On the Plains of Tharsis

... a tale of life & death on Mars

© 2011 Jeff Lynch

(For Ted Scribner - he and the other Tol Harndor people know why I guess)

Chapter One. Leaving The Blue Planet

You would need the right aircraft of course. And it would have to be an awesome one at that. If you were to fly over the largest volcano in the universe that is known to man in a south easterly direction towards the great Tharsis Plateau and the three other volcanoes there, you would come across the landing place of the second group of humans to land on Mars.

Wolf and his people could sometimes see Mons Olympus so aptly named by Schaperelli. But it was so big. So big, that it’s sheer scale did not register properly in their eyes. Besides it was so often covered with the swirling storms of red oxides, that it was regularly hidden from the eyes of the second team.

Wolf Kandihar was experiencing one of the few idle moments he’d had in aboard the Argo during the last nine days. He put down his copy of Les Miserables and pondered for a while on the chilling tale of Jean Valjean. Because he had read in French since he was a child, he read the great novel in the best possible way.

He was sitting at ease not so far from a console in the Argo but he did not have to touch anything and there was nothing even remotely like approaching a decision on this their historic journey in their ship to the planet we call Mars. All the same his mind switched to the ever present thought of the red planet.

He was only half thinking about the similarities between the Earth’s seasons and those on Mars. But there were indeed very few other similarities in the two planets. Not the temperature variations, which are quite extreme on the red planet. The average ground temperature sits at something like -63 degrees Celsius and falls maybe three times that in the Polar areas.

He thought of the temperature variations during the day and nighttimes can be extreme as well. The famous dust storms of red Mars are mainly composed literally of rust, which does not at all suit machine or man or beast either, could they get there. And he also thought about the NASA ship ahead of them. That worried him some. What in the hell was the Liberty up to?

Wolf had spent quite a few years putting his skills to use in composing an acceptable Martian calendar. It was a hobby on the one hand but much more again too. For Wolf had been an astronaut for fourteen years now.

His work on the Martian Calendars had indeed brought him many accolades across the reaches of the many cliques and foes of the academic world. Not to mention the space agencies and the space societies on Earth.

And as the spaceship which measured something like forty one metres in length, silently scythed it’s way onwards through space the stars in their normal and implacable way looked down on the six vulnerable humans inside a small craft. There were four men and two women aboard the ship.

Even quite a few respected American scholars admitted that Wolf’s constructed Martian calendar was a fine piece of work. Pointedly though, it was not accepted by NASA at all. But that was certainly their business was it not?  Yes I guess it was, and it might just be a lesson to others yet to come. The fact is that besides other problems NASA’s construct on the Martian calendar locked into the major problem. It was not a nice result.

Wolf was in fact one of the foremost astronauts of the ESA. Or perhaps I should dispense with the acronym to say that this stands for the European Space Agency. But you had already guessed that I reckon.

The spacecraft proudly named the Argo was heading away from a position some distance from outside the earth on it’s way to Mars in the July of 2033 AD. And I suppose that this crew just might have felt a little like Argonauts in those ancient of days. Was Ulysses in their minds then when they named the Argo? Of course it was, and we all know the problems that guy had to suffer. Oh yes well I do remember that there was a little joy on the way as well.

And if Ulysses had some science to go with his man of action and ideas would he have been likely to take on this mission?  The ESA craft had lifted off from French Guiana in the traditional near equator Earth take off manner.

The Euro crew called themselves ‘the second team’ among themselves in a manner of both a certain truth and of irony. Publicly they would have never uttered this phrase but it was apt enough in many ways indeed. For the most famous spacecraft on earth was called the Liberty. 

It had been launched some four months ago without a hitch. The last the European crew had heard of the NASA crew was a week or two after they had blasted off on their mission from their starting point between the moon and Earth.

It came to them via a relay from NASA itself to the ESA headquarters in Paris. Of course the ESA team had watched the American astronauts as they had to perform at their last press conference some months before. There was nothing in that but formula stuff and nobody in the European team could say that they could have done it better.

The Liberty had taken off from the moon from a base that had been in position for just over seven five years. The NASA craft was a larger one than the European one and had several other advantages as well. It was both a faster and a far more comfortable craft. So what was the flaw in it then? For   it seemed certain to Wolf Kandahar that something had gone wrong with the ship.

The post take off report from the NASA ship was surly a normal and a bland enough report.  It gave out their distance approximately an eighth of the way to the red planet.

It went on to say that apart from boredom and some small illnesses, all was well aboard the Liberty.

But things changed aboard the NASA ship soon enough. It happened when the Liberty was almost exactly five days out of Mars atmosphere. It was not quite a pretty story either...

‘Christ Tom, are you absolutely certain about this?’

This was Dr Terri Morgan looking aghast at her commander. Tom Glenn. He had his back to the Liberty’s main console on the flight deck at the pointy end.

He’d just stood up. The many hundreds of thousands of specks against the dark of the deep space all around them flickered ever so subtly.

She could see the stars over his right shoulder. But the stars had never seemed so bleak to her at this very moment. She was not so sure of her voice now....

‘You are telling me that we are aboard the most sophisticated ship ever built on Earth and we are running out of oxygen?’

Tom Glenn started to say something to her but stopped. Instead he pulled out a faintly glowing computer sheet from a bank of manifest sheets to the right of him. He handed her the sheet and she deftly slid a finger over the top of the sheet. The computer sheet lit up further and rapidly there was a  list of some kind of data shown on it.

She sat down abruptly and read the data with a deal of concentration. It was needed too.  As it was she took a deep breath while scanning the sheet which kept pace with her speed of reading.

It was grim enough reading. Again she looked desperately at Tom Glenn. He asked her bluntly....

‘What happened to this damn electrolysis system Terri? We expel the carbon dioxide and retain the oxygen. What could be simpler than that?’

She looked at the Commander. He was not as bright as some perhaps but she would rather be with Tom Glenn above all others.

‘I know....your’e right there Terri.....the whole process is just so damn simple....but things have screwed up somehow.’

‘Too right you are Tom.....and the hell of the thing is Tom, that after you called me I went down to look at the battery banks. There are signs of the collapse already visible.’

The commander suddenly looked wan.....

‘You told me that you seen them for yourself. I can’t add much more than to say that...well the short of it is, that electrolysis function itself is ok...it’s the batteries. The same batteries that they told us were infinitely chargeable. As you already know they are.... err breaking up Tom. As in a slow meltdown you could say. That’s the reason for this poor data showing. And worst of Tom, all these battery banks had been naturally extensively tested. They were found to be capable of lasting for a hundred years.’

‘Except in space’ said the Commander a bit sharply....and then...

‘Ok we fix them then Terri. We simply patch em up for now...right?’

‘No can do boss ah and that’s the whole point we haven’t got the tools or the material to do it. It’s the whole bank of battery casings.....they are kinda melting down on us I guess. Soon, just as the data shows, they will cease to function....that is to provide us with oxygen.’

‘Why for God sake... why are they breaking down Terri?’

He was of course a can-do-man as you would expect of a leader of this kind of team. It was inconceivable to him and to her that there was not a solution.

‘Well, the answer is that I just don’t know.  I haven’t told you yet....but I’ve already been on to Houston for a short spell.  I mean as soon as I’d inspected the battery casings.

And Houston is expecting you to come on any minute by the way Tom. Some of the eggheads say that it might have been the reaction of the radiation rays that we get everyday and night.

They said that it might have caused an unforeseeable chemical reaction in the battery banks. But I reckon they are only guessing. They don’t a damn thing about it.’

‘There guessing? Guessing about what?’

That was all the commander got out at first. Everybody from the lowliest NASA mechanic, up to the top dogs at Houston knew about space radiation. They had battled the problem for donkey’s years. The ship was protected enough as far as the humans were concerned. Or so it would seem.

But then it did always come down to the fact that they were always dealing with a partly unknowable force. Tom Glenn was not so sure about the radiation being the cause of their problem....but he had no other answer to hand.  

Then Glenn merely shook his head for some time. He regained his composure and added...

‘Do you mean to tell me that this ship and it’s crew are going to die because our car battery conked out on us Terri....?.’

Dr Morgan had no words to answer him for the while. And then she added....

‘Tom, the question is.... can we reach Mars at all?

Naturally this was a huge question, although there was not much point in landing the Liberty if they could not breathe afterwards.

The commander looked out towards the greater cosmos before answering her. He swiveled away from those ever blinking stars and turned to her with something approaching a wan smile on his face. He looked composed enough, but Terri knew he was sorely agitated. They all knew each other too well to hide things like that.

‘Yes Terri it can be done quite easily, as you’ve just seen in the data.... there is air enough for just over four days. After that we have both our spacesuits and the portable shelters which might last us up to a month.... at a pinch. But we would lie there like zombies waiting to die.’

‘Depending on how much energy we expend in that period in the survival units. If we need to, we can complete the final stages of the landing with our suits on. If the ship’s supply has failed by the time we have landed....which seems highly likely now, we still have the option of the portable survival units....for a while.’

‘For a max of a month you said?’

‘Yep ...you got it Terri if the data is right; a month is the top figure available to us right enough.’

‘Tom.....we’ve nearly two fucking years to hang around on Mars waiting for our window to get home.’

The swear word was out of place with Terri. All the rest of the crew swore quite a lot but not her. Not normally that is.... so upset was the woman.

‘Yes Terri.....you put it succinctly as usual, that’s the bigger problem alright. We cannot turn around and we will need a permanent oxygen supply within a week or at outside two week. Now a vague idea comes to me. The battery banks job is to put power through water. Am I right there Terry?’

‘Yes boss that is exactly what it does.’

‘Well if we need power we have a regular ship power source...’

Terry saw where he as going with this one.....

‘Tom I see what you mean but the hydrolysis system is at the other end of the ship from our lower output power boards. Even if we had the spare cable and the knowhow ...which we haven’t, it would take 5 or six weeks of wiring to get it done. And then the output would be just too low in any case. I’m sorry Tom but no...it is a no brainer. We are going to have to think harder on this one. Much harder.’ 

Chapeter Two

NASA hadn’t directly informed ESA but it was clear to the Euro people that Houston had altered both Liberty’s approach speed to Mars and the ship’s whole course in general. The only conclusion that one could draw from these factors was that the craft meant to land at a different place than had been intended.

What on Mars did this all mean thought Wolf? It was never a light decision for Houston to do this. Not in life for true as God, so much bloody preparation had already gone into setting up and plotting that original landing site by NASA. It was the oddest thing truly it was. It made no sense at to him all. He remembered almost all of their own immediate pre blast off press conference clearly.

But then the months had towed away some of the immediacy of these factors. Love, a little hard work and a lot of boredom aboard the Argo saw to that in the main.

Helmut would certainly be voted unanimously as the most popular member of the Argo’s crew. He was polite, sympathetic and clearly the happiest chappy on the ship without doubt. And while we are on the subject of Barbara again, Wolf had found that Barbara was a really fine companion without really trying all that hard to be so. Well not all that hard I mean. She was of all things quite lonely. She did not really have the heart to hide that certain fact from her commander to be Wolf Kandihar.

Their connection had happened quite early on and then the team’s shrinks came to the conclusion that it might not be such a bad thing anyhow. So the romance stood.

Maybe Brigette had been right all along in her observations even before the Argo had been launched. Perhaps it is possible that Dr Barbara had set her heart on the commander even before they had shipped aboard.

Barbara’s loneliness was not the loneliness of the flesh wearying space traveler or a bored individual, but lonely as in ‘the heart is a lonely hunter.’ It was her age that was worrying Babara. That and the common enough thought that as folks always say.... real love might pass her by.

It truly was a problem for Barbara. This looking for Mr Right I mean. She was most likely simply too fussy about so many things. Perhaps this included men as well. Maybe she was not good at compromising or perhaps her sense of smell was far too acute.. It can be as simple and uncompromising as smell of men’s socks for instance. In this our normal jungle of society she had for the most, stalked alone.

Takes one to know one I guess, and Wolf surely saw all of this quickly enough. Wolf knew that he might be taking a risk in his command if he pushed their relationship much further towards the physical, and so he resisted the call of his flesh for quite some time. But it was of course only a matter of time.

Naturally everyone on the team recognized that they did not live in ‘normal times or places.’ And that stuff we all call time even though we have not got a clue about what it is. They all had a great deal of it on their hands did they not?

Perhaps their bodies had been feeling this aching stretches of time even more than did their hands. It was some time before Wolf was apprised of the Liberty’s supposed position.  Jean Alois had told him. And then suddenly the Argo had a special communiqué from his team leader. It was a message which might translate something like this........

Start of message.... ‘Nothing has altered from our original measurements or assessment of Liberty’s changes of speed and course. It would seem most likely now that they cannot and will not land at their original destination some place not far from Syrtis Minor. By our own calculations here, they must be thinking of landing somewhere a little closer to Mons Olympus than Syris Minor’.

‘But we are talking about a huge range here. We can get no further than that Wolf. No more can be said than that at the moment. Except to say, that NASA in it’s entirety has been completely close lipped about all these changes. They are definitely bloody-minded on the matter for sure. They also have problems on their hands with the great storm. As you know Commander Thomas John Glenn the Third is the Liberty’s mission leader Wolf.  My guess is that you may well have met him back here too’.

‘If you do get a chance unlikely as it may be, I support that you attempt to communicate with Glenn on the Liberty. As you approach Mars, it might just be technically feasible. But this is somewhat unknown from this far out. We haven’t exactly had a bucket load of cooperation from NASA on anything at all for some months past so we can’t do much more about it for the time being’.

‘Soon I will definitely send on to you some band ranges for Liberty when she is inside the Martian envelope. So unfortunately I have to tell you that we have little more info than that. All Houston will tell us is that there has been an in house decision to make some unspecified alterations. They won’t tell us if they are talking about speed or course here. Most of what we do know we have deduced for ourselves.’

‘So as I have already told you, there’s no bloody help whatsoever from NASA still. Well they know that we know that much already. Big deal though eh. They do not even mention the words course, or landing sites or if every body on that craft is alive and well. Not one bit of it Wolf. They seem determined to keep what they are up to a very tight secret indeed. It is more than curious and we are not at all pleased about the situation. We are sending in some of our darker people to Houston clandestinely find out anything more can be known. ....end of message’.    

In fact, Wolf Kandihar surely did know the Liberty’s commander. He had met Tom at a seminar held in Chicago some years ago. The seminar was not one his ‘day job’ efforts but was concerned with Martian chronology and went even further into the mathematical measurements known to man. The measurements of a planet whose elliptical path was far wider around the sun than Earths own.

So it had been a ‘fun run’ for Wolf in the windy city. Tom and he had been a fair bit younger then of course but they had got on very well just the same. Tom was a family man through and through. He was too, an admirable and a very brave man and no fool by a long chalk, whatever Barbara might say about him.

He was a fine pilot and navigator. And he was a lot of fun to be with to boot and the plain fact of the matter was that Wolf purely and simply liked him. He liked him as a fellow pilot and also as a man. All of that only drove him further to think that something was wrong with Tom’s mission. Nothing quite added up.

After receiving Jean Alois pointedly succinct message, he was wondering whether it was possible for him to get a message out to Tom in the Liberty. Quo Vadis, he might ask the man for instance. Wolf pondered what to do about the NASA team for a while. Then the next day, he asked Jean Alois to send what would be in effect a personal message to Tom Glenn. Finally after some hesitation, Jean asked Wolf to relay a message to him and to wait and see what might be achieved.

Wolf penned the message, which in essence asked the commander was there anything they could do to assist them either now or in the future. Indirectly his message asked Commander Glenn if they had a problem. Wolf waited three days and the blandest message was returned to him via Houston and his own ESA headquarters.

It was merely a hello note reply note. It was a mere formality really. The note refrained from stating either the exact position of the Liberty or any conditions pertaining to their ship whatsoever. It was not a typical Tom Glenn reply though. Not on your sweet Nelly thought Wolf.

Copious politeness was noted in the thanks to him about the Liberty’s progress. Mars was doable he told Wolf. Everything was all go with them there They were honing in on the Red Planet. There were also nada problems aboard the ship.... wasn’t that fine for them

He went on to say that they were only days away from landing now and we do not, repeat, we do not a single problem here. And no reasons were given for their sudden corrections to their previous path and no indications were given that anything but joy surrounded them all.

‘Hope you are doing as well too, from Tom Glenn here as we close in on Mars.’

And in closing Glenn said ... ‘Oh and by the way happy birthday Wolf.’

The commander had got something right then but then why had he bothered at all? Ah thought Wolf, I send him serious questions and he sends me back many happy returns of the day. It was indeed August 14, 2033 and it would be well over another three and a half months before the Argo could think of sending down it’s lander on the surface of the red planet.

And the NASA broke the news that the Liberty had safely landed. But there were none of the expected triumphal pictures of the event. The two weeks after Wolf had exchanged messages with the Liberty’s commander, there seemed to exist a kind of news blackout coming out of Houston about what Liberty was or was not up to as it approached Mars.

Not just to the commander and the crew of the Argo but throughout the known world. For the most stock photos became the common stock of trade. This was to continue for weeks after their landing. For all of a sudden, the world was jolted when NASA told us all the enormous news that Liberty had indeed landed first men born on earth on the surface of Mars. They had landed at last.

As you can imagine it caught most human’s breath for a second or two. Man was on Mars. TV sets and Newspaper banners ran riot with copious amounts of stock photographs once again. There were a couple of interior shots that looked authentic but no outside shots of Mars were forthcoming.

Why these stock photographs, then when new Mars was at the feet of these most famous and intrepid men and women? But alas said Houston there were no pictures to go with that news and it was once again most passing strange.

The last images that would be provided by Houston for some weeks were of the happy crew swimming in sight of a wobbly aimed camera in one of the Liberty cabins. They were all fine and highly social pictures of six vital and obviously happy if over concentrated humans. Most probably these photos were taken in the exercise room, which was adjacent to the liberty’s living quarters.

It was all clean fun and obviously it was all deemed to be appropriate by NASA officials. Then there were no pictures coming in and a few well-placed journalists starting asking questions. They also trotted out a clean cut and a most polite Houston spokesperson. He spoke his piece to the world in general. But still there came no visuals of the landing.

‘We here at Houston are so very sorry about the fact of the lack of current visuals here There have been a couple of technical glitches in this matter here folks. And in fact we are just a tiny bit embarrassed about the whole matter but it will soon be corrected. Our digital camera system has temporarily broken down....just be patient with us for a while please.’

It seemed that the NASA landing had been entirely successful though. NASA put it out that every one of our crew is well and all goes to plan apart from the camera shots that we were hoping to bring to you.

All of the crew of the Liberty is now busy at setting up the sites where they will be living for the next two years. Commander Thomas John Glenn the Third has received the best wishes of nearly all the leaders of countries the wide world over. It is indeed a time to remember. We will adjust things back to normal very soon. We will bring you all fine pictures very soon when the cameras come good. You all know how much we want this event to go well.’

‘Something stinks here. Something about this here does not smell well at all.’

Maybe he thought that he was only thinking this but this time Wolf had spoken the words outright and Barbara looked up at him with some concern in her attractive face. Barbara knew full well by now that Wolf was quite a hard man to upset. Over nearly eighteen months of intimacy, she felt rather than heard the commander’s concern. Therefore she reasoned, something was probably indeed rotten in the state of current Martian matters.

It was inevitable that Wolf should literally turn towards Barbara at the moment he was aware that she had heard him comment on Tom Glenn’s messages. He was aware of that as well. It was almost inevitable that he should also ask her advice at that moment.

‘What should I do Babs? Should I tell the rest of the crew of my suspicions and what if anything is to be done?’

Barbara leant towards Wolf a little knocking off a plastic covered file from a securing clip as she did so. The file floated off in the craft’s atmosphere. She secured the file again before she continued speaking.

‘Wolf you and I do not know very much at all in fact. You suspect something is amiss I know but that’s about all there is commander. But you must consider that our own Alois back home knows as much as you do and maybe a lot more too Wolf. We can almost safely bet tha. You know yourself that they often feed us bullshit up here. NASA does the same for in their lights, they want us to be as content as we can be.’

‘They want to do the worrying for us and leave us morons to do their monkey work for them. And that’s all there is to it Wolf. But I honestly do not think that you have enough straight info to hand to worry the rest of us aboard here either. Let’s just wait and see for a little longer commander.’

Barbara suddenly looked directly at Wolf her head to one side.

‘Wolf, how much do you know about modern photography. I mean about digital cameras and such?’

Wolf’s mind was already up to speed with her line of reasoning.

‘I think I know well enough what your’e getting at Babs. I think that you are about to about to tell me that digital cameras hardly ever breakdown or fail these days. You are going to say that given some battery power, that there is almost SFA that can go wrong with this type of junk eh?’

Barbara paused for effect, which was not really her style in the ordinary run of things. She smiled rather wanly at him, looking more beautiful than usual.

‘Spot on Wolf you’re spot on. I was going to say exactly all of that and more. But I tell you what Wolf. I do hope that Tom Glenn is brighter than I think he is. He might have fed us something a little murkier here mate. It was just too soapy for my liking Wolf.’ But having said all that, I don’t think we have enough to go on to panic anybody. ‘

‘What could be the worst Wolf? That the Liberty would be finished? I don’t know but we have our own preservation to worry about. What can we do for the Americans if they were in strife? Absolutely nothing Wolf and that’s the sour truth....nothing.’

It was the commander’s turn to nod his head. For Wolf knew exactly what Barbara meant by that too. Most of the damn message from Tom Glenn was just far too Mary Poppins for him as well. He laughed all of a sudden. It rang out clearly in the enclosed space. Then he said without any hint of irony.

‘You know what Babs? If you won’t show your crew against the local landscape of Mars, there might just be one and one possible reason why you do not wish to show it. You do not want folks to know precisely where you are.’

Barbara nodded her head slowly and she waited, as she knew that there was more to come.

‘In Chicago I asked Tom Glenn if he would like to play a game of chess with me. Tom looked at me a tiny bit shyly as I said it too. He continued on to tell me that didn’t know how to play the bloody game at all.’ I seem to sense a game is on here Babs, but I do not bloody well know what their game it is at all.’

There was agreement among the six astronauts aboard the craft, that the Liberty was by a long chalk the best craft that had ever broached space. Hey and it was just a pretty picnic up there folks. But the truth was much simpler. There was already a possible known problem aboard the Liberty only some five or six weeks into their mission.

The NASA reports now can be read and it was a little replay of ‘Houston we have a problem.’ They had done readings on their oxygen recycling monitors seven times and they couldn’t really trust their eyes in what they saw. They just could not believe their eyes when they read their meters for the first and then the second time.

Each time they checked their instruments there seemed to appear a reading, which while it was in no way dangerous to them, was not good for one moment. Probably the worst thing was that they didn’t understand the reason why the lower output oxygen readings were showing at all.

Chapter Three

Aboard the Liberty Houston was in contact with Tom Glenn.  The Houston controller waited patiently for the latest data on the oxygen supplies to come in. Seemingly, Houston was wondering if a turn around for the ship was possible. This idea had been discussed a hundred times during training. An emergency turn around. That only led to another and bigger problem too.

For apart from the fitting in to a suitable window.....almost unavailable unless they acted in the next few hours; the turn around at this particular stage was either extremely hazardous; near impossible re. For the oxygen supply ruled it out by over seven months. Over eight months of travel would not fit into perhaps two months supply of air.

‘I copy that Houston. We counted out the possibility of a turn around a while ago. I never took it seriously really though.....even if we nailed the window real neat we would not last past two months tops....that’s our figure right now. Two months ok?’

He spoke the words again....slowly and deliberately so there could be no misunderstandings. He said.......

‘Two damn months Houston.....we need another option here. And we need it pretty damn quick smart.’

Static was growing more loudly in Tom’s ear with every passing minute now.

‘Wher’es the Argo in relation to us now.....?”

The’re about three months behind you Tom.....on much the same course as you. They seem to be trouble free right now.’

Have you got any options for us then..... or are we to run on prayers for the most here?

‘We’ve thought of one possible option Tom....just give us another day working on it and we’ll get back to you with it. It will not be popular back here but it will keep you running. Are you all set for a landing Tom?

‘Yup...we are all go for that..... no problems there at all....it’s just a tiny matter of being able to breath that worries me. It probably worries the others a bit too.’

More loud crackling interrupts their conversation and then all communications with Earth became seriously dodgy. They were getting too close to the red planet by now. This meant among other things, that there was a great deal of static coming in to the Liberty. This went on for some hours and then finally the whole contact with Earth was kaput.

And it stayed that way for twenty four hours. This was now to become an endemic problem which was to last for the duration of their stay. It complicated a lot of things....particularly for an already nervous Tom Glenn

He turned to Perry Crosswhite, his second in command. Perry had listened to every word of the conversation.

‘Well that’s it then....wer’e on our own again for a while Perry..... ...got any ideas pal?’

Not that any hint of trouble got to either ESA or the crew of the Argo. They really were only privy to whatever the popular press was fed in any case. No doubt bad news would have been blocked by Houston whatever the circumstances. In addition, all of the astronauts were being blocked out in most of the day to day events among their families and loved ones.

This was done with only a few and rare exceptions to the rule. But this was a tried and true article of faith by now among all space agencies. The less the astronauts knew about what was happening in their home zones and hearths the better they felt and performed. The policy was cruel enough ok, but nearly all the shrinks thought that this was kinder to them in the end

This was a ditto for the European ship the Argo too. For psychologists employed by the space agencies the world over always thought that they knew best about their delicate creatures given the job of operating the various ships.

Never mind that these experts had never stepped aboard a rocket full of fuel which was about to stand you on end with a half kilometer tail of fire to lift you up into that wild black yonder up there. You might say that it was simply something of an ‘accepted truth’ of the space industry at large.

Naturally the manned Mars exploration team from Houston town was by far the most famous group of humans on earth for quite a while. The good ole US of A had done it again. The six humans of the Liberty’s team, four men and two women were greeted with worldwide attention and in part much acclaim.

Many sloppy and doting articles were written about their lives their spotless love lives and their cute dogs at home. Depending on what sides of politics the papers and TV stations were on, there was much acclaim or great blame given to them as aggressive opportunists and foolish colonists from another and spent age. The USA team was either a group of brave explorers, or foolish and greedy colonists.

So this crew of the Argo being merely the second team to have a crack at Mars naturally enough only received a smaller notoriety. And if they succeeded in dong the same thing as the Liberty they would indeed be merely the second group to do achieve this mammoth feat.

Can you remember the names of the climbing team that followed Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing in conquering Mount Everest’s peak? They were second in many different ways too. All the fractured and hyped up ballyhoo and all of the Hollywood style attention of the planet had been directed at the six humans from Houston who were to be the first to land on Mars.

Wolf had briefly made headlines with a quote of his, which had a distinct Mallory ring to it. The famous climber who perished on the slopes of Mount Everest in 1923 had replied to the question of why indeed would you want to climb Everest at all, by saying ‘because it is there.’

Wolf Kandihar was asked a similar question at a press conference in Berne. When asked why they ventured to do precisely what they did do he said. He said this quite succinctly but with the light of pride in his voice

‘Folks we do this because we are explorers. And that’s what we do...explore.’

His ‘that’s what we do’ tale rang out in a myriad of headlines the world over. Later on Barbara Nunns-Lynch had insisted that this ringing phrase be used as the first ESA Mars expedition team’s logo should include ‘that’s what we do.’ So all of the team wore a badge with those words emblazoned on them. Boom, boom folks and it does pay to advertise and many times at that. But very soon, stating in the USA but spreading to most of the Eu the monkey trial

The ESA team was by and large unknown except to specialists and the agency and their expanded family of astronauts in general. Wolf was better known merely because he was the second team’s leader. But it must be admitted that it was the fact that he was a Muslim was the thing which made him better known throughout the wider world. He was a very liberal one but he was an Afghani and a Muslim nevertheless. So given the state of world politics Wolf was subjected to a notoriety that wouldn’t have been there if he was a middle of the road European astronaut-cum scientist at large.

Wolf Kandihar was not even his real name either. His real name was too much of a mouthful for most folks to use, and he chose a pseudonym even before he had decided to attempt a doctorate at MIT. He had graduated from the Sorbonne with the finest of liberal degrees handed to any non French national.

His journey to Massachusetts to switch to a in the corridors of power in the United States of America were already watching this young man. The MIT had therefore been handed to Wolf on a platter and he eagerly grabbed the ring on the way around.

He was perforce aligned politically with the French. You did not get very far in European space projects if you were not. You do not get very far in any agency if you are not something of a political animal I would say.

There was a time back only just a little more than twenty years ago when the European Space interests would have gladly joined with NASA for a joint shot at the red planet. But sadly those days were gone at least for the present. China has landed a man or three on the moon some years ago and space tourists were growing apace thanks mainly to one Sir Richard Branson from the UK.

Wolf investigated man’s ability to work, sleep and play under various ‘sols’ and time shifts in general. Just as many people have a lot of trouble in the matter of jet lag astronauts were often totally or partially affected by time differences. Sometimes these factors could potentially make or break a project too.

Both NASA and the smaller but competitive ESA took the subject very seriously and it was not merely an accident of French politics that Wolf had been lured away from the circle of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the USA in general. Then he was propelled in to the even tighter arms of the European Space Agency and into the capable if devious arms of Bonsoir de Lorraine.

Wolf Kandihar had been born in that very same place as his surname. That is to say in the city of Kandihar in southern Afghanistan. He was now 42 years of age and carried himself very well too thank you. And he did not look too bad either. He was greying yes and maybe his reflexes had slowed a little too but he always had that natural poise that came from being used to be being a leader. He had the tiniest of paunches, and normally he was polite and exceptionally well mannered in a kind of semi patrician style.

Except that it was his scholarly manner that made him seem that way. It was not a manner born of wealth, or a past style of life in any case. In fact if anything, the opposite was nearer to the truth. He had been poor but also he’d been both talented and he’d been lucky.

Chapter Four.  So the twig is bent

As a small child in Kandihar, the third or fourth Afghani war (depending on your count) was still stupidly still madly raging. It would seem to be that when extremists are in the ascendancy, no moderate man or woman can safely sue for peace. And so Wolf lived in a city beset by poverty, suspicion and there was a certain madness for life in a place a dangerous as Kandihar. For talking about certainties, there was certainly enough of death to go around in this town.

In the end Wolf had put his head down and just studied hard and then he had met a Frenchman, a worker for a United Nations team. That had been Wolf’s big breakout event. At age seventeen he found himself studying at the Sorbonne in France.  

But then strange to say, he was also a man who was not without highly developed sensibilities. Apart from reading fine literature, he fancied painting quite a lot. He was certainly not an art expert exactly, but he had often been in a lot of Europe’s finest Galleries.

He equally admired Marc Chagall and Watteau and Peter Paul Rubens. And it was obvious to any person who spoke to him on the subject that he did truly revere fine painting of many types and schools. And it’s a natural fact that Wolf was also fond of the writings of St Augustine. And that’s not all that bad going for a guy that was brought up a Muslim.

As for his faults, some women might give you better examples than I can cite. He was definitely a restless man at times and ipso facto he was never a natural settler or a homemaker. He was also sometimes inclined to attempt too much and this could occasionally leave some gaps. 

It was a little alien for him to mow a lawn or cut a hedge at home. He did spend a great deal of time studying and writing and this could turn him into a slightly remote man at times. It went with the territory in some ways I suppose. He had married quite a few years ago but the marriage collapsed and he always would admit to all and sundry that the break up was mainly his fault... if it was fault that anybody was looking for.

‘For you know and I know that love never runs on time.’ One child called Arthur had come from that union. And as you would most likely have guessed outright, the son lived with his mother in Boston. It’s the way that these things pan out mostly.

Wolf’s academic background was just one of the reasons that he was now leading this crew of six European astronauts in their ship. Just a little more than a year ago he had been called into the building at 8-20 Rue Mario-Nikis, Paris, Cedex 15, France. This was the headquarters of the European Space Agency. Andre or ‘Bonsoir’ de Lorraine the ex astronaut and boss of all of ESA’s manned space operations had called him in. Almost no sooner than he had walked in the door than de Lorraine said to him in his booming voice. ‘Well you are finally about to be off to Mars you old bastard.’

The veteran tossed a thick file at him across the room. He had earned the name ‘Bonsoir’ when he risked his life as a young man to save himself and all of his crew aboard his spacecraft. He had disobeyed his controllers and did the most dangerous out-of-ship repairs ever attempted during flight. He had simply wished them bonsoir as he closed the hatch to go outside the craft.

Of course it had been a desperate gamble that had come off. ‘Well you got the bloody Argo you lucky old sod and you had damn well better look after the billions of Euros invested in her too do you hear me Wolf.’  Andre de Lorraine meant the days when the Ariane rocket was the ESA’s prime rocket for getting their materiel into orbit. Please try to remember Wolfie the Argo is bloody well a few times better than those clunkers of the old Ariane days you know’.

Bonsoir de Lorraine had been Wolf’s mentor for many a long year now. Andre de Lorraine had hard earned his formidable reputation in almost a dozen space operations in some fifteen years of stunning action and leadership. Like Brigette aboard the Argo, de Lorraine had once been an ace fighter pilot who was still kind of yearning for a war or two. He was not an easy man.

He had seen combat too and killed men in the air in his time. And had lied, cheated and literally bribed folks to get into action at the time. He had crossed over to drive a mean old desk too. The legendary old man was now very reluctantly coming near to retiring age.

They went on to talk about some of the technical details that Wolf would need to know and then they repaired to their favourite café in a narrow lane off the Champs Elysee. They had always enjoyed a relaxed relationship and Bonsoir worked better with a little alcohol aboard.

Yes and indeed this whole relationship was indeed a form of cronyism but in truth it was born out of a long trust and dear friendship. Bonsoir de Lorraine and Wolf had once been shipmates. But it went even further than that for this man regarded Wolf much as he would a son. The son in fact, that he did not have himself in real life

Wolf would always remember one day in late July when he was twenty two years of age. He was in a study room of the Sefton library at MIT, when he came across an article in ‘The New York Times,’ headed ‘Puff, and a definite proof of the existence of water on Mars.’ It was report written by one Michael Chang out of Tucson, which told of the recent work of professor Boynton at the University of Arizona. The professor was commenting on samples of soils taken from Mars by NASA’s ‘Phoenix’ lander in 2008. The puff of smoke, said the good professor, came from the soil of Mars when it was heated to a temperature of zero degrees.

This according to Chang’s version was proof positive of the presence of water on Mars. The moment would always stay with the commander whether or no the report had been quite accurate or not. It spurred Wolf on to take a direct interest in things to do with our solar system’s planets and Mars in particular.

He had many shades of skills then, besides the few normal kinds of weaknesses allotted to all men. Apart from the fact of his brilliance on the subject of time and of man’s peculiar weaknesses to the difference in the length of the ‘sols’ on the fourth planet he was a dogged and highly pragmatic leader.

Many other countries have quite major Space Agencies including China, India and Japan. Virgin’s English boss Richard Branson had also spectacularly added to that too. He had advertised for willing multi millionaires across the world. But he had also held worldwide raffles for additional positions in space jaunts. All these amateur events were proving highly popular the world over.

Wolf was glad that he belonged to the team that had chosen ‘the direct scheme’ to set up the Mar’s trip. This did not sound so direct either for it required the sending of an unmanned craft to land well ahead of the humans on the surface of Mars. In this case they called the unmanned craft the Ithica. Yes it was kind of home base true enough.

Basically, this craft called the Ithica was to sit on Mars once it had landed. It was the result of a long history of In-Situ Resourse Utilization (ISRU.) Both NASA and the ESA had been researching resources to enable them manufacture enough fuel from local Martian material to get them home again.

Of course the main object was to lighten the load needed to get the craft to Mars in the first place. The main process of a rocket propellant production may be expressed as a Sabatier reaction. This idea called for a motherlode craft’ to be sent ahead of the ESA’s manned space craft the Argo. It would be the production craft in situ on the planet.

Wolf was watching Francois Diderot looking at instruments while he was also scanning a set of mathematical tables, which he had opened up and placed beside him. Sometimes Francois would slide through mid air to another bank of machines. Sometimes he would do this upside down, just for fun. After all, it all helped to pass the time didn’t it?

There was little practical use in the Argo’s mechanical engineer in tackling this task at all. For of course the ship’s main computer saw to the matter hourly and even by the second in fact. And Francois was merely doing a job. He was assisting Wolf to manually double check their course. He was simply tracking the Argo as it pointed towards away to Mars. His main job though was as the ship’s engineer.

Francois was a relaxed enough man when he was off duty, but like nearly all mechanical engineers with a fair bit of space duty under their belts he was likely to be a grizzly bear until the problem at hand job was as an engineer. He fixed things that go bump in the night or the day. For one thing, he was highly resourceful in working out replacements for anything that might go bump in the night.

He would hardly eat or sleep until the problem was fixed. It was not that he tried to impress you, he was just a little bit like those Scottish engineers you used to read about in those old World War Two yarns that some of read. He just cannot help himself when there is a mechanical problem. It comes first, second and last with the guy.

The ship was still building up speed and it would continue to do so for well over two more months. They were some eighteen Earth Sols away from their initial firing position between the moon and good old home. In reality there was no hurry to do anything much right at this time. Time was of the essence really. I mean in the reverse sense that in this phase of the journey only there matter of finding a good book when you were off watch.

It would certainly take patience, a respect for each other’s foibles and sexual toleration to keep harmony among six highly charged and mostly hetrosexual humans. Yes it was going to be a long journey and time was going to be a little bit like their enemy for quite some months to come yet. The one-way trip to the surface of Mars was expected to take the best part of eighteen months.

They intended to stay on Mars for almost two years and then of course there was the same fourteen months journey back to the blue planet.  They were all possibly too bright, too intense and also too ambitious to be the ideal types to coop up together for this length of time. But they had all been trained very well. They had all been there and done that before to a greater or lesser extent. Wolf had the most space time on his sheet and that was followed in numbers of flights by the former ace pilot.

The main pilot was in fact also French and she was a woman. She held qualifications from one of the best Polytechic University’s in all of France. Her name was Brigette Evannes and like all most of her fellow male ace pilot-jocks she was definitely a bit of a daredevil in the old school of trained in jet fighters.

But nobody was ever fooled about the extent of this lady’s knowledge on matters to do with navigation in space. People usually deferred to her in this mathematically based field for they had a lot of experience of seeing her being right in her judgment.

Nobody aboard the Argo could match Brigette at the game of chess either. They were soon to handicap her in this game by taking away one of her pawns. This might even things a little but you would still not bet against her anyway. This lady was most intuitive, attractive, cool, and possessed of a fine memory and a most competitive player of the game of all games. And in some ways to Brigette, life was a game too.

Brigette who was quite unattached to any male back on earth, was best described as a ‘stunningly attractive and available woman’. She had quite frankly volunteered to the shrinks and boffins to be the swinger off the group if it was necessary. As she admitted herself, she had possibly discovered at an early age that life was short event. She normally sought only after lust’s satisfactions; such as they may be and let love lay low.

As I said she was a most attractive woman and game as Ned Kelly as Aussie’s would say. Francois called her BB, and none of the others had got it for a while. Francois was a bit of a film buff and he was thinking about the French film star Brigette Bardot. For it’s true said another wit that she was a very talented cube of sugar in a ‘D’ cup.

But indeed there was little that was cubistic about her shapely body. The shrinks had indeed encouraged and even slightly pressured Bridgette in this act of ‘volunteering’ as they could see some advantages in it for the harmony of the group. For the ‘social contract’ shall we.

Francois was basically unattached and as he was considered by the shrinks as a kind of abnormally good looking and man who was something like your ordinary horny Frenchman. They believed that it was possible he might seek some solace with Brigette. This was not rocket science dear reader and so it was proved in time.

Helmut Gerhardt was the German representative who hailed from Bavaria. He was a devoted homosexual who happened to be in a long term relationship back home. He was deeply in love with his partner. And he was a fitness fanatic and a very experienced geologist. It was probably in that order that he saw himself too. He was also a fine astronaut. He was tough and very courageous and it was no accident that nobody in his class during astronaut training had ever stood more rigours or passed harder tests than had Helmut Gerhardht.

He was therefore kind of regarded as a neutral figure by the psychologists in a sexual sense. There were no competitors for his affections and Helmut ‘s background and every single one of his tests showed him to be both faithful to his Bavarian lover back home and a patient, careful man in everything that he did. He was not a man they would tell you, to be either frivolous or god help us, to be impetuous.      

Dr Barbara Nunns-Lynch was both a medical doctor as well as holding a biology based doctorate from Leeds University. Yes she was an Englishwoman with some amount of that famous reserve and possessing some of that sing-in-the-choir attitude towards life, love and death. She was a biologist as well as a medical doctor. In the biology field she specialized in microbiology. She therefore handled two major roles aboard the Argo. Just as Francois Diderot was putting his navigation charts away, Barbara attracted his attention and pointed upwards through a hatchway over their heads.

She was revolving around in that weightless way as she did this. Dr Barbara was the chief scientific ‘nut’ amongst the Argo’s crew. Although having said that, all the other five crewmembers were all trained in one or more scientific aspects. Straight out hot seat pilot jocks need not apply here and that’s for sure.

And then there was the Italian. His name was Nando Parucci. Frankly, he was in quite an unsatisfactory marriage. His wife didn’t love him and his own love for her was something of a dying ember as well. He had told the experts quite openly, that he was considering quitting the union. Going off to Mars had not helped all that much of course and he thought quite frankly, that the trip would put paid to any chance that they might have ever had.

Nando had come to being an astronaut through designing aircraft. Jet fighters were his dire interest in fact. Italy had a long and proud history in aviation design and the country had been a top manufacturer of them for many a year. As a chief designer he had been in the habit of meeting test pilots a lot. He would sometimes accompany them up into the wild blue to see his work and that of his fellow workers in Milan at first hand.

With all I am saying you might be mistaken about the general tenor of the feeling of being on the Argo on this special voyage. And there were other strokes painted much wider with this special team of people too. Music was the master onboard the Argo, we might truly say. It was a real saviour in fact. And indeed on their worst nights it was something completely special for most of these very special humans aboard this Mars run.

Wolf was completely besotted by both Bach and Mozart. Dr Barbara tended to linger more dangerously in the shades of Mahler and Sibelius at this time. Francois sometimes took their breath away with what in olden days used to be called West Coast Jazz. It was Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis for him. Charlie Parker had a massive home in his beating heart as well. And in those nights when Francois was feeling a wee bit milder, Oscar Peterson would cool the man down.

In slightly more recent days but still in day of yore, he did some times play Herbie Hancock and then he would just gross out with heaps of The Rolling Stones But indeed they all listened to each others stuff....that was the rule. But in the end the rule was never needed...it just happened..

Brigette’s tastes were lighter than both Dr Barbaras’s and Wolf’s tastes. She was into Techno Jazz, the olden days Indie stuff of all shades, and bless the girl she also was very fond of dancing to Francois Diderot’s occasionally beloved Rolling Stones. To top it all she was into the ‘new new’ a form of music which was quite beyond the pale for any of the others.

It would probably not come as a surprise to you to hear that Brigette had danced for the whole crew topless after they had all consumed more than a few drinks one fine evening. She was at her best when dancing to ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want.’ As you might imagine, her turn brought the house down and she was ribbed for months on end after the event. But when all was said and done Mozart reigned supreme as always.

Now it may also not surprise you to hear that Nando could talk to Brigette literally for hours on the subject of aircraft design without either of them becoming bored on the subject. Nando also had a lifelong interest in gardening. Although at first glance this may look a little strange for an aeronautical engineer, he was just like many Italians, in that he loved to grow his own vegetables. He just loved getting his hands dirty.

This was another subject, which got him going in that volatile arm waving Italian style. So it was a natural progression of things that one of his many jobs aboard the Argo was to take special care of their dwarf wheat crop. Special care, because their very lives depended on their success.

The Argo also carried thousands of the oxygen producing dwarf wheat plants, which were the backbone of their air recycling program aboard the Argo. It was somewhat of a controversial plan simply because some experts thought it to damn simple and idea. These folks would not trust Roger of Ockam’s principle at all. Namely if you have two alternative’s to consider, then likely the simplest one is the better choice. But then this argument was designed to help us believe in the existence of God and no more than that.

Of consequence then the spaceship Argo was far lighter than the NASA craft and of course burnt far less fuel. They would arrive to find by a life support system already in place, assuming that they landed almost adjacent to the first craft. This was of course a potential hazard for them. If they could not land say within a thousand kilometers or less from the Ithica they would have various problems at hand to cope with.

For simply put, once they had landed on Mars they needed fairly quick access to the Ithica. And if they could get to it at all, they might have to wait for the next team from Earth to come to them while they were on short commons. This would not be a pretty situation to contemplate for very long. But it was also a breakthrough system and had another advantage. For when the Argo’s crew lifted off to finally lifted off from Mars for home, this static support craft simply stayed in place to serve as a support for any future groups to come.

Their landing site on the plains of Tharsis was right beside the Ithica. And it was here that they would catch up with the already landed Ithica. This included far bigger fields of the dwarf wheat and the oxygen it gave.

On the horizon is Mons Olympus. It spreads itself over about an area of 600 kilometres and stands about 27 kilometres high, which makes it three times the height of our own Mount Everest.

According to Wolf  it was fine up to a point to trust computers to a form of sideral navigation similar to those systems which ancient Polynesians had steered their canoes across the southern western regions of the South Pacific. But it was clearly difficult he clamed to miss a site just west on Mons Olympus. I think that the rather bright lad had a point too. It was fairly hard for a competent pilot to miss. But for there own sweet reasons, NASA had   not chosen the ‘send ahead’ any such fuel making systems according to the ‘direct Mars’ program.

As I told you before, in another time they might well have gone there together as a joint venture but at least some of the systems were agreed as being the most viable ones. So obviously in a few cases, both the two space groups employed very similar technologies. Both of the crafts were also made from the same basic materials give or take a few items and their navigation and propulsion systems were much the same as well. But the air supply systems were quite dissimilar.

But there were also breakthrough materials, which were being used for the first time on long space voyages. And they were quite dramatic inventions at that. Most of the current scientists thought that a new material based on a much improved poly carbon technology was a necessary component of a safe space ship. Therefore both the Liberty and the Argo used the same basic building materials for the vital safety of the outer hulls of their ships.

The skins were especially safe when backed up by the now available nanotube technology. This had been around for a long time by now. But it was a subsequent discovery by a chemical engineer way back sometime before the year 2008 that made the technique so valuable. His name was Jonathan Dordick at the Rensselaer Polytechnique Institute.

This nanotube technology had slowly been coming along for twenty years or so now. And by the year 2030 AD, it had the tested capability of instantly patching up holes, which could potentially be made by tiny space particles colliding with the craft. If a spacecraft is punctured in outer space the crew will be instantly pulped to death.

Dordick had come up with the radical idea of stuffing lightweight proteins among the nanotubing structures. In the case of sudden catastrophe of collision and the structure of any part of the outer skin beginning to break down, the proteins caused the material of the nano tubing to ‘come to life’ and repair itself in an instant.

It surely does sound like science fiction I know. And it does sound just too good to be true. But true enough it all was. It worked and it was well proven by this time to have worked under e many kinds of conditions. All of this repair work happens in a flash and thus protects the crew from sudden death while the craft is in flight.

Both the ESA and NASA crafts employed these basic new nano tube materials and were very happy with them. All the scientists and most of the more grizzled astronauts agreed that the ‘repair work’ of the ‘Dordick protein principle,’ looked and worked just fine.

Even though NASA had first tried out the ‘crane assist’ method of landing on one of their latest Moon landings, they had not persisted with it for their expedition to Mars. The ship they had chosen was a large one and they had perfected a whole craft landing technique for this craft. That is to say, they would land in one effort and the complete spacecraft would touch down on the surface.

Liberty would go down solo or go down swinging in it’s Mars landing. But apart from the ‘direct’ system of the prior landing on Mars of the ‘permanent’ backup craft there was another important distinction between operating systems of the Argo and the Liberty.

The European Space Agency after much soul searching and trial had finally opted for the cruder type of system where dwarf wheat plants were set to grow in circled racks lining the storage areas aft of the ship. The dwarf wheat growing system did have a temporary backup program should it somehow fail, but ideally this required the assistance of the permanent fuel making backup craft which was already in place on Mar’s surface not so far from the huge shadow of the 600 kilometre wide volcano called Mons Olympus.

If you are an Australian, perhaps you might imagine a mountain stretching from Melbourne in Victoria almost to the town of Dubbo in New South Wales. Maybe it would be just a little more than half the distance between Washington DC, and New York.  If you can imagine that at all, then perhaps you can get a handle on the diameter of Mons Olympus.

Needless to say to you that no longer manned voyages had ever been made in the history of space exploration than then these current two exploration jaunts in progress. Only rarely too had unmanned ships gone further than they were bound. Pioneer, the unmanned space vehicle, was at some 6.2 million miles distance from earth some twenty three odd years ago. By something like the year 2007, AD Pioneer was still relentlessly heading on further out into deep space at near this distance from Earth.

Well deep space as we know it. For as you would readily agree, what lies beyond is simply beyond our ken. And Pioneer had not broken up or suffered any major mishaps except being too far ‘from home’ to communicate at it’s best level until it’s final calls back to home. There had been other ‘deep space’ probes as well of course, and some of them were named Pioneer as well.

This one was in fact Pioneer 11. It was blasted into space in 1979 and by 1995 it was correctly sailing past the planet Saturn and continuing to send us back wondrous photographs. I am sure that some of you out there have seen the fabulous pictures sent back by this deep probe after that period. During 1995 the signals started fading from Pioneer 11. Soon later in 1995 all telemetry was lost from it, as it’s power base finally gave out and then all contact was lost to us humans presumably for ever.

It is known that the probe was heading for some stars in an arm of the larger constellation that we call Saggitarius. It was said that Pioneeer would still be blithely sailing by some stars in the smaller group within the Saggitarius constellation known as Aquila, or the Eagle.

Scientists have calculated that barring any accidents to Pioneer 11 it should pass by reasonably near to one of the stars in that group in a mere 4 million years. But now man and women had broken another space barrier or two. They would soon be landing on the red planet for instance.

The ache of deeper space claiming them while all the while the blue plant was rapidly diminishing in size behind them was palpable. The M2P2 or Mini-Magnetic Plasma Propulsion drive that pushed them was in no way yet fully extended. This type of drive was the brainchild of an American, one Robert Winglee of the University of Seattle in Washington.

It would take up to three months for this engine to reach it’s maximum speed. This was speculated to reach approximately 165,000 mph. That is to say by about just less than a third of the way to Mars it would reach it’s full it’s full thrust.

For it inevitably does require the three month period build up time in gathering maximum speed. But it is much like the tortoise in that race. The Argo was a lot slower than the NASA craft alright which used nuclear fusion propulsion system, will but hopefully it would surely like the tortoise’s win in it’s own way..... in the end.

The Argo carried only enough fuel for the one way trip. This allowed generously for a very safe margin for over consumption of the stuff needed to arrive at there. There was also the question of fuel needed both to get down on Mars and to get around once they were there. After that more fuel would have to be manufactured aboard the Ithica while on Mars.

This is as you remember the mother lode craft or manufacturing craft, which had been sent on ahead of them. Water of course was another problem for the astronauts. Scientists could by no means guarantee finding on Mars, in a form that they could get at, so they would always reckon on using a water recycling unit aboard the Argo itself. For there was at this time, still enormous debate about the presence of water on the red planet we call Mars.

Dr Barbara Nunns-Lynch had been appointed largely because she knew ‘the science’ of the basic matters which kept these six humans alive. Oxygen, water and carbon dioxide and also bodily wastes were Dr Barbara’s main concerns along with the general health of the crew. Even before she spoke, Francois knew that she was going to talk about the wheat trays up on the next level.

He just knew and that’s all there is to it. Hey Dr, the wheat has grown a full .5 of a centimeter since we started. I asked Nando about it and he said that it was just great. Nando Parucci had of course been carefully husbanding this valuable cereal crop during the short period of their flight. For it was not for the humans to eat at all but in order that they might breathe good and plain old air.

Dr Barbara naturally understood the simple science behind the recycling and she couldn’t fully comprehend most of Francois Diderot’s criticism and rejection of the method. It was truly a well tried method in theory and in Earth based programs but Dr Barbara was also well aware that it was quite a new technique in days out of Earth’s atmosphere, while in actual space time.

The dwarf wheat recycling method had been tried out on the space station named Son of Mir or ‘Smir’ as the astronauts all called it for short. However this was for but a relatively short period of time. One could have wished for a longer period of laboratory tests in space and that’s for sure. But time had pressed down on the ESA and in the end they had accepted it for the Argo

She called Francois Denis most of the time. It was a joke. She used the name after the writer and philosopher Denis Diderot. Of course this was the name of Francois Diderot’s famous countryman who was one of the French Philosophes in the eighteenth century. These were headed by Voltaire and were largely anti church and regarded themselves rather as the inheritors of rationalism.

There was no doubt that the dwarf wheat oxygen recycling system that Barbara was on about was still quite a controversial one to be sure. Oh the system provided the requisite amount of oxygen alright but of course like all crop systems they were at a small risk of failure or a partial demise at least.

You had to consider that your ability to breathe fine oxygen was always subject to the success of something that you could pull out of a planting box with two fingers. You could do that with the greatest of ease he thought. Francois smiled that charming Gallic smile of his.

‘Ah oui ma cherie and I have no doubt that we will end up feeling and looking like what you English call Weetabix soon. That is if we mange to keep on breathing at all that is.’

Francois was after all an engineer. He trusted nuts and bolts and to some extent computers, but after those he was the complete Gallic sceptic. In some small ways, Dr Barbara’s nickname of Denis Diderot carried a deal of truth with it. Francois finally finished the debate when he headed back down the craft in a swimming motion to the exercise area where he was doing some a low key emergency rewiring.

Francois was always to show himself to be a bit lairy of this system known as the dwarf wheat recycling system. And furthermore he loved to carp about it whenever he could.

‘There is simply no comparison in the two basic systems’.

He told Barbara in deadly serious tones of voice.

‘Hey cherie, what if some simple bug destroys our bloody wheat or it dies of rust?’

He went on and cited the absolute and true fact that the American system such as the one aboard the Liberty was entirely different to the system that operated aboard their ship. It is just so much more sophisticated than this one he told Barbara. That was also the truth. It was not anything like a system that depended on a primary agricultural crop for it’s functioning. It did not faze her one tiny bit though.

It was true enough that it was Barbara’s attitude to basically trust higher authorities. For she reckoned that there was already enough to worry about if your day job was to allow yourself to be hurled into space for crying out aloud. But Francois Diderot had a meaner leaner streak in him and basically he did not much trust farmers. Nor Italians, and neither did he have a great belief in the idea that dwarf wheat would continue to grow in space. 

It took only about seven days after his discussion with Barbara for Francois to poke fun at Nando’s crops to his face during drinks upstairs one night. Nando Parucci didn’t bite at the bait given him at the time by Francois, but if you had studied him carefully you would have seen that he had after all been a tiny bit hurt by this unwarranted cut and thrust. Wolf was nowhere near to this small incident and so had no idea that it was on the ship’s menu of backbiting.

About thirty five days away from Earth point Francois started dreaming about purple death. He was reaping what he had sowed in his mind I suppose. A couple of nights ago Francois had dreamt that he was dead and he knew why he had died too. He had died from asphyxiation at his main station inside the Argo.

But dreams are just that, they are only stuff of the mind. Science and technology continued to rule, and the ship continued on it’s chartered path with nary an incident aboard to concern anybody.

The Argo was a little less than seven months away from of their intended landing date on the surface of Mars near to Mons Olympus. They had traveled almost two thirds of the distance so far. They would find the position of Mars thanks to a combination of Kepler’s Three Planetary Laws. They would be closing in themselves to the red planet soon enough. They had taken off from outside Earth in 2033.

This was then some three years later than the most favourable perhelic opposition between Mars and Earth. This occurs every fifteen years and it simply means that the distance between the planets is smaller at this time than any other time. The distance then can be expressed as, 56 multiplied by 10 to the power of 6.

At the time that they left Earth’s orbit the distance was a little greater than this, but there were also a lot of other matters concerning Kepler’s Three Laws to be considered by budding interplanetary travelers. How could you find Mars in our solar system, is a fair question for instance?  So you first find out what speed it is traveling at, and quite simply put, one of Kepler’s Laws will tell you it’s distance from the Sun. It’s simply axiomatic and no error can be made in this.

It’s eccentricity of it’s course around the sun which makes for far longer seasons. In fact, the southern winter lasts 180 days for instance. So you see, with a little bit of boy scouting and some fair mathematics to hand, it is not all that difficult to strike out on a fair course for Mars. A Martian year lasts 687 earth days, which our intrepid astronauts called sols. In Martian terms the year lasts some 669 days. The old version of the Encyclopaedia will inform you that there was no accepted calendar for the planet. As we have already said, Wolf Kandihar was desperately and effectively trying to amend this loss however.

Helmut was busy studying some of the mysteries of Martian geological findings one day when he asked Wolf a question to do with Kepler’s time on Earth in the early seventeenth century. After all he had been a fellow German if that is what you might call a citizen of those parts at that time. Is it true that Johannes Kepler’s mother was tried as a witch he asked rather innocently?

‘Oh yes Helmut, it’s true all right my friend. Kepler’s mum was a something of a difficult woman you see. She was very garrulous and fancied herself as a kind of healer and was as difficult a woman as you might find that side of the Alps. Well I suppose that you could say that she made a good target for a witch.  She often picked a fight with every single one of her neighbours for instance. You could say that she was an accident looking for somewhere to happen and that’s what happened.  Surely it was only natural that she would make some enemies.

Unfortunately for her, that’s what happened. One of these enemies was able to convince a German nobleman to get a court to try her as a witch. And the influential nobleman, after dilly dallying about the matter for quite a length of time finally moved against her. Kepler’s mother was arrested and thrown into a gatehouse attached to a town wall and most disgracefully of all she was kept in chains in that same gatehouse for some eight months.’

Wolf was looking closely at Nando now for he was interested in the effect of his tale on the Italian and he continued.

‘The old lady was indeed put on trial at last, and her son testified on her behalf. His testimony was somewhat influential too. After all of this carry on, she was found not guilty of witchcraft by the court.  Well she was duly released, but the cruel neglect and awful torment she had experienced all that time in chains broke the old woman down. And the poor lady died within a couple of months after her release.

‘No apologies were forthcoming from the nobleman indeed nobody in that German town thought anything much more about the affair did they? And the great irony of it all was that Johannes Kepler had already formulated the bulk of his three justly famous planetary laws by the time of her trial.’

But there still remained that burning hole of a mystery. If Wolf and Barbara was right, why in the Sam Hell did the yanks not want the world at large to know precisely where on Mars they were? It was a good question too. Wolf Kandihar and the Argo’s tried and patient crew was now emerging from their near chrysalis state.

After more than seventeen and a half months and more, they ached for some more urgent action. And now after they had completed some 68 hours of cunningly placing their craft into the correct orbit around Mars, the final descent to Mars was in the offing.

This was due to occur within 42 hours and there were a myriad of tasks to complete before they started the ‘crane assist’ method to descend to the red planet. If you are unaware of how the how the crane structure peels back to reveal a now uncovered mechanism a little like a crane takes a load up or down on Earth. This is designed to guide the landing craft along an extremely strong line down to the surface of the planet below them.

Chapter Five.  Closing in on the red planet

It is a spooling down type of method which creates no bumping along the cratered surface of Mars as the many robot machines used in the exploratory days were forced to do when they were landed by balloons suspended above them. It takes only a little power to both land, or take off again for that matter.

There is almost no danger in the whole landing process and it is a system, which can be done repeatedly. If for instance, the captain of the Argo was to decide that they needed to shift to another site on the red planet, it would be a relatively simple operation to take the landing craft back up to the mother ship once again.

The one thing that they did not need down on the surface was one of Mar’s quite frequent dust storms. They didn’t really have any way of surveying their Mons Olympus plains landing site as yet either. When Argo was say about eleven hours from landing, they should be able to pick up a lucid signal from ‘lode craft’ Ithica, which had now been sitting on the Martian plain for just over eighteen months.

Ithica was equipped to give them quite extensive visuals around their immediate landing area and perhaps for some ten kilometers beyond that. Some Martian dust storms were utterly gigantic and in fact in 1971 earth observers tracked a major dust storm on Mars. This was practically a total global affair, which covered a good part of the surface of the red planet for a period of five months.

Mars is approximately half the size of earth my friend, so that certainly means some huge mother of a Martian dust storm. There is another consideration to take into account in these dust storms as well. Because of the thin Martian atmosphere, the wind needs to be above or about 90 to 110 mph to lift the dust particles or grains up into the air.

For the most these particles are about the consistency of fine talcum powder and it means that the winds are indeed often completely ferocious. If you think that there is red dust in the Martian air you are already warned that the winds carrying the red stuff is above 90 mph at least. We on earth are used to our own form of strong winds but the Martian winds are a piece of work of their own.

Just now there was a deal of expectation as they were rapidly nearing the zone when they could start receiving images from Ithica. Francois Diderot was monitoring the sets which were now blinking with the first indicators that transmissions were about to happen. ‘Commander, she’s coming through right now.’

His voice was steady enough but punctured with an unmistakable air of excitement. The monitor in front of them flickered once more and then all of a sudden there appeared a very odd image. There were five of the astronauts present and their faces contorted in mixtures of puzzlement and baffled looks all round.

‘Err, what in the Sam Hell is that,’

Wolf was merely expressing all of their confusion. It was a fixed image of red and pink rimmed with streaks of a much darker colour as you looked further upwards. The impression was perhaps that you might be looking at a part of an oddly coloured Mountain top. And then the image vanished as the camera moved...of course thecamera was moving at the same speed as the ship. They all debated what had been briefly captured on the screen.

Wolf had spent some time talking with Brigette. He gave out an opinion to the rest of the crew...

‘So it’s possible that Brigette’s notion about the image being a part of big Mons seems correct to me too. I cannot see it being anything else either.’ He tailed off and just for a tiny moment, he was looking hard at the screen again as he scratched his head. I‘d just damn well like to know what happened really? Carry on everyone please, and let us take up our stations once more.’

Brigette who had been screwing her pretty eyes up and looking very hard at the image suddenly began to point at the monitor and said without too much warning.

‘Wolf, I think that we are looking at a part of the higher rim of Mons Olympus and the Martian sky now. Look again, it’s a larger resolution than normal the eye would see it but I still think I’m right in what I see chief.’

After some minutes of debate it was the general opinion that Brigette was right in her interpretation too. The lone camera still partly functioning on the Ithica seemed to be locked onto Mons Olympus at a higher than normal resolution. It was a slightly magnified version of a slab of the upper part of the giant volcano and the Martian sky that they were looking at.

Later on this was proven to be exactly correct, as the Martian light stated to fade and it was plain enough to see that they were now seeing the dying of the Martian day as it slid into it’s evening mode.

Jean Alois and the whole ESA team were also saying go for it Argo. Nothing had altered basically. They were still ‘all go’ for their surface landing and so they relayed their assent back to ESA as such. Alois wished them all bon chance and they began the merciless procedures of re-entry. This was definitely where you could make an error.

There first priority was to enter the Martian atmosphere at the correct angle. The second task was to place the Argo close enough to the surface in a stable and very slow orbit, where they could safely operate the ‘crane assist’ landing gear down to take them down to the dust of Mars.

The Americans had in fact tried the ‘crane assist’ method out on a moon landing some four years ago. It worked just fine and it was not considered a difficult or a controversial mode of landing a craft down to a planetary surface. It had been the method that had a few brownie points going for Doctor Mars’ invention. But in the wash up the Americans had opted for the bigger spacecraft and what went with that. It was almost the opposite in concept. They would be landing their craft arse first on the surface. And this would be their one and only ship that would be taken down to the red sands of Mars.

Doctor Mars had privatized and founded a company and financed the construction of his own system in his home state of Kentucky. Subsequently NASA had approved, and then followed up by purchasing the system for an unknown amount of cash from Dr Mars of Kentucky. Of course Dr Mars had also recovered some more monies from the ESA as well.

But as I have already told you the Yanks weren’t willing in the end. It was not the money that counted with NASA but a philosophy. He was now completely retired and at his ease among blue grass, rolling downs and the finely bred horses of home. Once again this is the better side of the rather wobbly story of capitalism at work and play.

Oh yes and it is all true. For Doctor Mars did smoke Havana cigars. He was a most original and unstoppable character was Dr Mars. So that split the two systems in yet another way. The version that Wolf Kandihar would take down to the Mons Olympus Plains was a Dr Mars Mark 111 machine, and all systems were fair and ready as far as Wolf was concerned. They had finished all their discussions about the necessary preparations and now it was time to fire up and do it.

Chapter Six.   Down to the red planet

For the present, the Argo’s crew was buckled fast and hard into their survival mode seats as they prepared to fire the five retro rockets at the precise angles for their orbit entry bid. They had two chances at this but in fact the second window was very small indeed. The first one was their best bet by far. It was quite unlikely that their initial firing would not put them into line to enter the very thin Martian atmosphere. But should they require it, they had one more opportunity to do so. That is if they did it extremely quickly. However, it would be their last opportunity if they did happen to need it.       

The countdown was given to them by ESA back from home and wolf promptly fired them on their way in. there was only a small jolt as they swung down and away from the  course that had been set on for nigh on eighteen months of their lives. Down they were going then relentlessly to a sunless and icy cold sea of red dust below them. At this moment the Argo was being piloted by Brigette.

Wolf’s main job was to assess any data corrections given to the ace pilot and she was coolly translating the directions into physical patterns of steering the difficult patterns required of the craft. Down they went for some thirty minutes at their most critical phase of the mission to date. It was burn baby burn or survive.

They had now cancelled their next possible retro firing. This was the ‘get out’ or second chance for entry. The time for that was now passed. They could no longer re-fire their retros they must hold to the first course now.

‘Point up you bastard,’

Said Brigette half to herself but half out loud, as she made that tiny correction and she gave a grunt of satisfaction as the Argo came up a little under her rein. Flying the craft at this moment was indeed a necessity. It was a little like the old Shuttle crafts back on Earth and it was no easy task. For computers could not do this job here alone. If there was far less chance in burning up in this thin atmosphere, the handling of the Argo was indeed a slippery task.

One had to kind of slide into Mars with all the bullish grace of a baseballer smooghing his body into third base feet first. Brigette had done this a couple of dozen times or more in real time simulators and with top computer models as well. But naturally Brigette had never been here and done this until right now. Wolf silently acknowledged that in reality, Brigette was the only person here competent to fly the Argo at this very moment.

He did not wish to wonder what might be if Brigette was not available to do it. And as the Argo was now compelled to come in on the initial retro rocket firing patterns they gritted their collective teeth and hoped. Francois was counting down their height above ground level on Mars while Nando was calling out their speed in klicks. Brigette had to reform all this info into data that was relevant to her own eyes, ears and hands. Just so and no less!

Time passed so seemingly slowly as Brigette held on through the buffeting as the craft came through Mar’s thin atmosphere slickly. The lower they went, the more they encountered very high winds. ‘Holding, holding, we are holding here folks. Steady as she goes now. I think we are coming in just fine folks. I can almost say for sure that Argo is on track for a correct orbit here Jean. Just another three minutes Jean. Wait for it now.’ we should have visuals quite soon.

This of course was Wolf ‘s steady voice now. He was assuring Jean Alois and the team back home that they were on track after the retro rockets had been first employed. Three minutes passed and Wolf with the aid of Jean Alois and the teams back up had made it into the Martian envelope.

‘See we have come through.’

This was a female voice and it was Brigette, who was pointing to some huge object, which filled both the Martian sky and the fuzzy landscape below. Wolf interpreted what they were seeing quickly. ‘And look out there folks, that’s a visual. It’s the biggest bloody volcano in the universe.’

And sure enough, they could all easily see the great mountain that they called Mons Olympus filling the craft’s window. It was truly a most monstrous thing. And it was a fabulous thing to see. It was such an eyeful for these harried astronauts. to take in. It took their collective breaths away with a rush. Nando sighed and he spoke softly but very passionately in his native tongue.

‘Ah, Dio mio, si bella, O bellissimo.’

And then he went silent merely gazing down at the giant volcano as it seemed to grow in size in the spacecraft’s window. In truth I do not think that the crew of the Argo would have minded if Nando had broken out into a gravelly chorus of ‘O Solo Mio,’ so pleased were they to have visuals of the Martian scene far below them now.

Now Wolf smiled warmly at his pilot on hearing Nando’s most heartfelt words. Brigette also beamed outrageously and then she pumped her hand into the air in an act of sheer joy of it all. And then a spontaneous cheer went up through their locked in seated area used for all the critical moments in flight. For look they had indeed come through. But still the craft had to employ the ‘crane assist’ to get them down to hard ground soon.

But now they reckoned that it was perhaps the easy part. They had to do this while the spacecraft was calibrated exactly to the rotation of Mars and was seemingly hovering above the surface at some four hundred feet above the sands of Mars.

‘It should be sweet apples from here mate.’ This was Brigette, still at the helm and turning her body to cast a sweet grin over her shoulder at Nando and straining her seat belt to do so.

Dr Barbara chipped in now.

‘Guess what fellas, I don’t think we have a sandstorm out there to contend with either.’

She was looking at a downward projection of the landscape as she spoke. In truth they were still up a little too high to make a perfect call on the matter but it looked clear enough from where they were. Soon Wolf saw the signals from the global position beacon on the mother ship Ithica down below them on Mars.

He announced this fact quickly to the rest of the crew and there was a suitable buzz of excitement mixed in with their professional and quiet manner. She was smack in place down below them with all it’s goodies waiting for them. Wolf promptly set a course to land the Argo two hundred metres from her and also told the crew of that action.       

In about an hour they would be spooled down to the surface by the tried and true ‘crane assist’ titanium rope attached to the ship. They would still be slowly working the craft down to a suitable level during most of that time. Besides, there were a hundred things for the crew to prepare before they all left the Argo for there would be no caretaker pilot left aboard her when they descended.

It would stay up there in it’s very low orbit. The crew stowed their personal gear into the landing craft, while each of the specialists did a final check on the scientific, geological materiel and the like. Wolf made sure that The Argo’s logbook went with him.

Before he shut the log he meticulously recorded their position in the Argo by hand. Every person had another member of the crew beside them checking now. As they double checked each item against the previously drawn up manifesto.

After some fourty five minutes of very hard work Wolf was confident that they had not missed any essential item. Brigette and the computers had taken them on a wide looping circuit to their chosen landing place on the far side of Mons Olympus in the adjacent plains. They had dropped down almost to the correct height to allow the titanium Indian rope trick to occur as well. It was time now for the crew to embark onto the lander, which was named Cyclops. There was no mystery why it was so named at all. For it looked for all the world like a one eyed monster with it’s huge landing light situated in the front of the machine.

Then finally, they all suited up and Wolf took one last look at Ithaca’s lone camera. You might imagine that these astronauts looked a lot like Armstrong and the other Apollo men that followed on all of the moon landings, but that would be an error. They wore pressurized breathing gear and an environmental suit which in the main, took care of the extreme cold that would find here.

They were only constrained a little in their movements and it was still necessary to turn your head a little to see another persons face for instance. For the present, they had a visual straight downwards only without any thrilling details. That would come a little later as they came were closer to the surface. Their global navigational beacons all blinked a ditto message out to the commander.

They were spot on the money now. If they went ‘down the rope’ exactly below them at this moment, they would be say less than 300 metres away from their lode bearing craft they called Ithica.

The astronauts planned to live in the Ithica until they had constructed the fold out quarters stored in the mother ship. It was here that the crew of astronauts would have to live in harmony together or not, for another two years. Two years my friend like it or lump it. Other important items on the Ithica were the hundreds and hundreds of dwarf wheat plants that had traveled in her belly to the Mons Olympus Plains.

They were all so very healthy too and each plant was giving off all the oxygen that Allah had meant them to do. Nando also had plenty of his supply of wheat grains for fresh sowings when they had built their ‘home sweet home’ on Mars. You can never stop an Italian from being a veggie gardener you know. No matter where you may roam and even if that Italian is both an astronaut and an aeronautical engineer.

Wolf also used the same downward projection viewer that Dr Barbara had employed before he quit his post. But it still wasn’t all that clear a view at all. She was right though he thought. He did not reckon that a sandstorm was blowing it was just that some kind of haze or clouding obscured the final resolution of the 600 feet that lay below them.

He could not make out the mother craft Ithica below him, and nor was it possible to see the surface. It was likely that the atmosphere might be slightly murky when they got down to the shifting surface of the sands of Mars too, despite Dr Barbara’s early call.

Wolf took one last look around his control room while Brigette had to remain behind for a while at the ship’s controls until she was ready to place the ship’s controls on remote for the duration of the stay if that’s the way it worked out. It was possible that it could be for a period as long as two whole years.

That was indeed in the lap of the Gods. After Brigette had gone, the Argo would remain suspended as it were like the veritable sleeping beauty of a princess, until they were ready to ascend up the same titanium rope when they again employed the same landing craft that had let them down to the surface of the red planet.

Wolf lifted something about the size of a laptop computer from out of a slot in the console. He tapped Brigette lightly on the arm and nodded his head. This gesture was significant enough. Wolf was signaling Brigette to set the remote controls in place for the Argo to remain where it was, relative to the motions of Mars.

It was most necessary for him to watch her do it. This was now a critical moment for if the Argo did not remain stable in this orbit, it meant they could not risk leaving her now.

It took some two minutes for the ace pilot to punch in the needed codes. They watched all the instruments carefully to finally recognize that the ship had responded exactly as o commanded. The Argo was ready, stable and simply put, she was already awaiting their return. Just whenever that might happen to be nobody could know precisely.

And then at last Brigette rose, blew a kiss across her hands towards the console from behind her pilot’s seat and then quickly joined Wolf in exiting the Argo. Jean Alois had been kept informed of their progress in putting the Argo on hold.

He and another controller continued to monitor them as they descended in the lander. There was the small ceremony to consider when they put foot on sold land and the visuals were to be mostly handled by Nando Parucci and Francois. 

They would both flip down the seals on their helmets before they floated through the air lock into the Cyclops landing device. The lander was not a craft as such, for it could only move up or down as the titanium hawser allowed them, and it was at an Earth atmosphere right at this minute. All the others were already sitting in there with their own with all their gear at the ready.

Their helmets were also locked on, but they could still breathe a very good imitation of earth’s sweet air for the present. Wolf kept the computer he had taken out of the Argo’s console on his lap. It was a copy of all the Argo’s master memory banks. Every piece of data that was stored in the Argo’s copious computers was copied and stored in this small computer on his lap.

It was a lifeline and perhaps worth their life’s blood too and it would sit in the lander until he carried up aloft to the Argo once more. This small, black machine also contained the ‘dead man’s command, which was set of constructions known only to Wolf Kandihar himself as the commander. Allah forbid that any other human ever does have to learn about too he thought. It was not a thought to dwell on though was it?

Wolf looked slowly around him and then nodded to Nando Parucci, who slid the hatch shut as he winked at Brigette. The lander was a survival craft in itself, and it contained such things as food rations, water, emergency gear, weapons, first aid, a small transporter, extra air tanks, a full communications board.

It could easily double as sleeping quarters if necessary for the seats were designed to fold down to make emergency beds. It had to be heated because the humans would never be able to withstand Martian temperatures which only dropped further at night.

Brigette smiled a lot at every one and you could just make out her face giggling a little behind her helmet. Dr Barbara touched Wolf lightly on his leg, pointing out Brigette’s uncontrollable and public joy to the commander. Wolf laughed as well and gave Brigette the traditional thumbs up .  Their situation was all go, he was saying. Jean Alois said the same and Wolf nodded his assent to Brigette.

Then with an arch kind of grin on her dial, Brigette flipped the switch situated on a panel near her bottom. And there was the sound of two clicks, then a slight pause and then the Cyclops gave out a faint whirring sound as it began to move down It was most quietly spooling on down held onto by the titanium hawser to be set down on the sands below.

Brigette clapped her mitted hands in a kind of spontaneous glee as they got under way. For some reason, Helmut looked uncharacteristically grim as he sat there. They were on their way down on the last lap. They had traveled downwards some 100 feet already by this time. There was only some as 400 feet left to go.          

Chapter Seven.  Whom the Gods Love, They First Make Mad

Half way down Wolf halted the Cyclops for a moment or two. He wanted to inspect the immediate surface below them. He already knew that it was fifty two degrees below zero down there and it was no tropical holiday. There suits were well and truly heated and they had no worries about that aspect.

The only view the astronauts in the Cyclops had of the alien red dust covered planet was of the ground surface directly below the lander. It did not tell them all that much, except that there were no boulders or ridges in their way below them.

It was deemed by all to be a fine landing so far. The Cyclops was in a close proximity to the Ithica and the lander was soon moving down the last twenty eight feet or so. All they felt was the gentlest of bumps and they realized that they had landed Mars. The second team was down and soon about to be out.

After the Cyclops had settled, there were several explosive sounds heard. Expanding bolts had been driven below the sands of Mars into the bedrock. The sensors told Francois that these had driven home fast. The lander was now firmly locked onto the fourth planet.

This day was April, 27, 2004 and Wolf had appointed Helmut to remain with the lander while the other five of them went out for their first steps on the soil of Mars. Nando had his camera at the ready to record the momentous moment as they prepared to open the hatch of the Cyclop’s air lock which then led down to the few steps to take them onto the red soil of Mars. He had a wide grin spread all over his handsome Italian dial. Back home, Jean Alois was reading off a list of the outside conditions as they computed them back on Earth.

Jean had always maintained that Wolf would always be the supreme commander as the man on the ground. No one can assess any danger or a potential advantage better than the man on the ground was his constant mantra. But nothing could have prepared them for what they saw when they put their heads out of the lander.

Among the pinkish hue of the scene with the giant backdrop of the vast bulk of Mons Olympus was a sight to shock even hardened hearts. It was like nothing on Earth or on Mars for that matter either. Nando Parucci had been all set to commence filming from the moment he stepped out.

But what he saw next, stopped him right in his tracks. As soon as Wolf glimpsed the awesome scene he gave a curt order to Nando Parucci. ‘Stop rolling your camera Nando. Wait for me to tell you what to do soon.’ To Jean Alois back home he said,

‘Jean, there is something well and truly wrong here Jean. Keep our circuit a closed one and stand by for a while.’   

The scene before them was reminiscent of either a guarded factory on Earth or of those ancient photos of Second World War prison camps in Germany. Francois had a flag at the ready as he stepped down from the lander. Even in their large helmets, the astronauts could clearly see the Ithica on the bed of the Martian sands.

Nando looked at Wolf but the commander just shook his head. But from what they could make out, the Ithica was locked in and surrounded by what appeared to be heavy mesh walls, wire and gates of a makeshift kind and the like.

The very next thing they noticed was the rather large spacecraft, which stood some three or four hundred metres from the Ithica. It stood there so majestically in the plains of Mons Olympus beyond the Ithica.

Wolf got back to Jean Alois quickly.

‘Jean, Nando is going to send you brief footage of what we are seeing. God in heaven.... this is just sheer madness.’

He paused for he was not a little in shock. He nodded at Nando Parucci who understood him instantly.

‘This is closed viewing mate. I repeat this is for your eyes only and Nando is pressing the code button to allow this to occur almost immediately.’

He made sure that Nando knew what he wanted to do and together they sent back two minutes of visuals to the ESA in an in-house code. This was sure going to set the foxes among the geese thought Nando in a rather weird moment. The wider world would not see this for the now. The coded form would secure it from any possible pirating by either NASA or reporters on the loose. What they themselves could not comprehend would not make for a great deal of fun back home he thought. 

Hell on earth, but what Nando was currently filming, was most certainly a space craft made on Earth. That much at least was indisputable. And all of sudden Nando Parucci, who had been the second one to climb down from the lander with his camera exclaimed in a very loud voice as he filmed.

‘Holy shit man.... that has got to be the Liberty we are seeing over there.’

And as soon as he had said it, all the astronauts who could see the craft, knew that what Nando had said was true. It was the NASA spacecraft, which they, along with the rest of the world had been told had landed on the surface of Mars some eight months ago.

But here it was smack on their landing site. They finished the short camera shoot and Wolf merely said to Jean Alois, wait further developments Jean. We have to investigate further.’   

Francois had an ESA flag in his hands as he was clambering out of the lander. He found that in walking it was just as they had said it would be. When you walked you had a feeling as if you might be in quite a rapid lift in a tall building back home. You definitely had a spring and a lifting feeling but the atmosphere did not let you look like a Buzz Aldrin as we had viewed him in that old film of him as he deliberately bounced along the surface of the moon with much gusto.

Francois had been the first one out of the lander for a good reason. It was simply in order that he might honour the ESA’s magnificent achievements in getting here at all. In other words, he was to plant their flag. No matter that they were the ‘Second Team’ on Mars. Francois was carrying something, which was highly coloured in his hands.

It was their flag or emblem of course. It bore the European Space Agency’s colours. And Francois meant to establish this tiny patch of the sands on Mars in the name of all European enterprise and courage.

Men had died so that these six humans could step onto this red soil. Francois had personally known two astronauts who had done just that. He was practically about to stab the emblem into the sands of Mars for posterity when he all but dropped it.

He just could not believe his own eyes. He pointed rather wildly to his commander who had just taken in the whole scene for the first time. He was the fourth person to climb out of the lander and he looked towards Francois in no small confusion.

‘What in the Sam Hell is going on here?’

He said to this to nobody and everyone over his head phones. He didn’t expect a direct answer though.

Then Francois did let the flag fall at that moment. He was retrieving it again as Brigette Evianne was shielding her eyes in the harsh Martian light to peer across the weird scene before them. Barbara moved a little closer to both Wolf and Francois.

They were all of them in total shock. This was not supposed to be scripted in any play at all. Not on Earth and not on Mars and not in this solar system either. ‘The bloody stars and stripes is what is going on.’ That was Wolf speaking and his voice was as hard as the titanium hawser that had let them down to this soil. At the same time, he was pointing away in the distance,

‘Christ in heaven, the Yanks are here folks, and that is sure as Sam Hell what is going on people.’

Boom, boom and it all suddenly fell into place. For this was a true thing he had said. Nothing else could have possibly made sense you see. There stood the NASA ship the Liberty. It was about just over a quarter of a kilometer on the other side of their motherlode craft the Ithica. The Liberty was so big that it easily dominated the skyline even at that distance.

The terrain between the Liberty looked very rugged indeed and Wolf wondered just how the Americans could have succeeded in getting from the ship to the Itica. That is presuming they had made it over to it. The ship stood with its retractable landing feet spread out wide on Martian rock and soil.

You coudn’t quite make out all this detail from this distance but the crew of the Argo were familiar enough with the Liberty’s design. The garish pink and indigo sky only made the scene the more remarkable.  Indeed the scene partly because of it’s unnatural colouring and partly because of the objects themselves looked most remarkably like a scene from an old fashioned Holywood film. I am thinking of a film about early space travel to the moon.

A film like ‘Destination Moon’ say comes to mind so easily. The Liberty was certainly a most exquisite design with remarkable engineering feats staring at you right in the face. In particular the beautifully made retracting feet or arms were simply out of this world in their engineering beauty.

The terrain was either bare rock or rock covered with sand. It was slightly undulating territory with some small craters scattered here and there. Rocks and boulders big and small were scattered across the stretch of plain. The terrain between the mother lode ship and the Liberty was as I have already said particularly rugged.

For the most back at home it may have been called a gibber plain by some people. But in truth it was a slightly wilder version than that. The landing site of the mother lode ship was on a tiny plateau which saw it to be a deal higher than the American craft.

It would seem then that the distance between the Libery and the Ithica presented considerable difficulties to cross either by foot or by a Martian Rover. Presumably this was at least in part due to the rather hurried change of landing sites by the Yanks.

Mostly though, apart from the shocking sight of the Liberty standing there as bold as brass some distance away. If you turned your head the scene was almost totally dominated by the awesome bulk of Mons Olympus rearing up to unimaginable heights in the background.

Helmut was appointed to remain with the lander and the other five set off towards the Ithica. The going however was easy enough for the five astronauts and it was about a ten or twelve minutes walk for them.. Even togged up as they were with their heated suits and oxygen tanks they made fair progress. Mons Olympus was now at their backs and they could see both Ithica and the Liberty a lot further away from them.

A clump of low buildings, which should not have been there took them aback. Maybe they were the portable quarters thought Wolf. So what were they doing there? As they came closer they thought that they could discern a fence of sorts.

Chapter Eight.  It just cannot be

The astronauts who looked more like Flash Gordon or Brick Bradford of the ancient days of the Twentieth Century rather than Neil Armstrong in their slimmer survival airsuits. They were now wandering over a little closer towards the strange fence line. They were still some hundred yards away from it however.

Francois chipped in once again.  He was saying to the rest that it was plain as the nose behind his helmet’s visor that the alien ship was in fact the Liberty. Yep all the way from the old Kennedy space pad in Florida it was for certain.

They didn’t really need Francois to assert this now. They were now able to see that the portable laboratory and living quarters were in place and attached to the Ithica. Just as Francois was commenting about the portable, he tripped over a small shovel that had been left there a little distance from a footing of the fence. Damn these careless Yanks he muttered as he continued walking. He limped somewhat as he went on his way, nursing his left leg a little.

Nando Perucci kept on saying over and over almost to himself.

‘Why are they here then? It just cannot be.  Why on earth did they land here? ’

All of a sudden Barbara spoke with a sense of urgency in her voice,

‘Wolf let’s go back to the lander quickly. Hey chief, I really think that we have stumbled onto something very weird here.  I mean really weird Wolf. I don’t not feel one little bit safe right now. Not one single bit I don’t.’

Even through her airsuit the others could see that her body shook a bit too as she spoke the words. None of the others felt so fine either come to that. And they all seemed to turn to Wolf at the very same moment.

Wolf Kandihar put his hand up in that time honoured group signal to halt. Just like the cavalry used to do in the movies. Like the others he was frightened but it wasn’t entirely lost in his thoughts. Approaching closer they could easily see that a rough fence had been erected around both the portable and the Ithica itself.

Wolf got onto Earth quickly. Speaking to Jean Alois, he demanded that the ESA get onto NASA at Houston immediately for an explanation. What in the bloody hell exactly were they up to, he asked him?  But no answer came the clear reply from Jean Alois from back home. Wolf said a bit curtly to his director.

‘Jean, I’m closing you out for a while now. Get back to me when Houston gives you the info loud and clear. Do you copy me?’

He took a pair of light heightened binoculars out and studied the man-shredded and shocking terrain before him more closely. He was looking away from the giant form of Mons Olympus, so the Ithica and the craft beyond it stood out against the rather pink and grey coloured sky.

Nothing moved and there was not a sign of any human being at all. The makeshift fences seemed to have been mackled together from a range of materials.

Probably a lot of it was lightweight metal substitute stuff or something similar. But it was certainly a solid enough affair for all that. It would certainly stop a man from getting in without special cutting gear. He could see too that the ESA designed portable construction from the Ithica was also out there in the open.

This was a kind of portable designed to be their living and scientific laboratory quarters.  And most amazingly it appeared to have been left incomplete. This fact did really worry Wolf for it meant that at least the bulk of the quarters could not be pressurized at Earth level.

They were living quarters that could not be lived in. Not by humans at least. Hey and this was meant to be their living quarters for the next two years to come. He knew that with a slight bit of attention and competence the structure could have been finished within five or six days.

Perhaps a week at the outside would do it. But here it was and it was certainly unfinished as it stood there. From where the commander was, he couldn’t quite make out if the rest of the living quarters were sealed against the atmosphere or not.

He spotted some kind of a land vehicle over near the fence not far from where the American flag was hanging. The was that this uncompleted building was like some kind of a naked wound to the commander and seemed to him to be symbolic of something even worse to come perhaps. He liked not a thing that he could see here.

It stood there in some isolation like modern version of a bloody Roman ruin on another planet called Earth. Christ man but this was supposed to be their own bloody living quarters here that they were looking at. And in it’s own way, this unfinished construction was far more threatening than anything else he could see. Somebody had started to erect the thing and then for some reason they had simply stopped. But then it might not have been that simple hein?

The Martian wind caused some of the loose material to flap just a little more than gently making it seem even more eerie. This strange scene told him so much but also left so much unanswered. What in the hell were they up to? It was simply nigh impossible to guess at what was going on here.

For to tell the truth Wolf was just as stunned as the rest of the second team at what he had just witnessed. But he knew one thing for certain. He had to make a decision and he had to make it very quickly at that. Maybe Barbara was right at that and perhaps it would make good sense to hurry back to the lander?

Perhaps it would be the only sensible thing to do. He who lives to run away might just live to fight another day. Wolf signaled for the four astronauts to gather around him. They crowded together as well as hey could. He was thinking of asking them to lie down and take cover but he did no such thing in the end. It was a kind of circling of the wagons while they met in council.

‘Has anyone seen another human or any kind of signs of them?’

Wolf was in serious mode now, and his voice was clipped and spiked with energy. Nobody said a word following his question. Some of the heads were shaking a negative, but not a single reply came from the small group. So it was a given then, that none of the crew had seen another soul here as yet at least. Then it was Barbara who spoke the next words.

‘We have not seen anyone stirring here yet Wolf. What I am thinking right at this moment, is are the Americans here or were they once here and now they are not.’

She too was shaking her head. She looked around her in that clumsy and altogether awkward way that suited astronauts must to make contact. She spoke into the headphones once again.

‘What I mean is, are the Yanks still here with us now? According to NASA they should have been on Mars for some months by now. A lot could happen in that time Wolf. Just who is here then? And what’s more important, if they aren’t here where in the hell are they then? And if they are here, why don’t they just come out to meet us then?’

Wolf kept turning over the sight of those bloody living quarters lying there in a semi-ruin just a hundred yards from them as they bundled themselves into this hurried meeting. Well perhaps ruin is too strong a word for just a day or two’s hard work on it could patch it up.

The commander hadn’t had a spare moment to mention what he had clearly noticed through the binoculars to the rest of the crew as yet. He was still too busy taking it all into his own mighty computer. And naturally, Wolf was not the only member of the crew who was thinking course changes eh?

You could not escape the conclusion that the Liberty’s apparent course changes all that time ago certainly meant something else now. Many months ago they had inexplicably changed course. It just had to do with them ending up here.

Ipso facto and pray tell me, what else could you conclude then eh? Each one of them mulled this over in their private thoughts.            

Jean Alois got back to Wolf, telling him that Houston needed ten more minutes to clarify the situation further. Wolf exploded down the line.

‘Clarify the situation my arse Jean, that is total bullshit from them and you know it. It’s the year 2024 for Christ’s sake Jean and not the second cold war of 2010.  It all goes back to our original suspicions of those course changes they made months ago.

Damn it all Jean we had almost forgotten about that hadn’t we? I will wait a while, but I won’t hold my breath. It will be getting dark here in just under three hours Jean. And please remember Jean that I’m the man on the ground here.’

Jean Alois replied in the affirmative.

‘Yes Wolf we agree, you are definitely the man on the ground and we will back you up a hundred percent in everything. Look a little closer and hey be careful man too.’

Alois closed out with those last words and Wolf and his crew were all back with the silence of Mars and their minds.

Chapter Nine

Wolf moved up a cog or two after that......

‘Wait on a second and stay where you are.’

He said this to the others and then he crisply spoke into the open headphones to Helmut who awaited them back at the lander.

‘Hey Helmut, do you read me Helmut?’

A pause followed but a short one before the reply came back in the affirmative.

‘Yes boss I copy loud and clear; go ahead.’

Wolf thought silently for a while and then went on.....

‘Look, I want you to break out the weapons from the locker on the wall of the lander man. Arm yourself first and then hand the rest of the weapons to Francois and Brigette when they get to you in a few minutes. Get them wire cutters and a bolt cutter from the emergency gear as well Helmut. Oh and you had better get out a full medic kit as well.’

And right at that moment Wolf suddenly remembered Arthur, his son living in the USA. It was of course a real feeling of mortality. He was scared as hell at this terrible turn of things. But still he continued to make fine enough decisions.

‘I want you to stay by in the lander and then call the ESA pronto. Repeat, you are to stay with the lander when the others come back here. Tell headquarters that they are to stand by for an urgent message Helmut. You probably already realize that the American craft is with us here.’

‘I repeat, when Francois and Brigette return to us with the weapons you are to remain in the lander with your weapon at the ready. Lock the door as well Helmut because I’m not sure of the situation here at all. I am just taking all precautions. The lander is everything to us as you know.

Oh and Helmut crank up the heat in the lander too would you? Do you copy all of this Helmut?’

The reply was swift in returning to the commander.

‘Yes all is good sir and I read you very clear. I will get out the Zendrons  and the other gear right now. I’ll call ESA as soon as possible and I am to expect the others back here very soon.’

Wolf broke in again.....

‘Yes do that and we will most likely be using the Cyclops as our quarters tonight Helmut.’

He closed with the regular,

‘Over and out now... for now.’

They all of them had heard Wolf’s instructions and his orders further sobered them a lot. Just as Wolf was about to make another call they were interrupted. Brigette startled both herself and the other four astronauts by her sudden cry.

‘Oh damn it to hell Wolf, but I’m almost certain that I saw something moving over there very near to the Liberty itself. I can’t say what I actually saw at all though. It was a flash or a movement and that’s all I can tell you Wolf.’

Then she frightened the total shit out of everyone with her next trick. Now just maybe Brigette had worked herself up a tiny bit during the past months. Perhaps she had become loaded up a little with her swapping between two needy guys in the last eighteen months or so. But she exploded outright in a blaze of words.

‘Hey you fucking Yankee bastards come out and deal with us like real men will you.’

Barbara was the first of the group to recover from hearing Brigette.

‘What do you think it was that you saw Brigette?’

She leant towards Brigette as she spoke. But Brigette did not exactly know what it was that she had seen at all. It was just a momentary blur perhaps and it could not be classified as anything but a slight movement. And that was all that she could say. The doctor joined the rest of them at peering rather ineffectually at the distant spacecraft. Now Brigette had fallen silent for a time.

The truth was that she had shocked herself. But none of the others saw a thing out of place, as hard as they might look. The others couldn’t hear what the two women were on about as they had their heads close together. They were chatting quietly together on the intercom.

Just too many things were happening to take it all in properly. Wolf did not get out the binoculars again. Maybe Brigette had seen something or somebody moving or maybe not. He needed to make other decisions for the moment.

That meant that there could be somebody watching them and waiting. Waiting for what then? But even if they were waiting, Wolf figured that he knew that he had got his priorities down pat. They couldn’t dare to investigate things further until they felt secure.

They did not right feel that way right now, so the Zendrons were required and quickly too. He wasted no time either, for he had already figured out that there was about four hours of Martian daylight left to them.

He merely turned around and gave the orders to Brigette and Francois to get the weapons pronto. He also reminded them that they needed four rifles and one hand weapon only. They were to see that Helmut also had a rifle and that he had loaded it as well.

They might have called these Zendrons rifles, but they were something a little more awesome than that simple name implies. What’s more, all of the crew had been well trained in their use. He continued on speaking to Brigette......

‘Check that the Zendrons   are at full capacity before you leave the lander Brigette. We’ll meet you over by the fence near the American flag. Look, there’s cover for us over behind that Mars buggy while we wait for you to return. I might just be over reacting but we need some security here.

And remind Helmut that he’s to call headquarters too and please ask him to put the lander on stand by power to take us up again if necessary. One last thing before you go. When you are about to leave the lander with the weapons fire one single round into the air will you? And so go quickly and well now guys?’

Brigette nodded her head, to let her commander know that she had fully understood him. Both the astronauts scurried away towards the lander at all the speed that they could muster in their  suits.

Wolf was almost casually pointing at the Martian terrain vehicle standing now. It was as he said standing parked over by the fence. It was their very own Martian Rover from the Ithica he was looking at.

The Martian Rover was powered by a rechargeable oxygen and methane engine of some quality. It sure as hell wasn’t a fast vehicle but was a most reliable one. It had the added advantage of having the oxygen-methane fuel mixture being manufactured in the factory ship as well.

As he was pointing towards the terrain Rover he noticed a second Rover with it’s bonnet poking out from behind a wing of the unfinished living quarters. This one seemed to be the Americans own vehicle from the Liberty.

He had no idea what powered the American vehicle. Wolf was finished speaking now and Nando could see that he was shaking his head in a rueful manner at the sight.

This was really a weird fence, and it had been erected by the American team. What did it all mean though? Wolf shrugged inwardly there was just no answers coming to him at all. None of this made any sense to him at all. He wondered if the shot that was soon to be fired from the Cyclops would arouse anyone. That is if there was anybody alive here.

They started out for it with Nando Parucci just ahead of his chief. He was looking around him warily now. They all walked together rather warily towards the fence line now, where the flag was flapping uselessly in the cold, cold, breeze. Still there was nothing stirring as they walked towards the fence line.

The wind had picked up a bit and some small clouds of dust kicked up in the air around them as they walked. Nando was cursing the fact that he hadn’t got around to clipping his toenails over the last four months or so. His left foot ached somewhat in his close fitted space boots as he went. He said nothing of this however to his commander.

Jean Alois called in again after quite a lengthy absence. The contact was not as half as good as it had been twenty minutes ago. For their contact was inexorably breaking up now. Jean spoke again of NASA’s confusion and garbled messages about the commander being either out of order; or in complete desperation, or something very like that.

‘Don’t say it Wolf, I damn well know that it’s not a lot of help to you.’ Wait again for better information soon Wolf. Very soon Bonsoir will be knocking heads together I can tell you. Also Wolf, I am told on reliable sources that the President is now working on the problem. They are about to give us something a little more concrete I hope.’

Jean Alois meant the President of the United States of America. Alois continued his dialogue.....

‘Look Wolf, we have another urgent problem right now. We are getting solar flare here and what’s more you are on Mars are moving to the opposite side from Earth as you rotate. Consequently your signal is breaking up badly here.’

Heavy static followed Alois’ very words as Jean continued.

‘We predict that we will be out of contact for a period very soon Wolf. What’s your signal like there?’

It was bad said Wolf and rapidly breaking up to something worse. Their prediction came true all too soon. There was soon complete lack of contact with home. I’m the man on the ground said Wolf to himself. Some ground was his next thought.

Meanwhile on red Mars, the man on the ground moved forwards. He knew that there was only about three hours of Martian daylight now. The indigo at the rim of the sky was deepening by the moment and shadows were creeping out now. They would have to get a move on if they weren’t to be caught in the dark.

And naturally enough, as they got closer to it, they could see the fence in more detail now. They could also make out the nose cone of the Ithica which was to be turned into a small but very powerful ........ in the lifetime of the next wave of European space Agency settlers.

As for the portable, Wolf could clearly recognize some of the material that had been employed in it’s making. Most of it was the less essential parts of the living headquarters building kit from the Ithica.

But obviously some of the tackle and construction gear had been brought all the way from the Liberty at rest out there on the plains. That was another proposition too thought Wolf. Perhaps all the Americans were in the ship. It was just possible that they didn’t even know that they were here too he thought rather forlornly.

Most probably the stuff to construct the stockade had been shifted from either the Liberty or from the Ithica in one or more of their own Martian rovers. And there stood the mother lode craft the Ithica. He thought it almost noble in all it’s lonely imprisonment. The mother craft stood hemmed in by this damned stockade.

But were the Americans guarding it from them or somebody else? The unfinished living quarters also stood isolated and surrounded on all sides by those bloody barriers they had improvised so well with Yankee can–do and their everyday know how. So one could deduce from what you saw here that strenuous efforts had been made to secure the Ithica.

Chapter Ten. We’re Space Explorers...... Not Bloody Marines

The three of them sat down on the bare rock of Mars. They had their backs to their own Mars Rover parked at the fence line. They sat there lost in thoughts. It was their stolen vehicle indeed if you took the strict view of things. They waited in silence for the others to return with the weapons. It was a depressing moment for sure. Barbara was still trying to peer towards the Liberty. She kept an eye out to see if she could verify any movement from there.

Brigette’s eyesight is probably a lot better than mine she thought. I would not doubt that she had really seen something over there either. But she kept her thoughts to herself this time. They heard the report of the single shot from a Zendron ring out.

This was the shot that Wolf had requested before the pair had returned to the lander. They looked around then to see if there was any reaction from the sound. But not a thing stirred either in the stockade area or further away from the upright shape of the Liberty.

All of this was built for protection of the Ithica Barbara was thinking. But the burning question was just from whom was it intended to be protected wasn’t it? It was not rocket science for her tell herself that what they had here was a clandestine and criminal event.

They had not told a single soul about what they were up to had they? It was clear that either NASA or Tom Glenn or both of them jointly, had managed to keep all these activities a secret from the European Space Agency.

They had also managed to keep their actions secret from the Captain and the crew of the Argo in particular which was much more to the point. That much was clear to her as it was to all of the crew. But everything then fell into a kind of blur after that. But if was the truly the case that the American crew were had landed here of their own volition, what was the reason behind their collective actions? 

You had to ask yourself for what reasons had this rash and even criminal act taken place in the first place she thought.  It was she believed much akin to space piracy or even a declaration of war wasn’t it?         

Francois and Brigette stumbled back with the loaded Zendrons in their arms. They carried the few other items in special carriers, which were strapped over their space suits. Each of the astronauts took up a weapon and checked it.

Wolf Kandihar took the hand weapon for himself and not a Zendron like the others. He was then a like a World War One officer might be on Mars. The Zendrons were the best weapon that amateurs could use for defence.

They were extremely powerful but safe and easy to use. You could have knocked down an elephant back on earth that’s if you could find one. The last elephant in the wild had died some four or five years ago. The pair had also brought three flares and a couple of powerful torch-cum searchlight with them. It was a cunning move thought their Captain. For darkness was just over an hour and a half away by his reckoning.        

They quickly formed two groups, with Francois taking up point and behind him was Wolf with Barbara at the rear. In the second and smaller group separated by about ten metres from the lead group, came Nando who was just ahead of Brigette. All walked very warily with their weapons at the ready as they moved along the fence line. Once again Barbara had that same old feeling. She was thinking a lot of negative things right at this moment.

What can you do about men? Always, always, well nearly always, it ends up with damn aggression. Here we are then scientists and explorers for the most and we are carrying on like gung ho USA marines who have just disembarked from a helicopter somewhere in Afghanistan. Hell we are space explorers, not bloody marines.    

Francois Diderot ran his engineer’s critical eye along the fence that formed a compound or stockade around the Ithica. Francois could see no sign of any voltage carrying wire on the blockading fence. Nor did he believe that the Americans could have afforded the battery power to be able to electrify the fence line.

He and Nando prepared to use both wire cutters and the bolt cutters to make a gap in the fence as the others kept a wary watch on the Ithica itself. Even their bolt cutters had to be insulated from the cold for although their gloved hands were already well insulated the pressure of extremely cold steel, beyond the feel of ice, might penetrate into their skin.

Three minutes work saw Wolf lead the five of them through the gap and slowly work across the twenty or so yards that separated them from the as yet unfinished living quarters. Again Francois Diderot took point but now Wolf ordered them to spread out as the came nearer to the structure that some of them had helped to design.

Wolf paused to quickly study the Mars Rover, which they had formerly spotted parked while they were still outside the compound. It was their own Rover, which had come to Mars with the Ithica.  As far as he could tell, the machine looked as though it would fire up if required. But that was only a swift assumption after he concluded that there was no outward damage or any noticeable malfunctions to it.

They rounded the corner of the portable structure to find the main door with it’s complicated locks still in place. And it was of course locked fast. You would need either keys or more knowledge to get through here without force.

They could easily see gaps in the sides of this section of the portable. They knew of course, that these portables were capable of being pressurized and to be able to support breathing. That wouldn’t be so of the section with the holes in it’s sides however.

Wolf used a hand signal to order the rest of the team to follow him on towards the gaps left by the Americans when they had quit the portable quarters. There was Martian dust piled against the side of the portable to perhaps about eighteen inches.

They could easily tell that he meant to by-pass the locked door and use the holes in unfinished building to make their entry and Francois and Dr Barabara checked their weapons for probably the third time in eleven minutes. It was ‘lock and load time’ as far as they were concerned.

It was obvious to all of them that the gaps in the wall were not caused by any tearing at the wall from the outside. It was just as if the builders had suddenly downed tools and not returned. Or something or someone had interrupted their labours.

'A tea break peutetre’...

Brigette said this as she raised her eyebrows a bit higher. Wolf then asked Brigette to stay outside to keep guard. She nodded her head a little solemnly. She pulled a little face which bespoke of a small amount of something hard to identify. Perhaps she was just a little scared of being on her own right now. And that was only the truth.

Maybe Wolf sensed this in her. He went on.......

‘Hey don’t move very far Brigette,’ he told her. I don’t know what is out there and we need to cover our arses. Seriously now.... ok?  We won’t be very long, I promise you that.’

She nodded and then retraced her steps, with her Zendron almost at the ready.

The Frenchman stepped through the rough opening without hesitation or discussion at all. He could easily see that some of the Martian dust had been drifting into the building. He was ready with a flashlight. The room was gloomy but further up ahead they could see daylight trickling in. They had been aware of the portable’s layout even before they had entered it and so it was easy for them to find their way around. It was known that there were three airlocks in all. One was at that the end of the building. This was the main exit to the open plains of Mars. You could similarly come back through here as well

They went that way first and found that it was closed. At the opposite end there was a short tunnel connecting the portable building and the mother lode craft. It could also be used as an entrance as well when you were not stepping sideways through cracks in the portable’s walls. The short tunnel led to the living quarters. At the moment the astronauts were in the laboratory and storage rooms.

The living quarters were nearer to the direction of the Liberty while the lab rooms faced towards the awesome bulk of Mons Olympus glowering down on them. As a safety feature, there was another air lock between the two major inner rooms.

The commander had followed Francois after briefly touching Dr Barbara on the arm to signal that she was to follow him. Their eyes locked for that meaningful second and Wolf looked both determined and rueful while it was hard to say what Dr Barbara felt by her facial expression.

And then without delay he stepped through the opening followed by Barbara and then last of all came Nando Parucci with a little wave of the hand of goodbye to Brigette as she disappeared. Wolf had deliberately chosen her to be as sentry here for her independence and undoubted courage. But the night was now rapidly closing in and it was still a slightly daunting task for anybody.       

Another good reason for them to have thought about the flashlights from the Cyclops thought Wolf, for there was precious little light inside the unfinished portable. The two torches they carried bounced light off the walls with almost every step they took. They noticed the dust over the floor everywhere. Francois exclaimed something unintelligible when he first spotted footprints on the dusty flooring.

At last they approached a windowed section of the building through a dedicated air-lock door which opened easily when they tugged at it. Because the fading Martian light trickled in, they could all see the interior far more clearly now. Although both Nando and Francois had been instrumental in helping to design this portable structure neither of them had seen it erected and they were like the others a little lost in their surroundings.

They all of them looked around the curving space of the tunnel like structure. Wolf then made what was probably the obvious link.

‘It’s just like that unfinished wall we came through.’ They never even used this section that’s for sure.’

He said this with not a lot of emphasis but it reflected what they were all thinking. It was all so odd of course, and they were all mulling over what they were seeing. It made everything a lot stranger. They were all of them looking for more clues now among the dust on the floor. You could feel that there had to be something very near to them now that would explain what they had seen with there own eyes. They were seeing things here alright in the dull light here but they were not understanding one little thing that was going on.

In fact, the lone guard outside the portable was feeling quite frightened too. Now that she was standing around alone it was different. She was already in the lengthening shadows. Despite her ultra-warmed bodysuit, it took very little imagination to sense just how much the temperature was dropping. She was just about to check the actual reading on her in suit computer, when she decided to peer around the corner of the portable structure. She took the few steps necessary to do so.

Really, Brigette had no idea at all why she wanted to do this at all. She just did it without much thought at all. In fact ever since she thought she had seen something moving over towards the Liberty, her mind would not let the image go. She began to attempt to replay what she had seen in that one flash of time.

She found herself then, looking towards the Liberty once again. She shivered.  Straining her eyes towards the rather retrograde looking rocket ship she also thought it the indelible appearance of faded Hollywood dreams.

God but where can they be? No men and no women.  But just where are those bloody astronauts then? Was she worried about the Americans, she thought? Or was she troubled about something or somebody which had caused the Americans a lot of worry? The NASA craft stood maybe a third of a kilometer or more away, dominating the skyline which was definitely fast losing it’s pinkish hue.

Mons Olympus was out of her view and the American craft although it was all that distance away cast an unnaturally long shadow now. There was nary another object anywhere near it’s size with which to compare it In fact shadows were almost visibly becoming longer and deeper now. And even the  indigos of the Martian shadows were now blacking down to deeper almost to the royal purple and darker shades of umbria that Brigette had never witnessed in a sky before in her thirty four years of life.

Chapter Eleven.   Intimations of Storms

She shivered a bit and catholic girl that she was deep down, she almost crossed herself right there and then. Oh merde she said to herself, but it’s a bloody long time since you thought of doing that girl. For once again she could have sworn that she had seen that same flash of movement coming from some distance up the length of the Liberty.

The vision had been so sudden for only that nerve jangling brief moment. Once again she could not be certain what it was that she had seen. She began to walk back to her sentry point as quickly as her light but still slightly cumbersome survival suit would allow her to do so.

Dust began to kick up a little at her feet now. Brigette looked around her most nervously, for fear nearly always comes from the unknown and she was purely and simply surrounded by almost everything unknown in this damn place. She wasn’t a scientist but mostly a woman of action. She desperately needed to do something rather than wait.

Waiting and watching were not this one’s forte. She knew it was a common thing for a Martian dusk to bring on dust storms but only time would tell if that was to be the case. It was certainly plain to see that the wind was picking up a little. In the end she had decided that a storm is definitely on it’s way..

And she continued to look anxiously at the hole in the unfinished section of the portable where Wolf and the others had clambered through fifteen minutes ago. She could easily observe the dust bouncing off the portable building. She rather anxiously called Wolf, who told her that they would likely to be coming back within five minutes. She warned him of the rising winds.

Wolf had decided to proceed to enter the end section of the portable structure. But he hesitated for the air lock door into the next room was wide open. He moved forwards gingerly. On entering, they could clearly see that they were in the general living quarters. It had been named the Huygen’s room back on Earth. The very quarters that two of them had helped to design.

They all recognized several features, which really made him feel distinctly odd indeed. There were two or three couches and there were also seven or eight beds too. And thus the half mad thought of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ entered Dr Barbara’s mind as she wandered around the rooms. But once again it was quite plain to see that not a soul had lived in this room for long either.

Wolf was scanning the quarters for a clock that might give them a clue or two here. But he could see no sign of one. However there were a couple of sheaves of papers in front of He decided to lift them. If it had been the other way around and he found out that the Americans were flogging his material he would have been mad as four beehives.

However in the circumstances, Wolf didn’t quite see it that way at all. After all they might be eaves of what might be building plans or manifests. He swept them off the table and pocketed them for scrutiny at his leisure later on.

Wolf had meant to go on further towards the Ithica through the short tunnel to investigate if they found nothing in the portable buildings. But now he was looking at his watch. He signaled to the team to retrace their steps. There was no time left for this now and had obviously changed his mind. He got onto the headphone to speak to Brigette again.

‘We are starting on our way back now Brigette and we won’t be long. What are the conditions outside like?’

His voice was steady enough but Brigette could tell by a few tricks in his voice that whatever he had seen had unnerved him somewhat. She informed him that it looked like a nasty dust storm was brewing and she added.

‘You better hurry up I reckon boss this storm is kicking up something wicked now. Visibility is down to about a hundred yards now boss.’

Just before Wolf was about to turn back he spotted a light switch on the wall. Of course he did just what you would have done. He flipped the switch to on. The room was suddenly illuminated. The four astronauts looked at each other.

Curiouser and curiouser just as with Alice down that dark hole. So the wiring to the powerful range of batteries in the Ithica was complete then. Power on as well! That told him something at least. There was definitely power in the Ithica and secondly, that the Americans had been inside the mother lode ship for certain.

They had been constantly told that they had to turn on the power when they first entered the Ithica module. Someone had beaten them to it. He was a bit stunned by this major revelation and he decided to get outside in pretty smart time. Nobody on Earth had thought to place a lock on the Ithica. Why would you bother? 

The team worked their way back coming again through the open air lock. Always they moved carefully, with their weapons still at the lock and load position. They still felt as if they could not afford to take any risks at all. It was still the unknown things that played collectively and individually on their bright minds. You may also imagine that Brigette was full of joy to see Dr Barbara emerge through the gap again. And you would be right at that too.

They were greeted by masses of swirling red dust as they clambered back outside. This had the effect of clogging over their face screens and partly obscured all proper vision of the astronauts. They were soon informed by Wolf that they would have no option but to make their way back to the lander.

Wolf called Helmut to inform him of his decision and told him that they would all stay in the lander for at least the night. He also asked him if Jean had been in contact again. That was a negative, and so they turned towards the lander.

The team had only gone a few steps when they realized that the storm was going to make it hard enough to get back to the lander now. The scene was surreal too. In jagged air of flickered alternating light and dark, they sometimes caught brief flashes of the far off massif that was Mons Olympus.

And at other times they could not see ten feet in front of them. Finally the giant volcano was completely wiped out of sight by the great red storm which engulfed all and asunder.

The air grew thicker with flying red dust and it was Nando who suddenly stopped them all in their tracks.

‘The Martian Rover, we could see if it will start chief.’

Wolf nodded a quick approval and a rueful lopsided sort of a grin.

‘Damn it I forgot all about it. That’s a top idea  Nando. Go to it.’

They only had to retrace their steps some few yards to get back to the Rover.

It started without any problems and Wolf jumped into the driver’s seat and they headed off. If they had not been in possession of direction finding it beacons operating back to the signals being sent out by the lander they may been worried about getting back there at all.  For by now the air had become completely thick with the flying dust. But just less than ten minutes later, they came through the storm to find their temporary home away from home with Nando half lying across the rear of the rover.

Wolf attempted to contact Jean Alois one more time from the lander, but it was still to no avail. The explorers managed to clean themselves up with a lick and a spit and a tiny bit of prayer. They soon began to break out rations with a renewed warmth and cameradie within minutes. Barbara suddenly stood Francois up front and centre and examined his dodgy leg. She massaged it for a while and proscribed an unhealthy amount of pain killers for him.

Very soon most of the group bedded down and the Martian world slowly faded down to a paler pink kind of a well earned sleep. Wolf took the first watch himself. Wolf’s day’s work was extended for the simple reason that he felt that he should sit down with Helmut to monitor possible incoming messages as the rest of the mob settled into that mired mist of sleep. It was not twenty minutes later that they gave that up as a bad job. Helmut went to sleep and that left Wolf alone to his own devices.

Once he was alone and settled, Wolf got out the books and logs he had taken off the shelf from the portable. At first he leafed over some scientific notes that were of zero interest to him. The next slim volume was some kind of a recording of mean average Martian temperatures. He would look at them later on. The next lot papers that he picked up seemed to be a normal manifest which seemed to be of little interest to him. He was just about to put the manifest down when his eyed caught the words near the bottom of the page.....

By order of Lieutenant Perry Crosswaite USN dated the 22, November 2003

Now where do I know that name from he thought idly at first. Then he had an idea. He went to the ship’s memory on the computer discs he had brought down from the Argo. He had been right too. When he searched for the names of the NASA crew of the Liberty the name Perry Crosswaite USN came up right off.

He was in fact Tom Glenn’s second in command of the expedition to Mars. Now Wolf knew well that in a six man group command, it is very rare for the second in command to sign an order in his own name. It’s not a thing that would happen easily at all. It was absolutely the same in his command aboard the Argo. The order had been signed some six months ago too. What did this all mean for them now?

It was quite strange you must understand. He would never expect Dr Barbara Nunns Lynch to sign such an order for instance. It just was not on actually. Among six people there is not much room for a second in command really. In the main the position is only nominated in case of dire events occurring. This meant largely, either the death or the incapacitation of the local Commander.

Now this then raised the moot point then of just why Perry had bothered to sign that manifest. He only pondered this for a short time before he turned in himself. He could hear the sound of gusts of wind raging now, as it blasted tons of sand against the Cyclops sides at high speeds. So he reckoned that he knew what tomorrow’s main problem would be already.

He wasn’t at all worried about the Cyclops being able to cope with the violent dust storm. He remembered the sounds of those bolts going home in the bedrock when they had landed. Naturally the ESA’s finest had designed the Cyclops to withstand over two years of intermittent storms such as the one they were experiencing. Before he turned in he tried without success to contact home.

He could not yet raise them at all. It certainly only added to their sense of almost absolute isolation and their total bafflement of what was happening around them. Robert Falcon Scott and his fellow polar explorers might just spring to mind too but perhaps that was an exaggeration at the moment at least. And Wolf was calm enough if very wary. It was true that it had been a long, long day and he was almost asleep before his head had hit the head bolster of the extended safety seat aboard the Cyclops.

Chapter Twelve. Councils And Debates

Wolf had been correct about the dust storm for it was still raging when he awoke. Consequently it turned out that they would not be going outside of the lander on this day at all. Neither could they venture outside the following day either. Chess and mind games over the Americans behaviour were the main items that featured. Ever on the ball, Barbara had decided that a brain storming session on their situation was in order.

So at Barbara’s suggestion Wolf had them study all of what was known about their situation logically and clearly. They wrote down the salient and known points on one piece of paper. Barbara suggested that they started from what they did not know to the known.

On the paper was a list or rather two lists. There were two headings on the piece of paper. One read the unknowns and the other read the knowns. The list is as below....

Unknowns ....we haven’t been inside the Liberty.....Can we get into it at all? And are they in there?

Ditto the Ithica.
Why did the Liberty change course?
Was there an accident or an incident aboard the American craft...for them to originally change course then?
Did they then intend to come to our landing site from that time onwards (an accident) or had they always intended to do so?
Have they left the landing area?
Why was the stockade built at all?
Why was the portable left unfinished?
We have seen nobody.......why?
When will contact with Earth resume?
Why have NASA been so quiet even when we were in constant contact?

Barbara wrote down all of the knowns and the givens. And all of them considered them carefully....we know that the NASA team has definitely been inside the Ithica, for they did get the portable building material from it. Also the pressure pipe has been attached. We have also seen their footsteps inside the portable come to that.
We know that the power from the Ithica is attached to the portable.....another reason to know that they have been in the Ithica.
We know that the pressure pipe between the Ithica and the portable is attached. ( It cannot be made to function because of the gaps in the portable however)
Obviously the portable has not yet been pressurized...........the gaps in the side of it prove this.
It (would obviously seem) that the Liberty landed safely.
They took out the Mars Rovers at some time or other....both their own and ours... from the Ithica.
We know or at least we believe that Perry Crosswhite signed that order that we found in the manifest... ( but we do not know  why.) Is Glenn dead then?

The lists were mostly the work of Barbara and Francois, although Wolf had chipped in now and again. Then they showed the piece of paper to the others to see what they might like to add to it. There were quite a few known facts actually, which made it all more the stranger that there still so many mysteries here.

They then interrupted a chess tournament in which every one except Wolf was taking part, to try to brainstorm the subject for some twenty minutes or so. Nando laughingly quipped that it would merely put off the moment when Brigette would clean them all up once again. Nando was most probably right in this too.

For her part, Brigette constantly made the offer to take off a pawn from her side for anyone excepting for Wolf. He didn’t play often but he was the only one who could regularly give Brigette a decent run for her money. The brainstorming session was in full force while the fierce Martian sandstorm was still in full blow.

It was still howling most bitterly against the sides of their well pinned craft. It seemed to have even gone up a notch or two. Maybe it was trying to blow itself out like some storms do back on Earth. Back on Earth was a thought to consider with some wistfulness added to it as well.

Almost a year and and a month had passed since they had left that sweet but struggling blue planet. In truth both of the missions to Mars were being quite falsely represented as some kind of saviour for a most troubled planet.

The global warming had steadily progressed as most observers had promised it would. Deserts were still growing. The seas were still rising and the ice shelves were still sliding into the warmer sea.

The polar caps too continued to shrink and water was either impossible to get in the fresh variety or too plentiful in the salt type which came with the seas swallowing up the low lying islands of the Pacific and elsewhere as well.

Many of the more unscrupulous politicians on both sides of the Atlantic has lauded the shots to Mars as being a shot in the arm to a troubled Earth population not to mention the dwindling animal species. We could migrate soon they boomed. We will have another Eden within our reach very soon.

In the general run of things the six astronauts had developed a potentially long term harmony within the group. It must be remembered that they had to be together and to survive for almost another three and a half years And all the buzz of them landing on Mars, to be discovering some other if a rather dusty Eden had vanished with one blow of deceit and still hidden lies from NASA.

Damn their cursed eyes said Nando under his breath for he truly wished to just get on with exploring the terrain of Mars. For the Mars that he had often dreamt of was naturally enough similar to all aboard the Cyclops. He had only expected to be busy with scientific matters or in the exciting duties of personally exploring the red planet.

And now here they were, locked up both in the physical and the metaphysical sense. Locked up and only the shades of man’s bloody war like ideas and contrary nature when they did go out again.

‘Oh God,’ repeated Nando for the tenth time or so. ‘Why did they do it? Just tell me why oh why God?’

It was a tense time for them all naturally. Another whole day and night had passes since they had returned to the lander. Perhaps the storm was beginning to abate somewhat but they still couldn’t venture out just yet. Not knowing what it was that they had to face out there hidden amongst all the flying red dust would have truly worried any old Welsh saint at all.

They were facing another night in the lander and possibly worst of all, there seemed no possibility of contacting Earth for the time being. Francois was the first of them to set out how he saw it. And being trained in that typical French rationalist philosophy, he attempted to work it out through his version of logic.

‘We are confronted here by three possible reasons why we have not seen the NASA team he went on confidently looking around at each of his colleagues in turn. That is to say assuming they have not quit this area. We do know that they could not have left in either of the vehicles and therefore they could have only made off by foot if did go.

Naturally we can’t say for sure whether they are here in the landing perimeter or not. But assuming they are they are here, they must either dead, or they wish to remain in hiding from us, or they just don’t know that we are here.’ There was complete and utter silence in the main cabin of the landing craft at this moment as they all digested Francois’ words.

Finally, Brigette made a kind of sneaky pawn move that had to be watched carefully.

‘Ah Francois mon ami but there is a fourth possibility and a distinct one at that too. Yes it’s true that they may all be dead but we certainly haven’t enough evidence as yet to say whether that’s so or not. But the fact is, that they might just not be able to come out to us might they not?

Just as we are currently unable to step outside the Cyclops because of the dust storm, they may be incapable of moving towards us even if they know we are here.’

Brigette said this lightly enough for she was well aware of Francois’ rather elevated Gallic sense of masculinity, not to mention a fair dose of male of his mostly healthy ego. And to be fair to him, Francois at first looked as though he was about to attack Brigette’s small gambit head on but he held himself back. Helmut was the first to reply.

‘I remember once when I was quite a young man in at home in Munich, I read a diary written by an English priest. The book had been translated to my language. It was all about this particular priest who lived in the English countryside in the eighteenth century. He wrote about a shocking winter, which had descended on them all with unabated fury. Little by little the roads became impassable and their own little corner of the rural world continued to shrink daily.

So bad was the snow those days and the rain and the tearingly freezing winds that winter that they couldn’t even visit their neighbours. In a shockingly short time they all were trapped on his little property. Snow drifts had blocked any possibility of even getting to the church or to visit their neighbour’s house down the road a bit, let alone any chance of getting to the nearest town or village.

What I am trying to say then is that I thoroughly agree with Brigette’s fourth proposition or possibility. They could be let us say then; be incapacitated.’

And then Francois nodded his head quite vigorously and looked directly at Brigette with a deprecating grin.

‘Oui and I sure agree with what Helmut’s saying here completely. We are all trapped here ourselves for the moment, and the NASA team might quite logically have had similar constraints. So the possibility must exist for sure Brigette.’

Barbara had been one of the listeners up until now and she leant back in her chair and began to speak slowly and deliberately.

‘I was just as surprised as anyone   here or on Earth when we knew found out that the Liberty had changed course. And I reckon that we must go back to when they did so in order to discover the American’s reasons for landing here.

 What happened to them subsequently may or may not have any thing to do with them changing course. They must have known that their destination was our prime target for a landing site. I mean at the moment they changed their course. And so knew why they were coming here as well. For the Ithica’

‘The only reason would be that they needed something. So desperately in fact, that they were willing to risk an international incident of the first order to do it. What was it they required then? Was it fuel, water, air or a place to repair something where they knew that they might find a replacement for some part or other here? This joins the list of unknowns but I think that we should concentrate on these items and any others that you think might have been needed.

Whatever it was that they needed they had just over two months until they landed here. It was not a matter of live and death overnight to them then, but it was a longer but still life challenging situation for them’. But all I feel is that something happened.’

Helmut nodded in agreement with Barbara and said something about being compelled by dire emergency to take such drastic actions.

‘It must have been something pretty gross that occurred, that’s all I can say.’

Wolf had been listening to the debate carefully.

‘Look, I‘ve been thinking a bit people. We can’t raise Earth right now, but I’m wondering if it might be possible to contact the Americans over the air. We at least know that they were here. And we believe that they are still here ..alive or dead I mean.   We must assume that their communications systems might be still up and running. What do you think of that Helmut?’

Helmut was their chief communications expert with many years of experience and he almost loved his commander. He grimaced now as he told Wolf that it was quite unlikely that they could hook up with the NASA wavelength for quite some time no matter what he did.

‘I don’t even have a notion about their wavelength at all boss.  It’s true that we were given a wavelength originally, but that does not raise them now. We have tried it already. Anyway we hardly ever expected to be in any position to discuss the price of eggs with the Americans on the surface of Mars did we? At least not so soon anyway’

‘True enough too Helmut, true enough.’

Replied the commander as he rotated his chair, ‘but I‘m still wondering if it might not be worth a try all the same.’

‘Right you are then chief, will do.I will fix the computer onto a random and locking code search. If their channel is open we might strike it lucky.’

Helmut and Wolf took it in turns for almost three hours quarter to raise the Liberty’s crew by seeing that code searches were being made. They constantly changed channels and adjusted their system but Helmut turned out to be right, for they could raise nothing from the NASA crew at all.

Silence on Mars was all that was returned to them for their efforts. So they now had silence from both the home planet and here too. Not so good then Freddy not so good at all. And so after that abortive attempt Helmut and Wolf joined the others in settling down once again for another questionable evening’s sleep in the lander. And tomorrow they would have to go to the American ship to discover what they might for themselves.

Chapter Thirteen.  Death is so permanent

They were traveling towards the American spacecraft and with some courage too.  The Martian Red dust storm had trickled down to almost nothing now. They were in the Martian Rover now and they were armed once more. So were the two astronauts left guarding the lander. For this time Wolf had appointed two of their number to stay with the Cyclops. He had said nothing of his private thoughts on the matter but he was just a tiny bit worried about protecting what was really their main asset, namely the landing craft. It had never entered the designer’s minds that the lander could face a situation like this. How could it have been conceivable?

Without the lander they were totally lost and that was non negotiable. So Barbara and Francois were appointed to be on the alert back at the lander while the other four were crammed into the Rover. Wolf was driving again and had decided to go to the Liberty first off this time around. If they found nothing there the mother lode craft would be a kind of last resort.

The last resort that is, to obtain at first hand a logical explanation to the whole cockeyed situation. Besides he really believed it was the Liberty, which would answer their many questions. It just had to have some explanation for them. Francois was to intermittently continue to attempt to contact Jean Alois in their absence and get back to Wolf immediately if contact should be made.

They were now driving along extremely hazardous terrain between the Ithica and the NASA spaceship. The mighty ravines and humps and great gibber-like stones flung across the plain made for dangerous driving in the lightly framed Rover. Mons Olympus’ giant form was at their backs now and because the raging storm had completely ceased to blow when they turned their heads they could clearly see the ancient volcano in all it’s glowering hues of magenta, pinks and blues towering out of the vast plains.

The plains of the plateau might look flat enough from the air alright but the section they were now traversing towards the American craft was so rugged at times that Brigette, Helmut and Nando were forced to get out of the Rover and guide Wolf back and forth until they could find a passable ravine to follow. If they were going to do this more than once they would have to be alert to the fact that it was quite possible to get lost in this maze of a landscape.

But after more than forty five minutes of this difficult crossing they finally approached the monster craft called the Liberty. As soon as they were within fifty metres of the craft one of the recent mysteries was instantly cleared up although it immediately gave birth to another one.

The identity of the moving object or objects that Brigette had spotted not once but twice was now quite obvious to the astronauts. The Liberty was large enough to require an elevator which was attached to the craft. This was a small but quite powerful lift designed to transport both men and materiel up to the Liberty’s main hatchway.

Damn their eyes then for the thing was slowly moving up and down along it’s rails. It would start from the bottom rise the thirty feet or more to the hatch and then after a small pause start to descend to begin to rise once more after a similar pause at the bottom.

Uncanny was not even the word to describe what they were seeing here. It was truly a thing to simply fill one with awesome thoughts. Wolf sought up some comfort in a logical thought here. So there was power in their ship at least he mused. Wolf conveyed this very idea to the other three after finally gathering his wits from the shock of seeing the thing moving.

It was like staring at some giant and ghostly carnival Ferris wheel which was still turning at four am when all the carnival grounds are dark and totally deserted. Like the great wheel sitting in the Prater in Vienna come to Mars perhaps. It went up and down like some ghostly thing.

And an American rover stood some twenty metres from the craft. That surely meant at least someone should be here thought Brigette. She nodded towards as she pointed a finger at the rover. Wolf interpreted Brigette’s thinking immediately. It seemed just that obvious.

There was no escaping the surrealism of the elevator lifting itself up and down repeatedly. They all got out of the Rover and Wolf signaled that he was going up alone on the elevator. He told them that he would try the hatch and if it opened he would enter the ship. He summarily appointed Brigette in command for the duration of the time he was gone.

He also told them to give him up to three minutes inside. If didn’t appear after that time, then were they to act. He meant to quit the area. He repeated the instruction to Brigette who nodded her head again but said nothing. The six pairs of eyes looked upwards as if those eyes were controlled by the same brain. The idea of leaving the Commander inside that thing was not something easy to arrive at.

The hatchway was only a third of the way up this massive rocket but it did seem accessible at least. Wolf locked and loaded his hand gun and signaled to the others to back away somewhere behind the Rover and to have their weapons at the ready. He had already assessed that he would be able to step of it to the small platform before the hatchway before it made it’s way back down again. If not, he could easily remain on the elevator and come back down on it. He stepped on a started upwards.

The rocket could easily stand on it’s haunches because of it’s huge retractable fin supports which propped the ship up with a readily observable stability and ease on landing. In full flight, the large fins or props were simply withdrawn into the great body of the Liberty.

The three astronauts watched him quickly step aboard the elevator. And then it started on it’s way up again. The waiting astronauts weren’t quite at all sure what to do with their cocked weapons. Should they have their weapons lifted and at the ready now or not thought Brigette.

In the end he decided to signal the others to give their commander cover by aiming up some where just below where he was headed.

‘Don’t even think about firing no matter what happens if Wolf is anywhere in your sights.’

She told them with a half a blink of the eye....

‘Just breathe very slowly and wait.’

Wolf showed them the thumbs up sign just as he was about to step off the elevator. Now he was trying the hatch. They heard Wolf’s voice through their intercom now.

“I’m going in now folks.’

They could see that he had it open and with no hesitation whatsoever he entered the airlock. The door closed behind him. And nothing happened.

They waited for what seemed an age to them. But Brigette was timing him most closely now. Two and a half minutes past and there was not a sign of the commander. Helmut started to agitate to move but Brigette held them fast.

‘You heard what he said Helmut. He said to give him three minutes; now hold yourself in a little longer. He will be back soon’

A few seconds before his time was up they all saw the hatch swinging open. To their relief Wolf was there and giving them all another thumbs up sign. It was just as he was about to step onto the slowly moving elevator again that they all noticed Wolf pause and peer around him.

He stayed on the platform and he looked as if he was looking down at something on the other side of the Liberty. It was as if he had seen something out of place there. He signaled to them to move around to the far side of the craft and almost at the same time his voice came through the headphones to them all....

‘The ship’s not at Earth’s atmosphere Brigette.’

And then Wolf stopped suddenly, as if he was concentrating elsewhere. He was in fact looking downwards and to the rear of the ship.

‘Hey I can see something odd about twenty five metres away from the ship on the side almost directly opposite to you. Swing around there and have a look will you. I’m coming down to see what it is.’

Brigette led Nando towards the opposite side of the craft while Helmut waited at the elevator until Wolf climbed off it. And then the two followed the others around to the other side of the Liberty. Wolf and Helmut were keen to catch up to the others and they were hurrying on.

They were staring at something hard when Wolf came up to them, saying over the headphones to all of them.

‘There’s nobody at all aboard the damned ship and.....’

He meant to continue but Wolf never got to get the end of his sentence out about the ship be it damned or not. Because Brigette and Nando were standing stock still and staring gob smacked at something in front of them in the sands of Mars.

Nando was just standing there shaking his head slowly from side to side. They were both looking down to the ground at what looked for every inch of the universe, like a grave back on Earth. Except that it was a fresh grave here on a red planet.

The world turned upside down for the four astronauts at that moment. There was even a marker with an inscription roughly written on it. Wolf leant over and read it. It read......

Home is the hunter from over the hill and the sailor from over the sea.

And then followed the words, which told them who it was that was lying there dead and buried in that shallow grave. These markings were also hand inscribed on the marker at the grave’s head. Somebody had rammed down it down there good and hard into the red soil and sand. It read starkly, Commander Thomas Glenn the third, USN. Wolf was the first to speak as soon as he took it all in.

‘It’s Robert Louis Stevenson’s own damn epitaph.’

Wolf uttered this to nobody in general and the great universe at large. But he was talking to himself really. And then he continued,

‘You have to know that Tom Glenn was a navy fly boy when he started off. I met him one time in the USA you know. Maybe he liked Stevenson’s writing. I know I do anyway.’

For some reason Wolf suddenly had a thought of his only child. He was a man child who was living in the USA. And his name was Arthur. The lad lived there with his mother now in New England. Back home on Earth I mean.’

No one else spoke for an eternity and Mars seemed a long, long way from home for them all just now. The next thing Wolf knew was the voice of Francois Diderot patching through to him so loud and so clear.

‘Well we have just established a brief contact with Earth chief and I’m told by Jean Alois that it looks ok for a much stronger contact in about thirty Sol hours or so. But he wasn’t all that confident I reckon so add a few hour on maybe. Our contact was always dodgy chief and proved to be brief. I wanted to patch you through immediately but the signal finally gave up on us. In any case he really only had time to say that Houston has finally admitted that the Liberty had suffered unspecified problems I repeat unspecified chief.

They also apologized for landing at our site but they said that there were cogent reasons enough.... again nonspecific.  Lastly, Jean wanted to know if you had made contact with the Americans. I told him that was a negative chief. He told me to hang on for the open window of contact in something like twelve hours from now. Then all contact was lost I’m afraid chief.’

Wolf answered Francois quickly but warily.....

‘As a matter of fact Francois we have made a kind of contact with them.  We’ve found something very alarming at our end. Things have shifted a little here now Francois. We believe that the American Commander Tom Glenn is dead. We found a grave near the Liberty and I will fill you both in with the details very shortly. Oh and Francois, should Earth get back to you sooner than we thought they might, please withhold all of what I just told you about Commander Glenn, ok.’

‘Yeah and I copy that too chief.’

Francois had some curiosity in his voice but said nothing more and they ceased contact for the time being.

Wolf next did the natural thing and had Nando and Brigette accompany him up the moving escalator.  The three of them carefully passed through the useless airlock into the American craft to inspect it. They were all breathing a little hard into their air supplied helmets by now.

Emotions were running a little high perhaps and no wonder. Wolf had a second thought for a bit just why he had ordered Francois to withhold the news of the dead commander. It had been his gut reaction, but he soon dismissed his concerns. He was forced to move on quickly now. All they saw only made so much nonsense.

The airlock was useless to all intents and purposes.... simply because as Wolf had previously noted, the ship was already at Martian atmosphere.

Before he entered the ship again Wolf keenly studied the craft’s hull most closely but in no way could he identify the metals used here.

They had left Helmut posted on guard at the foot of the Liberty’s elevator as a precaution, while they ascended it. Wolf was particularly keen to have Brigette see over the ship as their number one pilot. And was this a simple act of espionage then? Of course it was but then you knew that already.

The fact that the Liberty was no longer at Earth atmosphere created a lot of speculation among the astronauts straight away. Nando whistled quite loudly when he first stepped inside the Liberty. It was the sheer scale of the thing that got to you first. After there own rather humble craft, it was a giant.

Brigette wandered around the flight cabin space with much curiosity and proceeded to take out a small electronic notebook in order to take some notes as she studied the controls, which seemed to fascinate her so much. Wolf let her alone knowing that she would take in far more than he could.

It was not so much the size, or the apparent comfort of the Liberty that got right up her nose a little. It was the sheer supply of advanced technologies that she was witnessing.

They were using things right out of Star Trek in here muttered Brigette. To Wolf she added....

‘The ship’s on stand by power chief.’

The main item for her was the ‘PCR technology’ she noted in use in this ship. And the fact that quite a lot of the mutedly shining control lights seemed to have something to do with the NASA moon base. Of course this was the take off point for the liberty’s mission.

PRC stood for ‘Personality Recognition Computers’. Their job was relatively simple yet also most profound. They translated the user’s personal traits into something like actuality. It could also easily read this unique human’s skills and reaction times into what actually happened when controls were touched. These were the sons of the fighter jet pilot’s joysticks of the early 2000’s, which enabled the plane to jink and weave in tandem with the pilot’s actual wishes and touches.

It definitely gave deeper meaning to intuition’s responses in a very fast fighter plane. And it also enabled faster reactions and potentially more exact decision making. In a craft such as the Liberty it had far more ramifications than with a smallish but very quick jet fighter in combat in Earth’s atmosphere.

In space therefore it’s limitations were almost unbounded but were often only used with the utmost care. It was sometimes called ‘black hole’ stuff as it was not always understood what the outcomes might be after using this technology in deep space.

There were in fact several levels of this PRC usage and some of the more extreme levels had to be keyed in by the commander himself as a safety factor. You had to take into account the intuition factor and the implications therein. These controls would alter with each user by a combination of sensing their particular nerve ends and reading the irises of their eyes. This was a natural extension of quite widespread and almost ancient technology which had once been used in security devices.

Some of these devices had been around since the late 1970’s period. All of this then was designed to enhance the high level of the work of the Liberty’s crew. But not surprisingly, after having just witnessed that godforsaken and shallow grave down below them, Brigette soon got to wondering about whether or not they would ever see any of the Liberty’s crew alive.

All of them knew that were other levels above them. There would be living quarters and also a take off and landing seating area for starters. But Wolf signaled them not to even consider exploring any higher in the ship. For time was once again against them now.

From above they thought that they might be able to feel rather than hear a slight whirring or humming noise. Brigette and Wolf had both heard the sound and they put it down to the mechanism of the moving elevator.

It seemed to be coming from some source above their heads on one of the other levels of the craft. Instead of roaming further Wolf concentrated on what his best pilot might discover right here and now. She was there best hope right now.

Time was of the essence and he figured that they could give her about twenty five minutes to go over the ship while he contacted the Cyclops and he spoke at some length to Barbara. He broke the news of the death of Tom Glenn to her and they talked of the possible meaning and import of it all for a while. But nothing was at all clear.

Then Wolf managed to find the off switch for the elevator near the entrance hatch and he boldly experimented switching it off and then back on again. He could not figure how you could turn it off before went down again though. From the Cyclops came the news that no further contact had been made with Earth and it seemed unlikely that this would change for some few hours to come either.

He consulted his watch next and then prepared to move out to the elevator after informing Helmut down below them. The discovery of the grave and their inspection of the Liberty had taken a bit longer than Wolf had figured on.

Down below them while he had been waiting, Helmut had already discovered the way to operate the elevator from the floor of Mar’s red rock and soil while he was waiting there. He passed this info on to his commander after hearing Wolf’s queries about the machine and then the astronauts exited the seemingly abandoned spacecraft named the Liberty.

Just before Wolf got into the Rover, he asked the others to wait up a little. Without saying another word, the commander walked solely back towards what just might be the only grave of a human on the planet. They watched him standing there some three metres from the shallow grave. Then they saw him salute, then pause again for he turned to come back to them.

The commander was facing towards the gross figure of Mons Olypmus now. They could all of them feel it’s mighty power and influence as the mountain looked down on them. It had changed to indigo colours with combinations of tawny and purple shadings. This was against all of the background of Mars red and flamingo pink colours.

Was this a sad place to die then thought Wolf? Or is it just the way I’m thinking right at this bloody moment? Anyplace is I suppose.... was his next thought. He said quietly...‘Insha Allah.’

Wolf said this quietly to himself but in truth he was not all sure if God would will a man to die a few months after being among the first humans to set foot on another planet. But it had happened to Cook, Scott and to Magellan in what you might call a kind of parallel world.

And naturally enough he was not spared the thought of wondering what it was that had killed the amiable NASA commander either.  The  Commander turned on his heels and slowly made his way back to the small group by the Martian Rover. They tested the other rover and it started quickly enough and after some consideration  Wolf decided to commandeer the vehicle. Wolf told them all that he would take the machine. He said....

‘We have to return to the lander pronto now before dusk settles in. The night will start closing down on us in something like an hour and a half.’

He told this to the three astronauts quickly. This time Wolf was chiefly concerned about the freezing conditions, which would descend upon them on these plains as the shadows lengthened.

Their survival suits had limits down to something like -48 to -53 degrees below after all, and it would definitely go down lower than that after dusk shaded down on them all here.

‘It will certainly take us at least an hour just to get back to the Ithica through the rough terrain across to the Ithica. And then we still have to make the eight or ten minute trip back to the lander from there as well. The storm might have abated alright but we sure hell don’t want to be seeing Phoebus or Deimos up there and freezing our naturals off.’

He pointed upwards as he spoke..... ‘I think that we need to regroup for a while; see if Earth can talk to us again and plan our next move folks. We have a hell of a lot of questions to   to ask them.’

They would have covered the extremely rough terrain between the Liberty and the Ithica in the two in a lot less time if the accident hadn’t occurred. And what followed that accident was another blow to them all. Brigette was driving the first Martian Rover and Wolf the second, when a section of the narrow ravine’s bed gave way and brought the first Rover to an abrupt halt.

They could by no means manage to go forward now, so they had sent Nando back find the second Rover to inform Wolf of the situation.

While he was absent Brigette suggested that they might attempt to dig their way out and push on forward but in the end they waited for his return. 

He returned in a relatively short time but he came stumbling to them at an awkward run in a state of near panic. His voice was hoarse as he also stumbled over his words as they looked at Nando with incomprehension.

I,.....I reckon that.....I’ve found another one chief...it’s.’ He meant another American astronaut. ‘It’s horrible.....It’s just lying out there, down in the dust’

Wolf waited a few moments for Nando to calm himself and then asked him to take him back there. After taking a swift look at his watch, Wolf gathered in Nando and together they trudged some seventyty metres back down the ravine.

They soon took a right hand turn down another slightly larger ravine or arroyo. Wolf noted that it would be possible to turn the Rover at this junction as they moved on some further distance. Not so far along this arroyo they both spotted it simultaneously.

What Wolf saw did him not a lot of good either for before them was an almost completely mummified and desiccated corpse of a human. The posture was slight crouch as if he was an Earth marsh man in some Southern English fenlands.

But there was no swamp here and not a drop of water to be found. The body looked leather like, lying there in the Martian dust complete with the twisting ricture of the crossbones grin of our childish games and drawings. Significantly he could see no wounds or abrasions on the mummified corpse at all.

Wolf bent down to the corpse and looked closely at the upper part of the body. No colours now showed in this man’s once bright survival suit. Instead it had been suffused with the rusts of Mars iron like hues.

But upon the upper right hand corner of the drawn torso he could still make out Earthly insignia on it. Wolf with some difficulty read the markings as Lt Perry Crosswhite US Marine Corps. Nando and Wolf looked at each other but neither man spoke. What was there to say after all now? First they had found the Yankee commander and now his top man Lt Perry Crosswhite in this, his terrible last pose in life. It was just unthinkable really.

Were all the Americans dead then?   Had one of the Liberty’s crew run amok? What had happened here for God’s sake?

And now it seemed that were only four of the NASA crew left in fact. But as yet there were simply no answers yet to these primary questions. All they had to go on was this second corpse. The awful mummy of Lt Crosswhite’s corpse was framed by the grey and red dust instead of the grimy mud of some fenland.

They turned and rejoined the others back at the two Rovers with all speed possible for dear old Sol’s shadows grew longer now. They recovered the first rover by shunting it forward with the American machine. And near enough to an hour later, the astronauts were quite relieved to arrive back at the lander.

They were all dog tired and not just a little bit emotional as they filled their two comrades Francois and Barbara on the day’s chaotic events. Barbara in particular was most upset, for she and Wolf had discussed the all too pleasant meeting of Tom Glenn and Wolf at some length not all that long ago. But in the end there was nothing left to do but to settle in for another long night’s sleep and vigil.

Waiting now was wearing on them but only sleep could obliterate their worries. They were all safe enough here for the moment. They had plenty of oxygen and all the necessary supplies they required for now, but they would not have been human if they hadn’t considered going back up to their waiting ship above them were they could really feel safe.

There was a real and present danger to that line of action though. For they had to manufacture more fuel at the factory craft the Ithica before they even could think of attempting the return to Earth.

The Ithica was another problem as well, for they hadn’t even had time to inspect the damn thing had they? Was it intact and was everything functioning as it should inside the craft?  So it was imperative that they inspect it on the morrow. Nothing else would do.

While Wolf was writing up his log Nando was doing a bit of star tracking in the astrogazer. Helmut was already fast asleep and snoring gently. Barbara happened to notice Francois go aft to the storage room. Shortly after he had gone Brigette also slipped away to the storage room.

Perhaps only another woman would have been completely aware of this movement but in any case the tired Barbara could only wish the lovers well. For of all times maybe this was no time to begrudge another human consolation in any form.

Chapter Fourteen.  The Lovely and dangerous Island of Ithica

Sleep had not changed Wolf Kandihar’s mind that the Ithica must be explored this very day. The only real kick off question was to decide how many of the crew should he take with him? He finally decided to take four with him and leave only Nando at the lander. He reckoned that they might need many minds to properly survey the mother lode craft.

If necessary, they might even need another weapon too. God but I hope it won’t come to that anything like that though, he thought. This was all such a harrying and bloody shame. Carrying weapons when they should have carrying out experiments and roaming the plains in the Martian rover under the shadow of fantastic Mons Olympus.

It was a tight squeeze to get the five of them aboard the one Rover but Wolf had decided to leave the American’s Rover at the lander. Francois kind of clung on to the back of the frame rather precariously for the duration of the short journey to the Ithica but it was only a short trip and they made it safely.

In the original tale of the Odyssey Ithica was of course Ulysses’ home island. His wife Penelope had to pine away the missing years of the classical hero’s absence. Ulysses had often enjoyed the company of other women during the many years of his perilous voyages in the Pre Hellenic Agean and Mediterranean seas; but poor Penelope was born to weep. In her husband’s absence of many years she was left alone to wonder where her man was every day of her life.

And what’s more her problems were made all the worse by many dangerous suitors. None of who cared two Ithican figs about the welfare of her long missing husband. Or rather they took good care that he did not arrive back at his palace on Ithica unawares, for their eyes were not solely on his wife, but on his tiny kingdom as well. In fact Ulysses was able to sneak able to sneak under these vile suitors radars and to surprise them.

As has been mentioned the Ithica was designed to be the factory ship for this voyage and perhaps for the other expeditions to follow it too. It’s main function was to produce more fuel from the basic Martian elements and also to manufacture more oxygen from the abundant supply of dwarf wheat plants that she had aboard her.

 And so it was in the astronauts eyes not only the symbol of their ability to survive it was far more than that. It was in fact, there only hope for survival and no mistaking the fact. Brigette couldn’t help herself in her surprise.

‘Holy Radium!’ Was all she said as she pointed out the shining phenomenon up on high. It was in fact a very bright meteorite shower that had caused this cry. It must have been quite close to them too for them to see it in the Martian half-light of day. Dr Barbara had spotted it first. She had been facing towards the rear of the Rover and consequently had the rearing sight of Mons Olympus smiting her eyes when she saw the brilliant daylight display of objects from space penetrating the thin atmosphere of Mars.

Wolf had brought the Rover to a screeching halt and they all watched the brief and vibrant shower puncturing the thin Martian atmosphere from outer space. Against towering Mons and amid the vivid indigoes along the rims of the red horizon the meteorite shower glittered with a slivery radiance never to be forgotten. They then drove on again in a sobering silence towards the Ithica and the portable building with the stockade that surrounded it.

Looking at the Ithica Wolf already knew that he had two choices of a means of entry. It looked like a smoothly sided hexagon crafted out of one of the new alloys which undoubtedly incorporated the amazing Dordick principle nano tube technology. Rocket ships duly patched up while you wait for less than a second for you.

The ship was sitting directly on the surface of Mars because the base of the craft had been carefully designed to absorb any small impact that might occur as it came to rest on the surface. And the Ithica upon landing would have been automatically locked onto the Martian bedrock below much the same as their own lander had been.

It was not envisioned by her designers that the Ithica would ever be required to lift off Mars so it was now to be considered as a more or less permanent fixture on the planet. As has been already stated, the Ithica’s job might not be finished in supplying just the  Argo’s crew. Others would come after them as well. But all that was in the lap of the uncertain Gods for now.

Because they had already entered the portable in their first foray Wolf discounted the door to the short tunnel which led into the Mars bound craft. He couldn’t be certain whether it was locked or not in any case.

There was a direct door at the other side of the mother lode craft and the five astronauts headed for it directly. There was of course no lock on this outer door only a seal which led into the Ithica’s airlock.

They definitely expected the Ithica to be at a breathable Earth atmosphere when they stepped inside. Brigette pointed out some loose soil  near the sealed door and they all reckoned that some of the Martian dust and rock had been scraped away to enable the Americans to drag the various pieces of the portable into position.

And as they knew that the airlock would only accommodate three of them only Barbara and Francois joined Wolf in stepping through and closing the seal on the outer door while Helmut and Brigette remained on guard outside the craft.

Their weapons were at the ready once again, but it something that they could not use their weapons on that surprised them most. The Ithica was not at earth atmosphere at all.

Stepping inside the Ithica the three astronauts were naturally very careful to close the outside airlock hatch. It had struck them immediately though that the Ithica wasn’t at an earth atmosphere when it should have been. This really rocked them greatly for it was one of the bedrock principles of their whole expedition’s putative success that the oxygenizing process would have been in place when they arrived at the Ithica.

What it meant of course was that the Yanks had been downright careless.  There were these few signs of stress to hand here. Somehow or other they had deactivated the main oxygen production. The computer which operated the valves seemed to be in sleep mode. These were valves designed to regulate air supply from the upper cambers where the bio atmosphere was set up.

They all moved on up to the bio atmosphere area on the next floor. Wolf meant to look at the great store of dwarf wheat plants, which should be ready in all kinds of stages of growth and to be busily pumping oxygen into the Ithica’s enclosed atmosphere. This then had to be their prime objective. To find out what was out of order and to correct it. In truth, they had already conceded in their minds that ‘correcting’ this fundamental process might just already be an improbable task. They had to be aware of the slight bounce in their step in confined spaces as they climbed up the stairwell. The extra bounce was due to the lighter than Earth atmosphere here.

So it was a very nervous trio then that stepped into the bio-atmosphere room above the main control station. The first thing that confronted them all was that is was plain to see that the dwarf wheat plants flourished amazingly well. This in itself was massive news to them. This end of the system was in fine condition. Everything here seemed fine and dandy to the naked  eye.

Row upon row of green and tawny sheaves of re wheat grew in abundance from floor to the roof in the myriad rows of deep shelves with the in-built watering system and the heating systems all in place. From floor to roof these plants stood in their beds in serried rows potentially giving off life to humans every day and every hour. It was a moving enough sight alright.

All these plants looked just so damn healthy too. Water was just quietly and efficiently dripping over them and a fake Sol was up there near the roof glowing down. This creator of artificial sunlight was so healthily shining down upon the non waving wheat heads below it. It was Oklahoma in springtime right here on Mars, Ok?

In total, this vast interior crop might represent something like 400,000 individual stalks or sheaves of dwarf wheat. So there wasn’t any problem in the oxygen supply here at all. Again she was forced to wonder at what had happened. Somehow through panic or oversight ythr valves had been locked into sleep mode. All they had to do was to open the valves again. So they knew that they would have breathable air in a couple of hours when the repairs had been made to the portable buildings.. That was one good break for the team at last.

Here once again was another bloody mystery and they were thoroughly sick of mysteries by now. But for the now there was nothing to do but to return to the lander and prepare to do the necessary repairs to the portable on the morrow.

Even though Wolf was determined to explore the American spacecraft more thoroughly at another time he had decided by now to use at least three of the crew to set about repairing the portable building back at the Ithica complex as soon as possible. But there wasn’t time to return and start the job that afternoon, so they all rather reluctantly prepared to settle into the lander once for another night.

Before they settled in for the evening, Francois and Nando did a small walkabout in order to gather rock samples while the rest of the crew loaded one of the Rovers with the gear that they would need to repair the walls of the portable. When this was completed they meant to move into the living quarters directly. There was no earthly reason why they shouldn’t was there? There was still no contact with Earth either but no news for our Martian explorers was not really good news at this stage.

The night past uneventfully even though another smaller dust storm gathered some force during the night. It blew itself out towards morning and as soon as they had it gathered their wits about them they all left in the two fully laden Rovers for the Ithica complex once more.

That is all excepting for Barbara who was designated to guard the lander this time. She would also be ready to receive any possible Earth contact. This was beginning to bother all of them by now for they certainly felt that NASA must forward some genuine info on the situation soon. What indeed in the hell were they waiting for?

Upon arrival Wolf had not bothered to order one of the crew to stand at the ready to guard them while they laboured at the repairs to the portables walls. Francois pulled him up for this and got his weapon out of the Rover and said in a slightly excited voice that he didn’t much like the idea of a warrior robot on the loose.

Wolf began to silently dispute the facts about this in his mind but finally didn’t argue the toss about the matter and let Francois stand guard by the fence. When it came down to tintacks Francois might be in the right of it too. The boy scouts motto might be the right idea here so it was probably better to be prepared. Wolf closed the air lock leading to the portables and switched the computer controlled valves, which would set the air supply up in the Ithica. When the repairs were done to the portable the air lock would be opened once again.

They began to get down to working at repairing the portable walls. They actually found more sections of the walls in the Ithica and began to replace the unfinished parts and the damaged sections with new ones. It wasn’t rocket science and again it was still a huge mystery to them all. For naturally it made them all wonder again just why the Yanks had left it in that way in the first place.

Brigette swapped sentry duties with Francois on the hour and he took his place in the hard working repair gang. Wolf worked as hard as anybody there but it was Nando whose experience turned him into a natural foreman on the job.

As they had already guessed the curving roof sections of the portable were totally intact and properly in place. No rivets were required at all here, for cleverly made clips locked the sections into place and it was quite an easy task to complete the repairs. Whistle while you work and they got on fine with the job. There was really only one tricky bit where they had to improvise a bridging support where the original piece had mysteriously been badly twisted out of shape. Had somebody forced their way in here, or had it merely twisted as they were putting it up?

However, Nando got to work quickly and mackled up a piece of aluminium and titanium tubing into a near perfect fit for a replacement. A few rivets were popped into this next section and although it was a fairly rough job, it was finely in place in thirty five minutes flat. It really only meant some two and a half hours work to make it airtight again.

After this was done they all thought that they should now have a totally sealed building. Robinson Crusoe’s cave was now almost ready for occupation. No sounds or sightings were made by the posted sentries and it was all quiet on the Ithican front.

Before they finally closed the gaps in the walls Nando returned t and proceeded through the small tunnel leading from the Ithica to the portable to check that the passage was clear. He turned on the lights as he went and they saw that there were no problems at all in the entry or egress. It was all go.

They all retired into the Ithica for a breather where Wolf had switched on the computer that controlled the valves for the atmosphere system. This was the same computer that the Americans had seemed to so hopelessly mishandle. They all waited for it to take effect while they sat there in their safety suits, still breathing from their air tanks. It was only a matter of minutes now to full air.

Most of them were watching the warning light, which would tell that it would be ok to take off their helmets and suck in the recently recycled air from the dwarf plants. As a further precaution their own safety suits had inbuilt meter readings of the atmosphere beyond their suits and from time to time the astronauts also glanced at them.

One glance at this could tell them how compatible with humans the atmosphere was and in some eighteen or twenty minutes both their suit meters and the Ithica’s own machine told them to check again that the airlocks were closed because the ship was now at full ‘space-life atmosphere.’

They did not have very long to wait. The system started to kick in very quickly. This was not quite the same as Earth’s oxygen levels though. For it was just a little higher on oxygen content and at a slightly lower air pressure than at most places on Earth.

However it was exactly the same composition as the Argo’s atmosphere and they had all survived admirably on that for just under sixteen months. It was in fact, the standard composition of deep space craft atmospheres whenever they were to be found in deep space.

So for the now it was mission almost accomplished. They took off their helmets with smiles all round. They could now settle into the complex at last if they wished. Later on they would open the air lock to the portables and that too could be employed. And Wolf knew only too well that he would soon have to lead the team back to the Liberty once again.

There were the whole top level sections of the giant spacecraft that they hadn’t seen as yet. So it seemed quite logical that the pointy end of the Liberty was next item on his log book of action. He was the first to take off his helmet after taking the readings of the oxygen levels. They all relaxed a little now for the first time in their sorely troubled days upon the red planet

Then Wolf talked to Barbara back at the lander....

‘ He told her that they were breathing air in the Ithica.

Then he said to her...  'I think that it is time that we all settled into the Ithica Babs. We can’t run scared all the time. We’re just about to check out the portable’s atmosphere now too. We will pick you up in some twenty five minutes. Don’t worry about bringing any heavy gear. We’ll do that another time. Just make sure that you take the Earth contact codes with you and be sure to remember to switch the roving reception over so we can receive Earth signals from over here. Talking about that Barbara, has there been any contact from Jean yet?’

The answer to that was a negative and she was going to be more than ready to see him soon.

‘I’ll be damn happy to join you all again chief.’ It fair gives me the creeps to be alone here Wolf, and no mistake.’

Francois and Helmut took a Rover to pick her up having been assured by Nando that the living quarters were now fully at Earth atmosphere and all readings were good They all hunkered down quite comfortably breathing the sweet air in the living quarters of the portable for that night. They were glad of the extra living space of the superbly designed quarters and reveled in the temporary normality it brought them.

And best of all there soon came ‘blessed sleep which knits up the raveled sleeve of care’ to them all.’ In the morning they all breakfasted well. Then they kitted up, knowing that they would have to keep their protective air suits during the journey out to the American ship.

Helmut stayed behind to keep an eye on things that they had started up at the Ithica. The rest of the team promptly set off in the Rover for the return trip to the Liberty.

Chapter Fifteen.  Some Electric Dreams

The first thing they did upon their return to the American craft was to post a guard again outside. The second thing that became readily apparent to them upon entering the ship again was the sense of confusion that had been here some time ago. Barbara bent down low to pick up a clipboard type of set of instructions that had been seemingly ripped from it’s connector to the desktop. Other clipboards were also scattered about the area.

She looked up at Wolf meaningfully. The look did not go unheeded either.

It is just standard spacecraft operation to have these plastic layered instruction boards dangling from various machines or lying across the desktops. They were lightly chained or otherwise contained to stop them floating around far in zero gravity conditions and so they would ever be to hand of course. And most of all they represented order inside a spacecraft. But not in this particular ship it wasn’t.

No mere mortal human being could possibly remember all the sequences of events that must perforce take place in every operational maneuver in space. These boards were their really only backup and standard safeguards. These instructions were so boringly normal to Barbara for instance, that they were in fact sacrosanct to her. It was exactly the same for every astronaut who ever floated down a tunnel in space. They were there for their safety and the whole ship’s safety too.

There were other materials spread about in confusion too and some wiring seemed to have been tugged loose from it’s sockets. Somebody or something had panicked in this craft it seemed. It was a sight to shock the most hardened spacer. Several red lights above the astronaut’s heads were blinking some kind of rather ominous warnings to them. 

‘Shit, so do you know what all this means then chief?’

Instead he simply shook his head and pointed a finger towards the stairwell in front of them.

‘Up you go Francois and let’s see what gives up there.’

They moved up a stairwell which finally led them to the entrance to what seemed to be a long vertical tunnel. Wolf shone a torch up this massive shaft but the beam couldn’t find an end to the blackness. There was no light at all in here and he decided to retreat back from what seemed to be the tunnel containing the ship’s drive. In old-fashioned terms it was the engine room of the craft. Wolf turned and led them back down to the main control room.

They all investigated the disturbed control room with a greater intensity. On the way back they all noticed a robotic arm, which presumably was designed to lift material around and perhaps out of the ship. Wolf had more than an idle thought or two about robots in general and some in particular, but he dutifully kept his almost wayward thoughts entirely to himself.

He seemed to remember that the NASA Mars planning people had been at least considering taking a robot along with them. But he wasn’t at all sure about this.

Francois was standing by a kind of frame or cage in the take off section of the NASA craft. They had gone back to the American craft not without a lot of misgivings. Even though they had traversed this rough terrain several times now they were all very careful and extremely nervous about handling the Mars Rover through the arroyos and the round the huge boulders. Fortunately they did not come across poor Lt Perry Crosswhite’s cruelly mummified corpse on this journey. In fact because of their earlier confusions, they would not have been able to find it without a considerable search.

The thing that was at the centre of Francois’ attention stood at just a bit smaller than an average man’s height. It was a kind of supportive cage with padding inside it. It stood in the take off safety area to one side of the astronaut’s chairs. These were the recliner type chairs almost identical to the take off chairs provided for them on the Argo. And Francois was very angry now and told his was so..

He had perhaps made too many assumptions possibly and he was very fired up indeed. As an engineer this structure interested Francois not a little. This was a cage designed as a ‘take off support’. And it surely gave one food for thought. It was most likely designed for the support of a robot to use. Or could it merely be a cage as well?

Now robots had killed humans back on Earth from time to time. The first known murders by robots had occurred about eight years before they had blasted towards the Red Planet. It was of course an absolute sensation at the time and to cap it all they happened in Lyons too.

It was a domestic servant robot owned by the family of a Lyons industrialist, which had gone berserk in their kitchen. The wayward robot had slaughtered Madame Ducloc and her young son Guilliame in their house. I can’t even bring myself to describe to you just what this rogue robot did to them. It would not be fair to you.

Nearly all of Madame Ducloc’s  neighbours in that case and some of the murdered people’s relatives had told the press that Madame hadn’t even wanted her husband to bring it home. Bloody idiot of a damn filthy rich husband he was too they all reckoned. Yes and she had been scared to death of the thing and there you go isn’t it?

And would you believe the irony of it their bodies were discovered by their maid Mme Adele who was on the verge of quitting when this whole thing came to this sorry conclusion,

And why naturally you wouldn’t believe the state of hysteria the French press whipped the otherwise calm citizens of the Republic. Now would you dear reader?  And worst of all what was to be done about such killings? Could you possibly commit a robot to trial? I don’t think so my friend, for that would destroy any vestige of human individuality and equality in the eyes of the law.

Did you kill the robots then? But you cannot kill a robot. Only destroy the thing and what was the standard for it then? Even humans commonly kill each other by accident and some of these events are just damn sad and most unfortunate. They don’t rate a trial at all, just sympathy for the surivors. It was of course a legal bloody nightmare and would continue to be for a very long time.

That had been followed by a spate of killings which weren’t of the type of the man trapped by a car building robotic machine type in a factory, which was relatively speaking a common enough event. But a real murder as such and committed as the classics would have it; ‘with malice aforethought.’ Or at least so the press would have it .Of course Iaasac Asimov’s wise considerations deliberated on almost a hundred years ago had once more come to the fore in countless articles and Newspaper editorials willy nilly.

These ‘laws’ came into being in 1942 with his Three Laws of Robotics in his story Runaround. Although before that, Asimov had already foreshadowed these ideas a couple of years prior to Runaround.’ The state of flux of morals and the practicalities of robotic relations with humans were always going to be a problem and so it was at the European Space Agency too.

Anyhow the old man Bonsoir wouldn’t have a bar of robots straight and simple. That was his final word on the matter too. The new generations of European space designers and engineers had puffed and huffed but old Bonsoir finally got his way in this matter.

At least he did on the first European mission to Mars. There was nothing remotely like a robot aboard the Argo that is if you dismiss about a hundred computers which could practically think like a human in any case. But the NASA mission might have been tempted to otherwise.   

They all studied the control room once more not quite knowing what it was that they were looking for. Why the signs of chaos here then? Barbara went over to a computer to see if would fire up and tell them something.

She leaned her weapon against the console and studied the computer. They had all known that there was power in here since Wolf had turned on the light switch back in the portable building so it was certainly worth a try.

The computer flickered as it began booting up. Barbara waited a moment or two and then she punched in some brief commands. She was searching for a back log of commands which might tell them something vital or at least provide a clue to what had been happening here

There were already warrior robots used by both Russia and The United States in those times. In fact the Europeans had hung back on these things a bit. Some of them were very nasty machines indeed. But it was just conceivable that the Houston types had been convinced by the more hawkish fellows from somewhere not too far from the pentagon to consider it.

A warrior robot could be anything from  a rather odd kind of rocket carrying machine to a cross between a Humvee and a helicopter. Not that they could have fit the latter types of robot warriors aboard the Liberty.

But in fact little else in particular could be deduced about the nature of the robot or the emergency that had likely occurred to the Liberty. And so it was still totally unclear to Wolf and to all of the Europeans as to why Tom Glenn had changed course all the way back some nine months or so.

And really nothing would make sense of what could be found from the ship’s computers. This would probably remain a mystery until they found the rest of the Liberty’s crew alive or failing that, some record or possibly an open admission from Houston as to what the bloody hell was happening here.

Wolf had holstered his weapon some time ago and now sat down and talked to Barbara when he went back up to the control room.

She had also found that the Liberty had indeed landed on the date that Earth had so wildly celebrated all those long months ago before Mars had loomed large before them. But of the events following the landing, no trace could be found and it seemed likely that either they had not committed such things to the computer, or it could have been that they decided to avoid using the damn computers altogether. And that brought them back to Houston.

In any case, Houston was not all that much help even when they said anything out aloud. Of course the case of the ‘robot murders’ back of Earth infamy of some few years ago, was lingering somewhere not all that far from the front of all of their minds by now.

It would certainly help them all thought the commander, if they knew exactly what kind of robot NASA had loaded onto the Liberty with Tom and his crew. But they were not all that much palpably further towards the truth now than they had been when Wolf had first spotted that shallow grave near the Liberty.

However the wizards of Houston had providentially provided another instructive sign for their edification. It was posted up over the ‘cage’.  And it read as follows.....

           K7 robot takeoff and landing container...Keep locked.

A small but sturdy snap lock on the frame was easily observable and gave you the picture completely. Pointedly, the snap lock would not be able to be undone from the inside.

So it was obvious that there was indeed some kind of a robot among the Liberty’s the compliment. That much was clear to them. Or at least so it would seem. The next big question was what kind of robot was it? And the other consideration was that the robot was missing too. Barbara asked herself another question now. As she too was almost certain that the robot was aboard she wondered how many astronauts had there been in the Liberty anyway?

Had they gone with six with the extra robot as well as the full human compliment then? Or had they lifted away with only the five astronauts aboard her plus a robot? This was quite a fair question too, which she eagerly shared with Wolf after they had inspected the take off zone.

At first they went down to the main control room once again. Upon examining the five or so protective air suits and their tanks they found that none of them worked. That is to say there was no air supply left in them at all.

‘What do you say Wolf, are we dealing with a rogue robot here perhaps?’

Barbara was not the kind of person to be unnecessarily imaginative and she was almost certainly the calmest of the Argo’s crew. Sometimes she might not be the bravest of souls but she inevitably tried to be a rational one. Her question required a serious answer.

‘No I don’t think so Babs for the main reason that robots are strictly built accordingly to act on strict commands and within strict boundaries. They are simply glorified computers with appendages to them and nothing more. What’s more they do not despite extant literature, easily conform to the infamous Frankenstein mould. Manufacturers and designers of robots these days usually take Asimov’s Three Laws quite seriously you know Barbara.’

‘Mmm, that’s hardly what Francois thinks Wolf.’

Barbara kind of casually pointed at Francois as she spoke for she thought that she might well draw him into their conversation. But Francois who was still quite nervously uneasy with the situation held his peace for the now. He was also not at all keen to relax his hold on his weapon either. His weapon actually banged into the side of a stanchion making a ringing reverberation and made the astronauts give a sudden start.

Barbara turned around quickly but Francois merely grunted something in French which they couldn’t quite catch. He was still tense and not a little uncommunicative now.  And he was still not impressed.

‘I know it well enough Barbara and it worries me something terribly too I can tell you but I can hardly order him to change his mind now can I? And truly he may be right when after all is said and done. There must be a possibility of that at least. But I just am not convinced of it that’s all’

There was a few seconds pause after Wolf’s reply and then he continued.

‘Well the actual reality is that we haven’t seen a robot as yet have we? We might well find one some time soon, but if you ask me, the odds are that it will just have done it’s normal duty and was not likely the cause of whatever catastrophes that he Americans experienced.’ Again he stopped and he looked carefully at Barbara. He was probably seeing how she was taking in his words.

‘It’s pretty well only in science fiction that robots go berserk. Oh I know there has been a couple of cases of rogue actions but how many robots do you reckon there are back there Babs? I’m not sure either but I’d say it would be in the hundreds of thousands almost. Or that’s my guess anyway. So in fact the odds are very much against it in any case.’

Wolf now turned to the rest of the crew.

‘Well I reckon that we should do a radiation test here before we go any further and by rights we should have done it long before this’.

Using several of the small counters built into their suits they quickly took the background levels, but they were just fine and dandy. Wolf had another idea just then.

‘Well there’s still one last place on the ship that we haven’t searched yet as far as I can tell and that’s the sleeping and living quarters. Apart from a few cargo holds and the engine quarters, that’s the last or should I say the highest level as the ship now rests.’

‘What’s at the pointy end again anyhow Wolf?’

This was Francois who was a trifle impatient to get on with their search. Pointy end was just a figurative term for the top end of the craft was not like a rocket of your imagination and it was not pointy at all. In fact it was more like the shape say of an enormous hammerhead shark. 

‘There appears to be a common room cum dining room and some sleeping quarters Francois. It’s capable of being sealed off from the rest of the ship too maybe by the looks of it.’

This was Helmut speaking now as he readied himself to lead the way. He had rummaged around until he had found a plan of the American ship. He was now studying this carefully as he slowly walked towards Wolf. But what’s more he had discovered something of even more interest to them all. Another sheet was in his hands.

It was the ship’s manifest. It detailed the number, the names and the ranks of the Liberty’s crew. He handed it to Wolf straight away, for rightly he understood that it would be of vital interest to his commander. As soon as the commander laid his eyes on the manifest he whistled right out aloud. Wolf and Barbara were standing quite close to each other.

‘Good gravy I know him well Barbara.’

Barbara came closer to Wolf. She seemed both amazed and somehow sorely touched at what he had just uttered.

‘Who do you know Wolf, who do you know?’

‘Here, it says here, Samuel Fuller USM age 42, and it’s the third name on the list after poor Tom Glenn and Lt. Perry Crosswhite. Sam.... Sam Fuller, why we worked together....I....

Wolf tailed off, temporarily unable to continue.

‘What is it Wolf?’

The commander looked at Barbara as if she might go away or perhaps if she might not believe what he was saying.

‘Young Sam Fuller worked aboard the Nova Mir many years ago when we were both very young astronauts. He was often called the poet of space. I remember. I really liked his poetry too Babs.’

‘His poems were damn well good. And he was finally expelled from Nova Mir after the Second Cold War had broken out over those two breakaway Caucasian republics. Or were there three Republics? I forget!’

Wolf suddenly remembered that he was speaking in the past tense about the American.

‘I mean.....he mightn’t be dead after all might he then Babs?’

She just shook her head for right at this moment she could not rightly think of any words to say to him.

Wolf then went on to explain that he had been detailed by Bonsoir to go up to the Earth circling space station, Nova Mir in 2029. He had stayed in the new joint venture but Russian invented space station for three months as a guest worker. As they all knew, Nova Mir had replaced the original Mir some years prior to that.

During all the time that Wolf had been aboard Nova Mir, Sam Fuller had been there. He had already been aboard the Nova Mir for two months when Wolf had arrived there. Sam Fuller, Virginian, poet and astronaut and father had been his fellow worker. They had done complicated astral navigation courses and studies together. They had played chess and Wolf had read dozens of Sam’s poems both published and unpublished and they had perforce become true friends.

They both had sons of an age and they were both huge lovers of literature. In particular, both of these men loved the writing of the early Nineteenth Century philosopher Henry Thoreau, born and died in Concord, Mass. In fact Wolf even knew his date of birth. Both of them practically drooled over his dreamlike and amazing work of ‘Walden’ in fact.

And so it was only natural that they would have clicked, and they had certainly done so. This was truly another weird turn of events so far from Earth. Taking there signals from Barbara, the others gave time for their commander to gather his composure before they had to move on higher up the ship.

Barbara sat there with her legs crossed and she was running her eye down the list held by Wolf. The next name on the liberty’s manifest was a Dr. Terri Morgan age 33, which made her the fourth crewmember of the Liberty and she was followed by one Hans Bonhoffer age 40. Strange thought Barbara and I know I have never met this person but the name just sounds so familiar.

And there was a sixth human name on the manifest. It was a June Carley age 27. Quite a young too to be selected for a job like this mused Barbara to herself. It’s just possible I suppose that she was comparing her own rather more advanced age with young Ms Carley as well. There were also mug shots to identify each of the astronauts as well.

Helmut was still studying the plan of the Liberty and by now and he reckoned that he could navigate around the whole of the Liberty with some confidence by now. The ship was truly a bloody awesome giant. Barbara looked at Wolf and he nodded his head.

He decided that they should stick together and they all started towards a kind of shaft, which led to the upper level via a cunningly designed set of rungs, or perhaps it might be better called a stairwell. Now Helmut was out in front of the others as they climbed.

They could find no switches to light their way, so they found themselves climbing only seeing and feeling their way lit by two hand held torches. Maybe the lights were lit by voice recognition or perhaps they just couldn’t see where they were. Once again, they were reminded that the ship seemed to be on standby power and that must have some kind of ramifications.

But really when all was said and done all it did was to deepen the mystery.

They were passing through into a kind of long and narrow tubing of a passageway, which went directly upwards. Just as the party moved off, Wolf checked in with Nando back at the Ithica to apprise him of what they were up to at the moment. He told him that they planned to return in just over an half and a half, which he figured would give them another half hour in the American ship. God willing that is.

They were now climbing in the dark with just that faint lift or bounce that the Mar’s atmosphere will give you. Every now and then a reverberating clang would shiver through the quavering darkness as somebody’s metallic heels met a rung clumsily. They climbed in a single line and both Helmut and Brigette carried the torches which partly lit their way bouncing and arcing light from side to side of the dark tunneling as they ascended the Liberty.

The area they were moving in was a covered passageway between the highly sophisticated nuclear fusion engines that created the force that managed to hurtle this giant American craft across a small section of the cosmos. It was perhaps the mother of all engines to date in human engineering.

This ascendance seemed to take forever to Barbara but finally they came to end of the long passage upwards. Every now and then small grunts and groans would come from the astronauts as they misjudged their footing or simply hauled their bodies upwards. It was a little bit like climbing up some rock stack in a giant and extremely dark cavern.

Brigette contacted Wolf who was two places ahead of her in the long climb. Naturally most astronauts are familiar with claustrophobic places. They spend so many of their days in tight places amidst the backdrop of the vasty emptiness of deep space. Faint hearts do not last too long there. But this was quite different. They were in an unknown ship. In fact they were in an unknown and foreign ship and they weren’t here under their own terms.

‘Wolf, I think I can hear a dull sound like some vibrations from a machine somewhere within the hull. The damn thing wouldn’t take off on us would it?’

Wolf answered her very quickly for it was plain that most of the party might be thinking something along these lines.

‘Rest up a little there Brigette, I can hear the sound fairly distinctly too mate. You have to remember that we reckon that the craft’s on standby power and I reckon that it’s the same sound that we heard when we were here before Brigette, so I think it’s cool for us to be in here now.’

Whether Wolf’s assurances calmed Brigette or not, the climb was full of the feeling of a black void around them though there was no danger of falling at all. For in fact their bodies were at least partly shielded in suitable protective oval shaped rungs of some metallic tubing, which followed the stairwell all the way up.

It was still a dizzying ascent though.  However at the top of the climb, their way was blocked by a very large and a very strong looking sliding door. It was locked and they could go no further.

Helmut studied this door for a long time but could not figure it out. Then Wolf sidled past him in a tight squeeze up the last rungs to study the device. For to one side of the door was some kind of device which might have been a complicated lock. There was an Omega sign on it, which stood out in an embossed kind of way from the rest of the dark metallic surface.

No LED lights or any numbers at all showed on the door. Neither was there a handle, a visible lock or catch or any other markings or calibrations at all. They attempted to press the sign and they tried to slide it each and every way. But nada happened. And they clapped their hands and said words aloud which certainly included some swear words. It was still no go.

And in fact the Omega sign was all they could make nothing at all from it even though it was the only thing that that could signify. But recognizing it did not get them anywhere. It could have been controlled by voice recognition. Or maybe it was by an electronic lock. Perhaps it might be an iris recognition device. But it whatever it was, it defeated all of them in the end. There were no levers and certainly no handle the door. It seemed like no lock that they had ever seen before. The only thing that they could do was retreat back down the dark tunnel from whence they had come.

Chapter 16. We Are Explorers Not Bloody Marines

The Rover had been brought skidding to a halt at the shocking sounds of gunfire. Francois, Brigette and Wolf who was the driver, were in the leading Rover while Helmut and Barbara were in the second one. Helmut drove the second Rover and was following them in the same arroyo at about a hundred metres distance. Blazing and flaming brimstone thought Brigette, gunfire on Mars for God’s sake we are bloody well under fire and I just can’t believe it.

Wolf was quick enough to react, but a huge spray of dust and rock splinters burst over the Rover as the top of the arroyo was partially torn away. The burst temporarily blinded him, causing the vehicle to screech to a halt into the side of the arroyo. Something careered off the side of the vehicle pinging with that terrible whine of a ricocheting bullet. Francois had tumbled out of the vehicle when it came to a sudden halt and he seemed to be injured.

They knew that they were only some two hundred to two hundred and fifty metres from the American ship. The firepower came from precisely that direction and seemed much heavier than say normal heavy rifle fire. They saw great arcs of what seemed like old-fashioned tracer fire came racing over the top of the arroyo at them. When they struck into the Martian hillsides they made a whuck, whuck, sound such as none of them had ever heard before. Whuck and whuck again came the noise at them after the sound of the shots being released.

The Rover had crumpled ever so slightly on impact but Wolf was still at the wheel with Brigette still seated beside him. She was already unloosing and locking her weapon into the fire position while Wolf half stepped, half tumbled out of out the vehicle.

‘Hey get down behind the damn lip of the rampart Brigette.’

This was Francois lying on the ground He was shouting at Brigette who had leaped out of the vehicle and looked as though she might just attempt a Rambo action any moment and tear forward up the arroyo. Wolf cold see her clearly now as her weapon was swung up at a firing height. The bloody woman was standing upright with her two feet firmly placed in the red dust of Mars and she was trying to find their attacker as she began to scramble upwards. She fired a blazing series of rounds from her Zendron and the light from them almost seemed to light the sky for a moment but Wolf had no way of telling whether or not Brigette had even seen their attacker from her position. Wolf simply pointed his hand downwards to that same dust signaling to her to stop being a bloody fool and obey Francois immediately.

Finally she did go to earth but only for a few moments. When another whuck of a sound came all too near his own head, Wolf buried his body down into the softer bottoms of the gulch. He could see nothing for a while. ‘Eat dirt’ had a new ring to his unprepared mind now.

If he had not have had on his helmet, that’s exactly what he would be doing right now. He also didn’t have a clue where his hand weapon was. Maybe it had been tossed onto the floor of the Rover when they screeched to a stop and ban into the side of the arroyo.

Francois was having his own difficulties now as he seemed to be nursing what might be a busted knee. Wolf called out to him and then crawled towards the injured man. He waved to Wolf that he was doing fine all the same. They all froze and time stood still. They waited there spread-eagled out on the floor of the gulch; hardly daring to breathe now. Wolf began to work on the idea of reversing the Rover out of there.

Also he couldn’t help but wondering where Helmult was in the second Rover. They were in real trouble and no getting away from that but they were all still alive. But before he went to the Rover he figured that like Brigette he should try to get a look at their attacker, and inched his way up the sides of the gulch with extreme caution

The fire stopped suddenly as if there had only been the one person firing. It was a truly puzzling. Wolf was already thinking that one aggressor might mean ‘robot’ but that thought shot through his brain at a great speed. It was difficult to realize just how many minutes had passed since they had first heard the shots. Then the firing ceased as suddenly as it had begun. There was nada for the moment and all was quiet. It seemed like hours of rigid silence to the three astronauts lying there.

During the brief lull, Brigette worked herself up into a safer viewing zone at the lip of the arroyo and peered out towards the Liberty between two low rocks. While she was doing this, Wolf decided to slowly inch his way back down to the Rover. The rough walls of the arroyo stood at some three times Wolf’s height and as he half rose he tripped and fell all the time rolling all the way down to the floor of the gulch in a small explosion of red dust and debris.

He recovered quickly just as Brigette was signaling him something from the wall of the arroyo. But he learned nothing of Brigette’s frantic warnings for at moment he saw the figures of Helmut and Barbara come creeping down the floor of the arroyo. At the same moment Brigette continued to sneak up the side of the slope again with her Zendron being arm crawled along under her breast in the tried and true marine manner.

Once more there came the terrible sounds of whuck, whuck as the missiles tore into the sides of the arroyo just over their heads. Once again Brigette’s actions in going back up the slope against the terrible tide of metal were either very brave or foolhardy, depending on your point of view. Either way you would like her on your side..

‘Robot chief....bloody robot.’

And then out of breath, she had to stop speaking altogether. She started up once again,

‘Robot guys..... err it’s a damn warrior robot chief. I’m sure I saw the bastard this time and I think I got it in my digi-viewer too.’

She panted these few words out to Francois and Wolf as as she loosed off more rounds from the Zendron. Now she was holding up a digi-viewer with some difficulty, while still grasping her Zendron in her other hand. Then she managed to put the viewer away in one of her suit pouches. She seemed to stumble and Wolf thought that she had been hit and whether not by design or not it was impossible to say, she tumbled off the ridge and back down to the floor of the arroyo.

But Brigette was up in a flash and the pair was suddenly helping Francois to move away towards the others and the Rover. They all ducked down again as more red dust and ragged splinters of stone sprayed all over their heads and shoulders. But they kept on slowly limping on moving towards Helmut and Barbara for all that. Really there was nothing else that they could do anyway.

Helmut and Barbara were in fact down a little lower than they were and it should afford the slightly better cover for them all. They were crouched down behind the four very large and irregular boulders which formed at least a form of cover between them and the unfriendly fire from the metal man out there.

Wolf was just about to lend a hand to Francois when the firing restarted. Whole chunks of the lip of the arroyo were now tearing off and spewing over his head as he lay there on a slightly higher level than Francois and Brigette.  He ducked his head down low again. It was more than obvious that they had to get out of there and quickly now.

Another flash thought of his hand weapon came to Wolf, and he scrambled back to the Rover and peered into the vehicle. Sure enough his weapon lay on the floor. Retrieving it, he stumbled back towards Brigette and Francois who had now joined Helmut.

They all put the large boulders between them and the firepower coming at them from the direction of the Liberty. Then they moved backwards for the arroyo took a bend from here. And they began to hurry around it with all the speed that they could muster while half dragging Francois with them.

Helmut had got down in the classic bended knee firing position loosing off fire in what he hoped was designed to be covering fire for the other four who were now stumbling around the bend of the arroyo and hopefully out of range. Reaching the second Rover they piled Francois into it. Helmut drove with Barbara and Brigette as passengers, while Wolf ran behind them.

Suddenly and out of the blue Brigette began shaking and then she burst into desperate tears. It was delayed shock or battle fatigue in action of course. Barbara put her arms around her and they clung to each other as they finally wound their way back to safety.

When she finally could speak, all that Brigette could say was damn it, damn it, damn it in between the shaking. Helmut halted the Rover to allow Wolf to spread eagle himself over the back of the vehicle and they made their way back to the comparative shelter of their home island of Ithica that way.         

Chapter Seventeen. Asimov’s Amendments

Now Francois was both injured and a little aggrieved with his commander for not believing that a rogue robot had been at the heart of the matter.

‘We should have acted on that assumption Wolf.  Hey Brigette what about your digi-viewer images then?’

Wolf said nothing in reply and Brigette who had quite recovered as far as she ever would and was cocking her head at Francois who was lying down on a bed half propped up on a bolster. At first it seemed that Francois direct question had shot right over Brigette’s head.

‘Have you got the beast on your digi-viewer ?’

His injuries did not worry him half as much as his sense of Wolf’s leadership over the robot affair to date. Drugs were tampering down his leg injury somewhat but he was not a happy chappy at all. He was propped on a bunk and it wasn’t his injuries that worried him the most. He had been a fair bit of pain when they brought him in. Now he was looking for answers. They had all of them gathered to the fray over some drinks for it did seem about time for some kind of a summation.

‘Goddamn it, but I forgot all about it didn’t I; the viewer I mean?’

Brigette quickly turned back to a locker and started fishing in her protective airsuit pockets and pouches for it.

‘What would we have done that was different then mon ami? I will tell you Francois. Absolutely bloody nothing. Rien, eh, nothing at all mon ami.’

This was Brigette speaking to Francois in a weird mixture of their native tongue of French and English. Brigette now sought to turn on her digi-viewer to retrieve the footage. She stood there, magnificent.. She looked both beautiful and fiery after just two drinks and that was not far off what Wolf was thinking either.

‘Francois, please tell me again what else could we have done in any case?’

She had found the digi-viewer and was tinkering with the buttons as she spoke.

Now Brigette had switched back to common usage English as she prepared to show them all what was on her digi-viewer. Brigette continued to hold the floor.

‘What in the Sam Hell could have done that was different if we were even sure that a robot was on our tails Francois? And another thing mon ami why would the robot have attacked us after we had left the American ship? It just doesn’t make sense to me at all.’

The viewer was now in her hand and held their total attention now. She plugged it into a dock on a computer base instantaneously an image appeared on the large screen above.

The digi-viewer was obviously jinking around when the footage was taken. Those who had been present could explain that all right. It was a token of Brigette’s foolhardy bravery under fire. But in the mid distance you could clearly make out the figure of what appeared to be a terrible image of a shortish but wide metal clad figure firing towards the viewer or rather the holder of the viewer. It was a man gone wrong and it was also a machine gone awry.

For just a brief moment then, the viewer self focused and presented a tantalizing close up image of the terrible personification of the God of War as an automaton. A terrible and metallic figure of Mars come to the planet Mars in fact. It seemed to be asset on top of moving metal tracks like a n old fashioned tank back on Earth. It was firing off rounds from what looked like some kind of arm, which had been implanted with a weapon. And the weapon looked much heavier than their Zendrons. And then suddenly the viewer faded to black and that was it.  

Barbara had moved significantly closer to Brigette now. She was shaking her head from side to side. And indeed it was an awful thing to see.

‘It’s just awful Brigette, just truly awful truly.’

She was speaking to nobody in particular and it was plain to see that Francois was churning a little now in his mind. They were all of them more than a little stunned now. It was all a bit too much to take in really. Francois wanted to hold the floor again but was a little unsure of his ground already. Ok so they had all witnessed the image but it opened up more questions than they could possibly answer.

Still Wolf did not speak but instead he returned to the bed. He had got up from it to watch the images on the viewer with the rest of them after coming off guard duty a few minutes ago. Helmut was currently suiting up to take over the position.

While he was there alone back at the Ithica Nando Parucci had mended the breach in the fencing surrounding both the Ithica complex. When they had got back from the ‘ambush’ not far out from the Liberty, they had immediately activated the ‘surround’ and alarmed cameras which had been designed to ensure that no astronaut was inadvertently locked out of the complex.

Of course it was only prudent of Wolf to stand a sentry at all times after what the one sided and near disastrous battle near the American ship and nobody would have thought to demur over that. So he had was now back inside the Ithica via the tunnel after taking that first stint of guard.

He had just come back into the portable when Helmut reported that it was highly likely that Jean Alois would be heard within the hour from back home. Helmut walked towards the tunnel, which passed through to the Ithica and Wolf locked the first door after him.

Wolf was sitting on the bed now. Certainly he was very keen to have all of them hear what Jean had to say. He reckoned that he should open the Earth channel when it did come on so that all of them could hear what was going on. It sure wasn’t the time for a leader alone to be privy to information that might be vital to all their lives. He also knew that he had to give his own appraisal of the ‘robot situation’ to all the crew now. So he gave a little speech....

‘When I was young fellow I read a book. When this book was published, the ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ were already seventeen years old. The title of the book that I read was ‘The Rest of the Robots.’

‘Most of us here have heard of Iassac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics. We have plugged into the ship’s computer and I have Asimov’s Laws here. And as it is not such a long document I would like to read them to you now.’

So carefully attended by all excepting Helmut who was standing duty outside, they listened to the words ringing down from the year 1941 when they were first penned.
1.    ‘A robot may not injure a human being or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm;
2.    A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except when such orders would conflict with the First Law;
3.    A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First and Second Laws’

‘Hey is that all there is to them Wolf?’

This was Brigette who was fairly stunned at their brevity.’

‘Yep that’s all there was Brigette at that time that is. These three laws were in the most, accepted by readers of science fiction all over the world. And what’s more most manufacturers of robots did take careful notice of the laws too.

But then a little later on Brigette,  Asimov found that it was necessary for him to make an amendment to his original Three Laws. He called it the Zeroth Law, which continued to add other lower- numbered ‘Laws’.

‘Now the amendments were supposed to have the effect of acting not just for the good of ‘specific humans,’ but for ‘humanity’ as a whole. In effect, it gave the human controllers greater leverage towards robots designed to kill in the end. Moral imperatives always tend to become weaker with the passage of time in any case.

It seems to be the nature of us humans. It was more than hinted here with the changes in the law, that robot’s might be able to kill a human if it would help humanity. This was meant to be in the way of a ‘higher’ or ‘a more noble’ Law I suppose if you like.

Of course I have been talking here of science fiction. And science fiction  which was written by one man.. And all of here know that the military brass of the many nations who were developing robots do not tend to overly concern themselves with fine fiction. They are concerned with efficient ways of killing only. Warrior robots were inevitable I suppose and I reckon that’s just what we’ve got here, a bloody robot and it’s job simply is to protect his own.’  

Barbara came back from the portable’s galley with a call of

‘Does anybody want coffee?’

And she proceeded to pour a couple of cups with the steaming brew of the best European brand of coffee that Paris could buy. Wolf loved his coffee with four hundred reasons and he continued after sipping his coffee and waiting a little while for the thing to cool down.

‘Now almost regardless of Asimov’s Laws, I think that at least some of the American crew are still alive. Of course I cannot prove that can I? And we do know for certain, that two of them are dead. There may be more as well too.

But the best proof that some of them are alive is that the warrior robot is trying his damn best to protect them and nearly killed most of us in the process. And further more I reckon that almost demonstrates that the robot wasn’t the original cause of the problems either.’

Wolf paused to sip his coffee again and also to take in the effect that his words were having on them. Barbara was the first to speak.

‘Wolf maybe I follow what you are saying alright, but if there are a couple of the Liberty’s crew still alive and if they are in the locked section of the ship at the pointy end, why don’t they come out and meet us openly? And secondly why didn’t the robot attack us when we approached the Liberty at first?’

Wolf looked directly at Barbara and smiled warmly at her. Nando was just about to change his socks when he stopped doing it. His interest was now entirely focused on the new turn of debate.

‘Both of these questions are good questions too and they open up many possibilities Barbara. I don’t know if there is anyone in the foreship section of the Liberty at all. But I do think that some of the crew are still alive somewhere, somehow. One good reason that the robot opened up on us when he did could be that the crew were stationed somewhere else say between where we were in the arroyos and the ship.

I think that we should maybe look at Brigette’s footage again to that end. The fact is that they could be somewhere else either alive or dead. We have to ask ourselves does a robot keep on trying to protect his people even if they aren’t alive? I don’t know the answer to that one either.’

At that very moment as if the old Gods of drama had introduced it on a stage they all simultaneously heard the sound of the Earth contact signal from the voice monitor squawking out loud. They all looked at it for a bare moment as if it wasn’t real. The sound kept coming and Wolf slowly walked over to it and pressed the open receive button. They could all hear Jean Alois’ Gallic voice clearly now.

‘Hello Argo and do you read me now then?’

Wolf replied to the affirmative and also informed the controller that he was on open line and most of his crew were with him and listening into the conversation from the repaired portable in the Ithica complex. He switched the dial to the open position so that all could hear.

‘Perhaps you should go ahead and fill us in on the situation Wolf. We have all been pretty worried about you all here. I should point out that currently we have Houston representatives listening in to this as well.’

Wolf carried on to give a brief resume of most of what had occurred since their last discussion, ignoring the strong sense of irony that was strung out in his mind about them having the Houston people eavesdropping right at this moment.

He ended up with a savage thrust at what he said were acts space piracy and near all out war mongering in deep space by the good ole US of A. Jean Alois did not contradict him either, but instead adopted a serious tone of voice in his reply.

‘The President of the United States through his Houston controllers has given you his deepest apologies for this entire incident Wolf. I am just glad that none on our side has perished as a result. Wolf, I have to ask you; how do you think that the two Liberty people died?’

Wolf didn’t answer immediately.  He looked around at his team to see if they had common ideas about this very point. It was Barbara kind of reverting to her medical hat who ultimately answered the European controller.

‘Jean it’s Barbara here. Tom Glenn is dead. And I reckon that it’s likely that he has been dead for some time. He’s in a grave near his ship as you have just heard, so we can’t tell all that much about the cause of his death. Lt Crosswhite didn’t appear to have a mark on his body as far we could tell.

There seemed to me to be no sign of wounds and no deep abrasions or whatever. So although I think that he died suddenly and violently, in my opinion it was not from obvious signs of foul play from either man or robot. But on the other hand, neither did it seem a natural death. At a huge guess, it could have been from asphyxiation. But at the moment it’s probably anybody’s guess. Jean tell me straight. Are the others alive?’

Jean Alois seemed to take a deep breath at that question.

‘Look the truth is that we don’t know much at all about that Barbara. I’m just about convinced that Houston are completely in the dark about it too. Though having said that, they were bloody well so tardy about letting us no anything at all it does not sit well even now. They tell us that they lost contact just after the time that Tom Glenn died.

That was when Perry Crosswhite took over the command I suppose. You will have to learn more of that from one Major Tiptree very soon. Perhaps there is no real reason to think that they are not being open about this really Barbara. But you people on the ground can be the judge of that I reckon.’

Wolf now broke in once more.

‘Jean, what made them change course in the first place and why in the hell are they here at our damn landing place? That‘s the real crux of the matter I reckon.’

‘Wolf, I’ll hand you over to Major James Tiptree from Houston. He is the one you should be talking to about that.’

There was a short pause for the changeover and then the US Major started his spiel in a rather ungodly but quite succinct southern drawl.

‘Hello Commander Kandihar it’s Major Tiptree here speaking to ya. We are all very sorry this whole thing occurred the way it did Commander. I promise you that personally. From the President downwards I mean. And we are truly sorry about this whole deal. Events overtook us about eight months ago I guess you could say.’

‘The initial problem remained the crew of the Liberty’s abiding problem. They began to realize that their air supply would soon run out. When Commander Glenn realized that, they simply had no other option. He changed their course for your site under the shadow of Mons Olympus. It was a matter of survival Commander. It was purely a matter of life or death Commander Kandihar; I promise you that.’

Wolf was not all that charitable at the moment that he could just let this statement slide by. He chipped in.....

‘At the very least I reckon that you could have warned us about your damn warrior robot near your ship Major. It damn near finished most of us off for good out there and it still may I reckon. But are any of your crew alive Major? ’

Tiptree seemed to suck in his breath in readiness to answer Wolf’s question.    

‘Well Commander as weird as it sounds we just don’t know the answer to that. We have not been in contact with them since the time of the death of Lt Crosswhite Commander. That’s already almost a month ago. In fact and as horrible as it sounds some of us were kind of witnesses by proxy to his death. You see he was ‘on air’ to us as he was dying. We are almost certain his death was due to asphyxiation Commander. That was nearly seven weeks a ago now

‘Seven Weeks!’ Exclaimed Wolf, in total and unfeigned amazement.

‘That’s right Commander, you heard me correctly. It is nigh on seven weeks since we last contacted any single member of the crew of the Liberty.’ 

And as to warning you of the situation Commander, we were about to do that very thing when your Jean Alois informed us that he had lost all contact with you and our hands were tied so to speak. I know that we were tardy about that and once again I am sorry for it, but please believe that we were going to warn you Commander.

Fate intervened again. I don’t mean to use this as an excuse for what we should term as our bad behavior, but Cape Canaveral has had be shut down during your absence. This was due to Cecelia. I mean the giant hurricane codenamed Cecelia!’

‘Actually Commander, the site will be entirely abandoned in some four months or so Commander. This massive swamping by the super tides occasioned by huge hurricanes was of course predicted many years ago. At least since 2008 I’d say after the two major blows to New Orleans at least.

It’s certainly true that Cape Canaveral was often thought of as an obvious target too. This has obviously distracted us here at Houston quite a deal. We have basically been relocating the services at Kennedy Spaceport on higher grounds between San Antonio and Corpus Christi in Southern Texas.’

‘You may or may not have heard yet but Hurricane Cecilia was truly ‘The Big One that had been coming for just over fifteen years.’ Some fourteen weeks ago it did come. And it came almost without proper warning from our wind watcher boys and girls. Damn it Wolf I don’t know if a butterfly flickered it’s wings over the Prambanan or not but it sure created fire and brimstone chaos here. It destroyed most of the Bahamas and killed many hundreds of thousands of people both in the USA mainland between Florida and the Carolinas. Not to mention the areas throughout the Bermudas, the Turks and Caicos Islands and poor Cuba as well.’

‘And of course the same thing happened to most of the Keys, swamplands, and the tidal flats off the whole Florida and the Carolinas coastline. Seven of our skeleton staff at Canaveral have drowned Wolf. We also lost much irreplaceable equipment but we’d been building up Corpus Christi for three years and we did manage to save a lot as well.  The global warming has gotten a damn sight worse here since you left us Commander. And we here in Houston have had our hands full just to keep our major programs afloat so to speak. But all the same, this should have never ever occurred Commander.’  

‘Just a minute please major.’

Wolf was turning to Brigette to ask her to suit up and go and relieve Helmut at sentry duty outside.

‘I want everyone to be clearly informed Brigette.’

She did so and the discussions with Earth continued apace

Wolf then asked Major Tiptree a question.

‘Major, we got to the Liberty’ living quarters but there was no way we could get through it. Does it have a voce command pass to it to get into the command post in the forrard section? Or some other kind of locking device?

The major asked Wolf to hold on a minute while he put the question to someone else. And he came back on after a minute or three.

‘Why yes Commander it is voice coded in fact, It’s not what they call a ‘person specific’ command’ but a generic spoken code. The code word Commander is.... Jefferson.’ 

Wolf asked to speak with Jean once gain. He spoke with considerable feeling now.

‘Ok now Jean, we have Francois injured and the rest of us have scared you no what by this bloody machine of theirs. In my own humble opinion I reckon that it is possible that some of the American crew are alive. I could not say how many of course. The robot seems to be aggressively defending the Americans. To me that’s the only thing that makes sense Jean. So what is to be done?’ 

‘Wolf,  Major Tiptree has just told me that he gives you every right to attempt to destroy Jerzy..... as it seems to be intent on doing just that to you. By the way Jerzy is their private name for that damned robot. It’s a K 7 model by the way and as you will probably have already worked out. The robot may know that his some of his crew are alive. The damn thing may see itself as his crew’s only last chance. It is a damn formidable machine Wolf...take care!

Wolf nodded his head with a seldom seen vigour. It was plain to see that he wasn’t going to argue on that head.

‘Yes Jean damn right you are too, it’s more like a platoon of highly trained marines than a single entity at that.’

Jean Alois kept bubbling along with his dialogue.

‘In fact Wolf, Major Tiptree believes that destroying or disabling the thing is probably your only option. He sees the robot who believes he must protect his own as in fact surrendering their last chance of survival. So the robot is actually harming his ‘own humans’ by defending them if you see what I mean.’ 

Yes, Wolf and all of the crew of the Argo could see readily the power of the argument alright. However most of them had also witnessed the power of the beast far and away up too close. Or perhaps we should rightly say the sheer firepower. And thus it was not easy to come up with an idea of how mere amateur soldiers such as they were, could ever subdue such a machine as this. But at least some of them had stated to put their curiosity to work already. The only real advantage they had here was that they were humans, and it was not.

Brigette waltzed around their quarters with a flourish. Most of the Argo’s team had sunk into a leaning towards a philosophic gloom and introspection and were flopped on beds in lethargy.

‘Ok you bastards.’

She said more pointedly looking towards the men there. Wolf was back outside on sentry duty now.

‘Ah and are any of you here reckon you are game to take me on in a game of chess. Or come to that, at any other games. Say like anything slightly a bit more arousing over there then?’

She was pointing rather archly to the storeroom now.

Francois shifted his damaged leg a little to look directly at Brigette now. He simply said, ‘ah ma cherie you have me at a disadvantage right now you know.’

Chapter Eighteen. Some Healing, and a thing called K7

Francois’ leg was diagnosed by Barbara to be broken in two places. They weren’t complicated breaks and she simply set the leg and Francois was condemned to rest a lot. This was something that Francois was simply rotten at, but all of the others invented fine tasks which truly needed to be done was handed to the bedridden man.

In a couple of days he was then a chair ridden Frenchman and he got on with his tasks with good cheer. For instance it was his job to download all he could discover about their nemesis. The warrior called a K7 General Motors type robot.

He was also given the task of monitoring incoming messages from Earth. He spent a lot of time chewing over all the megabytes of information about Jerzy and anything indeed related to the man made machines, which Isaac Asimov taught us to call robots. In particular he was looking at the general Motors 2,028 to 2,029 models which were relatively fresh out of Chicago. It made for very interesting reading too.

The K7 model robot was one that came with both track propulsion and a powerful self-feeding weapon. The robot stood about six foot high and was some two and a half feet wide. It seemed that the robot was designed so that it could ‘adapt’ itself in some manner or fashion out of it’s tracks. Or should that be ‘at command’.

Indeed can a robot do anything ‘at will’ he wondered? It could negotiate stairs both ways, and was also designed for particularly rough terrain. So it would seem that this model was well very suited for the region of the arroyos and gulches that surrounded the Liberty.

It was definitely provided with a definite ‘warrior status’, which meant that the general prohibition from harming human being doctrine a la Isaac Asimov, had been at least partially withdrawn from it’s positronic construction. It was definitely a killer robot then and it had cost NASA 859,000 dollars and sixty five cents pus sales tax.

It’s serial number was 950000345 K and that serial was stamped on the exterior just aft of it’s left thigh.If you can call it that. And why yes these general model was known as a K7. It was not registered as having a known owner and it was not programmed to tell jokes.

All warrior classes of robots had been definitely banned by the Reformed United Nations Inc back on Earth, but that did not mean that they didn’t get made. A lot of ‘bootleg’ robots came out of Taiwan for instance, but dear Jerzy was definitely a good ole US of A boy then. As I have already told you, he was from Chicago. And what is more Jerzy came with a Manufacturer’s Guarantee Certificate from the year 2029.

In any case many back yard workers and handymen could certainly adapt ordinary class robots and so mackle them into some kind of fighting robots to sell them on. And in fact, it was not unknown to find ‘pit robot’ fighting in some of the less salubrious cities back on Earth.

Philadelphia was known to harbour at least three of these brutal ‘pit robot’ venues. It was quite a huge money making effort too. And they were also in a lot more cities across the world as well. All of course based on gambling.

These venues were naturally quite illegal in most towns but that only served to make them all the more attractive to certain types. It was said from time to time, that some women often found these ‘unnaturally staged fights’ most exciting and some men had got into the habit of taking their ladies along to stir them up just a little, shall we say?  I cannot vouch just as to how effective that ruse was though can I?

Robot circuses were also popular in some of the Eastern bloc cities in Europe too, although it was well known that Russia had banned them completely because of their historical love of all things human about their joyous and massive circuses.

Francois had time on his hands now while Wolf started to plan his method of approach. The second team stayed pretty close to the Ithica for two days now. Wolf was marking time. It was not that easy to formulate another approach to the Liberty. But they all had a feeling that if there were any survivors from the American crew at all, they might not have all that much time left.

As for their contact with Earth it became quite dodgy once again. A couple of times it had flashed in only to fade away once more. In the last thirteen hours they couldn’t raise home base at all.  Nando had spent most of this time doing a kind of everyday and ordinary stocktaking of all the supplies and equipment in the store rooms and lockers aboard the Ithica.

In doing so, Nando stumbled across a very surprising thing. Unless the manifest was out of order or some storeman or woman back on Earth had fouled up totally the Americans had taken an emergency oxygen producing system from the Number 13 storage bay locker room on the port side. There could be absolutely no doubt about it.

It was not a long-term solution for creating a breathable atmosphere for humans at all. The system if properly installed, would keep safe a smallish area of say no more than 12 to 15 square metres or thereabouts. This area or room would naturally enough have to be airtight and be used by no more than say four to five people at the most. If it was used sensibly, and without any interruptions, then it might keep the users alive for anything up to four weeks or so.

But almost certainly the system would last them no longer than just on a month. Four and a half weeks was probably the upper limit, and nobody would wish anyone to push it up to that nervous barrier. After that, the atmosphere was kaput and the humans would be exactly the same as well.

Francois had started his idea off when he was talking to Nando first. They had been discussing the ‘badlands’ as they now called them in the common room, which had both day beds and chairs strewn around. As for the rest of the astronaut’s quarters, each of them had their private suite of rooms. If there was one thing that Bonsoir’s team did not stint on it was private quarters. He had learnt from experience it seems.

It was Brigette who just happened to listening to the two chatting away together. By the ‘badlands’, they meant the gulches, humps and arroyos that lay between the Ithica and the American ship. The topology and the geology of the area was the centre of their discussion when Francois suddenly recalled that they should have an item in the Ithica brought from Earth called an SL.

It was a geological tool really. SL simply stood for super laser and it was primarily designed to break down rocks from a safe distance. It needed to be at a safe distance from other objects because it was a powerful beast of a rock blaster. 

This was a glorified kind of a laser, not dissimilar to the common and quite powerful lasers back on Earth. However the SL was designed to be a more portable affair, so it could very easily transported on the Mars Rover. It was also very, very, powerful. If it could bust rocks wide open at a safe distance, it might just give Jerzy a hell of a fright. That is if they could get the SL close enough to the robot.

‘Is it in there Nando...have you seen it?

Nando nodded his head an affirmative immediately, for he had seen it only the day before while he was doing the inventory.

‘You reckon that it might be handy against that damn machine then Francois?’

It was Francois who was nodding his head now and he told him that he had witnessed trials of the laser outside Lyon at a testing ground.

‘It is formidable my friend....formidable.’

This was Francois’ main comment on his memory of the trials. He immediately asked Nando to bring the SL out of the locker rooms.

‘Go and ask Wolf first before you do it though Nando, you’ll need a hand to move it in any case mon ami’.

Nando left Francois sitting in his chair nursing both his leg in plaster and his new thoughts. Wolf listened to Nando’s explanation of the discussion with the injured engineer and then the two of them went to locker bay eleven and fetched the SL out. Even though it did take two men to comfortably shift the thing around, there was no doubt that it would fit comfortably into the Mars Rover with ease. Wolf then heard out

After a while Wolf could see that it had to be a possibility although there was another main line of action in his mind and that was simply inaction. If they left the robot alone it might just serve everyone’s purpose better. The only real problem with that was if the American team or whoever was left of it were now on dwindling air supplies as could be easily surmised then this inaction would condemn them. You can sprint without an air supply for fifty to sixty yards to another air supply, but no more than that. After that you collapse and die of suffocation.

The next question was the same one that had been raised before. If you worked on the assumption that Jerzy the robot was protecting the NASA crew, where would they find it now? The arroyo where it had opened fire on them had been almost half a kilometer from the Liberty. At a guess at that time, the robot was situated about 250 metres away from the American ship. Had it traveled there, or was it stationed there? If one assumed that the Americans were also stationed thereabouts and not in the pointy end of their ship, what were they living in then? It seemed impossible to conceive that was possible for a moment, unless that is, they were hiding in some kind of portable or temporary shelter. He supposed that it could just be possible at that.

None of this could be known for certain and it it did not help their line of strategy one little bit. Wolf made a mental note to ask Major Tiptree if the Liberty had carried some kind of emergency or portable shelter with them on their journey to Mars. He discussed this with Francois as the engineer was resting on a kind of sofa in what passed for the common room. They all had separate and quite luxurious if compact bedrooms. The biggest attraction for seasoned space travelers however, was the toilets which were of the usual type found on Earth.

They were designed with normal kind of plumbing and needed no vacuum arrangements, or any other strange acting machinery that they were forced to put up with in deep space in these most basic movements. It was truly a godsend to them all indeed. Just a simple but sheer luxury in their Martian lives.  Francois had already graduated to the common room sofa for company’s sake.  The Frenchman had been kind of listening in to Wolf talk out aloud about the possible whereabouts of the first team. He thought about this for a while and then his engineer’s mind took over.

‘There might just be at least one advantage for them Wolf. That might be the volume of the area they had to fill with a breathable atmosphere. We reckon that they must have taken the emergency oxygen apparatus from here Wolf. What could they do with it to the best of their advantage? Set it up in that vast craft of theirs?

I don’t think that would have lasted them the distance Commander. But a longer period of survival might have been possible if they do have a smallish emergency shelter that they had set up somewhere. Then they would be using the smaller volume of space inside the shelter help them to survive longer.’ 

Most of these ideas made fairly good sense to the commander but it was all still so much speculation swirling around in their heads. They had very little that was definite to go on and that was for sure. It was something that they all had to sleep on.

The next day it threatened heavily to rain down or more correctly roll over the top of them another dust storm. They were still in the Ithica complex and Wolf was still at this time uncertain as to what action they should take. Do you risk your own crew so as to safe the marooned and threatened American crew? Do you risk your crew when you aren’t even sure that a single member of the other crew is alive? Any move might be the wrong one.

Brigette suited up and went outside alone on Wolf’s orders to test the obtaining conditions. As soon as she had stepped outside it definitely seemed to her that another storm was coming.  The storm was definitely pinking up the air as the rust colours built up once more. The best colour and atmosphere to describe the Martian scene was often that of cinnamon. Cinnamon was at many times the tone of most of these desolate plains and the craters and mountains all around.

And then she turned away from magnificent Mons Olympus back to the Ithica. She was just about to go back through the airlock, when in the distance through the already swirling dust clouds at ground level she thought that she saw some kind of dull light up there low in the pinkish and darkling rose coloured sky. Was it moving or static, she just could not say.

She really could not say what it was at all. A meteorite perhaps she thought, but she hadn’t yet seen one falling in a singularity; always she had seen showers of them darting downwards. She had seen the light in the southeast and truly it would have been impossible to judge at what distance she was seeing the thing.

It was indeed in the general direction of both the badlands and the American craft. Probably it was somewhere off to the right of the craft from where she was standing she thought. But in truth nothing more could be accurately said about it. The banks of rolling dust soon swallowed up the light too. It had only been there for a fleeting instant and then it just disappeared.

When she came back inside she reported both the coming storm and the phenomena of the odd light to all and sundry. Nando listened most closely and spoke as he turned to his commander.

‘Wolf, you don’t think that it just might have been a rocket flare?’

That comment of Nandos set up a babble of speculation among all comers. Was it at all likely then? And could a human actually set off a flare at all outside their quarters, if they had no air suited breathing apparatus. Perhaps they did possess at last one operating suit?  Francois argued that in the Martian atmosphere you could just possibly make a short dash without oxygen. You would be in danger from dying from asphyxiation of course within minutes he argued. However, if you simply held your breath much as you would under water, it could be done. It would be dangerous, but possible.

The debate went on until the little death of sleep was upon them once again. Wolf resolved to have a meeting in the morning to decide what to do. The storm might run for a day or two or it might be gone when they awake. There was a need though for an open house discussion about their course of action.     

‘Wolf I have come to the conclusion that we have no choice but to attempt a rescue mission very soon.’

This was Barbara speaking and she was now alone with the man who was both her lover and her commander. She had never spoken like this to him on this mission before. Never at all had she tried to direct him. In some ways as the second in command she was entitled to do more of that than any other of the team but had previously held her peace. Now it was as if something which simply rose up within her that compelled her to state a strong if emotionally held opinion. She believed with all her heart rather than her mind that they should go to the aid of their fellow astronauts. Even though the very thought of doing so chilled her to the bone.

‘I reckon that we must assume that at least some of them are alive but their time is rapidly running down. The clock’s against them now for sure Wolf. They only did what we would have done when all is said and done Wolf. They acted to save their lives. Think about it Wolf. You would have done exactly the same. They knew that you them to do so in fact; not an option for them. Think about it Wolf and answer yourself the question. If it had been us in their position what would you have done? ’

Wolf was standing full on to Barbara and he replied softly.

Yes I think you are right Babs. And Allah knows that I would have ordered all of you to do the very same thing. What you say is right, for there was simply no other option if you turn your mind to it. Turning around and heading back to Earth was not an option was it?  And let’s face it Babs, landing at their original landing site wasn’t on either. However, that’s not the full debate now is it? We haven’t a clue if any of them are alive or not. Do I order all of you to attempt to take out this crazed and non-thinking robot and we perish as well? It’s a tough call you know my sweet. It would be just a really hard call.

Even if we can excuse the NASA crew for their downright piratical methods, I still am left with the secondary dilemma am I not? And bloody hell, the fact is that we do not even know where they are do we? Alive or dead for that matter, we still do not know that outcome do we mate?

‘Wolf, I have to say that I am hazarding a guess that you reckon that they are not in the Liberty. Am I right with that then Wolf?’

Wolf simply nodded his head at first but then went on.

‘Yeah and you are dead right you know Barbara.... it just makes sense doesn’t it? You are right for the reason that was first put by Francois in fact. They most probably needed a smaller space my dear. I think that it would have been a very hard decision for them to leave the comfort of the Liberty mind you, but once again they simply had no choice.’

‘I intend to ask that Major if the Liberty possesses some kind of emergency living quarters. One that could be erected somewhere out in the open. I reckon that the volume inside even the living quarters inside the ship would have been just too great for the oxygen production machine to cope with. And the great cabins would have been too great to cope with Barbara.

That means that they are probably in some dug in hutch or some kind of arrangement not so far from where our young General Motors boy is stationed.’

Then he turned to Barbara.

‘Ah Babs, but I am feeling so tired now girl and I think that if it is your wish that we might go to bed now and see out our weary night together.’

And so they lay together with a faint growling of a growing Martian sandstorm barking up against the portable. And for just a little while the stars could not look down.

Chapter Nineteen. Robinson Crusoes?

Come the morning the sandstorm’s growlings were far more silent than they had been the previous night. Arrangements were being made then to explore the likely area of the badlands where Brigette had seen the light. If it had been a flare there seemed little doubt that a human was out there and in trouble and they had all heeded Barbara’s emotionally delivered message. They would risk a trip to see what it was that Brigette had seen. Nothing else would have done.

And so after only a brief and hasty breakfast Wolf accompanied by Helmut and Brigette set off once more towards the badlands in the exploring Rover.

Nando, who was instructed by Wolf to continue to try and raise Earth packed the Rover with some extra emergency rations on his own initiative while Barbara stayed behind primarily to attend to Francois injured leg. Two Zendrons, part of what was now standing orders, were placed on the spare seat while Wolf carried his hip automatic belt weapon as per normal. Finally then, they checked out that the communications between the Rover and the Ithica were clear and they quit the Ithica well before 8 am Martian time.

On the way, they stopped to take their bearings. This was approximately after an hour’s rugged travel in the Rover. They still had at least a half hour to go although they couldn’t judge this clearly at all. Brigette kept trying to lead them in the general direction from what they reckoned might have been the sighting of a flare. They all returned to the Rover, they immediately set off again in search. The winding gulches foxed the second team for a while as they headed towards the Liberty but branching off some three hundred metres before they came to the craft. They tracked down this particular arroyo and after going another quarter of a kilometer Brigette thought they just might be on song.

In the end though, the little shelter was not all that difficult to find. Brigette was the first to spot the emergency survival unit bunkered down at the bottom of the arroyo. There was no movement at all. No sign of life from the outside whatsoever here. Of course the team was still wondering what in the Sam Hell could have driven these explorers to these extremes then?  The three astronauts stepped down from the Rover. And they were all stunned and speechless now. Helmut in particular was moved and exicited. He began to run ahead of the others to the American’s shelter to see the thing closely.

To camp out as it were, in the middle of the wastelands of red dust seemed like an act of sheer madness to them all. Or maybe it was merely an act of sheer total desperation. Wolf signaled to the others to wait while he banged gently at first on the light metal of the emergency structure. He was striking the hatch a little harder now as he spoke to his team. 

‘We have to make sure that we endanger none of the occupants inside. We certainly cannot open the hatch until we are fairly sure it isn’t pressurized to an Earth atmosphere. No reply came back though and it seemed quite obvious that no conscious person inside the survival quarters could have missed Wolf’ insistent hammerings. Helmut pressed a small item, which looked like some kind of meter against the light metal of the unit. He took a reading from the meter and promptly announced.

‘Well it’s not at an Earth atmosphere Wolf, for certain. Anybody who is alive in here would have to have an independent breathing kit on chief. Go ahead and open up Wolf.’

Wolf looked more closely at the hatch now and then finally tugged at the handle and the hatch was slowly swung outwards and open. He waited just a moment or two for any reaction and then he stooped down to peer inside ahead of Brigette. He saw an empty cocoon capable of sheltering up to three or four souls. He wasn’t long in swiveling his head back to look at his team and buddies. Saying simply,

‘Hey it’s empty folks; there’s not a soul in here!’

This news stunned them all. The other two peered inside to judge for themselves. There major premise was that they would possibly save the American team by defeating the robot. They had no proof at all that they any of Americans were alive at all. But having discovered this structure against considerable odds it had never occurred to them that they would not find them here now.

That is  alive or dead I mean. It was a moment of total surprise and of utter blank disappointment. Almost half a minute of stunned and complete silence surrounded them now making the red planet seem a little meaner. And what’s more red dust began to swirl around their feet again now.

They could just see the top of the Liberty in the distance and all looked up towards the giant American rocket in as if they were one man instead if one team. But for some reason or other Brigette turned and looked far away in the opposite direction. She was looking towards the great hulk that was Mons Olympus. She could not see it though. She could see nothing but a pink haze out there right at this moment. And even a pink haze meant danger here.

Closer up, she saw the oxide reds that grew darker by the second. She pointed upward to the great volcano, so that both Wolf and Helmut would follow her gaze and her meaning. There was no time to lose; they had to scarper back. They both nodded their heads in unison. So another dust storm now seemed imminent to them and they would need to take shelter quickly.

Helmut was walking steadily towards an object lying on the ground it was the remains of a small hand held rocket launcher. It was an emergency flare booster in fact. It had definitely been a flare that Brigette had seen after all. Wolf signaled to the others to get ready to leave quickly. He held up his hand to make them see that he was ducking back into the American’s shelter.

‘I won’t be but one minute guys. I reckon that we haven’t time to get ourselves back to the Ithica and the mob now. I know we’ve not much time to beat the storm now but we have just got to see inside there one more time.

He disappeared back into the emergency unit for a moment. And true to his word Wolf was not inside it for very long and he soon joined them all at the Martian Rover. But Wolf refrained from telling the others that once again he had noticed signs of disarray within the American built and designed shelter. Something had bothered these astronauts here as well. The other matter was that he had been absolutely certain that there were no signs of the emergency breathing sets at all in there. None at all!

So Helmut gunned the Martian Rover and headed back to the Ithica into the teeth of an approaching gale bearing much of the ever present and spinning red dust. Of course the Rover was an open vehicle and Briggette and Wolf clung on hard as the wind punished them. It wasn’t going to be easy to get back was something that came to all of them before too long. After twenty minutes of pounding forward like this, Wolf even considered turning back to shelter in the American’s temporary setup. But in the end he nodded to Helmut to keep on making what increasingly seemed like a desperate run for the Ithica. Another ten minutes past and Helmut had to slow the Rover down now. The storm was only increasing in intensity and visibility was fast closing down.

Chapter Twenty.  Talk of a Kind of D Day

‘What’s going on Nando?’

Nando, who had peeped into the bedroom to alert her, filled her in on the meeting. It was so rare for the astronauts to be asked by their commander to meet in this rather formal way he was certain that big things were afoot.

I reckon that we are just about to commit ourselves to something very nasty mate.’

He replied and grinned at her widely. He was not really disturbed, for he had known for a long time that it would come to this. He also found it impossible to keep his eyes off Brigette’s beautiful body, which peeped through her disheveled nightwear. She was not that type of woman to let that worry her though.

She did pull on a jacket after a series of yawns and stretches and shuffled off to join the others in what passed for a common room in the portable. It was actually the laboratory adjoining the living quarters. Wolf walked in and sat himself down in front of them. He looked both tired and a little uncomfortable but a usual he was in command of the situation.

They all gathered in the Lowell room, which was the main living quarters of the portable. Wolf took control of the gathering almost immediately.

‘Look folks I’ve been in contact with Jean Alois again, and I managed to discover from our Major Tiptree at NASA that the Liberty was definitely equipped with an emergency survival support. That is to say they were supplied a living space, which could be employed in situ in an emergency. The ship was designed to be put ‘in situ’ on the Martian terrain but it presupposed that an air system was already available to the astronauts. It was not then equipped with an independent oxygen producing system. Francois came up with a logical reason for their doing this as well. He reasons that the volume of space inside the Liberty was just too large to support the air producing system that they purloined from us at the Ithica. It’s a reasonable assumption I reckon.

Therefore it’s my hunch that the surviving American crew debarked from their ship at some point and set themselves up in this emergency hutch or quarters. They have not been in contact with Earth since before they left the Liberty and NASA knows nothing more about their status. He looked closely now at his fellow team members and continued.

‘You all know the burning question here. The robot seems to be guarding them in the spirit of the amended Asimov Laws. If there are still survivors, it is in fact unwittingly killing them for they might be locked in with only one hope of ultimate survival. They only have us to save them. So do we go against the robot knowing how formidable it is or not? That is the burning question. I must say to you all that I am undecided and I am opening the floor as it were for a decision to go or not to go.’ While you are digesting that Jean also gave me some Earth news.

The Bahamas are now totally uninhabitable. Most of the citizens have been evacuated to the USA. A few went to Europe and it’s presumed that the rest are dead. Maybe something just above a quarter of a million people perished there. Another giant hurricane called Claude was the culprit this time. And in America approximately three and a half thousand people died in the coastal areas in the Carolinas in the same hurricane.’  

There was a long silence after this.  All of them could recall the calmer Gaaia that had been their blue planet when they were all much younger. It was a truly changed world these days. The USA had in fact been building huge sea walls along selected parts of the South East coast. They had commenced building these walls six years ago but the slow political process of exactly where the sea walls should go had made for slow going in that initial period.

Should this peninsular or that one be abandoned? Should those particular low lying coastal areas not be protected? Who would have to move then? Would that tiny coastal town have to go?  Whose actual properties should be saved then? Ah but there were simply thousand of questions with only difficult answers and no real solutions in the end. Barbara was the first to speak.

‘Look team, I am probably the weakest link here when it comes to being anything like a combat soldier, or being brave at all. I am essentially a scientist and that’ it. Perhaps excepting for Brigette, we are all of us here not really equipped to be grunts for a moment. We are either scientists and explorers or both, but fate has handed us a bad lot. I’ve already indicated to Wolf that I think we should face off the robot. In short I vote we take him down if we can. We can’t be certain that he won’t come and get us right where we are in any case. We cannot guarantee anything. So I reckon that it’s either it or us.  We can’t assume that he will always stay close put next to those he reckons that he’s protecting. We can’t tell that at all.’

‘But if there are any NASA survivors, I think that we have no choice here do we? I also think it’s likely that Brigette did see a flare. From her description, it seemed to be coming from approximately the right direction. And it also would fit in with the notion finally that they did know that we were here too. The sounds of the firefight against their robot in the arroyo would have arguably alerted them to the fact they we were finally present. They would have heard that howling racket for sure. They knew that we were coming right enough but they might not have been sure that they would be alive when we got here. I say we must go.’

Helmut chipped in with a question now.

‘What about the storm? I can’t really feel the push of it outside. Has the storm died out then Wolf?’

‘Yes Helmut I think that you saw Nando go outside before. This last bloody dust storm overnight seems to have completely blown itself out.’  

Nando turned to Francois who was nursing his broken leg across another chair.

‘What about this laser thing Francois, can it really do the job against that damn machine? You say that you saw the trials and will it really be capable of take out this bloody robot?’

Francois looked fondly across at Nando and in fact he did not seem for that moment to be the hard bitten man that was his normal lot in life a he half lay there.

‘The answer to that is yes. It’s a definite possibility Nando. But you would have to get close enough to the robot to do it mate. But you have to be sure not to be too close either. There could be splinters and fragments that could easily maim or kill you in the strike. But never fear Nando, this SL rock buster is a ball buster alright. It could knock him out ok. I don’t really have a vote here folks because I am how do you say ‘hors de combat’ eh? So I pass, but you have already noted what I had to say too I suppose.’

‘Then I say that we should have a chance in succeeding and I am with on this Barbara too.’

Now Nando looked hard at Wolf as he spoke these words. And it was gentle Nando, who was more at home with his beloved dwarf plants speaking. Nando, who wasn’t quite as argumentative as perhaps an Italian might be. Nando had now cast his vote suddenly. Helmut nodded in what seemed to be a kind of mute agreement with Nando’s simple words. And Helmut did not speak a word at all. Wolf merely looked at him and Helmut met his eyes and Helmut’s eyes said simply ‘we go’.

And ignoring their commander for the moment, this left only Brigette to state her private position. But in truth Brigette seemed the most nervous of them all. Hand she seemed for a moment as if it would break when she stated to speak.

‘Barbara says I am the brave thing here........ but the truth is that I am just a headstrong and foolish woman. That’s me ok, just your typical daredevil and your quintessential flyboy jock at heart. No imagination whatsoever, so there appears to be no consequences for your actions are there? But you all saw me break down the other night. Being under close fire like that is a totally different experience. I can only wonder how those marine boys who fight at their many frontlines can cope at all. And in truth I amndamn well glad that I cried. But yes and just know somehow that some of the Yanks are still alive and we must by all means try to save them. Afterall they are our space buddies when it’s all done and dusted.’

Brigette was breathing a little too hard now. As she started to sit down, Francois in an awkward kind of a struggle, half came to his feet to assist her to her seat.

He stroked her shoulder in such an aching fondling way. And then he openly and deliberately touched her between the shoulders and the breasts without any sort of inhibitions whatsoever. And as he kissed her softly in front of all of the team and he tenderly said to her.........

‘Hey Brigette girl, forever you will be legend among us all here and don’t you ever forget it babe. He quietly inched her back down to her chair. The small crisis was over now and her breathing became regular once again.

‘So be it then, we go.’

This was Wolf denoting that no matter his bad feelings and qualifications about the action, they would attempt to mount what was effectively a rescue effort for the first team on Mars. Wolf knew that it was time to break this touching Gallic scene quickly. In fact he knew that they could easily take over the whole show otherwise. Of course he needed move once again into the tougher world of reason and fact. Wolf didn’t mean to speak in biblical lines but that’s the way it came out

‘But I am not going rush into this thing in one day. I know that time is probably of the essence for the Americans but we have men and materiel to transport and there is only the one mobile Rover now. Perhaps it might be possible to get the Rover that we abandoned moving again if we look at it. After all, it’s too valuable resource just to leave it there rammed into that wall of the arroyo’

‘We have to get our resources into place carefully and it will take at least two trips to do it. We have the SL to take over to where we think we will be attacking the robot for instance. And yes, I do have a kind of a plan of attack already. Firstly it will entail two of us to risk our bodies staying out exposed to at least one whole Martian night out in the badlands. We need a plan that will give us all a fighting chance at least and it will need us to have our best resources over near the Liberty. Are there any more comments for the moment?’

It was the formerly and most unusually distracted Brigette who spoke up almost clear and loud first. She stood up again and faced them all. Now she had recovered her normal forthright manner and composure. Her voice was clearer now as well this time.

‘I want to speak about the SL as a weapon now. The important thing is not just the distance from the target people. I mean that bloody machine that almost did for some of us. Probably the main thing is the trajectory of the shot or the beam of the SL. I speak as an experienced fighter pilot who has had to pick and choose and figure out her targets in flight. I mean we learn a lot about trajectories in general in our game. I was also trained in space warfare for four months God forgive me and that has made me a think of a few other things.

What I mean to say is, that the SL will be calibrated as it were for use on Earth but the thinner Martian atmosphere it has to be aimed a fair bit lower than you would reckon. I think that you will find that this SL fires balls of high capacity energy rather than a stream of energy if you follow me. This will have almost the same effective ballistic value as a more ‘normal’ projectile back on Earth. You will definitely have to shoot low then. For other wise you will surely overshoot with the far thinner Martian atmosphere. It would simply arc up and on beyond the target. I guess then, that I should now volunteer right now as the shooter boys. What do you say to that?’

After they had all watched a type of promotional film in the Huygen’s room on the capabilities of the K7 robot. Francois had downloaded it from Earth so they might know their enemy a lot better. The robot was permanently attached to it’s tracks but could extend itself upwards to a further to make itself almost two metres higher from the surface. It possessed a grenade launching capability to go with it’s already awesome firepower.

This might be operated if it’s target was in a little closer and it also had many formidable night fighting capabilities as well. When the short film was finished Francois turned to Brigette and made the only comment that was heard in the silent Huygen’s room.

‘Well ok it ls a damn formidable thing all right, but when it’s all said and done it’s only a machine babe.’

Chapter Twenty-one. Cometh the Day

Wolf then informed them that he had selected Brigette and himself to be the pair who would sit out the night guarding the SL once they had put it into a chosen position. Helmut would drive them to the position and drive the Rover back again. There was he said, to be no debate about this. For he noted, everyone would have a clearly defined role in the assault, before the thing was over. Even the almost bed ridden Francois, who would be out of immediate harms way back here. But as Wolf repeated it was totally necessary to have someone directing the eyes and ears of what might be learnt from back home and the monitoring of the scanning capabilities of images from their own digie-viewers once they were out in the field again.

Wolf and Brigette planned to dig themselves in behind the cluster of huge boulders that had previously sheltered them from the robot’s fire in the arroyo. All except Nando had been there and Wolf was confident enough that that they would recognize them if they saw it again. But from the images provided by Brigette’s digie-camera, the spot could be pin pointed within fifty metres in any case. This was simply done by a global positioning device used by Brigette as she stood there taking pictures. Their personal computers would see to that.  

Then there followed some three hours of intensive checking, loading and materiel sorting. Finally, after they had all checked their airsuit oxygen levels and topped them up to the max, they loaded up the Rover with the rock busting SL together with Kevlar and titanium integrated fold out weapon protector shields which Wolf would put into position at their emplacement.

All of them were provided with emergency rations and night goggles. In Brigette and Wolf’s case they were provided with a heavily heated emergency sleeping tent and thermal bags. These were especially designed for emergency use on Mars and should suffice. These would most certainly keep them alive for a night or two, but probably not make them comfortable.

One thing he was very keen on taking were picks and shovels and at least Barbara wondered privately about these items. And so after all of them had punched in the coordinates of the huge boulder’s position into their air suit computers they were at the ready. Wolf too was at last satisfied they were ready to go and he and Brigette made their farewells promptly.

And here the others were to wait for the bright stars to wain early the next morning. They would not see either Phobos or Deimos looping above the red planet, but the sun would shine quite early. At some time just before 6.300 hours Helmut, Nando and Barbara were to start off in the Rover towards the Liberty and taking a looping kind of route, which would be carefully designed to avoid the area from where the K7 had been firing at them.

At 8.00 hours they were to set off three light and sound flares simultaneously and then loop back around via the Rover to Brigette and Wolf’s position at the giant boulders.

They were to debouche from the Rover some metres back down the arroyo. They would take out their own weapons and emergency rations, and join Wolf at the Boulders. In this way, the Rover would be their final fall back position in the case of them having to beat another retreat back towards the Ithica.

Wolf said that the shovels and picks would be ready for them at his well dug in position. He didn’t specify exactly why he put so much emphasis on the digging tools being to hand.

He also had huge sheets of dusty or rusty looking plastic too. Did Wolf have foxholes in mind here then? But that was not the object in his mind at all. And if plan ‘A’ was almost about to be put into effect, Wolf also had a plan ‘B’ in his devious and handsome head as well. First they had to put things into place and perhaps the rest would follow.

Their vital movements would nearly at all times be coordinated by the images that Francois would direct to the other party. Wolf was hoping to create a diversion here. This was a tactic designed to perhaps confuse a machine. Was a K7 a fine general then as well as fire and death spitting monster? That too was an unknown and they would soon enough discover the truth of the matter. It was mid morning when Wolf and Brigette left the Ihtica.

With their backs to that mightiest of all volcanoes known to man Mons Olympus Helmut was concentrating hard in the driver seat. He had all his time cut out in steering the Rover through the winding narrows of the arroyos of the heavily eroded and torturous slivers of the gulches and ancient channels of the badlands.

Nando had informed them that Mons Olympus was a ‘shield volcano as they stared at it on one clear and early evening. The mountain he said was so named from the olden days Icelandic word ‘skjaldreiour.’

This is simply to all intents and purposes, Old Norse for a warrior’s shield. The shape of such volcanoes resembles in some ways such an object and the volcano’s crater in the centre of the spreading mountain might appear to some as the shield’s boss from ancient times. And Beowulf be my doubtful friend might just be apt he added.

They drove across the rude cinnamon plains and into the humps, gulches and arroyos of the badlands, which if they had the capability to continue on would inevitably lead them to region of the Tharses Montes. These are a range of mountains or rather a series of volcanic mountains to the east, which was basically made up of three more volcanoes all smaller than the one behind them. They are namely Arsia Mons, Pavonis Mons and Ascreus Mons repectively; all being perched high above the Tharsis Plateau. Nando had told them that he wasn’t sure whether or not these were also ‘shield volcanoes.’ 

It would be another three quarters of an hour of Helmut steering the Rover very gingerly through the badlands before they arrived at their destination by the shadow of those huge boulders. As they drove along Wolf called in to Francois to check on their open lines of communication.

They were all good and so he urged Francois to link up once again with Jean Alois back home as soon as was humanly possible. He also checked that their digi-cameras were posting back to Francois when he turned them on. These also checked out well and good. They had plenty of contact there and that just might make a huge difference in the end.

Finally they arrived at the feature of the giant cluster of basalt boulders that they remembered from before. Helmut stayed with them for about two hours. He assisted them to erect their emergency shelter and to construct a further embrasure. A small rampart in fact, that would also protect them from the murderous metal hail of fire that they might again expect from metally made K7 robot. 

He helped to position the SL rock buster machine too. This was now sited quite cunningly in between two of the huge boulders but angled so as to still have quite a good field of fire. Then as time was not standing still just as it will not do on Earth, Wolf instructed Helmut to return to the Ithica for the night.

God help them but they were almost as well set up here now as thy ever would be. He waved them a shallowly felt hearty farewell as he drove off in the Martian Rover. They were here alone for the night at least. God what have we done then.... thought Brigette all of a sudden.

She looked around her carefully. Did that metal killer bastard know that we here already? There was no way at all of knowing the answer to that. Wolf, sensitive soul and leader that he was saw that certain shadow of a smile on Brigette’s handsome dial. Ah cherie and do never fear or grieve dear woman. For it will be fine soon. You’ll see! But we have more work to now.

They worked so hard now that they really didn’t notice the early Martian evening was gradually descending upon them. It was not until Wolf noticed that the shadow of the closest boulder had started to fall over their emergency quarters that he suddenly realized that they must immediately begin preparing themselves for the long night ahead of them. 

Now they were toiling out in the middle of the arroyo. They had been digging for almost an hour and a half. This was also the reason that he had brought that large sheet of heavy plastic with them. It would be disguised ground when they stretched the sheet over the pit. He would pin it down with randomly spread rocks and Martian dust would hide all of it with luck.

Wolf had another set geological tools to hand as well. He had two hand-managed electronic diggers that were designed for the astronaut cum geologist to slice down into the Martian soil. They would not have managed to dig the pit without these and even then they had to work very hard for well over two hours to finish off a reasonably deep pit.

Then Wolf put a slope to the floor of the pit with the electronic diggers to make it even harder for their robot to obtain any footing or traction if ever they should be able to trap the thing.

By covering the crude pit with the heavily oxided-dirt and dust, they would simply hope that a K7 warrior had no means of detecting a sudden void before him. This was part of the strange plan that had come into Wolf’s head as he was watching the film clip about the formidable forces of that warrior robot clan called K7’s.

He had asked himself this question. If these machines were propelled along on tracks what would happen if they were placed in the position of being in a quite sharply walled pit? Would they be able to extract themselves or would they, it as it seemed possible to him, be unable to move either upwards, backwards or forwards?

This had come to him out of dark old recesses of his filmic memory. Very old, or perhaps we should say ancient Hollywood Tarzan films came to him as he watched that clip and the warrior robot.

The oldest and almost certainly the corniest of the Tarzan heroes of Hollywood was one Jonnhy Weismuller. The former Olympic gold medalist swimmer played a non English speaking son of an English aristocrat. Weismuller was the burly but athletic ‘me-Tarzan-you-Jane jungle man’.

His woman was called Jane. She was petite and dangerously beautiful. She was played by Maureen Sullivan. This lady was the real-life mother of another very famous Hollywood star of years gone by.

And the Hollywood star’s name was Mia Farrow who got mixed up with both Roman Polanski and Frank Sinatra. And memory bar the door but we can never know the reason that some things flash to the front of the mind can we?

Ah and there was another Martian connection hein? With Edgar Rice Burroughs I mean. The same man who created ‘Tarzan, King of the Jungle,’ wrote of aliens and men colliding on the red planet. He did think of this as a long shot then.

And it probably was too. So it was in many ways as crazy as, but then they did not have all that many other shots left in the locker in any case did they? It was do or something else entirely he reckoned now. And even if the idea slowed the machine down a bit it might just be worthwhile.

As I have already said, their redoubt was constructed among the giant boulders. These were situated some distance after a junction of two gulches or arroyos. The arroyo soon after their redoubt took a distinct turn to the right. It was around this bend that they had retreated at the conclusion of their original confrontation with the robot.  So the two possible paths fed into the one here.

It was in this single arroyo about sixty metres from the boulders that Wolf and Brigette had constructed the disguised pit in the centre of the bed of the arroyo. The pit was at about the distance of what Brigette had calculated as the upper limits of their rock busting SL’s accuracy. Even so this was mere guesswork albeit by an experienced and serious student of air firepower. There were no manuals or comments from Jean Alois back on Earth to help them here. They were strictly on their own.

A clammy touch of cold was already beginning to gnaw at their bodies now as they waited. They would need the extra warmth of the emergency quarters and also their thermal sleepers over them before thirty minutes had passed. For this reason Wolf suddenly remembered the short story by Jack London where he has a man trapped out in the Alaskan wilderness.

His clothes have become wet. It is 32 degrees below and he will die within two or three minutes if he does not get a fire lighted tout suite. He does manage to get one going in fact, but the desperate man forgets something. He has built his fire under the low hanging bough of a tree, which is heavily laden with snow.

And now the warmed snow on the bough melts quickly and dumps down onto the man’s fire and therefore the man must die. And that is exactly what did happen. He had read the tale at least twenty years ago, but he still remembered this short yarn as of yesterday.    

They passed a strange and difficult night of dark indigo dreams. Because their bodies were exhausted after their heavy manual labour they slept for the first few hours after telling Nando that they were settled in for the night. But they had retired to the emergency shelter very early because of the extreme cold and it was still only 10.00 and hours when they were completely and utterly wide awake. They listened carefully but could hear nothing.

They were unable to go outside at all, but the two diggie-cameras that they had set up and pointed in the direction that they reckoned that the K7 might appear from recorded no movement on any front at all. This however did not give them a lot of comfort. Darkness be my friend thought Brigette and we might just need a helping hand in the morning come to that. They opened up contact with the Ithica to learn that Jean Alois had been contact with the team while they were resting.

There had been little to report from Earth either, so the decision had been made by Nando to allow them to sleep. Wolf then asked Nando to get the team to fire a few rounds from their Zendrons as they set off the flares over at the Liberty.

Make a little fuss and then withdraw quickly was the order. Wolf began to read the copy of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe that he’d brought along only occasionally recalling there own  days of being so dangerously marooned.

The hours crawled by with the awful combination of inaction and not knowing what tomorrow would bring. The Martian dawn came so yawningly slow to these two lonely and reluctant would-be warriors. Even so they were forced to remain in their shelter for several more hours until the temperature rose considerably.

Then their heated suits if turned up high enough would protect them when they ventured outside again. Nando called in to say that the rest of the team would soon be on their way. They checked their Zendrons and waited once again. Breakfast was mildly good and all the pair could do inside the shelter was to wait a little longer. The game was almost afoot.

The pair was outside and ready to see the flash of the flares being set off by the team over towards the Liberty. Wolf was concentrating and looking through his binoculars when it occurred. It was almost an hour later when the flares exploded upwards and they were soon followed by the sound of the Zendrons echoing across the rugged landscape. His first move was at hand. He waited for the reaction to that play.

‘We’re out of here Chief. We’ll be with you in twenty minutes. And it’s over and out now from here.’

This was Nando informing Wolf that that they were leaving the vicinity of the American craft. As Brigette and Wolf scanned the horizon they first saw another flash and then followed the sounds of the K7 opening up. Once again it could be noted that the K7 was firing from a position between them and the Liberty. Was this also where the Americans were then? Too many questions once again.

But Nando, Helmut and Barbara were already mobile in the Rover. As per their express orders they had got away very quickly after they had employed the flares. And quite wisely they were firing the Zendrons while they moved in the Rover. For certain they were not taking a chance that the robot might pin them down with his withering firepower.

They got away cleanly without seeing the warrior robot and carefully worked their way through the torturous arroyos navigating by celestial readings as they went. It would as Nando had said, take them approximately twenty minutes to reach Brigette and Wolf.   

Now Wolf wasn’t all that certain about what he should do next until the rest of his team arrived, so he did almost nothing. They would have the firepower of the collective four Zendrons and Brigette on the SL blaster. But they were nearly all fairly close range weapons really. As they had already discovered the robot’s range seemed to be something of the order of at least a thousand yards. There was nothing to be done about that except for deception.

They would have to play it very softly, softly and keep their heads down. Would the robot detect that the Rover was circling around to his position? And if it did detect this would the robot come after them? This was the crucial question for Wolf now.

It was Brigette who saw the team from the Rover first. In a fine voice, which rang with joy she said quite aloud.

‘Hey it’s them Wolf they made it chief. They are coming!’

They looked down the arroyo towards the bend and they saw them waving. Helmut was out at point as he fronted around the bend and his own Zendron was up and poised at the ready just lie the manual tells us. Following orders again, they had left the Rover just out of sight around the bend. They silently hailed the gleeful Brigette when they saw her. At least with the exception of Francois, they were together again.

He went on to tell them that he wanted Barbara to join them at this position and Nando and Helmut to return to the point of where the arroyo turned about twenty five metres behind their own position.. They could take cover there behind another set of smaller but well sited set of boulders.

This would achieve two things in Wolf’s opinion. Firstly it would give the team another field of direct fire. It would hammer the robot from directly down the arroyo . If the robot came at them from any other direction, then quite possibly all was lost. That is, if he came at all.

Wolf gathered up a flare and hurried past the covered pit and when he had traveled some twenty metres more he pulled the pin on it and hurled the flare as far as he could down the arroyo. Of course none of this would mean anything at all if the robot didn’t move on them sometime soon. They could not sustain their position for very long at all.

Wolf was thoroughly convinced that the robot, being a tracked machine could not possibly cover the rugged terrain across country. They themselves would have found it torturously nigh impossible on foot. And so now they waited once more.

They were as ready as they ever would be and they sweated there in that freezing cold atmosphere. The over layer bullet proof plate protection they wore made them itch unbearably. And so it was that the astronauts lay there uncomfortably on top of the ridge.

They were all staring hard the burning flare lying on the floor of the gulch, each of them full of their private thoughts.

Five, ten and then almost a full thirty minutes had passed without even a peep. During this tense wait Wolf contacted Francois back at the Ithica. All was quiet on the Itican front. 

‘Looks like a no show then Wolf.’ No sooner had Brigette got the words out when slamming into the ridge tops once more came the whuck and further whuck, whuck, sounds ripping into the ridge tops. The sight of the spurting ridge tops came quickly on top of the loud reports of the K7 firing at them.

He was nearby to them now then. Metallic spangs and whines of the heavy calibre metallic missiles bouncing of the rocks a metre or two above Brigette’s sweet head had her nosing down into red dust once again. Wolf got onto Helmut and Nando on the other side of the arroyo. He was keen to warn them of the approach

‘Nando the fire is coming from a spot further along the arroyo. I reckon that it’s highly likely that he’s approaching us from the direction we hoped he would. And he must have registered you as heading over this way. I can’t see him yet nor can I tell you his position.

Do nothing Nando even if you see him first. Do not, repeat do not open fire. And if and when we open fire do not reveal yourself for a while. I must protect our position to see that Brigette can have the chance to use the rock blaster on the thing. You are our backup and the ace in the hole. Repeat when we open up keep your heads down for the time being Nando. Do you read me?’

Nando acknowledged his commander and then leant out to give Wolf the universal thumbs up sign. But something worried Wolf now. For suddenly, it came to him that the robot was not firing at them from the floor of the arroyo at all. There was more incoming fire now and the trajectory of the robot’s fire as it simply not high enough. Put another way, the high caliber bullets were pouring in at too level a trajectory. They were coming at a flattish angle just above their heads all the time.

On top of this, the damn machine was still nowhere in sight. In order for the robot to gain this field of fire the thing had to be a slightly higher level than the floor level of the arroyo. That was a certainty he thought. So perhaps the killer machine was coming across the ridges of the arroyos at them. If it was, how was it possible for the tracked robot to do this? It was not to be the last time that the warrior robot was to surprise them. 

Wolf did not have to wait for so very long to prove that he’d be right about this either. Brigette saw the thing coming before he did. It was indeed heading for them traversing the ridges and humps instead of tracking along the arroyo floor. At first this made no sense at all to them, until Wolf put the binoculars up to his eyes. To his surprise the robot’s set of tracks seemed to have slid upwards and tucked out of the way and had been replaced by a very sturdy pair of metal legs.

These drove the metal man forward ponderously but effectively enough. The robot would soon be upon them in a matter of minutes if the thing was not stopped. Wolf could see that for the moment they were still well sheltered behind the boulders. But that protection would not last for long. He turned to Brigette.

‘Ok Brigette and  try toremember your own advice girl and aim low. Fire as soon as you reckon it’s in range.’

Then he alerted Nando and Helmut across the arroyo on air.

‘Can you see it Nando?’

And when Nando replied in the affirmative he said,

‘Hey Nando, it’s too late now for finesse, so fire at will. Oh and have Helmut at the ready to bring up the Rover if we have to get away in a damn hurry will you?’ 

Brigette was lying down at full length to operate the rock blasting SL and aimed with a fixed purpose while Wolf alerted the others to their danger. Wolf was now loosing off rounds from his Zendron at a measured rate. Nothing could be told about the effectiveness of his fire and the robot kept on coming at them. Barbara too was also firing and now for only a moment, the warrior robot seemed to pause if assessing what it should do next. Again it started to trundle slowly forward.

Then Brigette pressed the button on the blaster and even though she had deliberately aimed it low, the force passed harmlessly over the top of the robot. It was a very eerie thing too, for the rock blaster made no sound at all unless it made contact with a solid. There was kind of moving glow to trace the SL’s trajectory through the thin atmosphere but no sound could be heard at all.

The blaster operated off a heavy bank of a special set of batteries and needed no reloading. Brigette quickly lowered the blasters muzzle a fraction and froze herself calmly into position beside the machine. She fired again and a sound reverberated back as the jet fighter’s eye improved now. This time the glowing force tore into the ridge just to one side of the oncoming robot.

Fire was returning at them again heavily now and rock was splintering all around their heads. The robot also registered the incoming fire from Nando and Helmut’s position so a little pressure was suddenly taken away from Wolf’s redoubt, as the machine streamed fire across the arroyo.

Brigette had learnt from the first two shots she had fired and quick learner she was, the soundless force when next she fired could be seen as a glow again as it tore away a piece of the ridge just where the robot’s next step was aimed at. This time there was another resounding noise.

Her shot had missed the robot but had struck the oxided rocks just before the robot’s feet and disturbing rocks at the ridge’s edge. The robot was still firing downwards at Nando’s position as it lost it’s forward momentum. Then the K7 balanced perilously for just one breathtaking moment almost regaining the impetus needed to go forward again.

And then as if in a slow motion film it slipped to it’s left and toppled down the sides of the steep arroyo. The metal man may have rolled over two or three times as it fell down the precipitous ridge. Finally it ended up at the base of the ridge and then with a final tumble it came to a halt on the floor of the arroyo. They couldn’t tell yet if the robot was down for the count but there was no movement at all. 

Now Nando moved forward a little to another set of smaller rocks to firing rounds from his Zendron at the seemingly lifeless warrior robot. Sparks could easily be seen as the rounds tore at the robot spread on the arroyo’s floor and spun off uselessly into the Martian atmosphere. Brigette saw that the elevation of her blaster was far too high to establish a suitable field of fire now.

She didn’t panic but quickly signaled Wolf to help her both swivel and lower the muzzle of the weighty SL blaster as she kicked at the lever in order to de-elevate the blaster’s muzzle. They also needed to move further to the right around the side of the boulder to be out of harms way from further fire.

They hastily adjusted the blaster pointing it downward and repositioning it so the boulder once again afforded them cover. The robot was now on the far side of the disguised pit. But not a movement had it made for almost thirty seconds. It looked quite intact. Had the fall damaged the machine’s computer chips and a severe malfunction had now set in? Was it now kaput and the ridge battle was over and won? 

In one dynamically swift move they had their sudden answer. All of sudden the robot righted itself and commenced firing mercilessly at Nando as it swung upwards. Nando who was just bobbing up after he had loosed off his rounds was exposed for that exact fraction of time. He was flung backwards in a horrible jerking way by the brute force of the streaming line of most accurate fire.

Helmut retraced his steps to clumsily stoop down over his fallen comrade. Helmut fleetingly felt quite certain quite that he was holding a corpse there and then. But he was wrong for Nando’s body suddenly gave a few ultra heaves and thrusts and was obviously conscious. Helmut the started to half lift and half drag Nando away from the direction of the robotic fire but he was still in the line of fire. The Robot came on at them.

By this time Brigette was again lying down and sighting the SL at the acute angle down into the arroyo. She fired but the angle caused her to undershoot her first shot. The shot hit the bed of the arroyo some metre and a half in front of the killer machine. Wolf had started to reach for his Zendron as soon as he saw the fallen Nando.

The robot swiveled around to unleash a bloody and murderous hail of fire up towards Brigette’s position. Without flinching Brigette calmly put the robot in her sights again and fired a second shot downwards. This time the force struck the robot three quarters on to it’s main body structure, pushing it back wards and sideways the towards the covered pit a metre or two away. And then took more steps and obligingly tumbled into the pit they had dug.

The rock blasting weapon that Brigette had just fired toppled over after her last shot. Brigette then swung her body free from the tumbling weapon and managed to scramble away from it. But Nando was still lying there wounded down below and Helmut could do no more then bunker himself down to one side as the robot fired down the line.

He was also in grave danger for although Bridgette’s shot had struck hard again, the remorseless metal thing was still almost intact for the moment.

Brigette now did something which was never to be forgotten among all among who happened to be there that day.  She was still above the robot up in her position with Wolf. She swiveled around and seized up her Zendron and before Wolf could draw a breath he saw that Bridgette was half sliding and half skiing down the slope of the arroyo. She had taken up her Zendron and was firing at first from the hip aimed at the non sentient object in the pit.

And still the robot continued to fire. Sparks red oxide dust spurts and smoke began to issue from the pit at a furious rate. It might be in a dying mode but it was not yet a non living non sentient.

The pit’s edges were often torn off as the bullets tore into the trap’s vertical lips at the tops. But now the firing was rendered useless for the firing angle from the reasonably deep pit was now too high for the robot to do much damage. Unless you were close enough to the edge that is. But Bridgette had not appreciated this small fact.

She landed quite softly down at bottom of the flat surface of the arroyo.  All she was really aware of was that a hail of fire was still happening and the wounded Nando was still down and in danger. He was also still in the open too.

Heading across towards the fallen Nando, Bridgette created a final and freakish window of opportunity for the killer machine. In a cruel last moment as she headed for Nando she came across the line of where the firing could get away from the rim of the pit.

Damaged as it was, the robot must have been able to sense this. It managed fire off precisely three rounds. Nando said that he was stunned but perfectly conscious. Later on he told them that the first rounds had missed her completely. But then she made that fatal and final error.

She turned her body to pause to fire back at the machine as she stood there. The next shots slammed into her body hard and Bridgette fell immediately with her Zendron spinning away from her in a flipping motion. As she went down Nando thought her call out something aloud.

But try as the poor guy did he could not say what those words might have been. He reckoned that he’d seen a slight raise of dust as she breathed out hard as if it was something like her last word. And that was it. And he believed forever that had she kept on running towards him, the K7 might have missed her altogether. And it was quite likely that she was as good as dead before she hit the rusty red dirt of Mars.

Now shooting sparks continued to be seen darting upwards still and the smoke from the pit was becoming steadily darker with black smoke. The robot was surely and steadily destroying itself with it’s ill aimed continuous firing into the pit for the main.

The warrior robot’s circuitry was doomed by now and with a final wrenching and scraping of metal and some stuttering noises, which might have come from voice circuits dying out, thing in the pit was no longer a fighting unit.

It was now simply nothing but dead wiring, computer chips and a dull looking and smoking tangle of glowing lumps of metal crumpled into a red pit. The ridge battle was now finally over. 

Naturally the first person that they all thought of was the two down in the dust. Wolf was the first to reach Brigette who was not so far from the fuming pit. He leaned over to her as she lay there. But even before he touched her he knew she was unable to be saved.

They gathered Nando up and saw just how lucky he had been. The robot’s shot had stuck his Zendron in his hands full on.

It had taken a small slice out of his jaw, blown him backwards and laid him low. In essence he was merely stunned and shaken. But he was shaking all over after what he’d just seen. Wolf inspected him and thought that he was reasonably fit to carry on with some aid.

Those who saw this action were not in any doubt about Brigette’s role in helping to save Nando. He’d been lying at a higher stage than the floor of the arroyo and the robot was thought to have been able to target him. Luck’s always is a fortune I guess but there was just not enough luck to go round for all of them. It just was not Brigette’s day.

Chapter Twenty-two. You can’t always get what you want

This time Wolf rode the Rover by clinging onto the back of the vehicle. The others were aboard with the body and none could speak. Brigette’s body rode with them. It was awkwardly squeezed into the Rover. It was only a very short distance to the American craft now. Possibly it was no more than a mere three hundred metres from the shelter but even so the roaring winds had descended upon them with three hundred blows before they got inside.

Ordinarily they all would have wanted to hurriedly enter the American’s craft via their elevator. But they all looked at each other. Most of them were in tears and did not know what to do with poor Bridgette’s body. In the end they bodily carted her body up with them and into the ship. Several of them were in tears and in total disarray for a long time.

They all passed through the open airlock and into the ship. The storm could blow all it liked for some time now. They placed her reverently in one of the spacious empty cells and looked at each other. And still not too many words were spoken.

They were all distraught, and they still had to keep their air suits on. Things were crap but they had their lives and they at least felt that they might be safe here for the time being.

Because they must keep their air suits on, they drank and ate using the vacuum feeders built into the air suit backpacks. Liquid nourishment was pumped up to their mouths on demand as they rested. The astronauts called them vacuum feeders because they mad e a tiny noise inside their helmets like a vacuum cleaner back on Earth. They also folded out neck and head supports from their packs. These were designed to support their helmeted heads when they were at rest with their full helmeted air suits on.

It wasn’t a perfect way to sleep by any means and it did need practice to be able to fall asleep using them, but they had used them in training often and they were almost perfectly acclimatized to the things by now. Acclimatized that is, for almost everything except the death of probably the most beloved of all their own.

The control rooms and the take-off room were constructed as part of a giant gymbal which unless locked into place, would automatically come to a horizontal position vis a vis the pull of gravity inside the craft. The users, which would of course normally be the NASA astronauts could be upright inside the ship. And lying down would be exactly that as would standing up.

And indeed it was a very simple but an ingenious solution for a craft that was designed to land in an upright position. It had taken a lot of fine engineering and Yankee know-how to build it that way too. It seemed that the living quarters in the nose of the craft were similarly designed as well.

They were all just so very tired. The adrenaline of the desperate battle had drained each and every one of them .The stunned and extremely lucky Nando Parucci was the first of them to drop asleep where he lay. Prior to this Nando had to be restrained when he followed Wolf into the awful cell where the once beautiful and foolishly brave Frenchwoman lay. They almost dragged the poor man out.

The others covered Nando up carefully when they brought him out. And outside the ship, darkness reigned supreme over the vast Plains of Tharsis. The storm had blocked out all contact with Francois back at the Ithica and therefore all possibility of speaking to Jean Alois as well. It was plain enough that the storm still raged on unabated outside as they settled down. At first it was the dark of the oxide sun blocking swirls, and then a little later on the Martian night descended.

It was not long before most of them were  fast asleep in their cocooned situation. They were situated either in the Liberty’s control room, or lying on the comfortable take-off seats. Meanwhile the stars crawled widdershins across the heavens. Even if any of these fine European astronauts could have peeped out of the American craft through one of it’s few portholes they would see nary a one of these stars above them. The red dust had blanketed them out.

And so very soon, the same stars looked down mercilessly on them where they lay enveloped wholly in that violent Martian storm of dust and flying rock particles. 

Barbara woke up with a start. Her heart seemed to be pounding. Perhaps she had been dreaming about Earth. It was one of those inexplicable night sweats. And at first she could not make out where on earth she was. Then it all clicked into place once again and she thought of Bridgette. The Liberty; that damn NASA ship....Hell and that’s where I am she thought. She warily rose up off the padded astronaut’s take off seat that had served as her bed and looked around her rather nervously. They would have to take care of the body today.

Had something woken her up then? She wasn’t sure and once again she attempted to penetrate the semi gloom in the take-off room of the American spacecraft. She could make out the noise of the Martian dust storm outside the strong hull of the Liberty. So the storm had not abated yet. But had there been some other noise as well that had woken her up? Then slowly, little by little, she made out the form of Wolf lying there. 

Wolf seemed to be fast asleep and as she got up from she attempted not to make a sound. He deserved all the rest that he could get and tenderness on Barbara’s part meant that she see him lie there comfortably if she could.

But it was of no use for Wolf was suddenly awake as well. He shook his handsome head at her. A small shaft of light shone through from the door leading to the control room. She saw that he had a three day beard and that underneath his helmet his hair was starting to look too long. It was one of the real if the smallest of the recent penalties of their strange profession. God knows what my bloody nails look like she suddenly thought. Things had been very weird here all right.

‘Hey Babs, some coffee would be nice, don’t you think?

He yawned and looked confidently around him quite unlike the way that Barbara had been acting just seconds ago. He looked up at the cecius clock on the wall of the take-off room.  And he noted that they had been asleep for five hours. She went over to him silently. His eyes danced just a little as she approached him.

Firstly he realized that he would not be able to have that coffee that he yearned for. They spoke of the necessary burial. Secondly they discussed the matter that it was time for them to activate their personal body waste disposal systems. That was quite an urgent matter really. Even if it happen that poor Brigette did lay there in that grey and cold cell below them.

He also remembered that he had forgotten to brief his team on what he had seen or not seen in the shelter. It had been more than enough for them to be skeltering off in a madcap hurry to the Liberty. Of course they had been under the sudden threat of the dust storm at the time. They had all of them been so tired, including him for that matter too. He had just simply forgotten to say another word about what he had seen in there. He got up and felt his way through the semi gloom to switch on a light.

‘Ah that’s much better.

He said as he went back to where Barbara was standing. And it was as if she had read his mind about the Americans in the shelter.

‘Wolf, please tell me; what did you see inside the Yank’s emergency shelter then?   You have said nothing of it to us at all you know.’

He looked suddenly serious then replied openly and in a quiet tone.

‘Yeah I know Babs and perhaps I should have too. I had been thinking that I was just too damn tired and distracted before. After the battle I mean and I guess I knew that I should have said something before. Things had gone awry for the Americans in that shelter as well I reckon Barbara.

There was stuff inside scattered about. It was not at all orderly, just as it had been in this craft too. It was mess As I told you all there was nobody in there but what’s even more important, there was no sign of the emergency breathing equipment taken from the Ithica. They were not there either.’

He seemed just about on the brink to say something more but suddenly he fell silent. And Barbara had been attending his words so carefully and she thought that he was just about to add something more. She waited for a moment or two before saying,

‘I think that we are both on the same wavelength here Wolf. There is still one place that we have not looked for them you know Wolf. And I think that it’s in your mind right at this moment too. I mean the living quarters that we couldn’t get into before. But we have the voice code password now you will remember Wolf. Maybe we should have gone up there a bit earlier on too. Time will most likely be just so precious for them, but I don’t need to tell you that do I?’

Wolf simply nodded his agreement. Then he told her wholeheartedly that he agreed with what she said one hundred percent. And he also said that he believed that they should both go and rouse Helmut directly. They would inform him that they were about to go to the ‘pointy end’ to look for the Americans.

First they would need to bury poor Bridgette temporarily at the base of the Liberty. Possibly immediately next to the American Commander’s body.

The next job would be continue to try and raise Francois even though it was obviously going to be difficult to do it because of the continued howling storm outside. He would also have to stay awake and monitor their progress up the quite dangerous climb up through the vast engine rooms of the Liberty to the nose of the ship. There was simply no putting off this task anymore

When they woke Helmut up in the adjoining control room, he wanted to accompany them both in their search. But Wolf pointed out that somebody had to remain here on the alert as there backup. Nando would probably serve them best by not being woken. It would be best for them to recharge his flagging body batteries with the gift of precious sleep right now. As a precaution for the NASA people, they bundled up three breather kits in one bag and one in another for Barbara to tote and they were almost ready to go. 

So Barbara and Wolf set out through the upper hatch towards the huge space of the engine room above them. They were armed with the two powerful flashlights, and the   Zendron carried by the commander.

He carried the weapon strapped across his back together with the bulk of the pack containing the three emergency breathing units. Wolf had even pondered carefully whether or not he should take that weapon at all.

Did he suppose that any astronauts who might be holed up there would be aggressive as their bloody warrior robot had been? Times were weird and things had changed and that’s all he knew. Once through the upper hatch they put their feet to the first rungs of that very long ladder.

They ascended sometimes flashing their torches as they climbed. They found themselves checking each footstep most assiduously. Just as before, a fall here would certainly mean sudden death.

Maybe darkness can be your friend but not in this space I think. There metal capped boots clanged and re-clanged in a series of vibrating echoes as their toes clipped the rungs as they climbed.

They had traveled together through an infinitely vaster space in a fairly cramped spacecraft for well over fifteen months. They had traveled so far together, both physically and emotionally. And both of them had willingly enough left their crumbling but beloved Gaia behind them and unfortunately had to face the ugly and fearful face of Mars on this red and dusty planet. And they had together witnessed many giant stars and their attendant planetary systems go spinning to their doom on the way from ‘there to here’ but never, never had they felt like this. The NASA warrior robot had twice almost destroyed them too.

But as frightened as they had been under heavy fire from the metal monster up on the ridge, this was somehow a more intangible unknown than they had met before. And they could not have uttered what it was that was worrying them.

Not knowing it might be then, only made it so much the worse for them. It was of course in part, the heaviness of the primeval darkness surrounding them that gripped at their minds with an irrational force of a tugging fear. There was no antidote for what they were feeling right now. Dark inks of the fact they it was difficult for them to make out a thing to the side of that was not captured by the flickered beams of their torch lights.

They could only make out a vast emptiness among the mass of foreign looking tubes and curving manifolds of giant but ultimately unknown proportions.

Their eyes constantly fooled them. They could not have said what it was drove the ship for one moment. That worried them once again. And another darkness, which emanated from their lack of understanding exactly what it was that e filled these cavernous spaces made them falter now. The grey slate of reason was rapidly turning into fiery Catherine wheels of doubt and speculation.

The velvet darkness of the feelings that came from the very close couple’s most imaginative minds was ever present here. There were vaults of darkness in both spaces then. These dark vaults caused them to fear a reeling notion. A want or shall we say, a completely irrational need to let go of their grasp of the ladder. To meet a mad need to merely let one’s body drop away.  

To be flung away from the solid of everything. And the feeling in it’s turn caused a vertigious fear of spinning or dropping from their hard won holds on the rungs of the ladder as they slowly, slowly inched their way, hauling and leg lifting   and ever upwards. It was useless to say don’t look down for they simply could not see back down the ladder they were climbing.

They went on rung clinging hand over hand towards the bow of the craft to seek what they knew not. Wolf’s progress up in the lead was more awkward than Barbara’s was, because of the combined bulk of the weapon and his bulky pack.

He managed to knock the torch in his left hand against a rung of the ladder. The metal torch suddenly went spinning out of his grasp, just brushing by Barbara’s head below him.

It made a loud and echoing clang against a rung below her where it stuck and then continued flipping out downwards into the void. They heard a thudded smashing when it reached the floor a hundred metres below them. This was followed swiftly by the tinkling sound of metal shards and pieces spreading around. And then there was silence.    

After what seemed to be ages they halted in front of the voice-coded hatchway at the top of the vast engine room. Wolf rested up for a while catching his breath before Barbara shone their remaining torch towards the darkly knobbed or studded door. She reminded him that the code for the door was supposed to be ‘Jefferson’.

‘You say it will you please Babs. I swear that it might prefer your voice to mine. I do in any case.’

Without any hesitation she uttered the name of the learned Virginian planter of everlasting fame and waited, rather hoping in some ways that the code wouldn’t work. Barbara was not entirely sure that she wanted to know what lay beyond this door at all. Perhaps we could turn around right now.

But a click accompanied by a very low buzzing sound saw the door slowly opening inwards now. Wolf thought that the sound was not likely to be heard by a person inside but then the door could likely have some alarm or signifier attached to it.

So it was too late to back away now thought Barbara. And suddenly as the door slid to one side, plashing beams of bright light blinded both of them momentarily. Silence reigned for a few seconds now as they regained their composure.

The pair quickly shielded their eyes from the light with their arms and then Wolf quickly recovered to unsling his Zendron. He locked and loaded it and shifted the load of the emergency breather kits from his shoulder. He gently laid these down on the floor of the entrance.

Barbara kept a hold of the single breathing unit that she had slung across her back. Those damn weapons again she was thinking and when will this nightmare ever end? And then Wolf spoke her more quietly and far more reassuringly than he truly felt inside.

‘I’m going in now after I contact the others down below Barbara. I want you to remain here for the now please. I reckon that I will call out when you should follow me. Or if not, I will return for you.’

Their eyes locked for that brief penetrating moment and she shook her head.

‘No Wolf I’m going in with you. You couldn’t pay me to stay in this creepy vault of a place alone. As you already know I am not full of that stuff they call the red badge of courage. I’m bloody well scared. And besides that you have our only weapon remember? So, if you are thinking of protecting me, you might be able to do it better if we are standing together.’

She looked at the Zendron he had carried in a cross armed position. He nodded his agreement silently and said not another word on the matter.  Instead he contacted the others further down below.

He simply told them that they were both about to enter the living quarters at the ‘pointy end’ of the Liberty. It was a routine safety procedure and nothing more. Wolf also discovered that the storm still prevented them from contacting Francois and there was nothing more that they could do until the storm abated.

Then he shifted the Zendron down to aim it ahead of them both and waited until he She was right at that too he thought. Soon they were ready to move. He started off but once again she shook her head urgently. She reached over and unhooked the bag containing the rest of the emergency breathing sets from Wolf’s shoulder.

This would give him an untrammeled freedom to control the Zendron. He said nothing again but merely gave Barbara the thumbs up sign before he moved with the weapon slowly waving before him.

And so silently, carefully they proceeded through the doorway. They could see nothing but a blank wall before them as a blind corner that was immediately before them. It was but a small corridor’s width from where they stood at the hatchway.

Now Wolf was in the lead walking warily and steadily with the Zendron readied as they stepped through the hatchway and then turned around the blind corner. They had not got further than a dozen paces when Barbara told Wolf that there was movement somewhere up ahead of them. She was reading off a reliable air pressure alarm installed in her airsuit.

It was quite effective up to a distance of some hundred metres and she was confident in her readings. Somebody or something was moving up ahead of them. Barbara reckoned that they were probably as close as the next room.

There was another door just ahead of them now. Unlike the front door near the ladder, this door was wide open. Wolf did the cavalry arm movement without uttering a syllable. Again they stopped and listened as carefully as the air suits would allow them to do. It seemed an eternity to Barbara before Wolf moved again.

Her breathing was heavy now. Her breasts rose and fell too quickly under her suit and she felt not a little suffocated in these cursed chambers. She knew full well that it was just the adrenalin pumping up into her system but that knowledge did not change one single iota of her insecurity in here.

She could only see Wolf’s back from her position. They had talk talked about having a child when they returned to their own sloppy little planet. In fact Barbara had once met Wolf’s son. He had brought him down from his home in the United States to the ESA spaceport in French Guiana for a holiday and also to see the Argo before they took off in it.

It had not been hard to like the lad. He was all that a boy of eleven years of age who had been quite well educated might have been. Perhaps the separation had caused the boy some emotional hardships, but if that was true he did not seem to show it visibly. 

Now here they were prowling around this damn American spaceship, chasing after those survivors who by their own actions had caused them so much grief.

‘Hardships you bastards,’

This was what her own father often used to say back in Sussex. He meant you will never know what hardships I have seen and it’s a good thing that you will never have to either. Now she was being tested and not for the first time. Under heavy fire from the cursed warrior robot hadn’t been such a picnic either but her nerves were being severely tested once more right now.

As the pair stepped into the next cabin there, came a blood curdling and full on screaming from a figure, who presented before them. A female astronaut or so it would seem, if you used your imagination. Her hair was extremely long, her face distorted and her eyes behind the emergency breathing mask were definitely not of this world. She was truly a figure of both abject sorrow and pitiful to behold with what her face told them both.

Chapter Twenty-three. And the Stars Look Down

She was disconcertingly staring hard at Wolf and Barbara now with her dark ringed and all too dull eyes. She uttered not one syllable though. Something shiny and long dangled down from her right hand by her side but Barbara could not make out what the object was.

But it was almost certain that those eyes were not full of anything like concentration. For it was far, far too late for that. Her eyes were full of that mixture of vacancy and despair that informs you of a human being who has lost their power of reason. And this was the certainly the case here with this NASA astronaut so far from Cape Kennedy.

Three times the figure attempted to say something out aloud through her speaker system, which appeared to be switched on. But always she failed to utter the words that were inutterably trapped within her. The female astronaut haltingly started to take a step or two towards Wolf who had lowered his Zendron.

But she stopped slowly coming to a halt before him. And he could read the name emblazoned across her uniform. It read Dr. Terri Morgan. Wolf knew that this woman was 33 years old. She looked more than thirty years older than that right at this moment.

She appeared to practice to say the words which would not come once, twice and then three times she mouthed something which did not hit the air. Her skin was moist with sweat and she trembled mightily. Her throat moved and her chest heaved a little as words finally crept painfully out of her quivering mouth.

‘You know...I ...I had to...I put them to sleep.’

She said these words all over again. And then she said.....

‘I just put them to sleep. I......’   

And then with an unholy moan, the woman collapsed to the floor in a huddle with her arms fling out wide and a syringe tumbled from her extended right hand to the cabin floor. And in a manner of speaking the woman was correct for shortly after Wolf afterwards Wolf and Barbara discovered two more of the Americans.

But as you have already guessed, they were stone dead and almost cold as stone as well. Barbara quickly swapped the woman’s breathing apparatus for one of those she was carrying. The woman was still breathing, but only lightly. When she propped her up her breathing improved noticeably. It seemed then as if she would live.

They found two more astronauts in there. And they were both of them had been dead for about an hour perhaps. Their breathing masks lay tangled and useless beside them. Both of them had not died particularly well it seemed.

It was just killing Wolf to think how near they had been to saving them. He also wondered why they had not heard them when they had climbed up the spacecraft the very first time. Perhaps he thought, they had simply been asleep. 

Their bodies looked unkempt and highly shabby. There were cuts and bruises to be seen in abundance and food stains were most obvious over their faces and their once neat uniforms. But at least now they were beyond caring about all that kind of stuff. Dr Terri Morgan looked not all that much better than the two people that she had ‘put to sleep’ either.

One of the bodies lay on a bed and the other had somehow also slumped onto the floor of the next cabin. And it was not such a pretty sight to see. It was not all that hard to guess what had happened. They had been indeed euthanized by the lady.  Something like you might doto an old Labrador dog say. She had indeed, ‘put them to sleep where they lay.’

‘Home is the hunter from over the hill.’

Babara was kneeling down by the body of the American astronaut. She knelt down close beside her on the floor and Barbara was speaking softly now.

‘Home is the hunter from over the hill.’

She said this lowly as if to herself.

‘What did you say there Babs?’

‘And the sailor from over the sea.’

She was of course quoting Robert Louis Stevenson’s own epitaph on the island of Western Samoa in the South Pacific. She had lat heard it when Wolf had said the verse over the NASA Commander’s rough grave by the side of the Liberty.

A month or two was it, or only days then? These last days had all been a nightmare for certain. Wolf covered the bodies up with blankets he took from the living quarter beds. The one lying on the floor was certainly Hans Bonhoffer. And the body lying stretched out on the bed was the biologist-astronaut June Carley, aged roughly 38.

All these NASA astronauts had faces that were almost universally recognized. And yes they were indeed famous human beings. Famous but dead all of them were. That is excepting for the one missing astronaut. For they had now accounted for five of the American astronauts of whom they knew for sure only one of them lived. Sam Fuller the Virginian poet and astronaut was the only one that was not yet accounted for by them. So was Sam Fuller also in the ship at this moment then, thought Wolf? Was he dead too?

They both searched the space most carefully but there was nary a sign of that Virginian. If he was somewhere on the Liberty he certainly did not appear to be in the living quarters at least. It might also be said that it would have been nigh on impossible to search every inch of the vast ship.

Their next step was to start planning to get Dr Terri Morgan back to  safety as soon as possible. Getting her down the ladder would be quite a trick thought Barbara. In fact they all had to get back to the Ithica as soon as the dust storm would allow them. They were not on clover at all right now.

But they did manage to rouse Dr Terri Morgan a little. And by means of ropes and slings and the help from those below, they did get her down the long and dark Jacob’s ladder to the others.  It took an hour to do it and it was a lucky thing that it took no more than that.

The dust storm had abated some by now but darkness was falling. They He joined the patient with the broken leg back in the Ithica and made Terri Morgan as comfortable as possible but they knew that there was little that they could do for her.

In a way but slowly, their lives slowly came back to what might be said to normality if living and working on the Red Planet could be seen that way. They never did manage to find Sam Fuller by the way. He was assumed to be dead but no further proof of this was ever discovered. His ghost kind of lingered on over the second for the duration.

From the little that they could establish from the semi coherent Terri Morgan, it was thought that Fuller would not leave the emergency shelter after the rest of them had quit it.

And none of them did have the strength to drag him out to go with them when they returned to the Liberty. Terri Morgan told them that many things had gotten terribly confused about that time when they returned to the ‘pointy end’ of the giant ship.

Presumably he had got himself lost out there somewhere in the ‘badlands’. As I said he was never seen again by anybody from earth.  And to this day there is a separate marker to his memory on the Tharsis Plains in sight of massive Mons Olympus.

For a little time Dr Terri Morgan appeared to be slowly recovering her shattered health over a period of a fortnight to three weeks.

Her tale was a most harrowing one and will not be entered to here in detail by myself. Her heart was not what it should be for instance. All I will say is that their basic problems had always stemmed from the breakdown in their oxygen supply.

Dr Terri Morgan always did marvel at the dwarf wheat plant system used by the Europeans. For of course she knew only too well, that what had occurred to her NASA team would never have been if they had employed this rather primitive but highly effective mode.

I should mention here that Dr Terri Morgan never made it back to Earth. After seeming to improve in heath, she expired some few days before they lifted off.

They never could really establish exactly what her symptoms were. In the end I suppose it did not matter. But Wolf went down on record as saying that shock will kill right enough and terror might even do a better job at it too.  

Before she died she told them that taking in nourishment while they were using emergency breather systems had always been a huge problem. You could whip off your mask for just a moment or two to ingest foodstuffs, but it was always a gasping and dangerous, choking affair. You wouldn’t asphyxiate until something like 45 to 50 seconds perhaps.

But one always felt that you might die at any choking, gasping moment. It was damn tough.  All of them had to be so damn quick about the process of shoveling food into their gasping mouths. That is before they quickly rammed the breather back over your mouth.

After many weeks of this and after the deaths of two of their number, they were all of them at the very end of their tether. And so it had come to Dr Terri Morgan being compelled to use the terrible needle. And there is not all that much left to tell you after that about the NASA team.

She also informed them of the likely reason that her stricken team in the nose cone had not heard Wolf and the others as they climbed up the giant spaceship for the first time.

The probable reason was that they had all taken heavy sleeping doses in order to use the least amount of oxygen. And to give them some respite from their terrible ordeal.

In due time, the Argo blasted away from the fourth planet and got the European team back home on that medium sized  and bluish planet once again. 

Wolf and Barbara made it through to old age while living in Sussex. Wolf was offered the director’s job to replace his crusty old Parisian protégée but finally he decided to turn it down for the quiet life of a scholar.

And he never ever did live to regret that move either. And the Standard Martian Calendar on Earth to this day is the one that Wolf created before he went to the Red Planet. Barbara and he did have children in fact. Two of them to be exact and they were both girls. There names were Karen Michelle and Jaqueline Victoria..

And of course the Ithica was left there to rot almost under the shadow of the giant volcano Mons Olympus. It helped to sustain a generation of explorers of the red planet to come. It housed up to maybe thirty early explorers at a time. But that was before the dirty days of the mining of the planet yet to come.

Naturally enough over time the old Ithica was gradually replaced with a more modern and a much more sophisticated system. But it had never let one astronaut down, ever.

The Liberty sat there rusting down into the red oxides of that dusty planet and the giant ship never again moved one more centimeter more. It was turned into a kind of almost religious monument by successive explorers. And if you go there it still can be viewed to this very day.

And it was only quite natural that Wolf made certain that Robert Louis Stevenson’s most touching epithaph was engraved there beside Commander Tom Glenn’s lonely graveside in the red soil of Mars.

Incidentally, no nation did ever take another robot on a ship into space be they a warrior type or not. Although there was a recent rumour that China was considering taking on a much longer journey but that was kept more or less entirely secret.

Possibly it was being proposed that among all their crew aboard their vessel, only a robot would be ‘living’ when the craft arrived at Jupiter. The mere humans would have expended their life cycles to promote a robot’s existence in some other part of the universe.

If they did that, it would be the deathless triumph of machine over man at last. And still the stars will continue to look relentlessly down on us humans. If there are any left ere on earth that is.  

The End. 


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