By Garon Whited
I strapped on the scuba tank and tested the valve. There was the faintest of hissing sounds as the tank leaked a thin stream of air into the helmet. I already had the temperature-control spells on myself and on the air tank, but a little pressure control wouldn’t hurt, either, considering…
“What’s on your mind?”
I’m wondering why we’re doing this.
I know. So, why are we doing this?
“Forget it. Just bear with me while I sort this out, all right?”
Whatever you say.
“Just don’t try to fire up. There isn’t any air to speak of.”
My cloak flowed around my armor, forming a layer over it. It wasn’t a space suit, but, all taken together, it should work. I hung my sword belts on Bronze’s saddlehorn, lined up the wagons, and fired up the gate.
“What do we have, Jim?”
Jim looked up from his control station when the voice came over his headset. He glanced around to double-check if anyone was looking over his shoulder.
“I think… Sir, we seem to have contact with Curiosity again.”
“What? We had a rover come back on-line? Good!”
“No!” Jim burst out, and contained himself. He was sweating. “I don’t—we can’t go live with this just yet, sir.”
“I’m not sure it’s a legit transmission.”
“What do you mean?”
“The frequency and coding are right, so we’re on point there, but what I’m seeing doesn’t… doesn’t make sense.”
The mission commander station latched the data feed to the video station, displayed it. There was silence for a minute while the latest image built up. Alvin, the mission commander, sat quietly as the lines streamed across the screen, filling in color and shape.
“Telemetry, get me a trace on this signal,” he ordered, calmly.
“What do you think?”
“I think is has to be a joke, sir.”
“Knock off the ‘sir’ and just tell me.”
“Someone’s got themselves a green screen and some raw images,” he explained. “I don’t know how they’re crashing our feed, making it look like the signal’s coming from Curiosity, but what else could explain it?”
“We’ll wait for Tracking to confirm,” Alvin decided, staring at the screen, still not quite believing.
From the rover’s point of view, it was still on Mars, but it was on what looked suspiciously like a buckboard wagon, behind what had to be the largest horse in history. Hanging from the pommel of the saddle were a pair of belts, holding swords.
Weird as that was, it wasn’t even close to the winner. Behind the first wagon were three more, each holding what looked like other Mars rovers: Spirit, Sojourner—along with the base station—and Opportunity.
Alvin gulped at his stone-cold coffee and barely noticed. Because the weirdest thing, the absolute deal-breaker, was the guy in the night-black space suit, sitting on the wagon with the rovers, opening up Spirit to replace the battery.
“I just got a report from Tracking.”
“Oh? News on the Mars mission?”
“Yeeeeees…” Alvin allowed. “Sort of. An update on four old missions.”
For answer, Alvin placed a data pad on the desk and slid it across to the director. Frowning, Ted scrolled through the latest images.
“What is this?”
“It’s the latest from Curiosity and Oppy. Opportunity rover.”
“I know who Oppy is. If it’s come back online, I’m delighted. But what the hell?”
“I don’t know.”
“This has to be some kind of hoax.”
“Tracking says the signals are coming from Mars.”
“That’s what I said,” Alvin agreed, glumly.
Ted stared at the pad, seeking some sort of flaw, some hint that what he saw had some rational explanation. He started to ask who was in the space suit, but caught the question before it escaped. If Alvin knew, Alvin would have said.
“What’s he doing?” he asked, finally.
“Ted, the pictures are fairly far apart, but it’s clear what he’s doing. He’s got replacement batteries, some extra solar panels, and all the tools for the job. He’s cleaned all the lenses on the cameras. He’s replaced that sticky wheel. It’s like we drove them into the shop for an oil change and new tires.”
“Have we tried sending commands to the rovers?”
“Curiosity and Oppy are the only ones on-line, so far. We think the replacement batteries were charged and switching them out caused reboots. The Sun just came up where they are, though, so the input from the solar panels may have triggered the auto-start sequence. We haven’t gotten anything from the others, but that may be just a matter of time. We’re a little afraid to try and move either of the two in contact, since they’re not on the ground—we don’t want to risk falling off the… the… platform. But they respond. We’ve run diagnostics and they’re in good working order.”
Ted laid down the pad and drummed his fingers.
“Where’s this going?”
“We’re not entirely sure, but it appears to be heading for a crater in West Meridiani.”
“Don’t we have a proposed rover landing site there?”
“Yes, sir, but it was nixed due to budget.”
“And it appears someone isn’t willing to let it go,” Ted mused.
“Someone willing to go to Mars to prove a point,” Alvin added.
“Who the hell is it?”
“No way to tell, sir, but there’s some sort of sign on the side of the… the wheeled transports. Imaging is trying to clean it up. We don’t have a good angle.”
“Let me know as soon as we do.”
Images poured in from the rovers. The horse—a horse on Mars!—pulled the buckboards up beside a medium-sized pyramid. The space-suited figure untied Oppy, lifted it, and set it carefully on the ground. Oppy watched as the figure repeated the performance with the others. He unhitched the horse and it went around the pyramid, up a long, low ramp, and vanished inside.
“We’ve got mobility!” shouted Operations.
“Everything else good? Around the horn, people!”
Voices echoed with systems and the unwavering response, “Go!”
“Cycle the cameras’ timing so we have as much coverage as possible.”
“What can we see of the suit? Can we see inside the helmet?”
“Negative. The visor’s too dark.”
“How about the signage?”
“Looks to be the same for each wagon. ‘Property of the Friends of Earth, Martian Chapter’.”
“Got me, sir.”
The cameras on the rovers swiveled to regard the humanoid figure. It raised a hand in greeting and waited for a few minutes, making sure there was time to take the picture. It then unrolled a sheet of thin, stiff plastic and tacked it to the side of the pyramid, revealing the words.
“Welcome to Mars. It’s another small step, but every step is important. And when you get beyond your own star, you’ll find the universe is more vast than you expected. Keep exploring! You can do this. I believe in you.”
The figure moved to the opening of the pyramid and waited. After a while, the rovers moved to the base of the ramp and took more pictures. The figure held up a hand again, this time in farewell, and disappeared into the pyramid.
When Sojourner rolled up the wide ramp to look inside, it found a large, empty chamber, with no sign of an exit.
“Well, what now?” Alvin asked, turning to Ted.
“We’ve checked the whole pyramid?”
“Yes. It’s a great shelter. It might even be a good spot for a manned mission to take cover. We could even put a balloon inside and pressurize it.”
“But no sign of our… uh… figure?”
Ted drummed his fingers on the console, chin in his other hand, thinking. Sojourner. Spirit. Curiosity. Opportunity. They outlasted their projected mission lifespan, but here they were again, freshened up and ready to roll. It would be such a waste…
After a long while, the rovers moved away, rolling over the Martian sand, sampling and photographing as they went.