“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
© Stuart Atkinson, 2004-03-15