It was a fine sunny day in Yellowstone park, USA, in the year 2222. All the twos and maybe a bad omen at that, if any thinker went that way still, as the park was certainly not a good place to be. The whole area was closed, and the land around it to a radius of 1000K, a major part of mainland America.
Arianne was two decades past her double century; feeling fitter and younger than she had for nearly sixty years. She’d not been near the Yellowstone for most of that time. Now she was flying in over its’ eastern border, with seven surveyors from LandRestores’ caldera control team.
She thought a slow-down to her FlightSkin, drifting behind the others to get a solitary view. She remembered her flight across Mars, after winning the first solarsail race to the planet in the mid-200’s, but this was in a genre of its’ own.
The structure was immense. Even with her long experience of technical wonders and fabulous landscapes Arianne had seen nothing remotely like it.
Fifty miles by twenty of woven diamond struts, that arched up more than fifteen thousand feet, right over the central dome of the ancient caldera.
And even this was failing to hold in the pressure building from below.
The lattice of struts were a black that was absence of light, reflecting nothing but outlines and structure. Jets of vapour roared and whistled upwards between them - Controlled releases of superheated gas through diamond lined vents. The nano-borers had reinforced each vent with its’ own web of supports, deep in the rock strata, but the system was still becoming unstable.
Nothing could control the earthquakes that were stressing the whole edifice to its’ theoretical limits.
These earthquakes were already far worse, in number and in scale, than any of the simulations had predicted. And there was less than six months to the ultimate deadline.
Then the caldera would reach the end of another 64,000 year cycle of relative quiet, and explode with the force of ten thousand Krakatoas’.
Plans were running out, and desperation building, all over the world. The orbital platform program was limping along, effectively cancelled, and the ShipCity fleets were still sailing the worlds’ oceans, some of the units nearing two hundred years at sea. Nearly all the eggs were still in one basket.
The whole survey party had run enough virtual to last long lifetimes. They wanted to see and smell the real thing in all its’ wild fury. Now the wish was granted the reality was almost beyond comprehension - Watching the raw processes of a planet about to mutilate itself.
Not one of them, for all their combined years and experiences, had fully internalised the scale, and the sheer, uncaring power, of what could happen here - Most of continental America shattered by blast, falling debris and layers of ash. Then the whole planet sheathed in sunlight-blocking dust for decades or longer. A far colder climate was certain, a new ice-age a distinct possibility.
Ariannes’ brother, Joe, was sitting on a terrace overlooking the lake at Geneva. His old friend Arkuus sat opposite, resplendant in a new body, and hugely pleased with himself and his choice.
Joe was not about to disagree with him; there was no doubt that Arkuus looked, and felt, splendid. Morning sunlight sparkled on his mobile face and five-fingered hands.
Joe himself had finally gone full-Diamond some thirty years back, and could still be amazed by the memories and comparisons with living as a biological.
“So, tell me how it went. Pretty scary after all these years, eh?” said Joe.
He grinned at his friends’ discomfort. “I’ll get it over with in one.” Paused.
“I Told you So - - - There, that wasn’t so bad was it?”
Arkuus nodded. “Witty, Joe, you are not. But I know from your juvenile tone that, really, you are pleased for me.”
“Of course I’m pleased for you. You look diamond wonderful!”
Arkuus grinned, he could do that now, and grinned again at the thought.
“So, who is the human, and who the hubot – We can’t really tell any more can we?” He lifted his hands to admire them. “All those years fighting for equality.”
Joe glanced at his own hand, not so different externally but totally different structurally, able to survive a hard vacuum or dive to the deepest ocean floor. “The robots didn’t take over. We became them. And you became us.”
Arkuus’ new head retained an echo of the old, roughly ovoid with a slight, silvery sheen, but his new face and eyes were subtly expressive of character. “Does Arianne understand what we might ask of her?”
“Does she trust us after our last little adventure you mean?”
“Both,” said Arkuus. “This could face her with dark and youthful demons.”
“Aren’t we all in that place? Facing our only home burning down.”
Arkuus nodded, looked at one hand again, then out across the bright lake waters. His expression shifted and flowed, but he didn’t speak.
The original well cap was now encased in a solid dome of carbon-black diamond; ribs flowing away into the surrounding rocks in every direction.
“It’s active,” said Harlen, the lead surveyor. “Changes dynamically with any movement of the upper mantle.”
Arianne looked around the excavation where a shallow tunnel had been. Her last memories of the place rose up with a shiver.
“So why can’t it handle the quakes?”
“Too many, too close together, and too severe. We’re outside the limits of our technology here. Strange but true.”
Arianne stared at her. “There’s nothing we can do – You’re saying that?”
Harlen shook her head. “Only more of the same. Till we run out of material.” She waved all around. “We could bury the whole area under a mile of diamond. Then the crust would collapse anyway - We need something more dynamic than we know how to build right now. More dynamic than is theoretically possible actually.”
Arianne cursed inwardly as she walked away down the canyon to remembered hot springs. Always just barely enough, just barely in time. All through human history and beyond. This time the luck might have been pushed too far.
Useless to go to hindsight – Put all the resources into space platforms rather than the caldera control project. But how would that have been? Watching from space as the planets’ ecosphere was wrecked, maybe to extinction.
‘We had to try it I guess,’ she thought. ‘Better than too little, too late.’
The hot springs were almost as she remembered them, except this time she wouldn’t be swimming. The waters were visibly boiling, and her post-human body wasn’t rated for such extremes in just a FlightSkin.
She was mildly curious about her own reluctance to go full-Diamond. Even Joe, perversely staying full-human so long he was almost the last, had made the jump.
And Arkuus finally had his new body. She’d even helped him to choose it.
‘I’m two hundred and twenty one. I’m feeling good. So what can be wrong?’ She waved one hand in angry frustration. “just the only planet we’ve got, going to hell, is what. Enough to spoil anyones’ day.” Her voice echoed faintly from beyond the rising steam.
Something was happening again on Mars. Something weird. The Sentinel Archive sats were co-ordinating scans onto an area within the Valles Marineris. This seemed to be the source, but the data shifted and deceived in indefinable ways. Mathematicians all over Earth and the Moon were fascinated.
The VM was vast. Even the Colorado rivers’ sculpt of the Grand Canyon would only make one small side branch of the Martian system. A fleet of robot surveyors had still hardly mapped it in outline; whole areas remained unsampled and relatively unknown.
The biggest puzzle of the last fifty years was the whereabouts of swarms of alien remotes. Tiny, autonomuous machines. These had briefly appeared on Mars, during Ariannes’ landing, then completely vanished.
Not a sign, a trace, even a track on the surface, to show they had been there. The Sentinels watched night and day. Rovers crawled and bored into huge areas of the planet. But nothing had ever been found or seen again.
Harlen was on a secure channel. Even if the caldera had blown right then she’d not have noticed. Data was pouring into her upgrades above the red-line, and she felt sick, dizzy, and excited beyond her wildest hopes.
The base had overridden her filters and firewalls in the urgency of getting an opinion. Even as her body vomited, she upped the data inflow rate.
Arianne walked back just in time to see Harlen fall. The surveyor was alone, but her FlightSkin saved her nose from a crack on the ground. She lay, apparently lifeless, across the the side of a diamond rib, her legs at strange angles and her hands clenched.
Two of the other surveyors crash-dived back into the excavation, floated to a stop beside the black rib, and punched the LifePack on Harlens’ neck.
Arkuus crashed into the hotel room with a loud cry, and Joe leaned back over the bed in alarm. In a hundred and twenty years he’d never seen his friend so animated. And he needed to get a grip on facial expressions. His grin got wilder every time he used it.
“You get the data?” Arkuus was slapping the side of his own head.
“No,” said Joe. “I didn’t. I was switched out for some relaxation.” He looked levelly at his friend. “You’ll break that new face if you don’t go easy.”
Arkuus just shook his head in denial.
“Later with jokes Joe. Something’s surfacing on Mars. Just as we predicted. That was going to be such a long shot, sending Arianne, but now it looks promising. Much more promising.”
Joe opened the balcony window. “Come outside Arko. Sit in the sun, and the soundshade, and tell me all about it.”
Arkuus looked shaken. “You’re not shaded in here? No, sorry, of course not. Looks like I filed a youngmind add-on with this body. A more careless one certain.”
“Don’t worry,” Joe led the way. “No-one’s tagged us. I swept and sealed.”
Ten minutes later Joe was staring at the table, frowning. “So that’s it? Strange data from the Sentinels. Nothing else?”
“I tried to be clear for you Joe. I’m not maths rated, not even enhanced. But the top rated MathAi’s haven’t danced so happy in all my loadtime.”
Joe snapped a bit of stone off the archive balustrade. Looked down guiltily. “Force too high,” he muttered. “Damn it Arko. Why does it fall on Arianne again? She’ll not go back is my guess.”
“Info is she’s already taken.” Arkuus smiled his face more carefully. “Went in with Survey on a volunteer.”
“Yellowstone?” Joe was near shouting. “You let her in there – It could blow any second!”
“No-one let her in. She asked to go.” He leaned back. “And the latest predictions give it longer. Ten months minimum.”
“Oh, plenty of time then, plenty of time.”
~ [+Turning and turning in the widening gyre+] _ What meaning? _ Data of Bio mind _ When? _ How long? _ Rocks/dust _ Pressure _ [+Things fall apart+] _ Frightened _ [+The centre cannot hold+] _ Arianne _ Strange!! ~
Harlen was feeling much better, humourously self-critical for being so careless, the info dump had nearly killed her. But there was a wild light of excitement in her eyes.
“Codes. Encryption. Just a backwater without a war,” she went on, seeming to relapse. “The MathAi’s think there’s something there though. In the weird data. Something talking to itself!”
“Something where?” asked Arianne in her calmest voice. “What are you talking about Harlen?”
“Mars. I’m talking about Mars.”
The Sentinels turned and tuned, as the source shifted and slid along frequencies in patterns their intelligence couldn’t follow. One thing was certain though. The anomaly, whatever it’s nature, was centred in the Valles Marineris canyon system.
The latest decodeware was flooding into the Sentinels’ banks from Earth, the Moon and several interested scienceship Ai’s that were working InSystem.
And the theory that the source was talking, apparently to itself, got stronger with every run-through of the signals.
~ Am Bio _ Remember being _ Am cold _ Long time _ [+ Virused my skin – To make a weapon +] _ Language of _ Arianne _ Use Bio self now _ Again? _ [+ Remotes – All around me +] _ What else? _ Nothing _ Yet ~
Deep in the cold, dead rocks something was moving, waking, from a sleep that had lasted too long. A sleep since the planet was young.
It didn’t know what it was, using a language that wasn’t its’ own, couldn’t be; but it had memories, long ages past, of being a bio-form - - - .
It knew a name, not its’ own, a name for this alien language it thought in. While it was lost. The name was - - - Arianne.
And it was cold, strange sensation, with its’ own ancient memory of what that meant - - - A body in water? gone cold. Waking up - - - cold - - - .
Rocks moved, sifting dust, as structures were self-analysed and restored. Systems came on, looking for power.
Gases were tested and exchanged, or generated new from layered galleries of minerals. Crystal bands in the rock.
A faint glow of light in the dust; an orange-red gloom.
The core was intact, but degraded by time, time enough for the planet to have died. No heat, the volcanoes all long dead, long past dormant. Energy from surface light the only source, just enough to feed core function heaters.
It had run. And hidden here. And slept - - - .
Now a body was designed and forming; resolved from another mind that gave it thought again, and time.
Raw consciousness it had been.
An infinite point; floating outside any time, any dimension.
For a moment, a second or two, a billion years.
The body would be comprehensible to the language and world that had given it pattern to form from. So close to Origins. A long step back to go forwards.
Every time Arianne flew a FlightSkin she was amazed. Like a child dreaming; floating through air with arms outstretched.
They lifted out from the centre of Yellowstone and wove their course back between the roaring, supersonic gas columns, to a base at the parks’ edge. No-one spoke as they flew, each one absorbed in thoughts of the coming catastrophe. And the enigma on Mars.
Harlen went straight to her console to upgrade and verify, in case she’d lost anything when she crashed, and the others dispersed to variously sleep, eat or catch up on the files.
Arianne wasn’t hungry or tired, so she wandered back outside to wait for the next aircar. She had a dinner date with Joe and Arkuus in Geneva and wanted to catch the early evening eastcoast sub-orbital.
She walked on in the late morning sunshine. A quiet corner in a tangle of boulders seemed a good place to sit and think.
Within seconds she was asleep. Dreaming back to her days on Mars. Drifting high above the landscape or walking lightly on its’ surface. Always in amazement at being there; overawed by the colours and the details.
But she’d not flown over, or into, the Valles Marineris canyons; how could she know so exactly how that looked? Or feel the fierce updraughts, and the exhilaration of riding the winds through the vast, unearthly landscape?
Then she was landed, down on the surface.
And saw the figure walking towards her.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” Arianne said that evening. “I fell asleep in some rocks and missed my first flight. Had the weirdest dreams about Mars though. Areas I never got to, as clear as real memories.”
Arkuus looked at her sharply, then at Joe.
“It was Mars that we wanted to talk to you about.”
“How you’d like me to go back. Find whatever it is that’s waking up there?”
She caught Arkuus’ hand in hers.
“I don’t know how I know that, except it was after the dream - Something, or someone, was calling me. As if I knew them.”
Arianne was far more frightened than she could admit. Some part of it was the shock on Arkuus’ face; the eerie quality of emotions visible after so many years being hidden.
Another was confusion of reason; the witchery of intuition and dream wisdom that she’d never been able to accept. She didn’t want strange abilities she couldn’t understand or control.
But the real fear came from ‘knowing’ that she‘d been infected by the remotes on Mars after all. Despite all the quarantine checks and scans the tiny machines had taken and given in ways Earth technology couldn’t yet measure or explain.
On behalf of what? Of who?
Joe was trying to explain that erosion of the World Councils’ power was getting worse, not better under the pressure of emergency.
With so many factions and minority interests previously happy to be at sea, each in their own ShipCities, the organisation of discontent was difficult to achieve, but even more difficult to track and combat.
And morale was sapped by guilt – The Yellowstone project was promised as a solution. And it was known to be failing.
Both Joe and Arkuus had been pivotal figures in the case for freeform nano being used to defuse the caldera. So they’d suffered and doubted.
And the space colonies’ funding had been plundered. Now only a tiny minority would get off the planet when disaster struck.
“I know all that Joe, enough of it anyway. What you’re really saying is, your science advisory thinks, unofficially, that whatever’s on Mars might help.”
Arianne gulped down her dwindling courage.
“And I’m the link. You must suspect it, but I know it consciously now – Those remotes got to me when I was on the surface after all.” She shuddered back tears. “That wasn’t a dream made me late today – It was a message. It’s been inside me all the time.”
Joe and Arkuus were silent. Unable to argue what now seemed inevitable.
“And not just a message. It’s asking for help itself.” She paused, trembling.
“I don’t know which is more frightening. But it doesn’t know who it is, except through us. Through me. I woke it up.”
Joe took her hand. Spoke very low. There were tears in his eyes.
“Is that why you never went full-Diamond?”
“Yes, I think it probably is. Deep down I thought I’d wake up as something alien. And I never had lovers for the same reason. I might have infected them. I’ve been feeling like an outcast, and didn’t even know it.”
Then she did cry, for the first time in half a century, falling onto Joes’ shoulder. His own tears fell past hers to the floor.
Much later Arkuus suggested a new series of scans. To see if the alien component in Arianne was now visible, or would even reveal itself.
“I think it might,” she said. “It’s visible to me in a way isn’t it.”
“How did it feel - - to you. The dream?” Joe was desperately worried.
“Mostly what seemed like genuine memories, like I said, but I still knew they weren’t. The rest of it - - Like teaching a child to speak. It’s the only way I can describe it. I think it’s re-building an identity from our language, and dim memories of its’ own origins. Does that make any sense?”
“If it’s been dormant more than a billion years, I think it does,” said Arkuus. “Its’ higher mentality got damaged by sleeping in, and it’s re-starting from basics is my guess.”
“Which is somewhere around our level,” said Joe. “We should get on just fine then. If it doesn’t know it’s come down in the world, it can’t be elitist about it.”
Arianne smiled, her expression softened by a wondering sadness.
“We’re calling it ‘it’ all the time. Just like we did with the Ai’s. First thing it needs to know is its’ name.”
Bertrice and Orlope met them in the lower offices of World Council LandRestore and Archives. The vehicle was on standby, prepped for flight, and its’ senior manager wished them a cheery ‘good morning’ as they stepped aboard.
“Not taking any chances,” whispered Joe. “One fart, and they’re into orbit.”
“Quite right too,” said the manager. “Would you like that erased?”
“No, you can let it stand,” said Joe. “Thank you anyway.”
Orlope was an impressively tall and slender full-Hubot hermaphroform, currently running male and ebony skin. His welcome was curt and formal.
Bertrice was a full-Diamond who’d watched too many archive Monroe movies. Her blonde hair bobbed with every syllable.
Arianne actually remembered Bertrice from one of her earliest lecture tours, ‘a rather charming semi-sycophant’ came up on her internal file.
Orlope was rigid with impassive non-commital. Bertrice wrote ‘regret’ with every emphatic sway and bounce of her rounded body.
The message was clearly stated that all funds were committed to the caldera containment project, that it would continue to upgrade and respond to the emergency, and therefore no funding was possible, nor approval likely to be granted, for any landing of active personel on Archive Mars.
“Did we just have a History Experience?” asked Joe, once they were back outside. “I thought that behaviour died with the Twentieth.”
Arkuus sighed. “We discussed this Joe. We knew the attitude, we wanted it on record, and we got just what we wanted. Did I miss something?”
“I was joking Arko. It goes with smiling, now that you can do that thing.”
“Easy Joe,” said Arianne. “We did know how it would be.”
“Easy - - ? Too damn easy to predict - That’s my anger.” He strode away, then back again. “I tell you, this planet deserves to blow away some days.”
The meeting was set for mid-day, sound-shaded and fully cloaked on all entry and exit routes. Consequently not a single party was on time, apart from Joe.
He paced up and down the Great Wall in a fury of frustration, refusing to run Karm on any level, so the others could get his full opinion un-filtered.
Joe couldn’t believe how long it had taken to arrange this, more than fourteen hours, and now it was more than twenty minutes past the hour.
Then, suddenly, he laughed out loud. The mood was broken, and he sat down in a broken saddle of stone to run over all the primary plans.
As charts and mission routes and launch windows played across his retinas he was suddenly aware of a figure standing further down the Great Wall; through the clearing and storing info it had the weirdest look. What were the clothes made of? Some sort of new skin?
Then he shook his head, and it was only Arianne walking towards him.
Within five minutes the party began to assemble. Lunar Jockey, in orbit above them, had declined to land and sent a holorep of a slender chinese girl - In full terracotta costume. But the most surprising figure was Kerval; the full-hubot who’d forced the Hubot-Rights campaign into focus nearly fifty years earlier.
It was his nano-seeding of the Yellowstone that led directly to the caldera control program. Now he was a repected researcher into planetary dynamics, with special interest in Martian geo-history.
Kerval wore an elegant new body, skinned golden-yellow. His narrow, aquiline head and extended limbs were echos of his old armour-racing days.
“Hellfire, Kerval, but you’re looking good,” said Joe. “How are you. What’s your link to this mad-brained party?”
“Arkuus didn’t tell you?” Kerval looked worried. “Ah, his thought of a joke I guess. I’m going to lead Arianne in along the Valles Marineris; it’s my speciality now. If and when we can get a flight and a landing.”
“Flight is do-able. Landing illegal at best,” said Joe with a grin. “Just like the good old days. I still remember sweating it on Deimos, trapped in a FormFitter.”
“A FormFitter - Retro diving suit! You’re a braver entity than I Joe.”
“I was young and foolish. And my sister needed a good laugh.”
“You got her out. Saved her from the alien remotes I heard.”
“Maybe,” said Joe, frowning. “Maybe - - .”
Two weeks later the plans were finalised and under way. Operation ‘Wake up Sleeper’ Joe had named it.
Joe and Arkuus had gone to ground; to oversee all cover stories, control any problems with the Sentinels round Mars, and generally watch all their backs.
Arianne and Kerval were on their way to orbit and the Moon, aboard the SSTO Lunar Jockey, to rendevous with the onward transport to Mars.
“You’ll like this ship,” said the Jockey. “Not exactly The Ritz, but a sprinter; fastest ship InSystem. Better than a sail anyway, Arianne.”
“To be devoutly hoped,” said Arianne. “Tell me LJ, what exactly does the Mighty Mole do? When it’s not hired for a pirate run.”
“Sniffs out and chases asteroids now. Built for SafeGuard back in the late 200’s. Old maybe, but still the best. And she’s surface-rated for Mars.”
“I’ve heard of the Mole,” said Kerval, polite doubt in his voice. “Didn’t she get busted, for running two asteroids together? When the last President was Lunar bound.”
“Just her idea of fun. No sense of humour those security ships – It was a hornets’ nest!”
Kerval nodded. He’d definitely heard of the Mighty Mole. Arianne stared him a question, but he just shrugged.
“I’ll let you know then LJ,” she said, eyes narrowed. “At least with a sail you know where the light lies. We meet off the dark side, yes?”
“We do,” said the Jockey gleefully. “Plots and machinations - I love it!”
~ Body Form was ready. Both Refuges were ready. All constructors transferred to New-Refuge shell. Ready for impact - for Pick-Up.
Now was just First-Meeting. [+Arianne+].
A raised dome on the floor of the canyon - A major feature if seen on earth, but only a detail in the vast landscape of the Valles Marineris.
White feathers of cirrus, high up in the wide, pink sky.
Waves and ripples of fine orange dust rushing and eddying along the canyon floor, swirling around and over the dome. Sand-blasting its’ layers.
A thin, eerie howl, as a tornado flickered and lashed at terraces and hollows five miles away. Veering off towards the mile high walls on the horizon. Escorted by flurries of dust-devils, weaving and racing all around the base of its' motion.
It was standing in the doorway.
Watching the storm.
The Mighty Mole was powering out of Lunar orbit, her panels hinged open to catch the sun, as Earth and Moon fell away astern.
The hull was a simple cylinder, with panels and engines mounted on front and rear caps respectively, plus various legs and tools clipped to tracks on a lengthwise spine.
Her acceleration was astonishing, and unrelenting. Kerval and Arianne pushed up from their couches on the rear bulkhead and staggered about its’ cluttered surface. At nearly 3G even Ariannes’ up-rated skin struggled to keep her comfortable. Kervals’ new body performed slightly better.
“How you folks doing?” asked the Mole. “This is it for three days to get you there fastest. Sorry about the mess, I’ll reconfigure in a while.”
“Before we started would have been nice,” muttered Arianne. She looked up again, checking supplies clamped to what would become the walls, once the ship had landed.
“We’ll get away with your cover?” asked Kerval. “Still seems thin to me.”
“I’m booked onto Deimos as an Archives sample mission,” said the Mole, her tone waspish. “As we agreed. After that you’re on your own. I’ve an idea for a little diversion – But best you don’t know what that is just yet.”
“That I believe,” said Kerval to himself. “Isn’t using an Archive permit playing it a little high?”
“Bit late to worry, now we’re outbound. Relax Kerval. Archives’ hierarchy has so many layers they’re the best cover of all – Skin of the onion sort of thing.”
“Yes, I see.” Kerval rolled his eyes. “Thanks for clearing that up.”
“My pleasure,” said the Mole, and boosted her engines to max power.
“Why’s the Mole rated itself female?” asked Arianne on a private channel. They were back in their couches, working hard at breathing. Kerval sighed.
“All part of the image I suspect. A feisty little ship is the kindest I’ve heard. Very much a loner – But I guess she’s the one can get us in.”
“We’d better hope so. This is like riding an intensive-care unit.”
Just over twelve weeks later Arianne and Kerval shifted back from twenty two hour sleeping periods.
Mars was three days away, and Deimos rendevous in four.
Mighty Mole had turned for her final braking manouevre, to catch the orbit of the small martian moon, and the deceleration was as fierce as the two passengers had feared. The Mole was casual and upbeat as ever.
“Nothing I can do about it folks. I run fast, not comfortable. You want to check those stores before we hook on?”
Arianne suppressed a curse, lifting her head painfully to look along the racks and clamped-on pods. The antique screens above them showed a limited, grainy view of the red planet ahead.
“All looks okay to me. What’s the weather like out there?”
The Mole laughed. “Sentinel Central acknowledges our permits. Cleared to hook to Deimos at our convenience. They’re busy with the best series of storms this century – Looks like the dust is dying down though.”
Kerval wasn’t pleased. “Might have been better to go in under a storm.”
“Oh, rubbish Kerval,” said the Mole. “It spoils the view, and the Sentinels see right through it anyway.”
“That I’m aware of.” Kervals’ voice was icy. “But it diverts their attention away from details. Any edge we can get is going to help.”
“Don’t you worry about diversions. Old Mole has got all that in hand.”
“And you are going to enlighten us beforehand?”
“No - - It’ll go better as a surprise to you too.”
Kerval was speechless. Arianne just grinned. She was beginning to like the Moles’ style, even if it did keep the nerves a little lively.
Mighty Mole was turning to a graceful touchdown on Deimos, reaction engines giving a punch to their fall in the minimal gravity. Her legs reached out, and clawed to a hold on the surface, then bolts shot in to make sure.
“Down and dusted,” she called. “Want to have a better look round?”
“No, we’ll just stay in here another six months,” said Kerval, floating up from his couch. “It’s been such a pleasure Ms. Mole.”
“No sense. No gratitude. Don’t know why I go to all the trouble.”
“Give her a break Kerval,” said Arianne. “Don’t forget we still need her.”
“Too right you still need me. Once you’re on your way down I’ll start up my little show for those ‘spy in the sky’ boys.”
“Can’t wait,” muttered Kerval. “Just can’t wait.”
Mighty Mole was still laughing when her two passengers exited the main hatch and took their first nervous steps on the surface of Deimos. Even more when Kerval bounced from the ladder and floated, arms waving, above the dark moon for nearly a minute. Arianne reached up to haul him down and lifted off herself with a whoop of delight. “Lighten up Kerval. It’s this easy!”
But Kerval was already grinning with the joy of space to move, and things to see. They were deep inside a crater, nearly a mile across. Its’ rim circled them with a feeling of safety.
Mars filled most of the sky above, still dulled and de-focused by the remnants of the last storm. Even so, its’ colours and patterns were an extraordinary feast after a long, cramped and boring journey.
The Mole had unbolted and stalked off on her long insect legs. She was planting pods and packages, most of them dummies, to look like a major sampling experiment being set up. Her panels had hinged back along the main cylinder for landing, and now they opened up again like a bizzarre neck frill.
“Handsome beast ‘ain’t she?” Kerval said, but his voice was strangely fond.
Arianne looked at him, puzzled, then took his hand to walk back to the spacecraft. Within a few hours they would be on their way across to Mars.
It didn’t feel like ascending. Deimos fell away behind them as if it was the moon that moved.
Then, very rapidly, they were falling towards the red planet. Both of them unfolded aeroshells, lay back in concave body-forms, and waited for their chute packs to count down. This descent was going to be fast and simple.
Ten seconds before opening the whole of the nearside of Deimos lit up with a violent and spectacular display of lights and coloured fountains.
Kerval remembered not to transmit. “What the fuck is she doing!” he breathed to himself, as balls of green light raced around the rims of several craters.
Both drogue chutes opened, the most dangerous moment for detection, but the Sentinels this side of Mars were all looking elsewhere.
‘Excellent - -! But if she gets busted again how in hell do we get out?’
At less than a mile, well inside the canyon, the main chutes opened, with under a second to spare. Plenty of time, actually, the managers assured their loads, as the re-formed aeroshells crumpled on impact.
The Body saw the flowers open. Heard a high, thin clap of sound seconds later. The dust settled.
Two figures climbed slowly upright.
Kerval was in his element now. Gazing round in wonder at a spectacular red and orange landscape; clearing to view from the last eddies of scouring winds.
A faint, eerie whistling around their feet, and high up in the sky.
“As advertised, plus fifty percent.” he whispered.
Arianne tuned to the minute pulse of his transmission. “What did you say?”
“Even the best simulations don’t do this justice. Look at those walls!”
He pointed away to the horizon, and cliffs that curved across the planets’ edge. Nearer to, buttes and mesas lifted from wind-carved terraces and hollowed bowls, with ornate ridges, like stepped pathways, linking and defining them. Dunes of sand swept up to, and crescented around, every boulder and feature.
“Did we land near enough?” asked Arianne. “Can we walk it?”
“Oh, we did just fine. The dear old Mole aimed us dead on the mark.” He peered to the east. “About three miles that way, give or take a yard or two.”
The chute packs behind them were already re-forming into stand-by mode, disguising as thin slabs of martian rock.
“You worried Kerval – About what we’ll find?”
His narrow head turned, his expression unreadable.
“Fear still comes different to hubots I guess. But, yes, I’m nervous.”
Arianne nodded, touched his shoulder and began to walk.
“Come on then. I have this weird sense of welcome. I think we’re expected.”
Joe was pacing up and down the tunnel entry to Arkuus’ earthside retreat, buried inside an ancient cave system, far out in the Australian bush.
They’d spent twelve weeks as isolated as the travellers on Mighty Mole.
“What’s she done now?” he called out. “If the Sentinels get wind of a landing she’ll be nailed onto Deimos for good.”
“A certain raw style she has,” said Arkuus. “But the timing was impeccable. We’ll get them back Joe. And sit down before you turn an ankle. We’ve got a long walk out of here too.”
The Body stood in the open doorway. Two figures moving towards. One of them - - - Arianne.
~ They look up. And see. Fear - - - Strange!! ~
Kerval stopped dead, almost recoiled, and grabbed Ariannes’ shoulder.
“What on Mars is that?” His body had crouched involuntarily. “Weird!”
Arianne looked up, and saw, and smiled. Her hands shook she knew.
“It’s done the best it can. From what it saw in me.”
The Body was Adam and Eve. It was all of Earth, and all the life on it. Elements of clothing seemed made of flesh, mottled like a woodland clearing. And parts of the limbs seemed landscape; cliffs and rocks and lichen in the structure of muscle and joints. It was innocent and powerful as Gaia herself.
The voice, when it spoke, was male; fluting to birdcalls and the songs of whales. And the echoes of a wise female child.
“Welcome,” it said. “You are Arianne. I made myself from you.”
“I know - - .” Ariannes’ voice was a whisper above the sighing wind. “Do you know who you are – Do you have a name?”
“No Name,” it said. “Not yet - - - .” It looked down. “I slept - - - Too long.”
The doorway it stood in was entrance to a house built of choice and history. Parts of all the doors that had ever been. A sunlit and friendly ruin.
It gestured them forwards. Invited them inside.
“Do we go in?” Kervals’ voice was a croak of wonder.
“I think they’re in,” said Arkuus. “The Mole reports loss of their signals on the surface. And something pulled the Sentinels off her back.” He checked a look at Joe. “She believes she could go in for a landing if need be.”
“I’m supposed to be reassured by that - What does loss of signals mean?”
“Don’t turn dumb on me now Joe. I know you’re worried, but we discussed all this - If they got invited into wherever this thing lives, they were probably going to go. On their own judgement.”
“Else why visit in the first place – I know.” He looked up at Arkuus. “Do you think this thing is benign?”
“This we’ve been over and over too – I don’t know Joe. I believe it is – Yes.”
“Hang on. You said the Sentinels were blind, or whatever. What could do that?” He was pacing again. “Their primary role is to watch the surface.”
“Our host on Mars I would think, wouldn’t you? It’s been there far longer than we’ve been here. I imagine it has rights and powers of tenancy it can call on.”
“Holy shit,” muttered Joe. “The things we do get into - - .”
“Do I appear - - - Reasonable?” The Body asked. It was standing in the centre of a domed space that neither Arianne nor Kerval could properly resolve; as if it wasn’t sure how to present itself to their eyes and memories.
“You look - - just fine,” said Arianne. The figure embodied all the elements of a lost and ideal world. Something she had carried, forgotten, since childhood long ago. The effect almost had her in tears.
“You are not complete are you?” asked Kerval. Arianne looked at him sharply. “Not the whole of what we are talking to.”
“I am as much as I can be. For now. As much as Arianne woke from sleep.” Its’ androgynous face shifted like leaves in a breeze. “The rest may be lost. I don’t yet know.”
“Can you help us?” Kerval persisted. “You know why we’re here?”
The Body had turned away, as if in pain. It’s renewed smile was very strange.
“I know about the volcano - - - Yes. My constructors observed the effects last time it changed your planet. And all the times before. The events were recorded.”
Arianne gripped Kervals’ arm to silence his renewal of the question. Her voice sounded strange to her in this space.
“We don’t know if we can help you. But we’re asking you to help us.”
Mighty Mole was touching down on the surface where Arianne and Kerval had landed. Her monitors showed no sign or signal from either.
The disguised parachute/ascent rigs identified and requested to come on board. She reached out an arm and gathered them up.
Three miles to the east a gap in the side of a dome of rock showed the faintest signal of heat against the background. The only clue she could find.
‘What a place,’ she thought. ‘Never guessed I’d get to go walkabout on Mars.’
The Mole moved cautiously but steadily forward, her footpads stirring little puffs of dust from the surface. She knew, somehow, that no Sentinel beam would lance down to interrogate her. All her sensors focused on the dome ahead, and the enigmatic doorway in its’ side.
“Your friend is here,” said the Body. “Outside. Your machine.”
“The Mole?,” breathed Arianne. “How did she get here?”
“She was invited. The Sentinels watch, but I prevent them from seeing.”
The Body wore a different, calm, smile now. “You should fly away from here for a while. The means I will use would be very violent for you.”
“What will you do?” Kerval had stepped back.
The laughter was like a wind through reeds, or the distant cries of swans against a sunset. “I will move my house. So that I may come with you.”
Bertrice and Orlope were staring sightlessly past each other in the World Council Archives central office. The vehicles’ managers were on full alert.
The retinal displays they were seeing were unbelievable.
Deimos was moving. Out of orbit. Towards Mars.
The Sentinels on that side of the planet were relaying in real time, but even so the delay was the minimum twenty minutes.
The nine-mile long, potato shaped moon had looped out, slowed down, and now dipped inwards again to skim the atmosphere of Mars at just above the planets’ own rotational speed.
“It’s going to hit in the Valles Marineris,” called a calculator in the link. “Estimated impact in five minutes, received signal time.”
Mighty Mole stood on the tip of a promontary, admiring the vertiginous view into and across the largest canyon in the solar system. Kerval and Arianne held onto her forward legs, staring upwards in wonder and disbelief.
Deimos was coming in, growing larger in view every second, skimming along the length of the canyon and down into its’ depths.
“It’s going to hit the dome!” shouted Kerval, leaning right out over the edge. The Mole pulled her leg, and him with it, backwards a foot.
“Look - - Look, it’s hit!”
For just under three seconds relative velocities allowed Deimos to touch, perfectly balanced, onto the rock dome they’d stood in less than two hours before.
The dome crushed in, dust spurting and jetting violently sideways, then Deimos was lifting away and forwards again; climbing steadily back up the sky, and into a new orbit.
Kerval looked around, open-mouthed with amazement and shock.
“It’s alright,” said Arianne. “It’s not dead. I don’t know why not or how, but I think it just picked up a lift, and it’s luggage.”
Two days later they were out-bound for Earth, Mighty Mole locked and bolted onto the dark, granular surface of Deimos again, as the red planet receded behind them.
Arianne and Kerval stood, tethered onto the Mole, looking back at Mars and the huge scar across its’ equator that marked the Valles Marineris.
The Body was some way off, apparently staring at details on the ground.
It’s appearance had modified slightly; now its’ form showed some of the colours and landscape motifs from the place it had left behind.
“I don’t believe this,” said the Mole. “I’ve ridden and driven a few asteroids in my time. Never had a lift on a moon before!” She turned as far as her locked-down legs would allow. “What’s our curious host doing over there?”
“Just thinking I’d say,” said Arianne. “Still working out who or what it was. It must be very strange, leaving after so long.”
“After a billion years plus – I’ll say. Longest I ever spent anywhere was three weeks. And that was a re-build from an uncommanded engine shut-down. So I guess I sympathise in a way.”
“That slingshot out of orbit was just wild,” said Kerval. “But what’s powering this thing? There’s no engines, no mass-driver, nothing to see.”
“I’ve no idea. Whatever. Its’ technical knowledge seems to be intact. We’d better hope so – A repeat of that planet grazing manouevre would be interesting from here.” The Mole lifted her panels round to catch the sun.
Arianne was torn by sympathy. Her instinct was to walk across and comfort the strange being, but her empathy told her it was best left alone.
Then she looked again, and it was gone.
The arrival of Deimos in Earth orbit caused a storm of fear and amazement combined. The sensation of the twenty-third century and beyond.
World Council Archives wanted to prosecute all parties involved, until the foolishness of their position became obvious even to them.
No-one had stolen a moon before. The precedent didn’t exist.
Right from the start speculation focused on the alien entity who’d fallen to Earth in such a strange form.
The enigma only deepened with time.
Its’ claim to Deimos couldn’t be disputed, nor the widespread story that Phobos was the vehicle of a companion. Had they come to Mars so long ago pursuing love or science or rivalry? No-one, least of all the visitor itself, could tell or prove.
Only Arianne had direct access to the Body; it refused to communicate in any way except through her. She was surprised to find the apparent burden lifting her spirits in the strangest ways. Her first impression of consciousness elevating perception beyond poetry was confirmed at every contact.
The Body never chose to be called by any particular name, and its’ search for identity existed in a timespan outside any worldly context, so Arianne focused first on the immediate problems of home.
The calming of the Yellowstone caldera was easy the Body said. For three months an army of its’ constructors swarmed around the whole area, apparently doing no more than modifying the existing structures, and at the end of that time the emergency was over.
The Mighty Mole in particular was bitterly disappointed. She freely admitted that a crashing of Deimos into Earth was the least she had expected. And the Bodys’ unwillingness or inability to explain how it had rescued the planet caused a widespread and general frustration.
In the end it seemed to Arianne that she was uniquely privileged. If she’d not sailed to Mars, so long ago in her own short lifetime, the contact might never have been made.
Or made in a way destructive to both the Body and the Earth.
Only she, and Kerval, had heard the strange and eerie laughter of a being so far beyond them in time, and its’ own lost memories, that no real contact could be made.
It gave them the laughter of an Earth still young and innocent, in all its’ wild and savage joy of living, and took no more than the forms and colours of that place to clothe itself in.
And it seemed willing to stay with them, at least for a time.
Deimos moved to an orbit that balanced the gravities of itself, the Earth, and the Moon, without disturbing any one of them, and became a fixed reference point in the sky for all the minds that looked up and wondered where they were and where they came from.
The new space colonies were building fast now – Never again could a single event threaten to extinguish all the life and thought that Earth had given a form and a home to.
Every now and then a passing ship would see the Body, standing on the dark surface of Deimos. Always staring quietly down to the planet below, or out into the vast spaces it had come from in a past outside its’ own retrieving.
John Coppinger – February 2000