27
Sep
09

DESCENT

Regaining her balance after almost stumbling over yet another rock, Jen stopped dead in her tracks and let out an exasperated growl. “Oh, this is stupid; I’m going to fall and break my neck!”

“Then stop being so awkward and just let me guide you…” her husband sighed patiently. “You’re just making it harder on yourself with all this moaning… “

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to,” Jen replied, squeezing his gloved hand in apology, “but wherever we’re going we must be there by now! Come on, Glen, I want to see!”

“No, we’re not,” Glen replied, laughing at his wife’s theatrical, childlike whining, “When we’re there, and it’s okay to look, I’ll clear the V, I promise… now come on…”

He pulled her forwards again, gently but insistently, and she duly followed, but not before letting out a melodramatic sigh worthy of a teenager disgusted at being told they had to be in by ten o’clock. Her feet were sore from kicking, treading on and banging into countless rocks, and she felt increasingly giddy and nauseous from being “blind”, unable to see through her helmet’s visor.

What was he up to?

They’d landed half an hour earlier and a mile away, in a small, four man shuttle chartered specially for the trip. Jen knew that alone must have cost him a fortune – or maybe not? Maybe he’d called in one of the many favours owed to him by the pad rats at Chryse, whose payload bays and manifests were never checked quite as thoroughly as regulations demanded, meaning all kinds of contraband was free to flow backwards and forwards between the remote polar outposts and the main settlement. Nothing dangerous, of course; nothing that could do any harm to anyone or anything. Just… you know, bits and pieces… this and that. A stack of classic dvd movies here, a bottle of something warm and comforting and alcoholic there, maybe even now and again a box of ‘luxury goods’, such as tea bags, chocolate biscuits or even fresh orange juice; just little things to make the lives of the men and women posted – or, as they put it, exiled – to the scientific bases in the far north and deep south a little better.

Yes, she was sure of it now, this trip had required calling in a lot of IOUs…

Which was why, despite her discomfort, she didn’t protest too much; whatever her husband was planning as a present for their tenth anniversary – anniversaries, actually – he had put a lot of work into it, and she didn’t want to spoil it or seem ungrateful.

Ten years of marriage, and ten years on Mars… five martian years, strictly speaking, but she still couldn’t help thinking in terran terms, like many Earthers did. They’d both come to Mars in 2035 onboard the same ship, the MTV “Squyres”, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young members of ‘Ares V’, the fifth expedition to Mars, both determined to be The One to find proof – conclusive proof, not the “hmmm, might be, might not be” evidence discovered by the MSL Rover years earlier – of past life on the Red Planet. During crew selection and training they’d been wary of each other, frosty even, knowing they were in direct competition for places on the expedition. But once their seats on the Squyres had been secured they’d been drawn together, professionally and personally, and had become great friends. At some time during the six month flight from Earth they’d fallen for each other romantically too, head over heels, and by the time they landed on Mars they were already planning a future together. Married less than a month later by the Commander of the base at Chryse, they’d embraced Mars, and the harsh realities of life on Mars, with all their hearts, and started working as a team.

Ten years later they still hadn’t found their Holy Grail, but they knew they would never give up looking. Both knew, in their hearts and in their guts, that it was out there, somewhere, waiting to be discovered, then everything – everything – would be different.

And so they worked, and worked, always together. They hiked along the bottom of Valles Marineris, looking for the mythical hot spots and fumaroles where crusty colonies of martian microbes might live, love and laugh, but found none. They flew out – at short notice, like spies, or a crack military team – to the sites of fresh impact craters, to dig around in the beautiful, freshly-excavated ice splattered all over the surface, looking for any bacteria that had taken set up home in it, sheltering there from the Sun’s relentlessly rolling tsunami of cell-slaughtering UV radiation…and found nothing. But they kept looking, and looking, travelling around Mars like two medieval pilgrims on a quest, looking for life, …

…until suddenly, one day, it was their tenth wedding anniversary, and she was told out of the blue that they were going on “a trip”. Her protests that that was impossible – she had work to do, commitments to keep etc – had been brushed aside, and before she knew it she was being hustled into a shuttle and shown to a seat.

And that was where the mystery really began to take shape: all the shuttle’s windows had been covered, and its view-screens too, so when they took off into the frigid martian morning she had had no idea where they were going. The whole trip – a four hour flight – had passed without any hint, any clue being given of their final destination. And when they eventually landed, and she had donned her helmet in the airlock the mystery had deepened even further: Glen had used some kind of – almost certainly illegal – software hacker trickery to turn her helmet’s visor opaque, blinding her instantly and completely.

After the air had puffed out of it he had led her out of the airlock outer door in absolute silence, laughing quietly as she felt her way gingerly down the ramp and onto the surface like a newborn foal taking its first steps, before reaching the ground. The rocks upon it had felt hard beneath her feet, but she had been surprised that there were so few of them; everyone knew Mars was covered in the bloody things, millions and millions of them. Soon she was walking easily and quickly across ground that she realised was thickly cushioned with sand, or dust, or both. Every few minutes her boots would crump down into a thicker layer of dust, and as she felt herself pushing through what had to be a low ripple or dune of the stuff she would lose her balance for a moment, but then they’d be through it and on their way again, towards, into and through the next dune, then the next one, him leading her onward by the hand, her following blindly behind.

What a sight they must have looked –

Without warning, they stopped.

Standing there now, listening to her own breathing inside her helmet – she sounded so much like Darth Vader she could hear the Imperial March in her head – Jen could only wait to see what would happen next.

“Okay, “Glen said quietly over their radio link, “I’m going to clear your visor… but I want you to shut your eyes first – “

That was taking things a bit far. “Why? What’s the – ?”

“Oh, just… do it, will you?” he replied, almost snapping at her. Then, more gently: “You just have to trust me on this.”

“Okay,” Jen said softly, giving his hand another sorry-for-whining queeze, “I’m shutting my eyes now…” And she did.

Warmth – not much of it, but a definite hint, a gentle brushing touch of it – fell on her face a moment later, making it tingle, and she knew that the surface of her visor had been made transparent again, allowing sunlight to enter. Her heart literally jumped in anticipation, as she imagined what she was about to see – the beautifully barren, raw landscape of Mars which she loved so much. It didn’t matter that she didn’t have any idea where she was; she knew what she’d see – a spectacular, gently undulating landscape unlike any other to be found in the solar system: an ancient, biscuit-and brick-coloured desert scattered with countless hundreds of thousands of rocks and boulders, large and small, all battered and beaten and chipped and broken by millennia of merciless torture at the hands of Mars’ weather and impacts from micrometeorites.

She opened her eyes –

“No!!!” she shouted, and almost fell backwards with shock and in fear.

There was a huge, gaping hole in the world, and she was standing on the very edge of it.

“You always said you wanted to come here, so here you are…”

Jen knew Glen was speaking to her, she could hear words of some kind in her ears, but her head was whirling so much, and her heart was thumping so loud in her chest that she had no idea what he was actually saying. All she could see was The Hole stretching out in front of her and to either side of her as well –

“This is it, the very spot where she went in…”

Jen’s brain was made of jelly. It? Where was it? She? Who was she?

Oh…

Ah….

Now she knew where she was. Now the view in front of her made sense.

“It” was the lip of a gently-sloping dusty ramp of rock called Duck Bay. “She” was Opportunity, the second of the two Mars Exploration Rovers to land on the Red Planet almost half a century earlier.

“Victoria…” Jen whispered, finding it hard to believe her own eyes, “you brought me to Victoria Crater…!”

“I did,” Glen confirmed, smiling at her through his visor, “happy anniversary…”

She wanted to hug him – oh, she wanted to hug him so hard it would bend him in two and then snap him like a dry twig – but she couldn’t move, she was rooted to the spot as if turned to stone. She was here, she was really, really, here…

Everyone has somewhere special, a place, a destination that they dream of visiting before they die, perhaps a city, a mountain, or a lake. Jen could remember her mother telling her how she’d longed to see the great Pyramids of Egypt, and her father had dreamed of looking down on the world from the summit of Everest. All her life Jen had wanted to see Victoria Crater. And now here she was.

She had first fallen in love with the crater as a classic bespectacled, 12 year old science geek girl when, watching TV, she’d seen a program about a pair of small robots that were trundling – or “roving” – around Mars, taking pictures, studying rocks and generally having a great time sightseeing on the planet. After a drive of many months one of them, “Opportunity”, had pulled up on the crumbling edge of a huge crater called “Victoria”, and the view had been… breathtaking.

Watching that TV show, seeing the pictures the Mars rover had taken of the view across the great crater, Jen had felt something change within her – no, not change; come to life. Until then she’d wanted to be a horse rider, or an Olympic figure skater, or a thousand other ‘normal’ and equally mundane or clichéd things, but suddenly she had a real goal, a real focus: Mars was calling to her, reaching out for her, specifically That Crater, Victoria, and she had vowed, there and then, sitting in front of that flickering TV screen, to work as hard as necessary to reach Mars and, one day, stand on the edge of that very crater and see it for herself.

And now she was there, standing on the edge of Duck Bay, staring across the great wide expanse of Victoria Crater at the bays and cliffs and capes on the other, faraway side.

To her left the towering, crumbling cliff of Cape Verde was a magnificent sight, a massive natural monolith, a rugged, ragged promontory of rock jutting out from the crater’s rim towards its centre. To her right, Cabo Frio – sharper, thinner, more sharply-tapering than Verde – was a dagger blade stabbing towards Victoria’s heart. Directly in front of her, beyond the lower slope of Duck Bay itself, the crater’s deep floor was covered with a rippled blanket of dust dunes, shaped and sculpted by the gentle but relentlessly whispering martian winds into beautifully-delicate cross-hatch and herringbone patterns. Directly opposite her, beyond that sea of dust dunes, the serrated far wall of the crater was broken up into its own promontories, cliffs and bays…

In the pancam and navcam photographs taken by Opportunity all those years ago, which she had viewed on and Saved from countless NASA websites and the posts of busy internet forums, Victoria Crater had been a stunning enough sight. It had been even more stunning when “visited” in virtual reality, seen in crystal-clear 3D vision through the holographic goggles available back at the colony. But now, seen through Jen’s own eyes, opening up in front her beneath an enormous, endless, blushing rose pink sky, with highlights of lemon and caramel here and there, it was a glorious sight, a wondrous sight, and bathed in the subtle, honey-hued glow of the shrunken, gold-coin Sun, it was almost too beautiful for words.

Almost.

“Thank you…” she managed to whisper eventually.

“You’re welcome,” Glen smiled back. “Hey, look, over there… on the horizon… see?” Jen squinted against the sunlight to try and make out what he was pointing at. On the skyline, barely visible against the bright, butterscotch-coloured sky, was a pair of almost-not-there bumps, as if a camel was plodding along just over the horizon. She nodded. “The Hills of Endeavour,” Glen told her, and now it was his voice’s turn to betray a love of place; just as she had always wanted to see Victoria up close, he had dreamed of climbing the high hills of the much larger crater further to the south.

Looking at her husband staring wistfully into the distance, willing himself to the base of the faraway hills, Jen decided that one day his wish would come true, just as hers had done.

“I wish we had a time machine…” Jen said softly, sweeping her gaze over the landscape. ”Imagine being here when this was formed…”

For a moment, she was.

Mars was very different then, a kinder, warmer, wetter world. Reflecting in shallow, still pools of briny, teeth-chatteringly cold water, clouds floated idly through its sky. And one quiet sol a ball of fire lanced down from that sky, roaring, howling and trailing smoke and flame behind it like a dying dragon. Slamming into the Meridiani Plain like Thor’s hammer it set the ground for miles around shaking tremulously, and as a mushroom cloud of filthy brown and orange dust rose into the air above the impact site, churning and broiling within itself, a rain of flaming rocks and stones began to fall on Meridiani  –

“I said,” Glen repeated, “do you want to go down?”

“Hmm?” Jen looked at him blankly, still climbing out of her daydream.

“Into Victoria,” he continued patiently, smiling at her confusion. “You were miles away then…! I asked if you wanted to take a walk in Oppy’s footsteps?”

Jen laughed. He was joking, of course.

“No, seriously,” he insisted, “do you want to take a walk with me, down…” He nodded towards the base of Cape Verde. “…there..?”

Jen laughed again, but because she was nervous, not amused. He had to be joking, he had to be; people simply weren’t allowed down into the crater, everyone knew that. It was a Restricted Area, preserved and protected by Mars Heritage.

If the rumours of Mars Heritage’s obsession with protecting its sites were true a hundred nano-cameras were trained on them that very moment…

“I really want to see those rocks close-up, don’t you?” Glen continued brightly, and even started to walk forwards towards the upper slope of the Bay. Jen held back. She wasn’t going anywhere. Like many of the sites along the famous “Spirit Trail” and “Opportunity Trek”, the floor of Victoria Crater was strictly a “Look but don’t touch” zone, something to marvel at from a respectable distance and not trample over. Anyone who broke Mars Heritage’s preservation orders was in for a dozen kinds of trouble, they took their role as the guardians and protectors of Mars’ history and heritage very seriously, very seriously indeed. There were even rumours that a settler had been shipped back home to Earth after chipping a piece off one of the rocks RATted by Spirit.

“Come on,” Glen called out to her as he started down the slope of Duck Bay.

“You’re insane,” Jen shot back, her voice breaking. Of course she wanted to go with him, to see those lovely layered rocks up close, but it was impossible. If they went down there they’d be hung, drawn and quartered, after being named and shamed in front of the whole solar system –

Jen started as a red envelope icon suddenly appeared in the top left corner of her helmet’s HUD panel. Someone had messaged her. Tapping the icon with a fingertip brought up the message. It was from Glen! What was he playing at?

The message title was just two words: READ ME. That was when she noticed an attachment with the message. Opening it slowly she found it was a document of some kind… very official-looking… She scanned it quickly – an authorisation…

From Mars Heritage!

“You sneaky, crafty…” she laughed, reading the text. Somehow Glen had managed to get permission from MH to go down into Victoria Crater.

Plus one.

“I heard from – well, it doesn’t matter who – that some people had been planning to come out here and scribble graffiti on Cape Verde,” Glen explained over the radio. “Red Rocks, you know. So I contacted MH and offered to go take a look for them, seeing as they are so short of staff and we were coming out here anyway…”

Jen started laughing, and soon couldn’t stop. This was insane, all of it, just insane.

“So, are you coming, or what?” Glen called to her, laughing too.

Taking a last, very careful look at the authorisation, just to reassure herself it wasn’t a forgery, Jen smiled up at the Sun and then set off down the ramp of Duck Bay.

Into Victoria Crater.

Although the ramp looked quite steep on photographs, and in the VR sim, she found it was in reality just a gentle slope, and walking down it presented no problems, not even when she joined hands with Glen. Carefully, slowly, they step-stepped down the ramp, their boots scuffing up clouds of flour-fine cinnamon dust as they went. Soon they were stepping over the narrow band of whiter rock that ran around the scalloped inner edge of the Bay, the “Bright Band” that Opportunity herself had rolled over half a century earlier. Here the rocks were slab-like, plates of tan and cream that looked alarmingly fragile and unstable to Jen as she trod on them, but they were clearly stronger than they looked for they supported her weight with no problem, and soon they were over the Band and heading on down to the bottom of the ramp.

Ahead of them the crater began to open up into he familiar huge shallow bowl, with a frozen “sea” of dust dunes on its floor. Jen had to force herself to concentrate on the ground in front of her feet instead of turning her head this way and that to gawp at the scenery around her. It was nothing, absolutely nothing, like the VR sims. The air was so clean, so crisp, that every rock, every stone, every single ankle-high ripple of dust stood out in stark relief from its surroundings. Her senses felt heightened as she stepped on down the ramp/ It was hard to explain and hard to understand; every nerve in her body seemed to be tingling, as if tiny traceries of fire were rippling through her, jumping and skipping along as she walked.

Soon the nature of the ground around them changed. At the top of the ramp there had been no real rocks of any size at all, just dust. Halfway down the ramp she’d started to see and step on a few stones, small ones, here and there, and the farther down the ramp she walked the more stones she found herself walking over, scrunching them beneath her boots. Now, the stones were too big to walk on, she had to go around them they were so large. They were jagged too, not exactly EVA-suit friendly…

“We need to start tracking left a bit,” Glen informed her, and she felt him gently tug her hand. All she could do was allow herself to be led, she was lost in her own world and her own thoughts, thinking, as she stared down at the ground, “Opportunity came down this very ramp… all those years ago…”

She was so focussed on working her way around the large rocks laying on the ground at her feet that it came as a real shock when she found herself plunged into darkness without warning. Looking up she saw the Sun had been cut off by a towering cliff-face of stone –

“Cape Verde,” she breathed out, “this is it, Glen… Cape Verde!”

Beside her Glen laughed affectionately. “The one and only. Come on, we need to get closer to check the – “

“No,” Jen interrupted sharply. “I mean, not yet, ok? Just give me a couple of moments will you? I don’t want to rush this… this is special for me.” Ahead of her, now mere metres away, Cape Verde was a wall across her world. There was the sky, and the rock, that was all. She felt tiny, dwarfed, but more alive than she’d ever felt before. “I want to drink it all in… you understand?” she asked, looking to him for confirmation. He nodded and said nothing, smiling as he let go of her hand and started to walk towards the debris-littered base of the cliff without her.

Jen stared hard at the rocky face of Cape Verde, glowing burnt orange in the afternoon light. Although it wasn’t a “cliff” in the classic sense – an almost vertical wall of stone – it was still a fascinating and moving sight. On the pictures, and in the VR sim, it had looked just like a high mound of stones, like a section of one of the dry stone walls that snaked up and down and around the green fells and mountains back in her Lake District home in Cumbria, back on Earth. But up close it was more, so much more than that. Standing in front of it, made small by it, Jen couldn’t shake off the feeling that she was looking at part of the remains of an ancient martian castle, or fortress, that Cape Verde was all that was left of one of its buttresses, or a once-proud tower or turret.

Cape Verde wasn’t pretty, no-one would ever have suggested that. Truth be told it was a broken, shattered thing. At its top the rocks were coated with a thick layer of dust, blown off the crater floor no doubt and deposited there by the winds that swept and rippled over the crater sol after sol after sol. The lower third was a broad, layered horizontal band of orange stone, like a wall holding up the rest of the Cape, which was made up of countless blocks and slabs and plates of orange and brown rock, all arranged at conflicting and jarring angles. Between those the cliff was basically a mess of different sized and shaped masses of stone, shot through with cracks and fissures. Here was a ledge covered with shingle and chips of stone. There was a dip in the rock, filled with fine dust, a pool of fines.

Shielding her eyes from the glaring Sun, staring at the front of the Cape, where erosion had eaten away at it, exposing its sedimentary innards, Jen found her earlier romantic image of a ruined turret or tower being swept away and replaced by another image, that of a huge sack of stones being emptied out on this part of Mars by some cosmic entity –

Jen’s silent contemplation was shattered as a voice barked into her ears: “Come on… we only have half an hour here, then we have to go…” and she panned along the cliff to find Glen had reached its base and kneeling down by it. She couldn’t see exactly what he was doing down there, but it looked like he was pushing something – a probe of some kind? – into a crevice in the rock..? Something he’d carried in one of the many pouches on his suit, no doubt.

Slowly, carefully, Jen threaded her way up the talus slope towards him, through the chaotic rock garden of boulders that had formed at the base of the cliff. It was obvious that Time itself had shaped the Cape. Each of the rocks she shuffled and edged around had fallen from the side of the cliff, crashing to the ground in a cloud of crushed strawberry dust. Some had shattered, scattering the area with smaller, jagged fragments of stone, while others, denser and less friable, had actually embedded themselves in the ground and now protruded from it at crazy angles. Jen smiled to herself as she noticed how one of them looked exactly like one of the small standing stones at the Castlerigg Stone Circle near her old home back on Earth…

Then she was standing beside Glen, within touching distance of the ancient, layered rock of Cape Verde. Smiling broadly at him she leaned forwards until her helmet visor was almost touching the cold stone.

Now, seen from so close, the rock looked even more fragile, and she actually moved back slightly for fear of damaging it with an inadvertent touch of her helmet. Now she could see the layers in the rock properly, not just the obvious, broad layers visible from metres away but all the thinner, finer layers, the paper thin sheaves of sedimentary stone that made up the lower level of the Cape. They reminded her of the stacked, decaying pages of a fat, dusty, old book. One touch of her gloved fingers would surely crumble them to powder.

“Well, it seems like the rumours were true,” Glen sighed heavily, pointing towards the top of the cape. “Look…”

Jen turned away from the lower layers and peered up at a broken ledge higher up on the cliff face. Daubed on it, in dark red paint, or ink, or something, were just four words.

“Mars for the martians!”

Which martians?” Jen wondered outloud.

“They mean the bacteria… if there is any,” Glen told her. Jen nodded in understanding. It was no secret that there were some scientists who thought that just by being on Mars they were contaminating it with the terrestrial life – bacteria, germs, viruses etc – they’d brought with them from Earth, riding on them and living and hiding inside them. Those scientists insisted that they couldn’t be sure anything biological found find out here under a rock actually was martian because it might be something they’d sneezed – or worse – out of themselves…

Jen thought they might have a point. One of her greatest fears was finding Something Interesting swimming or throbbing about on a microscope slide, and then pop the cork on the bottle of champagne she kept on standby only to learn that it was a hitch-hiker from Earth. But she had faith her techniques and equipment would spot the difference early on, before she announced prematurely to the solar system that she’d found Life On Mars and cleared a space on her shelf for her Nobel Prize…

“Idiots,” Glen huffed, spotting a second scrawl on the rock face, “mindless vandals.”

Jen had to agree with that sentiment. As much as she sympathised with the concerns of the people who’d done this, she had nothing but contempt for their actions. She’d never understood why some people felt a need to desecrate beautiful places like this with their stupid scribblings and scratchings. It made no sense to her. She’d seen graffiti almost everywhere she’d been on Earth – stupid smiley faces drawn in green marker pen on the standing stones at Stonehenge, names, dates and love-hearts scratched into the Great Wall of China with keys, and worse – and she’d hoped Mars would escape such defacement. Obviously not.

“Oh well, I suppose it could have been worse,” Glen said with a sigh, “at least the writing is too small to be seen from the crater edge, that’s something.”

Jen snarled inside her helmet. It was something, but it wasn’t enough.

“Come on then,” she heard Glen say sadly, “time’s beaten us. If we overstay by even a few minutes MH will make a big deal of it. I had to pull more strings than Gypetto to get us here in the first place. There’s nothing we can do except report it and leave it to them. They’ll send a clean-up crew… maybe…” He started to walk away from the base of the cliff.

As he passed her, Jen gazed up at the graffiti and pondered his words. A clean-up crew? Mars Heritage must have anticipated this kind of problem and come up with some kind of hi-tech graffiti removal gadget. Would a finely-tuned laser be able to scour the writing from the stone, for instance? Maybe. At least the damage could be repaired then, eventually. But she knew that with MH’s limited budget and personnel, “eventually” would probably be in a year’s time, maybe more.

And besides, with so many more obviously picturesque and / or fragile sites of special interest to protect along the “Spirit Trail” and “Opportunity Trek” – such as the largest RATted rocks, the few remaining lengths of preserved wheel tracks and the actual MER landing sites themselves – a few scrawled-on stones on the side of a cliff in Victoria Crater weren’t going to be a very high priority…

“Let’s have a walk around the top before we go,” Glen suggested brightly, starting back up the slope of Duck Bay. “We can take each other’s picture from the same points Oppy took her photos…”

But Jen wasn’t listening. All she could hear was her hot blood pounding angrily in her veins as she stared at the graffiti scrawled on the ancient, beautiful rock. It was like an ugly scar, a knife gash or a badly-healed burn, on the face of a loved friend. Was she really just supposed to walk away from it with an “Oh well” shrug and go back to Chryse and forget all about it? Would she be able to get on with her work there, to sit at her microscope and computer, knowing that Out There, in the deep desert of Meridiani, such ugliness remained?

No.

It was up to her, then.

“Jen?” Glen called back down the slope, “what are you waiting for? Is something wrong?”

“No,” she replied, looking away from the rock to see Glen standing half-way up the slope, feet planted in the dust, waiting for her to follow him. She smiled to herself. A sense of calm had fallen over her, now she had resolved to do something.

But what?

That was when she saw it.

Ah… yes…

“Everything’s fine,” she reassured him. Or it will be, she thought, in a moment

Luckily – or maybe it wasn’t luck? Perhaps some lingering feelings of discomfort, or even guilt, had guided their choice of stony canvases? – the rocks defaced by the graffiti artists were relatively small and on the most badly eroded face of the Cape, too. If they had written their message on one of the big, flat blocks of stone that made up the lower level of Cape Verde then there would have been nothing she could have done about it. Those slabs were set firmly and fast into the body of the cliff. But the rocks that bore the messages were smaller, much smaller, and protruded from the body of the cliff like the rotten teeth of some huge, buried martian troll.

And those teeth looked loose.

Jen took a deep breath then bent down. She couldn’t allow herself to think about what she was about to do; that would have frozen her to the spot. She just chose a suitably hefty-looking rock, picked it up with her gloved hand, and, approving the weight of it, slowly walked forwards.

“Jen!” Glen called anxiously from above her. “Jen! What are you doing?!”

“Making things right again…” she replied casually, even though her heart was pounding like a war drum. There was no going back now, she was committed. Whatever happened, happened. She just knew that she couldn’t leave Cape Verde looking like… like that.

Quickly, focussed now, she made her way back through the rock garden of fallen debris, every footstep bringing her closer to the side of Cape Verde, closer to her goal. Behind her she was aware of Glen lolloping back down the slope of Duck Bay, fans of red dust spraying out in front of him as he rushed to get to her, to stop her – but it was too late. She was already there.

“Not here too…” she growled angrily, glaring at one of the graffiti-covered rocks, “not here…!”

And she struck the rock with her own.

Over the radio link she heard Glen gasp loudly in horror and shock, unable to believe what he was seeing. She ignored him, focussed completely on the defaced rock now. It had moved, a little, but remained in place. She hit it again, harder this time, and even though a jolt of pain ran up her arm as the two rocks smacked together she smiled: it had definitely wobbled that time.

“Jen! No!” Glen was screaming over the radio as he bounded towards her.

“I’m sorry, I can’t just leave it like this,” she said, apologetically, even as she hefted her clubbing stone for the third time. “I’d rather be sent home than not do anything – “

The two rocks came together with a loud shotgun CRACK! that sent another tremor of horrendous pain shooting up her arm – but she didn’t care, not when she saw the offending and offensive rock come loose, fall away and drop to the ground in a crumping puff of orange dust.

“JEN!” Glen shouted, appalled, but she was already striking at the second graffiti-bearing rock. This one was higher on the Cape and harder to get to, requiring her to balance on the toes of her boots as she chipped away at the cliff face above her. As she did so, sharp shards of stone fell down on her, bouncing loudly off her helmet faceplate, but she ignored them and kept chipping away, chipping away, chipping away until finally the second stone was dislodged too. She had to skip backwards to avoid it smashing into her visor, and she just managed to get clear, but at the expense of losing her footing. As the rock thumped into the ground in a cloud of ginger dust she fell too, stumbling away from the rock face, arms wind-milling, legs flailing, kicking up her own dust cloud, just like one of those early Apollo astronauts who fell on the Moon. She shut her eyes and waited for her own impact with the cold hard surface of Mars, which she knew would be painful –

But the impact never came.

“Got you,” she heard a familiar voice say as she felt arms wrap around her, “you bloody idiot…!”

Back on her feet again, Jen surveyed her handiwork. With both defaced rocks removed, Cape Verde looked just as it had done before the graffiti artists had left their mark. “I’m sorry, Glen,” she said, “I just couldn’t walk away from it.”

Glen brushed and patted at her spacesuit with his hand, clearing some of the red dust off it. But he said nothing.

“I’ve dreamed of coming here ever since I was a kid, you know that,” Jen continued, “I love this place… I’d never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t at least tried…”

“I know, I know,” Glen said eventually, stopping his grooming to look her straight in the eye, so close their helmet faceplates almost touched, “and I’d have been surprised if you’d not tried something. But that..?”

“I know, I’m sorry!” Jen groaned, realising suddenly how melodramatic – not to mention dangerous – she had been. “We’re in trouble now, I know… I’m sorry…”

“Well,” Glen replied, after a long pause, “maybe not.”

“What do you mean?” Jen asked. She’d just damaged a martian natural monument, perhaps done even more harm to it than the graffiti artists whose work she’d removed. Of course they were in trouble.

“Who’s going to tell them?” Glen asked matter of factly, brushing the last remnants of dust off her legs with his hand.

“No-one will have to tell them,” Jen insisted, “this place is mined with nano-cameras, they’ll have seen everything – “

Glen was laughing now, and she didn’t know why. “What?” she demanded. “What is it?” she asked again, punching him on the arm.

“You really think that a group like Mars Heritage – twenty people, with a converted storage hab for an office and a smaller budget than the Waste Recycling Office – would be able to afford to do something like that?” he chuckled, rubbing his arm where she had hit him. “No chance. They let everyone think they have cameras at all the important sites because that’s a deterrent; it makes people think twice before doing something stupid. That’s why they leapt at my offer. Free labour.”

Jen let out a long, deep breath as relief flooded through her. Maybe they’d be alright after all.

“Come on, wrecker,” Glen said firmly, grabbing her hand, “we really do have to go. The shuttle will be coming back for us in an hour, we have to get a move on.”

Jen nodded, and was about to head back up to the plain above when a thought formed in her mind and she stopped in her tracks.

“What is it now?” Glen asked, a little testily. He could, as always, hear a clock ticking.

“There’s something I have to do – no, I mean something else I have to see,” she corrected herself. “If we have time..?”

“Depends what it is,” Glen replied cautiously. “Is it something we can see in five minutes?”

She had him, she knew she did. “Come with me!” she grinned, and, pulling him by the hand, led him away from the foot of the Cape and the rest of the way down the dusty ramp.

After less than a minute’s walk they were standing at the edge of the field of dust dunes that had built up on the floor of the great crater.

The dune-field stretched halfway across the crater, and with all its ripples, hummocks and ridges it looked like a huge blanket, or quilt, that had been thrown over Victoria’s floor without being smoothed out afterwards. It was a serene thing, a beautiful work of art, but created by Nature, not man; shaped by aeons of gently wafting wind instead of a chisel, and carved out of dust and powdered stone instead of marble.

Jen found herself shaking her head with disbelief. The colours…! On all the photographs she had ever seen, and even in the 3D sim, the famous Victoria Crater dune field had looked quite bland, little more than a broad, biscuit- or bran-coloured expanse of crested dust. But up close, illuminated by Mars’ shrunken Sun, seen through her own startled eyes, it was alive with different shades and hues.

Catching the most sunlight, the upper ridges of the ripples shone like polished gold. Beneath them, in some shade, the slopes of the ripples were copper-coloured, sweeping banks of burnished bronze. Jen let out a long, appreciative sigh, drinking in the view, savouring it like a sip of expensive wine, knowing she would probably never see it again –

And then she noticed that the dunes were twinkling.

She knew what was causing it, of course: embedded in the dunes were thousands, possibly even millions of tiny flakes and chips of reflective martian minerals, each one polished smooth or carved into a miniature prism by the action of the wind, and now they were catching the sun, reflecting and refracting its beams like jewels. Looking closely she could see the shadowed side of every dune was sparkling like a starry night sky. It was a view so lovely it threatened to bring her to tears.

“Tempting, isn’t it?” Glen asked, mischief in his voice.

“What is?” Jen asked without looking round at him. She was unable to tear her eyes away from the dune field.

“To just run right through it,” Glen laughed, and she laughed too because she knew exactly what he meant.

As a young girl, growing up surrounded by the forests, fields, lakes and fells of the Cumbrian countryside she had never been able to resist the siren call of a field covered by a fall of fresh snow, or a blanket of crisp, golden autumn leaves piled up beneath a tree, and had crumped and kicked and swished her way through them until she was breathless. Now she was a grown woman, a respected scientist, one of the first true martian settlers, yet the child in her was desperate to dash right into the heart of the dune field and run about, jumping up and down and stamping her feet like an idiot, just for fun, just for the sheer joy of making a mess of something virgin and untouched.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jen lied, “I’d never dream of doing such a thing.”

“Of course not,” Glen agreed, stifling a laugh, “besides, I think you’ve done enough damage to a famous martian landmark for one day, don’t you?”

Jen smiled sadly, watching a gentle breath of wind rolling over the dune field, lifting just enough dust off it to make a wave that wafted over it slowly, so, so slowly. There was so much to see here, so much beauty, but she knew that if she stayed there, at that very spot, for a hundred years she would never see everything Victoria Crater had to offer.

But there was no sense in putting it off any longer. “Time to go..?”

Glen nodded slowly. “I’m sorry, yes… time to go.”

Without saying another word he took her hand and led her slowly away from the edge of the dune sea and back up the slope of Duck Bay. Eventually they reached the lip of the crater, stepped over it and up onto the wide-open plain of Meridiani once again. Looking back down the ramp they could see the ragged trails of their footprints leading all the way back down to the base of Cape Verde and beyond, to the shore of the dune sea.

Standing there, looking at that scene, Jen was suddenly ten years old again, a young, space-mad girl in a tatty but treasured NASA t-shirt, sitting in front of the computer in her bedroom, click-clicking on the latest images from Opportunity. One appeared on the screen that caught her eye: a picture the rover had taken from this very spot after driving back out of Victoria Crater, looking back at where her own wheel tracks had been pressed into the thick dust –

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Glen said hurriedly, “the rest of your present…”

“The rest?” she repeated incredulously, “I don’t want anything else, you’ve given me more than enough already by bringing me here, showing me…” She swept her hand across the view. “…this…”

“There’s one more thing,” he insisted, reaching into another of his many suit pouches. When his hand reappeared it was holding what looked like a small remote control unit, with several buttons on it. Wordlessly he aimed it down the slope of Duck Bay, towards the base of Cape Verde, and pressed one of the buttons.

Tears finally leapt into Jen’s eyes when she saw what happened next.

Below them, standing in the shadows at the base of Cape Verde, was Opportunity, the Mars Exploration Rover that had explored and studied and toured the crater half a century earlier. With sunlight glinting off its solar panel-covered back, and its robot arm extended towards the rocky face of the cliff, it looked like an alien beetle of some kind, scuttling around the foot of the Cape searching for a nook or a cranny to crawl into and hide…

“But that’s… impossible!” Jen stammered, her eyes wide with a mixture of wonder and confusion. Opportunity couldn’t be there, she just couldn’t; she was on display in the Museum of Mars back at Chryse, in a gallery alongside her sister rover, Spirit, their descendant, along with Curiosity, Phoenix, the twin Viking landers, several Russian Mars probes and even the sad, shattered remains of Beagle 2! She’d seen it with her own eyes, reached out through the protective barrier and touched it with her own fingers –

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Glen pressing another button on the machine in his hand, and just as suddenly as she had appeared, Opportunity vanished.

“A hologram…”she grinned. “That’s what you were doing down there: putting in projectors.” Confirming her theory, Glen tapped at the pad of the control unit again, summoning ‘Opportunity’ into existence once more. This time the rover appeared beside them, right there on the edge of the crater, and as Jen watched Opportunity began to roll forwards, edging hesitantly down the slope of Duck Bay, just as they had done. Jen clapped her hands gleefully. It was as if she had travelled back in time.

“But I thought you said Mars Heritage has no money?” she asked quizzically, watching the holographic rover trundle on down the ramp of Duck Bay, heading for the same Bright Band of light rock they’d stepped over not half an hour earlier. “How could they afford something like that?”

“Private donations,” Glen replied, adding, “from Down There,” nodding towards the Sun. Jen smiled at the way he referred to Earth in the same way the native martians did: any planets or space stations closer to the Sun than Earth were classed as being “down” from Mars because they were further ‘down’ the Sun’s gravity well. “Space enthusiasts, writers, artists,” Glen explained, “they all gave money. The Planetary Society set it up, and they raised enough to pay for one projector. Then when they saw the commercial possibilities, some big net gurus put their hands in their pockets to help too, enough to pay for a dozen projectors, so within a year there will be Opportunities inside Endurance Crater, standing beside Block Island and even on the summit of Mount Journey’s End, at Endeavour – “

“What about Spirit?” Jen enquired sharply. As much as she loved Victoria Crater, and Opportunity, Spirit, the first of the pair of MERs to land on Mars, had always been her favourite.

“Well,” Glen sighed, “looks like we’ve got some travelling to do… by this time next year there’ll be holo-Spirits sitting on the peak of Husband Hill, wandering over Homeplate, and standing beside Humphrey, too…”

Jen couldn’t help grinning like a cheshire cat. The was no way – No Way – she was going back to Earth without trekking up Husband Hill, to sit down beside Spirit and watch dust devils whirling and twirling over the floor of Gusev crater, far, far below…

If they ever went back to Earth. That was a decision they were going to have to take soon.

“Okay,” Glen said, “time we weren’t here. We’re already late for the shuttle pick-up, but Lannie will wait for us, she knows that if she doesn’t she’ll never get the ‘Lost In Space’ dvds she asked me to… acquire…”

Jen saw him reach for the handset and knew what he was about to do. “No, don’t,” she said urgently, placing her hand over his. He looked up at her, puzzled. “Don’t turn the projector off,” Jen asked, “please?”

“But, why?” Glen asked. “There’ll be no-one here to see it…”

“I know,” Jen replied, “but… well… “ Her voice trailed off. No, she couldn’t say it. He really would think she was stupid.

“What? Tell me…” he insisted.

“It would feel like we were killing it, ok?” Jen blurted out. Glen’s eyes widened. “I know, I know,” she sighed, staring down at the holographic rover patiently making its way down to the bottom of the ramp.

“You’re crazy,” Glen laughed, “no, really, you are…It’s not even a robot, it’s a hologram of a robot!”

“Guilty as charged on the crazy thing,” Jen admitted, “and I know it’s just a holo, but… well, that’s how I feel. We can’t just switch it off like a lamp. It deserves… better than that…”

Glen shook his head. “Nuts… absolutely nuts…” he said, and tapped at the control. Jen gasped, and waited for the rover to vanish from the ramp, as if beamed up by an orbiting Federation starship. But as she watched it continued to roll slowly down the slope of Duck Bay, uninterrupted.

She looked at Glen questioningly. “Any self-respecting remote control has a timer function button,” he said, wagging the handset at her, “the projector will turn itself off after ten minutes. That long enough for you?” Jen’s reply was a grateful hug.

“Right, we really must get to that shuttle!” Glen insisted, dropping the remote control back into its pouch. “You ready?” Jen nodded. Yes, she was ready. “Ok, let’s go.” And with that they started walking away from Victoria Crater. But Jen couldn’t resist one final look over her shoulder, and had one last glimpse of Opportunity’s camera mast poking up above the rim of Duck Bay before the hologram’s progress down the slope stole it from her sight.

“Goodbye,” she whispered, “I’ll come back and see you soon.”

After she’d climbed Husband Hill to watch dust devils with Spirit, of course.

© Stuart Atkinson 2009

Advertisements

0 Responses to “DESCENT”



  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: