Archive for August 4th, 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




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