In the Shadow of the Crater
"What...the...Fuck", said Commander Cody Grissom, leader of the Arium IV mission and first man to walk on Mars, "It can't… it can't be…. but some jackass got here before me!"
I tried to censor the intercom, but my stiff, gloved finger failed to depress the keypad. In about twenty minutes Commander Grissom's immortal words would live in world history, or, more likely, infamy and nightmares of every high school history teacher. NASA insisted on live, uninterrupted transmission of every exchange between the orbiter and the lander - at expense to our privacy - and comeuppance came swiftly. For once, I almost wished that the Politburo had its say and installed the Emerald Dam software. Sure, it would still be easy to slip clever innuendos across, but at least man's first words on Mars wouldn't contain the vilest of English swear words.
"Foot prints, big ones, did you catch that, Olga?" Commander Grissom practically quivered with excitement. His camera shook so vehemently that all I could see on the main monitor was a blurred mess of orange and gray straight out of an early turn of the millenium movie. Gradually but inevitably, the dreaded sense of nausea overtook me. I closed my eyes and rummaged my chest-pocket for the bottle of motion-sickness pills.
"Olga? Did you see what I'm seeing?"
"Unfortunately, Cody, all I can see are shaking pictures of Martian gravel." I took a pill and chewed. Black licorice - the only kind left.
"Sorry about that."
I opened my eyes a sliver. Although the worst of the shaking had subsided, the image remained too unfocused for me to make out anything besides Martian regolith.
"Can you zoom in? Way too blurry. Ok, too much. Pull back a bit more. Right there. Perfect."
Commander Grissom's "footprint", like a fickle Picasso that decided to shift genre to Impressionist and then Photo-realist, gradually came into view. A half-circle of pockmarked, coal-black rocks cradled a pan of sands almost the girth of a truck's tire. There, smack dab in the middle of the pan, rested the fabled footprint. Its outline conformed that of a human foot, but appeared far larger, almost two feet from tip to heel. Within the footprint, a series of close, almost overlapping diagonal ridges criss-crossed one another at perfect right-angles. Despite its immense size, the footprint only crinkled the top layer of the shallow Martian soil. Even Grissom's far less impressive prints to the right managed to expose the bedrock beneath.
"So, what do you think?" The pitch of Grissom's voice lowered to almost normal level, though he still panted as if he just finished a marathon.
For a moment, the impulsive side of me almost wanted to exclaim in affirmation. My heart raced at the ramification of the mind as I scrutinized every pixel of the sixteen-times magnified still of Grissom's video. The footprint's contour was unquestionably humanoid, and the geometric patterns imprinted by the sole appeared too complex for simple weathering and erosion. Who, or what, made this impression? How long had the prints been here? And, perhaps most importantly of all, how will the folks back on Earth respond to this? Too many questions, and so little time for us to make sense of it all...
Yet my inner chemist stopped me before I made any irresponsible extrapolation. Extraordinary claims, as many a skeptic noted, required extraordinary evidence - something a cursory examination of photographs could not offer. Luckily, my authority orbited overhead and was only a phone call away.
"I'll get Liwei to take a look at this," I said after a thirty-second pause. "Olga out."
"Interesting." said Liwei Liang, balding taikongnaut whose remaining hair showed speckles of grey.
"Two minutes staring at this thing and that's all you've got? Interesting?" Admittedly, I found the response underwhelming even for Liwei. I anticipated a well thought out analysis, not a one word conclusion with no bearing on the situation.
Liang smiled - the first time I had seen him do so since Grissom and I landed. Though only the corners of his thin lips curled, his eyes twinkled.
"I'm afraid that's it." His smile widened, exposing neat rows of pearly whites. "Interesting in the same sense as a Bodhisattva on a tree or a unicorn in the clouds. Interesting, but likely trivial."
"You don't mean..."
"That this is the product of natural weathering and erosion? Yes, that would be my first guess. Nature is capable of many amazing things. Take the Giant's Causeway in Ireland, or the supposedly alien circles under the Sea of Japan that ultimately turned out to be pufferfish..."
He caught himself when he realized the significance of the latter example. Too late.
"If I heard you right, comrade, you just admitted that a life-form could be responsible?" said Grissom through the intercom. Since he was neither shrill nor breathless, I assumed that the novelty of discovery had worn off.
"Perhaps, Commander Grissom. I am always open to different opinions, but I think that applying Occam's razor is the best course of action here. Maybe extraterrestrial life or some advanced sub-branch of humanity is responsible, but I don't find that likely. We have established scientific goals..."
I thought I heard Grissom grumble "like picking up rocks", but static made it impossible to ascertain.
"... Frankly, we do not have much time. What if the supposed footprint turned out to be just a natural formation caused by an interesting dust devil? What would the Agency think if we wasted our time on this instead of pursuing the goals we spent years outlining."
"Ultimately," Liang continued after an extended period of silence, "I am not the commander of the mission. The choice is still yours to make, Commander Grissom."
"Doesn't mean I don't need advice." said Grissom. "Tell me what you think. Honest."
"Gather some samples from the so-called footprint, get Miss Tereshkova to do some spectroscopic analysis, and move on to the original objectives. Take no more than fifteen minutes. As I previously stated, time is of the essence..."
"Gotcha," If Grissom had installed in-helmet video feed I could probably see his signature lip-purse. "Alrighty Olga. Suit up and meet me out the airlock. Literally right outside of the airlock. Pleasure talking to you comrade. Make sure that you keep everything on the old geezer running."
I grabbed the oblong helmet suspending from the equipment rack before I spiraled down the grilled titanium-staircase, my movements hampered by the bulky spacesuit and my poor turning ability in one-third Earth gravity. After nearly scalping myself on the low ceiling of the lander's first floor, I stumbled into the airlock, put on my helmet, and allowed the microwave sterilization unit to decontaminate me as the air-pumps hissed to silence. The exit ramp deployed in eerie quiet. One hand firmly grasping the guard rail, I descended the corrugated stairs, counting each of my fifteen steps as I approached the moment I had anticipated ever since my selection for the Arium V mission. The moment I rehearsed over and over in my head, in my heart, in my dreams. My hands, and then my entire body, begun to tremble as my right foot sank into the fine Martian dust. I cleared my throat, swallowed, and spoke as clearly as my quivering lips allowed me.
"This is one small step for woman, and one giant leap for..."
"Armstrong's family ought to sue you." said Grissom over the in-suit radio. "Better hurry, Olga, we don't have all afternoon for this!"
I stooped to pick up a rock after both of my feet were firmly planted on the Martian soil. There was a diverse selection in size and shape, and I hesitated before finally grabbing a fist-sized feldspar that balanced nicely in my palm. Grissom, clad in a sleek, form-fitting space-suit, knelt next to his precious footprint only eight paces from the lander. Even an awful thrower like me should have no problem nailing his bloated head from this distance. After ensuring that my shot would in no way endanger me or the landing-pad's delicate supporting trusses or the fifteen-million dollar high-definition camera that recorded Grissom's and my first steps on Mars, I aligned the rock with the top of Grissom's helmet, and swung my arm back when I realized the consequences of my action. Not only did I risk endangering a perfectly good example of a Martian regolith, but also harming a state-of-the-art spacesuit and committing the first assault on Mars. Instead, I popped open the sample-box at my hip and placed it in the sample compartment.
I walked, or rather hopped awkwardly, to Grissom's side and at once realized the source of his urgency. Behind him, the Martian sun was setting over the ragged fringes of the Victoria Crater, and we, like the rest of our machinery, would be forced to hibernate in the long, frigid night ahead. Without further ado, I knelt on one knee, bent over as far as my rigid suit allowed me, and scraped a few grains of sand into a sample-collector - a thumb-sized sheet of plastic that miraculously retained its shape between my sausage-thick fingers.
"Wait, hold on a minute." Grissom snatched the sample-collector from my hand. "We can't use this!"
To ensure compliance, he crumbled the plastic between his thumb and index finger and tossed it behind him. The crushed plastic strip rebounded off a rock and dimpled a wavy patch of sand.
"And why is that?" The desire to bash Grissom's head in flared up within me once more. My face writhed and contorted in a subconscious effort to relay my rage, though - as the rational part of my mind reminded me - he probably couldn't tell a thing behind my gilded face-plate.
"Propellant contamination." He pointed at the lander, a two-story artificial grasshopper that loomed over us and everything in immediate vicinity. Good point. That, unfortunately, meant that the rock I picked up earlier was likewise useless. A real pity. It was a nice rock.
"Well, what do you have in mind?" I extracted the rock from my sample-box – a process that took three button presses and two flipped lids – and tossed it behind me when Grissom's helmet turned the other way. It made an impressive splatter and an even more impressive crater. Luckily, Grissom didn't hear a thing, not in an atmosphere as thin as Mars's anyway.
Grissom turned to the setting sun and shaded his face from its feeble rays. I suppressed a snicker. Face-plates on the American suits self-polarized.
"Mid-point between base and crater's fringe. We are supposed to drill for core samples there anyway. Two birds with one stone. Problems?"
"Not really, I mean, doesn't it feel a bit... A bit too far?"
To my surprise, Grissom nodded.
"Doesn't mean that we should give up, hmm? Exploration, especially here, is no walk in the park, Olga. Let's get going."
We advanced towards the steel-gray horizon in complete silence, leaving a trail of comparatively diminutive prints parallel to those of our mysterious predecessor. At first Grissom tried his best to tiptoe around the prints. But as the terrain grew rockier and the light dimmer, he wisely gave up and both of us took turns effacing the hallowed prints. Before long only a dark-orange sliver of the Sun remained above the crater's ragged fringes, every stone basking in eerie twilight. Grissom paused to inspect a bone-white ice patch at the spot where the trail abruptly ended, the ground before it too rocky for impressions.
"I think we've gone far enough." I turned around while Grissom chiseled the ice patch with a tiny rock-hammer. Roughly five kilometers away, a bright yellow beacon blinked forlornly from the tip of the towering lander, half of its enamelled titanium majesty cloaked in ink-black shadow tapering into the burnt-orange earth. Grissom didn't respond. For three more agonising minutes he tapped the dry ice with the hammer and brushed away the powered ice with a briskness that hinted mounting anticipation.
"Come and take a look, Olga." said Grissom at last, his left glove so heavily encrusted with dust and powdered ice that I couldn't tell its original color. Within his clutch a shard of white stone glittered bleakly under sun's fading rays. Except no stone could be so smooth and thin or, as a closer inspection revealed, half varnished with glaze.
Grissom gave an absent-minded nod and kept hammering. Scarcely a minute elapsed before he produced a silvery clasper, more porcelain shards, and - most interesting of all - a leather sheath that concealed a white plastic ruler with a transparent sliding device. One by one, he gently cupped each of his finds in his right hand before relegating them to a compartmentalized pouch at his hip. He stopped when he got to the ruler since it was too long to fit, and snapped the lid with a flick of his wrist.
"Puzzling find." Grissom mumbled, half to himself, as he flicked the slider across the ruler, playful as he was inquisitive with the device. "Mathematics does seem the universal language across this vast cosmos of our's. I mean just look at the numbering. I swear they write one, two, and three exactly the same way we do…"
"That's because they are Arabic numerals." I repressed the urge to whack Grissom on the head. To be fair, the sprawling script marking each increment was almost indecipherable, and a casual observer might easily mistaken it for something extraterrestrial, considering the queer appearance of the ruler. Yet that only raised more questions. To the best of my knowledge, Arium IV was the first ever manned mission on Mars. What business, if any, did a conventional ruler have on an unmanned mission? Perhaps a memorabilia or even a practical joke? Neither was likely, considering how precious each ounce of the payload was.
"Well, smart ass, what do you think they use something like this for?" Grissom said. "At least we now know that our forerunners are most probably humans, from Earth, with giant feet and a penchant for burying their goodies. But who, and why? What would any sane Astronaut do with a plastic ruler with a slider in the Twenty-First century? Why would…"
"Why don't we consult Liang when he is overhead again?" I interjected before Grissom could tear handfuls of hair through his space helmet. "It might be a really sophisticated measuring tool or computational device but we simply are too ignorant about…"
"Yes, Liang… Now you are giving me ideas. This might sound a bit out there but… Just hear me anyway. Don't you think Liang is the type of person who would, um, hide things from us?"
For once, Grissom's tone was almost amiable. From that alone I knew I won't like where the conversation was heading.
"Please do share regardless." I said, despite knowing that I would at once regret that decision.
"What if, just what if," Grissom lowered his voice, his tone conspiratorial but laced with the slight trace of sarcasm, "the Chinese landed a mission, right here in the Crater, before we touched down? Wouldn't he want to cover that up? Circumstances have been pretty fishy ever since we hit orbit. Refuses to let me analyze the landing site photos…"
"Or, more likely, he wanted us to not get distracted by something like a preliminary photo analysis." This new theory of Grissom's made even less sense than the extraterrestrial hypothesis. "You can't hide something like a rocket launch to Mars, not with reconnaissance satellites watching everything from orbit and astronomers observing from below. It simply can't be done."
"A fair assessment," my radio crackled. Liang had been watching and listening, and God knew how long.
"Howdy Comrade," If Grissom felt awkward, he hid it well. "I suppose you came back to ask about your precious rock samples?"
"Part of my inquiry, yes."
"I fear we failed to deliver." I cut in before Grissom's callous remarks could make the situation worse. "We were, we were sidetracked."
"I know all about the artifacts that you have uncovered," said Liang, stoic and professional as always. "I suppose that the mission objective is in jeopardy. The Agency is not happy with our side investigation. There are gentlemen in the Politburo who still insist that the whole thing is some sort of delusion. I fear that they may yell at me at the next report."
"Well I am glad that I won't be the one reporting," Grissom yawned. "Take comfort in the fact that you'll still have a healthy time lag between the shouting matches, comrade. Olga, you think we can pick a couple of rocks and get back before it is all dark?"
"Yes." I decided that a terse response sufficed. The more I talked with Grissom, the angrier I got, and I couldn't afford clouding my judgments with anger. Maybe I could save it for the welcome party once we were back on Earth.
"Guess we should get back to work."
"That won't be necessary." said Liang. "I, I don't believe that this is the best course of action, especially in light of a recent discovery."
"I went over the landing site images we took from orbit and magnified the crater two hundred and fifty-six times. What I previously dismissed as an image defect looks as if… Let me put it this way. There is more to it than I previously thought. I believe we have images of artifact, and there is only one way to find out."
To be continued...