03
Aug
09

Comet Night

“Come on Cass,” Sarah called impatiently, looking over her shoulder, even though she knew it would make no difference; her words were being carried by radio waves, not vibrations through the thin air. “Come on… we’re nearly there…” Behind her the black and white daggit’bot ignored her and, as it always did, just kept walking at its own pace, rejecting the boot-worn track the girl was taking, padding softly instead through the dust and stones that covered the steep hillside. After all, if they were nearly there, there was no rush, was there..?

 

Although the scenery around them was stunning, especially so late in the day, when the golden Sun was almost touching the rippling, purple mountain range that formed the distant crater wall, Sarah fixed her gaze on the summit just up ahead. As she walked, rejoicing in each deep breath and heavy step, she reflected on the day so far. It had been a wonderful walk up from her home, a good mile, and with a stunning sunset to enjoy in a few minutes – and the main event very soon after that – it wasn’t over yet. Another couple of hundred steps or so, she estimated, and she would be there, at the summit of the hill.

 

Not just any hill though – The Hill. Her Hill: Husband Hill, the tallest of the Columbia Hills range that had dominated her life since – well, since as long as she could remember.

 

Rising up from the crater floor like the flanks of some enormous dragon, the hump-backed hills filled her home town’s sky from north to south, blocking out daylight for half the day and the stars for half the night. In high summer, bathed in full sunlight, the Columbias’ tan and biscuit-hued slopes shone like amber; each ridge, ledge and outcrop casting stark black-brown shadows behind and beneath them. From dawn to dusk, walkers – almost exclusively tourists in summer of course; techs and Beakers tended to come in spring or autumn, when their work was less likely to be interrupted by lost or camera-clutching sightseers – and their ‘bots formed lines up and down their slopes, reduced to white pin-pricks by the mountain’s size as they followed The Trail up Husband Hill. In winter, no-one braved the Hills, conditions were too harsh, the terrain too dangerous in the low light. But even when abandoned by human and ‘bot alike, The Hill had a sublime, flinty beauty, its subtler features frequently hidden beneath cloaks of dust or even frost, and cruel, dusty winds spiked with stinging ice crystals howled down from its summit like tortured phantoms for sols on end. 

 

But today the air was clear, the Sun was warm and the colours of the world bright, so, stepping around a large, wind- and time-sculpted boulder, Sarah smiled, thinking how, day or night, whether bathed in sunshine or twin moonlight, The Hill had been the overwhelming presence in her life since she was old enough to crawl. And as soon as she was able to walk into the settlement on her own she had persuaded – nagged – her father to take her to the top, to take her up Husband Hill’s famous Spirit Trail like he took the tourists, so she could look down upon the world – and her own home – from its dizzy heights. So she could see if she really could glimpse Marineris from there, as she had once dreamed she could…

 

Her nagging had lasted years, literally. Finally one day, heaving a huge sigh of resignation, her father gave in, and after making her pack a rucksack in a matter of minutes he had helped her suit up and then led her up the Hill, following the Trail, re-tracing the historic and solar system-famous route the Spirit rover had taken up it a century earlier.

 

She had expected excitement, wonder and glory, but it hadn’t quite turned out like that…

 

During that historic and long-awaited first ascent, Sarah had thought she was being hauled up Olympus Mons itself instead of a humble hill; used to being inside her skinsuit for just short periods, usually for the walk to school or across the settlement to visit friends, Sarah had started to struggle inside it after an hour, and by the time they were on the Trail proper, having to dig their boots into the dust and trudge with their heads lowered, her lungs had burned and ached more with each step. Soon her young legs, constantly slip-sliding on the shingle-strewn slopes, had felt as if they were going to explode with the pain. Her head had ached as her pounding heart fought to pump enough blood around her body to fuel its exertions, and more than once she had felt like giving up, like sinking to the dusty ground, or leaning against one of the boulders and outcrops which zig-zagged up the hill.

 

But she hadn’t. Gritting her teeth against the pain in her immature muscles, she had followed her boldly-striding father without complaint, onwards, up the West Spur, towards and then up and through the wide, dust-filled Tennessee Valley and on past one famous outcrop, ledge and boulder after another; taking one heavy, heart-straining, throat-drying step after another, ignoring the fire raging in her lungs and the tears in her eyes which blurred the view of the landscape around her –

 

Then suddenly the sky opened up in front of and above her, the ground levelled out and she was there, there, at the summit, on top of the world looking down on Creation as the ancient Earther song said. Standing beside the famous full-size replica of the rover, in the shadow of its camera mast, holding her father’s hand and trying desperately not to shake, she had felt her heart finally burst.

 

But not from fatigue, or exhaustion. From love.

 

Far below her, down on the sprawling floor of Gusev, was the young settlement of Columbia Gate. She had never seen the Gate from above before, but because it was her home, and the only place she had ever known, she had always thought of it as the biggest settlement on Mars, bigger even than Sagan, Squyres or Robinson. Its streets always seemed so crowded with people, ‘bots and rovers. But from the summit of the Hill the truth was revealed and the Gate was reduced to a cross-hatch patterned stain of streets and alleyways, its houses, shops and rover bays mere tiny blocks of white, red and blue against the red of the dusty ground. What had seemed to her wide young eyes like a bustling martian metropolis was, in fact, little more than a chaotic jumble of a half dozen Habs and a pair of burning-green hydroponics bubbles, criss-crossed by roads, paths and tracks, growing reluctantly around a single shuttle pad.

 

And so small! Gusev was a vast expanse of tan and dun-coloured rock and dust that stretched off the low mountains on the horizon, a seemingly endless, sun-baked and star-chilled sea of rock, and sitting there, huddled up against the base of the Columbias, the Gate was like a stain on the floor!

 

She’d heard many visitors and incomers moaning about how the fledgling community was pretty pathetic as martian settlements went, and was more like an outpost than a genuine settlement, and she’d always defended it, without really knowing why. But that day, gazing down on it from the summit of the Hill, Sarah was proud of her home for the first time.

 

Having led his only daughter to the summit, her father hadn’t been able to resist slipping back into Guide mode and giving her a history lesson, and so as they sat together on the rocky summit, resting side by side, leaning against each other as they always did, Sarah had learned how “The Gate” had originally been just two pressurised habs attached by a tunnel, basically just an informal and primitive “Base Camp” to support the first scientific missions to the Hills – the cartographers, areologists and meteorologists who had flown down from Ganges Base to carry out a proper, detailed survey of the area. However, as the human population of Mars had increased, the Columbias had, inevitably, become a popular destination for historians and then sightseers and tourists, all of whom wanted to walk in the wheel tracks of Spirit, the “plucky little rover” that had struggled up the hills a century before. Soon the dozens of visitors became hundreds, and the Gate had grown and evolved to accommodate them.

 

Consequently, by the time Sarah completed her first ascent of the Hill, and stood looking down from its summit for the first time, the Gate had grown into an infant town, with just about enough boarding habs, shops and bars to accommodate and entertain the tourists who flocked there from Mars – and Earth too, and looking down on her home that day Sarah had felt her chest swell with pride. One day Gate would be as grand and as busy a settlement as its nearest neighbour, Chalmers, she was sure of it…

 

As she’d sat beside her father, drinking in the view, Sarah had watched a shuttle coming in to land, and felt a brief pang of regret that she wasn’t there to watch its passengers disembark. There wasn’t much for the town’s kids to do in Gate, other than chase each other through the narrow streets or surf the SolNet in their rooms, talking to and flirting with other kids on Earth, Luna or one of the space stations, but Sarah always found it entertaining to watch the wide-eyed men and women jumping out of the shuttles, spectacularly-overdressed in their gleaming-clean skinsuits and weighed down with state of the art – and totally unnecessary – navigation gear and hiking accessories, impatient to pay a small fortune to anyone willing to lead them up the Hill and photograph them standing beside such famous landmarks as Larry’s Lookout and Ustrax’s Leap, the undulating ridge down on the crater floor, close to the red-rock Comanche and Miami outcrops, from where the rover Spirit had enjoyed its first clear sight of El Dorado, the dark, black dust dune-rippled slope a Terran Mars enthusiast had christened “Ultreya Abyss” after being entranced and intrigued by its blurred, grainy image on orbital photos…

 

Her father had sighed as the shuttle banked in for its landing too, mentally counting the money he had lost through not being there to offer his services to the tourists onboard. Like many “Gaters”, he had supplemented his meagre income as a hydro-engineer by acting as a Guide, and led several parties of bushy-tailed sightseers up the Trail every week, ensuring that they actually followed in the rover’s tracks and didn’t just wander off on their own, which would mean, at best, missing the things they had come so far to see and, at worst, getting lost altogether. Many of the Guides earned good “top up” money from the tourists, but eventually, and inevitably, Mars Heritage – rightly concerned that such a historic site was being spoiled by the unrestricted stomping feet of so many people – had declared the Columbias a Martian Preservation Park, then plotted and marked-out the rover’s route properly, placing diamond-laminated plaques on all the major landmarks along the route to the top of the Hill. After that, all anyone who wanted to follow The Trail had to do was to leave their rover in the big car park at the bottom of the Spur then follow the plaques to the summit.

 

It was a huge success. But almost overnight the skills and services of the “Gate Guides” were rendered obsolete.

 

Except for those who had spent years faithfully and lovingly learning The Trail, who knew it inside out. Yes, it was true, anyone could follow The Trail for free now, could stand on the summit of Husband Hill and have their photo taken standing beside the full size model of Spirit that stood there, but for a modest fee guides like Sarah’s

father would take them to the summit personally, leading them to the well-known landmarks such as Larry’s Lookout, Methuselah, Clovis and Ebenezer, but also making sure they saw the harder-to-find things along the way they’d miss walking on their own.

 

After spending years wandering the slopes, tracking down the places visited and explored by Spirit, her father knew the precise locations of each “Ratted Rock” – a rock with a faded circle of polished stone where Spirit’s wire-brush “RAT” had scoured and cleaned them. He showed his tour parties the very ledge where the rover had taken its famous “Sunset” photo. At the end of the tour he even led them to the exact place where Spirit had taken its famous “Everest Panorama”, and took their pictures standing there, with the Thira Hills behind them and, if they were lucky, a dust devil or two peeking over their shoulder.

 

Sarah knew her father was good, if not the best, and although his services didn’t come cheaply all his clients agreed afterwards it had been well worth the price, and word of mouth recommendation meant that while most of the other Guides rarely climbed the Hill more than once a month her father took people to the summit every few days.

 

Then, one day, he took her up the Hill instead of paying customers, and everything changed for Sarah, and standing there, on the very same spot where Spirit itself had once rested after its own epic climb from the crater floor, she had gazed down on the settlement and seen it, for the first time, as it truly was: a frontier town, on the very edge of the human expansion across the face of Mars, a tiny, stubborn oasis of air, plants and water – of life – in the centre of a vast sea of dry, choking dust and cold, jagged rock. Columbia Gate wasn’t small at all, she realised, it was huge, a human fist shaking defiantly at Mars, shouting at the planet’s winds, dust and cold “Do your worst, we’re staying here. This is our home…”

 

As she had sat there holding her father’s hand, affectionately bumping her helmet against his,  she had seen a pair of dust devils forming out on the plain, far, far away – twin tiny clouds of yellow-white which span and span themselves into a frenzy until they had grown into tall, whip-fine curls of angry red dust. Dust devils were common sights from the Gate; they drifted towards, into and then through the settlement at will, like haughty phantoms ignoring the town’s boundaries and forcing locals and tourists to take refuge in sheltering doorways and alleyways as they hissed and spat their way up the main street. They were annoying, really; mischievous, poltergeist-like clouds of dust and grit, but from up there, from the top of the Hill, they were beautiful, so delicate-looking, so elegant, ethereal beings wreathed in lace and satin that drifted over the plain like graceful gods…

 

And at that moment, watching those dust devils gliding over the plain far below, she had felt the exhausted fire in her chest die, to be replaced by an ache that she knew would never go away as long as she lived. It was so beautiful, so, so beautiful…

 

From that moment Husband Hill had owned her, possessed her, body, spirit and soul. It called to her like a siren, beckoning her through the long days of summer and the short days of winter alike. She would climb its slopes and paths any and every opportunity she got, by day or night, with Cass or without her. From its summit she had watched ice rainbows and dust storms, sometimes in a crowd but usually alone. In the absence of a human one, the mountain became her best friend.

 

Now she was here again, at the summit, her summit.

 

Her second home.

 

Today there were half a dozen other people there too – two young settler families she didn’t recognise… more Incomers… and a lone, silver-haired hiker, but Sarah wasn’t surprised by that. While she doubted any of the people around her had made their way up the zig-zag Trail to the summit for the same reason she had, it was only natural that others had been drawn there simply to enjoy one of the most beautiful autumn evenings she could remember for a long, long time. Dropping her backpack to the ground and sighing with relief as the weight was lifted off her aching shoulders, she sat down beside Cass and, with her arm around the robot dog’s shoulders, savoured the familiar – yet always thrilling – view.

 

The Sun was now barely a hand’s width above the purple mountains which rippled along the western crater wall horizon – a bloated, burning orange ball of fire which cast long, dark shadows behind Sarah, Cass and every boulder, rock and pebble standing on the bare stone of the mountain’s summit. The shadows of her fellow sunset-watchers stretched across the summit too, while Husband Hill’s own thick shadow pushed out across the crater floor far below, covering the Gate like a cloak. To her right, the footpath dipped and dropped its way down Husband Hill’s steep camel-humped slopes, leading back down the Haskin Ridge to the now-empty rover parks and track-ways of the world below. To the left, the same path continued as far as she could see, running up to and along the summits of the rest of the Columbias which marched off to touch the distant southern horizon. In several places around her rippled banks of dust and sand, lovingly carved and moulded into snaking dunes by the wind, covered the rocky ground. And beyond everything, running 360 degrees around the horizon, the distance-blurred mountains of Gusev’s enormous crater wall each blotted out a huge section of the sky.

 

Like many martians Sarah had spent countless hours pouring over the century-old images taken by the Spirit rover; the Gate’s school’s history crystals and holo-helms were crammed full with the historic “Pancam” and “Navcam” photographs, many showing the rover’s tracks leading back up to the summit of The Hill from the crater floor. But Sarah’s favourite images weren’t the official, ancient NASA ones, reproduced countless millions of times and familiar to everyone throughout the solar system from Earth to Europa. As good as they were, like most native martians she preferred the images created by famous digital webartists like Ellison, Horton and Nix, non-scientists who had taken the rover’s raw images, stitched them together and coloured them on their humble home computers and transformed them into works of art. She had thousands of their breathtaking panoramas stored in her wristPod, available for viewing and savouring at any time; they showed the real Mars, her Mars, more accurately and more lovingly than any of the by-the-book JPL panoramas…

 

But the landscape wasn’t the only thing to stare at. From the summit she had a superb view of Gate, her home. Compared to how it had appeared on her first hike up the Hill, Gate was now a sprawling metropolis, with several dozen Habs clustered together, and three shuttle pads in almost constant use. Now not just the “Gateway” to the Columbias, but to the whole of the Gusev plan, Gate was straining to support itself and its come-and-go population of scientists and tourists. The trio of farm tents – three hundred metre long covered “fields” where cows, sheep and other cloned livestock grazed – were working at full capacity. It was quite frightening, but the farmers managed to keep the fields’ fragile and temperamental life support systems functioning. Somehow.

 

Peering forwards she could also see, far beneath her, the famous landmarks of Homeplate and The Abyss, too. Connected to Gate by countless tracks and roads they were as popular tourist attractions as the Summit, but easier to reach. Even now, this late in the season, Sarah knew there’d be a few hardy sightseers there, taking photos of each other, updating their MarsNet blogs with accounts of how they “did Homeplate” on their holiday. She wondered how many of them would also try to chip off a piece of Homeplate’s rock and sneak it into a pocket or pouch without the Mars Heritage warden seeing…

 

And there, just a short distance away, stood the Spirit Monument – the twice life-size replica of the Mars Exploration Rover that had conquered the Hills a century earlier. Protected from the abrasive martian dust by the same ultra-thin diamond layer that covered the Mars Heritage Trail plaques leading up the hill to it, the monument sparkled and glittered in the sunlight, its ten feet tall camera mast casting a long, straight shadow across the summit, just as the real rover’s – smaller – mast had done on some of the famous photographs taken up there in the early years of the previous century…

 

Hump-backed hills, undulating dunes, weathered boulders and the proud, noble Monument… It was a panoramic view famous across the whole solar system, and reproduced on countless thousands of posters, coasters and postcards – all of which were available for a reasonable price from shops down in the Gate – but despite having seen it literally hundreds of times it was a view of which she never grew tired. And above it all, the vast ochre dome of the Gusev plain sky. Painted with long streaks of pale cloud, each one edged with crimson and gold by the fading light of the approaching sunset and teased-out into feathers and streamers by the high winds, it was like a Bierstadt painting brought to life.

 

Gazing upon the view, Sarah was more convinced than ever that the scientists – and the thermometers – had it wrong. Mars wasn’t cold, it was warm, surely? How could a world painted in Turner-esque shades of brown, gold and peach, a world that shone with such fiery colours, that had boulders the colour of hot coals, mountains as orange as fire-lit amber and dust dunes of umber and ginger, be cold?

 

“I hope you’re seeing this, Mel,” Sarah smiled quietly, looking up at the evening sky, “but for once I think I might have a better view than you, down here…”

 

“Beautiful evening,” she heard a quivering female voice say over the radio’s common band, and turned to see the white-haired woman hobbling towards her across the summit. Either her skinsuit boots had given her blisters, Sarah surmised, or she was just feeling the pain of the ascent in her old bones. “Such a joy to see the Sun again,” the woman continued, turning her helmet – and her lined and weathered face – towards it, “after that terrible dust storm…”

 

Sarah nodded her head in heartfelt agreement. For the past week and two sols the Sun and sky had been hidden behind an impenetrable, lumpy mattress of grey and tan cloud, cloud which had seemed to just hang over the crater during the daytime like a sickness, or a plague, not moving, not even an inch. At night, with no Sun-warmed winds to drive them onwards, the clouds had emptied their contents on the land below, assaulting the valleys, mountains and town with dry downpours of cloying, grating dust, driving locals and tourists alike indoors to gaze out of windows and shake their heads in disbelief and anger at the worst autumn weather for years…

 

But that morning dawn had broken with an almost audible sigh of relief, and Sarah had woken to see beams of sunlight – sunlight! – streaming through the gaps in her bedroom curtains. Sunlight meant the dust clouds had cleared, and that meant that at sol’s end she might finally get her first glimpse of It…

 

Of course, there was only one place to go, and all sol at school she had watched the clock, and her watch, counting down the hours and then the minutes until she was finally free to get out and go up her beloved mountain. It took her just five minutes to tear through the Hab, dump her schoolbag and grab her pre-packed rucksack, then she was out the door again and running giddily for the foot of the Hill, Cass barking loudly and excitedly as she ran behind her, her lifelike, feathery mane and tail billowing out behind her.

 

Now here she was, at the summit, her face bronzed by a beautiful, burning sunset. If the weather held, and if no straggler dust clouds boiled in from the north, then she would finally, finally, get to see the comet that the rest of the solar system was raving about.

 

Discovered three months earlier by an amateur sky-watcher on Luna, the comet had been little more than just a vague smudge in telescopes, too faint to be visible in binoculars, and after the initial press excitement over the age of the discoverer (just thirteen Earth years old, Sarah sighed; there was no justice…) had died down, the comet seemed destined to be forgotten. Then the boffins calculated its orbit, and Comet Zhariya was revealed to be Something Special. It would, the whirring NASA supercomputers predicted, be hard to see from Earth, thanks to the unfavourable alignments – but after racing around the Sun it would pass closer to Mars than any comet had for almost two centuries.

 

That meant it would be bright from Mars. Very bright.

 

For weeks now Sarah had awaited the appearance of Comet Zhariya in the Gusev evening sky, devouring the artists’ impressions on holo-TV and on websites which showed how it would look when it emerged from the Sun’s glare. But, of course, the evil, spiteful martian autumn weather had conspired against her, and the comet had been hidden from her view ever since it had peeked its head above the horizon. She had stood outside her Hab, staring at the dust clouds, glaring at them, cursing at them with words her mother didn’t know she knew.

 

Now the dust clouds had peeled back, perhaps retreating out of guilt and shame, leaving behind a breath-takingly-orange sky, more than clear enough to let the comet’s ghostly light shine for her to see just as soon as the Sun had –

 

“Sarah! Sarah!” a familiar voice called out over the radio, shattering the quiet of the still evening, and Sarah felt her heart drop as a tall, gangly youth bounded up the path and onto the summit.

 

“I think the young man is looking for you…” the old woman winked wickedly at Sarah, as they watched the boy approach.

 

“No change there, then…” Sarah sighed.

 

“Your mum said you’d gone out, but didn’t say where,” the boy said, sounding slightly out of breath as he scrunched his way towards her, crossing the stone-scattered summit with long, lanky steps. Dressed in heavy work boots and an oil- and dirt-stained skinsuit with a faded denim shirt thrown over the top he looked every inch the young farmboy – which was exactly what he was.

 

Running a gloved hand over his visor, wiping the dust from it, Matt sat down beside her with a tired “humph”. He smiled at her triumphantly, and through his visor Sarah glimpsed his mop of red-brown hair. “I guessed you’d be up here – “

 

“Regular little bloodhound, aren’t you, Matt?” Sarah couldn’t help sniping. She had hoped to have some time to herself on such a beautiful evening, but it seemed the Universe had other plans for her. As usual.

 

“Not many people up here, are there?” Matt observed, scanning the top of the hill. One of the young settler families had started their way back down the Trail path, leaving just four people posing for pictures beside the twice life size model of Spirit.

 

“That’s why I like it so much,” Sarah replied, her point obvious. Or so she thought.

 

“Great view though,” Matt continued, blissfully oblivious to her dig at him. “I know why you come up here now…”

 

No, Sarah thought, looking at him, you don’t. You don’t know at all.

 

“Yes, it’s lovely up here…” Matt began awkwardly, obviously choosing his words carefully, building-up to something. “The sky… the sunset… very pretty…” Sarah closed her eyes, thinking here it comes

 

“…very romantic…” Matt concluded with a melodramatic swoon.

 

Very funny, Sarah laughed, relieved that he was just pulling her leg and wasn’t going to spoil the evening by asking her out. Again. 

 

Youngest son of the next family eastwards,  Matt Thompson was, effectively, her boy-next-door. Which, of course, made her his Girl-Next-Door. That was dangerous, because it meant his parents, her parents and most of the people in the valley assumed they were going to get together one sol. It was destiny, fate, simple as that.

 

Sarah knew Matt himself didn’t think that, but he definitely had a lake-sized crush on her. Looking at him sitting there beside her, watching her with his adoring, cow-dark eyes, she could almost read his mind. He was genuinely attracted to her, she could tell; whenever he complimented her on her lovely long brown hair, or her green eyes, or her pale skin, she knew he was being sincere. She read the Terran fashion and teen websites, had even compared herself sometimes to the anorexic, 02-starved models on their glossy pages and that told her she was attractive in a homely, country-girl kind of way – “an English rose” as her father insisted on telling everyone, even though Sarah herself had no idea what a rose was, never mind an English one.

 

But her and Matt? Er, no.

 

Which meant the people of the valley were in for a big disappointment.

 

It was ridiculous. Luckily, Matt himself realised just how ridiculous, and it had become a private joke between them. They laughed whenever they overheard ‘Gaters talking about how “lovely” it would be to have a wedding in the little chapel in a few years time. They had to clamp their hands over their mouths whenever they heard people, at fairs and Gate events, painting them as a classic young pioneer couple. If they had their way they’d both be in matching skinsuits already!

 

As for their future, well, Sarah knew that was mapped out already, too, with almost military precision. Matt’s parents owned one of the new water-harvesting farms down on the crater floor, and they relied on his muscles and strength a great deal, so would be reluctant to let him go. So, while living with his parents, Matt and she would buy and renovate a battered old Hab to turn into a home of their own, their very own “Little House on the Martian Prairie”. Once their own Can was finished, complete with a red stone-floored kitchen, fake wooden beams along the ceiling and a nursery upstairs, Matt would finally be released from his slavery and theirs would be the wedding of the decade, a “beautiful” service in the little Columbia Gate chapel – Tharsis-grown flowers everywhere, of course…

 

Then, after buying some land of their own, they’d build a hydro-bubble where they’d breed cloned pigs, or sheep, or maybe buy some condensers of their own and start up their own water farm. They’d log on to the online livestock auctions every sol, enjoy meals in the Gate’s only bar, join in with town activities…

 

Eventually there’d be the christening of the decade, with a huge buffet in the function room of the settlement’s only hotel, and soon she would be saying hi to everyone as she walked down the street carrying a double papoose over her shoulder –

 

Of course, it would never happen.

 

Not simply because she had no interest in him that way. Not just because she had grown up thinking of him as just a friend, a neighbour, a partner-in-crime she could run around with – causing mischief in long school summer holidays – who just happened to be a boy. It was because deep down, he didn’t really want it himself.

 

Matt Thompson had other plans, plans that the matchmaking Gate Elders didn’t even suspect.

 

What they didn’t know, because he kept it well hidden from his parents and everyone else, was that Matt Thompson was a city kid trapped in a young water farmer’s body. Water harvesters and tractors didn’t fascinate him; turbo-charged dust racers and souped-up sports rovers did. His bedroom floor wasn’t scattered with issues of Farming Weekly or Livestock Report; advert-crammed copies of rover magazines, full of scantily-clad Terran babes and illegal cruise meetings did. Piled-up beside his stereo were bootleg music-crystals by Terran rock and heavy-metal groups. On his wall, posters of unnaturally long-limbed Lunan supermodels and Porsche shuttles fought for space.

 

No. At 15 Matt Thompson, in his head and in his heart, was already planning his escape from the crater floor, to an exciting life in a larger settlement somewhere. The usual escape route, Sagan first, probably, then Robinson later. Its bright lights, noisy clubs and parties called as loudly to him as Husband Hill’s boulders and outcrops did to Sarah. And that was why they would – could – never get together.

 

Besides, Sarah knew she could never feel anything…that way…for someone who felt he had to talk on an evening like this, surrounded by so much beauty.

 

“Look,” Matt said, nodding towards the setting Sun, “it’s going…”

 

Sarah looked up wearily. He was right. The lower edge of the Sun was now touching the horizon, kissing it gently. Sunset was a matter of minutes away. And after that…

 

“They’re saying on the MarsNet news that the comet is even brighter than expected. Do you think we’ll see it tonight?” Matt asked, surprisingly softly. Sarah smiled to herself. Maybe he wasn’t as insensitive to her moods as she thought.

 

“Oh yes,” she replied confidently, staring up at the sky. The martian cirrus clouds above them were wispy trails and banners of burning orange now, bathed in the light of the sunset, and as that shrunken Sun dropped slowly down behind the horizon, the wedges of sky inbetween the clouds was changing colour, darkening, shifting from a warm pink to a more violet-hue – a tell-tale sign of very clear, very clean air.

 

Oh yes, Sarah smiled again, they’d see the comet alright. But not yet. Not just yet. The Universe was determined to make her wait just a little longer.

 

Well, she conceded, that was okay. It would be worth waiting for.

 

“So do you think it’s real, then?” Matt asked conspiratorially, leaning backwards on his elbows to stare straight up at the zenith.

 

“Think what’s real?” Sarah replied testily, wishing he would just shut up and let her enjoy the peace and quiet of the mountaintop.

 

“The UFO,” Matt said slowly, drawing out the words in a what did you think I was talking about? kind of way. “The alien ship that’s flying along behind the comet, hidden in its tail – “

 

Sarah closed her eyes, wishing she could close her ears too. Oh dear Ares, not you as well

 

“There IS no UFO,” she replied firmly, trying to keep her patience and not snap at him even though what she really wanted to do was bang her friend’s head against the rocky ground for being so stupid.

 

“That’s not what it said on the Net-news – “ Matt insisted.

 

Sarah couldn’t listen to any more. She turned to him, eyes flashing. “Look, there’s no UFO, ok? It’s just – “ She wanted to let rip at him then, she was so sick of being asked about “the UFO”, but she took a deep breath to calm down. “Honestly, listen, Matt, this is old news, and it’s getting boring now,” she said wearily. Beside her, Matt looked doubtful. “Whenever a new comet appears,” Sarah continued more quietly, “some band of smock-wearing lunatics or crystal-hugging hippies somewhere in the solar system announces they’ve seen an alien spaceship in photos of the comet’s tail, something flying along behind it, using it for cover… “

 

“…but…?” Matt prompted.

 

“…but all they’re seeing are bits of the comet’s nucleus breaking off and drifting downstream in the tail,” Sarah concluded. “Every comet does it, every single one.” Matt still didn’t look convinced. “Okay, fine, believe what you want,” Sarah said, throwing up her hands in defeat. “When it appears later, after sunset, you’ll see what I mean. I promise.”

 

Matt gazed up at the darkening sky, clearly disappointed. “So we’re not going to meet ET, or see the First Footstep Museum blown up by a big flying saucer?” he asked. He sounded deadly serious, but Sarah caught the gleam in his eye, and knew she was being teased now.

 

“No,” she replied fake gloomily, “’fraid not.”

 

“Shame,” her friend said, with an equally-exaggerated, heaved sigh, “that would have been cool…”

 

“Of course, I may be wrong,” Sarah added, “maybe there’s a UFO up there right now, ready to swoop down and abduct you, its crew of gorgeous blonde aliens want to study you and do strange things to your body – “

 

“Take me! Take me now!” Matt begged the sky, throwing himself down on the ground, arms and legs spread out, waving them around theatrically until he had made martian angel patterns in the dust.

 

“Idiot…” Sarah said, looking away – but only so Matt wouldn’t see the huge grin on her face.

 

Looking towards the west now she saw the Sun had almost vanished; only the very top of its disc remained visible above the crater wall hills, a tiny sliver of molten gold burning stubbornly in the sky. Sarah watched that sliver grow smaller and smaller, shrinking inwards from the sides, until only a single splash of lava blazed on the far horizon like the fires of a distant beacon –

 

Then that too was gone, snuffed out, leaving behind a sky of a totally alien, bizarre colour. Blue. It was the only time martians ever saw the same coloured sky Earth’s billions did.

 

Sarah felt a lump form in her throat as the unnatural blue of the sky deepened, thickened. Unbelievable, she thought. God, how much I love this place…

 

The next half hour passed in relative silence, but only after a couple of growls from Sarah had convinced Matt that he really didn’t have to talk every minute. During that half hour the sky grew darker and darker, its colour deepening from simple “blue” to a deep, cool sapphire. It got colder, too, cold enough for Sarah to retrieve her favourite burgundy-coloured fleece jacket from her rucksack and pull it on over her skinsuit.  As she pulled it on she caught her first glimpse of the Evening Star, bright as a lantern, shining a hand’s width above the north-western horizon.

 

Earth –

 

“Is that it…?” Matt asked quietly, pointing towards the north, at the expanse of sky above and to Earth’s right. Sarah followed his gaze – and let out a long, deep breath.

 

Oh yes, that was it

 

High above the distant crater rim mountains, looking as if it had been airbrushed onto the sky by some cosmic graffiti artist, was Comet Zhariya.

 

Stretching from west to east above the Thira Hills range, the comet was bigger than any comet Sarah had ever seen before, including the wondrous Hale-Bopp she had seen celebrated and commemorated on so many websites. In fact, in every possible way Zhariya was superior to its famous 1996 predecessor. Where Hale-Bopp had sported two tails, Zhariya had four, all of them sweeping away from the comet’s head, a head so bright it reminded Sarah of how Phobos looked through thin dust cloud. The tails – one a beautiful grey-blue, the remaining three a subtle pale yellow, or lemon – didn’t just stretch out behind the head like banners, they fanned outwards too. The comet looked like a peacock’s tail painted on the sky…

 

 “Wow…” Sarah heard Matt exclaim from somewhere beside her, but even though she had to agree she didn’t reply. She wasn’t really listening; she was too entranced by the spectacle dominating the sky in front of her. Zhariya spanned an area of sky larger than her outstretched-hand. It was magnificent.

 

And the sky wasn’t even properly dark yet.

 

Looking around her, Sarah saw, to her surprise, that they had been joined by another dozen or so people who had hiked up onto the summit while she had been staring at the comet, and most of them were now silently gazing up at it. A couple were even looking at it through an old-fashioned telescope they’d hauled up the Hill and set-up on an area cleared of rocks by hefty kicks.

 

Sarah didn’t mind them being there – apart from the annoying fact that the top of Husband Hill wasn’t hers, she didn’t own it, she could hardly begrudge other people the same wonderful view of the comet she was enjoying – but the fact that she hadn’t heard them arrive was quite unsettling. Sarah had always prided herself on having a sharper-than-average sense of hearing – the result of spending so much time walking up in the Hills with only herself for company – so the realisation that she had missed the scrunch of twenty four or more feet on the rocks and gravel covering the hilltop was disturbing and puzzling.

 

Still, she told herself, you were rather distracted, looking at that

 

“We’ve got a much better view than they have down there,” she heard Matt comment in the darkness, and turned to see him peering down at the world below. Over to the left, on the crater floor below, she could see dozens of points of light. But they weren’t the lights of Columbia Gate; the town was farther away, sheltering in the lengthening shadow of the Hills. What were they, then? she wondered. Most were quite faint, a few were much brighter, but they all looked like stars glinting in the darkness..?

 

Then it came to her. Each “star” was actually a torch or lantern of some kind, being held by one of the hundreds of men, women and children who, lured by posters on the walls of Gate’s habs, and and articles in its local papers and websites, had on the outskirts of the town to be shown the comet by the town’s Astronomical Society. She knew that down on the crater floor there would be half a dozen telescopes set-up by now, with a long, impatient queue stretching away from each one.
Sarah shook her head in disbelief. The stargazers who had volunteered to show people the comet down there deserved a medal. She could never do it; she was too selfish. She wanted it all to herself. For tonight, at least.

 

Seeing the newcomers peering at the comet through the telescope they had set up a short distance away from her, on the other side of the monument, reminded Sarah that she had carried her own equipment up the mountain in her rucksack, so she reached into it in the darkness, rummaged around inside and eventually found them.

 

The binoculars were antiques, more than a century old. Brought to Mars by her great grandfather, they hadn’t even been new when Spirit itself was trundling over the summit. She knew the other people on the Hill would probably laugh at her ancient, battered binoculars – they would point out that it would be far easier to just use her visor’s Zoom facility – but she didn’t care. She wanted to see the comet the old fashioned way – magnified through lenses that had to be aligned and focussed by hand, not by quietly whirring servomotors. She wanted to see the comet in its natural light too, “naked”, pure, not enhanced by the visor’s image enhancing software.

 

Carefully removing the dust caps from the lenses and storing them in her pocket she raised the antique binoculars to her eyes, pointing them at a bright star and twiddling the central wheel until the point of light was focussed sharply. Without any atmosphere to distort its light, the star shone steadily, without any of the annoying and distracting twinkling she’s heard about in that ancient Terran children’s song…

 

Now for you, she thought, slowly sweeping the binoculars away from the star and towards the comet –

 

At first she thought she had wafted dust onto the lens; the binoculars’ field of view seemed to have misted-over completely, the stars smeared and lost behind a grey mist. Then, as her sweep continued, the stars suddenly reappeared, and she knew what she had done. Moving the binoculars slowly backwards again, she saw the “mist” return – and knew she was looking right at the tail of the comet.

 

Now she moved the binoculars towards the head of the comet, slowly, patiently, almost gasping in surprise when the head came into view; so bright it obscured everything else, the comet’s dust- and gas-enshrouded nucleus was a bright blue-white ball. Staring at it, Sarah thought Earth would look exactly the same if it was viewed so crazily out of focus…

 

Sarah smiled to herself in the darkness. Now, let’s look for Matt’s UFO…

 

Barely moving at all she eased the binoculars away from the head and backwards along the tail. At first the light from the head was still so bright it drowned-out all detail in the tails, but gradually the glare diminished and she began to see things she had dreamed of seeing since she had picked up her first astronomy book…

 

The tails had looked almost solid to her naked eye, like chalk-dust smeared across a blackboard sky with a finger, but through her binoculars they were transformed. Now she could see details within them – fine braids and strands of blue and white light were twisted within the tail like plaited hair; streamers of glowing gas trailed away from the comet’s head like tendrils of smoke rising from a campfire on a still evening. And embedded everywhere within the chaotic, shining stream were countless small knots and clumps of grey-white material, which Sarah knew were chunks of dusty ice, fragments of comet-stuff sent tumbling and spinning “downstream” through the tails after breaking away from the nucleus at the comet’s heart…

 

“Here, take a look at your alien mother-ship,” Sarah laughed, but gently, as she handed Matt the field glasses. “There are dozens of them actually, so just take your pick.”

 

With a sarcastic “ha-ha” Matt took the binoculars and raised them to his eyes. It took him a few moments to line them up with the comet, during which he huffed with frustration several times, but she could tell when he had finally succeeded because he suddenly fell very still and quiet.

 

“It’s…” Matt breathed raggedly, his voice so soft it was almost lost in the martian night, “I mean, I didn’t… I…”

 

“It’s okay,” she said, laying a steady hand on his shaking arm. She knew he was overwhelmed by what he was seeing. “You weren’t to know.”

 

Suddenly a shooting star dashed overhead, so bright it was as if someone had sliced the night open, allowing brilliant light from a universe behind the nartian sky to briefly shine through. Sarah smiled as Matt almost fell backwards with surprise, then looked around her, lost in awe. It was all so beautiful. The hills, the sky, the stars… the stone-strewn summit of the Hill… the town far below, its greenhouse and farm domes reflecting the comet that shone high above it all… So peaceful, so quiet –

 

Something buzzed in her helmet, beside her ear, like an angry insect. Sarah’s heart sank. She knew she was a moment away from kissing goodbye to that peace and quiet.

 

Reaching up to tap the panel on the side of her helmet, and exchanging a knowing, “here we go” look with Matt, Sarah took the call.

 

“Yes… oh, hello mum… yes, I’m fine…” Sarah insisted, speaking quietly so as not to disturb the peace of the others gathered on the fell-top. “Yes, I’m on the Hill… yes, again…” Matt rolled his eyes and Sarah had to fight hard not laugh; with her mother in one of her moods, laughing at her over the comm was definitely not a good idea. “Yes,” she continued, “Matt is up here with me…” Oh great, she thought, yet more lovey-dovey rumours will be flying around tomorrow. Beside her, Matt turned away quickly, having lost his own personal battle with giggling. “No mum, I didn’t realise what time it was,” Sarah said, and it was the truth. Time always passed so quickly when she was on the hills, particularly this fell, her fell, that she simply lost all track of it. It couldn’t be that late anyway, surely? She checked her wrist-chrono. Ouch.

 

“Okay, yes, we’ll come down now… yes, right now,” Sarah said, “yes, I’ll make sure Matt walks me right to the door,” she sighed, prompting more laughter from behind Matt’s hands. “Okay – yes, okay mum! I’ll see you soon… well, an hour at the most. Okay, bye,” she concluded quickly, interrupting her mother’s complaints, tapping the comm’s “Off” pad. “Time to go home,” she sighed, looking at Matt.

 

“Well, it is late,” her friend conceded. He stood up, quickly, his big feet steadier on the loose rocks than hers ever were, and offered her his hand. “Come on, let’s go back to the Underworld…”

 

Reluctantly, Sarah reached up and took Matt’s hand, allowing herself to be pulled up onto her own feet. “Okay,” she said, “best not to annoy her any more – and I have to be up early in the morning anyway, I just remembered I’m out helping dad with the new lambs. That last batch of clones had some deformities… I hope these won’t…”

 

“I’m sure they will,” Matt said, “I mean, I;m sure they won’t be deformed…!” he added quickly, stumbling over his words. Sarah laughed at him getting flustered, as he so often did around her. “You got a torch?” Matt asked, quickly changing the subject. Sarah nodded, patting the side of her rucksack. “I assume we’re taking your path down, not following the Ttrail?”

 

Stupid question. “Of course.”

 

“Okay, let’s go then,” he said firmly, reaching into his own bag for his flashlight.

 

“Er… you go ahead,” Sarah said awkwardly, “I’ll meet you at the top of the path – “

 

“But – “ Matt began to protest, until he realised what she wanted to do. Needed to do. “Oh, okay… right, ah, no problem,” he said, fumbling for a dignified way out. “I’ll just be over there… see you in – well, when you’re ready.” Sarah flashed him a silent, thank-you smile, grateful for his understanding and patience. Of all the people she knew, friends and family, he was the only one who could truly sense what she was thinking and feeling at that moment. With a knowing nod Matt walked away from her, heading off the summit towards the top of the long, winding track which would take them down to the bottom of the hill, and home again.

 

Now there were only three people on the summit of Husband Hill with her, far enough away not to bother her, Sarah felt at peace. Finally, she was able to relax.

 

Walking slowly back to the diamond-coated Spirit Monument at the centre of the summit, the very highest point on the Hill, taking care not to lose her footing on loose stones in the dark, Sarah looked up at the comet shining above the world and let her heart call out to it.

 

With the sky even darker now, the comet was even more magnificent. It spanned the sky like a silver-white banner flying from the tallest turret of a castle, stretching across a quarter of the heavens.  She could almost convince herself that it was actually fluttering in the sky, flapping and cracking in the solar wind gusting off the Sun, almost three hundred and fifty million kilometres away. Looking at the ground beneath her she saw, to her amazement, her own shadow there –

 

The comet’s head was actually bright enough to cast shadows..!

 

And now, with the sky black and studded with stars, she could see that each of the quartet of tails arcing away from the comet’s head like a scimitar blade was rich with detail. She could see glowing banners, pennants and braids of brighter blue-white gas and dust embedded within them, shining through the mist and haze as if lit from within. The scientific part of her mind knew that they were just short-lived, transient features produced by activity on the icy nucleus. As it melted in the sunlight, jets of material spewed out of the comet’s icy heart, pouring gas and dust into space, to trail behind the comet within its tails…

 

…but the more fanciful part of her liked to imagine she was seeing disruptions in the smoothly-flowing tail caused by things flying inside it.

 

Dragons, perhaps? Once, while surfing the net, she’d Googled across a beautiful picture showing a family of purple and red dragons soaring playfully around and through a comet’s tail, their great wings stretched out as they ploughed through the swirling dust, plunging in and out of the tail like dolphins playing in sea-spray. She laughed, imagining, not for the first time, the furore that would follow if a space-probe one sol sent back images of a huge dragon swooping through tail of a comet…

 

Dragons were unlikely then. But perhaps there was another explanation. She had to believe so.

 

Are you up there, Melissa? she asked the night, gazing up at the comet stretching across the sky. Are you flying alongside it, spinning gracefully through space, twirling slowly, round and round, like a ballerina, or a swimmer? Are all those swirls and eddies in the tail your doing? Are you trailing your hand through the tail, letting the gas and dust flow around and through your fingers?

 

Are you looking down at me now, Mel…?

 

Silently, she reached out and ‘touched’ the comet, stroking her gloved hand over and then – in her mind – into its long tail. As she did so she imagined she could feel the dust pinging off her hand, and the gas flowing past her fingers, chilling them. And just for a moment, a single, fleeting moment, she imagined she felt another hand, warm and small, so, so small, reach out from within the comet tail and touch hers, knitting its tiny fingers through her own –

 

“Sarah,” a voice said softly beside her, and she felt her heart stall in her chest.

 

Melissa?” she asked, eyes wide with hope and starting to brim with tears as she turned around –

 

“No Sarah, it’s me, Matt,” the voice replied gently, and now Sarah really did feel a shaking hand reach for and hold hers, but it was a large, masculine hand, callused and dirty, not the tiny, soft hand she had been hoping – praying – for. “Come on Sarah, it’s late, let’s get you back home…” Matt said, gently easing her back to reality as he started to lead her across the rock-strewn summit. “Your mum and dad will be getting annoyed by now – “

 

“But I have to stay,” Sarah persisted, sounding hazy, still not fully aware of where she was or what she was doing, “she might – “

 

No, she won’t, Matt thought sadly, feeling pity for the young girl standing in front of him overwhelm him.

 

“The comet’s going nowhere,” he reassured her, deliberately not commenting on what she had said, knowing it would only upset her further, “we’ll come back and see it again another night – I promise,” he insisted when he saw a spark of defiance brightening in her eyes. “Now come on, let’s get you back and safely into bed. Long sol for you tomorrow.”

 

Sarah nodded, reluctantly, and – grudgingly – accepted the offer of his hand. Together they made their way across the hill summit, their boots kicking up loose gravel and stones as the night darkened further around them. Soon they were heading for the joys of a simulated open fire and a genuine mug of hot chocolate, on their way down the track that snaked from summit to base.

 

But all the way down Sarah kept glancing up at the comet shining gloriously in the northern sky, wondering if she was being watched over, too…

 

 

 

 

It was midnight by the time Sarah got to bed, excited but exhausted, both by her long sol and its climb and by the hour it had taken to pacify her parents. Matt had helped bravely, trying to take the blame for her late return, but his gallant efforts had been seen through immediately and he had been forced to abandon her to her fate. Finally, after an hour’s solid apologising and promising not to be so careless / thoughtless / selfish / inconsiderate again, Sarah had been forgiven, and after kissing her mother goodnight and accepting a peace offering cup of hot chocolate from her father, she had tramped heavily up the stairs to her room on the Hab’s upper floor.

 

Where she had gone straight to the window.

 

Looking out, she found that Comet Zhariya was no longer in her sky. During her descent of the hill, and the subsequent peace negotiations with her parents, Mars’s rotation had swept the comet further around the sky, carrying most of it out of sight behind the Columbias as seen from her home.

 

Most of it; some of the comet’s fanned-out peacock tail was still just visible, shining up from behind the black body of Husband Hill like the beams of searchlights. It reminded Sarah of the early stages of an aurora she had seen on a live webcast from Earth years earlier, on a night when a monster solar flare had assaulted the Homeworld, blowing from the Sun like a stellar gale and triggering aurorae that were seen across the globe, even making the skies above Africa and the Middle East burn red as a forest fire…

 

On the window ledge beside her was a small, old-fashioned silver photo frame, displaying a picture of a baby girl being held by two proud parents, beaming smiles on all their faces, including the child’s. Sarah looked at the photo, smiling sadly at the infant’s big brown eyes and serene smile, remembering the last time she had held her sister, the day before The Accident, the day before the rover carrying them from Gate to Squyres had blown a seal and lost all its air to the cruel vacuum that passed as Mars’ atmosphere, killing four of the seven people onboard.

 

Killing her sister while she slept.

 

Unable to look at the picture any longer, Sarah looked away from it to stare at the comet instead. Sweeping across the stars, its tails looked as if they had been painted on the sky as Sarah whispered her nightly prayer.

 

“Goodnight Mel, sleep well… I miss you…“ she whispered, then turned away from the both comet, and the photograph, and retreated into her dreams.

 

And beyond the window, bathed in cold comet-light, Husband Hill rose up silently from the floor of Gusev, lost in its own ancient memories, remembering glorious days filled with blue skies, warm rain and cool breezes…

 

…and recalling the days when a tiny machine, which had fallen from the sky in the heart of a blazing shooting star, trundled warily to its summit.

 

 

 

 

© Thursday, 10 November 2005

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1 Response to “Comet Night”


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