“The Long Road”

Morning on Mars.

A shrunken sun rose to cast feeble light across the dust of a billion years. Cold darkness became shadow. Shadow evaporated as quickly as the night’s tenuous frost. A thin, cold wind grew from the south, ghostly herald of spring storms rising up from the distant ice cap. Chill and bitter, the wind clutched and tossed the ancient sands. Talcum-fine grit ascended, gathered momentum, and flew onward to channel dunes, erode rock, and bite at the metal flanks of the ship from Earth.

Sitting in the lander’s snug cockpit, Brendan Eriksson heard the steady hiss of sand against the thick oval of the pilot’s port. Storm coming. Big one. The churning atmosphere was already making radio communication with the orbiting Athena difficult. Not that the good ship’s crew could help Brendan with his current problem. What he needed right now was an experienced search party, not a band of eager mars-nauts.

Brendan peered out at a landscape grown misty with blowing dust. Somewhere amid those jealous sands was a lone man. Brendan pressed the call switch on his mike and demanded, “Carter, where the hell are you?” Static and the occasional charged pop were all that answered him. Angrily, he tossed the headset into a corner and headed for the airlock.

Carter never checks the weather updates, Brendan thought as he clambered down the access tunnel to the lander’s workbay. He probably went off in a huff. Out collecting specimens or poking around any of a dozen sites. A good stretch he calls it. Stupidity I’d call it…going off alone. He knows it’s a violation of Mars Program protocols!

Brendan slipped on the last rung of the ladder. His shin banged the hard plastic and his curse filled the little workbay. His outrage soon faded as he focused on preparations needed for egress. Yet even while donning his cumbersome mars-suit Brendan found himself recalling the events of last night.

The message had come in around 1800 hours. The two occupants of Mars Site One were settling down for dinner. It had been a productive day, possibly their best after a week on the surface. The sample cases in the cargo hold were full. Their bodies ached from the day’s exertion. Still, they were smiling as they opened foil packages and gulped bulbs of juice. Carter had even toasted the day’s success.

Then the message bell chimed. The words from Earth were short and to the point. Funding for future Mars missions had been cut. They were to return to Earth immediately.

“This can’t be!” Carter exclaimed. “We’ve spent years getting this project off the ground. And it’s canceled at the height of our success? Impossible!”

Carter recorded a message and sent it up to Athena for immediate relay back to Earth. Forty-five interminable minutes passed while Brendan changed ‘cycler filters and Carter fumed over a quiet comm board. In the end, Earth’s only response was to acknowledge receipt. No further comment. Transmission ended.

Weary after the long day and the sudden blow, Brendan patted the old scientist on the shoulder and turned in. Carter barely responded. Instead he stared forlornly through the pilot port. Outside, Mars was deep shadow and sand-glitter as Phobos walked its hurried path across the night sky.

Suited up, Brendan ducked through a thick hatchway and prepped the airlock. The conical lander was divided into two sections: the cockpit-hab was on top while the workbay and airlock were down near the landing skirt. All else was dedicated to life support and the various organs of the lander’s ascent stage. The ascent stage consisted of their cockpit and the bell-shaped engine core with its associated propellant tanks. For their return to Athena most of the vehicle’s mass would be abandoned. Safe within the stripped down ascent stage the two marswalkers and their precious specimens would ride comfortably back to the waiting spaceship.

Despite their best housekeeping efforts ocher dust dirtied the airlock’s polymesh floor and bulkheads. Brendan opened a smudged closet door and removed a surface pack. The units were always kept fully charged. Brendan deftly shrugged a pack over the mars-suit’s thick shoulders. Serpentine tubes from the pack were quickly attached to nozzles on his suit. Straps then secured the pack to his back. Step by step, just as protocol demanded.

After the hatch was sealed the airlock was depressurized to Martian ambient. Through the deck Brendan felt a pump chug as air was compressed and then siphoned into a reserve tank. Through the airlock’s tiny porthole the ruddy mars-scape tugged at his heart.

Mars! It sang in his heart like a song. He had spent years helping put this expedition together. Five years of design and training and toil. And then came the real work: the long and dangerous nine months aboard Athena in order to actually get here, the orbital survey to find the best landing site, and then the wild ride down to the surface in the lander. Yet it had all been worth it! In the last week Brendan had trod more Martian soil than he had ever imagined in his wildest dreams.

Minutes later he was down the ladder and beyond the lee of a mylar equipment tent. Mars was gusty wind and cloying sands. Brendan tuned his secondary channel to the location chimer in Carter’s suit. Instead of a comforting ping he heard only the same static that existed on the comm frequency.

“Carter!” Brendan called once more. Then, angrily: “Carter this is one helluva time to take a walk! You’re the one constantly badgering me about protocol. Big storm coming, any fool can see…”

Nearby, something caught Brendan’s eye. One leg of a scanner tripod had collapsed and dropped its delicate hardware into an orange drift. Almost on compulsion he walked several paces to inspect it. Only a day before he had anchored the tripod into the ground. He knew it should be stable even in these strong winds. Had it been purposely knocked over? The only culprit could be Carter.

Brendan felt heat sweep his brow and he cursed. Even if Carter was angry the man had no reason to beat up on the equipment.

Brendan examined the scanner. One of its interchangeable control modules lay in the dust. The unit’s slim anemometer was also missing.

Brendan was scanning the ground for any other errant components when he noticed something odd at the base of an adjacent dune. Amid the swirling dust a gem twinkled. Could that be another scanner? He knew Carter had a temperamental side but this was ridiculous! Brendan sighed and moved toward the glittering jewel.

He reached the mound of dislodged dust and his gloved hand wiped away the grit that covered the tiny green eye. He lifted the object that the emerald LED was attached to and his heart went cold. In gravity roughly a third of Earth’s the Mark VI life pack was not very heavy. Indeed, even fully charged the thing weighed only a few kilos. Yet it slipped from Brendan’s hands as if it weighed as much as the pitted boulders that surrounded their lonely landing site. Brendan swallowed and tasted sourness. Without his pack the air reserve in Carter’s suit was good for only fifteen minutes.

Brendan rose up on shaky knees, imagining the unimaginable. There was no reason for Carter to abandon his pack! It violated every protocol! Was the old scientist intent on throwing everything away? No. There had to be a better explanation. Dr. Carter Jackson was made of tougher stuff than all of them put together. He was the main reason they had made it to Mars!

Yet last night, after the news of the Mars Program’s cancellation…

You can’t work a lifetime and then see it taken away overnight, Brendan thought. Even a stubborn old bastard like Carter can only take so much.

“Carter!” Brendan called into the static that filled his comm set.

Through the convex bubble of his helmet Brendan’s eyes stared up the slope of the dune. A series of oval depressions, swept by the gale and eroding even as he watched, climbed the sandy hummock. The boot prints were unmistakable. Brendan followed them.

Trudging over the rise the man from Earth stared into the darkness of a Martian world-storm. A wall of dust and cloud reared across the southern horizon, relentlessly enveloping the rolling tablelands that stood before the Tharsis range. Movement caught his eye and Brendan gasped. A kilometer away, a tall figure in a bulky mars-suit stood on a high hill, transfixed by the approaching storm.

“Carter!” Brendan called.

In the low gee Brendan loped forward, praying that the old scientist would stay still long enough for him to catch up. Crossing hummocks and staggering down dunes, stray thoughts licked across Brendan’s mind. What if Carter had abandoned the pack more than fifteen minutes ago? Mission protocol only allowed fifteen minutes once that pack was off. It might already be too late…

And then, instead of being a distant figure, Carter stood above him on the tumbled and dust-blown knoll. Halfway up the rise Brendan heard the other man’s voice in his earphones: “…visionless cowards…if they could only see this…the breath of a world.”

“Carter?” Brendan stepped within a few meters of his companion.

The old man turned to regard Brendan. Behind his visor Carter’s face was pale and tears filled his eyes. When those eyes saw Brendan they closed slightly and Carter shook his head sadly. “It was a good run, eh, kid?”

“Carter, you need to put your pack on. Protocol…”

Carter laughed bitterly. Below them the rolling highlands descended toward a wide valley. Carter’s black glove swept over the ruddy land. “You and I almost conquered Mars, Brendan,” the old scientist said.

“We can buddy breathe,” Brendan persisted. “Protocol allows that. Long walk back to the lander but…”

“Lowell started the conquest, you know? Burroughs and Bradbury breathed dreams into this dust. The team that landed the first probes here were a bold bunch. Bolder than any of the bomb-builders they had to compete against, that’s for sure.”

“Carter,” Brendan whispered. Tears stung the young engineer’s eyes. He had never seen his friend like this. So upset.

“They conquered Mars, all of them. But when you stop asking questions or feeling wonder or looking outward, then Mars laughs in our face. Mars always laughs in the face of cowards. This place knows when it’s won.”

“Let’s go back to the lander, Carter.”

Carter sighed. A long and tired sigh. He suddenly seemed as old as the dust curling around his boots. “When we got that message last night I decided that Mars had finally won.”

“Carter.” Still a meter away, Brendan reached toward his friend.

Before the baleful glare of the Martian hurricane Dr. Carter Jackson reached up and unlocked the seal of his helmet collar.

“No!” Brendan yelled. He scrambled for the top of the knoll. Carter pulled his bubble helmet up over his head and hurled it down the slope. Before Brendan could reach Carter the scientist’s legs folded and the old man crumpled to the ground.

“Carter!” Brendan dropped to his knees next to his friend. Muffled voices shouted and yelled in the back of the engineer’s head. “Carter!”

Brendan’s gloved hands shook the scientist’s shoulders. Carter’s eyes were wide and they stared at the cloud-choked horizon. The scientist’s head rocked and then turned toward Brendan. Remarkably, Carter’s mouth stretched into a smile and he mouthed something. Brendan leaned back and tried to comprehend what was happening. Then, before Brendan could react, Carter’s gloved hand snatched at Brendan’s collar and un-dogged the double seal. Air hissed hideously in Brendan’s ears. Carter began to laugh. For a moment, his laughter seemed to fill the vast Martian wastes.

“Dammit, Carter! You’re nuts!” The words were out before Brendan could stop them.

In response, Carter patted the engineer’s shoulder. He gasped, “Perhaps I am. But knowing when to quit is the first sign of returning sanity.” Through Brendan’s depressurized helmet the words sounded joyous.

From behind them they heard footfalls crunch through the dust. The pair turned to see a Martian Natural Territories Ranger approaching. The ranger’s uniform was a blue-green tiger-striped parka that made the wearer seem much taller than her lithe, two-meter Martian frame. The ID patch over her left breast bore a name: Fitzhu, Dali. That was a perennial Martian favorite when it came to naming children. After all, Salvador Dali could have created some of the landscapes that had been carved during the long centuries of planet-wide terraforming.

A puff of air gusted from the woman’s lips and she waved a datalogger at the two Earthmen. “I’m sorry, gentlemen,” the Ranger said in her curiously clipped Martian accent. “But I’ll have to log that helmet removal as a violation of Mars Program protocols.”

Carter began to laugh again. Next to him Brendan protested, “But it’s the first time in nearly a year that we’ve tasted unbottled air! We haven’t violated anything!”

The MNT Ranger frowned. She hated tourist duty. Earthfolk were a strange breed and she had seen none stranger than this pair of astro-archaeologists…archeo-astrologers…or whatever the hell it was they called themselves. First they lay down all these tedious rules for their little experiment and then they howl when she calls them on a flagrant violation. Yes, indeed, she was going to be much happier when Tharsis Park HQ returned her to back country support. That’s where a gal belonged!

Dali Fitz said, “Believe me, I’m sympathetic. But the entire purpose of this Mars Program of yours was to copy historical artifacts from the 21st century and then use that so-called space technology to re-enact the first Mars landing. Removal of a suit helmet on the Mars of 2040 AD would have been deadly. I must log this as a protocol violation.”

Brendan was about to continue the argument when Carter stopped him. “It’s okay, Ranger,” the elderly scientist said. “No harm done. I think we’ve learned a great deal already. Thank you.”

The Ranger gave him a curious look and then smiled. As the two men rose to their feet she tapped her datalogger and then tucked it into a pocket of her parka.

Courteously, she asked, “Will you be removing any more specimens from the archeological sectors today? Some of the researchers from Barsoom University complained that the sight of you two in your mars-suits has been causing problems.”

“Really?” Carter said, his eyebrows raised. “How so?”

The Ranger sighed. “Wherever you go in those suits a flock of tourists seems to follow. Apparently the sight of you two has also been distracting Academician Kovik’s grad students. No work has been getting done.”

Carter snorted into the cold air. “No, we won’t be going back to the dig sectors. We’ve collected enough specimens to last us a while. My compliments to Academician Kovik.”

The ranger glanced toward the roiling clouds over the southern horizon. Lightning flared violet-white. She said, “Big blow in the outlands. Weather Control is keeping it over the Tharsis Reservoir. City planners in Bradbury want to erode away some of the Outer Dunes. They need a recreational harbor.”

“Why stop with a harbor?” Brendan grumbled. “Why not put in a few canals?”

The Ranger chose to ignore the comment. “If you should need anything today, gentlemen, I’ll be in the observer’s shack.”

“Thank you, Ranger,” Carter replied. “I think we’ll be wrapping things up in the next few days. We’ve gotten most of what we came for.”

The Ranger nodded curtly and walked back to the main trail. As she approached the path they heard a tourist with a real-cam complain: “I thought they weren’t supposed to take any of that gear off! What’s the matter with them? It spoiled my shot!” The Ranger said something placating and returned to the elevated observation platform.

“Martians,” grumbled Brendan. “Mustn’t upset the bloody tourists. Or those pumped up academics from Barsoom U.”

“Now, now,” Carter cautioned. “Those bloody tourists pay the taxes that keep this place open. I wish we had a few more tourists on our side. Maybe we wouldn’t have lost our funding.”

Sadness crossed Brendan’s face. “Without that funding we won’t even be able to fly Athena back home. The return flight would have proven conclusively that early 21st century explorers could safely journey to Mars and then return to Earth.”

“I know,” the senior archeologist shook his head. “I can’t believe it’ll take us a mere six hours to get home. I wonder what the first mars-walkers would have thought?”

“But, Carter, your dream…”

“Oh, don’t worry about me, lad,” Carter practically scolded. “Even without the return trip our contribution has gone far beyond anything that anyone in the field has ever attempted. There’s one hell of a design thesis in this for you. Who knows, maybe we’ll even see ourselves on the cover of Planetary Geographic.”

“But what about the Athena?” Brendan had grown to love the tough little ship, so carefully crafted, virtually hand made.

“I’m sure the park authorities will find a good home for the lander and the Athena. A historical display, perhaps? Athena is as good a reproduction of the First Expedition’s ship as is technically possible. And our journey here was epic. Heyerdahl would have approved.”

“Who?” Brendan asked.

Carter sighed. “An explorer from a chronicle I once read. The Heyerdahl Scroll actually pre-dates the Great Chronicle of the First Mars Expedition. If you believe the arguments.”

Brendan scowled. “I doubt if this Heyerdahl’s funding was ever cut. People back then, when they started something, they worked until it was done. The Mars of today would not exist if they hadn’t been so daring.”

Below the two men the morning sun glinted off scattered vehicles in the parking lot of the First Expedition Memorial Center. A road turned and twisted into a distant valley. Further away the golden spires of Bradbury City met the first rays of the new morning, defiantly shining in the face of the great storm.

“Fifteen hundred years since the First Expedition,” Brendan said. “I wonder if they knew what lay at the end of the long road.”

A thread of silver fire flashed through the dusty sky as a meteor announced its momentary passing. Below, in the ruddy light of dawn, the new world stirred itself from sleep.

“I suspect they did,” Carter whispered into the fresh Martian air.

*fin*

 

Originally published at scifidimensions webzine in December, 2000

Illustration found in National Geographic’s “Man’s Conquest of Space,” 1968, artist unknown although I believe it may have been an illustration from a NASA contracted TRW study from 1962

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