answers under rocks on other planets while standing on your head reciting the biologist's code backwards. I felt like a Twelfth Century monk discovering methodology.
I did laugh then. Maggie stared at me a moment, but said nothing, then returned to the program display. I refocused the sample screen resolution up and started to rerun the scans.
I had already run them over a hundred times. One more time wouldnt hurt. One more pass might be enough to catch something I hadnt seen the first ninety-nine times.
I punched the numbers on the control panel, watching as Maggie pulled up a screen of assigned arrays and started tracing down through nested sub-routines in the test program.
I kissed her cheek, startling her, not on purpose, but because I was damn glad to have the help.
After a bit, she calmed back down, smiling, and went back to the program while I reran the scan yet one more time.
I told her about feeling like a monk and she laughed with me.
* * *
She had no luck with the trace element, it kept returning unknown values. There was something there that was kicking us and it didnt look like we would figure it out anytime soon. I took a quick shower, re-dressed while she continued at the program, but I didnt hold much hope for it right away.
Maybe it was like being dropped into the middle of Eighteenth Century Italy. Abruzzi. Where one had to assimilate the culture, language, and history all in a single sitting.
I gave the thumbs up and left the lab, heading for the common-room airlock for another sample run. Between storm fronts the satellite feed downloaded news and entertainment into the barracks web. No updates from London Control. All quiet on the Earthward front. Something to be grateful for.
I picked up my equipment belt, pushing through the airlock into the tubeway. The glittering shadows and light shifts. The weight gains shifting against the sudden losses. The tilting sense of stability in the human mind that reaches out; across a history of stability and consistency, and screams!
But the mind adapts, the body adapts.
As the light shifts my eyes dilate to gather more light, then spiral down to pinpoints as the shadows shift, the brightness exploding, almost blindingly across the landscape. The goggles focus and refocus as I make my way to the outer tube door, spin the latch mechanism and watch as the door seal snaps back, the door pushing open. Then I am through, my weight shifting twice coming through the door, then twice more as it seals behind me. I work at turning myself around in the half-dark static. Reaching out my left hand, stepping forward, feeling the brush of the barracks' metal sidewall against my gloved fingers.
<One...two...> I say.
My weight shifts again, and the light brightens, is suddenly a sun, then blackens back to darkness just as suddenly. I lift my legs and move, shift my weight and think, react, and move, lift my foot forward. Feel the weight increasing...increasing, I am suddenly three hundred pounds... then four hundred... then just as suddenly... only fifty.
I lift my foot and put it down.
I lift my foot and put it down, again.
Life is method, life is routine, life is moving one foot in front of the other, doing the next thing. Taking one breath at a time.
Blinking in the glare of the sunlight and moving, without thinking. Somewhere instincts take over and move us.
Or they don't.
We lost Rene this way, when we had been on a sampling run. At the edge of the crevasse. Rene was trying to climb out after taking the samples when his weight had shot up over ten times and his tether rope had snapped.
At least that was the consensus.
He probably didn't survive the increased pressure, regardless of the rope breaking, Maggie had said when they had brought me into the infirmary, stuffing tranquilizers into my veins to calm me down after Rene had fallen.
We weren't able to get Rene back.
<I don't think he could have sustained the pressure.> she had signed. <I think it would have burst his heart.>
I push through the sand and silence, continuing to count until I reach the lip of the crevasse. Where I step off into the open air, hanging suspended for a moment then fall.
Wondering as I turn and hold the piton in my hand if the rope is strong enough. Whether my weight will shift and how much while I am down there? Will I make it out?
Ten feet down I jab out my hand, stabbing the piton into the cliff face, watching as the spiral of silver rope rushes out, eventually pulling taut.
Then I am jerked to a halt.
I try to smile.
As I reach for the plastic sample bottles.
* * *
Maggie covers my lab work on the elemental analysis algorithm, with me promising to spot her on the St. Helen's digs. Perhaps a little distance will freshen the mind, perhaps her eyes will see something I have missed.
The first morning I dress, grabbing a quick bite in the mess hall, then meeting Carruthers and Bledsoe, the American geologic team, with Lars Andreeson the Swede in the common room after breakfast. I start to take my equipment belt down from the peg at the doorway, but then put it back. It won't do any good having a biologic climbing belt when setting out for strata samples and soil dating.
I take Maggies belt instead, laying it over my shoulder, nodding to the geologists. But Bledsoe frowns, stepping in front of me, preferring to lead. I smile, stepping back. It seems to be an issue with Americans, so I let it go, and simply follow up behind.
I step through the lock, following Andreeson as the inner door cycles then reseals itself. The long tubeway stretches out; in the half-light, shadows flicker over the moving silhouetted parka-wrapped figures that move through the tunnel toward the outer door.
We step out, one by one. Instinctively I turn left, but then catch myself and turn right, following behind Andreeson as best I can to keep up.
Carruthers smiles back, signing as we approach the beginning of the cold lava escarpment that leads up onto the side of the mountain.
<Cool or what!?>
I smile and laugh as we climb the steep face toward the first dig site on the mountain. Letting the shadows and flickering light move over us. Parka-wrapped masked warriors battling the unknown.
We spend the first day entirely on the escarpment comparing surface samples with samples extracted at lower elevations. There seems to be no difference in the carbon dating of the rock and soil samples. Which would indicate, as least to an amateur biologist masquerading as a geologist, that the entire strata, both the surface and underlaying rock levels, at least to a depth of several hundred feet is all from the same time period.
No intervening differences to show the various stages of time, as the samples would normally have indicated. If they had they had come from an Earth dig.
Which would mean the entire mountain rose up in one massive structural shift, rather than a gradual uplifting over thousands or millions of years, as it would normally for the same changes to occur on Earth.
We spend the evening out under the stars; in portable sealed tents, secured to the rock face with metal spikes hammered into the cold, gray volcanic rock. In sleeping bags with refracted light lamps. Eating strips of cured meat and canned dry-flour biscuits. All washed down with cold water out of metal canteens fastened to our belts.
Sitting on the cold ground as the thin wind blows around us, with trace pockets of oxygen seeping back into the lower atmosphere from oversaturated rock.
We eat and talk and watch the stars; and some of the guys smoke, inserting cigarettes into their faceplates and inhaling and exhaling through the valves of their masks.
Smoke curls on the hint of wind, its gray tendrils coiling, then laying on the still and heavy air for hours before they dissipate.
We smoke and talk and tell stories, tall tales and ghost stories, love stories and scientific stories where the scientist always gets the answer.
Ha-ha, at least that is how we tell it.
Until the night moves down and the fatigue moves down until it works into your eyes and your mind and your muscles, and you fall asleep on the ground on top of your sleeping blanket. Where we sleep, like children.
Until the sun comes up and we crawl out of our cocoon beds, staring into the Martian sunrise with blood-red bands of color walking up the horizon toward zenith. We eat cold food that we unwrap and stuff into our mouths. Folding ourselves into our parkas and our jackets and sweaters, then take our small shovels and our examination brushes and the heavy equipment that we strap across our backs, as we come out of the tents to stand on the cold, black rock face for a few moments, before we breath deep and begin to move up the slope toward a new site. A new place to start yet again.
We move from campsite to campsite along the edge of the slope of the mountain in this way. Testing and digging and dating. Asking questions and looking at answers, then asking the questions again.
Smoking and talking and dozing and cursing and singing and sleeping and waking and listening and proposing and disagreeing and wondering.
Again and again.
Until nightfall comes down, and the only way to tell is the dropping temperature or that the light is now more subdued. Scattered fragments of light caught in stars, or half a world away reflected sunlight that glances off the hard surface and back into the atmosphere.
And getting up in the morning again.
Getting a cup of coffee and sitting in the cold and staring at the cold, red, suddenly very clear sky.
For two days in a row we have no sandstorms at all. And the horizon is a clear line on the far edge of the world that divides the sky from the mountains. The air is thin, but breathable for short periods and we take off our masks for the first time, taking tentative breaths then giggling like school children.
Shortly retreating back to the familiar protection of the masks and processed air.
In the early morning stillness and quiet we start to dig again.
* * *
A week out we have an accident, when Andreeson is killed when a dig sample he is excavating pulls free too quickly and he is thrown out from the cliff face, falling twelve-hundred feet to the lower escarpment.
* * *
Bledsoe wants to push on. But Carruthers fights him on it. It will take the better part of two days to recover Andreeson's body, then to make it back down to ground level. I side with Carruthers, and because my opinion carries the vote Bledsoe blames me when he wants to say we were close to something new on the cliff face.
But I don't know what he means by it.
We recover Andreeson and make it back down to the base of the mountain. Then back to the barracks and labs and common rooms and sleeping rooms where we all wonder how it is that you can get up in the morning and not see Lars laughing and eating and working with you.
But we don't.
And people stop talking as much, and don't look the same when you sit in the mess with them after working all day.
It gets quieter.
* * *
I return to taking samples at the trough for two days straight, alone, and then on the third day out, after filling the sample bottles then fastening them to the inside of my parka, my weight shifts three times as I am climbing out of the crevasse. My rope snaps and I start to fall. Instinctively I push my feet out against the edges of the walls to try to break the fall.
I fall eighty feet before I am able to twist around and face the cliff again and get two pitons out of my belt.
Stabbing them into the stone as the world goes black, the silver ropes rushing out. My goggles snap down through the light spectrum, the lenses dilating in cycling clicks.
Another twenty feet, until the ropes play out, finally coming to an end. The breath is knocked out of me as the harness I wear slams into my chest; and under my arms, feeling like a sudden punch. I dangle there, swinging back and forth, trying to catch my breath, to clear my brain, to open my eyes, to get the goggles to focus.
Suddenly I am staring at a greenish glint on the cold stone with the running water running over it...
It takes a moment to register, but then it does and I laugh.
Laugh at the top of my lungs then, a sudden madman swinging there in the shifting light as the green film gleams under the rushing water. Small crystalline tufts of it, almost algae-like against the stone. I collect a bit of it in a sample bottle with a scraper.
Below me, perhaps only thirty or forty feet, I can see the crevasse is filled with dark, brackish water. The concentration of water rushes quicker there, and in the half-light, bright and darkness, I can see the green on all the walls. First in small patches and then larger ones, pushing out to the edges of the limit of my peripheral vision, until finally it is only a black smudge in the shifting light against the black-shadowed stone. Shadows that spread out, as far as I can see.
I think I have found our unknown value.
I use two pitons to climb back out. It takes ten hours; instead of the normal six, which is my tank limit. I push myself over the lip, collapsing onto my back on the ledge. Tearing off my face mask and taking ragged breaths through the collar of my jacket.
There comes a reverberation of scratching and equipment oscillations in the rock beneath me. I lay on the stone trying to catch my breath. Feeling the ache in my legs and arms go from an unfeeling numbness to sudden knots. I arch my back, yelling into the wind. Biting my teeth against my lip. The wind blows sand. The reverberations move closer. My legs are still cramped up, but I roll over on my side, managing to push up onto my knees. I crawl forward, toward the vibrations, seeing through the swirling sand glimpses of the crawler.
Long seconds go by as the crawler lumbers forward. In the swirling dust the crawler lurches and turns, the bright eyes of its twin headlights splashing over the stone, sweeping over me on my knees, the ledge and the crevasse behind us. For long moments the machine chugs through the sand, finally jerking to a stop. Sitting noisily idling at the edge of the stone shelf. A side hatch snaps back then opens.
<OK!?> comes a sign, Maggies hands, Ingles moves inside the cab behind her, at the wheel of the mechanism.
I raise my hand with the sample of the Martian algae, and give the thumbs up.
* * *
Maggie looked at me and grinned, her smile changing her face from the seriousness and struggle and the sheer exhaustion of trying to crack problems that were silent and unknown, with perhaps some of them unknowable, to the simple joy of finding an answer.
<Pattern is a crystalline-like variation, the actual biological basis is unknown though, not carbon, not silicate. But it "is" crystalline formations, much more complex than simple crystals though, almost cell-like.>
I watched her fingers sign, nodding, as she looked up from the scan screen.
<I never got past the elemental analysis.> I signed back. <If I had, we might have known this sooner.>
She sighed and sat down heavily then in one of the lab chairs that stood against the table. I wondered if she was thinking of Rene...?
I looked at her and thought, is she thinking of Armstrong or Clemmons...?
...the people we lost.
My mind blanked momentarily. Then came back to me in slated segments.
Out of the fourteen of us on the initial team, consisting of eight researchers and six operations personnel, we had lost four scientists and one crawler operator.
The news of a native life form here would be a boon for this expedition. But it would just as easily complicate it. The big investors, the Americans and the Germans would expect certain rights. What would happen to the smaller interests? The English or the Swedes? It would split the coalition into a fragmented cluster of competing interests.
My mind blanked again.
I shook my head, maybe I was just tired.
<I'm going to call it quits. Can we restart all this tomorrow?> I stood slowly up from the lab stool, feeling momentary cramps in my legs.
She smiled, touching my shoulder,
I left the lab tables the way they were, the equipment scattered across the workbenches with the programs running. I patted her hand, kissing her cheek quick. Then went out the door, down the connecting corridors to the sleeping quarters.
We had found life, or at least the beginnings of it.
Suddenly and miraculously there was life.
Not fossilized crystals embedded in meteorites, or pre-protein chains in ice pockets in the dark side of craters on the moon. Or cometary residues laying outside our little solar system. Our small island which we have just begun to venture out from.
It would stir the pot and bring every red-blooded adventurer and entrepreneur and industrialist. Every governmental functionary and socialist and day-dreaming human being, here.
It wouldn't be just stories any more, but real life.
And instead of all those science fiction tales of fantasy and adventure, or the comics of aliens and wars and ancient cultures long lost and dead. Then perhaps there would only be the Earth and the people, with all the rest young, yet-to-be-born races. The yet-to-be-born cultures. And instead of all those stories of us being the victims of alien schemes, we might find ourselves as the big brothers of all those young alien races.
We might be the caretakers and adopted parents for a universe of life just beginning its journey up the evolutionary road.
Countering such heady thoughts were the possible threats that each of the superpower members could bring to bear. Politically there was the reality that the Americans might launch their own program, and return to Mars. Cutting out the Alliance members entirely. Whether the other member countries funded new projects, or not, the Americans could come back. Carruthers and Bledsoe, both Americans and two of the geologic team that worked with Maggie on the St. Helens digs, were likely to come back with new teams of their own. To establish satellite camps out from the base center. Claiming independence and ownership of any discoveries made under their auspices.
But that was a future that lay beyond the limited window of this project which was primarily to establish a foothold here. To prove that we could survive here. Except that we weren't surviving very well. Time was showing us here, that only a small percentage of the crews sent would probably be suited to function and excel in this environment.
There were too many variables, too many new rules, and none of the old methodologies were exactly right. With some of them actually deadly.
The thoughts went on and on in my mind.
Suddenly I was tired. There was too much to think about.
I reached my room and opened the door and fell into bed without even undressing. Letting the door close silently behind me. I would undress tomorrow, I thought. I rolled over and pulled a blanket half over me in the dark, falling asleep.
* * *
In a perfect world we wouldn't have lost any of the capable people that died. In a perfect world, the world wouldn't be so crazy and different and changing all the time. In a perfect world we could make a one-of-a-kind discovery and have it mean something for the world.
Instead of what it might mean.
That the Americans and the Germans, perhaps even the Japanese would come back.
Because they could come back. Because they had the resources, they had the crews that they could train and send, and lose, and train and send some more, and lose those and retrain some more, and on and on, until they got it right.
It wouldn't be for any altruistic reasons that they would come back, or even for science, really.
But for the commercial end of it.
What they could exploit.
What they could control, and then determine how everyone else was going to use, what had originally been found by a Frenchman and a English woman, a mile out from base camp in an environment that was enough to make you think that every natural law that had ever been made had suddenly been turned upside down.
* * *
I couldn't sleep, I woke, crawling out of bed and into the shower slowly, where the water fell down my face in a hot spray and I didn't think at all. Until the water stopped a minute and a half later.
I went up to the lab where I had left Maggie, but she wasn't there. Neither were the samples I had brought in.
I went to the mess hall next, but she wasn't there, or at her room either. So I suited up and slid into my parka and adjusted my mask and the oxygen bottles that rested in the harness against my chest.
And went outside.
I found her at the first dig, alone.
She had turned; somehow sensing me, and had watched my approach through the cold and blowing sand for thirty minutes before I made first camp.
She stood there with her reddish hair pulled back in braided strands poking out at different angles and didn't say anything.
I topped the ridge and as I came across the gray escarpment I signed,
<Do you think the return teams will...>
<...ever consider sharing the...>
Red sand spun in the air, and floated almost like smoke.
She looked at me, but then looked away and shook her head slowly. I looked out over the shifting sand dunes and wondered how long I could live out there if I had to.
I signed back.
She stood, overlooking a dig, that was twenty feet by eighty, roughly a rectangle that cut straight into the rock and then down to about three feet on the shallow end, and to fifteen feet at the deep end.
When I reached her, I sat down on the lip of the dig and dangled my feet over the edge. Because I was exhausted, and my legs ached, and because I just didn't know how to deal with what I thought we were now trying to deal with. Not studying science or how to survive, but simply politics.
<Am I crazy?>
She glanced at me briefly from under hooded brows and half smiled.
<Sure, but you're not wrong.>
<If we don't say anything to the others, can we go on that?>
It was a simplistic question of course. Full of hope, but it wouldn't work.
<What if we close up the trough?>
She looked at me then, as if I was crazy. But then smiled. There was a certain temptation in bucking the big boys and denying them their bit of the treasure.
Behind her the sunrise came up, bands of red-orange in the red-gray sky, across the barren rock and dry silt of the excavation.
<What if we lost one more Frenchman and they shut down the project?>
She watched the bands of color rise, like a sun behind a veil of gauze. Half hidden and half real.
<I can find the trough without you.> she said
She said it, as if she might have to, in order to continue on.
<Can you really?> I signed.
But somehow I hoped even if it came to it, that she wouldn't.
I took off my mask then, sitting in the cold-cold thin air and smoked a cigarette. Feeling the smoke go down into my lungs and then out again. Watching the haze of it escape my lips and float on the languid air. Stirring like some gray ghost snake in the red Martian light. After a few minutes I ground out the butt and slipped the dead smoke into my pocket and put my mask back on.
She didn't say anything, and I didn't say anything to her. But I wondered what she would do. What would be important to her when it all came to push or shove?
I turned and walked back then, down the incline of the escarpment toward camp and breakfast. Going over and over the same questions in my mind. How much of what I was worrying about was real? How much was paranoid self interest? But I didn't have the answers to those questions any more than I did for the first ones. So I went to the mess hall again, and ate.
Then went and lay down in my room and fell asleep.
I woke to a small noise, as the door cycled open then closed again. Maggie stood outlined just inside the door in the dim light.
She unzipped her utility letting it fell to the floor then she came and climbed under the covers of my small bed and lay there not saying a word.
Until finally I rolled over and kissed her and undressed and climbed under the covers.
* * *
Some things you do for yourself, or for your country or even for your world. And other things you do, not because it is for you, or anyone else. But for an idea.
For some truth.
Perhaps a truth for algaeic forms.
For getting back at the bullies forms,
For what is in your heart forms.
* * *
In the ninth month of the occupied first expedition to Mars, another crew member was lost.
Georges Ferrough was conducting water survey studies to the north and Northeast of the primary base camp when the crawler he was using to excavate portions of the underlaying strata broke through a layer of sedimentary rock covered with sand and fell into a crevasse.
Neither the crew member Ferrough nor the crawler were recovered.
Subsequent arguments by the remaining team members voted in favor of closing the base camp and returning to Earth.
Team captain of the British Expedition, Margaret York, saw no immediate benefits of funding a return expedition, and voted in favor of long-range probes to Venus as the next step of what the London Science Society is calling the next phase of a planetary mapping program.
* * *
The air lock cycles back and then the door pushes open into the connecting tube. A figure moves through the tube, pulling a generator behind it, with connecting straps on a mattress pad that acts as cushion and as a pallet. The figure moves steadily, as several polarized magnetic fields sweep over the air lock and connecting tube of the barracks, then moves on. The figure seems to shift its movement in a timed rhythm with the weight shifts, pulling as the pallet and its cargo become lighter, stopping when their weight increases.
The figure moves steadily, continuously, until the pallet and its cargo appear finally at the tube mouth against the outer door, where the second lock is cycled back and the generator is moved out onto the open sand outside the air lock.
The sand blows continuously, bands of light and shadow shift up and down the spectrum in seemingly random patterns, but there are patterns here, if you count high enough, if you count long enough, if you can remember the timing and the direction of the bands, if you can remember the polarity and magnitude of the magnetic shifts and the directions they were moving.
The figure moves the pallet onto a metallic flatbed sled that has been fashioned of support rods from the machine shed into a twelve-foot-long by three-foot-high frame.
The barracks behind the figure has been partially dismantled. Outer walls and room furnishings, inner support beams and frames lay exposed.
The figure stands in the swirling sand after the equipment has been loaded. Staring out towards the horizon line, where if the sand were still you might see the Earth rising in the evening sky.
Then he mounts the sled, pushing off with a flat-footed shoe against the sand and the sled moves forward, sliding down an incline of sand, small pebbles knocked aside as the sled continues on.
Moving south, toward a crevasse a mile out, and a series of caves, on the farther rim of that great gash in the rock, and a new home.
* * *
On another world, she looks up, shakes her head and red curls swirl. She wonders if he is all right. If he is still alive. And if she will be twelve months from now, when she heads for Venus. She smiles.
<Good bye, Ferrough.> she signs.
Copyright 2002 by Christopher Clagg BeaAndChrisClagg@cs.com
Illustration copyright 2002 by Jon Eke email@example.com
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