Mars, 1999: Planet of Mystery!

This is an excerpt from “The Martian Dialogues”,  a short story from the “Futurist Manifesto” series of Alternative History tales by John Paul Catton. The story is available as an ‘e-short’, and is published in volume 2 of “Tales From Beyond Tomorrow”.   Learn more about the world of the Futurist Manifesto here! 

 Something small, hard and round came rolling across the floor to stop with a thud against Gallagher’s boot. He looked down. It was an eyeball.

As Gallagher sat, frozen in disbelief, a semi-transparent membrane swiftly drew itself over the shining surface of the disembodied organ. It pulled itself back once, twice. The eye had just returned Gallagher’s blinks of surprise.

A scream: a violent explosion of fear and disgust. The scientist leapt up, the chair and desk falling away in different directions, the movement of his foot sending the eyeball rattling into the shadows.

“What the …?” Breathing deeply, hugging his own arms to calm himself, he prepared himself to sweep the floor and find that … thing.

Gallagher jerked round as a noise broke the silence of the chamber. A drumming, a tapping. Someone knocking at the airlock hatch?

From inside … or outside?

Edging forward, Gallagher looked up, into the gloom that lay beyond the strips of florescent light.

Something skittered down from the ceiling, crawling along the wall. A human hand. A severed hand, terminating in a truncated disc of flesh at the wrist, scuttling down the wall like a frightened spider.

One lunge of Gallagher’s own hand toward a panel on the wall, and the silence of the Habitation Module was ripped apart by the blare of alarm klaxons.

Nikolai Petrovich terminated the video replay, closed the lid of the Grid Compass computer and folded it away. He’d watched the video about a dozen times that morning. He’d stopped the frame and magnified the scene to examine it, ran image recognition software to analyze it, and each time he reached the insane conclusion that the eyeball looked like a real eyeball, and the hand looked like a real hand.

He looked up and caught Anousheh Djawadi’s gaze from across the cabin. “So, is this our first contact, then?” she said.

Petrovich shrugged. He swept his hand nervously over his thinning hair – a habit that the other crewmembers had stopped remarking on some time ago.

“There could be so many different explanations … but yes, perhaps we saw some form of alien life, and I never thought that I would be saying that.”

“How can you be so calm about it?” Djawadi asked. “I mean, come on, disembodied limbs? Are we going to get over there to find a pile of arms and legs in the middle of the Hab?”

Then she looked at him in alarm. “Oh sorry, Nikolai, that was thoughtless of me. I didn’t mean -”

“It’s all right,” he said with a wan smile. “It’s one of those things that a surgeon has to live with. Anyway, this is not like what happened to Kasturirangan Base. This time we’ve got no idea what to expect.”

Petrovich turned his head to look out of the Rover window at the Martian desert. During the fourteen months he’d been here, he had lived with the concept of emptiness. Back on Earth, he was familiar with the vast stretches of the Caspian Lowlands, the Siberian tundra, and the barren steppes of Kazakhstan around Baikonur Cosmodrome; in recent years, the UNSA training grounds in the Wadi Rum and Great Victoria Deserts. This was a desert, however, that made up an entire planet. A single biome. 6,794 kilometers of nothingness. Half the size of Earth, but with the same amount of dry land.

But now, for the first time in the mission, Petrovich had the uncomfortable sensation that something in that arid landscape was watching him.

The Rover was a sleek, bullet-like vehicle, traveling across the Martian desert like a silver beetle scuttling across a huge red sandpit. The cabin was mounted on a chassis resting on six balloon tires that could pivot 360 degrees and drive in any direction. The circular arrangement of six wedge-shaped windows at the front gave the vehicle even more of a bug-like appearance. Inside, the cabin was pressurized, so the crew didn’t have to wear spacesuits while they were traveling, with enough battery power and food supplies for a two-week journey, if necessary.

At the moment the Rover was driving at thirty kilometers an hour across the Protonilus Mensae, a complex network of mesas and valleys in the northern hemisphere. The area had been chosen for exploration because it held large amounts of water ice in the form of glaciers, along with access to ancient crust that recorded the different geological periods on the planet. They were driving east, to the rim of Moreux Crater and the location of Sorensen Base … and whatever had happened to it.

Petrovich thought of the images on the video clip yet again. Sorenson Base had sent the video with an appeal for help at 10:12 am Martian time today. There’d been no further messages since then, despite repeated calls of inquiry from Stafford Base (where Petrovich’s team had come from), Aguilera Base (the closest to Sorenson Base) and Bradbury Base, the central Mission coordinator, way over in the Hellas Planitia. A team of four including Petrovich had been hurriedly assembled, and now they were grinding their way across the rust-colored soil in the Mars Rover, contemplating what they would face when they arrived.

Petrovich feared the worst, although he had no idea what that might entail.

At thirty-five, Nikolai Petrovich – Cosmonaut and Medical Surgeon – was the second oldest of the four crewmembers in the MEV. He stared through the window, and noticed his own face superimposed on the red emptiness. The boyish, handsome look of his youth had been spoilt by his premature baldness and a broken, badly reset nose, but he still had the piercing green color of his eyes, the color that his wife Yelena said was his best feature.

Petrovich turned back to Djawadi, the Mission’s Biologist and Pilot, trying to read whatever she was thinking from the expression on her face. She was almost six feet tall, her large eyes, full lips and soft Persian accent making her highly attractive. At only 26 years old, she was younger than most of the Mission crew, but she had a a self-possession that most people found striking – even a little unsettling.

Petrovich tilted his head back. “Have there been any further communications from Sorenson Base?”

A camera mounted on the Rover’s ceiling swiveled to meet his gaze. “None,” said a calm male voice from the speakers below the camera. This was SINCO, System of Information and Control – the Mission’s resident supercomputer. “The video link communications equipment appears to have suffered a serious technical malfunction. That explains why they have not been able to complete their scheduled status reports.”

“It doesn’t explain anything else,” muttered Petrovich.

On a small screen next to the camera lens, blocky white lines crisscrossed over maps of the Martian desert, ticking out ETAs, timelines, information lock coordinates, as well as status reports from the nearby bases and the Archimedes Two satellite. SINCO was running through possible expedition routines quickly, testing a new one every ten seconds. After each data fit, outcomes were shown in big white letters scrolling down the left side—cost, logistical difficulties, supply problems, total elapsed times from both Stafford Base and Bradbury Base.

“Hey!” Fumikazu Imai, biochemist and navigator, was calling them from the driver’s seat, at the front of the cabin. “We’ve regained contact with the Rover crew from Aguilera Base!”

Petrovich and Djawadi stood up and walked over to where Imai and Stafford Base Captain Andrew Richter were sitting. All of the driving was done by SINCO, but it felt more natural to have two humans at the front, gazing through the tinted glass of the screenshield, gazing across the maroon desert, alert for any signs of … whatever they might find.

“What’s going on over there?” Richter was asking, in his usual strident voice. Petrovich stood behind the captain7s seat, looking down at the small circular screen. The face of a middle-aged dark-skinned male filled the video screen; Javier Descantos, the botanist.

“Where is your Rover?” Richter asked. “Have you arrived at Sorenson base yet? Are you receiving me?”

Petrovich realized there was something odd about the image on the screen. The face filled the frame, with no background to be seen, no context of where Descantos actually was. The man’s eyes were glazed, his blink rate was very slow, and his lips were moving but no words were coming through the speakers.

   “Ooooooh … “ the noise drifted into the cabin, like a man’s voice, but high-pitched, strangely garbled. “Eeeeeeee … uuuuuuuuuuh …”

“What are those sounds?” asked Imai. “Is it interference?”

“I don’t think so,” said Djawadi. “It sounds like someone who’s trying to speak, but can’t. Almost like they’ve forgotten how to.”

“Javier, are you injured in any way?” Richter asked.

The face was distorted by lines fluttering horizontally, then side to side, until dissolving into a pool of gray fuzz. Richter clicked the screen off in disgust. “So much for that. Okay, guys. Campfire.”

Petrovich and the others sat down in the swivel chairs, and Richter turned to face them, making a rough circle.

“We don’t have much data to go on,” said Richter. “SINCO can’t make any estimates, which is only natural, because expecting the unexpected is a human’s job. But we should have a briefing before we arrive at Sorenson Base.”

“I think we should ask for reinforcements,” Petrovich announced. “Call Geneva, tell them what we saw and what we’re doing, and ask them to have emergency reinforcement crews on standby.”

“Really?” Andrew Richter folded his arms and stared back at Petrovich. A heavy-set man of thirty-eight, he was accustomed to crises. By training he was a systems engineer with a background in satellite construction for the US Armed Forces, and recently, the UNSA. His philosophy was best summarized by the sign he always kept stuck to his module door, SWAG – Scientific Wild Ass Guess.

“Let me worry about that, Nikolai,” he said. “If we call the UNSA before we know what’s going on, they’ll hit the panic button and it might even get into the media, and then the crap really will start to fly. They’ll send up more rockets, and in eighteen months we’ll have more astronauts blundering around who might get infected by God knows what.”

“But Captain,” interrupted Djawadi, “please listen. It’s not possible for us to get infected by anything, because there are no megaflora and magafauna here for pathogens to infect. On Earth, diseases, viruses and parasites have co-evolved with their chosen hosts and are specific to that environment only – that’s why humans don’t get Dutch Elm Disease. Also, the Martian soil is rich in hexavalent chromium, one of the most potent carcinogens known. As a biologist, I know that even if there are alien pathogens out there, humans cannot get infected by them.”

“What are you trying to prove, Anousheh?” Richter said. “That I don’t know my mission protocol?”

“No, I’m only trying to prove that I know mine! It’s your decision whether you take notice of my speculations, but I must put it on record in the log that I have offered the information.”

Richter gave her a curt nod and swung his seat toward Petrovich. “Nikolai, can you give us any more information about Sorenson Base’s Captain?”

Petrovich took a deep breath. “Mikhail Krylenko? Born in 1957, so in training I looked up to him like I’d look up to my father. Graduated from the Moscow Aviation Institute with an honors degree in mechanical engineering. Entered the Soviet Space Mission in 1983 and was lead engineer for the Mir Lunar Program. He started training for the Joint Mars Mission in 1990. Awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal, the Order of Friendship medal, the UNSA Space Flight Medal. Do you want me to go on?”

Richter rubbed his chin and scowled. “What I meant was, what kind of person is he?”

Petrovich narrowed his eyes. “You mean, is he the kind of person who could be affected by stress? Listen. In the Soviet Union, we have universal conscription, but you can choose which service to enter. There is always a long waiting line to enter the Space Service.”

“I’m not surprised,” Richter interrupted. “Free food, free uniforms, and a little healthcare. Not bad for Mother Russia.”

“As I was saying,” Petrovich went on firmly, “it’s tough to enter the Space Service. Only those with exceptional intelligence or some other qualifying background can be accepted, and in my opinion, Mikhail Krylenko is a man of exceptional intelligence. ”

“Anything in his background we should know about?” Richter asked.

Petrovich chose his words carefully. “He maintains the Party standing required of an officer, but he keeps his distance from political discussions. Also, he cares more about the safety of the cosmonauts under his command than he cares about appearances or protocol, and that has brought him into conflict sometimes with the Politburo. As you can imagine.”

He shifted his gaze to stare out of the window. “You remember the failed coup of 18th August, 1991? When the hardliners wanted to reverse the policies of Uskoreniye and Gospriyomka? Krylenko and his junior officers were imprisoned in the brig at Baikonur Cosmodrome and yes, I was one of those officers. Krylenko refused to back down to the rebels, even when they threatened to take him out and shoot him. Two days later, when the coup was falling apart, the rebels realized their mistake, and they went back to Krylenko and apologized. They gave him the keys to the brig – and asked him to put them inside and lock them up. That’s what kind of man he is.”

“I am sorry to interrupt,” said the voice of SINCO, “but I have detected the presence of another Rover ahead of this vehicle. The Rover appears to be from Aguilera Base, and it is not moving.”

“It can’t be,” Richter growled. “They should have reached the base by now.”

All four of them got up and moved to the screenshield. Another Rover lay about a thousand meters ahead, unmoving, inert. The front screenshield was clearly smashed.






About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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