Thursday, June 8, 2034, 1000 hours
The five hundred mile-wide crater had been thoroughly radar-mapped, though nobody had ever seen it. They all knew the ground was still burning eight months later. Copilot Joe Commer looked away. Imagine the red-orange lava beneath all that soot.
"You know, I still canít believe it. Those were the Himalayas ..."
His older brother Jack shrugged from the command seat to his left. "Are the sensors deployed?"
Joe took a breath. "Yep, theyíre out. All five up and running. No problems." Far to starboard hung the icy white fragments of the moon, beginning its eons-long spread into a complete ring. Joe listened to the whirring of the ventilation fans and the beeps of the electronics. The Control Room of the Typhoon I was brilliantly lit, and the reflections of its interior curved through the front window, obscuring the line of twilight on the ruined planet below.
First run where we havenít come to pick up a passenger shell. Nothing to do but drop a few sensor satellites off. Nobody else to rescue, nobody who wants to be rescued. Weíre really saying goodbye.
Joe shuddered at the charcoal blanketing most of the planet. He could all but smell the death below. Canít believe I ever lived there.
The United System had declared June 5th the final day for mandatory evacuation, and three days ago the USS Celeste had picked up the last four hundred refugees--against their will. There were only handfuls of human beings left down there anyway, all doomed, but theyíd made their choice. What good was it doing anymore to send USSF troops into the refugee camps, taking casualties fighting the diehards, just so they could haul a few survivors back?
Captain Jack Commer punched an orange square on his console. "Jim, prepare standard navigation program for the ride home."
"Up and running," came the crisp voice of Jim, the third Commer brother, from his workroom down the fuselage. "Tell me when youíre ready and Iíll lock íer in."
"Stand by," Jack said, his face solid and square, his deep-set brown eyes intent on the readout panels. "First letís download some sample readings from New Orbiter 1," Jack said. "John?"
"Got it, Jack!" came John Commerís high voice. "This is an amazing interface! The satelliteís actually talking to us! Thatís incredible! And the software was so easy to set up! All I had to do was--"
Jack sighed. "Fine, John. Letís go ahead and patch it though us so we can all hear it."
"Okay, Jack! Fine, just fine! Itís so easy! All you have to do is activate it, and the default setting--"
Joe watched Jack struggle with whether to reprimand or smile indulgently at the fourth and youngest Commer. Finally Jack shook his head with a half smile. "Just patch it through. If thereís a problem, talk to Ken."
"No problem," came the voice of Ken Garrison, Communications Officer. "Downloading to all crew--now ..."
"Wait! I was programming the voice!" John cried.
"Forget the voice! Just patch the damn thing through!" Jack snapped. Joe caught his disgusted glance. How many times had they had the John discussion, alone here in the Control Room?
"General Summary, Planet Analysis Report One," spoke New Orbiter 1 to each of the eight Typhoon men in their compartments. "Atmosphere poisonous for human beings. Cloud cover has destroyed most plant life. Radioactivity levels in major urban areas and in Central Asia fatal to human beings. Planet still experiencing magnitude four earthquakes at all locations. Entire planetary surface deadly to humans. 40,500 humans estimated left on Earth, all expected to die within two months. Specific data totaling 1,200 terabytes being fed into crystal storage."
"A couple months," came Harri McNarriís voice over the intercomís ship-wide circuit. "Wow ... there were six hundred thousand or so in March ..."
"Guess next time weíre back those last people will be gone," Joe said. If we ever come back. Whatís the point?
"We arenít gonna try to convince íem to evacuate?" McNarri said.
"The computer automatically radioed messages to the various refugee camps," Jack said. "No replies. They were serious when they said theyíd die on Earth. The Evacuation is officially over, and Iím going to respect their wishes."
"Christ, sometimes I wonder ..." Joe said, scanning the garbage below.
"About why anyone would stay?" Jack said.
"About why anyone ever stayed! Christ, what the hell did we think we were doing down there for five thousand years? Just crashing around through one war after another?"
"You mean millions of years, donít you?" McNarri put in. "Millions of years of human evolution led to this ..."
"Well, I was talking about recorded history," Joe said. "Seems to me that once we started recording history, we shouldíve grown up somehow. Was all that just a training ground for space? For getting us off that stupid planet?"
That silenced the crew.
No, nobodyís supposed to say that. Youíre supposed to say how sad it all is and how grief-stricken you are. Hell, Iím not grief-stricken. Iíve been kicked out of the damn nest and now I have a new life in space. Sure it was a painful kick, but I guess it needed to be.
"Well ... people just want to forget," McNarri finally said. "Canít say I blame íem. Wonít make much sense coming back here until a couple thousand years or so. And even then, this place will still be a god-awful mess."
Joe shook his head. The shipís engineer still didnít get it. He thought somebody would really want to come back to Earth. In a thousand years people would have put this disaster way behind them. Earth would be a polluted curiosity, a place where daredevils in rad suits might climb Mt. Everest for kicks--well, not Mt. Everest, that one was gone, maybe some other slag heap.
"Well, thereís still the concept of planetary engineering," Jack said, evidently deciding to letting the discussion flow on ship-wide intercom. "Thatís why weíre deploying these upgraded sensors. The USSF wants current data for research purposes."
"Címon, Jack, you donít really believe that stuff, do you?" Harri said. "Planetary engineering? In our lifetimes? Itís just too immense a task."
"Look, Harri, if we can start terraforming Mars, whoís to say that in a few decades we might not terraform the earth as well?"
"Sheesh, you sound like that Frankston quack," Harri shot back.
"He canít be a total quack," Jack said. "He designed some of the Mars projects, after all."
"Canít be done, Jack. At least not in our lifetimes. Maybe in a couple thousand years. We donít have the technology or the means. This whole planetary engineering crap is just nonsense the media shoves down our throats. And anyway, we can never replace the moon. Why would anyone want to come back here if there isnít a moon?"
"Címon, Harri, youíre an engineer, you know thereíll be advances in the field--"
"Forget it, Jack. I just hate quackery. That Frankston guy is one of the worst. Or was. He decided to stay behind and die down there, after all."
Jack shrugged. "All Iím saying is he may have had some good ideas."
"If you say so, Captain," Harri said. "I need to check the reactor. We can continue our debate later."
Jack sighed. Joe grinned back. Debating the argumentative Major McNarri was always difficult--mostly because Harri was always right. Joe had no idea where Harri had picked up his vast expertise. In a way he was the most important man on the ship, because he knew how to repair every system on board. In addition, he was an M.D., their shipís doctor. He would be irreplaceable if he ever resigned. Not that any man aboard the Typhoon would, of course.
Communications Officer Garrison came over the intercom. "We have a communication from General Scott, Jack."
"Thanks, Ken," Jack said. "Whatís the clearance?"
"Standard," Ken said.
Jack leaned back. "Well, if itís not Secret or Urgent, letís let everyone hear it. We need a little entertainment here today anyway."
Joe nodded. A communique from Mars, even one that took twenty-one minutes to get here across the current 232 million mile distance, was a living contact from home. The five sensor satellites theyíd deployed were just ghosts talking about the ghosts below.
"Patching it through," Ken said.
"Jack," came William C. Scottís clipped baritone, "when youíre through with your deployment Iíve got another little assignment for you. Since the Typhoonís due for a two-week inspection, you and your crew will have plenty of time to attend to it."
Jack grinned. The two-week inspection was news to Joe as well. They hadnít had one of those in two years. Maybe the Typhoon was due, but McNarri surely wouldíve been the one to suggest it. More likely it gave Scott the opportunity to send them on another demented special ops mission. The last had involved coordinating the rescue of two hundred tourists stranded in the Vallis Marineris a few weeks ago.
"The matter is this," the General went on. "Somethingís--I donít really know how to say this--somethingís come up at this end--"
Joe caught his Jackís puzzled glance.
"--And unfortunately, itís dovetailing with all these stupid rumors over the past few months. The entire population riled up, and over nothing! But I say this is really an opportunity to put all this talk of native Martians to rest once and for all--"
"On, no!" Joe groaned. "Not the native Martians crap again!"
"Quiet, Joe--" Jack said.
"--All these reports of noises at night, vibrations in buildings, strange footprints, all these little bits of so-called evidence. And this idiotic talk of Martian spirits. Like that video of that dark shape prowling around the Armstrong Center, with AresNet blowing the whole thing out of proportion--interviewing housewives living behind the Center, as if theyíre experts! Turned out to be a dog somebody strapped an EnviroField on! And riffraff like Huey Vespertine say there must be some ancient Martian culture weíre trampling on! I donít have to tell you that all of Marsportís getting edgy. Of course itís got to be that weíre seeing some long-term effects of relocating our people to Mars. Some people are spooked and their ears and eyes are playing tricks on íem--"
"Sheesh," Joe said. "What people will--"
"That is, until now." General Scottís voice got heavier. "I thought it was all in peopleís imaginations, until now. Boys, I need you back here immediately. Thereís been--I really donít know how to say this--"
"What?" crackled the voices of several crewmembers simultaneously.
"Thereís been a discovery. In--in the Kilpatrick Desert."
"What?" Jack cried.
"--Still canít believe it. But Iíve seen the footage, men. On AresNet, right after you left for Earth this morning. Weíre all dumbfounded here at HQ. Doesnít seem--dammit, it canít be possible! And in the Desert! The Kilpatrick Desert!"
"Where he crashed!" John broke in. "In Hellas Basin--!"
"Quiet, John! We know where he crashed!" Jack snapped.
"Where Colonel Kilpatrick died! No wonder the Generalís upset!"
"John, letís listen for Godís sake!" Joe said.
"All Iím trying to say--"
"Cut it, John!" Jack cried. "We want to hear--"
"Nobody listens to me!"
"--Of the ruins. Itís unbelievable," Scott went on. "We have no idea how far underground some of these--these temples, I guess you could call them, may go. And theyíre covered with--with things like hieroglyphs, for want of a better term. Weíre flying out more teams of specialists, but so far we havenít cracked this--this language, if thatís what it truly is--"
"Damn! This must rattle him," Jim Commer put in. "After he proved--"
"I know, I know," Jack said in shock. "Ruins? Martian ruins?"
"--So as soon as youíre done, get back here at full speed," Scott said. "Iíll fill you in more when you return. Out."
"Jesus ..." Joe said.
"God, heís right," Jack said. "All those crazies who think there are native spirits prowling around are going to go into high gear."
"Yeah, the same idiots whoíve been accusing us of covering up data about life on Mars since then," came the voice of turret gunner Mickey Michaels.
"Yeah, so we could evacuate to Mars without worrying about what stupid bacteria we might be doing a genocide number on," complained Craig Reynolds, the other turret gunner.
"Scottís probably already feeling the pressure," Jack agreed. "He and Kilpatrick spent five months exploring Hellas. They did the most thorough investigation possible."
Joe nodded, mind racing at the thought of ancient ruins. It was a measure of how upset Scott was that he hadnít thought to send along any downloads from AresNet. For the next four and a half hours, the Typhoon was cut off, unless someone at the USSF got their act together and sent more data.
"Well, the old man will make it through," Joe said.
"Yeah, sure," Jack said. "Still, I canít wait to get back and find out what this stuffís all about. Heís obviously going to send us to the Kilpatrick Desert for a couple weeks."
"You think so?" Joe said. "Yeah, youíre probably right."
A light blinked on Joeís console for the Navigation Room. Jim Commer was on the line.
"Yes, Jim, what is it?" Jack said.
"When I was loading our course I got a flag. NAV4 says thereís an asteroid-sized object near our flight path. We donít have it in our databanks. All I can think is that Johnís sensors mustíve picked something up on the way over and just stored it in memory, but on the way back weíre close enough to trigger the alert."
"Huh," Jack said. "Itís getting damn rare to find new asteroids these days. Hey, John, check with Jim on this object. Letís compare data and see whatís there. We might have a little time to go after the thing on the way home." Joe knew they were all eager to get back to Mars and the news from the Kilpatrick Desert. Still, they were under standing orders to check out every new asteroid.
"Iíve got it, Jack!" John broke in. "Jim was right--it wasnít close enough on the way over to abort the nav program, but itíll come within two million miles on our way back. Iíll bet itís a new asteroid! The computer doesnít have anything on it. Iíd say itís not too large--a chunk a couple hundred feet wide."
"Fine," Jack said. "Jim, Iím taking us out of orbit now. Plot me an intersection course with that thing as well as its orbit. Weíll name us a new asteroid and we can get back to Mars in a hurry after that."
"Roger," said Jim.
"Joe, prepare to increase to maximum thrust. You take her this time."
"Iíve got íer," Joe replied. "Inertial dampers on."
As Jimís new course fed into the computer, maneuvering jets turned the Typhoon in the proper direction. Joe hit the throttle and the gravity compensators cut in, keeping the interior gravity at one Earth gravity under any acceleration. Within a minute Joe had the Typhoon at top end--49.8 million miles per hour.
"Weíll intercept in five minutes," Jim said.
"Fine," Jack said. "How far will this take us off our course to Mars?"
"Not too far. Wonít slow us up for more than a few minutes."
"Jack! Jack! I--I canít believe it!" John shouted, voice breaking into distortion over the intercom. "The--the thing--I thought it was moving in an elliptical orbit--but--"
"Whatís the problem, John?" Jack snapped, his irritation evident to everyone.
"Well, I donít know how to say this, but--"
"Well--the thing--itís changed course!" John babbled. "Itís moving towards us!"