03
Aug
09

Rover Hugger

“Hurry up!” Catriona said loudly into her helmet mike. She didn’t bother to turn round towards her brother as she spoke. She didn’t need to; apart from herself and her mother, whose hand she was clutching tightly, he was the only other person for miles around.

 

Walking – ‘trudging’ was probably a more accurate term, as he begrudged every step he took – a short distance behind his mother and sister, Leo’s only reply was an angst-ridden heavy sigh. For pity’s sake, shut up Cat! he thought, glaring at the two figures, one tall and slim, one shorter and a lot stubbier, moving across the rock-strewn crown of Homeplate a hundred feet or so up ahead of him. While his mother’s stride was careful and steady, controlled… adult… Cat was bouncing along, as usual, giddy with excitement at the prospect of seeing another piece of ancient martian history. In her white EVA suit with its pink bands he thought his sister looked like a piece of candy bouncing across the ground, each footfall kicking up a small cloud of red and orange dust….

 

Why can’t you do us all a favour and slip and rip your suit on a sharp rock –

 

No, that was unfair, and cruel, he told himself, and instantly regretted thinking it. Cat was annoying, and loud, and “as excitable as a puppy” according to his mum, although he had no idea what a ‘puppy’ was, but it wasn’t her fault she was only three. And no matter how much her childish shouting and laughing got on his nerves she was still his sister, his only sister now, after the accident –

 

He pushed the thought away. It brought back too many memories, triggered too much pain.

 

“Mom!” he heard Cat protest, and looked up from the banded and layered stones at his feet to see his sister tugging impatiently on his mother’s hand, urging her forwards, “he’s slowing us down! Tell him to hurry up!”

 

“There’s no rush, Cat,” their mother replied quietly, slipping effortlessly into Diplomat Mode. “It’s stood there quite happily for half a century; it’s not going to suddenly power up and drive off now, is it?”

 

“But mom – !”

 

“Cat… shush…” their mother said soothingly, gently restraining her young daughter. The beautifully layered rocks scattered across the top of Homeplate were brittle and flaky after being exposed to the sandblasting martian wind for aeons, and if Cat fell on one of the stronger ones… “Just enjoy the walk. It’s been a long time since we were all out together like this, just on our own. Look at the sky, up there, what do you see?”

 

Cat looked up, and smiled. High above them a lone wisp of powder yellow cloud was drifting across the huge, pale pink sky. Up there the martian winds were stronger, more forceful, and as she watched the cloud’s shape changed.

 

“It’s a bird – no! It’s a dragon – no! It’s a bat! No! It’s a…”

 

“It’s a cloud…” Leo growled under his breath. He thought he’d said it too quietly to be overheard, but obviously not.

 

“Oh you’re just boring!” Cat chided him. “You never have any fun! I don’t know why you had to come with us; you’ll just spoil it. You didn’t want to come anyway.”

 

No, I didn’t, Leo thought, but someone has to look after you two now dad’s…He chopped the thought off.  … now it’s just the three of us…

 

Looking up, he saw his mother and sister had stopped walking and were looking at him – no, looking over him, staring at something behind him. He shook his head and laughed humourlessly. Oldest trick in the book.

 

“Leo, look, behind you…” he heard his mother whisper across the airwaves. Ha. Right. If they thought he was going to fall for that

 

“Wow!!!” he heard Cat exclaim, and saw her jumping up and down with excitement, her finger wobbling as it pointed towards him. Reluctantly, he decided to humour them and turned around.

 

Far behind him, a tall, tapering tower of brown and orange, fat at the base, sharper at its apex, was moving silently across the wide-open plain of Gusev’s floor. As he watched, it bent in the middle and arched over, and he thought it might topple over completely and break on the ground with an outward-spreading puff of dust, but it straightened again and seemed to gather strength. Soon it was a hundred feet high, and even from so far away he could see tiny chips of rock and stone flicking out of the maelstrom at its base.

 

The dust devil was huge, one of the biggest he had ever seen. And beautiful. It could almost have been alive, some kind of native martian lifeform wafting its way across the plain. “Wow!” didn’t even come close… but of course he couldn’t admit he was impressed.

 

“Just a twister,” he said with a sigh, “it’ll be gone in a moment…

 

And it was. Within a minute it had blown itself out and its body was scattered on the martian wind, lost forever. But even as it faded out of sight another dust devil began to dart across the plain, with another following in its trail.

 

“Ghosts!” Cat whispered with mock fear, wrapping her little arms around her mother’s legs. “Come to take us away! Capture us and take us to Earth!”

 

“No-one’s taking you to Earth…” her mother laughed, wriggling out of her daughter’s wrestling hold and leading her onwards across Homeplate again, “not yet, anyway. Maybe when you’re older.”

 

“Don’t want to go, ever,” spat Leo instinctively, trudging after his mother and sister. “Too wet, too warm. Too many smelly Earthers – “

 

“Your father was an Earther,” his mother reminded him pointedly, a hint of annoyance in her voice for the first time. Leo fell silent, and studied the landscape around them.

 

It was a beautiful day for a walk, he had to admit that. The air was clear now after the recent planet-enveloping dust storm, and everything looked sharp and crisp and clear. In fact, the air was so clear, now the dust had fallen out of it, dumped on the surface of Mars, that the landscape looked both spectacularly grand and unbelievably frail, with each rock and boulder’s shadow unnaturally dark and razor-sharp.

 

On the horizon the hills of Gusev Crater’s jagged, faraway rim stood out starkly, richly detailed and textured. Behind them the Columbia Hills rose up proudly and impressively, their ledges, ridges and slopes shining with a dozen different shades and hues of gold and bronze in the afternoon sunlight. Homeplate itself was a wide, flat expanse of creamy tan rock, littered with countless grey and brown boulders, stones and cobbles. Up ahead, von Braun rose up like a miniature volcano, its capped peak shining…

 

And above it all, the epic, epic sky of Mars. An enormous dome painted countless tones of orange, lemon and pink, he felt dwarfed beneath it, as always. If he’d been on his own he would have stopped for a moment, spread out his arms and turned on the spot, round and round, relishing feeling so small beneath the sky –

 

“Watch your step, Leo,” he heard his mother warn him, and looked down to find he had reached the lip of Homeplate without noticing. He hadn’t been paying attention. One more step and he would have been over the edge. Not that Homeplate had much of an edge; it was only raised above the surface by a couple of feet at the most, but it was still high enough to cause an unwary walker to lose their balance, and with so many sharp rocks around…

 

“I saw it,” he lied, and stepped carefully, gingerly down off Homeplate and onto the firmer, dustier ground below. Up ahead his sister and mother were heading down the West Valley, towards their goal which, if he remembered correctly, was barely a mile away now. They’d be there within half an hour. His ordeal was almost over. Looking over his shoulder briefly he saw three meandering trails of footprints leading back across the cap, and wondered absently how long they’d survive before a twister came along and blew them away.

 

“I want to climb it!” he heard his sister shouting, and turned around to see her pointing excitedly at von Braun. Oh, she had to be kidding

 

“Good idea, Cat!” he heard his mother agree, and then, just when he thought the day couldn’t get any worse, it did. “It’s a great view from up there. But you can’t go on your own…” Leo stopped in his tracks, staring at his mother. No… no… don’t say it…”Your brother will take you.” His heart sank like a stone dropped off the edge of Valles Marineris. No way. No Way. “After all, I’m sure you don’t you’re your sister to hurt herself, do you, Leo?” his mother asked sweetly, and he knew he had no choice.

 

“Come on then squirt,” he said with a melodramatic sigh, striding forwards and taking his sister’s hand without stopping. “Let’s get this over with.” Cat squealed – actually squealed! – with delight, and as their mother laughed behind them, urging caution, Cat bounced after him, her little fingers knotted through his.

 

It was an easy climb, not taxing at all, and they were halfway up the hillock in a matter of minutes. Their boots scudded and skidded a few times on the loose stones, sending showers of cobbles and grit down onto the valley floor below, but they never lost their balance completely and soon were approaching the peak.

 

“Maybe we’ll see it from the top!” Cat said perkily, squeezing her brother’s hand tightly so tightly he winced. “We’ll be able to see for miles!”

 

Leo laughed despite himself. Part of him wished he were still back home in their hab, feet up on his desk, jacked-in to a copy of the latest pirate VR doing the rounds at school. But looking at his sister he couldn’t help but get caught up in the moment. “We’re not that high,” he said gently, “look, we can still see mum…”

 

They both looked down and saw their mother standing quietly on the lower ground, watching their progress with one hand raised to shield her eyes from slanting rays of the sinking Sun. With her free hand Cat waved down at their mother cheerily, and laughed when she waved back. Leo smiled sadly. Their mother looked so small, so lost amongst all the rocks and boulders; a tiny, soft white figure in a brutally brittle landscape of ochre and orange. But she had been so strong after… after what happened. Anyone else would have curled up into a ball and cried until they died, and would have been forgiven for doing so. Not her. He was so proud of her. He owed her so much. How could he be so selfish as to play the role of surly teenager when she – when they both – needed him so badly?

 

“But we might see it…?” Cat suggested, hopefully. Leo knew they wouldn’t. despite their climb they were still only a few metres above the valley floor, and the – latest – object of his sister’s affection was not only still a good half hour’s walk away but it was hidden behind a ridge too. There was no way they’d see it.

 

“Yeah,” he agreed, “we might. Let’s go take a look.” And with that he led her up to the top of von Braun.

 

Casting a glance at the sky as they dug in and made their way up the hill, Leo noticed how it had darkened a few shades since he had last looked and subtly picked up the pace, leading his sister onwards a little faster. Suddenly the feel of the ground beneath their boot-soles changed, and they were stepping off the dusty slope of the hillock and up onto the edge of the raised cap of harder material that crowned it. They smiled at each other through their visors. And a dozen or so steps after that they were there, on the peak.

 

It was a glorious view to be sure. By now the Sun was half a dozen hand widths above the horizon, and the shadows were lengthening noticeably, and now, with the light fading and the end of the sol approaching, the warm beiges and tans of the landscape were turning to harsher but richer shades of copper and bronze. Homeplate shone like a burnished shield dropped onto the surface of Mars by gods warring above, and the Columbia Hills were starting to cast their own long shadows across the valley. It was beautiful, so beautiful… but it meant that in another hour or so and it would be twilight. They had to get going.

 

“I can’t see it…” Cat groaned, looking around, frantically. “It’s not there, it’s not there!” She turned her face up towards his, and even through the helmet’s distorting visor he could see that her eyes were glistening, perilously close to filling with frustrated, disappointed tears.

 

“Oh it’s there, don’t worry,” he reassured her. “You’d see it if it wasn’t so dark. Come on, let’s go back down to mum. I reckon we’ll be there in a few minutes if we walk quickly.” He pulled on her hand, expecting her to follow eagerly, but to his surprise she hesitated.

 

“Maybe we’re too late and it’s gone…” Cat whispered distantly.

 

Ah. This again. “Gone? Gone where?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

 

“Maybe it got lonely and went to look for someone to talk to,” his sister said sadly. “Maybe it set off to join the other one…”

 

Leo smiled. The other one? The other one was on the other side of Mars altogether. She wouldn’t let go of the romantic vision of the two somehow ‘meeting up’. Ridiculous? Of course. Impossible? Absolutely. But there was something appealing about it. He was sure she wasn’t the first person to imagine such a rendezvous.

 

He knelt down next to his little sister and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “You might be right,” he said, and felt her sag, even through the heavy, thick fabric of her suit. “But if it has set off it won’t have got far. I’m sure we can catch up with it if we try..?”

 

Cat’s face was frozen in uncertainty for a moment, then a huge smile appeared. She grabbed at him, wrapping her arms around his neck – banging her faceplate against his in the process – then broke free and tugged at his hand. “Come on then! We can’t let it get away!”

 

Leo let himself be led back down the side of von Braun by his sister, and didn’t stop smiling until they reached the bottom.

 

“Everything ok?” his mother asked, brushing some red dust off his shoulders when they reached her side, fussing as always. He nodded, and began to apologise for having been so moody, but she stopped him with a slow shake of her head. It was as if she could read his mind. “It’s ok,” she said, “I miss them too. But we’re still here, and we’re together. That’s what counts now. Ok?” Leo nodded again. “Right. Let’s go…”

 

Hand in hand in hand, the three of them set off down West Valley together.

 

 

 

Eventually they reached the ridge, and started to work their way around it. Cat’s excitement was almost a living thing, it was as if tiny tongues of flame were dancing all over her suit as she looked this way and that, her head turning left and right, again and again, searching, looking. To her left, Leo kept a careful eye on the darkening sky and the lengthening shadows; to her right, their mother carefully steered them all around the most dangerous obstacles, skirting areas of deeper dust, winding around larger boulders, shepherding them towards their goal – wherever it was.

 

Actually, both Leo and his mother knew exactly where it was. Its position had been known for half a century, since the day it had ground to a halt, and finding it was just a matter of following a VR track on their helmet visors’ head up displays. But of course they hadn’t told Cat that; as far as she was concerned, they were on a genuine treasure hunt, and success wasn’t guaranteed.

 

Suddenly, up ahead, a glint of… something. Something shiny, something distinctly un-natural. Something… metallic.

 

Cat saw it.

 

“THERE! Look! Over there!” she screamed. “I can see it! I can see it!” and with that she skilfully slipped her hands out of theirs, and bolted.

 

“Cat! Get back here!” Leo shouted, but she ignored his cries. All he could do was watch her bounding onwards, legs pumping, each hopping step lifting her off the surface before Mars’ weak but relentless gravity pulled her back to the ground again in a puff of cinnamon-hued dust.

 

“She’ll be ok,” his mother said, “look at the map, it’s pretty safe ground from here.” Leo called up the chart on his HUD and sighed with relief; it showed just a couple of large rocks between them and their goal, which was marked on the digital chart as a garish red cross. They were almost on top of it. “Come on,” she said, grabbing his hand, “I think we’ve given her enough of a head start…”

 

They walked on, quickly but not so quickly as to give Cat the impression they were chasing her. It was important, they knew, that she made the ‘discovery’ alone, it meant so much to her.

 

“No tracks…” Leo observed, looking down at the ground. His mother laughed kindly.

 

“They were all gone after two or three years,” she said, adding, sarcastically, “this isn’t the Moon you know…!” Leo smiled and kept walking, but couldn’t help wondering what it would have been like to have been here 50 years earlier when the landscape around them would have looked exactly the same, but the ground beneath their feet would have been crossed with deeply rutted tracks.

 

Up ahead, the glint of sunlight on metal and glass was growing brighter. They were very near now.

 

“She doesn’t know, does she?” Leo asked. His mother shook her head.

 

“No, and we’re not going to tell her, are we?” she replied. “She’ll find out soon enough. Let her have this moment.”

 

“I will, I wasn’t going to tell her,” Leo said, a little hurt his mother might think even for a second he would spoil his sister’s day. “She needs this, I know – “

 

“And what do you need?” his mother asked quietly, without breaking stride. “You haven’t said what you need.” A pause then, a deep silence that stretched between them like Ganges Chasma. “Tell me.”

 

Leo wanted to tell her, oh he wanted to tell her so badly, but… He shook his head. “No. Not yet. Soon… I promise.”

 

“Ok,” his mother replied simply, and led them onwards.

 

Their goal was now in sight. Only vaguely yet, little more than an indistinct shape, but there was enough detail there to confirm that Cat had found what they had been looking for.

 

Ahead of them, with sprites of golden syrup sunlight dancing on and reflecting off its solar panels, the Mars Exploration Rover “Spirit” stood on the valley floor like a sentinel – and Cat’s arms were wrapped around it.

 

She was hugging it to her tightly, as if trying to stop it from driving away. Her arms were enveloping the rover’s camera mast, and the top of her helmet was touching the base of the camera housing so that it looked as if Spirit was actually bowing its head down to touch hers.

 

“We made it just in time!” Cat said, gushing with relief, “I’m sure it was just about to drive off to try and find Opportunity! It must get so lonely out here, don’t you think?”

 

Leo smiled and nodded. “I’m sure it does,” he said, patting his sister’s helmet affectionately with his gloved hand.

 

“Just think, it’s stood here for fifty years,” Cat said, wonder in her voice, hugging the rover even tighter,  “just waiting to be found… and we found it!” She looked up at them then, and this time her eyes really were full of tears. “The three of us, we found Spirit… together…” she said softly.

 

Leo let out a deep breath to stop himself from filling up. It seemed so unfair. He knew that one sol, probably one sol soon, his sister would learn that this was just a faithful replica of the rover, something for tourists to trek out to and have their photographs taken with. He knew that she’d be told by someone, or read on a website, how the real Spirit had been brought back to the Ares Valles settlement forty years earlier and, after being lovingly restored by members of Mars Heritage, had been placed on display in the colony’s museum, along with every other old Earth spaceprobe harvested from the plains of Mars, including the shattered remains of Beagle 2.

 

Somesol, somehow, her illusion would be shattered. But he wasn’t going to be the one to do it.

“Come on squirt,” he prompted, reaching into a pocket on the front of his suit, “we need to get a picture, proof that we found it.” He fumbled around in the pocket. It was in there somewhere…

 

“Just take a frame with your helmet-cam,” Cat said in a matter-of-fact voice, sounding much older than her years.

 

“No, I want us all to be in it,” he replied, and with relief felt his fingers wrap around the object he’d hidden away before leaving Ares. He pulled it out triumphantly.

 

“Wow, a fossil!” his mother exclaimed, taking the digital camera from him and holding it up to her faceplate to examine it closely. “How did you get this? You break into the museum?”

 

“I… called in a favour,” Leo told her, and left it at that. What she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. “Come on, both of you, stand next to the rover – “

 

“It’s called Spirit!” Cat corrected him.

 

“ – next to Spirit,” Leo continued, “and I’ll set this relic up…” He strode over to the largest of the nearby rocks and found it was, thankfully, just about high enough to be useful. Resting the ancient camera on the top of the boulder he carefully pressed a button on the top, smiled as a red light began to blink, then bounded back to the others, taking up position next to his mother, with his arms around his sister.

 

“Everyone say ‘cheese’…” his mother said with a light laugh, as she always did, as she always had done, even before –

 

The camera flashed once, the sudden flare brilliant and blinding in the deepening martian twilight, then the darkness descended again.

 

“Time to go home,” his mother said, quickly sending a message to the colony telling them they were ready for a shuttle to come and collect them, before gently pulling Cat away from the rover. The young girl, quite sleepy now, leaned forwards one last time and, touching her faceplate to the metal of the camera mast, whispered “Goodnight, Spirit… we’ll come and see you again soon.”

 

Leo turned his back on the rover and led his yawning sister south, towards the mouth of the valley.

 

“You okay?” his mother asked, noticing his erratic steps. “Something wrong?” He shook his head. “Awww,” she teased, bumping into him playfully, “you’re not sad at leaving Spirit behind, are you..?”

 

Leo shook his head again. No. It wasn’t that. It was just that… No, that was ridiculous. Ridiculous.

 

He could never tell her that as he took the photo, for a moment, just a moment, he thought he had seen two more space-suited figures standing next to the rover with them …

© Stuart Atkinson 2009

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