Short Story for Blast Off! November 2018
Mars Colony—Exploration Team #7
Sue (leader, aggressive explorer, impulsive)
Andy ( Narrator, cautious, Chief Science Officer; named for Andy Weir, author of THE MARTIAN and ARTEMIS RISING)
David—xenogeologist, Mars expert (on Earth, also member of Exploration Team #2, earlier)
Saundra—First Contact Designee, linguist. New to Mars Colony on the most recent ship's arrival
Zoe-lab technician, also new to Mars Colony. On Exploration Team to collect samples to return to Lab at Mars Colony Base Camp
Camill—volcanologist, new to Mars Colony. Here specifically to explore Martian Volcanic formations. [pronounced: Cuh-mill, accent on second syllable]
Mars Colony Exploration Team #7 is tasked to explore Olympus Mons. Exploration Team #7 discovers Underground Caverns, including shelters, devices, skeletal remains. Xenobiologist's equipment certifies remains as human.
Story: “Lost Civilization: The Caverns Beneath Olympus Mons”
Mars Exploration Team #7's Leader, Sue, stood against the stone barrier underneath a natural archway. Appearing to be a large natural boulder shoved into place, inexplicably light shone along the top where the boulder edge did not quite meet the archway.
“Check your suits; make sure they're in place. We don't know what's inside, but obviously something is since we can see light. That's not natural at all, not on Mars. And we're underground, so of course there's no light from stars. We're going in..”
I spoke up. As Chief Security Officer for Exploration Team #7, I had the right of refusal if the team tried to venture into anything dangerous. That was rather an oxymoron, since we were living on Mars; humans had been here for only two years now.
“I don't think we should enter, just yet. That light source worries me. We're under Olympus Mons, in caverns. It looks too much like our lighting system back at Mars Colony. We know no Exploration Team has ventured this far. We ourselves only reached this area two days ago. So who set up lighting? And why? I think we should wait, get more personnel out here with us. This is like coming on fluorescent lighting out in the woods, if we were still on Earth.
“Something's not right, and I don't think we should go in. Let Camill and David set up sensors. Let's explore further, somewhere else, and then back at Colony's labs later we can read the sensor input recordings and try to figure out a safe approach.”
Sue had been shaking her head from my second sentence. She and I had clashed earlier, on Mars Exploration Team #6, a month ago, when I was also Chief Security Officer but she was Science Officer, not yet Team Leader. We had been exploring the surroundings of Jezero Crater, and Sue insisted the Team needed to descend into the Crater. That included herself and the Lab Technician on that Team, Grigori. I refused, but Sue and Grigori descended against my will. She returned, but he did not. Now she had been appointed Team Leader for Team #7, again despite my opposition. At the rate she was proceeding, by the time Team #8 would be put together, either I would not be Chief Security Officer for it, or I would already be deceased due to her impulsive decisions and aggressive exploration techniques.
I was worried—deeply worried. That light leaking over the stone boulder beneath the archway was unnatural, not scientifically possible.
“We are going in,” Sue argued, with a glare toward me.
“Exploration Teams explore, they don't back down out of fear.
That's for homebound citizens, not us. We're here to find out all we can about our chosen new planet, and here's something really unusual. Let's explore.”
She called over David and Lawrence, ignoring me; and our volcanologist, Camill, stepped up too, as she had a broad and sturdy physique and had spent much time in gym workouts before our voyage to Mars. Zoe, our Lab Technician, also stood ready, carrying her sample case, prepared to select samples as soon as the boulder was removed.
My unease mounted, all the more so as the stone actually slid readily to one side, rather than what its apparent size and weight indicated. From the archway now light poured out; whatever space was beyond was clearly brightly lit, impossible for a Cavern deep inside a Volcano. Thinking back, I should have realized—we all should have—that the entry at the base of Olympus Mons we too easily located, and that the tunnel we followed to reach this archway, despite the numerous twists and turns, was far too steady a progress, lacking dead ends and side caverns, to be natural and not artificially designed and constructed.
Sue as Team Leader stepped forward first, but Zoe pressed right in alongside her.
“It's a Lab!” Zoe exclaimed.
At first I couldn't see past Zoe and Sue, jammed into the archway, but as they moved forward, David and Lawrence followed, then Saundra (in case there were native inhabitants present, as she was First Contact Designee and had been a Professor and researcher of Linguistics for three decades on Earth). Finally Camill and I stepped inside the Cavern, and yes, it had been a Laboratory. Benches everywhere, some seats, all appearing constructed from stone, a light color as of marble. Devices on the benches: microscopes, beakers, pairs of goggles, vessels with increments marked on the side, sturdy notebooks. Everything was covered with a thick layer of dust.
Unfortunately, we could have been entering almost any scientific lab on Earth. Unfortunate, because we were deep below the dormant volcano Olympus Mons—on Mars. Human civilization had not reached Mars until two years past, and this was the first human excursion underneath Olympus Mons..or was it?
The thermometer of my unease had already reached tremendous proportions and its mercury threatened to erupt. I wanted out of here, now, and I opened my mouth to demand we all leave, when Team Leader Sue ordered, “Samples, Zoe! Get all you can!” even though Zoe had already begun to do just that. Camill, David, and Lawrence had spread out to look around the Lab, if that is what it was, and Saundra moved toward the next r0w of tables, heading for a dusty notebook lying in the center of the middle row.
“Stop!” I squeaked. I had intended to shout, but the dry dust-laden cavern interfered with my breathing—I could feel the dust particles clogging in my lungs—and I couldn't manage much more than a whimper.
“Stop! Saundra, Zoe! We don't know what this is! Touch nothing! We need to leave!”
Sue glared at me with a glance that resembled cold curdled molasses and I perceived her contempt layering me.
I expected the cry to be Zoe, taking samples, but she was still near me, working her way along the first table to the rear, where I stood near the archway. It was a woman's voice, though.
“In this notebook! Lab notations, from experiments apparently—they're in English and Cyrillic!”
Saundra had opened the notebook on the middle bench. I glanced over; her face was devoid of color.
“Over here! Sue! Lawrence!”
Camill, at the far wall, near another—doorway? Blocked only by a sheet of—plastic? Like a tarp? Impossible, I thought. Surely—we all were experiencing a shared mass hallucination brought on by lack of oxygen..But no, each of us had our suits intact, oxygen gently hissing into our masks. At least mine
was, and the others' masks and suits appeared to be stable and unbroken.
“And here's a notebook fully entered in Mandarin Chinese!”
Saundra had moved on to the first table, against the wall to our right.
“Sue! Lawrence!” Camill shouted again. I didn't comprehend why they hadn't responded to her yet; Lawrence and David still stood against the back wall to my left, and Sue remained several feet in front of me, but stationary, although she faced toward the other archway, near which Camilla now crouched. Zoe carried on collecting specimen samples. Suddenly I broke out of my reverie and rushed toward Camill, brushing past the motionless Team Leader. Crouched on the ground, she pointed.
Directly below her was a skeleton, one arm bone flung across the skull. To the right were two more skeletons, either crumpled together or having died holding each other. Through the translucent tarp I spied jumbles of bones. I called to Lawrence, the Team's xenobiologist.
“Come over here, Lawrence! Look at these skeletons! They look--”
He had finally walked over to us.
“Human. They look human. They are human. I don't need a forensic anthropologist to identify. These were humans.”
“The notebooks! All the same ending, in every one! Chinese, English, Cyrillic! One final word on the last page!