02
Aug
09

Hunters

From:     JenCReed@ChryseBase.Mars.Plan

To:     CalMac@San/Ork/Scotia/Terra.Plan

Date:     Earth/Feb 12, 2062 

Hi Cal,

Your last letter was wonderful, again, Thank You! 🙂 I’m assuming  that as it cut off near the end there, something stopped you  completing it as planned; that’s okay, I’ll just chew my nails  nervously while waiting for part #2!

Since you wrote I’ve been busy too, away from home for a couple of  days on a school trip. I know I never said anything about it last  time; it was a big surprise to me actually, it came out of nowhere, or  I would have warned you I’d be away and out of contact.

So, where have I been? Well, I’ve been almost as far away from Chryse  as I’ve ever been before – out into the Far Outback, on a hunting  expediton! No, nothing to do with Mars Heritage this time sadly,  though I believe my Team (it feels good to be able to talk about My Team now! 🙂  ) is on the shortlist for the next draft to clean-up  the Santa Maria site in a month’s time (cross your fingers for me, you  can imagine just how high prestige a job it is, tidying the landing  site of the first manned expedition to Mars!). No, I got back  yesterday from a field trip up to the crater Lyot, which lies far  north and east of here, in the deep desert of Vasitas Borealis (rough translation: the Great Northern Plain), because the entire senior  class was drafted in to assist a planetary geology field squad on a  Hunt…

… a meteorite hunt.

Mars is an excellent place for collecting meteorites Callum.  We’re  something of a meteorite magnet. Because we’re caught between the Sun  and the asteroid belt we get lots of what the scientists call “debris  infall”; out in the Belt asteroids are colliding and chipping bits off  each other all the time, and those chips of rock and melted globs of  metal are pulled towards the Sun by its gravity. But they have to get  past us first, and many don’t. Meteorites land here all the time, many more than do there on Earth, but the problem is this planet is so huge  (only half Earth’s size, I know, but we have no oceans here  remember, so although we’re only half your size we have an equal area  of land… and no trees or lakes to hide falling starstones! 🙂  )  and its landscape is so rugged that they’re very hard to find. A lot  of the surface is very hard, exposed bedrock, so anything that hits it  either shatters into minute fragments or is vapourised completely.

But there is some softer ground, with dust dunes and wells to cushion  infall, so single meteorites are out there to be found, and often  are, but usually only the big ones – and by “big” I mean bigger than  your hand – are stumbled upon by people outside, just because they stood out from the surface clutter. And you’ve seen the pics, there’s  lots of clutter – there are rocks everywhere, millions upon millions  of them…

So, contrary to popular terrestrial opinion, meteorite hunting here on  Mars isn’t simply a matter of taking a stroll into the desert and  looking at your feet. They’re not everywhere. One Hunter told me  once that looking for a single meteorite on Mars is “like looking for  a bit of hay in a stack of needles”. Just like on Earth, you have to  look for them in a place where they’re more likely to be found,  somewhere where they’ll really stand out against the terrain and occur  in unusually high numbers. You have places like that there – the  blue-white icefields of Antarctica, or the deserts in Africa and  Australia – and we have our equivalents: vast stretches of open desert here in the north; the southern ice cap, though that can be very dusty; the dust-filled interiors of the biggest craters…  they’re all  popular meteorite hunting grounds. I’m sure there are half a dozen  people out there right now, as I write you this letter, looking for  starstones…

Just as I was for a couple of days, up in Vasitas.

If you look at your Mars map – I’m assuming you have one to hand now  every time you read one of my mails? If you haven’t it might be an  idea from now on! I have some travelling to do! – you’ll find Lyot  crater “way up north”, just beneath the dark, polar band (or 30  degrees east, 50 degrees north if you feel like plotting it out  precisely. The crater lies at the western end of a long, narrow flat  plain, and a remote Prospector probe recently flew over it, looking for traces of minerals. It was unsuccesful, but it found something  much better – a new strewn field. (A ‘strewn field’ is what we call an area above which a large meteorite has broken up, scattering pieces  down onto the ground below.) A survey team was despatched a couple of  days later – that’s quite fast for Mars – and they came back beaming from ear to ear, clutching bags stuffed full of meteorites and armed  with fishermen’s tales of how there were too many starstones up there  to count. They asked the Base Commander for help, and she agreed. We  were drafted, and taken up there to act as assistants to the geology  team. Hunter-Gatherers, I suppose… 🙂

Your map will tell you at a glance that Lyot is so far away that travelling there in a rover was simply out of the question, so Commander McNeil gave permission for us to be taken north in a shuttle. We all gathered outside the shuttle bay on the morning of our  departure excited beyond words. We’d been warned that it was going to  be very hard work, and we all realised that, but all we could think of  was one thing: two whole days – and a night! – away from home.  Freedom! There was still an hour to go until sunrise, and wer were all  sleepy and gritty-eyed as we greeted each other with bags slung over  our shoulders, crammed full of all our essentials – music CDs,  players, books, junk food, the usual! 🙂

The first big surprise of the day was finding, when we walked into the  bay, that we would be travelling in an old CK-20.  They’re ugly brutes,  basically just a pair of pyramids linked together by a grid-like mass  of beams and struts, with a crew cabin at the front and an engine  block at the rear, and have been on Mars for years. They’re more than  just shuttles, they’re essentially mobile research stations, which can  fly to any location, set down on the ground and support the work of a small science team for several days. Those two pyramids I mentioned,  both are detachable and have specific uses: the front one is a  passenger cabin, the rear one is a fully-equipped lab, with a cycling  airlock, a couple of work stations. Connect them with a tunnel and you  have everything needed to hold an Outback geek party! 🙂

Seeing the CK-20 sitting on its pad waiting for us, surrounded by  fussing techs and members of the geology team, we all knew were were  in for an “interesting” time… 🙂

Once we’d taken our seats, splitting up into our own little social  groups and cliques, the flight north seemed to pass in a blur. I  grabbed a starboard side window seat so I could enjoy the view, and  while everyone else gabbled and gossiped away around me I pressed my  face to the crysta-glass to enjoy the dawn. Oh, it was beautiful Cal!  With the Sun still some distance below the horizon, the planet beneath  us was still purple as we rose into the air; the sprawling landscape  was painted in shades of plum and indigo, and the eastern horizon was  an undulating scarlet line which cut the world off from a raging  orange and crimson sky, marked here and there with scars of angry red  cloud. Then the sky began to brighten, cycling though purple to  scarlet… pink.. and then the Sun burst over the horizon like a  nuclear fireball, an explosion of golden light which shattered the sky  in a heartbeat, burning away the night’s last lingering clouds and  banishing the stars to oblivion in a moment. As it climbed higher the  Sun’s light rippled over the planet’s surface, rippling towards me  over the craters and hills and mountains, flooding over the land like  a tidal wave of molten gold… then it was past us, there was clear  sky between the Sun and the horizon again. Daybreak on Mars. You have  No Idea.. 🙂

After that excitement we followed a fairly unremarkable flightpath to  Lyot, which tool us over mostly flat, featureless desert, broken here  and there by a few far-scattered mesas and valley or canyon systems,  and after five hours of easy flying we were dropping down towards our  home for the following two days – Lyot crater.

Lyot’s a big crater, spanning five degrees of longtitude and as many  degrees of latitude, an almost percectly circular scar on Mars’ rocky  skin excavated by the impact of an asteroid-sized body millennia ago,  during the Great Bombardment, and as we dropped down towards it, it  seemed to stare up blindly out of the tan-coloured desert floor, like  a grotesque, empty eye socket, dark, deep shadows cast on the desert  behind its sharp-edged western rim wall. Very impressive, like your  Meteor Crater – but enlarged by a factor of ten… 😉

Our landing site – the imaginatively-christened ‘Lyot Strewn Field’ –  lay a little further north and east, so we flew over the northern rim  of the crater as we descended. It was stunning, looking down into that  deep pit, at the mountains, dust dunes and smaller craters within it,  like looking at a grab-bag of Mars’ features, but after a few minutes  it was behind us and we were within sight of the Field. The survey team had left a marker beacon at its centre, to guide us in, and as we  approached we all crowded around the windows to get our first glimpse  of the area. It didn’t look anything special, to be honest, just a  long stretch of pale-coloured desert which disappeared over the  eastern horizon, like the exposed bed of some huge, dried-up  prehistoric martian river. Our pilot told us over the intercom that we  would be landing in a couple of minutes, and asked us to strap  ourselves in in preparation. We did as we were told, and listened to  the engines whining as they were throttled back, braking our descent.  Moments later we landed, with a considerable bump, and the pilot  welcomed us to what we be known, temporarily, as “Lyot Base”. We all  smiled, content in the knowledge that by simply by being there we had pushed the Frontier back just a little further… that kind of thing’s  important to us, probably hard for you to undrstand, but that’s okay.  Maybe when you get here you’ll see what I mean. 🙂

Our pilot had told us during the flight that he would be leaving us  soon after landing – a message had come in from a science team on the  north polar ice cap, asking for help, and he had been ordered to go  and assist – so, following procedures, as always (the only way to  stay alive here)  we all pulled on our helmets and suits and made our  way to the airlock, cycling through it one by one until we were all  standing out on the surface. It felt sooo good to be Out againCal, I  can’t begin to tell you. Just to be outside again, on Mars, with that  huge sky above me and the dust beneath my boots, I felt more alive  than I had done in days. And I could tell the others were happy to be away from Chryse too; they were stomping and bounding around like  idiots, kicking up clouds of cinnamon-coloured dust with their big,  uncontrollable feet as the teachers struggled to rein them in.

But the sound of a warning tone ringing in their helmets brtought the  wanderers to their senses, and joined by our teachers and the geology  team we headed away from the CK, to a patch of bare rock which was the  standard safe distance of 200 metres. Then we turned and looked back  at the shuttle. It was a strangely moving sight, beautiful in an ugly  kind of way. The CK has none of the flowing lines of its descendants,  the sleeker, more passenger-friendly CM and CN models, but it serves its purpose, faithfully and truly, and as I looked at it sitting out  there on the sand I couldn’t help thinking how perfectly at home it  looked…

Then the ground beneath our feet started to tremble and shake, and  watched the shuttle’s superstructure lift slowly up off the desert  floor, like a giant waking from a deep, deep sleep. Then it swung  around to port, until its snub nose was pointing north, then flew  away, leaving us standing out on the sands.  Alone.

No, not quite alone. In the near distance, where there had once been a  shuttle, there now stood two small pyramids, and for a moment I could  almost imagine I was there Callum, on your world, in the middle of the  Egyptian desert staring at the great pyramids of Giza. Only, there was  no Sphinx, and the pyramids before me were not built out of stone, but  metal and glass, and their surfaces were smooth and clean, covered  with mirror-like solar panels to catch the Sun’s light and convert it into electricity, to power our experiments and equipment and keep us  alive; and being constructed so, they reflected perfectly the  surrounding landscape and sky, so that they seemed to vanish and merge  with that landscape if you searched for them after briefly looking  away… beautiful, Cal, no pictures could ever hope to do such a sight  justice… <<sigh>>

Because we had landed a short distance away from the southern boundary  of the strewn-field (not a good idea to land inside it, and have the  pyramid modules actually cover some of the meteorites!) our first task  was to deploy the emergency power generators from the habitation  module  while the so-called ‘grown-ups’ (who were by that time leaping  and bouncing about just as much as us, if not more so!), so we bounced  keenly back over to it, leaving trails of deep footprints in the sand,  and hauled the huge solar-cell-covered sheets out of their storage bays. When they were stretched out over the desert floor we waited for  the red lights on their edges to blink on, confirming they were  collecting sunlight. Eventually they did, releasing us to move on to  more serious matters: the first Hunt!

In our absence the geo-team had checked out the lab and its equipment,  satisfying themeslves that all inside it was wall, and we joined up  with them outside the hab-module. Telling us that we had landed just a  few minutes’ walk away from the boundary, they asked us all to fan out  into a line and advance into the field, slowly, like a search party,  and check for meteorites on the desert floor. The purpose of the first  Hunt was, they stressed, to get us used to the local conditions, to “dip our toes into the water” and learn how to recognise our prey.  Being a desert fox, as you know, I was already familiar with meteorite  ID methods: a typical meteorite is dark, because of its ‘fusion crust’  of melted rock, and they weigh more than surrounding rocks too, being  denser and having some iron content. Stones would be typically rounded  and smooth, metallic meteorites would probably be more irregular in  shape, with pits and hollows and protrusions too.

The final field test was centuries old: if the stone was attracted to  a strong magnet (like the one mounted on the back of my glove) it was  much more likely to have come from Up There. I couldn’t help laughing.  I was raring to go!

The others seemed to be feeling in a light mood too, because by the  time we were all assembled in our line everyone was either laughing or  smiling, and it felt like we were on holiday instead of conducting  serious scientific research. Even the Geo-team joined into the spirit  of things; to signal the start of the search  the  team leader raised  his hand theatrically, like a Roman emperor demanding silence before  the start of a gladiator tournament… then dropped it. With a mixture  of whoops, laughs and cheers we started forwards gingerly, edging into  the strewn field cautiously, like soldiers advancing into enemy  territory.

It felt un-natural to be outside and moving so slowly – I love to  bounce when I’m outside on my own! I can bounce along for miles and  miles and miles..! 🙂  – and I felt like an old woman shuffling and  bumbling along, having to control myself literally every step of the  way. Whenever someone spotted a possible meteorite they called their  name out over the radio, and everyone else had to stop while a Geoteam member bobbled over to check it out. That was annoying and  frustrating at first, but I soon realised how precious those moments  of silence and stillness were; they gave me an opportunity to drink in  the view, to savour my surroundings, and while everyone else fidgeted,  shuffling from one foot to the other, I just let out a deep breath and  Looked…

The deep Outback desert is special Cal, unique, as treasured by native  martians as your islanders treasure their cliffs, beaches and oceans.  Without any mountains, crater walls or volcanoes to clutter the  horizon, standing in the centre of a vast dust desert is a  breathtaking experience. To feel such isolation, such…  insignificance is  so humbling, so centering, I smile just thinking  about it, and ache to do it again. Some people can’t bear it, they  have to fight off previously-unknown agoraphobic feelings and get back  to their lander, rover or whatever, and batter their input senses with structure, shape and form. Me? I could stand there out in the open all  day, gazing up at the never-ending, peach-coloured sky, staring out to  the unreachable horizon, feeling at one with the planet beneath and  around me, part of it…

And the colours, Cal! I can’t begin to do them justice… look closely, and for long enough, and you see that the rocks aren’t just  red, or brown, they’re a million subtle shades, and each one, each one  is an individual in its own right, with its own markings, its own  profile, shape and form… million upon million of them stretching  away to infinity, too many to ever count, too many to ever even see…

Jenna found the first suspect, and called out her name so loudly at  first I wondered if she’d fallen and twisted an ankle or something,  but when I looked around to see where the cry had come from I saw her  jumping up and down very excitedly, summoning the Geo-team over to her  with repeated cries of “I’ve found one! I’ve found one!” Like me,  Jenna has found meteorites before, more than once, and although it’s  quite a rare event we’ve all got kind of used to it by now. But I  could understand why she was so excited by her find; we were a team,  everyone was working together, it felt… different… grander  somehow.  We were suddenly part of something bigger, and important.

No-one had ever been up here before, the ground beneath our feet was  virgin territory, free of bootprints and toe-scuffs –

But poor Jenna had called out too soon. Her meteorite turned out to be  a “meteor-wrong”, just a darker-than-usual piece of impact debris,  catapulted into the area from who knows where over the horizon. She  was gutted, and tossed the rock aside contemptuously, only warming  when the Geo-team leader patted her on the shoulder and congratulated  her on her observational skills in spotting the rock at all. She felt  better after that, and after a brief pause the Hunt resumed.

We walked for two hours, in a line, spread out to my right and left,  scanning the ground carefully, closely, eyes roaming over and between  and around every rock, pebble and boulder while the Sun arched above  us and the shadows behind us lengthened. Each time someone found a  meteorite the line ground to a halt, and a Geo-team member would lope  over to the finder, image the meteorite where it lay, then bag it and  mark the find location with a temporary micro-beacon. Then we’d start  again…

This carried on until eventually it was time to head back, and at a  signal from Geo-leader our line stopped advancing and ground to a  halt. Each of us span around on our heels and re-traced our steps  exactly, so as not to disturb the area. I hadn’t found anything,  unfortunately, but others had, and our haul was an impressive thirteen  meteorites, and a couple of dozen false-alarms (only one of them mine,  I might add); Jenna, happily, found one of the real ones, an eyeball-sized beauty, an oriented beauty, with a rippled fusion crust which was  so beautiful it more than made up for her earlier disappointment, and  I swear she never stopped smiling all the way back to the pyramids.

It was as we were just about to exit the strewn-field that I heard a  plaintive cry through my earphones, and span slowly round to see Kai  looking off somewhere to his right, distracted by… something. No-one  else had heard his call, it seemed, because the Geo-team leader and  his colleagues were already bounding on ahead of us, eager to get the  collected specimens stored safely  before nightfall, and our teachers  seemed to be in just as much of a hurry to get back too, content to  leave us to fend for ourselves. I looked at little Kai and felt his frustration: he had obviously spotted something interesting, but being  the shy, insecure kid he is he couldn’t bring himself to make a fuss  about it. There was no way he was going to call out any louder!

Sensing something was wrong I quickly flashed him a private message  glyph, and as it popped up on the screen which coated the inside of  his helmet visor I saw him turn to face me, puzzled by my demand to  look at me. “What have you seen?” I asked him over a private channel.  He sent back a one-word reply: “meatywrite?” which left me giggling  but excited me at the same time. “Go get!” I glyphed back, but he  shook his head emphatically, horrified by my outrageous suggestion.  What? And risk being seen and punished for disobedience? We were under strict instructions not to wander from our pre-determined search tracks. “Go get!” I re-glyphed, but he shook his head again, “I’ll  take blame if wrong” I told him. That seemed to do the trick; he broke  away from the line and bounced over to the left, eventually stopping  in a cloud of billowing dust before kneeling down in front of a large  boulder, one of the few decent-sized ones on the whole plain. He  reached out his shaking hands, scrambled around beneath the rock, then  stood, examined what was in his trembling hand, then turned and bounded back towards me.

“Look!” he commanded, holding out his find. Lying in the palm of his  grubby, dust-stained gauntlet was a mottled green-black rock, a  meteorite without a doubt. I patted the top of his shoulder to  congratulate him, and was about to tell him how well he’d done when  one of our teacher chaperones appeared, bounding over to us and  clearly angry about something.  Panic-stricken poor Kai stood rooted to  the spot as the teacher scolded him for disobeying instructions, and  even when I defended him, taking the blame he was still condemned for  being disobedient. Taking the meteorite off him the teacher grabbed his arm and swung him around towards the pyramids, pulling him after  her. As he was dragged away Kai looked at me accusingly, and I felt  awful for getting him into trouble, really I did, but the damage had  been done. All I could do was follow them and make sure the Geo-team  leader knew about Kai’s find, and who had been to blame. I also wanted  to make sure the meteorite was handed over to the Geo-team; something  about it had struck me as odd, I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I  knew I wanted to make sure Kai’s discovery was properly credited.

That first Hunt was basically just a rehearsal, a dry run if you like, to get us used to search techniques and procedures, and after going back inside the habitation pyramid for a much-needed lunch we all assembled outside for a second time, eager to build upon our initial success. Jenna seemed particularly eager to be on the prowl again, but poor Kai was sandwiched between two teachers, to deter him from straying off the path again. I tried to get his attention by waving, and even sent him a tiny glyph to ask him to talk to me, but he either didn’t see it or ignored it, and just stared at the ground as the Geo-team leader explained that our second Hunt would be a much more serious affair. We would be stretched out across a wider area, with a bigger gap inbetween each other, and it would be up to us, individually, to locate, record and recover meteorites along our search track through the field.

This time, he warned sternly, sweeping his gaze along the row of reflective visors staring back at him, we were On Our Own.  Everything we collected would be examined back in the lab, and it was absolutely crucial that we made the most of our time by recovering as many meteorites as possible. To motivate us, meteor-wrongs would be tossed onto individual piles outside the lab, forming a row of “Cairns of Shame”. And he’d personally make sure that everyone knew which cairn belonged to which Hunter.

“Oh,” I thought, looking at the sample bag I’d been given to fill, “no pressure then…”!

Then we were on the move, cheering and shouting out encouragement to each other as we bounced over to the boundary.  According to the pre-briefing we’d be entering it this time from a slightly different direction, and our second Hunt would take us across the full width of the field, a trek of more than two kilometres. We’d be shuffling along for almost three hours, and each find we made would make our bags a little heavier, our task a little harder. I felt a little ill at the prospect of all that work being rewarded with public humiliation as all my meteorites ended up as a pile of discarded rocks in the evening twilight…

But all that was forgotten as we assembled on the boundary. A moment’s hesitation and reflection, accompanied by the sound of a dozen people taking deep, calming breaths, and then the leader’s hand dropped again.

With a rousing cheer the Hunt resumed!

But it was very different the second time. On our earlier Hunt we had been able to see the people on either side of us, and had felt part of a group, a team; this time the line was so fragmented, its members so scattered that each of us could have been on our own out in the desert. As I loped along in slow motion I felt like I had been banished from Chryse and left out in the Outback to fend for myself. All I could see were rocks, the desert plain stretching away on all sides, vague hints of rolling hills on the southern horizon, all beneath a vast, breathtakingly-clear sky the colour of honey. I turned slowly to face the pyramids, and gasped when I saw how small they were, reduced in size by the distance between me and them and by the immensity of sky crushing them into the desert.

I couldn’t help it, the urge was too strong; I turned slowly on the spot, arms outstretched, savouring the moment, delighting in my isolation… in that time-frozen moment I was a pharaoh, surveying his lands, alone with his desert – 

Then I stubbed my boot on a rock and came back to Mars with a bump, literally; only my instinctively-outstretched hands prevented me from cracking my visor open like an eggshell as I spiralled down to the ground. Dusting myself off I vowed to concentrate on the task at hand, and, scrambling to my feet – glad that there was no-one nearby to witness my clumsiness – started to search.

I found my first meteorite just a few minutes later. It was only small, about the size of the knuckle in my thumb, an unremarkable piece of dark stone, but it was mine Cal, I’d found it. Smiling I followed the Procedures: I photographed it where it lay, from several angles, then picked it up and, after wrapping it in protective, pre-labelled sheeting, dropped it gently into my collecting bag, making sure to stick a mini-beacon into the ground at the exact point where I had found it before moving on. I found another ten minutes later, a larger one this time, and soon after that my third meteorite was resting in the bag, snuggling up to the others. I felt ten feet tall, and forgot all about the Cairns of Shame; I was sure my finds were genuine starstones, absolutely convinced..!

At the end of my first hour of Hunting I had collected over a dozen meteorites – or rather, suspected meteorites – and was feeling like I owned the whole desert, as if the starstones had fallen from the sky just for me. But the more I found, the more I puzzled over little Kai’s earlier find. None of mine looked like it. Mine were all darker, looked roughly the same (which made sense if they had a common origin, I know) but Kai’s had looked different, it had had that strange green tinge to its blackness… A guilty jolt shot through me. What if Kai’s find wasn’t a meteorite at all? What if was just a discoloured rock?

I’d got him into trouble for nothing –

I heard a triumphant cry over my earphones, and recognised it as having come from Jenna. Obviously she’d found another. Telling myself Kai’s mysterious rock wasn’t my problem – and determined to collect more meteorites than Jenna! – I moved further into the strewn field, continuing my Hunt…

Time passed, silently but for the rasping echoes of my own laboured breathing every time I bent down to examine a suspicious rock…

Without warning a single, pure tone sounded over the radio. I couldn’t believe it! That was the recall signal from the Geo-team leader, telling us we had reached the end of our two hour Hunt. Two hours? I had been so busy, so focussed on searching that I had totally lost track of time, but now I could see that the Sun had crossed the sky and was dropping towards the horizon, out of a darkening sky. 

Then the fatigue hit me. With a vengeance. Moaning as I straightened up out of my stoop, grimacing as the bones of my spine snapped back into place with an audible popping sound, I stood still and took a deep, deep breath, filling my burning lungs with recycled air. Behind me, I knew, was a bread-crumb trail of discarded stones, rejected for being too light, or the wrong colour, or for not responding to the gentle kiss of the magnet mounted on my gauntlet. But my bag was weighed down with several dozen specimens, and I was convinced to my very bone marrow that each and every one of them was a genuine, fallen starstone.

I was exhausted, and the bag felt like it weighed well over a ton, and I knew that I was at least an hour’s trudging walk away from lying down back in the hab-module at the pyramids. But my blood was singing Cal! I can’t remember the last time I was so happy. (Which in itself is probably a little sad, but there you go… 🙂  )

With the Sun dropping slowly towards the far west horizon I turned my back on the strewn-field and headed home. I walked for what seemed like a lifetime, occasionally spotting one of the rocks I’d discarded earlier. Twice I spotted a suspect I’d overlooked the first time, and dropped it into the bag – adding to its already almost-crippling weight – before lurching on my way once more. Eventually, mercifully, the pyramids loomed up ahead of me. The sky was the colour of caramel, the ground streaked with long, jagged shadows. My white suit was glowing bright orange in the light of the setting Sun, looking as if it could burst into flames at any moment, and every bone, every cell in my body ached…

But I didn’t care. Because right then, looking around me I caught my first sight of the others, converging on me from all sides, each one weighed down with their own sample bags, and seeing them stumbling toward me I felt the weariness lift from my shoulders, replaced by a sense of elation which human beings have felt for centuries, for thousands of years at the end of such a long, long day. Without prompting, we all broke into song, celebrating our success.

The Hunters were coming home.

Two hours later, after handing in my rock-packed bag to the Geo-team in the lab pyramid, I fell onto my bunk bed and felt like I could sleep for a thousand years. No such luck. Barely an hour later I was woken by someone shaking my shoulder, and opened my grit-filled eyes to see Jenna standing over me, excitement written all over her face. She told me that everyone had been summoned into the lab for a briefing. My heart sank.  Surely they weren’t sending us out into the strewn-field while it was dark? No, she reassured me as she left me to get dressed, no-one was pulling on suits, we were just to meet in the laboratory and she’d see me there. I pulled on my jumpsuit and made my way to the lab.

I was one of the last to get there, and found everyone packed into the lab shoulder to shoulder. Everyone, that is, except Kai, who was out in front, sandwiched between the two most senior members of the Geoteam and facing the crowd with a look of pure fear in his eyes. He looked like he was facing a firing squad. And it was my fault.

I started to push my way through the group to stand by Kai, but Jenna pulled me back, shaking her head. Something in her eyes told me not to argue, so I hung back, reluctantly, and waited to see what was going to happen. A minute later, when the room was echoing to deafening cheers and applause, I finally reached Kai, and he hugged me so hard I thought I might pop, but it was worth it to see the huge smile on his face.

Who could have guessed that Kai’s little rock would have turned out to be a terrestrial meteorite, only the third piece of Earth ever found on Mars? :-))

Anyway, Kai’s discovery cut the expedition short. We all wanted to stay and Hunt some more, having acquired a taste for it, but the meteorite was needed back at the main Chryse lab, urgently, so instead of embarking on a third Hunt we packed up all our gear and waited for the CK to come back for us. It dropped out of the pink morning sky like a bird of prey, and settled over the twin pyramids so gently we hardly felt its embrace. As we rose into the clear morning sky again I stared out the window, down at the remains of Lyot Base. There wasn’t much to see, just two squares of flattened desert floor, forty metres across, a dozen trails of footprints meandering away to the north…

And lined up beside the flattened squares were a dozen small rock piles. Mine was the second from the right. It wasn’t the smallest, but it wasn’t the biggest either. That was good enough for me. Echoing with the sounds of one last cheer the CK pirouetted round on its manoeuvring thrusters and headed for Chryse. The Hunt was over.

I hope  you can write to me again soon, and let me know what happened after you left the site of that Viking burial boat; I want to know why you were going to the south of the island..!

Write me soon!

Jen

P.S. Just as I was getting ready to send this I heard that Kai’s meteorite has been analysed by the Chryse experts, and it’s definitely from Earth, and it’s the oldest of the three. There’s a wild rumour going around on MarsNet that it’s a piece of debris from the asteroid impact which killed the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. Ridiculous!

Surely..?

Jen x

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