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The Martian Race
Gregory Benford
excerpt courtesy of Time Warner Trade Publishing
Pages | 1 | 2 |

Gregory Benford
Gregory Benford
Gregory Benford is a physicist and astronomer at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of a series of hard SF novels, beginning with In the Ocean of Night (1978) and following quickly with works such as Timescape (1980) and the popular Galactic Centre series, including Across the Sea of Suns, Great Sky River (1987), Tides of Light (1989) and Furious Gulf (1994). A recent work is Cosm.

Gregory Benford Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Non-Fiction: Mars in Our Time
SF Site Review: Deep Time
SF Site Review: Against Infinity
SF Site Review: Artifact
SF Site Review: Cosm
SF Site Review: Foundation's Fear

"What's that?"

Viktor peered out the big viewport and let the rover slow. "Cloud. Nearby."

The filmy white mist faded. "How far?" Her heart was pounding, her biologist senses instantly alert. A water cloud at this time of day meant an underground vent.

"Hard to tell. Could be on horizon, long way off."

"Or close. Damn, it's gone." She had caught it out of the corner of her eye and the haze had lasted only seconds.

"Was rising."

"Yeah, I thought so too."

They had skirted around some hummocky hills. To save time Viktor was taking a fast route back to base, angling over a long sandy slope. The cloud had hung over the hills to the east, in an area they had not crisscrossed in detail because it was tricky terrain.

"Go in there, slow work."

One last try? "Let's go look anyway." Better late than never to find an outgassing vent.

An hour later she was ready to give up. Viktor was being good about it, carefully driving them across dry washes that had perhaps run with water or mud back before amphibians had first crawled up onto the beaches of Earth. They navigated around slumped pits that might have evaporated away ice deposits. Marc's seismology had probed this region, mapping ice layers several tens of meters below, plus some enticing tendrils that might be lava tubes. But eons of erosion and shifting dust had obscured most telltales.

"There!" he whispered.

A plume of yellow-white furled up from behind a low crest. "It's close!"

He floored the rover and its rumble echoed her quickening pulse. They had seen nothing like this through 500 days of patient crawling over the floor of Gusev Crater, a hundred fifty kilometers across. All along she'd harbored the hope that life would be hanging on underground, away from the cold and dry. With Marc she'd inspected the smaller Thyra Crater with microscopic attention, to no avail.

Over the rise, down a rocky slope toward a pit that didn't look any different from thousands she had seen before. Yet above this one a teardrop plume faded into the pink air, towering a hundred meters like a dirty exhalation of—what?

"Thermal vent, uh?" Viktor flashed her a quick grin.

"Hush. The gods of Mars will hear you and take it away."

He parked at the edge of the pit as she unclipped her gear from the wall mounts. The pit slope was fairly steep, and she got out all the climbing equipment. She had learned to keep it inside, where the fine dust could not get into the moving parts. Even the tough rope got worn away by the stuff where it rubbed.

Viktor sent Marc a quick radio message that they were going outside, and where they were. No need to get their hopes up with a description.

Out through the lock, consciously being systematic in moving the gear despite her excitement. Haste made accidents, and the lock was getting pesky, sticking around the seals.

Outside, she studied the whole area carefully, frowning. Steep, sandy descents were not her favorite. The fifteen-degree slope ran down about ten meters to a hole at the bottom about three meters across. It looked something like a giant ant lion pit. She guessed it was a volcanic blowout crater, rock walls obscured by the perpetually moving sands. "Looks like an old crater."

"See those rocks at rim?" Viktor pointed.

"Right, the yellow and white patches? Unusual discoloration."

"Condensate, could be."

"Hope so."

She had the irrational urge to sniff the air, guess what the gas plume had been. They looped the cable and pulley rig onto the rover's back harness and winch. Going down the slope was a little tricky because the sandy dust had a funny layered feel, slipping away suddenly beneath her boots. A gritty skid. Viktor followed in her boot steps. They had secured the rope through their suit loops. She felt quite secure walking to the edge of the hole, but placed each step slowly to see if the rock rim would bear her weight. Months ago Marc had suffered a sudden fall when a shelf had given way, and he had limped for weeks. Looking down, she saw plenty of discoloration on the rocky throat that extended into blackness.

Viktor had knelt beside an outcrop. "Ice."

"What? Where?"

Pure water ice was improbable on the Martian surface. It would sublime away quickly. But the light orange film on the edges of the rocks near the hole glistened. "Vent," Viktor pronounced.

"Remember the gods," she said, absently.

"I go," he said, and without ceremony pulled his line tight.

"Hey, I'm the biologist. I want to take a sample of this film—"

"So take. I am captain, I go."

He started backing over the rim. There was enough room to let him descend by walking backward down the inside. She knelt and used a sterile wiper to collect the film, then secured it in a biosample baggy. She was nearly out of the baggies and here at last there was—

"Ow!"

She turned to see him wheeling sideways with a silky slowness she would never forget.

"Viktor!" With her cry she tried to stop his fall.

Barely below the lip, Viktor had caught his left boot during a power descent. When he tried to free the tip he managed to turn it, leveraging it with his whole weight. "Ah!"—his second yelp rang in Julia's suit comm when he hit the side of the hole on the rebound. His right arm smacked the wall vainly and a plume of red dust arced up and out of the hole.

"What happened?"

He tried to make the left foot bear weight. "Damn, hurts."

The dust began its lazy descent as she bent over Viktor's line. The top of his helmet was still in the light. "How bad?"

"Did not feel break."

"Hope it's just a sprain."

"I lost my hold with boot. Rock was slippery."

"It looks like ice on the rocks. Condensed out from the plume, I guess." She'd have to think about it later.

He hit the winch control and ascended to her level. She wrestled him clumsily over to the narrow edge of the hole and made him lay down. She unfastened the bottom of his insulated legging and ran her hands lightly over the ankle cuff of the pressure suit underneath. "Suit looks okay, no breaches. How's your self-med?"

The damned dust had settled on his faceplate and she couldn't see him, but knew he would be checking the readouts on the inside of the helmet. "Normal." His voice was thin and strained.

"Good. How do you feel?"

He shifted slightly, groaned. "Like yesterday's blini. Light-headed. Foot hurts like hell."

Keep him talking. Can't risk shock. She was no doctor, but her year of physician's assistant training snapped into high gear. She kept her tone light. "That's what you get for doing cartwheels."

"Unnnh. I can't move it."

She frowned, wondering how difficult it was going to be to get him back into the rover. Help was more than forty klicks away, and she was driving the only pressurized vehicle on the planet. Mission protocol limited the open rover to twenty-five klick trips, so the two of them had to manage it on their own. She thought of calling Marc on the emergency band, for moral support if nothing else. No, concentrate on Viktor. Plenty of time to analyze things in the rover. If she could get him there.

"Okay, enough laziness. Let's get you up."

"Aw . . . right." His slightly slurred voice worried her. They were all worn down, and shock could be setting in.

She slipped her left arm clumsily around his waist, feeling like a kid in a snowsuit. Suit-to-suit contact had a curiously remote feel about it, with no feedback from the skin. Still, she liked hugging him, even this way. They had slept together in a close embrace ever since the launch from Earth orbit.

"I've got some great stuff in the rover that'll make you feel like a new man."

"Want to feel like man I was."

"C'mon, get up."

"Why not pull me up on the line? I lie down—"

"Don't think I could."

"Pull with rover."

"Hey, I'm in charge."

"Aieee!"

With her help he heaved himself up onto his right leg, leaning heavily on her. Together they struggled for balance, threatened to go over the edge, then steadied. She had long ago stopped counting how many times the 0.38 g of Mars had helped them through crucial moments. It had proved the only useful aspect of the planet.

"Whew. Made it, lover." Keep the patter going, don't alarm him. "Ready? I'll walk, you hop as best you can."

Like a drunken three-legged race team, they managed to stagger slowly up the crater slope with the judicious assist of the winch. You will work as a team, the instructor at mission training had said constantly, but she hadn't anticipated this. Over her comm came deep, ragged gasps. Hopping through drifts of gritty dust, even in the low gravity, was exhausting Victor. Luckily the rover was just a dozen meters away.

Slow and steady got them there. He leaned against the rover as she struggled off first her harness, then his. She rolled him into the lock and set the cycle sequence. No time to brush off the dust, but she got off the coverall they used over suits to keep the dust at a minimum. She hooked it with her own to the clamps beside the lock. Skip the usual shower on entry, too. She climbed into the lock with him, sealed it. She hit the pump switch and oxygen whistled into the lock from half a dozen recessed ports.

With a wheeze, the cycler finished. She was jammed in and couldn't turn around to see him. She felt the rover's carriage shift. Good; he had rolled out of the lock and was lying on the floor.

The chime sounded; full pressure, 90 percent Earth normal. She turned off her suit oxygen, released the clamps on her helmet and as quickly as possible shucked her parka, leggings, and finally, her suit. She shivered as she stepped out into the chilly cabin: she had actually been sweating on Mars—a novel experience.

A prickly itch washed over her face and neck and already she regretted their dusty entry. The usual routine was to brush the suits down outside with a soft brush. Some genius from mission prep with a lot of camping experience had thoughtfully stowed it aboard, and it quickly became one of their prized possessions. The Martian surface was thick with fine, rusty dust heavily laden with irritating peroxides. Her skin had felt like it was being gently sandpapered all during the long months here—especially when she was tired, as now.

Fluffing her short black hair, she donned a red Boeing cap and went over to help Viktor. She upped the rover pressure to get him more oxygen, and together they gingerly peeled off his insulating layers and his suit. A look at his leg confirmed her guess: sprained ankle, swelling fast.

From there it was straight safety manual stuff: bind, medicate, worry.

"I love you, even zonked on painkillers," she murmured to his sleeping face when she had checked everything five times.

He had dropped off disturbingly fast. He kept up a front of invincibility, they all did somewhat or they wouldn't be here; it went with astronaut psychology. But he had the bone-deep fatigue that came from a hard mission relentlessly pursued. He didn't talk about it much, but the launch coming up was troubling him.

She was suddenly very tired. Emotional reaction, she diagnosed wryly. Still, better tend to it.

On Mars, you learn to pace yourself. Time for a cup of tea.

She looked around first for her tea cosy, carefully brought from Earth as part of her personal mass allowance. Nothing could've induced her to leave it behind—home was where the cosy was. She retrieved it from a corner of the cooking area. Originally light blue and cream colored, it was now permanently stained with maroon dust. When things got tough she sought the comfort of a proper cup of tea made in a teapot. There were precious few emergencies that couldn't wait until after a cuppa.

As the water heated she got on the emergency band and tried to reach the other two back at the hab. No answer. They were probably deep in the guts of the Return Vehicle, starting the final checks for the approaching test fire. She left a heads-up on the ship's message system, saying that they were coming back pronto, hurt. No way could she get any more done out here on her own. Anyway, Viktor came first, and any solo work was forbidden by their safety protocols.

With the robot arm on the front she unhooked the last solar-powered electromagnetic hailer from the outside rack and placed it in what she hoped was a good spot. It was always a judgment call. The winds were fickle, and the constantly shifting dunes had buried more than one.

She stared out of the forward viewport at the pale pink hills, trying to assess what this accident meant to the mission. Maybe just a mishap, no more. But Viktor still had plenty to do preparing for their return launch. No, this would screw up the schedule for sure. Her own work would get shoved aside.

And the vent—when would she get back? For about a microsecond she considered going down the hole herself. No, contrary to all mission procedures. Worse, stupid.

Face it, she thought—biology was not the imperative here anymore. She had made her big discovery. To the world, their expedition was already a big success—they'd found fossil life. But she wanted more than long-dead microbes.

And now they had one more accident to complicate things. Plan all you want, Mars will hand you surprises.

Like the accident that had gotten them all here.

Pages | 1 | 2 |

Copyright © 1999 by Gregory Benford

All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author. This excerpt has been provided by Time Warner and printed with their permission.


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