“HOW’S THE DIGGING GOING, UNCLE?”
“Oh, not bad, Ben. Not bad, at all!”
Professor Oscar Ryan’s bespectacled gaze was riveted to the floodlit slope ahead as it sped by beneath their vehicle, his gloved fingers tight around the grips of the steering column.
“Actually – I’m making rather excellent progress, as a matter of fact. Quite amazing, really! Surprised to hear that, aren’t you, Ben?”
Their voices sounded slightly metallic and compressed over the suit intercoms, with faint static echoing eerily in the background.
Saying nothing, Arthur Filbury, Ben Ryan’s co-pilot, sat glumly listening – partly to the conversation and partly to the crackling whispers constantly accompanying it in peculiar lilting bursts.
Filbury fondly imagined the whisperings as bemused aliens listening in and commenting amongst themselves about the peculiar sound of earthling voices and speech. And is it really important, what these earthlings are saying – the aliens might wonder – because it sounds from the tone of it, that the earthlings think it really is – or is it, in fact – just a load of hot air?
He often visualized it that way himself; and it was fun and a little less lonely to imagine another, outside view echoing his.
But Professor Ryan had drily informed him that the alien voices were merely electrical interference from a windstorm confined to the Valles Marineris, far to the northwest of their south polar camp. The old spoilsport!
Filbury wondered just how far to the northwest that was, and how confined was the windstorm. He’d heard that the windstorms shrieking fiercely down the five thousand-kilometre canyon system of the Marineris could reach incredibly nasty speeds. Planet surfaces! Ugh! He suddenly wished he were back out in deep space on the Earth-Mars run, somewhere in-between the two, but landing on neither.
“Glad to hear it,” Ben Ryan was saying. “Still chasing the old myth – convinced there was once life on Mars?”
“Huh!” Oscar Ryan turned his baldhead and regarded his nephew from shaggy brows the colour of sun-bleached soot.
“No myth, laddie,” he growled, chewing a corner of grizzled moustache.
“Even after several Mars-wide geological surveys by various Earth governments pronounced the planet an archaeological and fossil desert?”
“Hah! The Earth, government surveys! What do they know? They simply weren’t thorough enough – not nearly, me lad. Besides, they didn’t happen t’ know what I now know!”
“What do you know now?” Ben Ryan turned to look at his uncle but Oscar Ryan stared ahead silently for a while, not answering.
“Well, come on – tell me, then, Oscar. Don’t keep me in suspense.”
“It’s uh – something I’ve very recently discovered, which proves that life definitely existed on Mars – a very long time ago.”
“But didn’t the scientists say that life could never get started on Mars at any time in its history because the conditions were never quite right – and there wasn’t time for it to get a hold anyway, before Mars became as it is now?”
“Ah! I didn’t say – evolved on Mars.” Oscar Ryan shook his baldhead. “But life did exist here – a fairly advanced form, too – for a relatively brief period. It originated elsewhere and migrated through space. Maybe Mars was one of its outposts. After all – we’re here, now – and we didn’t evolve here, either – and if we can exist here, so can other visitors with the right technology. Hang on!”
The skimmer topped a high dune and began descending steeply into a level rock-floored basin more than half-a-kilometre across.
“You’re gonna see for yourselves, soon, Ben – you and Filbury.”
Oscar Ryan steered the skimmer towards an encampment of large grey domes and smaller igloo-like structures amongst heavy-duty vehicles and digging machinery.
There were great stacks of crates and canisters between some of the machines, and pipes and wiring weaved throughout. The fine reddish talcum-like dust so ubiquitous on Mars lay in scattered clumps and drifts amongst it all.
The encampment was aglow with artificial lighting and at its centre, where a suited figure waited by the lip of a large sunken area, something dark and indistinct reared grotesquely from the excavated depths.
The suited figure was leaning forward across the steering-handle of an electronic-shoveller, head turning inside a globed helmet as the skimmer’s forward lights glinted from its glossy surface.
A long, pale face, deeply shadowed under the eyes and around the jaws and lips, stared out blearily at them.
“Ah, here we are. There’s Frank Curtis, my chief assistant, waiting to go off-duty, poor bugger. Must be tired out of his skull by now, been working round the clock these last few days. I’ll put him out of his misery, now.”
Slowing rapidly, Oscar brought the skimmer to a smooth-gliding crawl, stopping it barely a metre from the lip of the pit. It hung motionless for a moment before settling its cushioned base down into the dust and rubble with an abrupt shudder. Frank Curtis blearily watched their approach.
Switching off the fusion motor with a sharp click that stilled its soft murmuring, Oscar Ryan skipped lightly down from his saddle in a manner belying his age and weight. Stretching stocky limbs and flexing humped shoulders, he advanced with springy stride to where Frank Curtis stood waiting.
One good thing about Mars, Ben Ryan mused, was that you weighed about a third of the weight you would on Earth – which made it a good deal more fun getting around – plus, you could enjoy sports and sex so much more, if you ever had the chance.
The only problem, once you’d got used to feeling lighter, was going back to Earth again and feeling like you weighed a ton there and dealing with the problems of redeveloping muscles that had gone soft – that and the fact that Mars was a really depressing dump to live on, anyway – unless of course, like Oscar Ryan, you had an all-consuming interest tantamount to obsession with minutely examining those depressing surroundings on Mars.
It was doubtful that Oscar could ever return to Earth now, anyway. He’d been on Mars far too long; long enough that his muscles could never be retuned at his age. How old was he now, Ben tried to remember, realizing that Oscar had to be well over sixty by now – at least.
“Okay, Frank! Thanks for holding the fort. You’re off-duty now – so you can go crash out. See you in ten, man.”
“Right, Ozzie. Everything’s up and running and ready for display.”
“Well, here we are, lads,” said Oscar Ryan walking up to the lip of the pit and peering down. He turned and pointed downwards into the depths, his arm lifting and indicating the grotesque object that resembled some gigantic humped denizen, frozen in the act of rising.
“My one and only extra-terrestrial archaeological discovery – the tomb of Tutan Cosmo of Ares.”
“The What of Whom?” said Ben Ryan, brows knotting while he squinted across at the huge dark structure looming at the centre of the pit.
“Ah, just some silly title I’ve concocted for convenience sake – a sort of reference-frame comparison between an alien edifice and an ancient Egyptian tomb – though there’s not much physical likeness between the two.”
“It looks more like some sort of gigantic beehive or termite hill,” said Ben Ryan, eyeing the ominous mass incredulously.
“And well and truly pockmarked with little pits,” said Filbury. “They look as if they tunnel right inside. Is that the work of ancient water erosion or wind or sandblasting?”
“Something far more purposeful, Fil, me lad,” said Oscar Ryan. He turned and beckoned towards a hydraulic platform situated further along the lip of the pit. “Let’s go below and see what we’ve got inside, if you’re ready.”
He cleared his throat and led the way forward.
They descended on the platform to a rampart about halfway down. The rampart’s walkway led into the side of the central edifice via an oval entrance that looked as if it had been carved out meticulously long ago.
“Clever little bugs,” said Filbury, as they passed through into the gloom beyond. Floodlights from outside spilled in, but only for a short distance.
They were deep inside the structure now, torches aglow in their hands, and together, the three men moved towards the centre along a corridor whose walls, floor and ceiling, were punctured haphazardly with deep black holes, each about the size of an infant’s head.
At the far end of the corridor, the ceiling rose dramatically and a wide, circular, central chamber confronted them. It was like the hub of a great wheel and they came to it as if through one of its spokes.
By the lighting now filtering dimly down through a foggy skylight from the camp above – a peculiar, petrified figure reared five metres or so from a circular well in the floor.
It was the width of a full-grown oak tree and seemed to be comprised of continuous rib-like sections twisted erratically into a bizarre corkscrew shape that reached its conclusion some ten or twelve feet above them. Above that, the well-shaft continued to the top of the edifice, culminating in a transparent dust-smeared observation turret.
In the dimly refracted camp light from far above, the petrified figure’s ridged surface was a mottled blue and purple, glittering with crystalline iridescence where the torchlight played upon it. And in the torchlight, they could clearly see that it was liberally cratered with small, gaping black holes.
Ben Ryan stiffened when he saw it. “What the hell is it?”
“One of the occupants of this termite mound,” said Oscar Ryan in a harsh whisper.
“My team of scientists have taken tissue samples. The DNA belongs to a highly-evolved biological organism belonging to a phylum or kingdom as yet unknown and not related to the DNA of Earth.”
“How interesting, Oscar.”
“Interesting, Ben? Interesting? I’d say it was more than just interesting, myself! Here we are, presumably the first humans discovering the first truly alien life form and all you can say is, how interesting. Still, at least that’s something, coming from you, I suppose.”
“I’d lay odds it was frozen while writhing in some dreadful death throes,” said Filbury. He inched closer, stooping to examine a ribbed section that snaked up from hidden depths and spiralled out across the rim of the pit.
A patch of condensation billowed out at the mouthpiece of his helmet as he gasped and his breath echoed faintly over the suit-intercoms.
“Come and take a close look at this,” he said, standing up and stepping back and shining his torch on to the shadowed section he’d been studying. The Ryans both stooped to examine the rib section that Filbury indicated.
“So what do you make of that?” said Filbury. “See how it’s honeycombed in this corner with these jagged round holes about the size of full-grown house rats?” He shone his torch in through one of the little tunnels, following the curve of its course inwards with troubled eyes.
“Could be breathing holes, of course – like those of certain invertebrates on Earth,” said Ben Ryan. “You know, a sort of alternative respiratory system to lungs.”
“Yes! Or, maybe a method of food-intake and disposal – even seed or egg dispersal.“
“Except that they seem to match the other holes tunnelling through everything else around here, – far too well! Look! See how this hole coming up out of the floor matches this one entering that lower bit of rib – perfectly? And that one coming in through the wall, exactly matches the hole in this upper rib section, crisscrossing the lower one at right-angles?”
Ben Ryan lifted a gloved hand to the front of his helmet and stroked it absently. “Yeah! I can see what you’re getting at, Fil – it all – uh – fits!”
“You know what I reckon,” said Filbury, staring pointedly at the Ryans and then back at the rib sections. “Those holes look just like the result of rampant infestation by something too terrible to contemplate – something that can chew through solid stone. I’d hate to envisage the kind of predator that can wreak that sort of damage, and while the victim was still living, too – presumably.”
“My word, that’s a devastating thought, Fil! But, strong as your reasoning seems, it’s only conjecture on your part. It could be any of a whole host of other things we haven’t thought about yet.”
“Really, Ben? Conjecture? You think so?” Oscar Ryan’s voice was squeezed out in a harsh whisper.
“Well, yes, Oscar – but if I’m not mistaken, you seem to be confirming Fil’s theoretical thoughts. Obviously, you must have good reason.”
“Fil’s theory is bang on the nail, that’s why, Ben! He’s a very shrewd lad!”
“Well, that’s sounds dreadful! Quite chilling, as a matter of fact! It doesn’t even bear thinking about!” Ben Ryan stood, gaping at the afflicted monstrosity rising frozenly from the pit in glazed-eyed horror.
“Peppered – while still alive – by – voracious rat-sized bugs that can bore through solid stone – and then – petrified like a stick of curly candy afterwards. It gives me the absolute shudders, just to think such grisly critters could exist. The only comforting thought is that they’re not around now, to victimize us!”
Ben Ryan’s eyes widened. “Are they, uncle?” His throat suddenly felt constricted and he could almost taste the faint metallic tang of canned air as it recycled from his suit backpack.
Filbury threw a meaningful glance at Oscar Ryan. “Eh, Professor?”
“Hmm.” Oscar Ryan stroked the chin of his globed helmet.
“What you see around you, took place long – long ago. Nothing living has stirred on this planet for millions of years. Now – if you guys’ll follow me, I’ve some other stuff t’ show you.”
Around the rim of the well, he led them, behind the petrified girth of the ancient lifeform. At the far side, in the shadows cast by its bulk, another lift platform stood, enclosed within a transparent circular shaft.
Oscar Ryan reached into the shadows and a soft yellowish light sprang on inside the lift. A panel slid open and he stepped inside. “Step aboard, boys. We’re going down quite a few storeys – see a bit more of Cosmo – he’s mighty big.”
Stepping inside, they descended through three levels, tracing the snaking figure of the alien form as it thickened and the tube widened dramatically. It terminated horizontally on the floor of a gigantic cavern, dark, humped and huge, as though molten lava had dribbled down in a twisting column and somehow congealed into the vague semblance of a titanic, beached Sperm Whale.
“Now I think you’ll see what I mean about size,” said Oscar Ryan, flashing his torch beam across the huge shape. It towered fifty feet or so above them like some great bulky denizen from a Jurassic swamp; all mottled, dark blue and purple, and shiny in the torchlight.
“Those rib-like sections are actually its limbs, folded appendages lined with a super gripping surface, completely encasing the main trunk. It would indicate a mobility similar to that of a caterpillar though nothing like as restricted in speed. I reckon our friend Cosmo, was rather hurriedly returning from an observation post at the top of the domed skylight when it was smitten. It didn’t have time to retract – you’ll see what I mean soon.”
“Hey, hang on a tick, though,” said Filbury. “Look here – just behind its head.”
He stepped forward for a closer look.
“Some of these appendages have unfolded slightly and seem to be in the process of propping the thing up, as if it’s lying face down. Christ! I’ve never seen anything so weird looking before, as the way these limbs are jointed. And look, those rows of bulges on the head, they look just like closed eyelids. It’s as if this creature crash-landed, head first!”
He stepped back again and stood still, craning his neck and looking upwards at the great bulk, studying it intently.
Filbury’s eyebrows knitted together in a very puzzled frown as he stood there viewing the frozen monstrosity.
Oscar swung his torch beam over to another corner of the vast cavern.
“We had to situate another lift tube over there,” he said, “after we discovered there was a massive column of rock directly beneath where we are now standing. If we drilled into it here, it would weaken the floor on which Cosmo stands and we don’t want to disturb a thing while we’re studying it all. Over in that corner there was already a shaft leading down, so we just used it to accommodate the lift.”
He started forward, leading the way to the second lift shaft. His voice came thickly over the helmet intercoms as he and Ben walked through the gloom. “And just wait till you see what’s below this level, me lads.”
Filbury hung back studying the huge creature for several more seconds, then came away shaking his head and muttering to himself as he hastened to catch up with the others.
Machinery greeted them on the next level down, Great banks of grey-blue tanks or vats with great curving pipes leading between them, and panels, still alight with faintly glowing colours, all surrounded by levers and dials, buttons, bosses and switches.
Ben Ryan looked confused and amused all at once. His face held a most peculiar expression somewhere at the crossroads between stunned awe and a smirk of disbelief.
“What’s the problem, Ben?”
“I – I –” Ben shook his head. “I’m just simply amazed by it all. Oscar. But – but one thing gets me in particular. How a completely alien form of life can build something that is recognizably machinery – no matter how odd it may appear – it still looks as though human hands had built it.”
“Good grief! How egocentrically anthropocentric you are Ben – to think that we could be the only intelligent creatures in the universe to understand the ubiquitous principles of science and the fundamental designs of nature and build upon them. Why, even some of the so-called more lowly creatures on Earth can build structures and use tools – ants, bees, birds, other primates and mammals – the list is long.”
Oscar stepped forward in the low-key lighting of this lower level that lent the machinery surrounding them a strange, greenish, ghostly aspect.
“Over here, lads,” he said pulling a remote from his jacket pocket and lighting up a section to one side.
Ben Ryan gasped at what confronted them in this section. A hissing whistle issued from between Arthur Filbury’s teeth.
There were creatures frozen in action over various machines – mummified miniature versions of Cosmo, operating the machinery with many-jointed manipulative limbs.
Their heads were like Cosmo’s, shaped like that of a sperm whale, with an array of deep-set eyes that glowed with amber translucence against the mottled blue and purple of their hides. Ranging from around twelve to fifteen feet in length and eight feet or so in height, they lacked the extended tailpiece that Cosmo bore.
Three pairs of limbs to the rear of their flanks supported each creature, from which the torso angled upward like that of a mythical centaur with the elongated head curving horizontally forward. Two pairs of limbs adjoined the torso; those frozen in the act of tending the machinery. All five pairs were jointed in the same bizarre manner, a manner quite unlike that of any known creature on Earth. As far as the humans present could tell, these were the most alien-looking lifeforms that Earthly eyes had yet clapped eyes on.
“Their tailpieces are retracted, or non-existent you’ll notice – plus, although they’re quite hefty looking critters, they’re a good deal smaller than Cosmo – perhaps different castes, rather like in ant colonies. Cosmo could have been their big chief or perhaps, their queen.”
“Or maybe just an aberrant mutant,” murmured Filbury.
“Or even a genetically modified experiment,” countered Oscar. “Which in either case means Cosmo could still have been their chief or queen.”
He motioned for his colleagues to move in for a closer examination of the fossilized aliens.
“And you’ll of course, notice something else,” he said.
The bodies of these lower level denizens were peppered through and through, just like Cosmo’s, except that the holes looked like enormous gaping wounds on these much smaller creatures.
“Oh, my word!” said Ben in a choked whisper. Quite, quite horrific! The poor devils!”
“Something puzzles me,” said Filbury. “It just – doesn’t all seem to fit together somehow.”
He shook his head.
“You mean, why aren’t they showing signs of a struggle, or at least writhing in pain?” said Oscar.
“Eh? Well actually I was thinking of something else entirely. But now you come to mention it, yeah. I mean – they don’t appear to be putting up any kind of resistance. It looks as though they just gave in straight away – dumbly accepting their fate.”
“Well maybe they were in shock or mesmerized, like rabbits besieged by ferrets.”
“Hmm. I wonder,” said Filbury, stroking the chin-piece of his helmet.
“Maybe they were already dead – by their own hand. Maybe they killed themselves, unable to face the inevitable.”
“But they were still in the act of operating the machinery,” Ben Ryan protested. “Why would they do that, and how, if they were already dead?”
“Shutting things down; slow acting poison.” Filbury shrugged.
“But there’s something else really bugging me, if you’ll forgive the pun, professor?”
He levelled a questioning gaze at Oscar Ryan.
“How on Earth – or should I say, Mars – does Cosmo manage to get his or her massive great head and thorax all the way up the chute to the observation turret, and then find the room to turn around and retreat back again, when the shaft is so obviously way too narrow to accommodate it?”
“Well – we don’t really know that Cosmo did, as we weren’t here to verify whether that was the case. But the overall appearance does look remarkably like a hurried retreat, frozen in mid-motion. However, there is some biological evidence to back up the assumption that this could indeed have been the case.”
Oscar pulled out a pocket device and studied it, fingers tapping it rapidly.
“When the biolab boys examined Cosmo, it was discovered that the being’s entire physical composition was incredibly elastic. Not only could it be stretched, but it could also be shrunk or expanded quite dramatically.”
Oscar paused as something bleeped on his handheld device.
“Ah, an update from the labs.” He scrutinized it silently.
“Added to that,” he continued, “it has no skeletal structure akin to earthly vertebrates, though it does have some sort of high tensile sinewy substructure more flexibly hinged than a boa constrictor’s jaw. So, despite appearances to the contrary, Cosmo could have quite easily made a two-way journey at high speed up and down the length of the chute.”
“Hmm, fascinating and very weird.”
Filbury shook his head.
“You’ve stumbled across something strange and complex. There’s more here than meets the eye.”
“We’re talking about a truly alien lifeform, a completely different existence.” Oscar paused thoughtfully.
“But there is more to reveal,” he said, clapping his gloved hands with a resounding thwack that made both Fil and Ben start.
“Follow me, lads. There’s something else I need you to see.”