23
Mar
10

FREEING SPIRIT

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

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

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

“Bumpy?” Rose said sarcastically.

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

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

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

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

The Doctor said nothing, just grinned back at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She punched him again, harder this time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not that,” he sighed, “that…”

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

Not what she’d expected to see.

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

“It’s a robot,” she said flatly.

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

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

The light bulb went on above Rose’s head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It looks stuck,” Rose said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What should?” Rose asked.

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

Then he reached out with his sonic screwdriver…

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

…and touched it softly against Spirit’s back.

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

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

Which suddenly began to move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which is…?” Rose prompted, impatiently.

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

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

He noticed Rose was hanging back.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

At last.

© Stuart Atkinson 2010

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