(Original Title: Discovery and Destiny)
CONCEPTION will be the first short story in the summer 2017 release of Concourse, the first collection of back stories in the Space Fleet Sagas.
"My fascination with Mars is a reflection of our collective desire that Mars holds the key to our past and our future."
“The first real breakthrough in the colonization of Mars occurred when the Fairchild Corporation developed their version of a sealed bio-dome construct,” Winnie said. The Brown University doctoral-grad student sat in a comfortable chair facing the window. The Martian landscape of Gale Crater stretched to a hazy red horizon. The blue sky of early morning fading into the soft butterscotch color that dominated the spectrum during the daylight hours.
“Fairchild’s bio-scientists introduced colonies of oxygen-producing cyanobacteria and algae. The combination created an oxygen-rich atmosphere from Martian soil.”
She was talking with fellow archeology student, and Martian rookie, Maury Ackerman.
The tall, gangly Ackerman kept his eyes on the red-desert, rocks, and sky in front of him. Whenever he looked directly at Winnie, her large breasts, and tight t-shirt caused him to lose focus. Or, more to the point, over-focus. They partnered on research projects at Brown, but Maury rarely ventured into the field. If he had known Winnie wore a lot less clothing away from campus, he might have gone to sites more often.
“The system could harvest oxygen to support humans living in controlled habitats, and save billions of dollars in costs associated with Mars missions,” she continued.
More than a pretty co-ed, Winnie Henderson vied against top candidates from archeology departments around the world to join Mars Mission Number 6. Her Ph.D. would be waiting for her return.
Maury just as smart, proven by being the other student selected, but less driven. His family’s money, and D.C. connections, contributed to his inclusion on the mission.
They shared an interest in extraterrestrial archeology. They did not share an interest in each other.
“The second breakthrough occurred when scientists at Fairchild Industries’ research and development subsidiary in Saudi Arabia, used the same cyanobacteria to produce food and fuel sources. If you did not have to ship food or fuel from Earth to Mars, billions more in cost savings made developing a habitat worthwhile.”
Maury knew the history of Mars habitat. Everyone knew. He let Winnie continue. She was actually working through portions of her thesis. She often tested thoughts out loud. He did not mind, as long as he could see her with his peripheral vision.
“The final breakthrough, the one that allowed the concept of a sustainable Martian colony, came when Basin Aerospace in Nevada designed a retro rocket capable of controlling the landing of large ships in the shallow Martian atmosphere. A rocket-system weighing significantly less than past types.”
Winnie leaned forward, looking at Mars, imagining Earth and the recent past. Maury looked at her, hoping to see side-boob around the sleeveless t-shirt.
“The Fairchild Corporation, with additional funding by several governments, as well as private agencies, began the construction of large cargo boxes at the orbital space station. Well, actually, first they needed to expand the space station to house construction crews and equipment, but that was the simplest part of the project.”
“The Ackerman Group provided some of the funding,” he said. He wanted to remind her that he came from money, and his family a history with the project. Looks were never going to get him close to her, but looks did not count for everything.
“They needed to build cargo boxes, which could double as space ships and pre-fabricated homes once they landed on Mars. The applied engineering required to design and construct these multi-functional units would compete with the advanced principles used to build the pyramids as humanities’ greatest example of innovative thinking.”
Winnie sat back again. She marshaled her thoughts, putting cold facts into more interesting terms so her thesis might also, one day, become a book.
“The boxes required rockets capable of getting them, and their payloads to Mars. Installation of the new Basin retro rockets guaranteed the cargo ships could land safely. Technicians had to imagine, design, and build computers that could operate throughout the trip, and subsequent missions. Robotics, which could set the stations and systems in place, needed to be repurposed from other tasks.”
Becoming a little tired of Winnie’s monologue, Maury decided he could show a bit of his own Martian historical knowledge.
“Fairchild Industries constructed twelve cargo ships. They would launch from the Earth Moon Space Station. Seems like someone could have come up with a better name,” he added.
“I suppose EMS2 is a little better than ISS, for the previous International Space Station. They could have called it Skywalker Platform. Or the Enterprise Station. Maybe something really dark like the Void Terminal.”
He turned to see if Winnie appreciated his humor. Her scowl indicated she did not.
“Those cargo ships, designed to morph into habitats, were built over a ten-year period,” he said, trying to remove the scowl by returning to the original discussion.
“During that time, advances in propulsion resulted in rocket systems converted to ionic sub-light engines. The new power plants were faster, and safer than chemical-fueled rockets. Lighter materials Metallurgists invented lighter materials, which also included properties to shield humans and equipment from radiation. Radiation is much more dangerous in space, and on Mars, than on Earth.”
He mentally kicked himself. Every school kid knew radiation was more dangerous in space.
A male voice interrupted the discourse.
“Ten years of planning, construction, and then, after more planning, the ships were sent on their way. A 250-day journey, thanks to the new ion-engines. The twelve ships landed on the surface. They touched down one by one, via computers operated by techs at the Fairchild Control Center near Indianapolis. The landing site selected because it was an open valley where solar panels could get plenty of sunlight. The other factor for setting up shop in the Gale Crater was the sixty-percent chance of ground water hidden below the dusty, red surface.”
Elliott Fairchild stood behind the two. His attention on the view, but his thoughts ranged millions of miles, and years away.
The two college students remained in awe of Fairchild. Hero-worship not diminished by the time spent together on the planet. They listened reverently, as he continued the tale.
“The ships were interconnected, forming a large square. Next, pre-fabricated light-weight carbon-steel beams were released. They extended to form an umbrella over the square’s open center. Translucent radiation-repellant cloth got rolled out, and robotic arms stretched it across the umbrella ribs, enclosing the center.”
He moved his eyes to Winnie. “It’s your paper. What happened next?”
“Robots set up the cyanobacteria system. Heaters began to warm the Martian soil beneath the cargo ships and new bio-dome. Algae was introduced to help fertilize, and rejuvenate the covered soil. Unmanned rovers deposited twenty solar-panel units outside of the prefabricated habitat, and ran fiberoptic cables back to junction boxes on the exterior of the cargo ships. This provided the energy to maintain viable conditions within the habitat.”
Winnie ended her point-by-point descriptions. The history of Mars Habitat engrained in her memory, and available on demand.
Not to be over-shadowed, Maury took over. Unable to make eye contact with Fairchild, and fearful of stumbling if he looked at Winnie, he faced the landscape.
“After six months, readings indicated Mars had a village suitable for sustaining human life. Plants were even taking root in the reclaimed Martian soil, and water was being pumped from a shallow underground river that flowed 200-yards beneath the surface.”
“It was time to launch the Fairchild Aerospace Martian Expedition. FAME 1,” the thirty-year-old aerospace engineer, planetologist, and grandson of the man who started Fairchild Industries said with a catch in his voice. That first launch, with people on board, and their mission so enthralled him as a child, it shaped his future.
“Dr. Fairchild, you are one of the engineers who helped design the current ships used to transport people and supplies between Earth and Mars,” Winnie said. “What was that first ship like? Ares One.”
He smiled, recalling the model of Ares One that rested on his bedroom dresser as a child. It now sat on a credenza in his office on Earth.
“The Fairchild/Basin Spaceship, Ares, was a large, winged vehicle designed for flight within an atmosphere, or in the harsh conditions of space. She had jet propulsion for lower-atmosphere flight, and ion sub-light engines for space travel. The ship could sustain a dozen people for a year, and had a load capacity of 60,000 pounds.
“The mission crew?” She asked.
“The twelve-person crew consisted of pilot, co-pilot, scientists, engineers, and one physician. They signed on for a three-year term. Six months of space flight to Mars, and another six months to get home. A two-year stay on the planet.
“Once the astronauts arrived, and set up shop on Mars, they became huge celebrities on Earth. People from around the planet watched twenty-four-seven live steaming video on pay-for channels. Universities and science labs paid for special access to information and data. They were given the opportunity to ask the engineers and scientists on Mars to conduct experiments for them. News agencies paid for interviews, and magazines ran biographies, and family photos.
“One internet Billionaire offered the very beautiful, and very stacked biologist, Dr. Maila Elg of Finland, one-million dollars if she would publicly shower on his pay-for porn site. She refused. Until the offer reached five-million, and a percentage of revenues. Over one-billion people worldwide tuned in for the thirty-minute shower scene. Dr. Elg was set for life when she returned to Earth.
“I was one of the children on Earth caught up in Martian fever. Old novels, and movies about Mars, and Martians became the rage.”
“Can I ask one more question?” Winnie asked, now turned in her seat to better see the mission commander. On his nod, she said, “I know you initiated the program to select two archeology students for this mission. I also remember from the interview, that you believe life once existed on Mars. Do you really expect us to find anything that would indicate a civilization did exist?”
“We know life existed on Mars,” he replied. “Whether a civilization ever developed is purely my speculating. Even if it did, after millions of years, I doubt there is anything left. But human’s always hold out hope, Winnie. You and Maury are modern-trained archeologist. On Earth you use the latest technology to help make a best guess at where a lost civilization might have built infrastructure. Utilizing current topography, with computer-generated maps of how landscapes once looked, you determine geographic hot spots. I expect you to do the same on Mars. Imagine what a living planet looked like a million years in the past. Assuming civilized Martians existed, where would they build?”
The antique chronograph on Fairchild’s wrist gave a barely audible beep. “If I hadn’t fell in love with space, I would have studied archeology,” he told them, and left.
Maury watched Winnie watch Fairchild walk away. He wondered if her hero-worship ran deeper than fan-girl fascination. “His name has taken him a long way,” he said.
Winnie presented him with another scowl. “He received degrees from universities renown for the specialties he pursued, including two doctorates, one in advanced engineering from M.I.T., and one in planetology from Stanford.
“No one complained when Elliott Fairchild was selected to head the sixth Mars Mission. With his credentials, no one considered nepotism played any part in his position as mission commander.
“That man is more than qualified to lead any extra-planetary exploration. His expertise regarding Mars, as well as the advanced life-sustaining systems built for, and developed at this base are well documented by science-based publications around the world.”
The co-ed gathered her belongings, gave her fellow Brown student the cold shoulder, and departed, hips in full sway.
Maury watched any hope of hooking up while on Mars march off with her.
Ares 3, a ship capable of housing thirty people for two years of space travel, launched from the Earth Moon Space Station on July 1st. FAME SIX off to a good start with a Mars arrival ETA planned for January 1st. The ship landed two days earlier than expected. It departed ten days later, with fourteen returnees, and storage spaces filled with mineral samples, plants, and experiments that would be studied, or completed on Earth.
Elliott Fairchild watched it go with no regrets. As far as he was concerned, he was home.
The day after Christmas, Boxing Day, nearly one Earth-calendar year later, Fairchild stepped into his cabin from the attached head. His long brown hair still damp, having just towel dried it. The towel now wrapped around his narrow waist. At thirty-one, he was of average age on Mars, where the majority of the people living on the planet were late-twenties into the early-thirties. Even though considered studious and academic since early childhood, he also enjoyed sports and exercise. His body remained as toned as his mind was sharp.
“You look yummy,” remarked Kati Ikonen, doctor of botany, and twenty-four year old daughter of Dr. Maila Elg, famous for her Martian shower scene. Kati displayed all of her mother’s curves, and inherited her flare for science, though she preferred botany over biology.
She also picked up her mother’s adventurous nature, so signing up for a three-year stint on Mars had been a no-brainer. Convincing the handsome young Fairchild he should spend time with her in bed offered no obstacle.
“Don’t you ever get enough?” Fairchild asked, teasing the woman still buried under covers.
“Nope,” she answered. “It’s the lower gravity and the higher oxygen content,” she explained. “It makes me bouncy-bouncy.”
“Well, while you bouncy-bouncy in the shower, I need to get dressed, and get going,” he said. He leaned over to kiss the blonde, blue-eyed vixen. “Dr. Castro simply cannot wait to get to that mountain he keeps going on about.”
“Geologists,” Kati said, throwing off the covers to reveal a body made for holo-magazine covers. “They all have rocks in their heads.”
“Old joke,” Fairchild replied.
The mountain was now called Mount Sharp, but originally designated Aeolis Mons. It was located west of the center of the Gale crater. The Mars Habitat situated east, across the crater, near sites visited by the first Martian robotic rovers in the twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.
The mountain rose 18,000ft, so not nearly the tallest on Mars. It had been the subject of a couple of studies over the decades. Many Mars’ mountains were volcanic in nature, and some extremely tall. The magma run-off piling up over centuries, and cooling over even more centuries. Mount Sharp was different. Believed to have been created by sedimentary erosion over a half-billion years. The top of the mountain only 3,000-feet above the crater rim. The planetologist with the team thought the crater had once been a giant lake, and the top of Sharp an island, similar to Hawaii in the Pacific.
Mount Sharp had a consistent slope of three-percent. During the warmer months, salty water would run down the slopes to the base.
What excited Dr. Benjamin Castro, mission geologist, about Sharp involved a relatively flat surface exposed by a huge wind and subsequent sand storm that blew through the crater earlier in the year.
“The wind blew away a million years of debris. The residual brine settled around the base of the mountain, on the western side,” Castro said to Fairchild. They rode together in an enclosed multi-wheel transporter.
“From 1,000-feet up there is now a ninety-degree drop, instead of a three-percent slope. It’s also over 2,000 feet wide at the base. It’s as if someone took a trowel, and scraped a sand dune’s side flat.”
“You think this proves Sharp wasn’t created by sedimentary erosion?” Fairchild asked.
“I’ve only had a short amount of time on site, but the face of the rock, all the way up to the 1,000-foot mark, appears to be uniform. If erosion alone created the mound, there would be strata indicating when erosion, or buildup occurred.”
“So what are you getting at?” The team leader asked.
“Straight surfaces very rarely occur in nature,” Castro replied. “This might be an indication sentient life once existed on Mars. Someone could have carved that section, creating a flat space. Who knows, it might once have held murals, or might have been the back wall for a structure.”
“For hundreds of years people on Earth have dreamed of Martian neighbors,” Fairchild said, trying not to jostle too much as the transporter rode over rough terrain. “I believe Mars was once a living planet. We have proof of water, rivers, lakes, oceans, bacterial life, and even some plant fossils. But if it supported a civilization, it happened millions of years ago. The thought that we would discover anything created by an intelligent being that long ago still existing today. Well, Benjamin it just isn’t going to happen.”
“All I need is a chisel mark. Anything that says a tool did this,” Castro replied. “It’s worth taking the time to look.”
“I agree,” Fairchild said. “Otherwise you would be alone with the driver, the mechanic, and the two archaeology students.”
“We’re on the mountain now,” the driver informed them. “It’ll be another half-hour to get around to the wester slope.”
The placement of the morning sun, sent shadows running before the transporter. The vehicle did not encounter many large boulders. It did, however, need to travel through an abundance of debris. Plenty of small rocks, and pieces of pulverized planet drifted down the slope, or were blown across the base of the mountain. It made for a bumpy ride, but the transporter was built to cross every type of obstacle Mars threw at it.
Comfort, however, had not been a major, or minor engineering consideration. It was designed to traverse the landscape, and protect occupants by shielding them from radiation. It held enough provisions for a week away from the main habitat.
The driver, a retired sergeant in the British Royal Marines named Toole, handled the big vehicle with ease. He had access to all of the driving luxuries, such as power steering and automatic transmission. The carrier had air-con and heat.
The sortie’s mechanic, Lee Hampton, sat shotgun. A black man from Tennessee who learned his trade at the factory that built the Mars transporters, and several other military-grade vehicles. No expedition left the bio-dome without a mechanic. The SOP saved more than a few trips from disastrous endings.
Fairchild and Castro occupied the bench seat behind the driver. Behind them sat the two archeology students from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. The two doctoral grad-students won a research grant, and seats on FAME SIX, for a paper they submitted regarding potential digs on Mars. Their suppositions based on satellite scans of the surface, combined with penetrating radar images that penetrated ten-feet below the surface. The Gale crater, and Mount Sharp ranked high on their list of potential sites.
Winnie Henderson tried to downplay her appearance by not wearing any kind of makeup inside, or outside of the habitat. She wore her brown hair short, and dressed for functionality.
She lost the battle to remain understated because her breast filled her t-shirt. Since she refused to wear a bra, they bounced attractively when she walked, and performed a tango when the transporter lurched.
Maury Ackerman was tall (six-three), and gangly (one-forty-five), with greasy black hair pulled into a ponytail. He tried very hard not to stare at his companion’s chest. He lost his battle, as well.
“You can start getting into EVA suits,” Fairchild said over the back of his seat to the students. He gave a sneaky look at Winnie’s round rear end, when she moved around the bench seat to the rear of the transporter.
The rear section of the transporter was double-high to allow a person to stand up, and get into, or out of light-weight EVA coveralls. The baggy suits could be worn over civilian clothes.
After tugging on her suit, Winnie changed places with Maury, who was careful not to rub too hard against her as they crossed paths.
By the time Castro and Fairchild changed, the transporter reached the dark side of the mountain. Toole parked in shadows precisely at the coordinates provided by Castro.
He and Hampton would remain in the vehicle unless needed.
The four in back slipped on helmets and gloves. They checked rebreathers, and each other’s seals to make sure everything was closed and safe. Toole pressed a button, and a plastic shield slid down to separate the driver’s compartment from the rest of the transporter. The expedition team could now come and go from the transporter, getting any materials they needed, without having to constantly vent the atmosphere.
Castro and the archeology duo headed straight for the wall. Fairchild took a more leisurely stroll around the base.
While the trio used lamps, magnifying glasses, soft-bristle brushes, and laser scans to inspect the face of the mountain, he would use the time away from the habitat for private reflection. He enjoyed his journeys away from the biosphere. He enjoyed the time alone. Mars provided the perfect location for him.
The team stopped for lunch back in the transporter, then returned to their exploration as the sun swept over the top of the mount, lighting the western slope. Fairchild, a half-mile away, walking the crater, and inspecting it for signs of water erosion, turned, and faced the mountain. From here, with the sun shining brightly, he could see exactly why Castro had been excited. The side of the mountain looked like a screen from an old-fashion drive-in movie park. Maybe there stood the answer. Gale crater had been a parking lot for an alien drive-in movie theater.
He returned to the slope. He could see Castro at the mount’s far right base. The geologist waddled on his knees, shoveling away debris. The lanky Ackerman was walking across the base with a tape-measure in hand. Henderson, who even filled out her EVA well, and had Fairchild thinking long, and hard about Kati waiting back at the habitat, held the other end of the tape.
“It does look like a flat screen,” he said, once he reached Castro.
“Elliott, look here,” Castro implored him. “Look,” he repeated.
Fairchild bent down to see what Castro fussed over. He had cleared an area of debris and sand, revealing a square - twelve-inches by twelve-inches - outlined against the rock wall. A hand print appeared embedded in the center of the square. The design clearly displayed four fingers, and a thumb. It was obvious; neither worn down, nor a trick of shadows.
“Oh, my, god,” Fairchild said. “Benjamin, you have just uncovered the single most important thing ever found on Mars.”
He pounded the Chilean geologist on the back. He turned on his com mike, and requested everybody else, including the driver and mechanic, join them.
“It looks like a palm reader. The kind once used for security doors,” Hampton said. “There are doors on the space station, in the older sections, that still use something similar,” he added.
“Should someone place a hand on it?” Winnie asked.
“No,” Fairchild warned. “The atmosphere will bleach your skin raw. Right now all we do is take as many photos as we can. You two (nodding at the students) can use your infra-red scanners to see if there is anything interesting nearby. We will need to mount another expedition. When we return we will use whatever scanners, radar, and sonar we have available to discover what might be over, under, or inside of this mountain.”
While Fairchild made plans, Castro knelt before the square. He placed his gloved right hand into the imprint.
“It can’t be human,” he said aloud. “Yet, my hand fits inside the outline.”
The rumble warned them first. Then the entire planet seemed to shake. A line formed along the base of the mountain. Loosened rocks and shale started falling form the sky.
“Jump,” Fairchild yelled. At twenty-eight percent of the gravity of earth, the six of them leaped a good thirty-feet away from the face of the mountain. “Keep going,” he said. “There’s 17,000 feet of mountain above us, and it could all start coming down.”
With leaps and bounds, they escaped toward the sun, getting a good mile before stopping, turning, and looking back.
The massive transporter disappeared into a cloud of red dust.
The giant flatscreen had recessed into the mountain. The entire wall slowly rose like a garage door.
“That ground shake had to be monitored at the habitat,” Fairchild said. “And that door going up is shaking the whole mountain. If we don’t get back to the transporter to call in, they’ll be sending ground, and air support soon.”
That was the practical thing to say. The impractical thing to say would have been something like: “Holy, crap! A giant door has just gone up on a Martian mountain, and there may be something inside not been seen in over a million years!”
Which is exactly what Fairchild was thinking, if not shouting.
“What do you suppose is in there?” Winnie asked. “Do you think anyone has survived?”
“If you ever told me you believed in a Martian colony hidden beneath the surface of the planet, I would have had you kicked out of school,” Maury said. “Right now I wouldn’t be surprised if a little green man stepped out, and told us they didn’t allow solicitors in the neighborhood.”
“That pad wasn’t for security,” Hampton said. “Damn thing was a doorknob.”
“Look, it’s stopped,” Castro pointed out. “And the mountain didn’t come down. Do we go in?”
“What if we go in, and the door comes back down?” Winnie asked. “There might not be a doorknob inside, and nothing says the one on the outside will work again.”
“Dr. Castro and I will go in,” Fairchild said. “But we only go in a few feet. Toole, you, and Hampton make sure the transporter is functional. Winnie, you and Maury will stand at the entrance, and keep your torches on us. If the door starts down, everybody get the hell away. In fact, if the transporter is okay, move it out here. Get it into the open. And let base know we’re okay. Do not let them send out another team. Not yet.”
The six started back, with Toole and Hampton veering off for the vehicle.
At the entrance, Winnie and Maury brought out high-beam torches, and shown them into the cavern.
Nothing but darkness, and deeper darkness appeared in the artificial glare. Fairchild and Castro added their lights, and still nothing became obvious.
Castro yelled “HELLO.” It echoed for a long while. “Big,” he said. “Quiet,” he added.
“Maury, hand me the measuring tape,” Fairchild ordered. “We only walk in until this runs out. Then we come back.” He handed the mechanical end to Maury, taking the tip in his gloved fist. “Let’s go, Benjamin. This is your cave.”
Fifty-yards inside they no longer needed their flashlights. The cavern slowly began to brighten. The light permeated the entire inside of the mountain, and came from the interior walls. Lights that had not been used for eons came on, recognizing their presence.
Fairchild and Castro stood absolutely still. In front of them, pointing at the entrance, rested a flying saucer. The ship was a football field wide, and 100-feet tall. It sat serenely, nestled in a space that went up for thousands of feet, and back, beyond the rear of the saucer, for thousands more.
“It isn’t a cave,” Castro said.
“It’s a hanger,” Fairchild replied.
Copyright© Don Foxe 2016