02
Aug
09

Welcome to “Barsoom Tales”…

I’ve decided it really is time I found somewhere new to put my Mars fiction – so here it is! Hope you enjoy it – or, at least, some of it!

23
Dec
12

The Spirit of Christmas

Beep… beep… beep…

Shalena woke slowly but didn’t open her eyes right away. This was her time, her precious time, the best part of the day, she had always thought; when she was still half asleep, wrapped up in the cloud soft folds of the duvet. Nothing could hurt her there. That would come later, no doubt, but for now she was alone, warm, quiet and safe.

Lying there, she imagined herself as a kitten in a basket, on a fleecy blanket, curled up in a ball, tiny chest rising and falling slowly as she breathed.

Warm. Quiet. Safe.

Her room was silent but for the ticking of the clock on the small table beside her bed, the clock that she knew would tell her –  if she opened her eyes, which she wasn’t going to, not yet – in its glowing green letters it was 07.01. A minute since her alarm had gone off. Sunrise was just a few minutes away. If she was going to catch it she’d have to get up, she had no choice. But that would mean leaving the warmth, and quiet, and safety behind. Once she was up, once she planted her feet on the cold floor, that was it, she belonged to the world, the world she hated and didn’t feel a part of and probably never would. But she had no choice. She had to see the sunrise. Just in case. Just in case her wish, made so many times before, had come true.

Stretching out to her full length, luxuriously, no longer a kitten but a beautiful cat, at least in her own mind, Shalena reluctantly opened her eyes, letting reality in.

“And so it begins…” she sighed melodramatically, looking at the bare ceiling.

It only took her a moment to cross the room from her bed to the window, the soles of her bare feet stinging as she padded across the cold, metal floor, and she knelt down in front of it with hope fluttering in her heart. Maybe this time, she thought, it’ll be different. Maybe this time it will have changed. Maybe this time…

Through the window the world beyond was still dark, the far horizon black and featureless, the sky above it featureless and blank but for a lone bright blue star shining lantern-bright above the distant hills, the heavens behind it brightening with the familiar colours of the approaching dawn. When the light came, what would she see?

Please… she whispered, please… be different –

The Sun burst over the horizon, a nuclear detonation of liquid gold flooding the world with light. Moments later a tsunami of colour exploded away from it, a wave of molten amber rolling, sweeping, breaking over everything, painting the world with daylight, revealing -

Nothing different.

The world looked exactly the same as it had the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that. Everything – every rock, every mountain, every stone – was exactly the same familiar, boring, mind-numbingly dull shade and hue it had been when she went to bed. The sky above her home was the same boring colour. The wisps of barely-there cloud drifting through it were the same boring colour. The same colour they had been for the whole of her short, sad life; that they had been for years. For centuries.

Nature had only used one end of the colour spectrum when painting this view, this place, this world. And Shalena despised it.

“I hate it…” she  said, glaring out of her window, seeing the rugged landscape with its ancient craters, hills and mountains, and felt crushing disappointment  again. “I hate Mars…”

—————————————————————————————————

By the time she had thrown on her school uniform and made herself look half decent she was running late, but didn’t hurry downstairs. That would only draw attention to herself, attention she didn’t want. Reaching the door to the kitchen she paused, preparing to enter. It was only ajar slightly, but that was enough to tell her that the room beyond was alive with scents and sound. The breeze wafting through the crack in the door was heavy with the smell of warm, buttered toast and freshly brewed coffee, which she breathed in as the shouting and laughter of her older brother and sister asaualted her ears. Unable to delay any longer she entered quietly, hoping, as usual, to slip in unseen and take her place at the table without any fuss, but knew that was never going to work. It never did.

“Shalena! You finally joined us! Good afternoon!” her father called out from across the room, where he was busy packing a trio of rucksacks. “Isn’t it a beautiful morning? Look at that..!” he continued, nodding enthusiastically towards the kitchen window. Shalena didn’t look. She knew what she would see – the achingly boring colours of Mars.

All of them wrong, so wrong. And she was the only one in the family who saw it, which made it worse.

“What do you want for breakfast honey?” her father asked brightly, plonking steaming bowls of… something… down on the tabletop in front of her quarelling siblings. “What can I get you?”

“Not hungry…” Shalena mumbled quietly as she slipped into a chair, knowing her father wouldn’t listen -

“Nonsense, you need something, it’s a long time until lunch,” her father answered, “I’ll make you something nice, just give me a minute, ok?”

“Ok…” Shalena replied distantly, surrendering to the inevitable.

“Don’t you think Remi and Jad did a good job with the decorations?” her father asked from behind her. “It must have taken them ages…!”

Shalena’s heart sank. Decorations? Why would they – ? Oh, no…

She lifted her eyes from the cluttered tabletop, and saw them.

Brightly-coloured garlands of glossy paper and shining tinsel were draped everywhere, hanging like gaudy cobwebs between doors, lights and anything else they could reach. Fake icicles hung from the ceiling too, and over there, in the far corner, stood The Tree, its branches groaning under the weight of countless family heirloom baubles, miniature crackers and everything else that came out of The Box.

“Merry Christmas!” her father shouted theatrically to everyone. Shalena’s bother and sister broke off briefly from their squabbling to parrot the greeting. Shalena didn’t.

“You are such a misery!” her sister huffed, shaking her head. “No wonder you don’t have any friends – “

“Remi…” their father warned gently from across the kitchen.

“Well it’s true,” her sister continued, face forming a sneer, “moping around like that all the time, what can she expect?”

Remi…” their father warned again, the tone of his voice harder this time.

“Well look at her!” Remi continued, “sat there looking like something – “

“Leave her alone,” their brother said quietly, “just because she’s not a boy-chasing airhead like you…” Shalena smiled at that, but didn’t look up to thank him.

“That’s enough, all of you,” their father ordered, coming back over to the table to put another hot bowl of… something… on the table in front of Shalena. “It’s Christmas Eve, for pity’s sake, let’s all try and get into the Christmas Spirit shall we?” As her father walked away, Shalena swept her gaze around the room again, looking at the garish decorations. Tinsel, snowmen and reindeer were everywhere. It looked like the inside of a gift shop. Ho, ho, ho… she thought.

“You two, out, now!” she heard her father say shortly after, and there was a sudden scramble of movement and scraping of chairs as her brother and sister exploded away from the table and headed out to their school, leaving Shalena and her father alone in the suddenly silent kitchen. Shalena  sagged inside, knowing what was coming next.

The uncomfortable silence was broken by the sound of a chair being pulled away from the table, and Shalena looked up to see her father sitting beside her. Staring at her with That Look on his face.

“What?” Shalena asked defensively.

“You know what,” her father replied softly, reaching out a hand to run his fingers through his daughter’s unkempt mop of blonde hair. “Why are you so sad, Shal?”

“I’m not sad -” Shalena started to protest but was cut off.

“Yes, you are,” her father insisted, “sadness hangs around you like a cloak – “

“That’s what mum used to say,” Shalena said automatically, without thinking, instantly regretting it when she saw the pain ripple across her father’s face.

“Yes… it is…” her father agreed, taking a deep breath to steady himself, then another. “And if she was here… if she was still here… she’d be telling you the same thing right now. What’s wrong, Shal? Is it school? Are they still – “

“I can handle them,” Shalena said quickly, darkly. “They’re nothing. Nothing.” Not quite nothing, she knew. Their bullying was subsiding, a little, but was still far worse than she could ever tell her father. If her father knew how cruel his daughter’s daily tormentors were, how, with their insults and jibes, they scraped hot needles through the open wounds left by her mother’s death, he’d march into the school, drag them from their desks by their hair and throw them out of the nearest airlock. Which wouldn’t help anyone.

“Well… be careful…” her father went on, continuing to stroke her mussy hair, “and you know that if you need to talk to me about anything, you can, alright?”

Shalena nodded, but they both knew that wasn’t true.

The silence fell between them again and lingered there until, unable to take it any longer, her father asked: “So, have you thought any more about what you want for Christmas?”

“I already told you,” Shalena said, “there’s nothing I want, really – “

“There must be something,” he sighed in frustration, “it’s a bit late, I know,  but I could try – “

“Dad, no, really,” Shalena said, a little impatiently this time, “there’s nothing I want, ok?”

The silence fell again, heavy as a castle portcullis.

“I would bring her back if I could…” her father offered suddenly, and Shalena’s heart thumped guiltily in her chest. Oh no, not this…

“Dad – ” she began, but it was already too late.

“I know you blame me,” her father continued, colour draining from his face as he spoke, “and that’s only natural. I was at the rover’s controls, I was the one who – “

“Dad, no – “

“But it was an accident,” he ploughed on, “there was nothing I could – “

“Dad!” Shalena protested, feeling guilty that her father was right, and hating herself for it. She did blame him for her mother’s death. He had been driving during their field trip to the edge of Marineris, he had been the one who fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion, taking the rover too close to the crumbling edge, sending it tumbling down over the side to land on its roof on a ledge below -

“I know that’s what you want, to have her back for Christmas, she loved it so much, but I can’t give it to you, I’m sorry – “

“No, dad, no,” Shalena said. “That’s not what I want.” Her father’s tear-brimming eyes widened in surprise. “I mean, yes, I’d have her back if I could, in a heartbeat, you know that,” she added quickly, “but I know that’s not possible. I know I’m only five, but I’m not stupid… I don’t believe in miracles… She’s not coming back, dad, I know.” She wanted to hug him, knew she should, but somehow coudn’t bring herself to do it. She didn’t hate him for what had happened, but there was a wall between them, that she had built.

“I’m sorry, Shal, so sorry…” he whispered, kissing her hands. She was a tiny thing, ‘frail and pale’ was how people often described her, tall and thin like all children born on the low gravity world of Mars, and so young, so young. But sometimes he thought she was wiser and more grown up than himself. ..

“Are you sure there’s nothing you want?” he repeated quietly, hopefully.

“No, nothing,” Shalena shook her head. That was a lie, of course. There was something she wanted, something she wanted desperately. But looking out of the window, at the cliched colours of Mars burning beyond the boundary of the settlement, with its white modules and habs, greenhouses and hangars, she knew that she could never have what she really wanted for Christmas.

Not unless someone invented a time machine before the morning…

———————————————————————————————–

The school morning passed by in a haze. Shalena felt like she swam through it, only seeing events, people and places around her as blurs. Classes – in rooms decorated almost as gaudily as her own home – came and went uneventfully, the lessons in maths, engineering, terraforming and history littered with more preaching, more indoctrination about the “great future” that lay ahead for Mars and all its people after all the years of struggle. Through it all she stared at her desk, her hands, the screens on the wall, even the decorations draped everywhere, anything and everything except the view through the window which mocked her more cruelly than any of the predatory bullies seated around her who saw her as their rightful prey ever could, or would. The all too familiar colours of the sky, the ground, everything she saw through that window were hateful. She felt like she was the planet’s very own voodoo doll, and each shade and hue was a pin stuck into her.

But looking around the class showed her, yet again, that she was alone in thinking that way. Everyone else in the class loved Mars just the way it was, and she was the freak. The outsider.

But why? That baffled her! They’d all seen the same photos she had! They’d all seen the paintings, the stunning “artist’s impressions”, the beautiful works of ‘space art’ hanging on walls throughout the colony which reminded everyone how the planet had once looked, back when Nature had made it look spectacular, back before it died, or rather was murdered -

A stinging pain in the back of her head wrenched her out of her daydream. She didn’t look down at the floor to see what had hit her, and didn’t look around to see who had thrown it, even though she knew it would take no detective work: the guilty party would be looking right at her, grinning triumphantly, daring, just daring her to do something about it. Instead she just got on with her work, reading yet another passage on her slate describing with an almost evangelical conviction how, once Mankind had conquered Mars it would move on, spread outwards, ever outwards, to Saturn’s moons, the Oort Cloud and then, one day, out into the stars of the Orion Spur itself. Only then did she glance out the window, past the tinsel and snowflake stickers, at the mocking martian landscape and feel, yet again, that she had been born in the wrong time.

After lunch – a visit to the settlement’s famous Museum of Mars. Foolishly she had allowed herself to look forward to it in the previous sols, even convinced herself that it might be enjoyable. And for a while it was. Taking advantage of a lapse of concentration by her teacher as she read out an information plaque mounted next to a huge, ugly-looking rock called “Humphrey”, she slipped away from the class, ducking quickly down a corridor and out of sight. Hiding (ironically, seeing as she hated them so much)  in the shadows behind one of the huge Christmas trees scattered through the Museum she knew she’d only have around half an hour to herself, half an hour in which to wander around the Museum’s rooms and galleries without being disturbed, or picked on, or tormented, so she set off to make the best of it.

By the time the class found her – in the “HG Wells” gallery, standing directly beneath the huge model of a martian war machine which dominated it – Shalena had seen almost everything she wanted to see. She’d knelt down beside the shattered remains of the Beagle 2 space probe, and whispered “Sorry” to it as she always did when she visited the Museum. She’d walked around and around the life size model of the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter, which had revolutionised Man’s understanding of Mars with its incredible cameras. She’d walked up onto the deck of one of the sand ships plucked from Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles”, smiling at the painstaking detail its builders had achieved and weaving her way around, past and through its noble crew of golden-masked dust sailors…

But the best part had been, as usual, a visit to the “Rover Gallery”. That was where she felt most at home. That’s where she went to, in her mind, whenever she needed to escape the darker moments of her day.

Although many people – even many native martians – took them for granted, it always made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up when she came face to face with the exhibits in the room. Not just because they looked so beautiful grouped together, but because they were the Real Thing. Each rover in the gallery was the actual rover which had explored Mars all those years ago. Out on the surface of Mars, full size replicas, perfect in every minute detail, stood at the sites where the rovers had stopped driving at the end of their epic treks, and had become popular tourist attractions, but the rovers here in the gallery were the originals, the ones that had been built on Earth, sent to Mars atop mighty rockets, and then landed on the planet to explore and study it. Yes, many took these machines for granted, but she couldn’t, and knew she never would.

With time running out on her she had to rush, so wasn’t able to visit each rover for as long as she liked to. Thankfully no-one had thought – or had time – to decorate/desecrate the rovers with Christmas decorations. She managed a few precious minutes with “Curiosity”, standing tall and proud and gleaming white beneath its spotlights, marvelling again at the sheer size of the machine, which had – she knew, without even looking at the notes and info boards – driven on Mars for eleven years, and had discovered the first evidence of ancient martian life high up on the slopes of Mt Sharp. She could only linger for a few moments by “Opportunity”, but didn’t feel too guilty because she’d once spent three hours just standing next to it, looking at it, drinking in every detail, and would come back again another time.

Behind Opportunity, at the far end of the gallery, lit by its own spotlights and standing on its own rock- and dust-covered platform, stood her twin sister. Identical in almost every way, the Mars Exploration Rover “Spirit” had one major difference. Spirit was hers.

“Hello again…” she whispered, approaching the rover as quietly as she could, feeling like a priest approaching an altar. “I told you I wouldn’t stay away long…”

Reaching the rover’s side she felt her heart swelling again just to be near it. None of her classmates understood. None of them “got it”. They just saw a machine, a mass of glass, metal and wire, a robot built to do a job. She saw… so much more. This machine had gone through so much, achieved so much, it was almost unbelievable, like something out of one of her father’s beloved science fiction stories. That spindly robot arm at the front had reached out and brushed dirt off rocks. Those spiky wheels had trundled and rumbled across mile after mile of the surface. Those cameras had taken tens of thousands of photographs of Mars’ hills, sky and plains which were now considered works of art. Long, long after it should have died from cold or just sheer exhaustion it had climbed the Columbia Hills, stood on the top, surveyed the New World from there, then driven back down the other side, to roll up to and then up onto Homeplate, starting a whole new mission.

Then off again, down that innocent looking flat ‘path’ along Homeplate’s side, heading towards yet more discoveries, yet more adventures, only to fall into a fiendish trap laid by the rover-hating planet itself: a dust-filled crater covered by a cunningly disguised rocky crust. Seeing no danger, Spirit had fallen into it like a tiger falling into a branch-covered pit in a forest, and there she had stayed, trapped like a fly in amber, murdered by Mars. It was heartbreaking for Shalena to imagine her stuck there, wheels whirring, only digging herself deeper and deeper, as doomed as a baby mammoth in a tar pit -

As usual, despite the presence of a guard nearby, she hadn’t been able to stop herself reaching out to touch the rover, knowing it was strictly against the rules and liable to get her thrown out of the Museum at best or arrested for vandalism at worst. But this time she was in luck. The guard on duty in the gallery knew her, and shared her love for the rover, so when he saw her reaching out her hand he had just smiled and conveniently looked the other way, confident she was going to do the priceless exhibit no harm. Shalena had run her small fingers lovingly over the rover’s solar panels, connecting with it for a few blissful moments before hearing the raised voices of her class throgh a nearby door and hurrying away, mouthing a silent “thank you” to the guard as she ran past him and out into the corridor…

They’d eventually found her standing between the splayed-out legs of the martian tripod, staring up at it as a deafening chorus of “Ulla…!!” rang out through giant speakers hidden throughout the room. The usual chiding and shouting followed, but she didn’t care; she’d seen Spirit again, and they could never take that away from her.

————————————————————————————————

She made it back home with only three more bruises – “an acceptable level of casualties” in her mind – and went straight up to her room to savour the peace and quiet there. On her bed she found an envelope, her name written on it in her father’s familiar spidery scrawl. Opening it she found a Christmas card, as traditional as they came, with a picture of a small bird with a vivid red breast on the front.

Although there were no robins on Mars she recognised it right away because of that splash of colour, and smiled at her father’s poor choice of picture. He really had no idea, no idea at all…

Finally, after a loud and festive family dinner, during which she had been forced to wear a stupid hat and even blow into a kazoo type thing at one point, she had made it back to bed, and after hanging a stocking on the door handle as she knew her father would expect her to she crawled under the covers, casting a last look out the window.

Outside night was falling on Mars, a light wind blowing across the plain from the hills on the horizon, rippling the huge solar sails which gave the settlement a third of its power, and a bright spark of light was skating across the sky. Many of the children on Mars would, she knew, be standing outside at that moment, or kneeling at their bedroom windows, watching that light flying through the heavens and being told by their parents “Look… that’s Santa… starting to fly around the world delivering presents… now get to bed and don’t try and stay awake, or you’ll find nothing under the tree for you when you wake up...”

But not her. She knew what that light was, even though it did seem to be there a little earlier than she’d expected. She’d seen Phobos travelling through the sky thousands of times before; she had no need to see it again tonight, and certainly no special desire to see it on Christmas Eve.

Sleep came slowly, more slowly than usual strangely, but as she finally drifted off Shalena thought she saw, through her heavy, drooping eyes, a figure standing in her doorway. She knew it was her father, even though weariness was doing funny things to her vision and making him look much… bigger… fatter… than he looked normally. When she saw a flash of red in the darkness she allowed herself a weak smile, realising her father had dressed up to fill her stocking with gifts again, as he did every year, bless him.

The strange feeling of being lifted up into the air in the moments before she finally succumbed to sleep was a new one though, and the distant sound of tinkling bells as she went under was a first too, but sleep finally claimed her -

——————————————————————————————————

Pffffft… uhhhh…pffffft… uhhh

Shalena woke slowly but didn’t open her eyes right away. The alarm sounded strange, wrong, distorted, but it didn’t matter. Probably just a fault. This was her time, her precious time, the best part of the day, she had always thought; when she was still half asleep, wrapped up in the cloud soft folds of the duvet. Nothing could hurt her there. That would come later, no doubt, but for now she was alone, warm, quiet and safe -

No… I’ll be safe all day! she realised. It’s Christmas Day… no school… They won’t be able to say or do a thing…

“Merry Christmas…” she wished herself with a smile, but still didn’t open her eyes. The moment, and this feeling, both had to be savoured not rushed. She listened again to the sounds around her.

Pffffft… uhhhh…pffffft… uhhh

Hmmm. That was very odd. Usually all she could hear when she first woke was the ticking of her bedside clock, but that was absent; all she could hear was a strange, quiet huffing and puffing. She forced herself to stop breathing so she could listen more carefully -

And the huffing and puffing stopped too.

That’s me, she realised after a moment’s disorientation, that sound, it’s me, breathing –

That was when she noticed too that she felt cold instead of snuggly warm, and that she was lying on something hard and bumpy instead of her plump, cloud-soft quilt.

What was going on?

Shalena opened her eyes, letting reality in -

And closed them again quickly.

Pffffft!!!… uhhhh!!!…pffffft!!!… uhhh!!!

Her breathing was heavy and ragged now, more like panting than breathing, as her heart jack-hammered in her chest.

No. That was impossible! Impossible!

She opened her eyes again – and saw it again.

Mars. Her home. But not as she knew it. Not as she hated it, as she had hated it for so long.

Gone were all the familiar colours she despised. They had all been swept away, erased by some kind, invisible hand. The green fields, blue sky and white clouds of her Mars, the terraformed Mars, the Mars of 3012 had vanished. There were no terrestrial shades here. No shimmering lakes, gurgling rivers or splashing waterfalls. No towering, anvil-topped stormclouds drenching the ground and people beneath with rain. No forests of sky-scraping martian pine, no snow-capped volcanoes, no pastel-painted rainbows arcing across the sky.

This was Mars as she loved it.

Mars as it should be.

Mars as she had always wanted it to be.

Ancient Mars.

Heart thumping, threatening to burst out of her chest,  she drank in the glorious colours of this Mars.

Red Mars.

Like her own Mars, this world had been painted by Nature using just one side of its palette, but this world had been decorated in shades and hues of red and orange, not blue and green, and it was glorious. Red! Red everywhere! A hundred, a thousand shades of it. And orange. And ochre, tan and gold.

This Mars was a naked world, covered in rocks. Literally covered. There were rocks everywhere. Millions and millions of them, as if some raging celestial god had been throwing fragile pottery down from heaven ever since the Big Bang, leaving behind a sea of shards and fragments. No two were the same. Small and large, jagged and smooth, light and dark, each one a different shade of red, orange, gold or sepia… And they were everywhere, stretching off to the horizon. On that horizon, a range of low bumpy hills, rounded, their contours soft and gently reassuring. Above those hills, the sky…

…and oh, what a sky! No blues here; no washed-out whites, but an enormous, world-dwarfing dome the colour of warm caramel, or butterscotch, she couldn’t decide which. Directly overhead, where the sky was darker, like chocolate, a hint, a wisp of cloud, little more than a few feathery trails of light brown bordering on yellow, drifting in oh-so-slow motion towards the west, where a shrunken Sun was shining in the sky like a golden yellow coin, surrounded by a halo of icy blue, with a bright ‘sundog’ on either side.

Shalena smiled, and then laughed with delight, unable to stop herself from putting out her arms and turning around and around, watching the landscape spin around her, its features blurred by her speed. This was Mars as it should be! Ancient Mars. Beautiful Mars. Mars Before Man. Her beloved Mars rovers’ Mars!

She stopped spinning, kicking up a cloud of cinnamon-shaded dust with her feet, which she noticed, for the first time, were clad in thick boots. Heart thumping, breath hot and catching in her throat, she examined herself carefully and found she was wearing a spacesuit. Not one of the modern suits she had seen explorers wearing on Europa, or Titan, but an antique suit plucked straight from a history documentary – a big, padded, white all in one garment, pressurised, and topped with a goldish bowl-like helmet -

Ahhh… Now her own noisy breathing made sense; she was hearing it echoing around and around inside her helmet, just as the astronauts of old must have done…

This was the Mars she had longed to see, to be alive on. All her life she’d read about how Mars used to look, before the terraforming, before the falling asteroids melted the ice caps and the atmosphere-skimming comets thickened the air, and she’d cursed the universe for making her be born too late to see it. All her life she’d looked at the photographs taken by the landers and rovers, at the mosaics stitched together by the image enthusiasts of the primitive internet, and at the paintings created by the space artists of the 20th and 21st centuries and wished she could go back in time to the the Mars of their era, when it was in its natural state, untouched, all naked rock and barely-there air. And now she was here, looking at it, standing on it.

This was what she had wanted for Christmas!

But…

How had she got here?

She looked around her, searching for a clue. Nothing jumped out at her, literally or figuratively. No sign of a whirring copper disc Time Machine, no outline of the base of an achingly-beautiful blue TARDIS left in the martian dust, nothing. Then how -

Over there, standing amongst the rocks halfway between her and the hills – a figure. Tall, bulky, hard to see against the background because of his big red suit’s natural camouflage despite its bright white trim -

Her heart sank.

Oh no

I’m dreaming, aren’t I? she told herself, what a cliche… then gave the figure a wave.

“Hello Santa…” she called out resignedly.

The figure didn’t wave back. It didn’t move or acknowledge her at all. Hmmm. Maybe it was a rock after all -

Suddenly a glint of light in the distance, some way beyond the figure, caught her eye. Shalena stared hard at it, trying to make out what it was. Sunlight glinting on an ancient, eroded meteorite maybe? Or reflecting off an old piece of space hardware -

No. It was moving. Whatever it was catching the sunlight, it was moving. Towards her.

That was when she realised that ever since she’d opened her eyes she’d had a voice whispering in her ear, telling her to look around, properly, and see where she was, but had ignored it. Now she did as it said, and almost fell over with surprise and shock.

Directly in front of her, at the end of what looked like a narrow, dusty path, or trackway, stood a small conical mound which looked an awful lot like a child’s drawing of a volcano. She turned her back on it slowly and saw a large, rounded hill behind her, blocking out a good prortion of the sky. The lower part of its  nearest slope was rippled, dappled with dark, windblown dust dunes, and on either side smaller hills could be seen falling away. Between her and their foothills, looking for all the world like a shuttle landing pad, was a wide, flat plate of light-toned rock, raised and crumbling at the edges. Inside her helmet, Shalena bit on her lower lip as she always did when puzzled; it all looked naggingly familiar -

There was that glint again, brighter this time, more focussed and more concentrated. Whatever was catching the light of the Sun was definitely drawing closer. She couldn’t shake the feeling somehow that it, and the landscape around her, were connected.

Still a good hundred metres away the object catching the Sun and approaching her was tiny, but she could start to see some detail, just enough to identify it: a stubby T-shaped mast at the front, or the back, she couldn’t see clearly enough to tell yet… a round, dish-like object mounted on its flat back… and wheels…

Then the penny dropped. With a loud, resounding clang.

The hill behind her was “Husband Hill”; the flat feature between it and her was “Homeplate”; the little volcano…thing… down the track was “Von Braun” -

Oh…

That meant -

“Spirit!” Shalena shouted, as the rover came properly into view, sunlight glintig off it still, “it’s you!”

Driving backwards towards her, the Mars Exploration Rover bobbed up and down slightly, solar panels flexing, as it made its way slowly, oh so slowly down the narrow dusty ‘path’ that ran down the side of Homeplate towards her.

Towards its doom.

No!” Shalena cried out. “Stop! Stop!” Although she knew it was useless – the rover wasn’t alive, it couldn’t hear her, wouldn’t heed any warning – she couldn’t help herself, she had to try! Waving her arms frantically she bounded towards the rover, as if trying to scare off a wild animal. “Stop!” she shouted again, casting a frightened glance over her shoulder. She couldn’t see it but she could sense it: there, close to where she had been standing, was Spirit’s Doom, the shallow crater filled with talcum-fine dust by Mars, a rover-killing trap set a billion years ago or more. And Spirit was driving straight at it.

No, not straight at it. The line she was taking she was almost going to miss it, but almost wouldn’t be good enough. She would just clip it on one side, and it would just take the pressure of one of its little spiky wheels on the dust-trap’s crust to break it and seal the rover’s fate…

Not if she had anything to do with it!

Bunnyhopping up the track in the low gravity, kicking up clouds of orange dust each time her heavy boots landed, Shalena headed up the pathway towards Spirit. With each bounce she could see it a little more clearly. She could now clearly see the dust streaked on its back and clotted on the lenses of its rear hazcams. It was reversing towards her, so its robot arm was out of sight, but the camera mast was now easy to see, and she could see its platform was facing in its driving direction, leaving its main cameras pointing right at her.

(Taking her picture maybe? That would take some explaining back at NASA in the early years of the twenty first century! She couldn’t help laughing at that, imagining the reaction of the rover drivers when  images showing a tiny young girl, in a spacesuit, boinging and bouncing towards the rover with arms outstretched, flashed up on their monitors at JPL..)

After a half dozen or so hops she reached the rover, and stood beside it, catching her breath. Bent over, with hands on her knees, she watched it roll slowly past her, wheels rising and falling as it trundled over the many rocks littering its path. She could imagine the rover squeaking as it rolled past her, feeling its age after so many years of roving Mars, and knew the rocks being crushed beneath its whjeels would be popping and scrunching too, but inside the helmet, and with no air between the rover and her to carry the sound, Spirit passed by in stately silence.

Shalena bounced after the rover, and was soon walking along beside it, wondering what to do next, looking past it at the pathway beyond and calculating she had barely two minutes to come up with some way of stopping it falling into Barsoom’s fiendish trap.

Moving forward she pushed gently against the rover. She wasn’t surprised when it didn’t budge. She pushed harder, but again, nothing.

Moving around the rover,  she stood defiantly in front of it, legs planted wide apart, arms stretched out in front of her, resolutely blocking its path. “I won’t let you get trapped,” she whispered, as Spirit rolled relentlessly towards her, “I won’t…”

A shiver of excitement ran through Shalena as her gauntleted hands touched the rover’s body – she was touching Spirit again, but not in a museum, not with one eye on the guard prowling nearby! – but the thrill soon evaporated as she realised the rover’s progress was not going to be stopped by her determined but puny efforts. She held it at bay for a second, maybe two, before she had to let it pass.

All she could do was watch as Spirit continued down the path, towards the dust trap which was now just a few metres away.

No, she resolved, I won’t let this happen!

She had only one option left.

Bounding towards, past and then ahead of the advancing rover, she reached The Trap – and laid down across it.

Shalena gasped in surprise as she felt its eggshell thin crust break beneath her, and felt a shudder of fear as her body sagged, settling into the bowl of dust beneath it, but that only lasted a moment; it was nowhere as deep as she’d imagined. In fact it felt like she had sunk barely a few inches into the dust, but that was still more than deep enough to trap the rover heading towards it. So she lay there, watching Spirit advancing towards her on its spiky wheels, wondring how heavy it would be as it rolled up onto and then over her, wondering if it would crush her -

- until she felt herself lifted up into the air, leaving the dusty pit exposed!

“Nooooo!” she protested, legs kicking and arms flailing wildly and angrily as she rose towards the sky, but it was no use. Something was holding her fast -

No, not something. Someone

Twisting her head around she caught a fleeting glimpse, through the curved visor of her helmet, of a face – an impossible face, an impossible bare face, exposed to the lethal cold and vacuum-rare air of Mars. The distorting effects of the visor made it look big and round, and the glare of the Sun bouncing off its hard plastic made its cheeks look ridiculously red. Imperfections in the plastic refracted the image still further, so the face appeared to be framed by a mass of snow white hair -

Wriggling wildly, twisting her head the other way as she rose higher into the air, Shalena could only watch, in horror, as Spirit, many feet beneath her now, trundled towards the pit she had herself opened up in its path -

“Noooooo!”

- and clipped the hidden crater’s edge with one wheel. It was enough. Spirit lurched sideways, sinking into the talc-fine dust. Looking down Shalena saw the wheels turning, turning, the little rover fighting desperately to free itself, but it was no use. It was trapped. But unaware of its predicament the wheels continued to turn, digging Spirit deeper and deeper into the dust, sealing its fate.

“No…” she moaned, struggling to free herself from her abductor’s grip, but it was no use, she was trapped as surely as poor Spirit was, and her attempts to free herself had exhausted her. She began to feel light-headed at the same time as her eyelids began to feel heavy. She fought to stay awake but it was no use. She caught one last fleeting glimpse of Spirit, trapped in its dusty tomb, then it was lost, just a silvery speck of light next to the light hexagon of Homeplate in the shadow of the Columbia Hills. Higher and higher she rose, until the whole of Gusev Crater appeared, then it too was lost in the landscape, just one crater among many scattered across the vast red desert of Mars. Soon that desert became an orange disc,  with splashes of blue/white at its poles, surrounded by blackness…

Eventually darkness closed in around her and she knew nothing more…

———————————————————————————————–

Beep… beep… beep…

Shalena woke slowly but didn’t open her eyes right away. For some reason she felt tired beyond words, weary to her very core. Her back was stiff and sore, as if she had been laying on something hard, and -

She opened her eyes with a start.

The window! She had to see…!

Clambering out of bed she padded over to the window and looked out.

It had all been a dream after all.

There was Mars – with its hideous, terraformed blue sky, ugly fluffy white clouds and foul, green, grassy fields.

She sat there for what seemed like an age, staring out at Mars through the window, replaying over and over what had happened, or rather, what she had dreamed had happened, trying to make sense of it all -

“Shalena! Are you coming downstairs?” a familiar voice called up impatiently from below. “It’s almost ten, we’re all waiting for you…”

Shalena was puzzled by her father’s prompting. Waiting? For what?

Then she saw the stocking hanging on the back of the door. It was bulging with gifts.

Christmas Day…  she realised. I’d better go down and join them

As she stood she looked out the window again. Mars looked back at her.

And somehow it had changed…

Now she looked more closely, that blue sky was actually quite pretty. It went perfectly with the snow-white clouds drifting across it, and with the verdant pastures glowing beneath it. It didn’t look wrong anymore, just… different. The ancient Mars she had longed to see all this time, and had travelled to in her strange dream, had been a noble world, an epic world, a world of raw, brutal Nature, beautiful in a barren, naked way. The Mars beyond her window wasn’t noble or epic, perhaps, but it was alive, alive! And that gave it a beauty all of its own.

A beauty she’d been ignoring for too long, perhaps.

On the other side of her bed, next to the alarm clock, was a small framed picture. In the picture a young woman, blonde-haired and green-eyed, was holding a small baby, a tiny, doll-like thing. The young woman had such a look of love on her face as she smiled down at her baby that she seemed to have a halo around her.

Shalena remembered that photo being taken, remembered looking up at her mother and seeing her smiling down at her as she lay there in her arms. So long ago, so very long ago, and yet it felt like yestersol.

But she had gone, and wasn’t coming back. The world she’d left behind had changed, as had her precious daughter. That was just the way of things. Not right, not wrong. Just the way things were. And for the first time Shalena saw that you could either fight that or accept it. Fight it, and you were going to lose, always. Accept it, embrace it even, and who knew what might happen?

She looked out the window one last time, smiling at the view for the first time. After breakfast, she decided, she would go and walk by the lake, maybe even paddle a little way out into it, then lay on the grass and start to read the “Red Mars” trilogy again on her tablet. And after that, after their Christmas dinner, she’d go back to the Museum, if it was open, to look in on Spirit again. Just to check she was okay.

“Coming…” she called down to her father, and quickly got dressed. She was hungry and thirsty now, her stomach grumbling, but before heading downstairs there was something she had to do…

“Nice of you to join us…” her father drawled as she walked into the kitchen. Nearby her eternally-warring brother and sister had called a Christmas ceasefire, as opposing forces had done countless times over the centuries, and were rummaging around beneath the tree, picking up boxes, reading their labels and shaking them, tossing aside the gifts not intended for them.

“We can start opening presents now,” her father continued, reaching behind him to retrieve a small, badly-wrapped parcel he had hidden there. “I know you said there was nothing you wanted, but I got you something anything, but…”

As she sat down on the floor beside him Shalena took the gift. Its paper was all crooked, bits of tape slapped on here and there, but she didn’t mind that. You couldn’t expect an engineer to wrap something nicely could you? Carefully she pulled the paper away, revealing a small box.

“It’s not much,” he said, clearly embarrassed, “but I think you’ll like it…”

Shalena opened the box, pulled out what was inside – and smiled. It looked like a small glass cube, four, maybe five inches to a side. And inside the cube, etched by laser, a perfect representation of “Spirit”. She turned the cube around and around in her hands, and as she did so the angles and facets of the rover etchinng inside refracted the light, making it sparkle and shine with silvery-blue light.

“I got it from the Museum gift shop,” he explained, almost apologetically. “You can take it back if – “

“Shut up dad,” Shalena said, and flung her arms around him, squeezing him tightly. He froze at first, shocked, then relaxed into the embrace and squeezed her back just as tightly.

“I got you something,” she told him, “but I left it upstairs, on my bed – “

“I’ll go and get it,” he said quickly, “if you can try and stop those two from breaking everything..?” She nodded, and leaned backwards to let her father pass. As he headed up the stairs she pictured him entering the room, finding a small package on her bed, wrapped… pictured him unwrapping it, seeing the gift inside…

He reappeared in the doorway a few moments later, his face painted with the biggest smile she had ever seen him wear. Clutched to his chest was a small framed photo, showing a young woman holding a tiny baby…

“It’s beautiful, thank you…” he said quietly, sitting back down beside her. They leaned together, bumping shoulders, just like they had done when she was younger.

“Just one thing though,” her father said, keeping his voice low, “care to explain to me how there are big bootprints all over your floor, and red dust everywhere?”

Shalena looked at the door, puzzled. Then she remembered.

Through the window a tiny flash of light caught her eye, and looking out she wondered how it was was that she could see Phobos moving across the sky, in the middle of the morning, an hour after it should have been…

19
Aug
10

ANOTHER MUSEUM

“The birthday girl has arrived, so you’d better get this party started!” cheered Amy brightly, bounding down the stairs to the TARDIS console, where the Doctor was hunched over his beloved machine’s instruments, trying to ignore her. “Come on, where are we going?” Amy continued, the heels of her cowboy boots clicking loudly on the metal gridwork of the time machine’s floor as she made her way over to him. “Come ON, where are you taking me for my birthday?”

Coming to stand beside him just as he started messing about with one of the control panel’s many knobs. Amy realised just how much she hated that particular knob; it looked like the Time Lord had stolen it from the front of an old 1950s gas cooker. Hmmm. Maybe he had, she wondered to herself absently; maybe it was some bizarre souvenir he had popped into his ghastly tweed jacket’s pocket after saving the Coronation from being ruined by a rampaging Republican Sontaran… or… something

“Well, spill the beans then, Mr Smug-and-Cryptic”, Amy prompted, nudging him in the rib with her elbow. “No big secrets today, not on my birthday – “

“Oh, it’s your birthday?” the Doctor asked innocently, looking at her through his floppy fringe, “strange you’ve never mentioned it – “

“Haha, funny man,” Amy laughed, pulling a face at him.

“How’s he doing?” the Doctor asked, glancing back up the stairs. Somewhere up there, he wasn’t exactly sure where, Amy’s new husband, Rory, was either sprawled out on a bed, sleeping off his latest bout of vomiting, or he was hunched over a toilet, getting started on another bout.

Amy humphed. “No! Stop trying to change the subject and tell me where you’re taking me – “

“You’re not worried about him?” the Doctor asked.

“Ah, it’s his own fault,” Amy sighed, “for eating that big juicy strawberry…thingy… in that wood back on…um…  wherever it was…”

The Doctor sighed back at her. “Strawberry thingy? Wherever it was? You just don’t pay attention, do you?” he said sadly. “As I told you both as we walked through that beautiful forest on Kador Prime, that was a Kador Berry, one of the rarest, most succulent fruits in the galaxy, worth a hundred times its weight in gold – “

“…and poisonous to humans,” Amy said, completing his sentence for him, looking up at the TARDIS ceiling.

“…and very poisonous to humans,” the Time Lord repeated, fiddling with more instruments, “especially, it seems, humans who are deaf and stupid and can’t refuse a dare from a mad, red-haired Scottish girl.”

“He didn’t have to eat it…” Amy replied, with more than a hint of a wicked smile. “Anyway, stop trying to distract me by changing the subject! Where are you taking me?”

“For your birthday…”

“Yes, for my birthday!” Amy purred.

The Doctor looked round at her now, his widest, most impish smile on his face. “Oh, Pond, I’ve outdone myself this time, even if I say so myself…!” he beamed, pulling on a lever at the same time as tapping out a numerical code on the ancient-looking, clacketty typewriter that seemed to serve as the TARDIS’ main input keyboard.

“It had better be somewhere where we can have an adventure!” Amy warned him dramatically, looking him right in the eye.

“Adventure, check,” he replied, nodding.

“And drama! Lots of drama!” Amy continued, putting her hand to her forehead theatrically.

“Oh, yes, drama, yes… plenty of that where we’ve landed,” the Doctor assured her.

“And spaceships!” Amy added quickly. “We never see spaceships! You always take me to some… cave… or quarry… or village… or a village in a quarry… “

“Oh Pond, there are more spaceships here than you can count!” the Doctor smiled, eyes twinkling.

“And I don’t want to go to Earth again, please!” Amy wailed melodramatically. “I love it… my own little world… but come ON, when you finally came back for me you lured me into this thing with promises of taking me to exotic planets, PLANETS, Doctor, not just my own planet, in the past or the future, again and again and – “

“We’re not on Earth!” the Doctor interrupted, taking her hands in his, “I promise – “

Amy fell silent, suddenly realising what he’d been saying.

He looked at her. “It’s ok. I’ll wait. It’ll come to you in a…”

“You said ‘where we’ve landed’…” Amy said accusingly.

“And there it is…” the Doctor smiled, “the sweet, unmistakeable sound of a penny finally dropping, only heard when Amy Pond pauses to draw breath – “

When did we land?” Amy demanded, eyes narrowing.

“Um… about the time you walked down the stairs,” he confessed.

“So all this… “ she looked down at the console… “messing about… fiddling with things… it was just to – “

“Gotcha!” he grinned. Followed by a loud “Ow!” as she punched him on the arm.

“Alright,” Amy said loudly, striding over towards the TARDIS doors. “Where have you brought me for my birthday? And it had better be good – “

“Good?” the Doctor repeated, walking over to her. “Good?! Pond… beyond those doors is a world of wonder and beauty, a world that is unlike any other in the Galaxy, perhaps the whole universe…”

Amy saw his eyes were flashing as he spoke. 900 years old, she thought, and still just a big kid who was given the keys to the sweet shop

“It’s the world where Mankind finally grew up,” the Time Lord continued, pulling on his best tweed jacket with a President Bartlett-like flourish and – knowing how much Amy hated it – making a point of straightening his bow tie in the little mirror mounted beside the door. “This, Pond, is where your species learned to put aside all its silly little guns, and stop wasting time and money making bombs, and work together to build something… bigger… something amazing… “

“Sounds interesting – “

“No, no, no,” he butted in, “Kador Prime is interesting… New Earth is interesting… but this world, oh, Pond, this world is…”

“…still behind the doors…” Amy growled at him impatiently, folding her arms across her chest.

“Oh, I’m doing it again aren’t I? Keeping you waiting, I mean…Sorry…” he apologised, then, more seriously. “Time for your birthday present, Amy…” And with that he clicked his fingers above his head, commanding the TARDIS doors to open.

They swung open silently, revealing –

“Oh, you didn’t…” Amy whispered, looking through the doors.

“Oh yes, I did…!” the Doctor grinned, looking like a particularly smug Cheshire Cat.

“Doctor, please,” Amy breathed, taking in the view, barely able to trust her own eyes, “tell me you didn’t…”

“But I did,” the Doctor said, “just for you…”

Amy walked past him in slow motion, feet dragging as if in a dream. “I don’t believe it,” she said quietly, stepping out of the TARDIS, “I just don’t… believe… it…! I can’t believe you brought me to – ”

“Oh Pond, no need to thank me, it’s nothing, really,” the Time Lord replied, smiling bashfully behind her, “you’re worth it – “

“…A MUSEUM FOR MY BIRTHDAY!!!!!” Amy shouted furiously from outside.

The Doctor’s smile vanished in an instant. “Oops.” Then he was yanked outside by a pair of very angry Scottish hands.

“Outside” was a large gallery, full of spot-lit display cases, mounted pictures and panels all around. People were milling about, some walking quietly between exhibits, others pausing beside them, silent and deep in thought -

Adventure, check, you said…” Amy hissed accusingly, grabbing him by the collar of his jacket, her face pressed almost up against his as she looked at the room around her; “Plenty of drama, you said… more spaceships than you can count, you said!”

“Pond, please,” the Doctor whispered, looking around them, “people are staring…”

Amy tore her gaze away from him and looked more closely at her surroundings. Yep, definitely a museum of some sort, with all the usual suspect museum lighting, displays, exhibits and atmosphere, but… the people… they looked…

“Wrong…” Amy said quietly. “The people here,” she repeated, watching a couple go by, arm in arm, “they look… wrong…”

“There’s nothing wrong with them,” the Doctor said impatiently, “they’re just different – “

“Different?” Amy parroted. “Different how? How different? Killer robot auton different? Mad clone different? Alien different?”

“Alien…ish… different…” the Doctor told her, smiling self-consciously at the couple walking past, who were looking at him and Amy with concerned and baffled expressions. “She’s just playing,” he reassured them, “she loves me really…” The couple walked on, looking over their shoulders. “Let me go, and I’ll fill in the blanks,” he told Amy, his voice dropping as he added: “you’re drawing attention to us, and that’s not a good idea… not today… not now…”

Amy looked at him through eyes narrow as slits, then, grudgingly, let go of his jacket collar. But here eyes were still flaming with anger, and the Doctor wouldn’t have been surprised in the slightest if they’d suddenly started burning with the same flame red as her hair –

“Alright, you big bow tie wearing birthday spoiler,” Amy hissed, “from the top…”

The Doctor smiled. He loved this part.

“Look around you, Pond,” he began, “look at the people… you think they look wrong, well, some of them at least. Why? What’s wrong with them?

Amy surveyed the room. It was true: there were twenty five, maybe thirty people in the room, and although half looked perfectly normal, the other half looked… odd… strange… wrong

“Too tall,” she thought out-loud, “too skinny, too lanky… they’re like supermodels, but not…”

“Tall and thin and pale…” the Doctor repeated, “and why would that be Pond?”

Amy’s mind began to whir, despite herself. She couldn’t stifle her natural curiosity, she just couldn’t. It was one reason why she loved travelling in the TARDIS so much.

The famous light bulb went on above her head.

“Low gravity…” she told him, “they’ve grown tall in low gravity…” She thought it through quickly. “We’re on a small planet…”

“Well done, you finally spotted the bleeding obvious,” the Doctor congratulated her, earning him a dark scowl, “now, look again, more closely…”

Amy studied a family standing by one of the nearby display cases. Mother, father and young child. All tall, all skinny, all –

“They’re pale, too…like they’ve never been in the Sun…”

“Maybe they haven’t…?” the Doctor suggested. “Maybe – “

“Are you going to let me guess or not?” Amy asked hotly. The Doctor put his hands up.

Amy continued to study the young alien-ish family, who were laughing and behaving just like a ‘normal’ family. But clearly weren’t. “Maybe they can’t go outside..?” Amy mused, “maybe we’re underground, in a cave…? Oh no, not another cave,” she groaned, sagging, “please tell me we’re not in another bl- “ The Doctor shook his head quickly and empthatically. “No? Ok, not a cave… that’s good then…” Amy said to herself, relieved.

Then she noticed a glow coming from the far side of the room, throwing people’s shadows across the floor. A lighting panel? A large, illuminated display case? No, it was a window… but something about the window was wrong too. It was no use; she had to go and see.

“You stay right here,” she commanded the Doctor threateningly, prodding her finger into his chest, “I’m not done with you yet…!” With her other hand she stabbed out two fingers and pointed them right at his eyes, waving them from side to side for extra effect, just as he was always doing to her. Getting the point, the Doctor held his hands up again, then made a show of leaning back against the TARDIS, crossing his legs and folding his arms, settling back to wait for her return. Amy cast one last look back at him, then set off across the room.

Wondering why he was smiling that big, beaming smile…

Weaving her way through the crowd, long legs carrying her across the floor, the heels of her cowboy boots clicking even more loudly than they did in the TARDIS, she advanced upon the glowing window. The light coming through it was soft and warm, yellowish, almost golden, like syrup, or marmalade… liquid marmalade pouring through the window to spread across the floor. Finally she was there, standing by the window. Leaning forward she looked out –

The world beyond the window was absolutely alien but instantly familiar. Between the glass of the window and the wide range of gently rolling hills stretching across the oddly-close horizon was a vast, wide open plain, strewn and scattered with jagged rocks, large and small. A huge, cloudless sky dominated and dwarfed the landscape below. That sky was pink, and everything beneath it was painted a thousand different tones, hues and shades of orange, red, and brown.

“Oh my…” Amy said, her breath leaving her in a gasp so loud it made several people nearby look around. She was shaking now, unsteady on her feet, the wind knocked out of her. “I’m on… I’m on…!”

“Happy Birthday, Pond,” she heard a familiar voice whisper softly in her ear, “welcome to The great Museum of Mars…”

* * *

“So,” Amy said in a low, still-angry voice as they walked through the Museum’s ‘Geology’ gallery together, “let me get this straight…” Beside her, the Doctor sighed; Amy loved ‘getting things straight’ more than any human he’d ever encountered. “I asked to be taken somewhere special, somewhere magical for my birthday, and you bring me to a Museum – “

“On Mars,” the Doctor pointed out –

“ – the planet next door to Earth, just across the road from Earth,” Amy scowled, taking long, coltish strides across the room.

“But it’s not Earth,” the Doctor persisted, struggling to keep up with her even with his own long, lanky legs. He wanted to stop and look at the rocks on in the cases, names like “Humphrey” and “Big Joe” and “Mackinac Island” shouting out at him, but Amy wasn’t slowing up, so they were behind him before he even had a chance. “Be fair, it’s another planet entirely, just as you asked, just as you put on your checklist – “

“I meant ‘another planet entirely a gazillillion gwillion light years from home’!”Amy fumed, exasperatedly, “a planet with rings, or liquid diamond rain, or talking frogs, or… or… “

The Doctor cocked one eye. “Talking frogs? Really? Because you never mentioned that – ”

“No, not really!” Amy said, rolling her eyes, “I meant…” Finally running out of the energy she needed to stay angry with him she sagged, and stopped walking. “Oh… I just wanted to go somewhere new… somewhere I hadn’t seen before, you know?”

“But you haven’t been here before!” the Doctor replied, sounding just a little hurt. Then, worried. “Have you? Did someone else bring you here before me? I thought I was your first – “

“Shut up!” she laughed, swatting at his arm. “No, I haven’t been here before, but it feels like I have…” The Doctor still looked puzzled. “…because I’ve seen so many pictures of it, on the TV and in books and magazines,” Amy explained. “I even used to look at pictures from those Mars rover thingies on the internet, when it was on the news that one of them had photographed a gorilla – “

The Doctor looked at the ceiling in despair. “Oh good grief, that was a – “

“ – a rock, I knooooooow!” she drawled, “Mars… freezing cold…  no air… no food… not exactly a brilliant place for a gorilla to hang out…” The Doctor laughed, feeling a little embarrassed and sorry he had doubted her. “ But I grew up with images of Mars everywhere, so it feels… familiar, not really alien at all… I’m sorry, I know you thought you were bringing me somewhere special – “

“Oh, no, no…” the Doctor said, shaking his head, “ah, no… this isn’t ‘it’… sorry, you’ve misunderstood – well, you’ve not actually given me a chance to explain to be fair,” he interrupted himself,  “I brought you to Mars, yes, but not just to show you Mars… I brought you here to show you something else…”

Amy’s eyes narrowed suspiciously again. “Something else? What else?”

He laughed and tapped the side of his nose. “Haha, that’s a secret – for now,” he replied cryptically, the Cheshire Cat grin returning to his deceptively youthful face as he sensed and, truth be told, relished, her frustration. “For now, you’ll just have to come with me…”

And with that he set off across the room, back towards the rocks he’d had to walk past. Then another idea occurred to him. He turned smartly on his heel and then headed for the door on the other side.

“Oh, make up your mind! Where are we going?” Amy called after him, sounding a little more whiney than she’d intended.

“There has to be a gift shop around here somewhere,” the Doctor replied over his shoulder. “Oh, I love gift shops! Packed full of… stuff… Stuff you don’t need, won’t ever need, but stuff that’s good to have, stuff that makes you smile…Room for just one more magnet on the TARDIS fridge, I think. Come along, Pond!”

Amy let out a long, weary sigh. Somehow the Doctor had managed to take control of the situation away from her, defuse her anger with that stupid… choir boy grin of his… and convince her to stay, too. How did he do that?

Letting out another, even longer, even more weary-sounding sigh, Amy followed him. As she always did.

As she always would, for as long as she could. As long as he’d have her onboard.

* * *

Eventually, after the Doctor has filled his jacket pockets with erasers, stickers and bookmarks (“One can never have too many bookmarks, Pond!”) they left the comfortingly tacky “Gusev Gift Shop” and wandered on through the Museum. Walking alongside him, Amy suspected the Doctor was following a route already mapped out in his own head… he usually was… but couldn’t sense any real pattern, so she just tagged along, playing the good tourist.

“Isn’t this something?” the Doctor smiled, stalking happily along a row of display cases that contained what looked like bits of old spacesuit – gloves, air valves, visors, etc. “A museum… on Mars… All run by volunteers, you know! Mars Heritage… amazing group of people… Just kids really, determined to preserve Mars’ past for future generations. Kind of a martian National Trust… without the big stately homes and outrageous car parking charges.”

He looked around him, taking in the variety of exhibits in the room. “You humans, can’t resist collecting all your old stuff, cleaning it up and putting it out for everyone to see,” he said wistfully. “You’re the most expert accomplished and enthusiastic hoarders in the whole of the Galaxy.”

“Well, excuse us!” Amy pouted.

“No, no, it’s a good thing, a great thing!” the Doctor enthused, peering down at his latest discovery – a charred fabric mission patch which had the words “Gold” and ‘Bowie Base 1’ embroidered around its edge. “So many races just bulldoze over their past, shovel it all into big holes in the ground, re-write their history… But not you lot, oh no; you take your darkest times, your most shameful periods and you frame them, put them behind glass, shine a light on them and sell models of them in a gift shop. It’s brilliant!”

Amy said nothing, it was best not to when he was in one of his pat-humanity-patronisingly-on-the-head moods. Instead she took advantage of their pause in trekking around the Museum to look around her and realised that the Museum was much busier now than it had been when they’d materialised in the TARDIS –

“Come along Pond,” the Doctor said, tugging impatiently on her elbow, “lots more to see before…” His voice trailed off.

“Before what?”

“As a great lady once said… ‘Ah ah ah, spoilers..!’ ” the Doctor replied, and they shared a knowing, secret smile before moving on.

Amy lost count of the number of times she followed the Doctor “this way!” or “no, this way!”, and most of the exhibits meant absolutely nothing to her. Although it looked impressively huge, like an sports photographer’s enormous telephoto lens with a hood at the front, she had no idea what the “famous HiRISE camera” actually was; nor did she have even the remotest clue why the box-like “Phoenix TEGA Oven” had a cartoon next to it showing a green martian stamping furiously on top of it with its foot, trying to cram some dirt into it, but she figured that the Museum visitors knew what it was.

Eventually she came to a display case that piqued her curiosity.

“What on Earth is that..?” she asked the Doctor, kneeling down in front of a large fish tank-like display case. Inside, scattered across a layer of orange-red dust studded with rocks, were what looked like a dozen or so pieces of shrapnel from a World War 2 bomb. The metal fragments were twisted, contorted, and surrounded by countless flakes of glittery blue… stuff. Tiles? Glass? she wondered.

“Oh, you poor, poor thing…” the Doctor said sadly, crouching down beside her and looking into the case. “So they finally found you, eh?”

“What is it?” Amy prompted. The Doctor looked genuinely moved.

“Look at the picture up there,” the Doctor said without taking his eyes off the metal remains in the case. “Mean anything?”

Amy stood up again and looked at the information board above the case. On it was a picture of what looked strangely like a small garden barbeque set – a round, flattened body with three petal-like structures spreading away from it. Beside it was a small dog, looking very sad, standing upon the surface of Mars with the scraps of a torn-up Union Jack scattered around it. Amy tilted her head and screwed her eyes up, trying to make sense of it. What the..?

 

“Ah…” she whispered.

“I know…” the Doctor nodded.

“Oh… this is… it…” continued Amy.

“Yes, it is,” he agreed. “Poor thing, you were beautiful once…”

Amy knelt down beside the Doctor once more, and couldn’t help feeling a little sad herself. “Beagle 2…” she said in a small voice.

“Or what was left of it, after its rather, um, hard landing…” the Doctor said mournfully. “The craftsmanship in that probe, Amy, quite extraordinary… exquisite miniaturisation, like a pocket watch, everything fitted together just perfectly…”

“Not much left of it, is there?” Amy observed matter-of-factly. The Doctor turned to her. “What?”

You try landing on Mars at oh-my-god!-thousand miles per hour, without a parachute, and see how much is left of you,” he said, “it’s a wonder this much was left…” He peered in at the remains of the famous, doomed lander. “You could have been so great,” he said quietly, “so great…” Then the Doctor got back to his feet and led Amy away, without looking back.

* * *

Amy found herself jostling for space at some of the exhibits as they went from room to room. It was a new, and not entirely welcome, experience; on Earth, with her height, she had always been able to work her way to the front of any queue or group just through her size, but here, on Mars, she was, she had to admit, short – at least compared to the tall and lanky Museum visitors swarming through the halls and galleries.

“They’re martians, aren’t they? Real life martians?” she asked the Doctor, pausing to look at a group of a dozen or so young people bustling around one of the display cases. The way they acted was strangely familiar, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it…

“Yes, martians…” the Doctor confirmed. “No tentacles, no suckers, no hideously pulsating skin… just people, like you and me – well, like you,” he corrected himself quickly, “who were born on Mars. In its low gravity they grow up tall and thin, like reeds. Amazing, nature, evolution, don’t you think?” he beamed at her.

“And they’re martian kids, aren’t they?” Amy said, suddenly realising why their behaviour looked so familiar. The Loud One, at the front, performing for the others… the Quiet One over there, to the side, wanting to keep themselves to themselves, to blend in… the Moody One, right at the back, wishing they were somewhere else, anywhere else… and over there, detached from the pack, two exhibits along, the Curious One, the one who couldn’t stop themselves dashing from one display to the next, happy and impatient as a dog in a lamp-post factory. They had to see, had to see, had to see!

Amy smiled; that had been her on their school trips to Museums –

“I know you’re not their biggest fan, but even you have to admit this is a fantastic Museum, Pond,” the Doctor said, peering into a display case at a piece of twisted metal. A sign next to it read ‘Piece of Mars 3’. “Maybe the best we’ve been to – “

“ – and there have been lots…” Amy sighed heavily.

“Not that many,” the Doctor protested. Amy just looked at him. “Alright, we’ve been to a few museums – “

“There’s something more important in there, I think,” Amy interrupted, catching sight of a big crowd gathered around… something… in a darkened room off to their right. “Let’s go see…”

“Ah ha!” smiled the Doctor triumphantly, wagging a finger at his companion, “you see? The Museum bug has bitten you, too!”

“No, I’m just wondering if it’s another cryptic message from your wife-or-whatever-she-is, River,” Amy countered brightly, adding, wickedly, “maybe there’s an ancient Mars rock with ‘You’ve got a cute bum, sweetie!” carved on it…”

The Doctor shook his head. “Don’t be silly, Pond, that’s impossible…” he snorted. Then, whispering to himself, “I got rid of that one years ago…”

“I recognise that!” Amy said cheerily, walking into the room. Standing in a roped-off area in the middle of the large, dark gallery, lit by several roof-mounted spotlights, and surrounded by dozens of strangely-quiet Museum visitors, was a distinctly insect-like robot. With wheels. Six of them.

“Have to give them their due,” Amy conceded, after squeezing and squirming through a gap between two particularly tall martians until she was standing right in front of the rover, “it looks just like the real thing…”

Several of the martians clustered around the rover turned to look at her disapprovingly. Amy put a finger to her lips, apologising for being so loud. She hadn’t meant to be. And the room was unusually quiet… un-naturally quiet, even for a Museum. It felt more like a church, or a shrine…

“That’s because it is the ‘real thing’,” the Doctor said in hushed tones, nudging his way expertly through the crowd, handing out polite, Professor-ish “excuse me!”s like sweets, to stand beside her.

The Mars Exploration Rover shone brightly before them, the solar arrays on her back reflecting the spotlights like mirrors. “Mars Heritage brought the real rovers back here, to their Museum, and left exact replicas out there, on the surface, for tourists to stand beside and have their photographs taken with,” the Doctor explained, then turned to her. “We can do that later, if you like? Birthday treat! Thousands do… they walk along the very routes the rovers took, just like people back on your planet follow the ‘Oregon Trail’ or things like that. Doesn’t take long… couple of days – sorry, sols – and that includes two nights’ camping, songs around a holographic camp fire… great fun…”

“… if you’re twelve…!” Amy laughed loudly, earning herself more scowls – and even a couple of “Shhhh!”s from her fellow Museum visitors. “No thanks,” she continued bashfully, “I went camping once. Got stung by a wasp, fell into a cow pat and woke up with a centipede doing the Riverdance on my face. I’ll stick to the TARDIS’ swimming pool and my own bed, thank you very much…”

“Suit yourself,” the Doctor said. “I’ll go on my own maybe.” They both laughed at that, knowing he’d hate doing that on his own.

“Why is it so quiet in here?” Amy asked the Doctor, puzzled. The martians were gazing at the rover before them with the kind of expressions of adoration and awe priests wore when gazing upon a holy relic or a full collection plate.

“This is one of the Mars Exploration Rovers, Amy,” the Doctor explained. “The people of Mars think of them very dearly. Many historians think that if the rovers hadn’t been so successful, hadn’t discovered what they did, Mars would never have been settled, at least not as quickly as it was. They were that important.”

“They’re just robots – “

Amy’s face reddened as she heard several of the martians around her actually gasp in horror and disbelief.

“This room is their church, and this is their altar,” the Doctor whispered. “Show some respect, Pond…” He bowed his head solemnly.

Amy thought he was serious until she saw him winking at her through his fringe. He’d almost had her…!

“Opportunity?” Amy guessed, looking at the rover more closely.

“No, 50/50 shot and you blew it,” laughed the Time Lord. “This one’s ‘Spirit’, the first of the pair to land on Mars,” he announced without even having to look at the information panel mounted on the wall. Amy looked at him, waiting for an explanation of his latest display of clever-cloggs-ness. “Tiny magnet on the top, over there,” he explained, nodding towards the rear of the rover, which had been put on display in the centre of a diorama of very real-looking red and orange rocks, “it’s mounted at an ever-so-slightly different angle to the one on Spirit.”

“You are such a nerd,” Amy laughed, not unkindly. “Only the nerdiest geekiest kid in the class would know something like that – “

“Oi!” the Doctor protested, “we prefer the term ‘rover hugger’, if you don’t mind…”

Squatting down to take a closer look at the rover he smiled warmly, and Amy couldn’t shake the feeling that the Doctor felt like he was meeting an old friend again, especially when she overheard him whispering: “Last time I saw you, you were stuck up to your axles in dust, but we soon fixed that, didn’t we dear?”

“Shall I leave you two alone?” Amy purred suggestively, earning her yet another scowl of disapproval from a nearby rover worshipper. “Oh, go and pick some apples from a high branch or something, giraffe girl…” Amy shot back, her eyes flaming, at which the martian turned away quickly.

“Oh, that reminds me, “the Doctor said to her, “the Library phoned, they want that book on ‘Tactful Behaviour Around Aliens” back. Soon as you can, there’s a request in for it – “

“Well…” Amy pouted, “You know I don’t like being shushed –

“Shush!” he replied, and Amy glared at him, planting her hands on her hips.

“What? Are you trying to be – “

“I said shush!” the Doctor repeated, seriously, holding up his hand. “Can you hear that?”

Amy strained to hear what he was talking about. Nope. Nothing. She shrugged at him.

“It’s starting!” the Doctor said, delighted. “We’re just in time, come on, Pond!” and with that he grabbed her hand and led her out of the Opportunity Gallery at a fast pace.

Trotting after the Doctor, following him blindly up a corridor, Amy began to hear noises up ahead. It was just a low, rumbling murmur, a background chunter, the same sound you’d hear walking past a busy pub. So, a crowd was up ahead…

Turning a corner she saw where the noise was coming from.

Up ahead was a large room, larger than the Opportunity gallery by maybe as much again, and it was full of people. No, it was crammed full of people. And they were all gathered elbow to elbow in front of a big screen.

“What’s happening?” Amy wondered aloud, “are they showing a World Cup football match? Mars vs Saturn or something?”

“Not quite…” the Doctor corrected her. “Look, on the screen, classic talking head…”

Amy looked thru a small gap between two of the shorter martians’ heads. On the screen, smiling an expensive, Osmond-bright smile, a blonde female news presenter, with the standard issue fluffy hair and sharply-cut powder blue suit, was talking, chattering away almost giddy with excitement. Above her left shoulder was a stylised logo – a trio of penguins, in space helmets, walking across an iceberg, with what looked like a single flower poking up through the ice up ahead…

“A news show?” Amy huffed, disappointed. The Doctor nodded. “They’re all here watching the stupid news?”

“No news is stupid, Pond,” the Doctor chided her, wagging a finger, “it always matters to someone. Just because an event doesn’t light your candle doesn’t mean – “

“Ohhhhh, alriiight!” Amy drawled, “spare me the thicko lecture. I get it, ok? Let’s just see what’s got Space News Barbie’s candle flickering so brightly…” Together they headed for the door.

And found it blocked. By a particularly tall, and uncharacteristically muscular martian Security Guard.

“Sorry sir, ma’am,” the martian said politely but firmly, blocking the door with his body. “Invited guests only.”

“Oh, we’re invited!” the Doctor said brightly, taking another step.

“Then you’ll have an invitation to show me sir,” the martian said, still blocking the door, effortlessly keeping his voice even and steady.

“Show him your invitation, numptie…” Amy hissed beside him. “You know… the paper – “

Yes, I know, thank you, Pond,” the Doctor said through gritted teeth. Reaching into his jacket’s inside pocket he pulled out the little black wallet that held his psychic paper. Flipping open the wallet he held it up before the guard’s face. “My invitation, see?” the Doctor said confidently

“I’m sorry, sir,” apologised the guard in a rush, “I had no idea the Terran High Commission for Terraforming” had sent anyone to join in with our celebrations, let alone the High Commisioner himself. Please, go right in…” He stepped aside.

“Why… thank you, my good man…” the Doctor said with a luvvie flourish, breezing past the guard, inordinately pleased with himself. Amy followed, but not before flashing the security guard one of her most dazzling, triumphant “Ha! Beat you!” smiles.

Inside the room was heaving. Martians were packed in like sardines, wall to wall, with barely a gap between them, and soon after starting to nudge and push their way through the throng the Doctor and Amy were locked fast inside the centre of the crowd.

“Excuse us…” said the Doctor, but this time his request fell on deaf ears. No-one moved. “I said, excuse me,” the Doctor repeated, louder.

“You shouldn’t be here,” he heard a gruff voice say from somewhere above and behind him, and he looked up to see a tall, elegant-looking martian woman staring down at him. He felt like a mouse caught in the gaze of an eagle.

“Sorry? Didn’t quite catch that,” the Doctor said. Beside him Amy mumbled something along the lines of “just kick her shin, she’ll move!” but he ignored her.

“I said, you shouldn’t be here,” the martian woman repeated more slowly, and quite menacingly. Her gaze swept over Amy then like a radar beam. “Damned Earthers,” the alien woman snarled, unable to keep the contempt out of her voice, “meddling in our business. You’re not welcome here. Go home to your own damp, dirty world in The Glare… and take your evil terraforming ideas with you.”

The Doctor was puzzled by her attack. “But I’m not – “ he began, then suddenly remembered what had appeared on his psychic paper to the guard at the door a few minutes earlier. “Oh….” Obviously the martians in the room had overheard.

 “What’s terraforming?” Amy asked. “I’ve heard of it… some Star Trek episode, I think… “

“Terraforming is changing a planet to make it more like Earth,” the Doctor began to explain, turning away from the offended martian and keeping his voice very low, “more habitable… for Mars that means thickening the atmosphere, raising the temperature and atmospheric pressure. Do that, you turn Red Mars into Green Mars… lichen here and there first, then proper plants, and trees…” he continued, “like the arctic, or Himalayas… perishing cold, and air barely thick enough to breathe, but just about survivable…”

“That sounds nothing like Earth,” Amy huffed.

“Ah, but then after more time, Green Mars becomes Blue Mars, “the Doctor continued, “complete with gurgling rivers, fish-filled lakes and a beautiful blue sky painted with fluffy white, sheep-like clouds…”

“Now that sounds like a great idea,” Amy said approvingly, casting a glance out of a nearby window, “not much here now… all this dust, and rocks… and dusty rocks – “

“It’s not that simple, Pond,” the Doctor whispered, noticing several of the martians were looking at him rather intensely. Could they hear him? “Many of the martians are fiercely proud of Mars just the way it is. They love the dust and the rocks… and the dusty rocks… they see that as Mars’ natural state, magnificent desolation and all that. They hate the very idea of terraforming, hate it – “

“Maybe it won’t happen,” Amy said cheerfully, “sounds like a long job, and very expensive too, if I know contractors – “

“Oh, it happens,” the Doctor said, keeping his voice low, “nothing can stop it happening. Pressure on Earth’s population was increasing in your time, Amy, just imagine what it’s like now, a century later… fewer resources, billions more mouths to feed… Earth is the Titanic, sinking fast, and Mars is a big fat lifeboat, just waiting to be jumped into.”

“So Mars becomes – “

“A paradise world, really,” the Doctor said, smiling wistfully, memories flooding back. “Valles Marineris becomes the longest lake in the solar system; people spend their whole lives just sailing up and down it. It has ships the size of cities, which just go up and down, up and down… Olympus Mons’ flanks are covered in lush forests, only the top poking out above the trees, like Mt Fuji…”

“Sounds lovely…” Amy sighed, adding, tartly, “…in fact, it sounds like a beautiful place to be taken for your birthday…”

“Oh, it’s beautiful alright,” the Doctor said, ignoring the jibe, “but that beauty’s paid for, in blood…” Amy looked at him quizzically. “War… civil war… comes to the planet named after the God of War,” the Doctor said under his breath. “The martians who want to keep Mars red wage a resistance campaign… shuttles are blown out of the sky, modules destroyed by bombs, bursting open like rotten fruit on a hot day… women and children sucked out to die in agony on the dusty ground…”

He looked around him then, at the crowd of martians gathered in the gallery, and couldn’t help wondering how many of their great, great grandchildren would die in the horrors to come. How many of them would become the leaders of the opposing factions?

“The final battle for the future and fate of Mars is fought on the Columbia Hills,” the Time Lord said sadly, “the exact place where the rover we saw before did all its exploring. It’s terrible Amy, terrible… two armies clashing in the light of the shrunken sun, beneath a sky the colour of honey… “

“Guns on Mars, just like in the sci-fi movies,” Amy said distantly, but the Doctor shook his head.

“Oh no, no guns, too clumsy, too cumbersome for space-suited warriors; knives and swords are the weapon of choice in the Battle of Homeplate, they are much more effective and efficient here on Mars that projectile or beam weapons…”

He paused then, bitter memories flooding back.

“I saw it Amy, I watched the battle… soldiers, thick as starlings, flowing across the Hills like ants across a rainforest floor, their swords and daggers flashing in the sunlight before ripping, tearing and slicing open spacesuits, blood spraying like fountains before freezing in mid air and falling to the ground like sapphires…” A deep sadness seemed to overwhelm him as he added “Not the Mars Adelaide Brooks had in mind at all – “

 

That was when a hand shoved him in the back. Hard.

“You terraformers,” jeered a tall martian man, his face contorted into a sneer, “why can’t you leave us alone? Go ruin Venus, or Ganymede, or Titan instead…”

 

“It’ll take a long time,” the Doctor tried to reassure the martian, “definitely centuries… tens of centuries, probably,” he went on, but he could see from the expression on the martian’s face that he was banging his head against a hab module wall.

“Keep Mars Red…!” hissed another martian from the Doctor’s other side, then another, closer to the screen, did the same. Beside him Amy shuffled uncomfortably. She’d been in enough rough pubs in Inverness to know when a room was going bad.

“I think,” the Doctor suggested, under his breath, as another martian, then another, turned away from the screen to look at them angrily, “that we should leave – “

Just then Space News Barbie’s voice cut through the growing noise, and everyone’s attention was snapped back to the screen.

“…and we’re just getting reports that the science team is on final approach to the fissure,” she announced, with – of course – one finger pressed into her ear.

“Phew,” whistled Amy, “saved by the dumb belle…”

The scene on the screen shifted then. Gone was Space News Barbie, replaced by what looked like live footage from a shuddery, juddery camera… somewhere…

“Antarctica…” Amy guessed, noting the bright landscape. That had to be ice or snow, it had to be. Several martians turned to look at her with what was obviously contempt, or despair, or a mixture of both.

“Look at the sky Amy,” the Doctor suggested, nodding towards the screen. Amy looked. The sky was black, blacker than coal, blacker than coal covered in pitch.

“Alright, Antarctica at night…” Amy clarified.

“Can’t be, look at the ground – “

“You just told me to look at the sky – “

“Yes, and now I’m telling you to look at the ground…” the Doctor growled impatiently.

Amy let out her best ‘It’s so unfair!’ aggrieved teenager sigh, but looked more closely at the sky as he had told her to.  “It’s bright…So? Ice is bright…”

“… at night?” the Doctor prompted.

“…if it’s Full Moon, yes!” Amy countered.

The Time Lord smiled, secretly quite proud of her reasoning. “You’re warm, Pond… relatively speaking, of course… Keep watching the screen, you’ll see soon enough…”

The image on the screen suddenly steadied and then froze as the camera being used to take and broadcast the pictures back from Wherever-it-was stopped moving. Amy leaned forward curiously. The landscape was certainly icy… like Antarctica… but now she looked more closely she could see it was much more, well, alien-looking: it was criss-crossed with lines – no, cross-hatched was a more accurate description; the lines ran across each other, as if this was a world made of mashed potato and God, bored with creating stuff, had killed some time raking a giant fork across it, again and again –

Then the camera swung around quickly to the left – and Amy realised that its operator was many millions of miles from Antarctica.

Hanging above the horizon, its lower limb just clearing it by maybe a finger’s width, was a big, bloated ball. Creamy white, and crossed with one… two… Amy counted them… three… four horizontal bands of dark toffee brown, and mottled with countless whirls and whorls of orange, yellow, caramel and tan, the ball was much bigger in the sky than the Moon appeared in Earth’s sky. As wide as her outstretched hand, it dominated the sky, suspended above the icy, frozen landscape like a huge Christmas tree bauble that had been spattered and streaked with paint –

“That’s…!” Amy breathed raggedly, unable to believe what she was seeing. “I saw that on the telly once… some science program on the Beeb… a mission to the planets… bit cheesy, but the effects were brilliant… and that,” she said, pointing at the scene on the huge screen, “looks a lot like Jupiter…”

“Of course it’s Jupiter,” one of the nearest martians scoffed, “where else would the Europa mission have gone?”

“Europa…” Amy repeated, “this is live from Europa..?”

Hearing a quiet snuffle she turned to see the Doctor smiling to himself.

“This is ‘it’, isn’t it?” she said accusingly. “This is what you brought me here to see…”

“The first manned landing on Europa,” the Doctor said, wonder in his voice. “You humans, never can resist a new landscape, can you?”

Amy watched the pictures on the screen. The camera was panning to the left now, and she caught her first glimpse of a space-suited figure. She was shocked to see the spacesuit was a bright red colour, the vivid, eye-blindingly bright colour of fire engines in children’s books. She was even more shocked when the camera panned right and a brilliant blue spaceman – or woman – appeared on the screen, waving to the audience back home before the camera tilted away and refocused on the icy horizon and Jupiter hanging above it.

“What’s with the fat Teletubby dalek colours?” Amy asked. “I thought spacesuits had to be white… isn’t that the Law, or something?”

“Look at that place, Pond,” the Doctor replied, nodding towards the screen, “what colour do you see? In all directions?”

Amy gazed at the screen. Ice, ice everywhere, an endless plain of it, shining a brilliant, dazzling white in the –

“Ohhhhhh…..” she let out, realising the reason for the gaudy EVA suits. “White ice… white suit… good way to get lost – “

“A great way to get lost,” the Doctor butted in, “you want to stand out a place like that, not blend in – “

“Hang on,” Amy interrupted, head cocked to one side. Something didn’t make sense here. “You brought me to Mars… on my birthday… to watch a huge, historical event… on the telly?”

“It’s a big telly – “ the Doctor objected, but Amy cut him off with an upraised hand.

“We have a machine that can travel in time and space…” she reasoned, “why didn’t you just take me to Europa itself, so we could watch it in person? We went to see the Moon landing, and the first woman to land on Mars – “

“This is different,” the Doctor said, his voice barely a whisper. “I can’t land on Europa – “

“Can’t? Cant why?” Amy demanded. The Doctor had sounded… uncomfortable. Embarrassed, even. “Is there a spooky alien force field there or something?”

The Doctor shook his head. “No… no… No force field…” He looked away. “It’s… “ He seemed to be about to tell her, then retreated away from it. “No, you wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me,” Amy persisted.

“Well…” the Doctor began, quite bashfully, “I made a promise, to a friend, that I wouldn’t land on that particular moon…”

“You made a…” Amy parroted, incredulously, “no, don’t believe you.” Then, quickly: “Which friend?”

The Doctor took a deep breath. “A writer… famous 20th century storyteller, someone  way, waaay ahead of their time – “

“Dan Brown? Katie Price?” Amy offered sarcastically. The Doctor glowered at her. “Who then?”

“Arthur C Clarke,” the Doctor told her, “great writer – great man,” he said, “a real visionary… he made me promise never to set the TARDIS down on that moon… even sneaked it in one of his most famous books, just to make sure I could never forget it, whichever time I landed in… ‘ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS EXCEPT
EUROPA, ATTEMPT NO LANDING THERE’” the Doctor quoted in a deep, doom-laden voice, before laughing, “… crafty so-and-so…”

“Why would a science fiction writer want you to promise him you’d never land on Europa?” Amy asked, screwing up her forehead. “It makes no sense.”

“Arthur said he wanted to make sure that one world, just one, was left untouched by… others… was left ‘clean’, as he called it, for humans to explore on their own, somewhere free to make their own mistakes, learn their lessons – “

“Ok, ok, I get it,” Amy said, “old Arthur wanted to make sure you and your interfering Galifreyan mates didn’t pee in the snow on Europa and ruin it for the clever little monkeys from the third planet near the Sun…Wise man, nice to have one planet free to mess up ourselves…”

“That’s… just about it, yeah,” the Doctor agreed, “though I wouldn’t have put it quite like that – “

“Be quiet, enough gibbering, gabbling,” a nearby martian scolded them, eyes burning into them like lasers, “it’s about to start, and I can’t hear for you…”

Amy and the Doctor both fell silent as Space News Barbie reappeared on the screen.

“We are now just minutes away from the arrival of the Europa team at Ground Zero,” the woman announced brightly. “Commander Owens and her two brave colleagues are now just a few hundred metres or so away from their destination. When they reach Ground Zero, we will be able to see, for the first time in history, beneath the icy surface of this magical, mysterious moon…”

“Ground Zero..?” Amy wondered outloud. “Like on 9-11? Something flew into Europa?”

“Oh yes,” the Doctor nodded sagely, “something flew into Europa alright… very hard…”

Right on cue the TV coverage cut away from Space News Barbie to show an animation of what had happened. Around Amy and the Doctor the martians groaned, clearly sick of having to sit through the clip yet again, but the Time Lord’s companion welcomed its information.

“To recap,” Space News Barbie’s voice spoke over the animation, “one week ago, shortly after the Europa Expedition landed, in a truly incredible cosmic coincidence a meteoroid or body of some sort, perhaps as big as four or five metres across, slammed into the icy plains of Europa almost a dozen kilometres from the “Clarke”’s landing site…” On the screen a computer graphic of a big explosion on Europa’s surface played out – a streak of light hurtling down from the moon’s black sky, ending in a huge cloud of mist and ice crystals as it struck the surface. “Photographs taken from the expedition’s mothership, waiting patiently in orbit around the moon, showed a new, large and deep crater had been blasted out of Europa’s surface by the impact…”

One of those images flashed up on the screen, but it was blurry, lacking in any real detail. “Unable to believe their incredible luck,” continued Space News Barbie, “the expedition Commander decided to lead her team away from the landing site and across the ice to the new crater… on foot…”

The screen showed the three astronauts – one red, one blue, and the third one a bright canary yellow – walking away from their spacecraft, which looked very much like a toilet roll tube stood on one end with spindly legs holding it up off the ice, and Amy gasped as she saw what they were doing: dragging sledges behind them.

“With their rover’s electronics damaged by the solar flare that blew past the ‘Clarke’ en-route to Europa from Mars,” Space News Barbie explained, “the team had to go back to basics in their attempt to reach the new impact crater…”

It was like a scene from Amy’s distant history, not her far future: just like the canvas-clad Arctic and Antarctic explorers of ages long past, the first astronauts to set foot on Europa were trekking across its icy surface dragging heavily-laden sledges behind them.

“Unbelievable,” Amy whispered, watching the three astronauts plodding onwards, one foot crumping down into the Europan snow after the other, again and again, again and again…

“Shackleton would have been proud,” said the Doctor approvingly, watching the trio of space explorers hauling their sledges across the icy waste.

“Now the team are on their final approach to the crater,” Space News Barbie continued, teeth flashing, “if you look closely you can see it up ahead…”

Amy stared into the screen and yes, she could see… something on the horizon. On either side the skyline was almost razorblade flat, but in one area, straight ahead, it was bumpy, uneven, and the ground there was mottled with patches of light and dark, and, every few moments a glint of light sparked into view then vanished again.

With each weary step the explorers took more detail became visible, and soon Amy could see the landscape up ahead was scattered with blocks and shards of ice – debris from the impact that had formed the crater, no doubt. Some of the blocks were huge

“That was some crash,” Amy said, staring at the scene unfolding on the screen.

“Oh yes,” the Doctor agreed, “another kilometre or two closer to their spaceship and it would have toppled over. That’s a guaranteed way to ruin your day…”

“Look at that!” Amy exclaimed as the camera showed the blue-suited astronaut posing by one of the blocks of ejecta. The astronaut was dwarfed by it, and looked like a “Spaceman Action Man” propped up against an enormous white American fridge freezer. “That thing must be twenty feet high…!”

“Don’t get too close, Lei,” warned the camera operator, their voice tinny and distorted over the radio link, “it could still be unstable… don’t want it falling on you… imagine the paperwork…” The blue-suited astronaut raised a hand in acknowledgement, and walked forwards again, away from the towering ice block.

“… and you heard there the voice of the mission commander, Faith Owen, speaking to her second in command, Lt Lei Jiang,” Space News Barbie said, excitedly, “warning her not to get too close to the ice block as it might be unstable…”

Amy rolled her eyes. “We know, we heard her,” she sighed, frustrated but not surprised that TV news presenters were no different in 2055; they still stated the bleeding obvious…

“…and Jamie, watch that crack there, by your right foot…” warned the Commander, and the camera panned around to show the other member of the team, the red-suited astronaut, walking perilously close to a large fracture in the icy ground. The red astronaut turned round, gave a crisp salute, then, grudgingly it appeared, edged around the fissure, pretending to almost lose his balance and fall in at one point. “Clown…” huffed Owen, but affectionately.

Space News Barbie shook her head and grinned. “It seems the mission’s resident joker, Jamie Pond, hasn’t lost his sense of humour even in this dangerous place…!” she laughed.

Amy laughed too. What a coincidence! One of the crew had the surname as her –

Then she saw the Doctor’s face. He was smiling. Not his amused smile, or his patronising smile; not even his smile-to-reassure-Amy-everything’s-alright-when-it-isn’t-really smile. It was his you’ll-get-it-in-a-minute-Pond smile…

“Oh come on…” Amy said, a crazy idea forming in her head. No. Beyond crazy. Ridiculous.

She looked back at the screen and saw the astronaut’s profile page flash up:

Jamie Pond… 26…

Youngest expedition member…

Geologist / Engineer

Born: Orkney, 2061

Parents: Catriona and Callum Pond

Grandparents: Amy and Rory Pond

“No way!” Amy exclaimed, shaking her head.

“It’s true…” the Doctor said gently. “He’s your – “

“ – no way would a daughter of mine would EVER live on Orkney!” Amy continued. “That’s ridiculous! It’s all rock… and sand… and wind…and seals – ”

Then it hit her like a freight train.

“Oh my god…” she said, the words coming out in a wheeze, as if she’d just been punched in the stomach. “That’s my… our…?”

“It is… Your grandson will be one of the first people to set foot on Europa,” the Doctor smiled. “That’s what I brought you here to show you. Happy birthday, Pond…”

Amy couldn’t take her eyes off the screen now. There was a picture of Jamie Pond up there, grinning in the top right corner. He had jade green eyes, a playground-cheeky grin.

And an unruly mop of very familiar-looking red hair.

“He has my hair…” Amy smiled weakly, fearing her legs would buckle beneath her. “Rory’s nose, poor little –  but my hair… My hair will go to Europa…” she laughed, wondering if the room really was spinning or just her head.

“Oh, your hair goes further than Europa,” the Doctor told her, “the famous, fiery red Pond plumage make it all the way to Pluto. Proper little planet-hopping dynasty you Ponds, can’t sit still, not with so much to see Out There…”

Amy clutched at the Doctor’s hand, and pulled him round, physically, to look into his eyes.

“Why..?” she asked simply. “What about not knowing my own personal future? What about ‘Ah, ah, spoilers!’ “

“Because… “ the Doctor’s voice trailed off. Suddenly he seemed to be finding it hard to look her in the eye.

“Doctor,” Amy insisted, very serious now, “why are you showing me this? It’s a lovely present, don’t get me wrong, but I’m thrilled if anyone thinks to give me a fake bottle of Baileys and a box of cheap chocolates from Aldi; this seems…”

“I wanted to give you something to… to hold on to… after…” The Doctor stopped, as if he was struggling to find the right words.

“…after what?” Amy demanded, getting worried now.

“…after… you leave me…” he said quietly, looking at the floor.

Leave you?!” Amy almost shouted. “Who said anything about leaving you?!”

“No-one,” the Doctor said quickly. “I just – “

“Are you dumping us?” Amy continued, the pitch of her voice rising, reflecting how frightened she was becoming. “Are you dumping me?! Did I do something wrong?”

“No… no… and no,” the Doctor reassured her slowly, trying to get her to calm down, “I just meant… “ He grabbed her now-shaking shoulders with his hands. “One day… one day… you will leave,” he said, gently, “you’ll have to. You and Rory have a life together now; you will want to start building a normal life together soon… you’ll start thinking about kids… “

“I don’t – “Amy began to protest, but he cut her off.

“You will… you should…” he said, “It’s natural, and right… You’ll be a great mum, a fantastic mum – “

“Have you seen that in the future too?” Amy demanded urgently. “Me, being a mum?”

“Aaagh! No!” the Doctor said, exasperated with her. “I can just… tell… I know you, what you’re like… you’ll be a great mum, Pond… Amy…” he said, more softly, “I don’t need to travel forwards in time to know that.”

Amy looked at him with puzzled eyes. Something here didn’t add up. Something still didn’t make sense.

The Doctor smiled at her with his strangest, saddest smile. “You do know, Amy, that you’re not the first person I’ve travelled with…” he began awkwardly.

“But… I thought I was your first..?” Amy mewled. “I thought I was special…!”

“You are special, Amy,” the Doctor said hastily – a split second before the red-haired girl punched him in the arm. “Owww!”

“Oh please, do I look that naive?” Amy replied, rolling her eyes again. “I know how it works: you swan around the galaxy in your fancy top-down TARDIS, collecting pretty young things like some interstellar playboy, show them a few sights to turn their heads and make them fall for you, then you dump them for a new, younger, more glamorous model after a while – “

“It’s not like that! Not at all!” the Doctor protested, then saw the gleam in her eye.

“Gotcha…” Amy grinned, winking at him.

“Hmmm,” the Doctor replied, still not sure she really had been joking. Anyway…

“Other… travelling companions of mine have felt… hurt, when they left,” he continued, serious now. “Some of them found it hard to readjust to their old lives. Oh, some just jumped right in where they left, no worries. Others… “ He looked distant suddenly… “Well, they were angry with me, maybe even hated me for a while, hated me for abandoning them – even if I honestly, really, truly had no choice… But Sarah Jane bounced back, and look at her now..! Saving the Earth again and again with that Famous Five gang of hers, and that walled-in computer…” he said brightly. A little too brightly; Amy could see guilt and regret in his young/ancient eyes.

She also wanted – desperately – to ask who Sarah Jane was, but though better of it.

“I just wanted you to know, when you leave, for whatever reason, that it wasn’t all just for nothing, that your time with me leads to something,” the Doctor said seriously, “something amazing, something wonderful – ”

“This is getting far too heavy,” Amy cut in, starting to feel distinctly uncomfortable; she wasn’t used to the Time Lord being so, well, mushy. It wasn’t like him at all. It was actually making her wonder if this was his not-too-subtle way of preparing her to go… soon… if he knew she was going to leave him, or have to leave him, or have to be made to leave him, and the TARDIS, and all of it, soon

“Come on,” she beamed, looping her arm through his, “let’s just watch telly shall we? It looks like something is about to happen…”

The Doctor smiled weakly and nodded. Fine. If that was what she wanted. Fine.

On the huge screen Space News Barbie was looking more excited than ever. “And I’m hearing from our space experts that the team are now within a hundred metres of the actual edge of the crater,” she chattered. Behind her shoulder the screen-in-screen picture showed the red- and blue-suited astronauts continuing to pick their way through the ejecta field surrounding the impact site. But every few moments the picture seemed to turn a bit fuzzy, a bit hazy. 

“I wonder what they’ll find…” Amy said brightly. “I wonder what he’ll find…”

“Shhhhhhh!!!!!” an annoyed martian hissed from in front of her.

“I will NOT shush!!!” Amy barked. “That’s my gr– “

The Doctor cleared his throat loudly beside her.

“Oh… never mind!” Amy humphed, fuming.

“We can now see astronaut Jamie Pond taking the lead,” announced Space News Barbie, as the screen showed the young astronaut edging his way around a particularly nasty-looking shard of blue-white ice that looked like a crystal flung from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Beyond it, the ground appeared to be clear and free of debris –

“We are about to get our first look into the new crater,” Space News Barbie said needlessly and breathlessly, prompting more groans from a few of the cliché-weary crowd.

“Why is this piddling little crater so important anyway?” asked Amy, puzzled, her arms still folded across her chest angrily.

“Europa is covered in a thick shell of ice, a deep pan frozen pizza of a crust,” the Doctor explained, drawing a circle in the air with his hand, “scientists – in this time – think that there might be life in the liquid ocean that sloshes around beneath that ice. Nothing fancy, nothing very advanced, certainly nothing that could solve a Rubik’s Cube; but maybe plants… ickle fish… that kind of thing –

He caught Amy glowering at him impatiently.

“…but the ice is so thick it’s impossible to find out what’s really down there without drilling down for miles and dropping a submarine into the hole,” the Doctor continued, “or setting off an atomic bomb on the ice to make a big hole to look into… obviously not a very good idea that one…”

“… so this crater is a natural little hole they can look into…” Amy said, pulling the pieces of the puzzle together in her head at last.

“A little hole, a very little hole, yes,” the Doctor agreed, “but a hole nonetheless, a shortcut to scientific wonder provided for free, nothing more to pay, by the Universe herself.” He stared at the screen. “A hole… you lot are drawn to them like moths to a flame, aren’t you? You just can’t resist peering into it whenever you find one – ”

“Or a crack…” Amy pointed out, grinning. “We’re quite the experts at looking into cracks.”

The Doctor pointed a finger at her. “No. Don’t. You know what happened last time you looked into a crack – “

“…I got trapped in a big fancy box under Stonehenge for thousands of years, and the whole universe ended,” Amy said breezily, “I know, I know. These things happen – “

“No. These things happen around you, Amy,” the Doctor said, “but not today. Today we’re just here to watch TV, ok?”

“Fine by me,” Amy smiled, turning her attention back to the screen, where Space News Barbie was looking very uncomfortable.

“I’m just hearing that we’re having trouble locking on to the signal from Jupiter,” she said, just as the picture behind her confirmed it by stuttering and breaking into a kaleidoscopic blizzard of pixels for a moment before stabilising again. “So let’s follow the action live, and listen in to the astronauts as they approach the crater’s edge…”

The camera was now showing the red- and blue-suited astronauts walking side by side, slowly but clearly very excited; eager to go even faster but – grudgingly – following orders to stay within sight of their Commander.

“You two just stop, now,” Owen’s voice commanded, “I have the camera, I need to be first to the edge – “ As if she realised how bad that sounded she added, quickly, “to document what we can see inside, we’ll only get one shot at this.”

“Oh, we understand Commander,” a lilting Scottish voice said, heavy with mock seriousness, “we didn’t think for a moment that you were imagining how the history books of the future will record who was the first person to look beneath the ice of Europa and see aliens there, not for a moment…”

“Cheeky beggar!” Amy laughed.

“Hmm. Wonder where he gets that from?” said the Doctor, innocently.

“Oh come on…” one of the martians complained as the picture broke up into a mash of colour again. This time it was unwatchable for several seconds.

“That’s not good…” the Doctor remarked, “they haven’t got long left – “

“What?!” Amy said, alarmed.

“… before their signal fails altogether, I mean,” the Doctor calmed her. “This is going to be tight – “

On the screen the picture showed that Commander Owen was walking up to her two colleagues…

Walking between them…

Leaving her standing on the ice alone.

The Commander panned her camera from left to right now, surveying the scene. Now the screen showed just the landscape, no human figures at all. Looming over the far horizon, Jupiter was an enormous cream-and-tan balloon, crossed with bands the colour of toffee and caramel. But now there was something new visible on the face of Jupiter – a red-pink oval, larger by far than any other storm system. The Great Red Spot. Impressive. Oppressive. Jupiter a giant eye now, staring down on the trio of explorers from the star-studded, Europan sky…

“I’m almost at the edge of the crater,” the Commander said, her breathing ragged and laboured, “another couple of steps and – ”

The feed from the astronaut’s helmet camera failed, leaving the screen blank. Silence, for several agonising seconds. Like everyone else in the TV audience the Doctor and Amy found themselves holding their breath and physically leaning forwards, straining to hear whatever Faith Owen said next –

“…and…and it’s…”

Carried to Mars – and across the solar system – on a rapidly-weakening signal, the astronaut’s voice sounded scratchy and distorted, like something from a 1940s radio. But the signal strengthened enough just long enough to transmit an image of the crater’s interior sloping walls, streaked with shades of red, purple and green, accompanied by two breathlessly-excited words …

“Oh wow…!”

… before it cut out again, this time completely, replaced instantly by a view of Space News Barbie looking bewildered and lost.

Everyone in the room groaned in disappointment and frustration. Some cursed too – in their native martian, which was unintelligible to Amy but sounded wonderfully angry, aggressive and creative. A few, their patience exhausted, turned their backs on the big screen and started to walk out of the room.

“Wait a moment…” the Doctor cautioned Amy, even though she’d shown no signs of wanting to move, “the show’s not over yet – “

Even as he spoke those words the screen came to life again, the mini-screen “behind” the news presenter suddenly filled with the feed from the astronaut’s helmet-cam.

Someone looks happy…” the Doctor observed, as he watched the two astronauts, one red and one blue, embracing each other and jumping up and down on the spot like excited children given an unexpected gift. The way their image jiggled up and down showed that Commander Owen herself was joining in the celebrations, too. But celebrations of what?

That was when the Doctor noticed Amy wasn’t speaking, wasn’t even moving. She was just standing there beside him, staring at the screen, eyes fixed, as if hypnotised.

“Amy…? Are you alright?” the Doctor asked.

“Me?” Amy replied, not taking her eyes off the screen. “Oh yes… I’m fine… absolutely fine…” Her voice sounded distant, remote, as if she was deep in some kind of trance.

“Are you sure?” the Doctor persisted, “you look a bit… strange…”

Still Amy didn’t turn round. “I’m fine, really…” she said, smiling an enigmatic smile that the Mona Lisa would have been proud of.

The Doctor was puzzled. This wasn’t the reaction he’d been expecting. At All.

“You don’t look very… upset…” he pressed, studying her serene expression.

“Why would I be upset?” Amy asked, sounding as peaceful as a hippie at Woodstock.

“Well… don’t you want to know what they found?” the Doctor asked, pointing towards the screen, which had gone blank again, all last, lingering traces of the carrier signal lost.

“No, not really…” replied Amy, quite matter of factly.

The Doctor was really puzzled now. This wasn’t the impatient, Now-Now-Now! Amy Pond he knew. “What… seriously…?” he asked.

“Yes, seriously…” Amy replied, her smile lingering.

“But… no, this makes no sense,” the Doctor thought outloud. “You’re Amy Pond… should be grabbing me by the throat, demanding to know what they saw down there, what happened next – “

“I don’t care,” she said blithely.

“You don’t care.” The Doctor repeated flatly.

“No. I don’t care,” Amy repeated again.

The Doctor stared at her with wide eyes. “Why?” he asked, eventually.

Finally, Amy turned to look at him – and there were tears in her eyes.

“Because this is enough for me,” she began, “Knowing that he will do something this… amazing… discover something so… amazing…” she shook her head, sniffing. “I can look forward to it, and it’ll be a surprise when it comes… but if… when… I do stop travelling with you, this will keep me going.”

The Doctor stared at his shoes. Hard.

“It’s a wonderful gift, Doctor, the best gift I’ve ever had,” he heard his friend say, a split second before she wrapped her long arms around his neck and buried her head into his Tweed jacket’s shoulder. “Thank you…” he heard her say, her voice muffled by her mane of red hair.

“Better than the chocolates from Aldi?” he asked her softly.

“ Much…” she replied, sniffing loudly. The Doctor’s neck was damp now. It didn’t matter.

“Gotcha…” he whispered tenderly.

When Amy spoke again, her voice was small, child-like. She sounded just as she had done back in her garden, all those years before, when he’d first met her.

“You have…” she told him, “… but for how long..?”

The Doctor smiled. “Oh, for a long time yet, I promise…”

She hugged him so hard he thought his neck would break.

It was time to go.

“Alright, come on Pond,” he said brightly, lifting her off him – gently – with both hands, “things to do, places to go…” He looked back in the general direction of the TARDIS. “…probably toilets to clean – “

Amy’s eyes opened wide. “RORY!” And with that she took off out of the gallery, heading back into the corridor and out of sight.

Surrounded by bemused-looking martians, the Doctor gave an apologetic little shrug. “She’s from Terra…” he explained, “Scotland… strange, wild people… Terrans, I mean, not the Scottish… although…”

“Doctor! Come on!” a voice called out from some distance away.

“Nice museum you have here,” the Doctor congratulated the martians, as he edged towards the door, “very… red… Oh, and Beagle..! Well done… good job – “

“Doctor!!!”

“Coming dear!” he called back. “Sorry, got to go. Scottish girls… not the most patient in the universe…”

Then he was gone, following Amy down the corridor towards where they’d left the TARDIS.

A few moments later, the Great Museum of Mars’ beautiful galleries, halls and corridors echoed to the sound of ancient, mighty engines groaning and moaning into life, and a pair of young honeymooning martians in Room 16B watched, startled, as the strange “Modern Martian Art” exhibit they had been examining – a bizarre box-like structure made of something called “wood”, a material totally alien to their rocky, dusty home-world – began to fade, and, eventually, vanished from view altogether.

Stuart Atkinson 2010

23
Mar
10

FREEING SPIRIT

“Hold tight, this might be a bit, um, bumpy…” Rose heard the Doctor shout over the groaning roar of the TARDIS’ engines. She knew that if he was worried enough about the landing to warn her, it was going to be hard. Nodding her understanding she clutched at the control desk, grabbing it so hard her knuckles turned white.

“Here we go…” he said, grinning at her from across the other side of the console, and pulled the lever -

Rose was thrown forward violently, almost banging her head on the pillar, as the TARDIS slammed into the ground like a stone dropped from a motorway bridge. As the lights flickered, somewhere behind her sparks gushed dramatically out of a conduit, and as the sparks danced and skipped across the floor at her feet the time machine’s mighty, ancient engines seemed to heave and cough in protest.

“Bumpy?” Rose said sarcastically.

The Doctor smiled at her wickedly. “Well, ok, maybe that was more like…”

“…like, crashing?” Rose suggested, but couldn’t be angry at him. Not when he was about to show her what was outside the TARDIS door.

“Maybe I should fit you with airbags,” the Doctor mused, patting the TARDIS’ console, “like our little friend out there. Seemed to work for her.”

Rose started as the time machine’s engines gave a low, mournful groan. “That was just it powering down, right?” she asked, “it wasn’t, you know, answering you back…?”

The Doctor said nothing, just grinned back at her.

“As if I would,” he whispered quietly, patting the console reassuringly when he saw Rose wasn’t looking. “I was only joking. Don’t sulk…”

“Come on then!” he heard Rose shout impatiently, and turned to see that over by the door Rose was already wriggling into her one piece spacesuit.

“You’re keen!” he said, striding over to join her. “What’s the rush?”

“You kidding me?” Rose replied. “Look, there…” She nodded towards the window. It was glowing a pale orange colour. “That’s Mars! We’re on Mars!”

“It’s just Mars – “ he replied casually.

Rose punched him on the arm. “Maybe it’s no big deal to you, Mr Been Everywhere, Done Everything,” she scolded him, “but I’ve never been to Mars before! And I’ve always wanted to, ever since I was a kid.”

Rubbing his arm he gave a humph. “It’s just rocks,” he sighed, “lots and lots of rocks… and dust… and more rocks… oh, and did I mention the rocks?”

She punched him again, harder this time.

“Oww! That actually hurt!” he protested, reaching up for his helmet.

“Then why did you bring us here if it’s such a rubbish place, anyway?” Rose asked, puzzled, pulling her own helmet on and fastening it in place with a turn and a click.

“Well, it’s a Sunday, and we’d nothing better to do…” the Doctor began, then broke into one of his wide, Cheshire Cat grins. “Only joking, I LOVE Mars!” he beamed through his helmet visor. “Yes! A volcano three times higher than Mt Everest, a canyon that makes your planet’s ‘Grand Canyon’ look like a crack in the pavement, and two big ugly potato-shaped moons, what’s not to love?”

He reached out, took Rose’s gloved hand in his, and moved towards the door. “Come on, we haven’t much time,” the Doctor said, suddenly quite serious. The TARDIS door opened, and as cool orange light flooded the interior he walked through the door. Rose followed him. As she always did. As she knew she always would.

“Welcome to Mars…!” the Doctor beamed, arms outstretched, as Rose’s foot scrunched down onto the dusty ground. “Gorgeous, isn’t it?”

Rose looked around her, wide-eyed. It was just as she’d imagined. Yes, there were rocks everywhere, but not just ‘rocks’, martian rocks, a dozen – no, a hundred different shades of orange and brown and tan, some smooth, some jagged and sharp-edged, they were everywhere, just everywhere, scattered across the dusty ground in all directions, as far as the eye could see. Off to her left, a pair of low could be seen at the end of what appeared to be a narrow valley. One of them had a strange kind of rocky cap on it, which made it look, Rose thought with a nostalgic smile, like a Walnut Whip. To her right a high, rounded hill rose up into the peach-coloured sky, its slopes criss-crossed with dark streaks -

“Husband Hill,” the Doctor told her, slipping into what Rose always called his ‘Tourist Guide mode’. He turned to her. “Ring any bells?”

Rose thought hard. From the tone of the Doctor’s voice she obviously the name should have meant something to her. Even through his visor she could see he was wearing his ‘Come on, come on, this is important, everyone should know this!’ school teacher expression. Husband HillHusband Hill… Somewhere a bell was ringing, yes, but only very faintly, and very far away –

“She climbed that,” he prompted, and Rose was sure he heard a note of pride in his voice.

“She?” Rose repeated cautiously, lifting up her foot to examine the very impressive boot print she had made on Mars. I’m the first woman to set foot on Mars, she thought sadly, and no-one will ever know

Which she? One of your previous girlfriends?” Looking at the hill she couldn’t imagine Sarah Jane climbing it. Maybe Martha, tho. Yeah, Action Girl would be up there like a rat up a -

“Not quite,” the Doctor smiled back, a little sadly, a little distantly, “but she was quite a girl, that’s for sure.”

“Shame I couldn’t meet her,” Rose replied, actually quite pleased she hadn’t.

“You’re going to, that’s why we’re here,” the Doctor told her. “Come on,” he said, grabbing her hand again, “this way!” and started to lead her away from the TARDIS, down the valley towards the Walnut Whip hill.

Their steps were light, quite bouncy, in the low martian gravity, and Rose was happy to let herself be led on for once; it gave her a chance to appreciate the scenery. Although she’d never admitted it to anyone – certainly not Mickey, or her mum, for fear of being laughed at – she had always loved rocks, ever since she’d been taken to the Natural History Museum by her dad one wet and windy Monday. She’d spent hours running between the display cases, nose pressed up against the glass, staring in at the rock specimens and meteorites, loving their amazing shapes, colours and patterns. Some were out in the open, and she’d trailed her sticky fingers over them, feeling their kitten-tongue rough texture, loving it. That had been a beautiful day, she remembered with a smile.

Another memory crept back into her brain: years later, just before meeting the Doctor actually, she’d been walking through the estate, weighed down with bags of shopping, and found, quite by accident, some tiny fossils embedded in one of the stones in a graffiti covered wall, and had known instantly that it was made of limestone –

“Homeplate!” the Doctor announced, breaking her concentration and banishing the memory she had been enjoying.

“What?”

“This,” he said, pointing to his left, at the raised layer of lighter-coloured rock they were walking alongside of. “This is called Homeplate… after, you know…a Home… Plate…” he said, his voice trailing off as he realised he wasn’t getting through to her.

Rose shook her head. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she sighed, catching sight of a rather cute-looking rock sitting on top of the layer. It was dark, like slate, and had jagged edges, and lots of layers, like a Vienetta. She wished she could take it back to the TARDIS and put it in her room, but of course that was against The Rule: Take Nothing, Leave Only Footprints – And Try Not To Leave Those If You Can, Or Some Archaeologist Will Have A Heart Attack.

 

“It’s a baseball thing,” he continued, but saw he was getting nowhere. “Oh, never mind. Look, up ahead,” he said brightly, changing subject, “I think that’s her – “

“Who is ‘her’?” Rose asked impatiently.

“You’ll see in a minute,” he grinned cheekily, and reached into his spacesuit pocket. “Better get this ready,” he said to himself, pulling out his sonic screwdriver, “we’ve cut this a bit fine. Should have landed next to Von Braun, stupid vortex flux…”

Rose shook her head at him mumbling to himself and kept walking. The ground beneath her feet was… crunchy, like frost-covered snow, and she heard a distinct crisp, crumping noise every time her boot set down. Looking at her footprints she saw she was actually breaking through a thin layer of some crusty material as she walked.

“Careful,” the Doctor warned, “that’s what got her stuck – dusty traps beneath the duricrust. Sneaky thing, Mars, always trying to do you in.”

Looking up from the rocky, dusty ground, Rose stared at the sky. It was beautiful, so much more beautiful than she’d imagined. At first glance it just appeared to be a dome of pale orange, featureless and flat, like God, bored and tired after spending so long creating the planet’s huge volcanoes, valleys and craters had suddenl;y remembered he had the sky to do to, and had painted Mars’ ceiling with one quick coat of cheap “Hint of Peach” paint.

But looking closer she began to see other colours in the sky. Here a wisp of brighter cloud, pale lemon; there a wash of butterscotch –higher cloud? And over there, the Sun, smaller and fainter than the one she had seen from Earth, but bright enough to bathe this rocky, rusted world in a lovely glow.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” the Doctor said, his voice low.

Rose nodded, drinking in the glorious sky. “The colours,” she whispered, “I had no idea – “

“Not that,” he sighed, “that…”

Rose tore her gaze away from the martian sky and saw –

Not what she’d expected to see.

Not a magnificent martian statue the mangled wreckage of a crashed alien spaceship, or. Oh no, nothing like that. Nothing as exciting as that.

“It’s a robot,” she said flatly.

The Doctor rolled his eyes in frustration. “No it’s not!” he said sharply. “Well, ok, it is, a robot I mean,” he added, after a moment’s consideration, “but it’s not just any robot.” Letting go of Rose’s gloved hand he walked forward slowly, towards the machine. Rose looked on, baffled. All the time she’d known the Doctor he had hated robots. Why was he acting all… strange… over this one, which looked like a rich kid’s toy car?

“Hello, Spirit, old girl,” he said kindly, kneeling down beside the rover, placing his gloved hand lovingly on the top of its camera mast, “I’ve come to set you free.”

The light bulb went on above Rose’s head.

“I’ve heard of it,” she said, stepping to the Doctor’s side. “Weren’t there two of these?”

“Yes, the other one, Opportunity, is on the other side of Mars, over, I dunno, there somewhere,” he said, glancing towards the horizon. “In the middle of a big crater, Endeavour they called it. Huge thing. It’s the more famous, because of what it found inside Endeavour – “ He stopped himself. “You’ll find out about that soon enough,” he smiled knowingly.

Rose looked at the robot. It was about the size of a golf buggy, maybe a little larger, and looked a lot like a huge beetle, or ladybird, on wheels. Sticking out of the top was a tall pole, with a collection of what looked like camera lenses on the front, and a very fragile-looking, jointed arm was jutting out of the front, with a bewildering array of tools and mechanisms on its end.

“Dirty, isn’t it?” Rose said, trailing a finger across the robot’s back. Her finger cut a valley through the thick layer of dusty covering it. Through the gap she saw the glint of blue metal, or glass, or something –

“Solar panels plus dust,” the Doctor agreed, “not a good combination for a rover. Potentially deadly, in fact.”

That was when Rose noticed the robot was leant over at an angle, and that she could only see the tops of some of its wheels. The rest were buried in the dusty ground.

“It looks stuck,” Rose said.

She is,” the Doctor replied, pointedly. “And that’s why we’re here.”

Careful not to fall over and crush the rover, the Doctor leaned over it and pointed his sonic screwdriver at a box of electronics and circuitry on the far side. The tip of the screwdriver flared for a moment, then dulled again. The Doctor shook his head. “Power’s almost completely gone. Not good,” he groaned, “Not good at all…”

“Well, this is fun,” Rose said, folding her arms across her chest with a loud huff. She’d been as giddy as a schoolgirl when she’d been told they were going to Mars, and had been looking forward to flying at breakneck speed down the Mariner Valley, or soaring over the summit of Olympus Mons. She hadn’t expected to spend her time on Mars watching the Doctor act all gooey over a robot. Especially one that looked dead.

“Don’t worry, we’ll do the tourist thing and go sightseeing after this,” the Doctor said, as if reading her thoughts, “but this is something I have to do, it’s important – “

“It’s just a beaten up, dirty old buggy – “ Rose began, but was cut off.

“No, it’s not,” the Doctor insisted. “You don’t understand. This rover is a heroine, a real robot heroine. She climbed that big hill behind you; she drove all the way here from that hill with a frozen wheel, dragging it behind her like a dog dragging a broken leg; she was only meant to last 90 days on Mars, but six years later she’s still working, still sending back pictures that are inspiring thousands, tens of thousands of people on Earth, all those millions of miles away…”

Again he laid his hand on the rover’s chassis, and Rose could have sworn he gave it an affectionate pat. “This rover, this dirty, dusty, dented and lame machine changed the way people saw and thought of Mars, Rose,” he continued, “so much so that in the future, when Mars is settled, and colonised, and there are towns and cities here, people will follow the ‘Spirit Trail’, recreating its epic journey. There’ll be schools named after her, statues of her in the parks and fields. Every year thousands of people will go and see her in the Great Museum of Mars. She matters, Rose. She matters…”

And with that he began to wipe his gloved hand across the rover’s back, back and forth. Only softly, only gently, but enough to clear away swathes of the crushed digestive biscuit-coloured dust with each swipe. “A little help would be nice,” he suggested, looking up at her and smiling. Rose desperately wanted to laugh at him, and tell him that he was on his own, but of course she couldn’t refuse him. She couldn’t refuse him anything. And a moment later she was on her knees beside him, cleaning the dust off Spirit’s back.

“Won’t this be a bit suspicious?” she asked. “I mean, one minute she’s covered in more dust than an old sideboard, the next she’s all sparkly and clean. Won’t that seem a bit – “

“Oh, they’ll just put it down to a very strong gust of wind, or a close fly-by of a dust devil,” the Doctor reassured her, continuing to gently remove dust from the rover’s back. With every wipe, more of Spirit’s solar panels were exposed, making her look even more like an enormous beetle, or bug. “Besides,” he laughed, “they won’t be too bothered why she’s cleaner, just glad that she is – gift horse, mouth and all that…”

Soon Spirit’s back was almost totally clear of dust. And Rose had to admit the rover was a remarkable sight. It looked so compact, so perfectly made. Like a pocket watch, or a clockwork model made by a craftsman as a labour of love.

“So, she’s clean,” Rose said, rocking back on her heels. “But she’s still stuck.”

 “Yes, she is,” the Doctor agreed, “but not for much longer..!”

He looked at the sky then, intently, as if searching for something. “Yep,” he said, “it should be going over just about… now…”

“What should?” Rose asked.

“An orbiter, a spaceprobe orbiting Mars,” the Doctor replied, leaning forwards carefully, making sure he didn’t fall onto the rover. “In a few seconds they’ll send down a command to Spirit to command her to try and drive out of this dust trap again, not really expecting her to do it, of course, because her power levels are so low…”

Then he reached out with his sonic screwdriver…

“You’ve been stuck here long enough,” he whispered, “time to go. You’ve more work to do yet before you rest.”

…and touched it softly against Spirit’s back.

For several seconds the tip glowed brightly, like a blue star, and Spirit seemed to give a little tremble. Then the Doctor turned off the screwdriver and pulled it away quickly.

“Off you go,” he said, giving the rover a final pat on its head before turning to Rose. “We need to get out of the way,” he told her, grabbing her hand and pulling her to her feet. She followed him, walking several feet away from the rover.

Which suddenly began to move.

Only a little, at first, and only very, very slowly, but it was definitely moving. Dust began to shudder and vibrate beneath its wheels, and some even flew out from behind them, making graceful arcs in the low gravity.

“Go on, go on,” the Doctor urged, “you can do it… just a little more…”

And despite herself, Rose found herself rooting for the little robot as it struggled to escape from its dusty trap.
”We could just give it a shove?” Rose suggested, she thought helpfully.

“Oh yes, brilliant idea,” the Doctor replied, “I can imagine it wouldn’t cause a stir at JPL At All when they looked at the hazcam images and saw two people in spacesuits, pushing their beloved rover like a stalled Ford Escort…”

Rose had to laugh at that. “Imagine their faces…!” she grinned, watching the rover’s wheels continue to spin. “She’s moved, but I think she’s still stuck,” she added.

“Give her a chance,” the Doctor urged. “As a wise man once said: Never bet against Spirit, that’s a guaranteed way to lose money…”

Then, suddenly, kicking up twin clouds of dust, Spirit was free!

As they watched, the rover lurched forwards onto harder, safer ground, then stopped, as if catching her breath.

“That was very… quick…” Rose said. “Won’t Super Rover’s Great Escape raise a few eyebrows in the control room?”

“Power surge,” the Doctor replied dismissively, but didn’t sound that convinced himself. Maybe he had overdone the juice a bit. Oh well, too late now.

Rose looked at the rover, standing there, on Mars, free again. It looked different. It still looked fragile, and but now it looked… bigger, somehow.

“Why didn’t you mend the broken wheel while you were at it?” Rose asked. “Given it a full service?”

“Oh, couldn’t do that,” the Doctor replied, “that broken wheel has more work to do yet. Spirit’s greatest discovery is made because of that wheel, just down…” and he nodded towards Von Bran and Goddard, rising up from the end of the valley, “…there.”

“Which is…?” Rose prompted, impatiently.

Amazing…!” he said quietly, shaking his head with wonder.

“Right,” he said brightly, turning away from Von Braun and Goddard, and away from Spirit too, “our work here is done.  Time to show you the sights!” He grabbed Rose’s hand and began to lead her away from the rover. “There’s a crater in Ganges Chasma I want to show you – well, half a crater really, the rest has broken off and fallen down into the valley, but it’s got these brilliant terraces and layers and – “

He noticed Rose was hanging back.

“Something wrong?” he asked. “I thought you wanted to be on our way?”

“I do, it’s just…” Rose hesitated. “Will she be okay now?” she asked, looking at the rover.

“Absolutely,” the Doctor reassured her. “There are a good few sols left for Spirit to enjoy yet.”

Smiling, Rose turned her back on the rover and began to walk back up the valley towards the TARDIS.

“You called it ‘she’,” the Doctor said, grinning, as they reached the door.

“What?”

“You called the rover ‘she’, instead of ‘it’,” he beamed, “get you, you’re a rover hugger – !“

“Shut up!” Rose laughed, punching him on the arm, again, as they tumbled back into the ancient blue box.

Moments later the TARDIS began to dematerialise on the surface of Mars, its mighty engines groaning and moaning, and as it vanished it sent a ripple of pressure across Homeplate, a ripple that pulsed down the valley that ran between it and Von Braun, passing over Spirit along the way, removing the last few grains of dust from its back.

Many millions of miles away, in a control room at JPL, a young rover driver stared at his computer monitor in delighted disbelief. That can’t be right, he thought, taking his glasses off and rubbing them.

But there was no escaping the facts. Spirit was free.

At last.

© Stuart Atkinson 2010

27
Sep
09

DESCENT

Regaining her balance after almost stumbling over yet another rock, Jen stopped dead in her tracks and let out an exasperated growl. “Oh, this is stupid; I’m going to fall and break my neck!”

“Then stop being so awkward and just let me guide you…” her husband sighed patiently. “You’re just making it harder on yourself with all this moaning… “

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to,” Jen replied, squeezing his gloved hand in apology, “but wherever we’re going we must be there by now! Come on, Glen, I want to see!”

“No, we’re not,” Glen replied, laughing at his wife’s theatrical, childlike whining, “When we’re there, and it’s okay to look, I’ll clear the V, I promise… now come on…”

He pulled her forwards again, gently but insistently, and she duly followed, but not before letting out a melodramatic sigh worthy of a teenager disgusted at being told they had to be in by ten o’clock. Her feet were sore from kicking, treading on and banging into countless rocks, and she felt increasingly giddy and nauseous from being “blind”, unable to see through her helmet’s visor.

What was he up to?

They’d landed half an hour earlier and a mile away, in a small, four man shuttle chartered specially for the trip. Jen knew that alone must have cost him a fortune – or maybe not? Maybe he’d called in one of the many favours owed to him by the pad rats at Chryse, whose payload bays and manifests were never checked quite as thoroughly as regulations demanded, meaning all kinds of contraband was free to flow backwards and forwards between the remote polar outposts and the main settlement. Nothing dangerous, of course; nothing that could do any harm to anyone or anything. Just… you know, bits and pieces… this and that. A stack of classic dvd movies here, a bottle of something warm and comforting and alcoholic there, maybe even now and again a box of ‘luxury goods’, such as tea bags, chocolate biscuits or even fresh orange juice; just little things to make the lives of the men and women posted – or, as they put it, exiled – to the scientific bases in the far north and deep south a little better.

Yes, she was sure of it now, this trip had required calling in a lot of IOUs…

Which was why, despite her discomfort, she didn’t protest too much; whatever her husband was planning as a present for their tenth anniversary – anniversaries, actually – he had put a lot of work into it, and she didn’t want to spoil it or seem ungrateful.

Ten years of marriage, and ten years on Mars… five martian years, strictly speaking, but she still couldn’t help thinking in terran terms, like many Earthers did. They’d both come to Mars in 2035 onboard the same ship, the MTV “Squyres”, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young members of ‘Ares V’, the fifth expedition to Mars, both determined to be The One to find proof – conclusive proof, not the “hmmm, might be, might not be” evidence discovered by the MSL Rover years earlier – of past life on the Red Planet. During crew selection and training they’d been wary of each other, frosty even, knowing they were in direct competition for places on the expedition. But once their seats on the Squyres had been secured they’d been drawn together, professionally and personally, and had become great friends. At some time during the six month flight from Earth they’d fallen for each other romantically too, head over heels, and by the time they landed on Mars they were already planning a future together. Married less than a month later by the Commander of the base at Chryse, they’d embraced Mars, and the harsh realities of life on Mars, with all their hearts, and started working as a team.

Ten years later they still hadn’t found their Holy Grail, but they knew they would never give up looking. Both knew, in their hearts and in their guts, that it was out there, somewhere, waiting to be discovered, then everything – everything – would be different.

And so they worked, and worked, always together. They hiked along the bottom of Valles Marineris, looking for the mythical hot spots and fumaroles where crusty colonies of martian microbes might live, love and laugh, but found none. They flew out – at short notice, like spies, or a crack military team – to the sites of fresh impact craters, to dig around in the beautiful, freshly-excavated ice splattered all over the surface, looking for any bacteria that had taken set up home in it, sheltering there from the Sun’s relentlessly rolling tsunami of cell-slaughtering UV radiation…and found nothing. But they kept looking, and looking, travelling around Mars like two medieval pilgrims on a quest, looking for life, …

…until suddenly, one day, it was their tenth wedding anniversary, and she was told out of the blue that they were going on “a trip”. Her protests that that was impossible – she had work to do, commitments to keep etc – had been brushed aside, and before she knew it she was being hustled into a shuttle and shown to a seat.

And that was where the mystery really began to take shape: all the shuttle’s windows had been covered, and its view-screens too, so when they took off into the frigid martian morning she had had no idea where they were going. The whole trip – a four hour flight – had passed without any hint, any clue being given of their final destination. And when they eventually landed, and she had donned her helmet in the airlock the mystery had deepened even further: Glen had used some kind of – almost certainly illegal – software hacker trickery to turn her helmet’s visor opaque, blinding her instantly and completely.

After the air had puffed out of it he had led her out of the airlock outer door in absolute silence, laughing quietly as she felt her way gingerly down the ramp and onto the surface like a newborn foal taking its first steps, before reaching the ground. The rocks upon it had felt hard beneath her feet, but she had been surprised that there were so few of them; everyone knew Mars was covered in the bloody things, millions and millions of them. Soon she was walking easily and quickly across ground that she realised was thickly cushioned with sand, or dust, or both. Every few minutes her boots would crump down into a thicker layer of dust, and as she felt herself pushing through what had to be a low ripple or dune of the stuff she would lose her balance for a moment, but then they’d be through it and on their way again, towards, into and through the next dune, then the next one, him leading her onward by the hand, her following blindly behind.

What a sight they must have looked –

Without warning, they stopped.

Standing there now, listening to her own breathing inside her helmet – she sounded so much like Darth Vader she could hear the Imperial March in her head – Jen could only wait to see what would happen next.

“Okay, “Glen said quietly over their radio link, “I’m going to clear your visor… but I want you to shut your eyes first – “

That was taking things a bit far. “Why? What’s the – ?”

“Oh, just… do it, will you?” he replied, almost snapping at her. Then, more gently: “You just have to trust me on this.”

“Okay,” Jen said softly, giving his hand another sorry-for-whining queeze, “I’m shutting my eyes now…” And she did.

Warmth – not much of it, but a definite hint, a gentle brushing touch of it – fell on her face a moment later, making it tingle, and she knew that the surface of her visor had been made transparent again, allowing sunlight to enter. Her heart literally jumped in anticipation, as she imagined what she was about to see – the beautifully barren, raw landscape of Mars which she loved so much. It didn’t matter that she didn’t have any idea where she was; she knew what she’d see – a spectacular, gently undulating landscape unlike any other to be found in the solar system: an ancient, biscuit-and brick-coloured desert scattered with countless hundreds of thousands of rocks and boulders, large and small, all battered and beaten and chipped and broken by millennia of merciless torture at the hands of Mars’ weather and impacts from micrometeorites.

She opened her eyes –

“No!!!” she shouted, and almost fell backwards with shock and in fear.

There was a huge, gaping hole in the world, and she was standing on the very edge of it.

“You always said you wanted to come here, so here you are…”

Jen knew Glen was speaking to her, she could hear words of some kind in her ears, but her head was whirling so much, and her heart was thumping so loud in her chest that she had no idea what he was actually saying. All she could see was The Hole stretching out in front of her and to either side of her as well –

“This is it, the very spot where she went in…”

Jen’s brain was made of jelly. It? Where was it? She? Who was she?

Oh…

Ah….

Now she knew where she was. Now the view in front of her made sense.

“It” was the lip of a gently-sloping dusty ramp of rock called Duck Bay. “She” was Opportunity, the second of the two Mars Exploration Rovers to land on the Red Planet almost half a century earlier.

“Victoria…” Jen whispered, finding it hard to believe her own eyes, “you brought me to Victoria Crater…!”

“I did,” Glen confirmed, smiling at her through his visor, “happy anniversary…”

She wanted to hug him – oh, she wanted to hug him so hard it would bend him in two and then snap him like a dry twig – but she couldn’t move, she was rooted to the spot as if turned to stone. She was here, she was really, really, here…

Everyone has somewhere special, a place, a destination that they dream of visiting before they die, perhaps a city, a mountain, or a lake. Jen could remember her mother telling her how she’d longed to see the great Pyramids of Egypt, and her father had dreamed of looking down on the world from the summit of Everest. All her life Jen had wanted to see Victoria Crater. And now here she was.

She had first fallen in love with the crater as a classic bespectacled, 12 year old science geek girl when, watching TV, she’d seen a program about a pair of small robots that were trundling – or “roving” – around Mars, taking pictures, studying rocks and generally having a great time sightseeing on the planet. After a drive of many months one of them, “Opportunity”, had pulled up on the crumbling edge of a huge crater called “Victoria”, and the view had been… breathtaking.

Watching that TV show, seeing the pictures the Mars rover had taken of the view across the great crater, Jen had felt something change within her – no, not change; come to life. Until then she’d wanted to be a horse rider, or an Olympic figure skater, or a thousand other ‘normal’ and equally mundane or clichéd things, but suddenly she had a real goal, a real focus: Mars was calling to her, reaching out for her, specifically That Crater, Victoria, and she had vowed, there and then, sitting in front of that flickering TV screen, to work as hard as necessary to reach Mars and, one day, stand on the edge of that very crater and see it for herself.

And now she was there, standing on the edge of Duck Bay, staring across the great wide expanse of Victoria Crater at the bays and cliffs and capes on the other, faraway side.

To her left the towering, crumbling cliff of Cape Verde was a magnificent sight, a massive natural monolith, a rugged, ragged promontory of rock jutting out from the crater’s rim towards its centre. To her right, Cabo Frio – sharper, thinner, more sharply-tapering than Verde – was a dagger blade stabbing towards Victoria’s heart. Directly in front of her, beyond the lower slope of Duck Bay itself, the crater’s deep floor was covered with a rippled blanket of dust dunes, shaped and sculpted by the gentle but relentlessly whispering martian winds into beautifully-delicate cross-hatch and herringbone patterns. Directly opposite her, beyond that sea of dust dunes, the serrated far wall of the crater was broken up into its own promontories, cliffs and bays…

In the pancam and navcam photographs taken by Opportunity all those years ago, which she had viewed on and Saved from countless NASA websites and the posts of busy internet forums, Victoria Crater had been a stunning enough sight. It had been even more stunning when “visited” in virtual reality, seen in crystal-clear 3D vision through the holographic goggles available back at the colony. But now, seen through Jen’s own eyes, opening up in front her beneath an enormous, endless, blushing rose pink sky, with highlights of lemon and caramel here and there, it was a glorious sight, a wondrous sight, and bathed in the subtle, honey-hued glow of the shrunken, gold-coin Sun, it was almost too beautiful for words.

Almost.

“Thank you…” she managed to whisper eventually.

“You’re welcome,” Glen smiled back. “Hey, look, over there… on the horizon… see?” Jen squinted against the sunlight to try and make out what he was pointing at. On the skyline, barely visible against the bright, butterscotch-coloured sky, was a pair of almost-not-there bumps, as if a camel was plodding along just over the horizon. She nodded. “The Hills of Endeavour,” Glen told her, and now it was his voice’s turn to betray a love of place; just as she had always wanted to see Victoria up close, he had dreamed of climbing the high hills of the much larger crater further to the south.

Looking at her husband staring wistfully into the distance, willing himself to the base of the faraway hills, Jen decided that one day his wish would come true, just as hers had done.

“I wish we had a time machine…” Jen said softly, sweeping her gaze over the landscape. ”Imagine being here when this was formed…”

For a moment, she was.

Mars was very different then, a kinder, warmer, wetter world. Reflecting in shallow, still pools of briny, teeth-chatteringly cold water, clouds floated idly through its sky. And one quiet sol a ball of fire lanced down from that sky, roaring, howling and trailing smoke and flame behind it like a dying dragon. Slamming into the Meridiani Plain like Thor’s hammer it set the ground for miles around shaking tremulously, and as a mushroom cloud of filthy brown and orange dust rose into the air above the impact site, churning and broiling within itself, a rain of flaming rocks and stones began to fall on Meridiani  -

“I said,” Glen repeated, “do you want to go down?”

“Hmm?” Jen looked at him blankly, still climbing out of her daydream.

“Into Victoria,” he continued patiently, smiling at her confusion. “You were miles away then…! I asked if you wanted to take a walk in Oppy’s footsteps?”

Jen laughed. He was joking, of course.

“No, seriously,” he insisted, “do you want to take a walk with me, down…” He nodded towards the base of Cape Verde. “…there..?”

Jen laughed again, but because she was nervous, not amused. He had to be joking, he had to be; people simply weren’t allowed down into the crater, everyone knew that. It was a Restricted Area, preserved and protected by Mars Heritage.

If the rumours of Mars Heritage’s obsession with protecting its sites were true a hundred nano-cameras were trained on them that very moment…

“I really want to see those rocks close-up, don’t you?” Glen continued brightly, and even started to walk forwards towards the upper slope of the Bay. Jen held back. She wasn’t going anywhere. Like many of the sites along the famous “Spirit Trail” and “Opportunity Trek”, the floor of Victoria Crater was strictly a “Look but don’t touch” zone, something to marvel at from a respectable distance and not trample over. Anyone who broke Mars Heritage’s preservation orders was in for a dozen kinds of trouble, they took their role as the guardians and protectors of Mars’ history and heritage very seriously, very seriously indeed. There were even rumours that a settler had been shipped back home to Earth after chipping a piece off one of the rocks RATted by Spirit.

“Come on,” Glen called out to her as he started down the slope of Duck Bay.

“You’re insane,” Jen shot back, her voice breaking. Of course she wanted to go with him, to see those lovely layered rocks up close, but it was impossible. If they went down there they’d be hung, drawn and quartered, after being named and shamed in front of the whole solar system –

Jen started as a red envelope icon suddenly appeared in the top left corner of her helmet’s HUD panel. Someone had messaged her. Tapping the icon with a fingertip brought up the message. It was from Glen! What was he playing at?

The message title was just two words: READ ME. That was when she noticed an attachment with the message. Opening it slowly she found it was a document of some kind… very official-looking… She scanned it quickly – an authorisation…

From Mars Heritage!

“You sneaky, crafty…” she laughed, reading the text. Somehow Glen had managed to get permission from MH to go down into Victoria Crater.

Plus one.

“I heard from – well, it doesn’t matter who – that some people had been planning to come out here and scribble graffiti on Cape Verde,” Glen explained over the radio. “Red Rocks, you know. So I contacted MH and offered to go take a look for them, seeing as they are so short of staff and we were coming out here anyway…”

Jen started laughing, and soon couldn’t stop. This was insane, all of it, just insane.

“So, are you coming, or what?” Glen called to her, laughing too.

Taking a last, very careful look at the authorisation, just to reassure herself it wasn’t a forgery, Jen smiled up at the Sun and then set off down the ramp of Duck Bay.

Into Victoria Crater.

Although the ramp looked quite steep on photographs, and in the VR sim, she found it was in reality just a gentle slope, and walking down it presented no problems, not even when she joined hands with Glen. Carefully, slowly, they step-stepped down the ramp, their boots scuffing up clouds of flour-fine cinnamon dust as they went. Soon they were stepping over the narrow band of whiter rock that ran around the scalloped inner edge of the Bay, the “Bright Band” that Opportunity herself had rolled over half a century earlier. Here the rocks were slab-like, plates of tan and cream that looked alarmingly fragile and unstable to Jen as she trod on them, but they were clearly stronger than they looked for they supported her weight with no problem, and soon they were over the Band and heading on down to the bottom of the ramp.

Ahead of them the crater began to open up into he familiar huge shallow bowl, with a frozen “sea” of dust dunes on its floor. Jen had to force herself to concentrate on the ground in front of her feet instead of turning her head this way and that to gawp at the scenery around her. It was nothing, absolutely nothing, like the VR sims. The air was so clean, so crisp, that every rock, every stone, every single ankle-high ripple of dust stood out in stark relief from its surroundings. Her senses felt heightened as she stepped on down the ramp/ It was hard to explain and hard to understand; every nerve in her body seemed to be tingling, as if tiny traceries of fire were rippling through her, jumping and skipping along as she walked.

Soon the nature of the ground around them changed. At the top of the ramp there had been no real rocks of any size at all, just dust. Halfway down the ramp she’d started to see and step on a few stones, small ones, here and there, and the farther down the ramp she walked the more stones she found herself walking over, scrunching them beneath her boots. Now, the stones were too big to walk on, she had to go around them they were so large. They were jagged too, not exactly EVA-suit friendly…

“We need to start tracking left a bit,” Glen informed her, and she felt him gently tug her hand. All she could do was allow herself to be led, she was lost in her own world and her own thoughts, thinking, as she stared down at the ground, “Opportunity came down this very ramp… all those years ago…”

She was so focussed on working her way around the large rocks laying on the ground at her feet that it came as a real shock when she found herself plunged into darkness without warning. Looking up she saw the Sun had been cut off by a towering cliff-face of stone –

“Cape Verde,” she breathed out, “this is it, Glen… Cape Verde!”

Beside her Glen laughed affectionately. “The one and only. Come on, we need to get closer to check the – “

“No,” Jen interrupted sharply. “I mean, not yet, ok? Just give me a couple of moments will you? I don’t want to rush this… this is special for me.” Ahead of her, now mere metres away, Cape Verde was a wall across her world. There was the sky, and the rock, that was all. She felt tiny, dwarfed, but more alive than she’d ever felt before. “I want to drink it all in… you understand?” she asked, looking to him for confirmation. He nodded and said nothing, smiling as he let go of her hand and started to walk towards the debris-littered base of the cliff without her.

Jen stared hard at the rocky face of Cape Verde, glowing burnt orange in the afternoon light. Although it wasn’t a “cliff” in the classic sense – an almost vertical wall of stone – it was still a fascinating and moving sight. On the pictures, and in the VR sim, it had looked just like a high mound of stones, like a section of one of the dry stone walls that snaked up and down and around the green fells and mountains back in her Lake District home in Cumbria, back on Earth. But up close it was more, so much more than that. Standing in front of it, made small by it, Jen couldn’t shake off the feeling that she was looking at part of the remains of an ancient martian castle, or fortress, that Cape Verde was all that was left of one of its buttresses, or a once-proud tower or turret.

Cape Verde wasn’t pretty, no-one would ever have suggested that. Truth be told it was a broken, shattered thing. At its top the rocks were coated with a thick layer of dust, blown off the crater floor no doubt and deposited there by the winds that swept and rippled over the crater sol after sol after sol. The lower third was a broad, layered horizontal band of orange stone, like a wall holding up the rest of the Cape, which was made up of countless blocks and slabs and plates of orange and brown rock, all arranged at conflicting and jarring angles. Between those the cliff was basically a mess of different sized and shaped masses of stone, shot through with cracks and fissures. Here was a ledge covered with shingle and chips of stone. There was a dip in the rock, filled with fine dust, a pool of fines.

Shielding her eyes from the glaring Sun, staring at the front of the Cape, where erosion had eaten away at it, exposing its sedimentary innards, Jen found her earlier romantic image of a ruined turret or tower being swept away and replaced by another image, that of a huge sack of stones being emptied out on this part of Mars by some cosmic entity -

Jen’s silent contemplation was shattered as a voice barked into her ears: “Come on… we only have half an hour here, then we have to go…” and she panned along the cliff to find Glen had reached its base and kneeling down by it. She couldn’t see exactly what he was doing down there, but it looked like he was pushing something – a probe of some kind? – into a crevice in the rock..? Something he’d carried in one of the many pouches on his suit, no doubt.

Slowly, carefully, Jen threaded her way up the talus slope towards him, through the chaotic rock garden of boulders that had formed at the base of the cliff. It was obvious that Time itself had shaped the Cape. Each of the rocks she shuffled and edged around had fallen from the side of the cliff, crashing to the ground in a cloud of crushed strawberry dust. Some had shattered, scattering the area with smaller, jagged fragments of stone, while others, denser and less friable, had actually embedded themselves in the ground and now protruded from it at crazy angles. Jen smiled to herself as she noticed how one of them looked exactly like one of the small standing stones at the Castlerigg Stone Circle near her old home back on Earth…

Then she was standing beside Glen, within touching distance of the ancient, layered rock of Cape Verde. Smiling broadly at him she leaned forwards until her helmet visor was almost touching the cold stone.

Now, seen from so close, the rock looked even more fragile, and she actually moved back slightly for fear of damaging it with an inadvertent touch of her helmet. Now she could see the layers in the rock properly, not just the obvious, broad layers visible from metres away but all the thinner, finer layers, the paper thin sheaves of sedimentary stone that made up the lower level of the Cape. They reminded her of the stacked, decaying pages of a fat, dusty, old book. One touch of her gloved fingers would surely crumble them to powder.

“Well, it seems like the rumours were true,” Glen sighed heavily, pointing towards the top of the cape. “Look…”

Jen turned away from the lower layers and peered up at a broken ledge higher up on the cliff face. Daubed on it, in dark red paint, or ink, or something, were just four words.

“Mars for the martians!”

Which martians?” Jen wondered outloud.

“They mean the bacteria… if there is any,” Glen told her. Jen nodded in understanding. It was no secret that there were some scientists who thought that just by being on Mars they were contaminating it with the terrestrial life – bacteria, germs, viruses etc – they’d brought with them from Earth, riding on them and living and hiding inside them. Those scientists insisted that they couldn’t be sure anything biological found find out here under a rock actually was martian because it might be something they’d sneezed – or worse – out of themselves…

Jen thought they might have a point. One of her greatest fears was finding Something Interesting swimming or throbbing about on a microscope slide, and then pop the cork on the bottle of champagne she kept on standby only to learn that it was a hitch-hiker from Earth. But she had faith her techniques and equipment would spot the difference early on, before she announced prematurely to the solar system that she’d found Life On Mars and cleared a space on her shelf for her Nobel Prize…

“Idiots,” Glen huffed, spotting a second scrawl on the rock face, “mindless vandals.”

Jen had to agree with that sentiment. As much as she sympathised with the concerns of the people who’d done this, she had nothing but contempt for their actions. She’d never understood why some people felt a need to desecrate beautiful places like this with their stupid scribblings and scratchings. It made no sense to her. She’d seen graffiti almost everywhere she’d been on Earth – stupid smiley faces drawn in green marker pen on the standing stones at Stonehenge, names, dates and love-hearts scratched into the Great Wall of China with keys, and worse – and she’d hoped Mars would escape such defacement. Obviously not.

“Oh well, I suppose it could have been worse,” Glen said with a sigh, “at least the writing is too small to be seen from the crater edge, that’s something.”

Jen snarled inside her helmet. It was something, but it wasn’t enough.

“Come on then,” she heard Glen say sadly, “time’s beaten us. If we overstay by even a few minutes MH will make a big deal of it. I had to pull more strings than Gypetto to get us here in the first place. There’s nothing we can do except report it and leave it to them. They’ll send a clean-up crew… maybe…” He started to walk away from the base of the cliff.

As he passed her, Jen gazed up at the graffiti and pondered his words. A clean-up crew? Mars Heritage must have anticipated this kind of problem and come up with some kind of hi-tech graffiti removal gadget. Would a finely-tuned laser be able to scour the writing from the stone, for instance? Maybe. At least the damage could be repaired then, eventually. But she knew that with MH’s limited budget and personnel, “eventually” would probably be in a year’s time, maybe more.

And besides, with so many more obviously picturesque and / or fragile sites of special interest to protect along the “Spirit Trail” and “Opportunity Trek” – such as the largest RATted rocks, the few remaining lengths of preserved wheel tracks and the actual MER landing sites themselves – a few scrawled-on stones on the side of a cliff in Victoria Crater weren’t going to be a very high priority…

“Let’s have a walk around the top before we go,” Glen suggested brightly, starting back up the slope of Duck Bay. “We can take each other’s picture from the same points Oppy took her photos…”

But Jen wasn’t listening. All she could hear was her hot blood pounding angrily in her veins as she stared at the graffiti scrawled on the ancient, beautiful rock. It was like an ugly scar, a knife gash or a badly-healed burn, on the face of a loved friend. Was she really just supposed to walk away from it with an “Oh well” shrug and go back to Chryse and forget all about it? Would she be able to get on with her work there, to sit at her microscope and computer, knowing that Out There, in the deep desert of Meridiani, such ugliness remained?

No.

It was up to her, then.

“Jen?” Glen called back down the slope, “what are you waiting for? Is something wrong?”

“No,” she replied, looking away from the rock to see Glen standing half-way up the slope, feet planted in the dust, waiting for her to follow him. She smiled to herself. A sense of calm had fallen over her, now she had resolved to do something.

But what?

That was when she saw it.

Ah… yes…

“Everything’s fine,” she reassured him. Or it will be, she thought, in a moment

Luckily – or maybe it wasn’t luck? Perhaps some lingering feelings of discomfort, or even guilt, had guided their choice of stony canvases? – the rocks defaced by the graffiti artists were relatively small and on the most badly eroded face of the Cape, too. If they had written their message on one of the big, flat blocks of stone that made up the lower level of Cape Verde then there would have been nothing she could have done about it. Those slabs were set firmly and fast into the body of the cliff. But the rocks that bore the messages were smaller, much smaller, and protruded from the body of the cliff like the rotten teeth of some huge, buried martian troll.

And those teeth looked loose.

Jen took a deep breath then bent down. She couldn’t allow herself to think about what she was about to do; that would have frozen her to the spot. She just chose a suitably hefty-looking rock, picked it up with her gloved hand, and, approving the weight of it, slowly walked forwards.

“Jen!” Glen called anxiously from above her. “Jen! What are you doing?!”

“Making things right again…” she replied casually, even though her heart was pounding like a war drum. There was no going back now, she was committed. Whatever happened, happened. She just knew that she couldn’t leave Cape Verde looking like… like that.

Quickly, focussed now, she made her way back through the rock garden of fallen debris, every footstep bringing her closer to the side of Cape Verde, closer to her goal. Behind her she was aware of Glen lolloping back down the slope of Duck Bay, fans of red dust spraying out in front of him as he rushed to get to her, to stop her – but it was too late. She was already there.

“Not here too…” she growled angrily, glaring at one of the graffiti-covered rocks, “not here…!”

And she struck the rock with her own.

Over the radio link she heard Glen gasp loudly in horror and shock, unable to believe what he was seeing. She ignored him, focussed completely on the defaced rock now. It had moved, a little, but remained in place. She hit it again, harder this time, and even though a jolt of pain ran up her arm as the two rocks smacked together she smiled: it had definitely wobbled that time.

“Jen! No!” Glen was screaming over the radio as he bounded towards her.

“I’m sorry, I can’t just leave it like this,” she said, apologetically, even as she hefted her clubbing stone for the third time. “I’d rather be sent home than not do anything – “

The two rocks came together with a loud shotgun CRACK! that sent another tremor of horrendous pain shooting up her arm – but she didn’t care, not when she saw the offending and offensive rock come loose, fall away and drop to the ground in a crumping puff of orange dust.

“JEN!” Glen shouted, appalled, but she was already striking at the second graffiti-bearing rock. This one was higher on the Cape and harder to get to, requiring her to balance on the toes of her boots as she chipped away at the cliff face above her. As she did so, sharp shards of stone fell down on her, bouncing loudly off her helmet faceplate, but she ignored them and kept chipping away, chipping away, chipping away until finally the second stone was dislodged too. She had to skip backwards to avoid it smashing into her visor, and she just managed to get clear, but at the expense of losing her footing. As the rock thumped into the ground in a cloud of ginger dust she fell too, stumbling away from the rock face, arms wind-milling, legs flailing, kicking up her own dust cloud, just like one of those early Apollo astronauts who fell on the Moon. She shut her eyes and waited for her own impact with the cold hard surface of Mars, which she knew would be painful -

But the impact never came.

“Got you,” she heard a familiar voice say as she felt arms wrap around her, “you bloody idiot…!”

Back on her feet again, Jen surveyed her handiwork. With both defaced rocks removed, Cape Verde looked just as it had done before the graffiti artists had left their mark. “I’m sorry, Glen,” she said, “I just couldn’t walk away from it.”

Glen brushed and patted at her spacesuit with his hand, clearing some of the red dust off it. But he said nothing.

“I’ve dreamed of coming here ever since I was a kid, you know that,” Jen continued, “I love this place… I’d never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t at least tried…”

“I know, I know,” Glen said eventually, stopping his grooming to look her straight in the eye, so close their helmet faceplates almost touched, “and I’d have been surprised if you’d not tried something. But that..?”

“I know, I’m sorry!” Jen groaned, realising suddenly how melodramatic – not to mention dangerous – she had been. “We’re in trouble now, I know… I’m sorry…”

“Well,” Glen replied, after a long pause, “maybe not.”

“What do you mean?” Jen asked. She’d just damaged a martian natural monument, perhaps done even more harm to it than the graffiti artists whose work she’d removed. Of course they were in trouble.

“Who’s going to tell them?” Glen asked matter of factly, brushing the last remnants of dust off her legs with his hand.

“No-one will have to tell them,” Jen insisted, “this place is mined with nano-cameras, they’ll have seen everything – “

Glen was laughing now, and she didn’t know why. “What?” she demanded. “What is it?” she asked again, punching him on the arm.

“You really think that a group like Mars Heritage – twenty people, with a converted storage hab for an office and a smaller budget than the Waste Recycling Office – would be able to afford to do something like that?” he chuckled, rubbing his arm where she had hit him. “No chance. They let everyone think they have cameras at all the important sites because that’s a deterrent; it makes people think twice before doing something stupid. That’s why they leapt at my offer. Free labour.”

Jen let out a long, deep breath as relief flooded through her. Maybe they’d be alright after all.

“Come on, wrecker,” Glen said firmly, grabbing her hand, “we really do have to go. The shuttle will be coming back for us in an hour, we have to get a move on.”

Jen nodded, and was about to head back up to the plain above when a thought formed in her mind and she stopped in her tracks.

“What is it now?” Glen asked, a little testily. He could, as always, hear a clock ticking.

“There’s something I have to do – no, I mean something else I have to see,” she corrected herself. “If we have time..?”

“Depends what it is,” Glen replied cautiously. “Is it something we can see in five minutes?”

She had him, she knew she did. “Come with me!” she grinned, and, pulling him by the hand, led him away from the foot of the Cape and the rest of the way down the dusty ramp.

After less than a minute’s walk they were standing at the edge of the field of dust dunes that had built up on the floor of the great crater.

The dune-field stretched halfway across the crater, and with all its ripples, hummocks and ridges it looked like a huge blanket, or quilt, that had been thrown over Victoria’s floor without being smoothed out afterwards. It was a serene thing, a beautiful work of art, but created by Nature, not man; shaped by aeons of gently wafting wind instead of a chisel, and carved out of dust and powdered stone instead of marble.

Jen found herself shaking her head with disbelief. The colours…! On all the photographs she had ever seen, and even in the 3D sim, the famous Victoria Crater dune field had looked quite bland, little more than a broad, biscuit- or bran-coloured expanse of crested dust. But up close, illuminated by Mars’ shrunken Sun, seen through her own startled eyes, it was alive with different shades and hues.

Catching the most sunlight, the upper ridges of the ripples shone like polished gold. Beneath them, in some shade, the slopes of the ripples were copper-coloured, sweeping banks of burnished bronze. Jen let out a long, appreciative sigh, drinking in the view, savouring it like a sip of expensive wine, knowing she would probably never see it again –

And then she noticed that the dunes were twinkling.

She knew what was causing it, of course: embedded in the dunes were thousands, possibly even millions of tiny flakes and chips of reflective martian minerals, each one polished smooth or carved into a miniature prism by the action of the wind, and now they were catching the sun, reflecting and refracting its beams like jewels. Looking closely she could see the shadowed side of every dune was sparkling like a starry night sky. It was a view so lovely it threatened to bring her to tears.

“Tempting, isn’t it?” Glen asked, mischief in his voice.

“What is?” Jen asked without looking round at him. She was unable to tear her eyes away from the dune field.

“To just run right through it,” Glen laughed, and she laughed too because she knew exactly what he meant.

As a young girl, growing up surrounded by the forests, fields, lakes and fells of the Cumbrian countryside she had never been able to resist the siren call of a field covered by a fall of fresh snow, or a blanket of crisp, golden autumn leaves piled up beneath a tree, and had crumped and kicked and swished her way through them until she was breathless. Now she was a grown woman, a respected scientist, one of the first true martian settlers, yet the child in her was desperate to dash right into the heart of the dune field and run about, jumping up and down and stamping her feet like an idiot, just for fun, just for the sheer joy of making a mess of something virgin and untouched.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jen lied, “I’d never dream of doing such a thing.”

“Of course not,” Glen agreed, stifling a laugh, “besides, I think you’ve done enough damage to a famous martian landmark for one day, don’t you?”

Jen smiled sadly, watching a gentle breath of wind rolling over the dune field, lifting just enough dust off it to make a wave that wafted over it slowly, so, so slowly. There was so much to see here, so much beauty, but she knew that if she stayed there, at that very spot, for a hundred years she would never see everything Victoria Crater had to offer.

But there was no sense in putting it off any longer. “Time to go..?”

Glen nodded slowly. “I’m sorry, yes… time to go.”

Without saying another word he took her hand and led her slowly away from the edge of the dune sea and back up the slope of Duck Bay. Eventually they reached the lip of the crater, stepped over it and up onto the wide-open plain of Meridiani once again. Looking back down the ramp they could see the ragged trails of their footprints leading all the way back down to the base of Cape Verde and beyond, to the shore of the dune sea.

Standing there, looking at that scene, Jen was suddenly ten years old again, a young, space-mad girl in a tatty but treasured NASA t-shirt, sitting in front of the computer in her bedroom, click-clicking on the latest images from Opportunity. One appeared on the screen that caught her eye: a picture the rover had taken from this very spot after driving back out of Victoria Crater, looking back at where her own wheel tracks had been pressed into the thick dust –

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Glen said hurriedly, “the rest of your present…”

“The rest?” she repeated incredulously, “I don’t want anything else, you’ve given me more than enough already by bringing me here, showing me…” She swept her hand across the view. “…this…”

“There’s one more thing,” he insisted, reaching into another of his many suit pouches. When his hand reappeared it was holding what looked like a small remote control unit, with several buttons on it. Wordlessly he aimed it down the slope of Duck Bay, towards the base of Cape Verde, and pressed one of the buttons.

Tears finally leapt into Jen’s eyes when she saw what happened next.

Below them, standing in the shadows at the base of Cape Verde, was Opportunity, the Mars Exploration Rover that had explored and studied and toured the crater half a century earlier. With sunlight glinting off its solar panel-covered back, and its robot arm extended towards the rocky face of the cliff, it looked like an alien beetle of some kind, scuttling around the foot of the Cape searching for a nook or a cranny to crawl into and hide…

“But that’s… impossible!” Jen stammered, her eyes wide with a mixture of wonder and confusion. Opportunity couldn’t be there, she just couldn’t; she was on display in the Museum of Mars back at Chryse, in a gallery alongside her sister rover, Spirit, their descendant, along with Curiosity, Phoenix, the twin Viking landers, several Russian Mars probes and even the sad, shattered remains of Beagle 2! She’d seen it with her own eyes, reached out through the protective barrier and touched it with her own fingers –

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Glen pressing another button on the machine in his hand, and just as suddenly as she had appeared, Opportunity vanished.

“A hologram…”she grinned. “That’s what you were doing down there: putting in projectors.” Confirming her theory, Glen tapped at the pad of the control unit again, summoning ‘Opportunity’ into existence once more. This time the rover appeared beside them, right there on the edge of the crater, and as Jen watched Opportunity began to roll forwards, edging hesitantly down the slope of Duck Bay, just as they had done. Jen clapped her hands gleefully. It was as if she had travelled back in time.

“But I thought you said Mars Heritage has no money?” she asked quizzically, watching the holographic rover trundle on down the ramp of Duck Bay, heading for the same Bright Band of light rock they’d stepped over not half an hour earlier. “How could they afford something like that?”

“Private donations,” Glen replied, adding, “from Down There,” nodding towards the Sun. Jen smiled at the way he referred to Earth in the same way the native martians did: any planets or space stations closer to the Sun than Earth were classed as being “down” from Mars because they were further ‘down’ the Sun’s gravity well. “Space enthusiasts, writers, artists,” Glen explained, “they all gave money. The Planetary Society set it up, and they raised enough to pay for one projector. Then when they saw the commercial possibilities, some big net gurus put their hands in their pockets to help too, enough to pay for a dozen projectors, so within a year there will be Opportunities inside Endurance Crater, standing beside Block Island and even on the summit of Mount Journey’s End, at Endeavour – “

“What about Spirit?” Jen enquired sharply. As much as she loved Victoria Crater, and Opportunity, Spirit, the first of the pair of MERs to land on Mars, had always been her favourite.

“Well,” Glen sighed, “looks like we’ve got some travelling to do… by this time next year there’ll be holo-Spirits sitting on the peak of Husband Hill, wandering over Homeplate, and standing beside Humphrey, too…”

Jen couldn’t help grinning like a cheshire cat. The was no way – No Way – she was going back to Earth without trekking up Husband Hill, to sit down beside Spirit and watch dust devils whirling and twirling over the floor of Gusev crater, far, far below…

If they ever went back to Earth. That was a decision they were going to have to take soon.

“Okay,” Glen said, “time we weren’t here. We’re already late for the shuttle pick-up, but Lannie will wait for us, she knows that if she doesn’t she’ll never get the ‘Lost In Space’ dvds she asked me to… acquire…”

Jen saw him reach for the handset and knew what he was about to do. “No, don’t,” she said urgently, placing her hand over his. He looked up at her, puzzled. “Don’t turn the projector off,” Jen asked, “please?”

“But, why?” Glen asked. “There’ll be no-one here to see it…”

“I know,” Jen replied, “but… well… “ Her voice trailed off. No, she couldn’t say it. He really would think she was stupid.

“What? Tell me…” he insisted.

“It would feel like we were killing it, ok?” Jen blurted out. Glen’s eyes widened. “I know, I know,” she sighed, staring down at the holographic rover patiently making its way down to the bottom of the ramp.

“You’re crazy,” Glen laughed, “no, really, you are…It’s not even a robot, it’s a hologram of a robot!”

“Guilty as charged on the crazy thing,” Jen admitted, “and I know it’s just a holo, but… well, that’s how I feel. We can’t just switch it off like a lamp. It deserves… better than that…”

Glen shook his head. “Nuts… absolutely nuts…” he said, and tapped at the control. Jen gasped, and waited for the rover to vanish from the ramp, as if beamed up by an orbiting Federation starship. But as she watched it continued to roll slowly down the slope of Duck Bay, uninterrupted.

She looked at Glen questioningly. “Any self-respecting remote control has a timer function button,” he said, wagging the handset at her, “the projector will turn itself off after ten minutes. That long enough for you?” Jen’s reply was a grateful hug.

“Right, we really must get to that shuttle!” Glen insisted, dropping the remote control back into its pouch. “You ready?” Jen nodded. Yes, she was ready. “Ok, let’s go.” And with that they started walking away from Victoria Crater. But Jen couldn’t resist one final look over her shoulder, and had one last glimpse of Opportunity’s camera mast poking up above the rim of Duck Bay before the hologram’s progress down the slope stole it from her sight.

“Goodbye,” she whispered, “I’ll come back and see you soon.”

After she’d climbed Husband Hill to watch dust devils with Spirit, of course.

© Stuart Atkinson 2009

05
Aug
09

Gone

As soon as she entered the kitchen, still fumbling with her watch even as she clomped down the stairs, cursing herself for sleeping in when she had known for days she had an early meeting, Karen knew something was wrong.

 

“What’s up?” she asked her husband, sliding into a chair at the table, smiling at the sight of the full cereal bowl and toast set out ready for her. As usual he’d got up early to make her breakfast, knowing full well that she would be running late. She always was.

 

Turning away from the freezer, glass of orange in his hand, Mark let out a long sigh. A sure-fire sign he had Bad News to break.

 

What?” Karen demanded, taking the drink from him. “Someone die?” Mark’s face was suddenly set in stone as he stared back at her, and Karen groaned inside; it had been meant as a joke, a flippant, throwaway remark, but clearly she had put her foot in it. “Who?” she asked quietly, dreading the answer.

 

Oh no…

 

Her heart sank. Mark’s father had been ill for some time. But he’d been improving recently, or at least not getting any worse, the spread of the cancer halted by –

 

“Not someone…” Mark replied slowly, considering his words carefully as he sat down opposite her, chair legs scraping on the floor, “…something…”

 

Her head still full of cobwebs from a night with too little sleep Karen struggled to make sense of what he was saying. “Some…thing?” she repeated dumbly. “Mark, you’re not – “

 

It died,” Mark replied solemnly, his meaning clear without speaking its actual name, “Lara told me when I was getting the paper off the lawn.”

 

Karen let out her own deep sigh as she put down her spoon, her appetite suddenly swept away. Oh hell. “She’ll be gutted,” Karen said sadly, looking up at the ceiling, as if she possessed x-ray vision that allowed her to see the young girl sleeping in the room above them.

 

“I guess,” Mark agreed, half-heartedly. Karen glowered at him.

 

“You guess?” she repeated. “You guess? Mark, it will break her heart – “

 

“Why?” he asked, throwing up his hands. “I mean, come on, it’s not as if a person died, is it? She knew it wouldn’t live forever, they never do. One dies, you go get a new one, that’s how it works – “

 

“She loved it, Mark!” Karen shot back, a little too loudly, and she cringed as she realised she might have woken the girl sleeping upstairs. “She loved it,” Karen repeated, more quietly, “you know that. She’s ten years old, she’s grown up with it, it’s always been there for her…”

 

He sighed again. “I know – “

 

“Before she went to school, when she got back from school, before she went to bed,” Karen continued, mentally working through her daughter’s day, “she always spent time with it. You’ve heard her talk about it, you’ve been in her room, you know it was more than just a… a thing to her – “

 

“I know,” her husband conceded, nodding, “but she always knew this day would come, we all did  – “

 

“Maybe,” Karen interrupted coldly, “but that doesn’t make it any easier, does it?”

 

An uneasy silence fell between them like a stage curtain coming down.

 

“You’ll have to tell her,” Karen said eventually, looking intently at the untouched and now unwanted contents of her cereal bowl.

 

Mark’s eyes widened in horror. “Me? Oh no, I’m not telling her – “

 

“You have to, you’re her father – “

 

Mark felt a cold cannonball of dread settling in his stomach. “And you’re her mother… you’re…” He struggled to find the right words. “You’re… the sensitive one,” he countered weakly, leaning across the table, “you keep telling me how I don’t understand how she feels about it but you do – “

 

“Oh, now that’s a good thing..?” Karen replied. “You always said I was as silly as she was for being attached to it – “

 

Mark shuffled in his seat uncomfortably. Busted. “I didn’t mean – “

 

“I’m not telling her,” Karen declared, adding, with not a little relief, “I can’t tell her, I’m late enough for work already.”

 

Mark was about to protest when the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs reached the kitchen. They glared at each other accusingly, each silently blaming the other for waking their sleeping daughter –

 

“What can’t you tell her?” asked the unkempt teenage boy who swept into the kitchen like a tousled-haired tornado. “Hey! You guys getting a divorce? About time!”

 

“No, we’re not getting a divorce, Cooper,” sighed Karen wearily. “You wish…” she added with a grin as their son, without even missing a step, reached over her head, grabbed a slice of toast from in front of her and started crunching it as he walked around the table.

 

“So what’s going on?” he asked, helping himself to her glass of juice as well. Karen didn’t care; she couldn’t face drinking it now anyway.

 

“We have some bad news to tell your sister,” Mark explained, “and we’re… discussing… who should do it – “

 

“Will she take it really badly?” Cooper asked, and Karen was touched by the unusual depth of concern in his voice. She nodded. “Then I’ll do it,” he offered brightly, “I don’t mind upsetting the little geek, any chance to make her cry – “

 

Cooper!” his parents exclaimed simultaneously.

 

“Hey, if you two are too chicken to do it,” their son laughed, “don’t blame me for offering to bail you out – “

 

“We’re not… chicken,” Mark said, hurt, but Karen laughed humourlessly.

 

“Yes, we are, admit it,” she said to her husband. “It’s going to be horrible – “

 

“For pity’s sake, what’s happened?” Cooper demanded, his words muffled by the second slice of toast crammed into his mouth.

 

Karen took a deep breath. “It died.”

 

Cooper looked at her, puzzled. What died? What was she –

 

Oh

 

“So, that stupid pet of hers finally croaked, eh?” he grinned, wiping crumbs from his chin. “Oh boy, let me tell her! She’ll cry for sure!”

 

Normally Karen would have taken the bait, skipping DefCon2 and going straight to DefCon4 for a blazing argument, but this morning she didn’t have the strength – or time – to get into a fight with her son about his Neanderthal attitude towards his younger, more sensitive sister.

 

 “Coop, please, just for once… for me… please, try and be a little sympathetic?” Karen pleaded, feeling even more weary now.

 

“But it was just a thing!” Cooper continued, “like you always said dad, right? They don’t have feelings, they’re just… you know… things…”

 

Mark quickly looked out of the window, pretending he hadn’t heard.

 

“It wasn’t just a thing to her, Coop,” Karen answered patiently, “that’s what’s important. Not what you, or any of us, think,” she added, looking pointedly at her husband who was staring intently at something in the garden. “It really is going to upset her, we have to be careful how we tell her, ok?” Cooper laughed dismissively, clearly finding the whole situation ridiculous. “Ok?” Karen repeated, more forcefully, her eyes boring into him like lasers.

Cooper let out a snort. “Whatever,” he said simply, “I’m out of here – but remember,” he added, his finger pointing at them both in turn, “I offered to do it for you and you said no.” And with that he was gone, through the kitchen door and heading for wherever his gang had decided to hang out for the last precious day of the school holidays.

 

The uncomfortable silence he left behind was deafening.

 

“We’ll do it together,” Mark decided, but Karen shook her head.

 

“No, no… you’re right… I’ll tell her; I do understand her – when it comes to things like this, anyway – “ she added, hurriedly, “better than you.”

 

Mark had to fight hard to hide his relief. “Well, if you’re sure,” he said, feigning disappointment, though he actually felt like punching the air and yelling “Yes!” to celebrate his escape. Karen silenced him with a  don’t push it look, just as unwelcome sounds of movement came through the ceiling above them.

 

She was up.

 

Neither said a word. All they could do was listen to the soft sound of footsteps padding across the bedroom floor above their heads, moving out onto the landing and then, slowly, but surely, making their way down the stairs towards the kitchen. Eventually a mop of dark blonde curls appeared around the doorway, crowning the head of a barely-awake young girl who was yawning widely and rubbing her eyes as she stepped gingerly onto the cold tiled floor with her bare feet.

 

“Morning…” Cara said sleepily, looking tiny in her outsize t-shirt and beaming her huge smile at the couple seated at the kitchen table. Couple. One was missing. “Did Coop go out already?”

 

“Yes, he went to meet his friends,” Mark replied, nervously and a little too quickly. Karen shot him a Look across the table and he shrugged in a helpless, klutzy apology.

 

Cara made her way slowly over to them, yawning all the way. As she sat down in her chair – the one with alien stickers all over its back – she looked up at the rocket  design clock on the wall beside the door and frowned. “Shouldn’t you be on your way to work by now, mum?” she said, puzzled. Cocking her head to one side she asked “Is everything ok?”

 

“Oh yes,” Karen replied brightly, also too quickly; she couldn’t help it. Opposite her, Mark smiled smugly, relieved he wasn’t the only klutz at the table. “Well, yes…” Karen continued, her voice breaking a little, “everything is fine, really, but…”

 

Cara looked at her mother with narrowed, wise-beyond-her-years eyes. “…but..?” she repeated.

 

“Your mother has something to tell you,” Mark announced, earning himself a painful and well-aimed under-the-table kick on the shins for his trouble.

 

“Something’s happened, hasn’t it?” Cara asked, her gaze flicking nervously between the two of them,  “I can tell – “

 

Karen took a deep breath. She was definitely going to be late for work now, there was no way around it. But this was more important.

 

“Yes, honey, something has happened,” she confirmed. “I have some very sad news for you,” she added, resting her hand on her daughter’s hand, at the same time throwing her husband an icicle-cold glare as she heard him sniff disapprovingly at her choice of words.

 

Cara seemed to stiffen in her chair, as if a wooden board had been slid down the back of her night shirt, immobilising her, and Karen realised, in a dreadful, sickening moment, that her daughter knew.

 

“It died, didn’t it?” Cara asked sadly.

 

“I’m sorry, honey, but yes, it died,” Karen confirmed, giving her daughter’s hand a consoling squeeze. The young girl’s beautiful blue eyes seemed to shimmer suddenly, to glisten, and Karen could only watch helplessly as a tear slid down her daughter’s smooth left cheek.

 

“I thought they’d saved it?” Cara asked, looking at them both again, in turn, hurt, betrayal even, in her eyes.

 

“Well… they thought they had,” her mother said softly, “but I guess it was just too tired to keep going, too much had been taken out of it – “

 

She stopped as she heard another snort of disapproval from her husband from across the table. “Mark,” she hissed under her breath, warningly.

 

Mark stared back at her defiantly. “Look, I’m sorry, but you’re doing her no favours anthropomorphosising it like this,” he said quietly and

coldly. “It wasn’t a person – “

 

“Maybe not,” his wife growled back, painfully aware that their daughter’s face was wet with tears now, both cheeks glistening, “but she was attached to it, it mattered to her – “

 

But Mark wasn’t having any of it. “I just think – “ he began, but was cut off by the sound of their daughter’s chair being pushed roughly back from the table as she fled from the kitchen, rushing upstairs back to the sanctuary of her room. Moments later he jumped at the sound of her bedroom door slamming shut. “Oh hell, I didn’t mean to – “

 

“Idiot,” Karen spat at him as he started to rise from the table. “No, stay there, I’ll go after her, you’ve done enough already.” She pushed back her own chair and made for the door. As she started up the stairs she heard Mark huffing and grumbling behind her, followed by the sound of a spoon being flung angrily across the room and into the sink where it landed with a clatter. Yeah, she thought, climbing the steps, that’s helpful

 

Cara’s door was shut – as she had guessed from the sound of it slamming a few moments earlier – and she paused as she stood before it. There was no mistaking Cara’s room for anyone else’s; not just because her name was there, written in the now familiar pseudo-gothic Harry Potter font on a fake plastic Hogwarts plaque, but because the door was covered with dozens of small pictures, each one hand-painted. Here, a space-walking astronaut. There, a space shuttle. Between them – a stylised, garishly-coloured Saturn, rings wide open, a colourful hula hoop tossed over the planet by some unseen giant child…

 

Leaning forwards now, Karen could just make out the faint sounds of sobbing coming from behind the door. She knew she had to go in. But she couldn’t just barge in like Mark would have done.

 

“Cara, sweetheart?” she said, knocking lightly on the door. “Can I come in? I want to talk to you about… about what’s happened.”

 

Nothing.

 

Resting her forehead against the cold wood, Karen knocked again. “Cara?”

 

“You can come in,” Karen heard her daughter reply, and taking a deep breath she pushed the door open.

 

Cara was sitting forlornly on the side of the bed, facing the window, a book – the book, of course – open on the bed beside her. That was no surprise. What was a surprise, however, was that Cara’s computer, which Karen had expected to be switched on by now, with its screen displaying one picture after another of the object of her daughter’s misery, was still turned off.

 

But then again, in a room that was a richly and lovingly decorated shrine, a PC screen slideshow wasn’t really necessary.

 

Every wall of the bedroom was covered with pictures. Its picture. In some places, where the girl had eventually and inevitably run out of wall space, its pictures were two or even three deep, pinned on top of each other, their corners curled up and flapping gently in the breeze that wafted through the room from the open window. On the window’s white sill, in its centre, enjoying pride of place there like a chalice on an altar, was a model –

 

“I can’t believe she’s gone, mum,” Cara said quietly.

 

“I know, honey, I know,” Karen said soothingly, sitting down on the bed beside her daughter. The poor girl looked distraught, bereaved, as if a real, living person had died, not just a –

 

“I know she lived longer than everyone expected her to,” Cara continued, “and I knew she’d die one day, but not… not yet, you know?”

 

“I know,” Karen said, smiling, smoothing her daughter’s hair with her hand.

 

“I didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye,” Cara sniffled, “when I got back from rehearsal last night I was just too tired, so I didn’t go and see,” she said quickly, looking over towards the computer, “I just got straight into bed – “

 

“It’s okay, you weren’t to know,” Karen said, “you can’t blame yourself.”

 

As she faced her daughter Karen caught a glimpse of a familiar shape standing in the open doorway.

 

How is she? Mark mouthed silently, nodding towards their daughter.

 

How do you think she is? Look at her! Karen mouthed back, eyes flashing with a combination of anger and disbelief.

 

Mark blushed and started towards them. No, no, stay there, Karen mouthed silently, shaking her head so slowly she hoped their daughter wouldn’t notice, but she did.

 

“Is she really gone daddy?” Cara asked, turning around, clearly looking for her father to step in and reassure her that no, it wasn’t true, it had all been a mistake, a horrible misunderstanding. Karen snarled pre-emptively at her husband, beaming him a telepathic message that she knew he couldn’t hear: don’t you dare… don’t you dare

 

“I know you’re sad sweetheart,” Mark began, sitting down beside Cara on the bed and wrapping a protective and – he hoped – comforting arm around her, “and it’s okay to be sad when you lose something important to you, something you care about…”

 

Karen’s eyes widened with surprise. She had been expecting him to blunder in and say something… insensitive, stupid, crass. She certainly hadn’t been expecting that.

 

“I know you’re going to miss it,” Mark continued, “and you’re going to be upset for a while…”

 

Karen felt a pang of guilt then, looking at her husband consoling their daughter. Maybe she’d been too hard on him before. Maybe - 

 

“…but hey, at least the other one’s still ok…!” Mark added cheerfully.

 

Karen froze with horror, unable to believe what she’d just heard.

 

And Cara recoiled from her father as if physically struck.

 

“But… I don’t care about the other one!” she sobbed. “Spirit was my favourite!”

 

And with that she turned away from her father and flung herself into her mother’s arms, sobbing uncontrollably.

 

Surrounded on all sides by countless photos, paintings, mission patches and models of the Mars Exploration Rover that had finally ceased functioning earlier that morning, after six long and fruitful years on the red planet, all Mark could do was retreat from the room, knowing that he would never understand how a small robot, trundling across the rock-strewn surface of a faraway planet, could have inspired such dedication and, yes, love in his daughter, and millions of other people across the world.

 

And wishing he could feel it, too.

 

Meanwhile…

 

Holding her daughter, looking around her cluttered bedroom, Karen appreciated for the first time just why the young girl had been so fascinated by the Mars rovers, and by Spirit in particular. For Cara’s generation, the Inbetween generation, the frustrated, shouting at the sky, born-too-late-for-Apollo, born-too-soon-for-a-Marsbase generation, the rovers weren’t just machines, they were surrogate astronauts. The rovers were substitute humans, trekking across the Red Planet, reporting home every day. They were the Space Age’s very own Lewis and Clark, out on the frontier, constantly striking out for the next horizon.

 

Meanwhile…

 

Cocooned inside her mother’s strong arms, Cara knew only that a friend she had had for six wonderful years – a friend she had spent time with every single day, had climbed high, alien mountains with, looked at weird rocks with and watched glorious sunsets with – was gone.

 

Meanwhile…

 

On a rocky plain, more than a hundred million kilometres away, the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit began to be buried by dust. Its solar panels would draw no more power. Its unblinking robot eyes would see no more meteorites, dust dunes or dawns. Its wheels would never turn again. If it was possible for a robot to feel weary, Spirit was. If it was possible for a robot to feel satisfaction, Spirit was satisfied, too. Its job was done. As the shrunken Sun set behind the Columbia Hills, and dust devils danced across its horizon, it was time for Spirit to rest.

 

Meanwhile…

 

Halfway around Mars, basking in the glow of the martian dawn, Opportunity woke from her slumber and stared at the range of undulating purple hills rising up out of the horizon ahead of her. After driving towards them for many months Opportunity could now see details on those hills – tantalising hints of geological layers on their flanks, avalanches and rockfalls at their bases, large boulders sitting on their summits. Another month’s driving and she would be there, finally, on the edge of Endeavour Crater. She had already driven into and out of craters, skirted the edges of dark dune fields and peered down at meteorites that had landed on Mars when Mankind, her makers, had yet to master fire. What new wonders waited for her up ahead?

 

There was only one way to find out.

 

With a whirring of gears and a hiss of dust falling off her back, Opportunity drove forwards.

 

 

 

© Stuart Atkinson 2009

04
Aug
09

Meridiani Messenger – Arts special

MERIDIANI MESSENGER

Arts Special

Issue 54, Ls139, 2061

Hi everyone, and welcome to the latest issue of The Meridiani Messenger, the email newsletter for all Mars Heritage members working hard out there, scattered across the plains of Mars, rescuing and preserving the Old and making sure the New isn’t pig ugly! Since our last issue a lot has happened – the less said about the annual get-together at Pavonis the better! I swear those holos were faked! – but the biggest news, obviously, concerns the outcome of the long-awaited/dreaded Terraforming vote back in the UN on Earth. That generated a lot of passion amongst the Reds and Blues here on Mars ( not all of it constructive, as you’ll know if you saw the footage of the protests broadcast on MarsNetNews ) but I suppose the end decision was inevitable, what with global warming wreaking such havoc on Earth, and all those millions of drenched Terran climate refugees looking enviously at Mars shining in their night sky, and thinking how wonderful it would be to live somewhere without relentlessly rising tides and endless, drenching rain. Of course, it will be another couple of decades before the terraforming actually starts, and maybe even longer if the reports of the discovery of microbes down in the depths of Marineris are confirmed, but it looks like our great, great grandchildren are going to be able to go outside with just face masks on, and their grandchildren may well feel real rain on their faces…

So, obviously it’s more important than ever now that we collect as many artefacts from the past exploration of Mars as we can before they’re drowned. It’s also obvious, sadly, that there’s going to be no increase in our funding this year, despite Debbie’s excellent presentation to the Parliament last month. Many people think that the recent refusal of permission to extend the MER Museum at Gusev but approve the funding of yet another Parliamentary lodge is proof that the Powers That Be (un-elected, let’s not forget!) just don’t care about the past, that all they’re concerned with is increasing the population as fast as they can to give them greater tax revenue.

Of course, we in Mars Heritage would never say that…

What this all means, of course, is that we’ll just have to work harder than ever to preserve our planet’s fascinating history, and from your field reports it’s obvious that that’s not going to be a problem. Everyone’s so busy! Over in Isidis, Gaynor’s team reports that they’ve finally found the heat-shield of Beagle 2, after a whole year of searching (well done guys! Great work! No sign of Beagle itself yet? Keep going, you’ll find it, and prove them all wrong!), and down in Argyre, Connor’s team reports the discovery of some twisted wreckage that may or may not be some surviving pieces of the Observer. We’ll have more on that next issue.

But in the meantime, what’s been happening here in Meridiani? Well, since the last issue I’ve been busy helping with a Top Secret project!  Sounds exciting, I know, but it’s nothing too dramatic, and I’m afraid that if you’re hoping I’m about to reveal my involvement in some high tech, scientific endeavour (or a spot of Free Mars terrorism!) you’re in for a disappointment.

I’ve been an artist’s assistant!

Ha! I can almost see your brows arching in confusion from here, so let me explain. You remember a couple of issues ago we told you about  Faye, the Archivist with the Victoria Crater MH team? Well, it’s no coincidence that  she took that job. Back on Earth – well, back on the Moon; I don’t think she’s actually been to Earth more than a handful of times, as she was born on Luna, in Copernicus Rim – she was a very well  respected artist, specialising in painting the various landscapes of  the Apollo landing sites. She’s an accomplished sculptress too, and has several pieces on display on the Moon. But you won’t find any of her work in galleries, that’s not how she works; she creates her works out in the open, in secret, and then  leaves them there, with no explanation or labelling or information, for all to see, interpret and appreciate in their own way.

And that’s just what she’s done here on Mars: helped by a few select  friends – or should that be “accomplices”?! – she’s brought beautiful art to our beautiful but bare world. But not abstract art, nothing ridiculous or incomprehensible; no piles of bricks or dirt-spattered canvases like many so-called  ‘artists’ produce. I don’t want to sound pretentious here, but Faye’s art is accessible, and relevant. Most importantly of all, her art is natural, made out of local, natural materials. In other words, it’s martian.  It’s as martian as I am.

“Alright! Stop wittering on about it and show us!” I hear you all shouting at your screens and visors! Ah. Unfortunately this issue of the Messenger is text only, because of the graphic-killing virus that affected our server last month… honestly, some people have nothing better to do than cause trouble, have they? … but I’ll scan and flash you all pictures of some of her works as soon as I can – I know I have some around here somewhere – but in the meantime I’ll describe the best ones for you here.

The most famous, and most easily-recognisable of Faye’s works, is also the simplest. Sadly, it’s not here in Meridiani, it’s Up North! If you were wandering across the Utopian Plain, a dozen or so miles to the north of the Viking 2 landing site, you’d come across, with no warning, a twelve feet tall rectangular slab of black stone,  just standing there alone in the vast orange desert, looking as if it  had fallen from the sky. The first time I saw it I thought I’d stumbled upon the grave of a giant martian, marked by a huge tombstone… maybe even John Boone himself…

You can’t tell by looking at it, not even from up close, but it’s made out of a single slab of ancient lava, taken from the flow-fields surrounding Olympus Mons. It’s been polished so smooth by Faye that if you reach out to touch it with your fingers you

aren’t able to, they just  skid and skitter across its surface if you try, slide right off…

And staring into it, from up close, is like staring past your own reflection into infinity…

… sound familiar? If you’re a science fiction fan it should do.  Arthur C Clarke placed enigmatic alien Monoliths on the Earth, the  Moon and Europa, and in Jupiter orbit too. Faye’s put one on Mars.  Makes sense! It’s become famous all over the planet, and a Mecca-like place of  pilgrimage for natives and Earthers alike. There are no bone-wielding  apes circling it of course (unless you count that Russian team who were here last week. Party animals or what!), or brilliant arc-lamps trained upon it, but it  really is quite beautiful. I hope you all get a chance to go and see it for yourself some day. I’ll definitely send you a pic, or of course you could just MarsGoogle for one yourself.

Obviously I didn’t have anything to do with Faye’s Monolith, she made it years  ago, very soon after arriving on Mars, but I did help her with her  second most famous piece, which she created right here, in Meridiani, just past the Base, out towards Victoria Crater.

In fact, thanks to Faye’s new work, “VC” has become something of a mecca for artists.. Half a dozen people – taking breaks from their regular work – are out here right now, as I write this, working on their own creations which they intend to display at Victoria – actually, to be precise, along its rim; somehow, when no-one was looking, VC’s rim has become a kind of “art gallery” for martian artists, with exhibits and pieces popping up everywhere.

So what would you see if you came out here? Well, there are quite a few abstract pieces – amongst them a pair of cairn-like piles of twisted meteorites, supposed to represent “The Spirit of Exploration” and “Martian Sunset”; intriguing in a “what the **** is that supposed to be?!” kind of way – but most seem to be based on famous characters from Mars exploration, real life and fictional. Walking around the Rim – as many people do now – anti-clockwise, following the “Opportunity Trail”, treading in the long-faded wheel-tracks of the old Mars Exploration Rover that showed this incredible place to human eyes for the first time, you pass dozens of statues or busts of men and women who, in some way, shaped and now inhabit our collective cultural vision of Mars.

The first familiar figure to greet you as you stalk around Victoria’s jagged, ragged edge, heading south and west, is that of HG Wells. Surrounded as he is by Mars’ amber, tan and ochre rocks, peering down quizzically into the depths of Victoria Crater, as if staring down into the smoking crater on Horsfall Common which was the beach-head of the martian invasion in his War Of The Worlds, Wells looks quite at home out here on the Meridiani plain, and his dapper suit and neatly-trimmed moustache look strangely appropriate.

Walking on, next, and appropriately enough, for it was his alleged observations that prompted Wells to write his wonderful novel, you pass the tall, thin statue of an equally- nattily-dressed Percival Lowell. The artist responsible for this statue has done a remarkable job. Depicted holding and staring adoringly at an umber-hued globe of Mars, criss-crossed with his (in)famous canals, Lowell appears very distinguished, but troubled, as if battling some inner turmoil. Is he wondering, perhaps, why no-one else can see the canals he sees whenever he peers through his telescope at Flagstaff..? Or, looking out across the gulf of space, at a world apparently ravaged by drought and inhabited by the last desperate survivors of a once-proud race, is he afraid for his own world, which must look like an oasis, a glittering, wet jewel through the martians’ telescopes..?

Beyond tortured Lowell, a short distance away stands a deep-tanned, wild-locked John Carter, locked in mortal combat with a huge, green, four-armed Barsoomian warrior, his loyal Woola snarling at his heel! (Tip: don’t do “The Rim Walk” at night; stumbling across this scene in the dark is guaranteed to make you fill your suit’s urine bag!)

In stark contrast to the previous tableau, author Ray Bradbury is found sitting peacefully and cross-legged on the dusty red ground, opposite a tall, graceful-looking martian plucked straight from the pages of his immortal “Martian Chronicles”, complete with huge golden eyes and flowing robes. The two of them are playing musical instruments, possibly singing together, Bradbury’s white hair shockingly bright against the dun, dust-covered ground. Very moving.

And it goes on and on. After Bradbury, Carl Sagan is next. In his trademark leather jacket, grinning with the joy and beauty of the universe, he leans against one of the twin Viking landers, staring off at, I’m sure, some “Pale Blue Dot” shining in the martian sunset sky…

Beyond Sagan – if there could ever be such a place! – many more statues lead around the crater’s edge like the Callanish standing stones back on Earth. There are scientists from the most historic Mars missions (Steve Squyres is shown standing next to one of his beloved MERs, which is wearing Steve’s famous cowboy hat on its camera mast at a rather jaunty angle) and yet more writers. But, for me at least, the most striking piece is on the western edge of the crater – a group of half a dozen figures, space-suited but for their helmets, all arranged in a variety of striking poses….

The central figure – a tall, ridiculously-handsome man with golden locks and a perfect tan, both of which highlight his movie idol smile – is shown with arms raised, as if embracing Mars, celebrating its natural beauty. Behind him glowers a shorter, darker figure, with scowling eyes that burn into the blond man’s back and a mouth set in a disapproving sneer. Off to one side, a tall, stunningly-beautiful female astronaut looks on, staring intently, as if trying to choose between the two. A little farther away stand a man and a woman. Clearly locked in a passionate argument, she is holding a rock in her outstretched right hand, almost brandishing it, while he just stands there, looking at her quizzically, as if searching for some explanation for her anger. Finally, a hundred metres or so away, stands a lone figure, a tall, bespectacled man, dressed in everyday clothes, no spacesuit, sitting on a boulder, writing in a battered note pad. Ringing any bells..?

The five astronauts, I’m sure you realised, were, respectively, John Boone, Frank Chalmers, Maya Toitovna, Ann Clayborn and Sax Russell, the main protagonists in Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic and justly famous “Mars Trilogy”, the books that transformed our image of Mars forever.

And that isolated, lone figure, quietly scribbling away? Of course, that’s Stan himself.

More statues are appearing every week, it seems, and I reckon that within a few weeks people standing down on Victoria’s floor will be able to look up and see statues and other works running right around the whole rim, just as visitors to the famous St Peter’s Square back on Earth can look up and see dozens of statues peering down at them from the rim of its encircling walls. That’ll be something to see! (but only temporarily of course; such a historic site as Victoria couldn’t be left looking like that; we’ll collect up and move all the art works after a few months, maybe even display them here at the offices, but until then it’s quite a sight, and afterwards we’ll be able to show visitors what the statues looked like by giving them holo-glasses.)

But back to Faye’s work. The piece I helped her with most is called “The Sphere”, and, thankfully, unlike the Monolith, we don’t have to trek out to the middle of nowhere to see it – she’s put it up almost within sight of the Mars Heritage office here in Meridiani, inside “Corner Crater”, the smaller crater just to the north west of Victoria itself which is around a twenty minute walk from the Base here.

Because the Sphere’s not actually on the rim of Victoria, but set up inside a smaller crater, surrounded by rippling dust dunes and dark, jagged rocks, pieces of ejecta from numerous places across the plain, you sneak up on it – or rather, it sneaks up on you: as you walk towards the crater, “Sphere” looks deceptively simple – a big glass ball, just over five feet high, looking for all the world like an oversized paperweight dropped into the crater from above – but the closer you get the more complicated you realise it is, until, standing next to it, you can see that sealed inside it, like  prehistoric insects trapped in amber, are three smaller spheres, clear  globes a foot wide. And each globe contains something… something special…

The smallest globe, which is nearest the top of the sphere, appears at first glance to be empty, but if you look closely you can see its interior is actually shifting and swirling… It takes you a few moments to realise what you’re looking at, and then a few minutes more to actually accept it, but eventually you have to believe the  evidence of your own eyes.

Because, staring into that globe you can see clouds..! That’s  right, **clouds**, miniature, fluffy white pillows hanging in mid air.  It’s very clever: nano-motors and sensors inside the shell of the hollow globe constantly alter the interior moisture levels and air  flow, generating continuous cloud formation. Looking into the globe is  like watching time-accelerated footage of the storm clouds they have on Earth; they form out  of nothing then solidify, grow and change shape, blossoming, boiling  and folding over on themselves in masses of churning white as they travel across the globe before  dissipating into nothing again, only for others to take their place…

The second globe, half-way in size between the other two, is half-packed full of dirt. It’s a miniature garden, a crystal-bonded fairy lawn complete with hairbrush-fine blades of green grass and  micro-dot flowers, painted blue, purple and pink. Unseen nanos scrub the air, water the soil and feed the plants, so those flowers will live forever.

Finally, down near the base of the sphere is what appears to be a half globe, a  sapphire-coloured hemisphere, glowing azure blue against the charred  umber and cinnamons of the deep martian desert. But get a little closer, and you see something…

amazing. The top of the half-globe,  its surface, is moving, undulating, rippling, and watching it you  begin to wonder if, somehow, it’s actually tipping up and down  inside the main sphere, rolling to and fro. But the truth is even  more incredible: press your helmet visor against the surface of the  crystal sphere and you can see that the half-globe is in reality a  complete sphere which is half-full of water, sparkling blue water,  locked in a perpetual wave by unseen nano-motors. The water’s surface  is broken into miniature waves which roll and fall and tumble over  each other in playful slow motion, over and over and over…

Yes, an ocean, a miniature ocean on dry, dusty Mars. You have to see it to believe it.

So there, in The Sphere, standing on the ancient martian desert, you  can find little bubbles of Air, Earth and Water, trapped forever. The air will never blow away, the clouds will never stop rolling; the  earth will never sour, the grass growing upon it will never die; the  water will never be polluted, the waves will never stop tumbling.  Immortality, my friends. Immortality.

Of course, Faye’s quick to point out it’s not an original idea, she didn’t come up with it in the first place. She got the inspiration  from a painting by a late twentieth century space artist called  MariLynn Flynn, which showed three space-suited figures on the martian  plain, each holding a glass sphere, one blue, one white and one green.  She told me once, as we were polishing the Sphere for the final time,  that the first time

she saw that painting – the very first time – she  made a vow to herself, and to everyone who’d ever held a pen, brush or  piece of charcoal, that she’d go to Mars and turn Flynn’s painting  into reality. Well, she did it. And however proud she is of

herself,  which she never reveals, I’m even more proud of her.

But my favourite piece of hers is her smallest, and – until everyone reads this, I suppose! – least well known. 

On the Far Side of Victoria Crater – that’s the southern side, the same side as the famous Beacon (more of that later, there’s big news about Beacon!) – lies a small crater, just a dozen or so metres across. It has an official NASA name, as they all do, but everyone knows it by the name it was given, unofficially, more than half a century ago, by the members of an Internet That Was forum. They decided that the little crater nestling on the southern flank of the much mightier Victoria Crater should be named in honour of the young schoolgirl who won a competition, a contest to name the Mars Exploration Rovers that roved this world in the first decade of the 21st century. And, fittingly, it’s in “Sofi’s Crater” that Faye has placed her most beautiful piece – The Pool.

It took her a year to build The Pool, but it was worth it. I’ve seen it only once, she took me there herself three weeks ago, to help her repair some damage caused in a landslide from the crater’s wall, and the first time I saw it I just stood there, staring, totally unable to believe what I was seeing. It looks so out of place, but so right too,  like it shouldn’t be there, but it belongs there. I know that makes no sense at all, but

that’s okay. On paper – or on a screen – it’s just an image, a contradictory, scientifically impossible image. But there it’s Right.

You can’t see it from above, it’s so small; you have to be down there, almost on  top of it before you see it. As you scramble down the slope to descend into the crater, skittering down one terrace of fallen, slumped rocks  and boulders after another, you realise that you’re in one of the  bleakest, most barren places on Mars, dominated by the looming,  Mordor-like presence of Victoria Crater’s steep walls and even steeper slopes on one side, and the vastness of  the empty Meridiani plain desert on the other. But unlike the heart-stopping ankle-cracking descent into the dusty heart of Victoria – where the deeper you go the less sky you can see, until eventually you reach the bottom and the sky is just  a slash of pink and peach above you, an ink-stained canvas stretched  above your head – the descent into Sofi’s Crater is little more than a dozen or so careful downwards footsteps.

Then, as you reach the crater floor, you see it: a shimmering, glittering sheen on the ground up ahead of you. It calls to you, draws you towards it, simply because it  Shouldn’t Be There. Finally, after threading your way around and through a narrow bank of white boulders, you see it.

There, on the crater floor, is a pool of water.

But it can’t be! your senses scream out to you, it just can’t be! But as you stumble closer you can see the pool is almost six feet across, surrounded by slick, wet rocks and stones; there are reeds and plants under the surface, anchored in place by yet more stones, these ones covered with bottle-green algae and mosses. And there are fish in there too, tiny ones, just an inch or so long, lurking on the bottom, scales glinting in the subdued  sunlight, eyes shining like stars beneath the surface of the pond…

You see, what Faye’s done is create a rock-pool, an impossible oasis, down on the crater floor.

Of course, it’s not a real pool. The water is a hardened, UV-resistant resin, the algae and mosses are painted onto the surfaces of the rocks and the plants are cut out of ultra-thin vinyl and other materials.  The fish are tiny sculptures too. But standing next to it, looking into the water, you can’t believe it’s anything other than real. Your intellect tells you it can’t be there. You know you’re cocooned inside a spacesuit, standing on the fractured floor of a billion year old crater, surrounded by rock a  thousand different shades of white, red, orange and brown, with not a trace of greenery or life as far as your eye can see. You know that the  martian atmosphere is too thin to allow liquid water to exist on the  surface, and that nothing more advanced than a bacteria ever evolved  on the Red Planet, let alone plants or, for god’s sake, fish… and if  it was a pool of water, it wouldn’t be so blue, or be painted with  the shimmering reflections of clouds, because the sky above it is  pink, not blue -

…but you peer in anyway, and you think it’s real because your heart  wants you to believe it’s real. You want the water to be wet, and  cold; you want the plants to be swaying in the underwater current; you  want the fish to dart away in a cloud of silt if you wave your hand  over the pool… oh, you want it **so** much…

Imagine it, a rock pool on Mars. It’s beautiful, one of the most  beautiful things I’ve ever seen, probably will ever see. When you see it for yourselves trust me, it will take your breath away and leave you crying. In a few centuries martians will be able to see real rock pools here, dip their toes into and trail their fingers through real, cool, clear water. But for now, for us, The Pool will do.

But all that is old news, I suppose. I’m meant to be telling you where I’ve been recently, all about that hush-hush new project I’ve been working on..!

Faye calls it, simply, The Window (to go with “The Sphere” and “The  Pool”. She doesn’t call her monolith “The Monolith” because ‘well, that’s already in the pages of 2001…’) and it’s the biggest piece of art ever created on Mars. But she had had to make it in secret, because if word had got out the Parliament would almost certainly have stopped her, what with their – some say – obsession with controlling all communication links off planet. Faye had originally hoped to receive backing for her project from the Mars Development Office; when she heard they were planning the construction of a major new piece of communications equipment, and that they wanted something functional and reliable, Faye thought – and told them – she could “come up with something different”, but it soon became apparent to Faye that her idea would be too dramatic and different to be accepted or allowed by the Parliament, that their Terran backers would resist the construction of something so uniquely martian, and so she went underground, building it piece by piece in secret, only assembling those pieces into one wonderful whole when she was ready.

Faye’s idea was simple enough – combine art with communication in a new and exciting way. She wanted a way of showing large numbers of people on Mars, simultaneously, i.e. in a group, pictures or transmissions from off-planet, maybe from Earth, or the asteroids, maybe even Ganymede or the new Titan station. Of course, you can do that with just a big screen, set up inside Base, which everyone could cluster around and stare at, like people staring into a fish tank or a shop window or something. But, as Faye  (and many others) pointed out, we already have a small cinema here,  which shows films and progs Outloaded from Earth, we didn’t need  another. She had something rather different in mind.

And now, after two years of planning and modelling, and all those months of hard, secret work, The Window is going to be “opened” for the first time – today, in fact as you read this very newsletter! And if any Parliamentarians try to cover it up or haul it down well, you’ll see Faye, and me, and a hundred other defiant Meridianians, on MarsNet News later tonight…

I’ll try to describe it for you (sorry, but even if the graphics server wasn’t down I couldn’t show you: no pictures have been taken of it yet, one of Faye’s conditions, and that’s fair enough I think…  you’ll see it for yourselves on MarsNet soon enough) but I warn you, I already know in advance I’m going to fail miserably.

Imagine you’re standing on the surface of Mars, somewhere, anywhere, doesn’t matter, with rocks and boulders and stones everywhere. You’re looking at a huge stone ring. It stands upright, erect, like an enormous letter “o”, thirty feet wide and thirty feet high, with three keystones spaced equally around its rim. Imagine seeing such a structure standing in the open desert like an epic martian statue commemorating some ancient Barsoomian hero or Tharsian pharoah…

Now imagine how impressive that would look here, as you walked towards it across Meridiani, with Victoria Crater on your left, its great, sloping, shadowed walls falling down into Mars itself…

Now imagine standing there before it in awe as it comes to life, as breathtakingly-clear and detailed images begin to appear within it… pictures of distant stars and planets, of Jupiter and Saturn, of Earth, of other star systems, other galaxies… Staring  into the ring is like staring into a real life Stargate…

That would  be impressive enough, yes?

But imagine if you couldn’t see the ring, not at all. Imagine you are standing there on the edge of Victoria, looking down into the crater, shielding your eyes from the Sun so you can see the tiny figures of all the excited sightseers and tourists dotted on the crater floor below you. Suddenly, to your right, the air shimmers and cracks wide open, as if a tear has opened up in the very fabric of space and time itself…  suddenly you see bewildering things take shape in the air before you: distant planets, star clusters and galaxies appear and hang in mid-air before your eyes, impossibly, magically…

Well, that’s what happened to me, and will happen to you, if you come out here – and, I guess, if Parliament allows The Window to remain. Faye just took me out there, on her  own, and set us off walking from the river towards… nothing, just  open desert. Suddenly I was confronted with a vision: shining in the air in front of me, clear of the desert floor, above the jagged orange rocks and wind-teased rusty soil, was Saturn, in all its ring-encircled glory. The detail was spectacular, I could see the subtle honey and butterscotch-coloured cloud-bands on the planet itself, and there were too many rings to count… and as I watched the planet turned, slowly, majestically, tiny moons waltzing around it, their shadows drifting across its pastel cloud-tops in stately slow motion…

That’s when I knew what Faye had made – literally, a window through which one can look out into the Universe.

Of course, the Window itself is nothing more than a sophisticated 3D screen, a circular “frame” housing a state of the art holo-projection  system. Nothing original or unique in that. But where it is original is what it’s made of, because most of it has been carved and pieced together, by hand, out of pieces of polished clear rock quartz and  crystal. Gathered from the impact-shattered rockfaces down in Argyre,  the crystal segments have been slotted together seamlessly like jigsaw  pieces to form the shape of a huge, transparent ring. Making it essentially invisible.

I know what you’re thinking: if it’s transparent how can it work?  Where are its  insides? Well, the projection system’s tangle of cables  and circuitry, and the keystones housing the holo-emitters themselves,  and its pair of outstretched

supporting legs are all coated in ultra-reflective material so they can’t be seen inside the transparent  crystal. The result is remarkable – from further than a dozen feet  away the ring is invisible against the martian desert and sky. Trust  me, I’ve seen it. Or rather, I haven’t.

But when you get closer… aaah, that’s when you really see what Faye’s  done, because you’ll realise the crystal sections are all engraved. When I leaned  forwards, until my visor was mere inches away from the surface of the  ring, I could see what she had done, and realised how priceless a gift she’s given to Mars and its people. People who look closely, and run  their hands over the ring’s surface will see, and feel, hundreds of  faces. Faces of astronauts like Gagarin, Armstrong, McAuliffe, Foale  and Hendra; writers who have inspired the exploration and colonisation  of Mars, such as Bradbury, Asimov, Clarke and Robinson; kings, queens,  emperors, pharoahs and princes from Earth history; artists, composers,  scientists, doctors, professors… they’re all there, thousands of  them, each one lovingly carved out of the crystal by Faye with fine-tipped tools and laser scribes. It’s a wonder, it truly is.

But The Window isn’t just a piece of art though, it’s a lot more than that. It really is a practical, functioning communications device. It can display still or moving pictures beamed to it from anywhere on or off planet. For as  long as it lasts – and Faye reckons that, being made of crystal and  quartz it will survive for several hundred years, assuming no planet-wide dust storms (or enraged Parliamentarians) topple it over – people will assemble in front of it  to watch pictures from nearby martian research stations, or from other  planets and ships scattered across the solar system.

Imagine it. Sometimes there’ll just be a handful of people there, perhaps waving at larger-than-life images of family members greeting them from Earth or the Moon. Other times, maybe the whole population of Mars will gather before the Window to view historic events – the first manned landing  on Triton, or the first hi-definition pictures from one of the  proposed StarProbes, stuff like that.

When there are human beings living on the planets of faraway, alien stars, Faye’s Window will show future generations of martians sights I can’t even begin to imagine…

I really don’t think Faye realises what she’s created. Who knows, maybe one day every planet, moon and asteroid with a settlement will have its own Window, and there’ll be a network of them across the  whole Solar System, between the stars too, keeping humanity in touch. Kind of humbling,  don’t you think?

And I helped build the first one! Well, <shuffles feet>, to be honest I helped polish and clean the first one, and make sure none of the  gaps between the crystal segments had been invaded by dust or sand,  which would have ruined the effect. I can’t wait for the grand  unveiling next week! At the moment it’s covered, rather un-glamourously, by a huge red and white sheet – actually one of the  parachutes from a recent heavy cargo pod which landed near the base here,  slightly off course – and it looks like a Circus big top has collapsed out next to Victoria. I can’t help but laugh when I think of the looks on people’s faces when the sheet’s pulled away without any fanfare or warning later today –  it’ll look like there’s nothing underneath! What a magic trick! :-))

Oh, I was going to tell you that news about the Beacon, wasn’t I? Sorry! Okay. Well, I guess I should explain to those of you new to the Messenger (and new to Mars itself; I know another big settler ship arrived a few days ago. Welcome to Mars everyone!) just what the Beacon is: it’s a tall, striking feature on the jagged, southern rim of Victoria Crater, which stands a good couple of metres off the ground. When it was first spotted by the Opportunity rover, almost six decades ago, it was just a white speck on the horizon, little more than a single white pixel on the rover’s photographs. At the time there was all sorts of speculation about it, all over the Internet That Was. No-one could agree on what it was, or even exactly WHERE it was; some said it was on the southern “Far” rim, others insisted it was on the “Near” northern rim.  But as the days passed Beacon grew ever larger and ever brighter, and by the time Oppy finally rolled up to the northern rim, exhausted, Beacon’s true nature – and location – were both clear.

Beacon was – is – a large, jagged piece of bright evaporite, blasted out of the ground by the impact that formed Victoria. How long it flew through the thin martian air after the Victoria impact we’ll never know, but we do know that it had a very lucky landing at the end of its brief flight, right on the top of one of the shark-fin shaped promontories that stab out into Victoria from its edge. Had it travelled just a few metres farther, the evaporite shard would have missed the promontory and fallen into the crater itself, no doubt to be lost forever, buried beneath the countless tons of grit, gravel and dust that dropped out of the sky and back into crater after its brutal exhumation; instead it found itself standing tall and proud on the edge of the crater, standing over it, looming over it like a sentinel.

Originally – and by “originally” I mean immediately after its excavation from beneath the surface – Beacon was probably very unimpressive-looking, little more than a roughly rectangular block of pale stone. But aeons of exposure to Mars’ sandblasting wind and ferocious fluctuations of temperature shaped and sculpted and polished it into something different, something beautiful…

Something strangely familiar…

Imagine the gasps of surprise that echoed throughout JPL in July of 2006, when Oppy finally got close enough to Beacon for a clear view and sent back pictures of what looked like a 2 metre tall white dragon perched on the crater’s edge…!

If Beacon looked a little like a dragon then, it looks even more like one now; over the years its hard, evaporite stone has been carefully and lovingly sculpted and etched away, and had other, smaller, appropriately-shaped pieces of evaporite ejecta added to it, like a mosaic, until it now resembles a real dragon, complete with a curved tail wrapping around its body and fragile-looking wings folded against its sides. Of course, no native martians would dream of calling Beacon “The Dragon of Mars” as it is now known from Earth to Titan – that would be far too crass and disrespectful – but tourists always call it “The Dragon”, and it’s quite a “tourist hot spot”; no visit to “The Land of Opportunity” (to see, as the glossy brochure says, “Eagle Nest, where the rover woke up after its long, blind flight from Earth… Endurance, the gaping pit explored by Opportunity after her first, epic desert crossing… and Victoria, her final resting place”) – is complete without having your holo-pic taken standing beside Beacon, arms wrapped around the dragon’s neck, or cowering away from its toothy jaws in mock terror. (Go on, admit it, you’ve done it yourself… send me the pic!)

But going back to my original point, why is Beacon “in the news”?

When the UN discussed, and then passed, the Terraforming Bill back on Earth last week, one of the topics covered was the practicalities of the terraforming. All the old favourites were dredged up – you know, nuking the polar ice caps, smothering the poles with black dust or algae, the usual tired suspects – but one of them is receiving serious consideration, and within 20 years we might see the first of several comets deliberately smashed into Mars, the idea being that its evaporation would add moisture to the atmosphere, thickening and hydrating it.

Now, before you start screaming at me through your monitors and visors I know, I know, okay? It’s a stupid idea, literally a drop in the ocean when it comes to adding water to the atmosphere, but The Powers That Be (i.e. the land- and resource-starved Chinese and Americans) like the idea and have already – on the quiet, of course – completed a joint study on the project.

And where would the first comet land?

Meridiani, of course, steered in by a transponder placed somewhere near Victoria Crater. It would have to be somewhere high, though, on something an incoming comet’s AI computers could latch on to… and what do you know, they already have somewhere in mind.

You’re right. If it’s decided that the only way to settle Mars is to rain ice and fire upon it, for one glorious, shattering day Beacon really will be a beacon…

That’s all for this issue, so again, good luck to all of you Out There – and remember, we need to find and gather in as many artefacts as we can, especially now the Terraforming clock has started ticking.

The future might not be in our hands anymore – but the past certainly is.

Jen x

03
Aug
09

Field Trip

 

“Bennett! Lewis! Get over here now, you’re holding everyone else up!”

 

Standing in the shadow of the yellow-coloured school rover, writing graffiti on its dusty sides with their fat, gloved fingers, the two boys just laughed at their teacher’s urgent command. His voice – always so stern and commanding in the classroom – was reduced to a tinny whine by the helmet comms systems, and the fear they usually felt when faced with his wrath back in the school module at Ares was replaced by amusement. Oh, let him wait. What was he going to do? Slit their air-hoses?

 

“If you’re not back here in twenty seconds you’ll both be cleaning out the toilet’s recycling tubes for the rest of the trip – “

 

Bunny-hopping across the gritty plain, scuffing up clouds of red dust with their boots, the two young martians headed back to the camp-fire. It was an easy journey. The colour of powdered blood and with no landscape features within sight, except the raised rims of a handful of shallow craters, the centre of the Meridiani plain was virtually rock-free, with none of the boulders and shattered ejecta rubble found closer to Ares. Meridiani was the kind of exposed wilderness that had sent several Newcomers crazy with agoraphobia. But being two hundred klicks away from the nearest outpost, alone with just the elements, was perfectly natural to the two kids.

 

 They made it back to the camp-fire – and the rest of their impatient classmates – with a good five seconds to spare.

 

It wasn’t a real camp fire, of course; Mars’ atmosphere was too thin and choked with carbon dioxide to allow anything to burn in the frozen vacuum that passed for the red planet’s “open air”. The camp fire the group was gathered around in a tight circle was a conical storm lantern, usually deployed when the big dust tsunamis boiled up from Hellas and Argyre, Now, wrapped in a thin sheet of orange plastic to give the impression of flame shining inside it, instead of a bright halogen bulb, it formed the centrepiece of the ritual get-together which marked the end of every day out in the deep desert. The sundown “campfire chat” was a chance for everyone to talk about what they’d seen and done that afternoon, and plan the next day’s activities.

 

An outsider would have found the scene quite bizarre: ten white space-suited figures, seated on sample boxes and supply cases retrieved from the rover’s hold, arranged in a ring around an electric lamp, casting a dull orange light just about bright enough to cast shadows. Ten snowmen huddled together for warmth around a pale, cold light, out in the centre of a flatter-than-flat, petrified, deep martian desert, beneath a huge alien sky painted purple and violet and rose by the glow of the approaching sunset…

 

Finally, with Bennett and Lewis seated on their boxes, the review of the day could begin.

 

“So…” their teacher began, stretching out the word annoyingly, as he always did, “did we all have a good day today?” Most heads nodded imperceptibly, a few stayed stubbornly still. Martin Lovell wasn’t surprised or offended. It had taken him less than a week after arriving at Mars to realise that moody martian teenagers were no different to terrans: acknowledging even their teacher’s presence, let alone responding to a question, was an absolute no-no. Now, five years later, he knew how to get them to open up. It took time, and effort, but he didn’t mind. They were all good kids really.

 

Teaching on Mars soon proved to be the hardest thing he had ever done. Everything was so complicated! Next to no resources, endless paperwork, unbending bureaucracy, Earth monitoring everything like a celestial Big Brother. They would have been more than enough problems to cope with, but the biggest complication was the surprise discovery that there were actually two types of “martian” child. Children born on Mars to incomer parents – couples who had both been born on Earth – were known as martians, spelt with a lower case “m”. Many people referred to them as “terratians” in an attempt to avoid confusion. Confusion that arose because native martians, i.e. the children born on Mars to parents who had themselves been born on Mars were – they insisted, loudly and proudly – the only true martians, the only ones entitled to call themselves Martians.

 

( After only a week of trying to differentiate between the two groups, Lovell had given up, telling them all in no uncertain terms that to him they were ALL “ just martians”. It made things so much easier.)

 

Relationships between the two different offshoots of humanity were spiky at best, and confrontational at worst, and arriving at Ares after the dreary, six month climb from Earth, Lovell had wondered if he had fallen into a 21st century version of West Side Story, with the two different genetic lines of Mars-born child assuming the roles of the infamous Sharks and Jets New York street gangs. It had been quite a jolt to see the teenagers of the Brave New World fronting up to each other, hurling insults, the native children calling the terratians “little m’s” and the martians calling their Mars-born attackers “Bird Bones”.

 

So much for “Mars, the planet of peace and science” as it was described ad-nauseum on the NewsNets…

 

But Lovell had been fascinated by how young martians on both sides of the genetic battlefield mimicked, without knowing it, the pseudo-tribal behaviour of their terran cousins. He was no psychologist, far from it, but his years of teaching back on Earth, in schools across America and, later, in the UK, had shown him the experts were right: children, especially teenagers, “joined” one of several Tribes at school, to fulfil some deeply-rooted subconscious need to belong to a family of some kind. In terran schools there was an impressive and puzzling range of Tribes to choose from: the black-clad, spiky-haired, vampire-mimicking Goths; the loud, confident, uber-social sport-worshipping Jocks; the reclusive, sleep-deprived web-surfing Geeks, and many more besides. After arriving on Mars he had encountered Tribes too, but tribes unique to Mars, and far fewer in number.

 

In fact, there were only two major groups here. While most teenage martians seemed content to just be themselves – tall, physically-fit, naturally confident and self-assured despite their sunlight-deprived pale skin – others, the more insecure ones, were drawn in one of two directions. The “Holo-Heads”, or Borg as they were known, worshipped technology and the internet, to the point where some constantly wore net-connected visors to ensure they were never out of reach of the data stream flowing and swirling around the worlds, space platforms and spacecraft of the inner solar system. Other Borg actually sewed soft-screens into their jacket and shirt sleeves, turning themselves into walking monitors, constantly displaying pages and images from the net. In moody tribute to their 20th century hero, Neo from the overblown Matrix films, all Borg wore as much black as they could find, stalking the corridors of Ares like coal-coloured ghosts, or shadows. When they met they they talked in computer code, screeching like fax machines – or so it sounded to Lovell, who was as baffled by their chit-chattering exchanges of abbreviations, acronyms and net slang as all of Mankind had been by the content of the alien radio signal detected briefly by the SETI telescope on Phobos in 2058.

 

Opposing – and, of course, in true tribal nature, despising – the HHs were the martians who saw the internet and most of the late 21st century’s technology as merely tools to enable them to explore and appreciate their homeworld in all its barren glory. These “Claybornes”, named after the most famous martian environmentalist in pre-First Landing fiction, left Ares Base at every opportunity, fleeing to the martian outback to lose themselves – sometimes literally – in its deep, twisting canyons and on the slopes of its ancient volcanoes, mesas and buttes. They loved Mars and its landscapes with an almost evangelical passion, each of them a martian John Muir, dedicated to protecting and preserving the real Mars, the old Mars. The Red Mars.

 

But there were no extreme HHs or Clayborne’s in Lovell’s group, not anymore. He had seen to that. It had taken two long years of skilful manipulation and scheming, but Lovell had successfully weeded them out, one by one, until, to the amazement and envy of the other teachers at Ares, he was left with just The Good Kids.

 

Like the young girl sitting opposite him across the circle, who was the key to the success of the whole trip. One of the true “native” martians, the daughter of Mars-born parents, he had high hopes for her. There was a spark of curiosity in her, a tongue of flame flickering weakly that could either flare brightly or gutter and fail. She was a natural leader, too. If he got her on his side, the others would follow. If she refused to play along, well…

 

“Callie…” Lovell continued brightly, ignoring the weary, melodramatic “huff!” from the girl as he spoke her name, “what did you find today? Anything interesting?”

 

Callie shuffled on her makeshift seat, uncomfortable at suddenly being the focus of the group’s attention. “Not really,” she replied, voice low, avoiding everyone else’s gaze, “small rocks, stones… the usual…”

 

“Well done,” the teacher laughed, “that is what we’re out here for after all, isn’t it?” Again, no response. He knew why.

 

It wasn’t personal, that was a comfort. No, the simple truth was that except for the Claybornes, the youngsters in his class considered his annual “Rock Hound” geology field trip to be a joke or, at best, an inconvenience. True, they resented and instinctively rebelled against the way their parents went positively giddy at the thought of sending their offspring out into the Deep Red to look for and collect interesting rock and mineral specimens for the Ares labs and its fledgeling new “Mars Heritage” museum. They hated the way their mothers and fathers told them how envious they were of them, then insisted no, they didn’t want swap places, thank you. It’ll be fun! they were told, again and again, a chance to get to know your classmates better, see the Real Mars, explore the landscape, maybe even discover something important! To the young martians though, it was just seven, seemingly-endless days of forcing down tasteless food, breathing sweaty, recycled air and drinking brackish recycled water whilst tossing and turning on lumpy rover beds. Forget discoveries and science, it was just a week deprived of their beloved Total Immersion VR sims and online parties…

 

But they had no say in the matter. The field trip was part of the formal education curriculum, and as such was well-funded by Earth, so their parents – and the financially-paranoid Base Commander – insisted they go along. You Are Going, they were told over breakfast, and that was that…

 

And so, as it had every year before, several days earlier the school rover “McAuliffe” had chugged out of Ares Base in the light of a cold dawn, laden with its reluctant passengers and a week’s worth of supplies, headed for… somewhere Out There.

Somewhere new, somewhere important, Mr Lovell, driving, had told them cryptically. Now, half-way into the expedition, it had stopped in the flat, barren heart of an ancient plain near Mars’equator, an area which their elderly teacher insisted was one of the most important sites in martian history.

 

But he still hadn’t said why.

 

“Why don’t you show us just what you found today, Callie?” Lovell suggested cheerfully, “I’m sure everyone’s interested – “

 

“Yeah, we’re just fascinated…” yawned one of the girl’s friends sitting nearby, a quip which earned her a good-natured dig in the ribs from Callie and a weary shake of the head from Lovell.

 

“Just these…” Callie replied, reluctantly reaching down to her side and retrieving a bag which was bulging with irregularly-shaped contents. With a dismissive shrug she tipped up the bag, spilling her horde out onto the ground at her feet – three rocks, all pathetically small compared to the jagged, hefty boulders they ran and dodged around in the stone fields around Ares. In fact, she’d done well to find even that many. Meridiani was so flat, so featureless and downright barren, it was as if it had been deliberately cleared of rocks by some over-enthusiastic martian farmer in the distant past.

 

The rest of the group sniggered when they saw Callie’s haul. Three measly stones -

 

“Interesting…” Lovell said quietly, leaning forward for a closer look, “very interesting in fact… Callie,” he said, more loudly this time, “pass me that one by your foot would you?” The girl reached down. “No, your other foot… yes, that’s the one, the dark one. Let me see?”

 

With a mischevious glint in her eye the young girl tossed the stone at the teacher – harder and faster than was appropriate, or indeed safe. The rest of the group gasped, watching wide-eyed, shocked at her boldness, knowing full well she was trying to embarrass the old man by making him flinch away from the projectile –

 

“Thanks,” Lovell said, never taking his eyes off the girl as he reached out with a gloved hand and casually plucked the rock out of mid-air, as effortlessly as if it had been thrown in slow-motion. “Nice pitch,” he added approvingly.

 

Callie smiled and nodded at him, accepting she’d been caught out. Point to you, old man, she conceded, grudgingly.

 

“Ah, now this,” Lovell declared, holding the rock up to his visor for closer examination, “is a beauty… a real find… well done Callie!” The girl smiled back warmly, her guard let down for a moment. “You see, everyone, this is a meteorite – “

 

“Big deal,” one of the older boys drawled derisively, scuffing at the ground with the toe of his already-scuffed boot, “the desert’s covered with them – “

 

“Not out here it isn’t, Lewis,” Lovell said sharply, “and definitely not like this one…” Several heads jerked up at that cryptic reference, the young martians suddenly intrigued despite themselves. “This,” he continued, tossing the meteorite between his hands, “is a carbonaceous chondrite, a meteorite which contains a lot of water, and maybe even the building blocks of life itself…”

 

“Like Allende,” Callie whispered, betraying her well-hidden interest in geology before she could stop herself.

 

“Yes, like Allende,” Lovell replied, smiling approvingly. “In fact, it’s quite a coincidence you should find this here Callie, considering the history of this place…”

 

A deep sigh came from somewhere off to Lovell’s side. “There you go again…” Lewis groaned impatiently, scanning the landscape around them. He felt like a bug on a tabletop – it was so flat! Compared to the boulder-rich plains of Chryse, Utopia and elsewhere, Meridiani was a sheet of giants’ sandpaper, with less rocks scattered over it than anywhere else he’d ever been. It was wrong, just wrong. Why would anyone want to come out here to see…nothing? the boy wondered. It made no sense. Maybe it was because his parents had been born on Earth, and he’d seen their holos of Earth’s most beautiful places, taken during their pre-departure-for-Mars year. Sandy oceans kissed by slowly lap-lapping waves… lush rainforests of trees so tall they touched the blue blue sky… endless fields of golden wheat, rippling in the wind… he’d seen them all, and more. But instead of pining for Earth, as might have been expected of him, Lewis hated it, resented it. Resented it as deeply as he envied each and every child who was living down on Earth while he was exiled to a dry, dusty, cold ball of icy rock everyone around him seemed so desperately and deeply in love with.

 

The boy looked around him, again, taking in his surroundings, trying to find the reason for the class being there. The old teacher had parked the battered school rover to the south of a reasonable-sized crater, the raised, exposed rim of which was now a burning orange line against the dark ground and darkening sky. That crater, Lovell had told them as he killed the McAuliffe’s engines, was named after a very famous ship – not a spaceship, a “sailing ship”, which was, apparently, a wooden vessel from Old Earth which had floated (or “sailed”!) across Earth’s wide, ice-choked south polar seas on a great adventure almost two centuries earlier. What was its name..? Lewis asked himself, scrabbling to pin-down the word… no, no use, it just wouldn’t come.

 

Oh, who cared anyway?

 

He leaned back on his rock sample storage box to look up at the darkening sky. Already, overhead, a few stars were appearing, and low in the west one blue-green star was shining particularly brightly. Bennett knew what it really was, but didn’t particularly care.

 

“I said, what do you mean?” he heard Lovell ask him, apparently for the second time.

 

“Nothing,” he replied coldly, staring at the old teacher.

 

“I know what he means,” another voice interjected, and Lovell looked around to see Bennett – Lewis’ usual partner in crime, but a better kid – leaning forwards.

 

“Go on then…”

 

Lewis took a deep breath of suit-recycled air. “Well… you’ve been hinting at some kind of historical importance ever since we got here…” the young martian sighed, unable to hide his own bafflement at the old teacher’s raptures over one of the dullest, flattest places he had ever seen. It was desolate even for Mars.

 

Lovell shook his head. Could it be that they didn’t know? That they genuinely didn’t know..? Unbelievable.

 

“Doesn’t it look familiar to you? To any of you?” he asked, fighting – and failing – to mask the frustration and disappointment he felt at the blank expressions painted on the faces of those around him. He looked around him. “You’re honestly telling me no-one here knows where we are? The name Meridiani doesn’t fill you with a sense of history and wonder?”

 

The kids looked at each other. No. Should it?

 

“Oh well,” their teacher sighed, “I guess it was before your time, to be fair. The last time I saw this place was in a little window on my computer screen. … I was just a kid myself then, barely older than you, sat in my bedroom, surfing the web – the original web,” he added, “not the SolWeb you all spend half your lives on now. Back then the Internet was restricted to servers on just one planet, Earth; there were no sites on Mars, the asteroids or Europa, not even on Luna…”

 

Several of the kids laughed at that, and not for the first time. They were constantly amazed at how primitive the original web had been, and now Lovell could tell they were wondering yet again what it must have been like to have access to only a couple of billion websites. He still remembered overhearing Callie telling her friends how glad she was she didn’t have to suffer the tortoise-slow access speeds offered by the so-slow, pre-laser carrier, quaint old “broadband” technology…

 

“This plain we’re on, Meridiani, used to be underwater,” Lovell explained patiently, “back billions of years ago, when Mars was a warm, wet world, just like Earth is today.” That prompted yet more laughter. Some of the class, despite having “been” to Earth in 3D VR sims, and despite having seen it with their own eyes, shimmering and dancing in and out of focus in the eyepieces of telescopes, still refused to believe Earth could be as “wet and warm” as their parents and doddery old science teacher insisted. A world where water fell from the sky? Where there was so much water it formed pools miles deep and thousands of miles across, called oceans, crossed by sailing ships..?

 

Come on, be serious

 

“Back in 2004,” Lovell continued, ignoring the sniggers, “almost sixty years ago, a robot lander was sent here, carrying a small rover, a machine no taller than yourself Lewis,” he added, ignoring the boy’s scowl. “Amazingly, with hundreds of klicks of flat open plain to land on, it ended up in a small crater, kind of a cosmic hole in one..!” He laughed at his joke then realised that like so many other Earth-centred jokes it had been wasted: none of the native martians sat around him had a clue what golf was. If it wasn’t a 3D real-time SIM program, a space battle or an alien invasion sharedonline with all their friends, well, they didn’t want to know…

 

“Eventually Opportunity climbed out of its crater and drove around here,” Lovell continued, “while  Spirit, her sister ship, explored an ancient lake bed called Gusev, many thousands of klicks away…” He paused there, waiting for a reaction. The silence dragged on. “Is this ringing any bells yet?”

 

He studied the young faces around him, searching – hoping – for signs of appreciation for his story. Nothing.

 

Okay…

 

“You must have heard how Opportunity drove around this area for almost six Earth months,” he continued, “studying the rocks, exploring the landscape, sending back tens of thousands of photos – “

 

“Photos?” repeated Callie.

 

“Come on Callie, we covered this already, remember?” the teacher said, letting out a deep, weary breath. “Photos were like holo-views,” he explained, “only they were flat, two-dimensional – “

 

“…boring – “ added Lewis in a whisper.

 

“Oh no,” Lovell argued, “definitely not boring. They were postcards from another world, our first views of a new landscape on a world which was still very alien to us back then… each new picture was a revelation, a step in an amazing adventure. You’ve no idea what it was like to be a part of it, to run home from school each day and turn on the computer and see new pictures from Mars, from another planet!” He drifted off again, remembering long nights spent hunched in front of the flickering screen, eating a microwaved meal whilst peering at the latest 3D panoramas and rock close-ups through home made spectacles with transparent red and blue candy wrappers for lenses…

 

“You can’t imagine…”

 

Lewis stared back unimpressed, uncaring. Unmoved.

 

Lovell felt sorry for the boy in that moment. Growing up in his cyberpunk-made-real world of VR and 3D holos, a world where people from Mars and Earth met as avatars in artificial cyberspace nightclubs and museums,  the young native martian would never feel the thrill of seeing the historic, exhilarating “first photo” of anywhere. Instead of beaming back enigmatic portraits of the smoggy moon’s bizarre landscapes line by frustrating line, the Sagan probe, with its AI brain and dozens of holocams, would beam VR “experiences” directly back to Earth to be enjoyed by subscribers to Microsoft’s global entertainment network.

 

Something had definitely got lost somewhere along the way.

 

“As I was saying,” the teacher continued with a sigh, “Meridiani is where Opportunity explored in ’04, after landing on Mars the old-fashioned way – surrounded and cushioned by airbags. It hit the ground hard then bounce-bounce-bounced before stopping and opening up – ”

 

“Is that the beaten up old car thing in the museum back at Tharsis?” asked Bennett, suddenly joining the dots in his mind.

 

“Yes, that’s the one,” Lovell confirmed, pleased the boy had made the connection, but wincing at the disrespectful description of the amazing little rover which had captivated the watching world in his youth.

 

“Why didn’t they just leave it out here?” Bennett asked, genuinely puzzled.

 

The teacher took a deep breath, feeling the anger building again. “Because it would have been stolen by looters, souvenir hunters, collectors,” Lovell replied bitterly.

 

Now all the young martians looked puzzled, not just Bennett.

 

“Before you mob were born, salvaging pre-colony hardware from Mars was quite a little boom industry,” Lovell explained, “first it was just little bits, pieces that weren’t obvious – screws, bits of wire, insulation material, that kind of thing, but over time the collectors back on Earth grew more demanding, they wanted bigger and bigger pieces of hardware, and their people here on Mars were happy to oblige.” He fell silent then, memories swimming up to the surface. “The final straw was when it was discovered that the Columbia crew commemoration plaque mounted on the Spirit rover was missing. Some b-… someone had stolen it, the sick – “ He stopped himself from swearing just in time. “Everyone was sickened, it was like grave robbing. The thief wasn’t found of course, but it was the last straw for many of us. That’s when Mars Heritage was finally formed, and the Tharsis Museum group started gathering in all the old probes to keep them safe.”

 

“I heard you were one of the founders of MH,” Callie said, leaning forwards, elbows resting on her padded knees. “Were you?”

 

“Yes, I was,” Lovell confirmed proudly. “I was actually on the team that went upstream from the Base at Ares and found Sojourner, the little rover that landed here back in 1997. Luckily it was still intact, but only because it had fallen into a hollow and become covered over during storms afterwards. If it hadn’t been hidden beneath all that dust it would have been smuggled back to Earth, in bits, and ended up on display on some rich lawyer’s mahogany desk, just to impress his clients, you can be sure of that.” The steely edge to his voice prevented any of the young martians from saying anything to him.

 

All but one.

 

“I still don’t understand why you went to all the bother,” Bennett sighed, not unkindly, just speaking his mind. “Why go all that way into the Stone Fields just to find an old robot and take it back to Ares?”

 

“Because it’s part of our… your history,” Lovell replied, exasperated. “Just like terrans do when we look at the planes and objects in the Smithsonian… the Spirit of St Louis, the Hubble Telescope, the Discovery shuttle… when you go round that museum and see things like Sojourner, or Viking, any of those old 20th century probes, you should feel proud of the achievements of the people who built it and sent it here all those years ago – after all, it’s because of them that you’re here – “

 

“On Mars?” Lewis  asked.

 

“Yes, on Mars,” Lovell repeated, “and it’s maybe even why you’re alive at all… “

 

That prompted the most baffled look yet.

 

“Think about it,” the teacher continued, “if Opportunity hadn’t been built and come here, to Meridiani, and found what it did, then it might have been another generation before astronauts were sent here… your mum and dad might never have met Bennett, might never have come to Mars together, and never would have had you – “

 

“Shame we can’t go back in time and make the damned thing crash, then,” growled Callie under her breath. Lovell knew she had suffered teasing at the boy’s hands on more than one occasion, so he said nothing. Everyone else laughed, making the young martian boy blush darkly, even as he shot Callie a dagger-sharp look.

 

Lovell left the kids to their power-plays. Callie could look after herself. “Come on, think about it,” he expanded, “just think… that little rover travelled all the way here, and what it found meant human history took a sharp turn in a whole new direction -”

 

“So this is where Opportunity discovered The Brine!” Keisha, the quietest and most serious of the class, whispered suddenly, almost reverently.

 

Lovell smiled gently at the shy young girl before correcting her. “No, that was the other rover, Spirit, up in Gusev crater,” he said kindly, not wanting to show her up in front of the rest of the class. “Here, in Meridiani, Opportunity discovered proof that Mars wasn’t always as dry as a bone as it is today – “

 

“So Keisha was right, it found water…” Lewis insisted.

 

“Nooooo…” Lovell persisted, wondering why Lewis insisted on challenging him at every opportunity, “it was Spirit that found briny – that means salty, Bennett, before you ask just to be awkward – water mixed in with the top layers of dirt at Gusev,” he explained, “digging a trench with its wheels it uncovered ‘The Brine’ as Keisha rightly called it, and when it did, wow, everything changed…” He turned back to Bennett, as if suddenly remembering what he had been talking about originally. “But here, in Meridiani, Opportunity found something… something wonderful, something that changed our view of Mars forever…”

 

“What did it find, sir?” Callie asked breathlessly. Lovell shook his head. Incredible, and heartbreaking too. How could these kids be ignorant of so much of their own history? he wondered silently.

 

Was it his fault?

 

True, he was just supposed to teach them science, not history, but could he have done more?

 

Perhaps. Perhaps not. But he could do something now. That was why he’d brought them there, after all.

 

“Opportunity found that some rocks in a crater in Meridiani had once been underwater,” he explained patiently, keeping his voice level even though he felt excited just thinking back to the Glory Days of early 2004 when the twin rovers had explored opposite sides of the planet simultaneously. “The rocks had actually had their shapes changed by the water, their internal structure too. The rover found minerals which could only have been formed in the presence of water. It was a scientific revolution, really…”

 

Lovell paused then, looking hard at Bennett. He was convinced he had him, had made a good case. Time for the wrap-up.

 

“Opportunity proved that Mars was once warm and wet enough for life to have possibly existed, even if it was only for a short time. That’s worth celebrating and preserving, worth coming out here to find the rover and giving it a safe home in a museum, surely?” Lovell challenged the squat young martian boy.

 

Bennett shrugged. “I’m not bothered, it could have stayed out here rusting and gathering dust for all I care.”

 

Lovell bit back the angry reply which flared in his mind like a bright shooting star.

 

Instead he looked at Bennett with sad eyes and said: “Yes, well, as terrifying a prospect as you breeding is Bennett, it may actually happen one day, and if it does, well, even if you don’t care about your history, your own children might.” More laughter greeted that, and even Bennett, who Lovell knew had more rough edges than an iron meteorite but was basically a good kid, joined in. Lovell smiled, enjoying the feel of the group relaxing as the day drew to an end. Above them the sky was plum-coloured now, dotted with diamond-bright stars, and behind each of the children a long shadow stretched off into the deep desert. Night was falling on Mars.

 

“Opportunity came here, didn’t it? To this very place?” Callie asked out of nowhere, as the truth dawned on her. The camp fire lantern’s reflection was distorted in her helmet’s curved visor as she spoke.

 

At last! Lovell smiled again, more broadly this time. The truth had lit up inside her like a torch.

 

“That’s why you brought us here…”

 

Lovell nodded, pleased to have been proved right for once. Of all the girls in the group Callie was by far the brightest, and although she wasn’t as deeply into it as Keisha, her interest in history was clearly growing. He’d been sure she would be the first one in the group to put the pieces together, and she had. Now, maybe, if she could shrug off the bad influences gathered around her, there was hope for her yet…

 

“Yes, to this exact spot…” Lovell answered. “I watched it explore here, on my computer, all those years ago.”

 

“But how do you know? That it came..?” Callie prompted, leaning further forward towards him. “How can you be so sure? I mean, doesn’t one place out here look just the same as all the others?”

 

Lovell grinned, unable to help himself any longer. It was the moment he had been waiting for.

 

“Okay, fun time’s over, I want you all to stand up,” he announced brightly. Looks of bewilderment greeted his command. “I mean it, stand up, now, come on…” he insisted, clapping his hands together to hurry them along, and slowly, one by one, the kids seated around him pushed themselves up off their boxes and cases until all were standing, awkwardly, in a circle around the lantern. Lovell marvelled at his young companions, thinking how the first-born martians, taller than children their age had any right to be, looked like standing stones in the deepening twilight…

 

“Right, we’re going for a little walk,” he continued, to a mixture of groans and sighs, and surprised, sharp intakes of breath. Was he kidding? A walk? At that time of day?

 

“See that crater edge over there, to the south?” he asked, nodding towards the southern horizon. The kids all followed his gaze. They couldn’t make out a crater, but the ground in that direction did seem to fall away somewhat, suggesting the lip of a crater. “That’s where we’re heading,” he explained, “it’s not far, maybe ten minutes walk away – “

 

“But our air supply – “Lewis started to protest. Lovell cut him short with a raised hand.

 

“…will last for days, come on, you know that,” Lovell said.

 

To Lovell’s surprise the next objector was shy little Keisha. “But sir, surely safety protocols insist that – “ she began, suddenly finding her voice, but again, the teacher was ready to counter the complaint.

 

“…we won’t put ourselves at risk by losing sight of the rover Keisha,” he said softly, reciting the Rule Book. “We won’t, I promise. We’re only going for a short walk, and as Mr Lewis rightly pointed out earlier, this area is so flat there’s no risk of us losing sight of the rover.” A short pause before he added, more gently still, “Trust me Keisha… all of you… There’s just… I brought you out here because there’s something I want to show you, something you may not get another chance to see, the way things are going here on Mars. It’ll be worth it, I promise.”

 

Some of the kids still looked unsure, a couple, including Keisha, even looked a little frightened now. “I wouldn’t dream of putting you in any danger, you should all know that by now…” Lovell said, trying to reassure them.

 

He was struggling, he could feel it. Losing them. He felt his heart hammering in his chest with fear. The place he had imagined seeing with his own eyes for so long, for so many years was just a short walk away, within his reach, but if one of them started crying now, it was over. They’d call their parents and he would have to walk away from the place he had dreamed of visiting for half a century. And he knew he would never get a second chance.

 

Salvation came – as it often did on Mars, and in life – from the least expected place.

 

“Okay,” Bennett drawled, taking a step forward, “I’ve got nothing better to do… but,” he added, pointing a finger at the teacher, “if you get us all killed I swear I’m going to come back and haunt you…”

 

Lovell silently cheered inside as the tension broke like a ice shattered by a hammer, and the class declared, one by one, their wishes to walk to the crater. Nodding Bennett a subtle “thank you”, Lovell clapped his hands together to get the class’s attention. They didn’t hear him – couldn’t hear him, cocooned in their spacesuits – but the gesture caught their eye and they turned to face him, curved visors reflecting the purple-bruise coloured sky looming over them.

 

“Right, I want you all to put your helmet lights on,” Lovell said, “then just follow me.” Reaching up with his right hand he tapped the touch pad on the side of his helmet, activating a small torch built into the hardshell. A narrow beam of light shot out in front of him, illuminating a circle of the ground several feet across. One by one the kids followed his example until all of their helmet torches were shining brightly in the twilight gloom, each one illuminating a circular patch of the rocky, grainy desert floor. Rich with thick drifts of hematite powder and shingle, Meridiani’s hematite-dust covered surface shone a strange, ethereal purple-red colour in the torch beams. Distinctly un-martian, Lovell thought, as he started to walk towards the crater…

 

“Here we go…” he said, taking the lead, walking away from the lantern. He’d considered taking it with them but decided it would serve them better as a beacon, guiding them back to the rover.

The kids fell in behind him, forming a ragged line of pairs, trios and die-hard loners.

 

“You’re not going to ask us to hold hands are you..?” Bennett asked, walking just behind, the tone of his voice suggesting it would be pushing his support just a bit too far.

 

“Of course not,” Lovell laughed, “you’re too old for that. We could sing an Old Earth hiking song tho?” he suggested, as the group left the lantern – and their makeshift rover camp – behind. More groans, which Lovell ignored. “Hi ho….” he began, voice wavering at first, but growing stronger as he held the next note for several seconds, “hi hoooooo…… “

 

Lovell paused, waiting for the young martians to join in.

 

Absolute silence.

 

“Oh never mind,” Lovell sighed, admitting defeat, and led them onwards.

 

 

 

It took them a good ten minutes to cross the distance from the rover to the crater, but with no ankle-twisting boulders, stones or rocks to negotiate it was an easy, even enjoyable walk. Some of the young martians spent the time chatting amongst themselves, swapping gossip and discussing the latest VR sims; others spent the time in quiet contemplation, thinking… well, whatever native martian children thought. Sometimes, Lovell thought, they seemed truly alien, inscrutable, unfathomable. It was hardly surprising, caught as they were between the dust-covered, historic culture of Olde Earth and the bright, shining promise of as-yet unwritten martian history. He didn’t envy them their roles at all.

 

Leaving the martians to their own devices, he preferred to take in the view. True, flat Meridiani was hardly on a par with the rock forests of Utopia, or the boulder-strewn plains of Ares, and compared to the Yosemite-dwarfing canyon lands of Noctis or the glacier-carved badlands of the polar rim, it could even be considered by some as simply boring. But not him. He’d wanted – ached – to come here ever since that day in January 2004 when he’d seen the first picture from Opportunity appear on his computer screen, scrolling down painfully slowly from the top, one line at a time, until he had been standing in a crater, surrounded by a high rim of dusty rock, looking at a ledge of what looked ridiculously like garden centre paving stone slabs…

 

He laughed to himself, remembering his first thought: What’s a Roman road doing on Mars..?

 

“Hey!” a voice exclaimed suddenly over the airwaves, and Lovell, snapped back into the present, turned quickly, spinning in place to seek out the source of the shout. What had happened? Had someone fallen? Had a space suit ripped? An air hose come free?

 

“What’s wrong?” he demanded, seeing one of the children staring towards the west, as if frozen in place. Several others were moving quickly towards him – or her; at this distance he couldn’t tell who it was. “What happened?” he demanded again, more urgently this time, pulse beginning to race. Man had been on Mars for half a century, but the planet still seemed determined to claim as many careless lives as it could. An unwanted statistic flared in his mind: ten people had died on the rusted sands of Mars in the past year, a new record.

 

Fearing the worst, Lovell bounded faster over to the group of kids.

 

“Calm down, nothing’s wrong, sir…” a familiar voice reassured him as he reached the martians, clouds of plum-hued dust scuffling up around his feet as he planted them down hard into the dirt to brake. “Keisha just saw… that…” Callie added, pointing towards the western sky.

 

Lovell made the classic terran mistake then. He assumed.

 

Blazing above the western horizon, barely a finger’s width high now, was a brilliant star, flashing and scintillating like a jewel reflecting candlelight. It was firing off sparks of sapphire, emerald and amethyst, needle-sharp shards of colour as if it was shattering, like fragile crystal, right before their eyes. But the shattering seemed to go on and on, and as he watched Lovell felt a hand wrapping around his heart, an ache that he knew – and hoped – would never go away, no matter how many times he caught sight of this…

 

Eight billion people lived on that “star”, he told himself, and many billions more had lived on it before them. All Mankind’s history, culture, art and poetry had flourished within the glow of that tiny spark of light, was contained in the minute halo of its flickering brilliance. True, Man had reached out and touched the Moon, and more recently Mars, but he had left barely the slightest traces of his presence on those worlds. bThat “star” was his birthplace, where he had evolved in the aftermath of the dinosaurs’ extinction, where he had discovered and tamed fire, where he had invented language, technology, and music.

 

That “star” was the birthplace of Mozart, Tutankamen and Rembrandt, and in the centuries and millennia to come, when Mankind had flown beyond the boundaries of his own solar system and made the planets of other stars his home  – assuming he survived that long – men and women would stand in the dark, under alien skies, filled with unfamiliar constellations, and search out a honey-coloured star, knowing that huddling close to it, bathed in its light and warmth, was the small, blue-and-white world where the brave pioneers Gagarin, Armstrong, McAuliffe and Foale had been born. The world where Everything Began…

 

“Earth,” he whispered, “she looks beautiful tonight, don’t you think.”

 

“I guess so,” Keisha replied casually, “but we’re looking at the new comet, up there, see?” and looking more closely Lovell saw she was jabbing her gloved finger at a part of the sky above and to the left of Earth, where a silvery trail of light, as long as a pencil held at arm’s length, was floating serenely in the fading glow of twilight.

 

“Oh,” Lovell said, brutally deflated. “I thought you meant – “

 

“They say it will be so bright when it passes us next year that it will cast shadows!” Keisha continued breathlessly, “I can’t wait to see that..!”

 

Lovell nodded quietly, but didn’t look at the comet. He couldn’t. Instead he stared at Earth, watching it dropping in silent slow motion towards the horizon, its blue light reddening and fading as it sank into the dustier layers of the atmosphere. Within moments it was as orange as a spark spat out from an open fire, or an iron forge – and then it was gone, surrendering the sky once more to the stars and the diaphanous, mottled trail of the Milky Way.

 

“What are you looking at?” he heard another familiar voice ask in his ear, and turned to see Bennett standing beside him.

 

“You just missed Earth-set,” Lovell replied distantly, still lost in the magic of the moment.

 

“Seen it before,” the boy replied, shrugging dismissively, “it’s nothing special. But hey, look up there, that’s the new comet!”

 

Lovell stared hard at boy, then at the horizon, missing Earth so much it hurt, willing it, begging it to reappear. It didn’t.

 

With stinging eyes Lovell turned away from the empty western sky, and let the alien children show him the comet.

 

They watched it together, happily tracing out the strands of spun-silver in the comet’s ghostly tail across several degrees of sky until it dropped towards the horizon, following Earth and then, dimmed by the same layers of atmospheric dust which had snuffed out Earth, it too became too faint to see with the naked eye.

 

“Okay, time we were moving,” Lovell said eventually, “come on,” and the young martians obediently followed him towards the crater.

 

As they made their way across the stretch of empty plain the ground beneath their feet cracked and crackled in the brutal cold, their patterned boot-soles leaving deep, ridged imprints in the dusty duricrust. It seemed to go on forever -

 

Then, suddenly, they were there.

 

Lovell didn’t need to tell the class to stop at the crater edge, they halted instinctively, as if sensing they should go no further without his say so. Instead, their helmet lights throwing circles of light on each other’s suits in the darkness, they just slowly moved apart to form a line along the lip of the crater, a white picket fence of space suits, and waited for him to speak.

 

He paused, taking in where he was. His pulse was racing. He was there, at last, he was actually there. Standing on the crater’s edge, he sensed the significance of the place, could feel a thrumming in his bones, the same thrumming he’d felt at special locations on Earth. Stalking silently in and out of the towering standing stones of Stonehenge, standing in the sharp-edged shadow of the Great Pyramid and gazing up at the sheer granite face of El Capitan from the grassy meadows at its base, he had felt an energy pulsing through him that he could not explain. He felt it again now, here, on the crater’s crumbling edge.

 

“This is it,” Lovell said quietly, “this is why I brought you out here.”

 

“”And where’s ‘here’?” a familiar voice asked sarcastically. Lewis. 

 

Ignoring him, Lovell surveyed the scene. The small, shallow crater in front of them was known by many names. “Opportunity Crater”, “the Challenger Memorial Station”, “Squyres’ Hole In One”. But to him it would always be just The Crater. The Crater where, half a century earlier, a small rover had driven up to a small rock and turned Man’s understanding of Mars on its head.

 

 “I want you all to pan your helmet torches down over the lip of the crater,” Lovell said slowly, trying to prevent his voice from breaking with emotion he was feeling. He added, with caution, “don’t move forwards yet, just cast light into the crater; I don’t want anyone falling in and breaking a leg or something…”

 

A few of the class mumbled their disapproval, and/or frustration, but they did as they were told, and Lovell nodded with satisfaction as the young martians moved their heads back, panning their torch beams first towards the crater rim and then over it, lighting up the inside slope and –

 

Lovell let out a satisfied sigh. There it was, just as it had been on his screen, all those years ago.

 

It was as if Time had stood still.

 

The bright beams cast by the martians’ helmet torches were bouncing off a fractured rocky outcrop half-way up the slope of the shallow crater’s wall.  Running from left to right, and composed of dozens of small, sharp-edged plates, slabs and knubs of pale stone protruding from the dark wall of the crater, the outcrop looked uncannily like the half-exposed, fossilised spine of some ancient martian dinosaur…

 

“Kids… here we are… Opportunity Outcrop,” Lovell breathed, feeling the greying hairs on the back of his neck standing up, “this is where it all started, back in ’04.”

 

He turned to Callie, saw her gazing down at the rock with an expressionless face, and his heart stopped. What was she thinking? he wondered. What was she feeling? Was she seeing the outcrop? Really seeing it?

 

“Well?” he asked simply. It had to be her choice. Would she walk towards her history, or away from it?

 

“Let’s go down there,” the young girl smiled back at him, her eyes flashing with reflected starlight, “I want to take a closer look.”

 

So one by one, steadying and supporting each other with outstretched hands, they stepped down into the crater.

 

 

 

As they assembled in front of the outcrop, the class let out sighs of disappointment. Lovell fully understood why. Up close, it was revealed to be much smaller than it had appeared from above, and standing in front of it again, mere feet from it, the old teacher was reminded of his first view of the rocky ledge all those years ago. When he had seen the first Pancam image of the outcrop, unveiled by a panel of beaming JPL scientists at the NASA media briefing, it had looked huge. Projected on the screen behind them, the outcrop had appeared tall, maybe even shoulder-high; imposing, as solid and as substantial as a dry stone wall. Lovell had saved the picture and spent an age looking at it that night, zooming in on section after section, again and again, imagining walking up to it and running his gloved hand along it, feeling the cold, hard edges of the stones even through his thick EVA suit gloves, before clambering over it to drop down on the other side…

 

Days later, the outcrop was revealed to be little more than a hard, knobbly ridge of small stone plates and slabs, embedded in the softer, darker material of the crater wall. Disappointingly, it was also found to be only a few inches tall – barely high enough to come up to the middle of Opportunity’s wheels, in fact. Lovell had been gutted. He felt cheated. No-one would be “clambering over” inches-high Opportunity Outcrop in years to come, let alone him. But as more days passed and more and more detail was resolved by the rover’s Hazcams and Pancams, he had fallen in love with the Outcrop all over again, and had looked forward to the day when Opportunity would drive right over it and out onto Meridiani Planum itself…

 

And then, the news. It seemed that the gods of Mars – which had taken cruel delight in past years in making NASA probes despatched to the Red Planet wander off course, blow-up or simply vanish without trace – had actually smiled upon JPL for once. Not only had they allowed the little rover to land safely, but they had actually guided it into a small crater which boasted the geologists’ Holy Grail …

 

“I know it doesn’t look like much,” conceded Lovell, playing his helmet’s light beam over the surface of the outcrop, slowly panning from left to right, “but this is actually some of the most important rock ever found on Mars.”

 

“It looks old…” one of the quieter children commented from off to Lovell’s right somewhere. Who was it? he wondered. Stella? He wasn’t sure. They were right though.

 

“It is old,” Lovell confirmed, “very old. In fact, this is bedrock,” he continued, “original rock, you might even call it – ”

 

Lewis stared hard at him. “You mean you brought us all the way out here just to show us some very old rock?” he asked, more than a note of condescension in his voice.

 

“Not just because it’s old,” Lovell replied patiently, “because it’s important – “

 

Callie was growing restless now, too. “But why?” she demanded, “I don’t understand why it was…is… so special – “

 

Lovell took a deep breath, gathering his thoughts. “The Opportunity rover’s studies of this rock proved, for the very first time, that Mars was once wetter and warmer than it is today,” Lovell told her. “You see, until then we thought it once had been, were pretty sure of that actually, but there was no proof. Opportunity changed that. Changed everything.”

 

“But it’s so… small…” Callie said. Others around her nodded in agreement. They all seemed totally underwhelmed. He could forgive them that. After all, how excited would he have been if, as a fifteen year old, he had been taken out into his own back yard and shown a piece of rock?

 

“Come on,” Lovell said, “let’s walk along it, take a closer look at some of the most interesting features – but you mustn’t touch anything, not even lightly,” he warned, turning to them, his voice suddenly deep and serious. “Some of this material is very fragile; you’d damage it with just a brush of your fingers, even if you didn’t mean to. Treat this place like an ancient tomb, or a relic, it really is that important…”

 

Lewis half-hid a weary “humpf” of disbelief and boredom, but didn’t say anything. Instead he quietly followed the others as they walked along the length of the outcrop, starting at the right hand side.

 

“This,” Lovell told them, as they halted in front of a pair of rocks which were almost touching, and marked the right edge of the outcrop, “is Stone Mountain, the first outcrop rock Opportunity observed close-up. Bennett,” he said, turning to the boy, hoping that involving him in the exploration of the feature would help him loosen up a little, “would you light it up with your helmet beam, please?” The boy duly did, illuminating the rock brightly. “Thanks.” The rest of the class shuffled closer to it, scuffing up clouds of purple-red dust with their boots.

 

Like all the other exposed sections of the Outcrop stretching off in a curved line to its left, Stone Mountain was a light brown colour, marked with hints of cream here and there, with a rough surface which was pitted and flaking and covered with too many cracks to count. But from close-up the pair of rocks was revealed to be a single rock, split in two, with an inch-wide gap separating the halves. While the left hand part jutted a respectable distance out of the crater wall, most of the right hand slab was buried deep in the side of the crater, hidden from view.

 

“Get closer,” Lovell told them, “it’s perfectly safe, just remember not to touch, please…”

 

Several of the group knelt down in the dust in front of the rock, their knees sinking into it an inch or so as they leaned towards it. That was when they noticed, for the first time, that the ground around the Outcrop was literally covered with tiny, blue-purple balls, like beads, or ball bearings. There were hundreds of them – no, thousands, as if the contents of a huge jar of purple glass beads had been poured down the crater’s slope and spread across its floor, piling up against the outcrop’s rocks, gathering in its hollows, cracks and holes. Bizarre.

 

Up close Stone Mountain’s exposed side was an equally bizarre sight. The rock wasn’t solid, wasn’t a single mass like the boulders around Ares; it was made of dozens of different sheets of thin and very fragile-looking material, laying on top of each other like pancakes, or the layers of a gateau. The whole thing looked like it would crumble away to dust if even the lightest martian breeze blew on it…

 

“Those layers, see them?” Lovell asked, playing his own torch beam over the exposed rock, “were laid down over millions of years, level after level after level. Geologists call them sedimentary. All the rocks here are just the same – very, very old, and made over a long, long period of time.”

 

Callie, inevitably one of the class members who had knelt down before the rock, turned towards him, looking up questioningly. “Is that why this place is so important? Because the rocks took so long to form? Because, well…” She stopped in mid-sentence, looked away, obviously feeling uncomfortable at the idea of asking what was on her mind.

 

“Go on,” Lovell prompted, he could tell something wasn’t making sense to her, “what is it?”

 

“Well,” she continued awkwardly, turning her attention back to the rock, “I thought all rocks take a long time to form…”

 

“They do,” Lovell replied, pleased by her insight, “but that’s not the main reason why these rocks are so special, or why they caused such a stir when… well, when I was your age.” Memories started to rise up yet again, but he pushed them back down. There was no time for nostalgic distractions. “Come on,” he said, “let’s walk a little further along, I want to show you the most important rock of all, that will help me explain better…”

 

Slowly, they made their way along the outcrop, their helmet beams casting bouncing white circles on the ground ahead of and alongside them, will’o the wisps accompanying them as they kicked their way through the thick purple hematite dust covering the crater floor. The rocks they passed all looked the same: shattered and fractured pale brown slabs and plates, some jutting up out of the ground, others almost completely buried in it, but all mottled and shot through with spider-web cracks, and all built of layer upon stacked layer of parchment-thin stone. And everywhere – the tiny purple-blue beads, looking like juice-fat berries freeze-dried by the cold martian air.

 

As they walked, Lovell recited names, picking-out individual rocks with his torch beam. They passed “Big Bend”, “Last Chance”, Cards” and “Shark Fin”, stopping for a few moments to examine each one before moving on. Each rock looked like an ancient book, perhaps a volume of spells or a medieval Bible, each buried spine-down in the dust of Mars, their exposed pages aged and yellowed by time and the brutally cold winds of Mars, flaking away sol by sol…

 

“How come there’s no sign of the lander here, sir?” a voice asked from the shadows. Lovell thought it was Cloud, one of Callie’s “gang”. A good sign, if they were starting to show curiousity too.

 

“It was taken away, Cloud,” Lovell replied, walking on slowly, carefully, “retrieved by a Mars Heritage team to prevent it being plundered by collectors, and taken back to Ares – ”

 

“I haven’t seen it in the museum…” Cloud said, suspiciously. Lovell wondered if the young girl had actually been to the museum or was just testing him.

 

“That’s because it isn’t there,” the teacher told her, “it was shipped back to Earth, for display in the Smithsonian.”

 

“Ah yes, of course it went to Earth…” Lewis snarled, “because they haven’t got enough things of their own to put in museums without taking stuff from us, too…”

 

Lovell was taken aback by the young boy’s out of the blue attack on Earth. Where had THAT come from? “I’m sure they have,” the teacher responded, “but the families of the JPL people who built and sent and operated the probe deserve to be able to see it, don’t you think?” Lewis’s face remained as expressionless as a stone mask.

 

“And besides,” Lovell added, “it was long before you were even born but trust me, there was such a public outcry after the Hubble telescope was allowed to burn up in 2009 that it was unthinkable to not bring back to Earth the ship which carried the equally-historic Opportunity trover to Mars…”

 

Absolutely unthinkable, he mused, remembering how, after CNN’s live pictures, taken from a high-flying Royal Air Force jet fighter, showing Hubble burning up in the atmosphere above the north of England – breaking apart in a tumbling hail of shooting stars which brought back uncomfortable memories of the shuttle Columbia’s final moments – had rippled around the world, literally millions of people had telephoned, emailed and written to NASA denouncing their decision to scuttle the amazingly-succesful instrument and demanding nothing like that ever be allowed to happen again.

 

“That’s the only thing that’d gone down-system,” Lovell reassured the young girl, “just like the Viking landers and Pathfinder, the lander from the first of the MERs will be put on display in Ares Museum, just as soon we’ve finished work on the gallery we’re planning to put it in. You’ll be able to see it soon Cloud, I promise.” Lovell said, confidently.

 

“What about tracks, then?” Cloud continued. “I thought the rovers left tracks in the dust? There are none here, and I didn’t see any out there on the plain… it would have driven past where we were on its way out of the crater… how come we didn’t see any?”

 

Lovell smiled a wry smile. It was a good question. But before he had a chance to answer it, another voice broke into the conversation.

 

“Maybe they were scooped up and taken back to Earth, too…” Lewis growled from nearby. Lovell ignored him.

 

“Because, Cloud, when the lander was retrieved by MH the crater was tidied-up,” Lovell replied, “all the wheel tracks, trenches, bits of air-bag, they were all collected up and taken away. One of Mars Heritage’s goals is to restore Visited locations to their original condition – “

 

“But that’s ridiculous,” Lewis snorted, “why did they do that?”

 

“Because it’s history, and history is important,” Lovell replied testily, only to be cut-off again.

 

“ – but surely the wheel tracks and trenches and stuff ARE history?” the young boy persisted. “They were part of the mission, part of its success… the rover couldn’t have discovered anything without driving around and leaving tracks, so why hide them? Unless you’re ashamed of them – “

 

“Why would we be ashamed?” Lovell demanded, annoyed by the suggestion for reasons he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

 

“I don’t know, you tell me,” Lewis replied with forced brightness, “you’re the teacher…”

 

Lovell glowered at Lewis through his visor. Obviously the young martian was trying to intimidate him, but why?

 

There was no time to give it any further thought. They were there.

 

“Let’s stop here a moment,” Lovell said, halting just short of halfway along the line. “Over there,” he said, sweeping his torch beam over a rounded hummock of stones on the far side of the outcrop, “is El Capitan, probably the most important section of the whole outcrop.”

 

Again the class edged forwards for a better view. El Capitan was notably taller than the surrounding rocks – so much taller than Stone Mountain and the plate-flat Cards that it loomed over the outcrop’s centre like a mountain range.

 

Leaning forwards on her toes, wobbling slightly, Callie peered down and examined El Capitan closely. There was something even stranger about the oval-shaped rock than its unusual height. Right in its centre, surrounded by a “splash” of hardened, darker material, was a distinctly un-natural looking hole, maybe an inch across. And in the rock beneath El Capitan, separated from it by a berry-thick trough of dust, a second slab of rock was scarred with a second hole. Kneeling down, looking even more closely, she found similar holes in most of the rocks in front of her. It was as if someone had taken pot-shots at this section of the ledge with a blast pistol –

 

“What do you think they are, Callie?” Lovell asked quietly, noting the young martian’s focussed stare.

 

“It looks like something drilled into the rock here,” she replied, instinctively reaching out her hand to touch one of the markings, only to snatch it away again when she realised what she was doing. “Taking samples, maybe?”

 

Lovell knelt down beside the young martian. “The first part of your answer was right,” he told her, “this rock was drilled into, but the rover didn’t take any samples from here, or anywhere. It had a small drill on the end of its robot arm, and when it had smoothed an area a miniature microscope examined it in detail, taking images of any structures or features.” He was so close to the circular RAT marks now he felt dizzy.

 

“This is it, The Rock,” Lovell told the class, feeling the half century which had passed since he’d gazed wide-eyed at the latest images on the NASA MER website evaporating away. Suddenly he was back in his room at 7am on a dark winter’s morning, Saving picture after picture after picture on his computer, cursing it for being a school day, impatient to get home from lessons and study the pictures properly, to zoom-in on the rocks’ features and markings for himself –

 

Come on Lovell, remember where you are…

 

“When those early JPL scientists studied this rock they found that it had been altered by water, or rather by being in or underwater.” He looked down at El Capitan and yet again felt his pulse racing as he recalled watching the big press briefing. That night, with rain lashing against his window, wave after wave of it blown against his house by the strong winter winds, he had watched the JPL guys, dressed-up – and, after weeks of living in jeans, sneakers and NASA t-shirts, looking uncomfortable in – their best suits and ties, telling the world that they had proof, finally, that Mars was once a wet world. How Steve Squyres had beamed with pride – and relief? Probably. A lot had been riding on the mission, and, after the loss of previous probes, its success. If both – or even one of – the MERs had failed –

 

But they hadn’t failed, they had succeeded spectacularly, and drilling into a rock called El Capitan had proven once and for all what Mars nuts had known in their hearts all along – that the Red Planet was once painted with vivid slashes of cool, deep blue…

 

“There were… are… minerals inside this rock,” Lovell continued, sweeping his torch beam – shakily, because his hand was far from steady – over El Capitan’s hunched form, “which have been modified and changed by being exposed to a lot of water, for a long time…”

 

“So was this outcrop originally bigger?” Stella asked. “I mean, did later missions take pieces of it back to Earth to be studied?”

 

Lovell smiled at another good question; they seemed to be coming thick and fast now, just what every teacher dreamed of. “No, this is just about all of it,” he replied. “We thought that was what would happen,” he said, thinking back to the heated debates he had joined in on, discussions which lit up the Discussion Forums of  websites like New Mars, “but Mars had other ideas. When Opportunity drove over to Endurance Crater – the big crater we saw from our rover, remember? – it found more outcrops of the same ancient bedrock, also modified by water, but they were much bigger, and thicker, and easier to break pieces off too, so later missions landed nearer Endurance and mined it, instead of this crater.”

 

Another memory whispered in his ear, and he looked at the rocks surrounding the base of El Capitan.

 

Ah, yes. Foale

 

It was only because all those childhood hours spent pouring over the MER website’s picture gallery had given Lovell a mental map of the outcrop’s appearance that he could tell one of them was missing. He knew the bare patch of dusty-ground immediately behind and to the right of El Capitan should actually have had a walnut-sized stone protruding from it. Thanks to contacts within NASA’s Astronaut Corps he also knew what most only suspected – that the stone was now on Steve Squyres’ desk, set in the centre of a crystal globe of Mars – a gift from the first man on Mars, Michael Foale, who, on behalf of all the astronaut corps, had clambered down into the crater to retrieve a souvenir for the NASA engineer who had put so much of his heart, life and soul into the Mars Exploration Rovers.

 

It had been strictly against NASA’s rules of course; during mission training there had been no gasps of surprise when Foale’s idea had been dismissed out of hand. Strange then, that every single camera AND microphone trained on Foale as he walked the rim of Opportunity Crater, taking pictures, had failed at exactly the same time. When asked what he had done in the three minutes he had been out of contact Foale had shrugged and replied innocently, with his famous boyish grin, “Nothing, I just took in the view…” Dust-streaks on his legs and knees, “berries” embedded in the dirt caking his boots and a suspicious bulge in his breast pocket had suggested he had “taken” something else in those three minutes, but no-one had ever been able to prove it…

 

And Squyres himself insisted the unusually-flaky, yellow-brown rock in the paperweight on his desk had come from the floor of the Grand Canyon…

 

“So these rocks were once wet..?” Stella asked, her voice small in the darkness.

 

Another memory flickered into life inside Lovell’s mind: a tired but happy-looking Steve Squyres, beaming in front of the cameras at NASA HQ, telling the watching world how wet the rocks of Opportunity Outcrop had once been –

 

“Not just wet,” Lovell told the group, recalling the words that had made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end with excitement, “these rocks were once drenched with water – “

 

Lewis started to laugh.

 

“What’s so funny?” Lovell asked, puzzled. Lewis shook his head, casting a sly glance at Callie, who looked away. Lovell let it go. “As I was saying,” he continued, “these rocks were once underwater, in fact this whole plain was probably underwater – “

 

Lewis laughed again, harder this time.

 

“Okay, something’s obviously amusing you,” Lovell said with a weary sigh, “so come on, share it with the class.”

 

“Well,” Lewis replied, “I was just thinking…” He looked at Callie again, a strange, knowing look in his eye, smiling slyly as if what he was about to say was some kind of private joke between them. She stared back coldly. “These rocks will be ‘drenched’ again some day…”

 

Lovell felt the air chill suddenly. “What do you mean?” he asked.

 

“Oh nothing,” Lewis continued, still smiling, “I just meant that, well, this plain will be a lake again one day – “ he shot another knowing look at Callie, this time a long, deep stare as he said, slowly and deliberately, “when the terraforming begins – “

 

“It’s never going to happen…” Lovell heard a deep voice growl, a voice he didn’t recognise until he turned to see Callie staring icily at Lewis. Anger was burning in her eyes.

 

No, not anger – defiance.

 

“Yes, it is,” Lewis replied darkly, staring her down as the others in the group began to edge away from him, and from Callie, frightened by the confrontation developing in their midst. One by one they shuffled behind Lovell, using him as cover. They reminded him of bystanders in a western, clearing the street before a gunfight began. “One day,” Lewis went on, “when all these incomers are dead, and we’re in charge, when we’re making the decisions about the future, we’ll begin the terraforming – and there’s nothing you little m’s will be able to do about it…”

 

Callie was shaking now, her anger growing, a nuclear reaction of rage building inside her. Lovell was stunned, wondering where the children’s conflict had come from. He’d had no idea! All he could do was watch as Bennet, stepping forward to try and calm Lewis down, was pushed away by his friend.

 

“You stupid Bird Bone,” Callie hissed, edging towards Lewis, fists clenched, “you think we’ll just let you drown everything? You think we’ll sit back and let you ruin all… all…” she looked around her, “this?”

 

“All this?” Lewis repeated, “all this what? Look at it! It’s just dead rock, and dust and dirt,” he mocked, kicking at the ground with his boot, sending a cloud of cherry-coloured fines blossoming into the night air. “You stupid Claybornes,” he laughed derisively, looking at her through the slowly-falling dust and shaking his head, “always putting your beloved stone before people – “

 

With a loud cry Callie lunged for him, arms outstretched, fingers curved like raptor claws. As the rest of the class shrieked, scuffling further behind Lovell for cover, Lewis span slowly to the left to avoid the girl’s attack, and almost succeeded.

 

Almost.

 

Callie managed to wrap one hand around the strap holding Lewis’ chest pack in place, and tugged on it as she stumbled past him, dragging him over with her. Tangled together, slowed by the low gravity, the two children fell to the ground, reminding Lovell of grainy black-and-white footage he’d seen of Apollo astronauts stumbling on the Moon. But on larger, higher-gravity Mars, the two young martians fell much faster, sending not clouds of ash-grey lunar dust into the air but showers of red and rose fines and purple berries in all directions –

 

-         before slamming hard into the outcrop.

 

“No!!!”

 

Lovell let out a horrified cry but there was nothing he could do – flattened beneath the combined weight of the fighting martians, the small, fragile rocks clustered around El Capitan disintegrated, vanishing in a billowing cloud of red dust and berries, their ancient layers shattering into countless parchment-thin fragments.

 

When the dust had settled, Lovell found Lewis and Callie lying on the ground, limbs entangled. Dust and berries, dislodged from the crater slope by their impact, had fallen onto them like a purple-and-red waterfall, half-covering them and making it appear that they, like the rocks of the outcrop, were protruding from the crater wall.

 

Telling the rest of the class to stay where they were, Lovell edged forward, fearful the children had been injured in the fall. They were shocked and winded, but that was all. As Lovell watched, Callie raised her head, brushing dust off her visor with her hand. She was fine.

 

But El Capitan, and the whole historic middle section of the outcrop, had been crushed.

 

“How could you be so stupid?,” Callie said, turning furiously to Lewis, “this place is ruined forever now because of you, ruined…”

 

“What do you mean, because of me?” Lewis retorted, angrily slapping dust off his legs and arms, “you’re the one who slammed into me and sent us flying – “

 

“Stupid lying Borg idiot!” Callie hissed, sweeping her gloved hand through the dust that had fallen around them, sending a shower of it towards and over Lewis, covering him again.

 

“Little ‘m fool!” Lewis fired back, his own hand sending a hail of berries flying towards the fallen girl. Some of the hard rock beads struck her helmet and pinged off in all directions. Enraged again Callie made a grab for Lewis’ outstretched leg, which Lewis promptly kicked at her  –

 

“STOP it!! Both of you!!” Lovell shouted, so loudly that Callie, Lewis and all the other martian children instinctively threw their hands over the outside of their helmets, as if making to cover their ears. The two feuding children froze in place, stunned by his outburst.

 

“Just look what you’ve done…” Lovell said quietly.

 

Abashed, the young martians stared hard at the dust-covered ground.

 

“And over what?” Lovell demanded. “Terraforming? Terraforming? Lewis, that won’t happen for hundreds of years, if ever – ” Lewis started to protest about that but Lovell silenced him with a pointing finger. “Don’t,” the teacher warned him darkly, “just… just don’t.” Callie, rising slowly,  started to chide her attacker, assuming she had the teacher’s support, but Lovell silenced her just as swiftly. “And you can be quiet too,” he told her forcefully, “I expected better of you than childish name calling! I thought you were the smart one in the class, not the clown!” Surprised by her rebuke, the young girl sat back down in the dust.

 

“This place has been undisturbed for billions of years,” Lovell said inbetween deep breaths, surveying the damage to the outcrop, “it’s survived ice ages, catastrophic floods, dust storms, meteor impacts, looters and collectors… and after just ten minutes of you two, and your stupid fighting, it’s in pieces..!”

 

“But he – “ Callie began to protest.

 

“But nothing,” Lovell replied, waving away her excuses, “enough talk, I’ve had it with you two, with this whole damned foolish teenage martian feud. You’re not in kindergarten arguing over who gets to play with the toys now! When are you all going to grow up? I mean… for pity’s sake!” he exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air, “Lewis usually talks a lot of garbage, but he was actually right for once: when all of us incomers have passed away you WILL be in charge; yours is the generation that’s going to have to decide what to do with Mars when the planet is fully explored! You’re going to have to choose between preserving this world and fully exploitating it – “

 

“That’s just it!” protested Callie, “that’s just what I was trying to say! If they’re not stopped, they’ll ruin it!” She thumped her fist into the dirt, sending clouds of dust billowing up once again.

 

Listen to yourself!” Lovell yelled at her, “you don’t get it, do you? There IS no ‘they’, just ‘you’,” He swept his gaze around the whole group, “ALL of you… you’re in this together, no matter how much Earth soil is in your cells or Earth blood in your DNA… you can’t afford to waste time with this Montague and Capulets crap!”

 

“Sir?” a puzzled voice asked from far away, obviously thinking: Montagu and Capulets?

 

“Forget it,” Lovell sighed. Shakespeare could wait. History could wait.

 

The future couldn’t.

 

“You Borg, Claybornes, Bird Brains and whatever the hell else you call yourselves are all going to have to learn how to work together if you’re going to make Mars a real home,” he said, “your home. And might as well start now.”

 

“What do you mean?” Lewis asked suspiciously.

 

“Well,” Lovell replied, kneeling down in front of the two young martians, ignoring the popping and creaking of his knees as he scooped-up a handful of red dirt, letting it trickle back thru his fingers. As it fell, the tiny grains and shards of hematite sparkled like fairy dust in the starlight. “There’s an old Earth saying… ‘you break it, you fix it’…”

 

He nodded sharply towards the ruined outcrop. “Fix it.”

 

Lewis and Callie exchanged a startled “what?” look.

 

“You heard me, fix it,” Lovell repeated slowly, sternly. “El Capitan. You broke it, you fix it. Use some of the smaller pieces to patch-up what’s left of El Capitan so it looks like it did before. No-one goes back to the rover until you’re done.” Sensing movement behind him he turned to see Bennett and Stella and several of Lewis’s and Callie’s other friends starting towards them, ready to assist. “Oh no, all of you can just stay where you are. In fact, sit down, make yourselves comfortable. They made this mess, they have to clear it up.” He shot Callie and Lewis a hard look as he added a clearly non-negotiable: “Alone.”

 

Quite convinced their teacher had gone insane, the martians sheltering behind him sat down, one by one, on the dusty floor of Opportunity Crater, watching silently as their two friends stood up, dusted themselves off and hesitantly started gathering fragments of outcrop bedrock from the ground around them.

 

There was nothing else they could do.

 

 

 

 

 

It took two hours.

 

Two long hours of stooping low over the ground, looking for pieces of rock just the right size and just the right shape; of fitting them together like pieces of the hardest jigsaw ever made; of peering at half century old, black and white 2D NASA MER images projected onto the insides of their helmet visors; of back-straining bending to pick up the fragments; of hair-pulling frustration at trying to fit them together to make El Capitan re-appear out of the shattered chaos of their fall…

 

As the sky darkened and filled with stars, they argued, hurled insults, even punched and kicked a few times. Phobos and Deimos both passed over them, casting their bone-white light down into the heart of the crater and onto the pair of martians struggling to recreate what they had broken. Kneeling side by side, rebuilding the historic outcrop, fingers growing numb with fatigue and cold, all the time watched by the others, the two young new-worlders grew tired, more tired than they had felt for ages, so tired they wanted to just lay down in the red dust and sleep and never wake up… but eventually their efforts began to pay off. First they recreated the basic, rough form of the shattered section of outcrop, scuplting progressively smaller chips, shards and flakes of cream-coloured bedrock into El Capitan’s distinctive hump-backed shape. When that was done they moved in to add detail with tools from their utility belts, scraping vugs into the rock with the sharp points of geology hammers, carving jagged scratches across and over the rock faces with diamond-tipped spikes used to secure tethers during dust storms, again and again consulting the old NASA photos painted on their HUD visors, checking their work for accuracy, over and over and over -

 

Until finally it was done.

 

“Not bad,” Lovell said, looking down at the repaired outcrop as the two exhausted martians sat down on the crater floor beside their creation with a deep, weary sigh. It was never going to fool an expert, or even anyone who had looked at those old NASA images for longer than a minute, but it would do until he could sneak a full MH team out there to do the job properly. He was owed favours. There would be no comeback on the kids.

 

“Yes… good work you two,” Lovell said approvingly, reaching out his hands to the two shattered martians and yanking them up off the crater floor. “Time to go home.”

 

 

 

With their bootprints smoothed over and all traces of their visit removed, the group made its way out of the crater. One by one, grabbing and pulling on each other’s hands for support, they climbed back out of the low dip in the martian desert that solar system atlases called the Challenger Memorial Station. Their boots slip-slipped in the loose dirt, so many times that they lost count, and each misplaced step sent another sheet of plum- and cherry-coloured dust hissing down onto the outcrop, spilling around it and covering their earlier footprints.

 

The “new” El Capitan was soon half-buried beneath dust, and looked just as ancient and undisturbed as the intact, original rocks standing on either side.

 

Lovell, bringing up the rear, was hauled out by Callie and Lewis, working together again for the second time that sol. As his boots landed on the solid ground of the Meridiani Plain once more, stained rose and purple by the hematite-rich dust laying deep in the crater, the old teacher stopped. Hands on his knees, bent over, Lovell gulped in deep lungfuls of stale, recycled air, savouring each brackish breath.

 

Only one thing left to do, he told himself, straightening up and gazing out over the crater.

 

The most important thing of all.

 

Without saying a word to the martian children, who had once again spread out to form a ragged line around the edge of the crater, Lovell reached over his right shoulder and retrieved a large metallic cylinder which had been pushed into a pouch on his backpack. With the young martians watching him intently, leaning and sagging against each other like half-melted snowmen, as weary as they were puzzled, and their confusion deepened when Lovell began to unscrew the flask’s tight lid, showing it wasn’t just an extra air tank as they had thought…

 

Carefully, slowly, Lovell unscrewed the top. No need to rush, he told himself, feeling the lid turning beneath his fat, gloved fingers, don’t spoil everything now, not when you’ve come all this way…

 

He felt a click. Ah. One turn remained, just one. After that, he knew, only a handful of seconds would remain.

 

Now.

 

“A billion years ago…” Lovell began, peering down into the shadowed depths of the crater, straining to make out the long, spine-like shape of the outcrop. There it was, only just visible in the deep dark of the martian night. From up on the crater rim it showed no sign of damage. Good. “A billion years ago,” he repeated, speaking to the star-strewn sky which dwarfed them all, “these ancient rocks tasted water. First it fell on them as rain from the sky, then it steadily rose up around them until it eventully covered them as this plain became a lake…”

 

A couple of the kids found enough energy to summon up a quiet giggle, which died away when Lovell turned his gaze towards them. But instead of snarling at the martians, as they had expected, the teacher simply smiled.

 

“I know, it doesn’t seem important to you,” he conceded, “you just want to get back to the comfort of your Habs, with your VR sims and your Net, but there’s something you have to think about, something you have to take back with you…

 

“If you decide it’s what you want when you grow up then maybe, one day in the far, far future,“ Lovell continued, “rain will fall on these rocks again, before becoming submerged for a second and final time.” He didn’t use the word terraforming, he couldn’t bring himself to. “But that’s a long way away, maybe centuries…that’s a long time to go thirsty, don’t you think?” he asked the watching martians. Some – Callie and Lewis included – nodded in agreement.

 

“I say we should give them a taste now, don’t you?” Lovell asked, and completed the final turn of the flask’s lid. It came off without any resistance, silently in the thin air, and after peering inside Lovell held the flask out over the edge of the crater and tipped it upside down –

 

The watching martians gasped as turned to liquid silver by the light of the stars blazing in the sky above, fell in a sparkling, glittering torrent towards the outcrop below. Even tho it had been super-saturated with salt to lower its freezing point, making it ten times saltier than the famous waters of Earth’s Dead Sea, that just delayed the inevitable: as soon as the flask’s water was exposed to the vacuum-thin martian atmosphere most of it evaporated in mid-air before even coming close to the rocks, and wafted away into vapour which vanished before their eyes.

 

But a trickle stubbornly resisted, and fell directly onto the rocks below, freezing on contact with their stone surfaces, encasing them in a sheath of ice. Staring down from the crater rim, Lovell gazed at El Capitan and smiled at its new beauty: reflecting the starry sky above the crater, the ice was studded with a myriad of tiny points of light, each one sparkling and twinkling, as if a thousand spirits or sprites lived and danced within it.

 

“Come on,” Lovell said, curling his arms around the shoulders of Callie and Lewis, the old enemies, who had made their way to his side, “let’s go home.” As one they turned and walked away from the crater.

 

Leading the group, Lovell, exhausted beyond words, smiled contentedly, knowing that when the first rays of dawn speared down into the crater the next morning the ice encasing El Capitan would melt, evaporating away into the thin martian atmosphere in a flash, leaving the rock as dusty, bare, and bone-dry as it had been for billions of years…

 

But not before some water had trickled into its newly-carved cracks, caves and crevices…

 

And for just a few moments, the tiny caves and caverns hidden inside El Capitan, which had been dry for so many millennia, would be soaked with water once again.

 

No, not soaked.

 

Drenched.

 

 

© Stuart Atkinson, 2004-03-15




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