Authors: Ian Sales
Tags: #Apollo Quartet
Moments later, he’s on the bottom rung. He stops and looks down. It’s only thirty inches to the Martian soil, but this damned spacesuit is heavy and he’s already warm from the exertion. He pushes himself off backward, and time seems to slow as he falls towards the red sand. He’s looking down, the neckring of his helmet blocking his view of his feet, and he can see the ground drifting closer and closer and closer—
He hits the dirt. There’s a billow of orange dust around his boots. Some of it settles on his legs, the rest blows away.
Mankind has just ventured from his home, and there’s a whole new world here for us to explore. Let’s treat it with respect.
Fine words, Discovery.
I had three months to think of them while we were flying here, Endeavour.
[laughter] I guess I remember that, Discovery.
He moves forward from the MM, describing his surroundings for the folks back on Earth and wishing he had the vocabulary to truly capture the essence of this place. At first sight, Cydonia could be some place on the Colorado Plateau, Monument Valley perhaps, a high desert with mesas and off to his left hills sculpted by millions of years of dust storms set amid broken terrain. But it’s also dead, completely lifeless, as if some red poison had settled over the land and killed everything which grew. The ground beneath his feet is hard red rock with a light dusting of red sand. He stamps a foot and watches dust billow out. It travels only a short distance to either side, an inch or two, and then falls fast to the ground. A wisp of red catches a breeze and ghosts off to his left, twisting and writhing before dissipating to nothing.
It’s hard work. His spacesuit is heavy, the journey here has weakened him, and he has to fight the A7LB’s pressurised bladder with every step. There’s not much give in his knees, but he can move his hips and ankles, and he’s forced to make small straight-legged skips to move forward, rocking from side to side with each step.
About twenty feet from the MM, he stops. He tries to calm his breathing, he doesn’t want to trigger the voice-activated microphone. The Face is about three miles away, just over the horizon, but he can see its upper reaches and though he’s seeing it from the side and at lower level, it still doesn’t look natural. There’s weathering, he can see that now, the tip of the nose is broken and there are cracks on its sides. The ridges which form the lips are broken and a short length is missing completely. He wonders if he hasn’t fallen prey to pariedolia himself.
Then he turns around and looks at the MM, crouched in the middle of this desert, its gold skirt smeared with red dust, streaks of orange across the silver planes of its face, and beyond it the D&M Pyramid. And, by God, it looks like a goddamn pyramid. The edges are blurred, the top has collapsed a little, but it looks no more natural than the pyramids of Egypt.
Rested, he heads back to the MM. He jumps up onto the lowest rung of the ladder—it’s a struggle, no doubt it was easier on the Moon—and then hops up each rung until he can reach the insulation blanket covering the MRV. He rips it free, pulls off the operating tapes and, lanyard in hand, hops back down the ladder to the surface. Backing away from the MM, he gives the lanyard a yank, and then holds it taut as the Mars Roving Vehicle folds out from its bay, its rear wheels lowering into position and locking, then the front wheels. He shuffles about the vehicle removing pins and cables, then lifts up the seat and footrest.
He steps back and gazes at the MRV. He’s done enough for his first EVA, he thinks. Tiredness eats at his bones, his muscles burn, and he can barely bend his fingers in his gloves. It’s going to be a fight to get back into the MM, and he best do it now while he’s got a chance of succeeding. The mission plan has him out here for another hour, but he’s cutting it short.
The mission planners have filled his nine days for him and after forty minutes on Mars he knows there’s no way he’s going to be able to do everything they want. He’s going to have to focus on the important stuff, and he knows the real science is going to get short shrift because another agenda has come into play now. The pencil-necks are going to be pissed at him because other things are more important now—
The goddamn Face. And the Pyramid.
Elliott has been on the Robert H Goddard for a week now and he’s fairly sure he knows his way round it. The module through which he came aboard holds supplies, then there’s the command module, and the last one is the passenger and crew module. Occasionally he uses the wrong connecting tunnel and finds himself not where he expected to be, but it’s pretty easy to figure out which module is which. Everywhere he turns, he is assailed by memories of Ares 9, and they trick him into thinking he knows precisely where he is. And then some strangeness, something that reminds him he’s not aboard Ares 9 en route to Mars, he’s in the Goddard, travelling to an exoplanet faster than the speed of light.
They’ve assigned him a compartment, though he had the pick of them as he’s the only passenger aboard. They’re all exactly the same: a triangular space with a locker against the curved exterior wall and a sleeping bag fastened to an interior partition. A mat on the floor and a canvas ceiling provide privacy.
This tiny compartment where he spends his nights is only a smaller space within a tiny universe. He’s cut off from everything outside the Goddard and since he’s a passenger he has nothing to do. His thoughts inevitably turn to Judy, and he wonders if he should have contacted her from Space Station Freedom. And then he thinks, no goddamnit, she left him, not the other way round, she’s the one who’s throwing away their marriage, the years they had together, the good times, the life he created for her. He’s not going to apologise, she knew he had to take this mission, he couldn’t turn it down, she’s the one with the goddamn problem. And he pulls out the photos he brought with him, but it hurts too much to look at them so he puts them away.
He spends most of his time in the command module—the daily operations of the Goddard he finds endlessly fascinating. The crew module has exercise and recreation facilities, and he has to exercise for two hours every day on the ergometer, but he doesn’t sleep as well as he once did, not even in zero gravity. The Goddard’s crew are mostly young, taciturn, and even off-watch they treat him according to his rank. No one is ever really off duty in space.
Major Finley doesn’t seem to mind him hanging around the command centre, providing he stays out of the way. Elliott spends hours in the cupola, gazing out at the surface of 1862 Apollo, which glows silver beneath a nacreous sky.
What is that? he asks Finley, pointing up at the pearly brightness which surrounds the asteroid.
Light, Finley tells him. We’re in a bubble of spacetime generated by the Serpo engine, and the light trapped inside with us can’t escape until we reach our destination and collapse the bubble, so it just bounces around and produces that effect. When we arrive, it all escapes with a big flash. The guys on Earth Two say they always know when we arrive—the flash lights up the sky.
It’s kind of weird, admits Elliott.
You get used to it, replies Finley. The major floats beside him in the cupola. He glances down at the two officers manning the pilot and flight engineer positions, and then looks across to Elliott. I guess, he says, it’s about time you told me what your mission is.
Elliott has been ordered to brief Finley once the Goddard is en route. So he says, About three weeks ago, one of the guys at NASA figured out we should be able to see evidence of Phaeton Base on the L5 Telescope.
Right, says Finley; It’s been fifteen years.
Elliott continues, So they watched Gleise 876 for a week and scrutinised the data every which way. Nothing. They expected something, maybe just a shift in the star’s spectral lines, maybe a change in brightness—but
Nothing? Finley scoffs; Did they get the date right?
The date is right. How long since you were last there? Elliott asks.
Maybe three months, admits Finley. We’ve been doing these supply runs three times a year since they founded the base. Everything’s always been pretty normal. You know we had a scheduled trip in three weeks?
Yeah, but this may be urgent. Maybe something happened, it needs checking out. That, says Elliott, is why you’re taking me there now.
Finley is plainly not convinced. Why you? he asks. You’re not Space Command, you’ve not been in space for twenty years.
That’s classified, Elliott tells him.
Later, Elliott regrets the conversation. Whenever he surprises a member of the Goddard’s crew at something, their expression changes when they see him. It’s something about himself that causes their features to harden, their brows to lower and eyes narrow. He’s seen it before, back at Edwards, when they get some guy through the Test Pilot School and they can all see he’s out of his depth. Elliott knows they’re thinking he’s the only man to visit Mars, he’s some kind of astronaut celebrity, so the brass, maybe even POTUS himself, decided he’d be good for this.
He’s in the rec area at the galley table, his feet angled up towards the ceiling, trying to spoon chocolate pudding from a see-through pouch. One of the junior members of the crew, a lieutenant called Stewart, joins him.
They call it Hell, you know, Stewart tells Elliott.
He doesn’t understand. The Rock? he asks. The bubble? What?
Earth Two, Stewart replies.
Now that makes sense. Elliott has been studying Earth Two, Gliese 876 d, and it does appear infernal. It’s a red globe bathed in red light from its red sun. There are no surface features visible in orbital photographs, only vague lines which hint at mountain ranges, valleys, rifts and plains. The atmosphere hides detail. Pink clouds drift slowly across the hellish landscape, softening the view. Elliott remembers Mars and how every rift and desert and shield volcano was visible from orbit, identifiable from thousands of miles away during his approach.
Is that so, he says.
Stewart nods slyly. They got all the creature comforts there, he says, but they hate it all the same.
What are they doing there? he asks.
Stewart shrugs. Science, he says. Who knows? Science for science’s sake. One up on the Russkies, I guess.
The Face was a bust. Three days he drove out to it in the MRV and explored its slopes, but he couldn’t find a way up. From some angles, the top of the mesa looks like a real face, with eye-sockets, nose, lips; other times, it just looks like a weathered hill in some pitiless desert. He does not know how old it is, this region was formed during the Amazonian age and is likely three billion years old. At 0.087 psi, a hurricane here is going to feel like a light breeze, it’s not going to do much weathering. A mesa like this could be millions of years old on Earth, but here it might be a thousand times older. He doesn’t even find any real evidence it’s artificial, and that’s why they sent him here. There are some cracks between rocks, and maybe they’re proof the mesa was put together out of blocks of stone like the Sphinx or something, but they could just as easily be natural. He’s not sure, but he has the Hasselblad mounted on his chest so he takes lots of photographs. Let the pencil-necks figure it out.
The City was no better. Two days he spent there, but it’s just a jumble of rocks, and if there were any buildings there once it’s impossible to tell now. Now he’s got two days left on Mars and all this driving around in the MRV has helped a bit but he still feels weak and bone-tired all the time. His spacesuit chafes, he’s got some kind of rash that’s getting real close to painful, and his hands are black and blue from trying to do things in EVA gloves.
There’s only one place he’s got left to look: the D&M Pyramid, and it’s six miles south of the MM, just over an hour’s drive in this terrain in the MRV. He shouldn’t go so far, mission protocols say stay within walking distance of the MM, but it’s not like he has much choice. He’s got to find
The Pyramid is a good bet because it looks just like one of the pyramids in Egypt. Except it has five sides. The top has been scoured flat by dust storms, and the edges are no longer sharp, but there’s no way it can be a natural hill. He pushes the T-bar forward and the MRV picks up speed, throwing out two fine plumes of red dust from its rear wheels. The ground is soft, but at least it’s mostly flat, and the wire wheels have more than enough traction so soon he’s hitting nearly eight miles per hour. He crests a small dune around three feet high, and bounces down the other side. He’s getting the hang of the low gravity now, his reactions are tuned to it. He speeds across the Martian sand and he can’t help himself, for the first time since landing here he’s feeling happy. The sun is a small white spot, mountains dance in the haze of distance, banded and striped in shades of red and brown and black, and the sky above the horizon is a salmon pink blur. He hits a shallow graben, like an empty stream-bed, and pulls back on the T-bar to reduce speed. If he hits one of those too fast, he’ll bust the MRV and it’s a
walk back to the Mars Module.
Two and a half miles before the Pyramid is a big round crater five or six hundred yards across. He was going to ignore it, drive round it, but now that he’s close something about it puzzles him. There’s no ejecta, no apron, the rock of the rim is the same basalt as the Pyramid and the surrounding area. He can see no discolouration, no debris where an ejecta blanket should be.