(This is a complete story that was once presented in serial form )
~ ONE WAY TO MARS ~
We started a joke…
In June of 2067, the world finally ran out of 12-year-old Scotch. It was also the 100th anniversary of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This had many people wondering why we had ever sent a Beatles song across the universe all those years ago, as part of a message of peace, and, effectively, to say “Here we are!”
No more Scotch, no more Beatle nursery rhymes, no more of anything that we took for granted in May. They came, they saw, and they conquered. We were subjugated. There was little warning, and it would have done us no good anyway.
No negotiations, no need to surrender. We could not touch them. The weapons with which we had efficiently killed one another were not effective at all.
There was much death and destruction. We all lived in fear and prayed for our mortal souls. But, as it turned out, we were an afterthought. They wanted the Earth. Its minerals, its water, its unsullied atmosphere.
But, you see, the Big Joke had already been unfolding for decades before they came. Our peak population of 8 billion had been in steady decline because, in our wisdom, we had already raped the planet, poisoned the air and oceans, and killed ourselves by the millions, fighting over what was left.
They stayed long enough to discover this and left without saying goodbye.
The Joke was on them, and on us.
Those of us who were left crawled out from the rubble, thankful for our lives, but weeping for the future.
Those who are left…
Around the world, we buried our dead.
Quickly, quickly. Summer temperatures were reaching over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and the risk of disease was high.
Catastrophic weather events were occurring with increasing regularity. Massive flooding, huge and powerful storms, earthquakes, and forest fires were commonplace. Power grids across the globe had been damaged or destroyed by the invaders. In our zeal to repel them, we had resorted to atomic weapons. Their only effect was to instill yet more radiation into the environment.
Governments were disintegrating, along with national boundaries. The mortality rate was climbing. Those of us left were in desperation. Over the course of months, the remaining leaders of the world formed a cooperative coalition to build shelters and provide food and medical aid. We were no longer at war with each other. The enemy now was our own folly, having set in motion the inexorable process of planetary destruction.
But all was not folly. In the forty years preceding the arrival of the invaders, the wise among us, both government and private, had carried on with plans to build the necessary ships and machinery to make the leap across space to the planet Mars. It had begun with ships carrying robots, whose task it was to build rudimentary settlements for the succor of the first pioneers. Once it was known that this had been a success, the building of ships began in earnest. In those four decades, many were launched. Some were lost. We learned from our mistakes.
At last, over two hundred pioneers had embarked on the final frontier. Most were successful and became the first in history to set foot on another planet.
There is an old story or legend about the 300 Spartans who defended their homeland against impossible odds. With the launching of our last ship, in the fall of 2070, our numbers on Mars would match those of the Spartans. We were not fighting a tangible enemy, but our struggle to survive and to thrive on a hostile world would be the stuff of history.
I know. I am one of the three hundred.
The first Martians…
Eight months within the confines of a 21st century spaceship would try the most hardy of souls. Think of a trip of that duration in your family car, without being able to get out into the wide world and stretch your legs, smell the fresh air, or see a sunrise. Add to that an eerie feeling of driving your car at night without headlights.
One of the prerequisites for us, as astronauts, was a close to perfect mental and emotional stability. This was sorely tested, and, when we did arrive, there were more than a few who had had enough.
Yes, we did arrive, and, my friends, I want to tell you many things before I go on my work detail.
In the weeks that it took us to navigate the asteroid belt, I had a feeling of certainty that these spinning chunks of rock were once part of a single entity, a planet that had been destroyed in some calamity remote in time.
The most glorious thing that had ever happened to me in my life occurred after waking up one “morning” with a fellow crew member’s hand upon my shoulder turning me towards the window.
Through the layers of quartz glass, I saw the Red Planet in all its magnificent splendour. This would be home for the rest of my life.
Our incarceration was coming to an end. As we grew slowly nearer, and I was able to see features, I could make out the canyon of Valles Marineris, our target landing site. It is a monstrous formation that stretches along the equator for nearly 2,500 miles, reaching depths of 5 miles. I fancied I could see plumes of smoke or steam concentrated in a small area, which could mark the location of our settlement.
Our atmospheric entry and landing were very tricky and difficult, but as close to perfection as we could have hoped for. We were safe, and within an hour, we saw signs of the Welcome Wagon. Our comrades, some of whom had been here since Day One, came out to greet us and bring us home.
They hadn’t yet invented skin-tight spacesuits, so it was a challenge to embrace our new neighbours. I recognized some of them as being children and was struck with the realization that I was looking at the first native Martians. I was in awe.
As we approached the settlement, I could see what had been accomplished in the forty years since the first robotic teams had arrived. It was built in a series of geodesic domes of different sizes, with some Quonset style structures that were likely the greenhouses. The main portion of the settlement covered, I would say, about a square kilometre. A mere dot on our approach, but truly impressive on arrival. A sense of security, of home, and of endless possibilities came to mind.
On the trip to home base, I had been in a dream. I think most would have been. We moved slowly and picked our way through the dull red twilight towards the cheery artificial light that I had known in my old home, seemingly years ago. I will never complain about electric lighting again. It represented a warm fireside glow to me at the time.
Inside, more than a hundred people awaited us, almost everyone who could be assembled who were not at their workstations. Curiously, but naturally, we were introduced to the children first, some of whom had formed a small welcoming committee. Their leader, and eldest, was a girl named Ylla, pronounced eee-lah. It was explained to me later that this name was taken from an old novel by Ray Bradbury, a fanciful story about the first men on Mars. Another girl named Oceaxe shared in the formal welcoming speeches. She spoke Russian, but, with her halting English and winning smile, she and Ylla welcomed us Home. The origin of Oceaxe’s singular name was a mystery to me, perhaps to be explained later.
As part of the ceremony, they presented us with two odd looking sculptures they had made from the Martian rock. They looked expertly done, and I was about to make a comment about them, when the ceremony resumed. There was laughter and embracing, and introductions all around. My head spun, what with the rapid-fire names that I heard, not knowing who to talk to first, and with the natural weariness of our trip. The promise of a real bed and an approximation of actual gravity was welcoming.
The people were of many nationalities and professions. Not all spoke my native tongue of English, which I shared with most of my crewmates. Aside from the Martian children, there was an almost equal division between men and women. There was a team of seven, four men and three women, who were introduced as being the governing committee for the settlement. After that, and pleading our weariness, we were shown to our quarters that had been prepared for us.
I slept for what seemed like a long time, better than I had in the last eight months. It was a promising start to our new life. In the deepest part of this healing sleep, the two sculpted figures appeared in a dream. It was not a sinister or foreboding dream, but one of inquiry and intense curiosity. They were presented here as if I stood before them, and the niggling thought that came to me was that they had the styling and aspect of nothing else but the figures and royal etchings of Earth’s ancient Egypt.
New found land…
After our grand welcome, and the ceremonial presentation by the First Martians (odd to call them that), we spent a couple of days being brought up to date on the settlement, its goals and procedures, and something of its politics.
We were introduced to the Committee of Seven, and several of us were asked to attend a private meeting with them. In the more than three decades since humankind first set foot upon Mars, much had been accomplished in the development and maintenance of the outpost. New methods for food and water production were devised, communications with Earth had been improved, medical care had advanced from its modest beginnings, lives were saved, and lives were indeed lost. The first people to die on the Red Planet were now buried beneath its sands.
Serious exploration had only been started less than ten years before my crew’s arrival, and we still had not ventured very far beyond the plateaus surrounding the incredible canyon of Valles Marineris. What we did find out, in our meeting with the Committee, was dissembled by its chairman, Mark MacInnes. There were two main reasons why the canyon had been chosen as the site for the outpost: Temperatures there during the day often reached a balmy 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or zero Celsius, and, most importantly, it had been judged to be the likeliest spot for us to find water. There was, as well, the added benefit of considerable shelter from the worst of the Martian storms.
Our attention may have been wandering a bit during some of the technical presentations, but Mark brought us back with the following: “There are caves. We first discovered them on one of our furthest forays into the canyon, some three years ago. Some of the older kids went with us to help carry equipment etc. Most of the caves are empty, as far as we can tell, but the third one we entered held two things I think we can describe as historic. We went in in file with our lamps, and each of the kids was paired off with an adult. One of them, Oceaxe, gave a shout when she shone her light into a small side chamber. In the dimness, it seemed to have a flat shiny floor. Oceaxe was ordered to stop until a careful examination had been done. What had appeared to be a floor was actually a thin sheet of ice covering a sizeable pool of water, which we found out later was indeed pure H20. This all but ensured the survival of the settlement. Our earthbound scientific team had been correct in their estimations.”
At this point, we were about to offer our congratulations to the team, when Mark again called for our attention: “I said there were two things found in the cave, and you might think that water was the winner. There was something else.” He walked over to a locked cabinet at the corner of the meeting room and brought out some small crates, which he placed upon the table in front of him. He invited our group to see what they contained. When they were opened, my stomach jumped as if descending in a fast elevator.
Skulls. Bones. Well preserved items of metal, whose purpose was hard to discern. We looked back and forth at each other, speechless. Mark broke the silence: “You will note that the skulls are like ours in some respects, but they are elongated and have larger eye sockets. The bones themselves are like ours, with some subtle differences in size and girth. The metal items we are still guessing at, but it’s clear that some of their composition is of gold.”
Oceaxe was an odd girl. Now, at 15 years of age, she was of middle height, but somewhat gaunt and bony looking. Long jet-black hair partly obscured her eyes, which were remarkable in themselves. A little too large for her small face, they had the darkest irises I had ever seen. She had cultivated the habit of glancing sidelong at people, and seldom looked at anyone directly. My first impression was one of shyness and avoidance, and perhaps the way she had her hair cut served to reinforce this. That was soon put to rest, however, when she seemed to take a shine to me at times. Although something about her caused me to like her, I did feel a little uncomfortable under the open gaze of this enigmatic fifteen year old.
Oceaxe was something of a celebrity at the outpost, because of her discovery in the canyon caves, but did not have any close friends that we knew of. Most were a little put off with her strangeness.
Her singular name was explained to me by her mother, one Eleanor Ariana. She and her husband Carlos had arrived on Mars some seventeen years ago. Although they were not permitted large quantities of personal effects on the voyage, Eleanor did bring some of her precious books with her. She had been in love with space since childhood, and it had meant her life to be selected for this grand theatre. The book in question was entitled
A Voyage to Arcturus, a romanticized and stylized account of a spiritual journey by a group of individuals from Earth, under the thralldom of two charismatic men who had a mysterious connection with a planet that circled that star. The plot is not sanguine to this story, except to say that one of the “women” they met on this distant world was named Oceaxe (pronounced Oh-see-AKES). Aside from being a shape changer, she was beautiful in her simple form, resembling what we think of as an Amazon. Extremely strong of personal magnetism, she as well had the capacity to read the minds of those around her. Add to this her ability to “absorb” the souls of those she determined as weak, we are asked to believe that she had selectively imbued her own with many masculine characteristics, meant to make her the complete person of power.
Eleanor had been sufficiently moved by this character that she chose that strange name. Her husband Carlos had raised some mild objections, wanting something more conventional like Jane or Joanne, but he went along, thinking that they would not, when she was born, have much to worry about in the way of schoolyard bullies who would surely latch onto something like this and run with it.
The name proved eventually to be fateful, and the girl strangely grew into some of her namesake’s qualities.
Some important questions..
Sasha Hendriks was the co-chair of the governing Committee. She was a tall sparely built woman, sharp-nosed, now in her mid 40’s. Her brilliant grey eyes had slight circles underneath them, and her sandy hair seemed always to be hidden beneath a plain military style peaked cap. I do not think I have ever seen her smile, but that is not to make any comment on her character. Rather, she was very serious about anything she undertook. She had considerable scientific and engineering knowledge, had been a psychologist by profession, and was entrusted with much of the responsibility for the outpost’s operation.
After Mark’s revelations about their discoveries, Sasha presented a series of dilemmas to us in the form of moral / ethical questions.
A few things should be noted here: After nearly four decades of the operation and expansion of this colony, it was becoming more self reliant in its functioning, and less so on guidance and supplies from Earth, as long as the status quo was a given. Meaning that its present population and internal growth estimates were to be maintained. What was still needed from Earth was more excavation and welding equipment, raw materials of steel and other metals, and medical supplies. Food and water had become self-propagating, especially since the discovery in the canyon caves. Before Earth’s catastrophe in 2067, plans had been made for the necessary supply ships, and for further teams of colonists. Much of that had changed after June of that year. The population had been decimated, leaders had fallen, borders and nations were no more.
After introducing herself and bidding us welcome once again, Sasha continued the meeting:
“The things you have seen and heard here today have not yet been communicated to our base on Earth. Yes, it has been some time. You might think that we have abdicated our responsibility, and question why we have not made the report. When we heard about the cataclysm back home, communications were disrupted. We were talking to different people, and more sporadically. Some did not have the expertise to answer questions that we had. The last contact was some weeks ago, during which we made a formal request for supplies needed. We were given assurances that a shipment was being readied and would be sent on its way in three months.”
“We have been reticent in informing them about what we have found for several reasons: The confusion and ineptness of those in charge there. The desperation that they must be facing. The possibility that they may be planning a mass exodus to Mars, especially if they hear that we have confirmed a water source. The question of the usefulness and intentions of any new arrivals, once our secrets were out. The uncertainty surrounding our discovery of intelligent life forms that once existed here, and what it will mean to our new home and to those on Earth.”
This gave us pause for thought. Some of these questions had already been forming in my own mind, but her disclosure of the non-reporting was unexpected. I felt a nagging fear for our future here and realized that there was now a delicate balance between continued deception and having our needs fulfilled from Earth. That there may even be a doubt as to their capabilities of sending anything further. Would an exodus get underway, even if we did not tell them? Would they send hundreds more people and supplies, without appropriate expertise, out of desperation? What kind of chaos would it cause there if we did disclose?
A day after our momentous meeting, I was having lunch in the dining hall, and Sasha joined me. I didn’t know where to begin a personal conversation about the things we had seen and heard. Instead, she broke the ice with a rare smile, and said “I see you’ve been having the odd chat with Oceaxe. She seems to have put you on a pedestal, because it’s not often she says more than a few words.” I said that I had indeed found the girl fascinating, and not a little unsettling, and wondered how she had felt when making her accidental discovery. Sasha said “She is one of a kind, certainly. You should know that I have been her confidant, of sorts, and she has said that you are a person to be trusted. It may not seem like much, coming from a 15-year-old, but she is different in this way: Very intuitive, and, I think, a perfect empath. It is a little unsettling that she seems to know what people are thinking, or at least what their strong feelings are. This likely accounts for her withdrawn demeanor. We take her with us on expeditions because some of us feel that she is a good luck charm.”
I asked why Oceaxe had been included on the fateful expedition in question. Sasha said “She, of all the children, came with us because her parents were required, and because, contrary to what you might think, she is very strong for her size and build.
She is disciplined, will take orders readily, and does not muddy things with unnecessary chatter. Something she has told me in confidence, I will share with you. It has to do with the objects of metal that were found in the cave. As you know, they are very oddly shaped, and we are still speculating as to their purpose. She came to me one day, averted her eyes, and said “They are keys”. I was taken aback for a moment, and the question, of course, was forming in my mind. Before I could get it out, she said “The pieces from the cave. They are keys”. When I asked what she meant, and what these keys would be for, she said she did not know, but that we would find out.”
There was going to be another search expedition within two weeks’ time, and Sasha asked me to attend. I was tempted to say “You couldn’t keep me away”, but just concluded our conversation in a businesslike way, thanking her for the invitation.
We take to the caves..
The day came for our trek to the caves. Besides myself, there were two committee members: Sasha and a man named Alexei Nedev, who was the father of Ylla. Mark and the other committee members stayed back for security reasons. There were also a couple of the outpost’s counsellors, and, of course, Oceaxe.
We took two motorized transports, which had been charged from wind turbines, and they took us most of the way along the shelf where the famous caves had been found. Alexei led the way. There was some climbing involved, but without great difficulty in the lower Martian gravity. Flagged markers had been placed at the cave’s mouth, so it was not long before we stood upon the threshold.
With lamps glowing, we walked carefully into what appeared to be the main chamber, unremarkable except for its size. Oceaxe tapped me on the shoulder and gestured to the side chamber where she had been the first to find water on that singular day some time ago. It had other tributary alcoves, along seemingly convoluted tunnels. The one where the bones and implements were found had been flagged as well. In single file, we threaded our way via a narrow tunnel and entered a room where there were bound chests or caskets, made of metal, and kinds of shelves that had been cut into the chamber’s walls. Behind me, and second last in line, Oceaxe looked in my direction and smiled. All of the shelves and chests were empty, as they had left them. I felt a strange sensation that we were invaders, and marveled at the pool of ice water that could be seen further in.
A more detailed examination of the chamber was undertaken. No further artifacts were found, but Sasha, having shone her light upon one of the shelves, discovered some curious glyphs that had been carved or etched at its base. They had almost been missed, due to an overgrowth of some lichen-like fungus that seemed to thrive in this moist environment. As she carefully scraped and brushed, then took pictures, I stood behind her for a better look. I had seen these, or something similar, before. We all exchanged glances as to what this could be about, then decided to quit the chamber and explore further if possible.
Along another of the winding tunnels we went, Alexei leading. After we had progressed some 100 yards, the tunnel straightened out. We heard Alexei calling for a stop and beckoning us to catch up. He reached up to just over shoulder height and ran his gloved hand along the tunnel wall. What showed in the lamps’ radiance was a wide band of solid metal, some twelve inches in width, that was embedded in the stone. He got out some small scraping implements that they used in their Martian archaeology, and tested the metal, which seemed, remarkably, to be soft and malleable. It was a dull silver in color, and, upon further examination, looked to be the flat edge of a larger structure. We shone the lights further down the tunnel, which stayed straight as far as we could see. Then the lights were directed along the flat top edge of the metal rail, or whatever it was. What we found, over the next hundred yards, was that it protruded from the rock further, as it went along, and then curved back in until it disappeared.
Sasha had been busy taking some metal samples. Oceaxe was chipping away at the rock underneath the metal. The others had gone further down the tunnel to see if there was anything else of note. We stayed for another half hour, and they returned, saying the tunnel came to a blind end, with no side chambers. I heard Oceaxe in my earpiece, and she called me over, looking at me and pointing sharply to where she had been digging. On the underside of the metal rail were more of the glyphs, clearly visible and uncorrupted by fungus. She gave me a puzzled look, and the others gathered around.
I now knew where these had been seen before: On Oceaxe’s famous “keys”, and, more strangely, in the carved figures we had been presented with upon our arrival on Mars. The significance of my dream, perhaps, was being made clearer.
Another country heard from…
We got back home without incident, bearing with us the curious photographs and metal samples. There was much discussion about the metal rail or rim that was found within the long tunnel. Obviously, it was a tooled surface with familiar markings etched into its underside. And, yes, the markings were of the style of those seen upon Oceaxe’s keys.
It was agreed that we would revisit the place with an eye to doing a proper excavation from above, with the drilling and blasting equipment still at our disposal and try to determine what the size, shape, and purpose of the object was. The tunnels below were not even wide enough to use a pickaxe.
In just over a month after our return from the caves, we received a communication from the authorities on Earth. Many of the space agency’s staff had been lost in the invasion or had died from climate related events. Our committee, in the preceding weeks, had decided that we were still too dependent on Earth to hinder any plans they may have for further settlers. Medical supplies were crucial, and we did not have the means to manufacture them ourselves. If Earth announced that they were sending thirty ships and the necessaries to expand the settlement, our obfuscation would do no good. All we could do was give them our expertise as to what was needed, material and personnel-wise. Mark MacInnes took the call. He spoke to one Robert Mueller, the “interim” commander.
Robert painted a grim picture. One robotic ship, carrying supplies and materials for new structures was to be launched within two weeks. There would be no room for any excavation equipment or other raw materials. There were only three more ships that were in the process of construction, designed to carry crew, for a maximum of 25 more people. These of course would have to be the most qualified for the job of survival and terraforming on a hostile planet. There was news that the remaining resources on our home world were being directed toward saving lives and building shelters against the elements. Our people, once in the billions, were now in the millions.
Then we made the formal announcement to them that we had discovered water, and evidence of past intelligent life here. We also had to admit that this was known for some time, and our reasons for not disclosing it. There was a few seconds’ silence. Robert was aghast. He said that they may have to change their plans, delay the cargo ship, and send a commander with it who would assume authority over the settlement, in view of our effective insubordination. Also, that resource allocation on Earth may be rethought, in view of our revelations. More ships and greater might be built, now that they knew Mars could support life, of a sort.
His last remarks were telling. What he said was “For good or ill, you have changed the course of human history”.
Then, he was put on the phone to Oceaxe.
A time of uncertainty…
With about a fifteen-minute radio delay from Mars to Earth, Robert made sure that he said his piece to Oceaxe, really just to offer congratulations on her discovery of water on the planet, and to wish her the best. Nevertheless, she was pleased, thanked him in a formal tone, and gave the com back to Mark.
It would be something between six and eight months before the supply ship arrived, if it did, and we had adequate resources for that time and then some. The manned crew ships were more indefinite, and their personnel still in question. The future of the colony hung in the balance, and we could but do what was needed to carry on life as normal. Oceaxe had her own private thoughts as to what would transpire on Earth, but she was still a child in status, and had yet to grow into her confidence.
We still had material to build additional limited shelters, and work went ahead on that.
The photographs of the cave glyphs were compared with the ones on the “keys” and, although of different characters, they were very similar in style. The shavings of metal we took from the object were analyzed with our basic equipment and were found to be an alloy of lead.
On a certain day at lunch, I asked Oceaxe to join Sasha and me for refreshments, and I steered the conversation around to the sculptures that she and Ylla had presented to my crew on our arrival. I was curious as to where they had gotten the idea for their design, for I now knew that there were connections between them and what we had found in the caves. The markings on the sculptures were too like the artifacts we found to be a coincidence. The figures also had headgear that was exaggerated in size and elongation. Oceaxe said that she had “dreamed” the design and had felt that it had “belonged” here. When I asked her what her thoughts were about the skulls and bones that had been found, she demurred, and I knew that prodding her further at that time would do no good.
Two months from the time of our last communication with Earth, we organized our expedition to investigate, and hopefully excavate, the large metallic object we had seen. It was a long arduous process to get above the caves with the rudimentary excavation and blasting equipment we had. No children came with us this time. We expected a certain depth of sand and pithy soil before our blasting cores could be packed into bedrock. What we found was a much deeper layer of sand and soil, which slowed us down considerably. When we felt we were getting close to being able to drill, we were stymied by the approach of a sandstorm of surprising size and had to abandon our dig for that day. It was a disappointment, because we did not know how much of our work would be in vain if our excavation was filled in with sand once again.
Sasha came to me a week later. She had tried to dig a little deeper into Oceaxe’s thoughts about the skulls in the cave and was told that the head dresses on her peculiar sculptures had been designed “for those people”. As to the glyphs, she had copied the style from the “keys”. When Sasha asked her what she meant by “those people”, Oceaxe would only say, with certainty, They were people. I know they were people.
We made another trip to the site of the excavation, and, indeed, our previous labours had not been rewarded. The frequency of sandstorms had increased, and the digging we had accomplished was for naught. This was only a scouting trip to check on feasibility for continuing the dig. We were able to ascertain one important thing, with sounding instruments: The covering layer of sand and soil at the site was much deeper than we had thought. The actual rock covering the artifact was but a few feet thick and could conceivably be blasted with some hope of removing it.
About three months after our communication with Robert, he contacted us once more with the news that the supply ship had been launched some weeks before, with a change in its payload: There would indeed be a new commander on board, one Sergei Bratya. He was accompanied by an additional medical officer to spell those at the outpost. There was a smaller payload of structural material for new shelters, but more excavation equipment was on board. Earth command had thought this important, and Bratya was to take charge of its deployment, and of the outpost as well once he had established himself.
We now had little to do, exploration-wise, because of the increased weather activity, and the weather maps we received from satellite transmissions were not encouraging. More attention was given to analysis of the skulls and bones that were found in the caves.
Aside from having an elongated shape and outsized eye sockets, they were larger than life, in terms of our own. Oceaxe said that in her “dream”, she had seen figures assembling in front of a building. Figures that would give flesh to these bones. With nothing to compare their size against, all she would say was that they wore head dresses, and that she had modeled her sculptures after them. There was some amusement as to her descriptions, and her halting demeanor when she spoke about them, but Sasha thought otherwise. She knew that Oceaxe never jested about anything, and, although it was a child’s dream, she gave it more credence because of her study of the girl.
One clear and cold night, as most of us were preparing for slumber, there was a call from one of the outbuildings. It was an alarm, of sorts. An observation party was needed, because something had been spotted above, in the starry darkness. We treated it seriously, and Mark organized several of us to don suits and head out into the clear night air. We met the other personnel halfway and were directed to a certain quadrant of the heavens. There was a deep darkness outlining itself against the stars. With complete silence, it moved slowly and obliquely away from us. Without a reference point, it was a guess as to whether it was very close up, or further away and of considerable size. We watched until it was no longer visible.
The mysteries deepen…
Not one single person involved in the Mars missions ever considered that weapons might one day be needed by the first settlers.
What we saw that night, in starlit silhouette, could not have been a natural heavenly body, as it appeared to slow perceptibly above us for something less than a minute, before veering away with a change of speed and direction. It was then lost to sight, and we made our way back to base. Our satellite feed could find no trace.
We were confounded, and not a little scared. A call was placed immediately to Earth headquarters. Robert Mueller assured us that nothing secretive had been launched from there. The information we imparted was disturbing to he and his colleagues, and he begged time to set up important meetings on its implications. We were virtually defenseless against anything hostile, and we had to assume the worst. We had but two things to do: keep ’round the clock observation and take shelter if necessary.
In the planning of the first forays to this planet, decades ago, it was deemed of great importance to excavate and build an underground refuge for use in the event of an unforeseen menace. Mars has a thin atmosphere, and any meteors would come through it almost unscathed. The dig and construction of the shelter had taken years with our limited capabilities. Now we were glad that it had been done. Nothing further happened for several more days. We had been directed not to make any unnecessary excursions.
In the night, we felt, rather than heard, the shock of a minor tremor beneath us. An alarm was raised, and our sleepy citizens were sent to the shelter. Those who remained above were Mark, two more committee members, myself, and some service personnel. We honored the directive from Mueller and his boys, and so were handcuffed as to our options. The satellites spied nothing except the usual weather events, and we were not in a great vantage point to see a very wide area. No further occurrences were noted, and, after 3 days, those in the shelter were allowed a return to normal life.
After a three-week period of calm, Robert directed us to set up a scouting mission to get a better view of the canyon and surrounding area. It was to be composed of only three of us. Besides himself, Mark chose me and Alexei. We waited for a clear forecast, then took the route that led to the plateau above the caves, which afforded a good view.
There were a few dust devils obscuring our vision. When they had subsided, we were very near the site of our old excavation above the caves.
What we found was a massive crater-sized hole in the cliff side, where we had begun our dig months ago. Bare bedrock was exposed in about a one-hundred-yard radius. Sand and soil were still dribbling down into the hole. The crater was empty. Its bottom was a perfect geometric shape of a half sphere. The rock was as smooth as glass. Towards the top of the crater could be seen the perfect shape of a curved rim that conformed to the dimensions of the bowl beneath it. There was no evidence of blasting.
We lowered Mark down into the crater and within a minute or two he signaled us to bring him back up. There was a rock outcropping that overhung the inner edge of the bowl, and he had ventured a quick exploration underneath it. He reported that what he had found was unmistakably the narrow tunnel that we had once walked along and discovered the glyphs.
The “artifact” was gone. The space it had occupied was astounding. We had no idea. Loose rock and sand had fallen into the bottom of this massive bowl-shaped cavity. The tremor we had felt in the night had to have been related to this anomaly. The smoothness and sharp contours of the crater suggested that the object, aside from being massive, had been in the shape of a bowl, or more likely a disk, some hundred yards in diameter. How could something of this size be removed so quickly, and without any signs of excavation or blasting?
Mark, Alexei and I had ventured a search of the area. We chipped out some samples of the smooth glasslike rock and investigated the tunnel that we had explored so long ago. There was one more shock of surprise. The chest that had contained the skulls, bones, and metal objects was missing.
Earth command was informed that we were not alone on the red planet, or, at least, another had been here. We were in lockdown. We could not look to them for help. The only ship on its way to us carried two officers and a cargo of machinery and materials.
The rock samples we had taken contained, as expected, traces of the same lead alloy we had found in the tunnels. The whole settlement was abuzz with our revelations, which could not reasonably be kept from people who were effectively locked in.
Several days later, Robert Mueller informed us that plans had been changed for the remaining ships that were under construction. There would be fewer people, but there would also be a shipment of weaponry. It seemed that those left back home were banking on us to carry on the flame.
I had joined Sasha and Oceaxe at the dining table one evening. There was an air of apprehension. Sasha had tried to keep things light, but Oceaxe was morose and brooding. She had just stood up and begged her leave when she passed out and fell, hitting her head on the table.
The end times approach…
In the decades since the first humans set foot upon Mars, many important things had been accomplished. The first habitations, built initially by robotic missions, had been rendered functional. The extraction of water and oxygen from the soil and thin atmosphere had evolved to a livable level of efficiency, and so had the production of bio-engineered foods.
The long-term plan for Mars settlement was to eventually begin the terraforming of the planet, to be theoretically accomplished over decades or longer. With the catastrophic events that had taken place on Earth, irreversible changes had been set in motion. The space program had been all but destroyed, and, even with our discovery of at least a limited supply of water on Mars, and the increasing desperation back home, we could not realistically hope for further aid beyond the two remaining ships that were scheduled for launch. The future of our kind was not looking good.
Our girl Oceaxe had suffered a nasty gash and swelling to her forehead and was being watched over in the medical wing. She had been sedated and was being checked for concussion symptoms. Sasha had been at her side whenever she could. The day after the accident, Oceaxe awoke and seemed fully alert to us. When asked if she could tell us anything about her loss of consciousness, she said she had had an intense vision and had felt that there was a presence who knew about our settlement and wanted to communicate with us. She had not sensed any threat. We were to send a party to the plateau above the “excavation”, about a day’s journey.
In effect, and without prejudice as I say it, we were now taking direction from a sixteen-year-old.
When she had recuperated fully, we set out with the original group that had made the tunnel discoveries, with our new leader in tow. Passing the site of the crater, we still had two hours or more to get to the far uplands of the canyon. We made a stop for equipment adjustments. Oceaxe was visibly excited and showed impatience to get to our goal. About an hour before twilight, we crested the last of the hills.
Partially obscured by blowing sands, and with nothing to gauge our distance from it, we witnessed a phenomenon straight out of folklore and ancient theorists’ visions. A pyramidal structure which, from our vantage point, looked as big as the one at Giza from our distant past. Our young guest was crying and smiled through her tears.
Life to Life
We stood stock still. Starstruck. In front of us was an obsidian pyramid, the late light glancing from it in spitted reflections, directionless.
The building, if such it was, might have been within two hundred yards of us. We judged this by the activity seen along its perimeter. There were figures moving slowly and deliberately. They looked tall. Slender. Graceful. When we had held our position for upwards of five minutes, this assembly, as one, brought their long arms up from their sides to form a “V” above their shoulders. The gesture, together with their tall head dresses, reminded me immediately of our sign of “Peace”, but inverted. They then bowed for a full thirty seconds and stood erect.
Taking this as a sign to approach, we did so. Weaponless, we were at their mercy.
Oceaxe had a confident smile and bade us to go on. In a short time, we stopped, and looked upon the first advanced beings that modern humanity had ever seen. Less than twenty feet separated us. They were indeed as we had perceived them from a distance: Seven to eight feet in height, over ten with their head dresses. Slender limbs, with long bony hands seeming to have extra knuckles. But their faces. Their faces. Olive skinned, oval, with startling almond eyes set at an acute angle. The lids, when they did blink, flicked from the center of the face to the outer edge. Their mouths seemed an afterthought. They were truly alien to us, but we, all of us, did not feel a menace. They made no sound. Oceaxe was trembling and did not blink at all.
Without a seeming invitation, she stepped forward to the center of the assembly and performed the same gesture of greeting, then lowered her hands in front of her, palms up. Two more figures came from within, bringing a chair and easel of sorts. There still was no sound. Oceaxe was seated, and a figure on either side of her began showing tablets and charts of undetermined meaning. A third figure was behind her and at times laid its slender hands upon her shoulders. She was not alarmed, nor did she seem to notice. She sat in rapt attention, occasionally nodding at her guides. At last, the two began to draw what might have been a story of sorts and made gestures to her. We knew instinctively to hold our peace and wait.
The ceremony having ended, Oceaxe returned to stand with us, bowing her head. The assembly once again performed their welcoming gesture with grace, then turned toward the imposing structure before us. Without the smallest sound or quiver, it rose majestically until it was three feet from the Martian sands. There we stood, transfixed, until it settled once again. The figures faced us, then filed inside, through an area of deeper blackness. All was quiet.
Oceaxe seemed to slump for a moment, then raised her head and told us we must go. As we prepared to leave for the outpost, there of course was a flurry of questions, but Sasha raised her hand sternly and told us to save them.
Oceaxe’s only words: I will sleep.
Hard choices, hard farewells…
Through our sleeping girl, the Tall Ones had told us a story of years in the millions, of civilizations lost, and the seeding of worlds. And, they had asked a question, the answer to which would change our lives and those remaining of humankind.
Immediately upon our return to base that night, we were informed that a communication from Earth had come. The supply ship that was on its way had been lost. Sergei Bratya and his fellow officer were dead. The three ships remaining on Earth were still in a state of flux with their construction and projected launch dates. It could conceivably be years until they reached us. Mueller was informed that an important discovery had been made, and that we would present it to him after consulting with our own people.
On the second day after our return, a meeting was held, at the request of Oceaxe. At her bedside, she was surrounded by her parents and we who had shared in the journey to the plateau. She then began her story.
The Tall Ones were a truly ancient race. Some of their ancestors had lived on what we know as the Earth, up until the great disaster at the end of the Cretaceous period. Most had died off, but some had escaped. To Mars and further out of our system. The ones that came here had found a world with good soil, free flowing water, and vegetation. Its atmosphere was livable to them, and they had decided to stay and settle. They had stayed for many millennia when the atmosphere began to deteriorate. The lost magnetic field of the planet had made way for deep penetrations by solar winds, gradually stripping the chemical essentials from the air. Along with this, meteors, unimpeded by a thick atmosphere, were bombarding Mars with greater frequency. Abandoning the planet was no longer an option for them. During their mass exodus, accomplished over hundreds of Martian years, some of their ships were lost or disabled. One such vessel had crashed in the Valles Marineris. Two of the crew had survived for a time and had taken the bodies of their shipmates into the caves for interment. Knowing that their own fate was at hand, they enclosed the bodies in cases taken from the crashed ship, carved some crude funereal glyphs in the chamber, and left some signatory artifacts in the chests with the bodies. They then made their way into the wild and were presumed to have died of exposure.
The people that we had met with, and their ship (for such it was) were part of a return mission to Mars to collect their dead and search for any surviving descendants. They had detected the downed ship and had extracted it from its rocky cradle. Upon searching the connecting tunnels, they had found nothing further but the empty chests.
Here, Oceaxe paused. The exchanges that she had had with the aliens had exhausted her, and much more information had passed between them than we had guessed. They now knew that our colony of some four hundred souls was in danger of extinction. She had disclosed to them the events on Earth and the uncertainty surrounding future missions from there.
With unmistakable warmth, they had offered succor to us. They would take us with them to their home world, beyond our solar system. We had but to say the word.
At this point, she began to cry and looked to her parents. They were embracing one another but were silent. The meeting was called to an end. Mark, Sasha, and I stayed back. We would have to break the news to the colony and wanted to know the intentions of Oceaxe and her family. They asked for time and privacy.
At last, we had our general meeting. There was much uncertainty and emotion, of course. To some, it may seem like an easy decision. Life versus an uncertain future, isolated on a hostile planet, producing the basics to survive, and waiting for news from a disintegrating home world. But those who would leave were heading into an unknown future as well. Not pioneers, but hangers-on in a sense, but at least assured of survival.
Oceaxe had cried because she knew that if anyone went, it would have to be her. Her parents would go as well. So would Sasha and me. Mark, Alexei, and about one hundred of our people would stay, carrying on with what hope there was. Mueller no longer had any control over our decisions.
Within a few days, the split would be made. There was no help for it. The one hundred that would stay were the real pioneers, secure in their confidence they would make it.
They could not help our old world in its distress, and Earth’s story remained unknown.
We two hundred were headed for the Universe.
Lee Dunn has been writing since the age of 18, but found that work got in the way for the ensuing 48 years. In his home town of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, he reveled in his independence at an early age, and spent as much time as he could exploring the city’s Arts scene. He was introduced to poetry and prose by the works of two literary giants, namely J.R.R. Tolkien and J.W. Lennon and thence fell in love with the written word. His work includes poetry, short fiction, and personal essays, and ranges in theme from the surreal to the horrific, nostalgic, and themes on the human condition. He has been published on Spillwords.com, The Dark Poets Club, Journal of Undiscovered Poets, Crepe & Penn Literary magazine, and the Shelburne Free Press.