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Mars Underground

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Mars Underground

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Author: William K. Hartmann
Publisher: Tor, 1997

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Hard SF
Space Exploration
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Lee P



2032. The human race has established colonies on Mars. For years Dr. Alwyn Stafford researched its biggest mystery: Did life evolve on the Red Planet? The answer, except for simple, long-dead microorganisms, was no.

Now retired, Stafford stubbornly continues his quest. Rumors say he's been going farther than ever before into the Martian deserts.

Then he goes out and doesn't return. As the search for him grow, it becomes apparent that the old man found something that will forever change humanity's place in the cosmos...




Morning. So, was he really going to keep driving west, after all, into the unknown Martian desert? Stafford smiled to himself.

Stafford's dune buggy churned across the ocher sands of Hellespontus. In the immense empty wasteland, the buggy looked like an insignificant blue insect crawling across a dusty parking lot. The dust kicked up by its big wheels spurted into the air and fell away slowly, sometimes twisted by uncertain gusts of wind. Along the horizon, the hazy sky was exactly the same color as Stafford's creased Anglo flesh. But high above, wasn't that a trace of blue he had been seeing in the last year or so?

They were a long way from anything, Stafford and his dune buggy. Alone. Five thousand klicks from Mars City. Three-fifty from little Hellas Base, hotbed of desert dreams. There was no road. There had been no road for more than a day.

Virgin territory, Stafford noted to himself. Well, it wasn't the first time. Old Man of the Desert, they called him. Not for nothing. He looked at the forbidding, unblemished vista. The smile was still on his lips.

The blue buggy churned on toward ... something. Squinting, Stafford pushed his square, weathered face forward against the front window, feeling his thick white hair and even his white mustache bristle against the glass. It was as if he were trying to be out there, to be part of the landscape. The thing he was searching for would be up ahead, somewhere. He didn't know what it would turn out to be, but he knew it was there, and he had his suspicions.

When he first started out from Hellas Base on Thursday, he surprised himself by spending as much time looking out the back window as the front, watching for possible pursuers. This unexpected reaction intrigued him. Paranoia? Guilt setting in? Still, he knew that people were interested in his actions. The young engineers and scientists gossiped about him. "So where's Old Man Stafford off to this time?" It was like the Old West: when a grizzled prospector set out purposefully into the hills, the rumormongers said he was after some secret treasure. Well, this time they were right. Doubly so. Soon they would learn how right they were.

By virtue of nothing more than the clock's steadfast ticking, Stafford had become one of the seniors in a rusty world of young technicians.Martians, they were pleased to call themselves. Well, Stafford had the best claim to the title. Old Man Stafford, the desert rat, the codger, who spent his retirement searching for ... well ... things. "Wonderful things." As a boy, back in California, Stafford read about Howard Carter's words when the archaeologist first peered into King Tut's tomb. "What do you see?" his team asked him. "Wonderful things," he said. It applied to Mars, Stafford thought.

He peered through the dust-streaked glass. Ahead, to the west, a backlit haze of dust reduced distant, eroded mesas to pale fantasy castles. They did not shimmer. The air was too thin and too cold. The castles stood, stolid and still, two-dimensional in the luminous haze. Far cry from the Berkeley cafés and the last redwood forests, old man. To a lot of the farmers, watching holeo images in their worn armchairs Earthside, Mars seemed only a landscape of desolation. Red rocks, black rocks, and dust. To Stafford, it was a new world full of Wonderful Things. Interesting oddities. Martian El Dorados. The things desert rats had sought for a thousand years.

The spartan horizon ahead was a clean, pale line that no one had ever crossed.

It's always folks from green and wet places like northern California who end up loving the desert, he mused. Lawrence out of Oxford. Van Dyke out of New Jersey or someplace.

Well let them call him what they wanted. In his twenty-one years on Mars he had had his fill of the Engineering Corps, the Agriculture Experiment Stations, the Clarke Project, the hundred other progressive projects of the clean, keen greenhorns who kept pouring into Mars City, intent on bringing it above what they called "critical mass." Critical mass for survival--that's what they were talking about. The minimum population and supporting equipment to make a self-sustaining colony. Critical mass was a shiny, polished concept from the gray halls of the universities and space agencies on Earth, but it had its dark side--a side discussed only in hushed conversations among the planners who hung out during late hours in what passed for dim bars in Mars City: they would have to reach critical mass before they could survive a catastrophic shutdown of the supply lines from Earth--a shutdown that could happen any day because of an economic collapse Earthside, a spacecraft disaster at Crystal City or Phobos, or worse. Ordinary Martians laughed it off. But some of the planners thought it might happen. Look what had happened already in Kazakhstan and Lima.

Stafford's opinion of Earth was that no disaster was too unlikely to contemplate, given the way things terrestrial were going. The farmers, as Martians called them, had a truly Ptolemaic lack of imagination: they still thought of Earth as the center of the solar system. Rich, ravaged, unheedful Earth.

Stafford was all for Martian self-sufficiency-an exciting goal--but he grew more and more disillusioned with the way the greenhorns and uncivil engineers were bent on transforming the rusty old planet not into a new Mars, but into a streamlined suburb of Earth, full of transplanted farmers and mall people.

The thing of it was, no one knew how many people and machines it would take to reach critical mass on Mars. Some experts said a population of three thousand, plus nuclear generators, soil processors. Others said five or ten thousand, plus redundant infrastructure; the whole urban mess. For every Ph.D., an equal and opposite Ph.D.

Martians hoped the present population was enough. Three thousand people--putting Mars City somewhere in limbo between a research outpost and a functioning town. Six thousand Martians in all, if you counted Phobos, Hellas, and the Polar Station. Too many for Stafford. The old days of basic, mission-driven exploration had ended. Politics was starting to rear its ugly head. You found yourself doing something because someone said so, not because it had to be done.

He glanced all around the horizon again. Nothing yet. He craned his neck to peer out the back window. Nothing behind either. The desert was empty. "Clean" was the word Lawrence had used in Arabia.

Hours later, the blue beetle was still crawling along. In the north, the summer sun had crossed the meridian and was sinking toward the west. Afternoon. It ought to be hot. Of course, it wasn't. Stafford didn't let himself think about how cold the air was outside.

He spotted something ahead projecting above the sand. It was dark-colored, not bright as he'd anticipated. He drove closer.

It turned out to be only a curious rock formation, sticking up like an African anthill. It looked to be some odd-shaped boulder, exhumed by the winds, sculpted and undercut by the blowing sand. As he drove by, he foresaw that in another thousand years it would be gone.

Once upon a time, his heart had beat fast every time he saw an odd exposure of old rock. They were windows into the past. When he firstcame to Mars, he had been seeking his own holy grail. He had wanted to be the one to confirm the widespread theory that life had evolved far beyond the measly microbes that had been reported--on again, off again--since the turn of the century. Given the clement conditions geologists had established for the earliest phase of Martian history, it should have been true. From the work of Krennikov and Boikova, it seemed a small step to conclude that once life got started, it had a thousand non-convergent paths to follow--different paths in each environment, on each clement planet. Long ago, during the mysteriously moist early millennia of the planet, when the air was thick and water ran on the surface, Martian RNA and DNA should have gone off in directions never seen on Earth. He, Stafford, would be the one to find the evidence.

For years, Stafford and his cronies had hoped that they would find rich bioorganic pockets and advanced fossil forms, sealed deep in protected strata since the beginning of time, proof of their catechism, of carbon chemistry's quirky ability to adapt. They had wanted an icon, more than a rational test of a chemical theory, something they could hold in front of the cameras and proclaim, "See, it can happen anywhere in the universe. We're not alone. Copernicus and Darwin were right: we're not special."

No luck.

But he'd had his day. Dr. Alwyn Stafford--the father of a tantalizing but disappointing new consensus: ancient wet Mars had produced no more than a few stunted microbial forms, starting three, maybe three and a half billion years ago. The earliest examples seemed to be found in the ancient southern highlands. Eventually, with the atmosphere thinning, all life-forms in the surface layers had died and were buried. On the third day they had not risen from the dead, and for the rest of Martian time the arid surface soils had been sterile, while the primordial atmosphere dissipated, albeit with spasms that had left now dry riverbeds. Some of the microbes apparently hung on in buried strata, but there was little evolution because they were in static, frozen environments. And across the entire planet, the surface soil was sterile, thanks to the planet's unkind lack of an ozone layer. Seasonal dust storms churned the soil every year and exposed dust grains to the sun's ultraviolet light, sterilizing and resterilizing them, breaking up any group of carbon atoms that might have an idea of getting together for a fling ...

That was Martian history in a nutshell, and a desiccated nutshell at that. The new dogma, which he himself had established--Stafford, biologistof the dead world as they had called him. How many hours had he spent in a spacesuit under the deceptively bright Martian sky to convince the world of that uninspiring bottom line?

Stafford regretted none of those days. His teams had dug and they had drilled. They had penetrated the permafrost. There had been that layer, deep in the south polar strata near the three-billion-year level, with its enhancement of organic molecules and microbial forms. They had labeled it just another local anomaly. Still, there had always been that next drill hole, that next spot that might be different.

Finally, Stafford's colleagues, who sat in their comfortable labs on Earth and served on review committees, had had enough. They declared him a member of several academies, and virtually shut down the BioExploration labs in Mars City. At the same time, they raised the budgets for the atmospheric experiments, which--according to the hype--were supposed to test some new theories on relieving Earth's smog. Stafford had retired in a sort of muted glory. Nice work, old chap. Send us your memoirs.

Stafford's career had left a mystery, really. Why hadn't Martian life gone further? Why hadn't it demonstrated some adaptation to Mars' increasingly arctic climate? Was life less resilient than they had thought? Was biology, after all, rarer in the universe than scientists had come to believe? Stafford was beginning to think he might see some answers to those questions, over the horizon. But for now he had to concentrate on matters at hand.

Always the next Cibola, the next El Dorado.

Stafford had never been discouraged. He had seen more of Mars than anyone. He had seen strange sunsets in the land of the Thoats, far beyond the wildest dreams of Percival Lowell and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury. The new kids coming to Mars from consumerland--they had never read the Martian classics. Mars for them was just the latest hi-tech testbed, an exotic gig to put on your resume, in the desperate gamble to establish yourself among the haves, when you returned to Earth.

For Stafford it was different. There was the desert. His desert. The empty craters; the whistling chasms whose fluted rocks sang faintly with the Martian wind, where you could get away from people. Here, you could scream as loud as you liked and no one would come running. On Earth, there was no place left like that; there was always some damned monitoring system or satellite ... .

Truth to tell, Stafford's desert jaunts had generated some notoriety and income that allowed him a few luxuries beyond the frugal existence hehad imagined for his late years in Mars City. The ice caves: he had made money selling his holeos of the peculiar crystalline formations. An Earthside image bank had marketed his famous close-up of lightning flashing among the dust devils. And a wealthy collector in L.A. had paid well for the biggest crystal of specular hematite in the solar system. Who would have believed anyone would be crazy enough to pay for shipping that one back! Some nouveau riche MacLaine, she was, with money to burn and an idea that Martian crystals were even better than Earth crystals in terms of aura or whatever the hell it was they talked about in their sad, upscale churches.

The income was nice, but the trouble with the notoriety was that people kept an eye on him, wondering where he was off to next.

His wife, now gone, used to rail at him about the dangers. He saw it as no different from the pioneer days on Earth. His grandfather had opened up new trails in the uranium fields of the Mexican desert, traveling alone and risking death in 110-degree temperatures. He himself risked dying in --110-degree temperatures. What was the difference? The eager Reaper strikes pretty fast when the temperatures go two sigma beyond the green zone.

Anyway, he and his grandfather both had their common sense and their radios. And life always has an element of danger, he thought with grim satisfaction.

Danger or not, life had been all right since he had retired from the new Mars rat race. Not "retired," really. Detached himself. Become independent. During his official career in BioExploration, he had failed to achieve his goal, but he had failed magnificently enough to acquire clout.

Now the big balloon tires were throwing phantom minarets of powdered yellow limonite into the thin air behind him. On the left was a distant orange cliff, soft in the haze-muted sun. Its base was undercut as if dwarfs had carved out a shelter. He visualized erosion by the sting of saltating sand grains, driven by the wind. Ahead to the left the horizon was broken by a crater rim three kilometers across, looking like the scar left by an unseen hand that had punched its way out of the interior of Mars. Stafford glanced at the orbiter photo pasted to the dashboard. Crater on the left. Check.

In spite of the fact that the buggy was a tiny beetle in the empty desert, Stafford had faith in it. The redundant systems were reliable, and the cargo space between the EN-cells and the air processors was loaded with extra airpacs and water.

Stafford still hadn't played his last card. Lately he had been going around telling his friends that there were always more mysteries to discover, a little farther out in the desert. He had hinted he was on the track of something unusual, out in Hellespontus, in the rim country northwest of Hellas Base. He had arranged for his friend Carter to see him poring over the orbital photos. He had needed to plant certain ideas in their minds, so they could reconstruct it later. He had needed to set the stage for his next adventure.

It was amazing that he had ever talked his way into being allowed to take a buggy out on his own. But Stafford had his clout and Braddock, who was in charge of such things at Hellas, was an unrepentant good old boy. In the early days, Stafford had been the first to complain about good old boy networks, but now he saw no contradiction in using systems he couldn't dismantle. Operating in that strange Martian limbo between official bureaucracy and Getting Things Done, Braddock and Stafford were both willing to bend the rules in the direction of the latter.

Good thing, too. It had established the climate that allowed them to pursue what his friends--his supposed friends--had called their "special operation." He had agreed to go along with it, but he had his own motives, too. Well, don't think about that now, he told himself. Do this one step at a time. Concentrate on today's objective.

Where was the damn thing? He thought: If I'm ever going to find it, I've got to find it on this trip. In another year everything will be different, and nobody'll care about the old Mars.

Damn kids, monkeying around with a planet as if it were a toy. Spraying graphite from Phobos onto the polar ice to make it evaporate and create more air! Damnedest foolishness he had ever heard of. Still, he had to admit that the Clarke Project had driven the air pressure up to twenty millibars at Mars City. Enough to allow the geothermal sites to produce occasional puddles of liquid water instead of mere puffs of invisible vapor when deposits of permafrost occasionally melted. They had doubled the air pressure that existed when people first came to Mars--when the air had been too thin to allow liquid water anywhere but in the deepest canyons. So the engineers were making progress.

They said their work was as natural as nature. As more CO2 snow melted at the pole, more sunlight would be absorbed by the resulting CO2 gas in the atmosphere. The more sunlight was absorbed, the warmer it would get. The warmer it got, the more snow melted. Feedback. The greenhouse effect. Advective something or other.

If it worked, the ancient rivers would run again for as long as humans endured here. It would rain, and erosion would wipe out any relics of the previous warm period.

If it worked. Stafford took pride in a measure of cynicism. He had bet some friends back at Mars City that before they got to one hundred millibars, and before people could start going out without full pressure suits, some disaster would occur that they hadn't foreseen. He banked on Murphy's Law.

They weren't all so bad, the kids. Carter Jahns, for instance, was the best, in spite of his title. Assistant Director of Environmental Engineering for Mars City, or some such bullshit. Anyway, he worked mostly on the indoor environment, not the crazy schemes for modifying the planet itself. Besides, Carter had something that set him apart, a quiet receptiveness to new ideas. A lot of these kids, they came around to ask you about the early days, but they never listened. By the time you started an answer they were on to something else. The way most of them had grown up, the universe was ninety percent fantasy constructs, and they had trouble recognizing that reality was the real thing, the thing that was left over when the cyberspace machines were turned off.

From his vantage point of career endgame, Stafford felt he could see things about these kids that they themselves could not make out. He knew where they were in their life processes, and where they would go. Carter Jahns, he could tell, was different from the others. He had a mind like a book still being written. While molded in the assembly lines of Earth, Carter had been left mercifully incomplete, as if there were still something in him that could be shaped by Mars. Carter didn't know how good he was; he still had the potential to profit from a mentor. Well, we'd see about that ... .

Stafford had asked him once when he was planning to go back to Earth. "Don't know." A short answer but it spoke volumes about him. He didn't say much, but you had the idea that he was thinking about things. Maybe he thought too much. Maybe that's why Stafford had adopted him as a friend. A protégé, in fact.

It took Stafford a while to accept this. Carter was his protégé, his only confidant among the younger set. In Stafford's own mind--hell, out here in the desert he could finally admit it--he had adopted Carter as the son he had never had, whether Carter recognized it or not.

For Carter's generation, the idea of ancient advanced Martian life-forms had gone up in smoke--a puff of sterile Martian dust. There were no more attempts to sterilize outdoor equipment or quarantine the outdoorenvironment. As the air thickened, they all wanted to get on with their cherished damned planetary engineering. There'll be litter all over the place in ten years, Stafford thought; freeways in a hundred.

He was getting carried away.

Anyway, he had come to realize that civilization is merely a process of destroying history. In the last century, civilization had "risen" to a new height: gone were the last places on Earth where you could find thousand-year-old arrowheads or fragments of pots lying where they had broken. The last ancient spots had been plowed under, paved, pulverized by bulldozers, and picked over by mindless off-road-vehicle enthusiasts to whom no oddment was too sacred to take home, to put on their dusty mantelpieces, to forget. The last neolithic caves in Europe had been cleaned out by sub-teenagers with robo-pacs. The last arrowhead collections in America were stored in attics of grandparents recently deceased, and were being thrown out by heirs too busy to check the contents of musty old cardboard boxes.

Of course, there was the question of whether today's crazy boondoggle trip would change everything ... .

The cold evening was fast approaching. The low sun was sinking and the sky taking on its strange evening pallor of gray. Longer shadows made it hard to pick his way among the rocks. Soon the sun would turn into a red dot on the horizon and fade away like an old soldier.

Still nothing in sight, and it should have been around him somewhere.

Suddenly the apricot horizon tilted precariously.


He jerked the vehicle to a full stop as it slumped precariously to one side. He had let his musings distract him from his driving. He had let the right front wheel bog down into a pocket of soupy dust.

"Damn, damn, damn," he muttered to himself again. No matter how many times he had faced an unexpected situation out here in the desert, the familiar shot of adrenaline hit him like a kick in the stomach. Always there was that suppressed truth; you're out here alone. Death is always walking along behind you in your tire tracks.

He forced himself to pause until the adrenaline surge had passed. These little dust pockets were strange. You could hardly detect them in advance. They were betrayed only by a subtle smoothness, like the glassy-surge "footprint" of a whale on the surface of the ocean. There were stories of people hitting big ones with all four wheels and having to be pulled out. No one knew how they formed.

Cautiously he put the buggy in reverse. Holding his breath, he fedpower to the other three wheels. He gave them a little nudge. The engine whined. He could feel the springy wheels turn, the balloon tread digging in. The traction held. The buggy lumbered back onto firm ground.

But the shadows were getting too long to continue his search.


Far from Mars City, far from Hellas Base, Stafford had parked to wait out the bitter hours until dawn on Sunday morning. Strange, he had "pulled off the road," into a little alcove in the lava. Habit. You didn't block the road. But in reality, there was no road. There were only his own tracks, hundreds of klicks from the nearest human.

Night on Mars was so damn dark and cold and lonely. It made you realize you were out on a limb. If only Mars had a moon as big as Earth's. Moonlight, at least, would be a comfort. How would the red landscape--those desolate orange dunes out there and the goblinlike dark rocks--look in the eerie pallor of a full moon, when everything was reduced to greenish-gray?

Night was the most frightening time in the deserts of Mars. Only the thin walls of the buggy between him and the black coldness, which must surely be populated by unimaginable ghosts from the ancient past of the dying planet. Or worse yet, he often thought, a night in a desert so foreign and sterile that it offered no wandering souls to keep sad or menacing vigil; a night impassive and uncaring, with no ghosts at all.

He rolled his head over against the cold, curved window and looked up at the stars. Alpha and Beta Centauri. Dim patches of the Magellanic Clouds almost obscured by reflections of the softly glowing dashboard lights. The night sky in the Martian south always disoriented him. Try as he might, he could not get used to a sky that did not feature the Big Dipper, pivoting around Polaris. Down here, the constellations pivoted around God-knew-where and were mostly unfamiliar anyway. He tried to learn them, but they made even less sense than the three-thousand-year-old asterisms of the north. Telescopum and Sextans and Microscopum and whatever other damn fool things the seventeenth-century navigators had stuck in the sky. Cultural continuity. He thought he remembered that the south celestial pole of Mars was somewhere just off the Milky Way toward the Large Magellanic Cloud, but he could never find it. It was disorienting to fall asleep noticing Orion upside down at a crazy angle, and then wake up later to find that it had moved in the wrong direction from hour to hour. Skies don't transfer well from one planet to another.Later, in the darkness, he awoke with a start. Some strange dream had startled him. From his bedroll, laid out across the back of the buggy, he looked out the windows, half expecting to see lights on the horizon--the lights of ... what? There was nothing. Perhaps unexpected night winds had jostled the vehicle.

His mind had been racing with half dreams, half rationalizations. It was past midnight. Today a lot of shit would hit the fan. Fully awake now, he tried to recover what had been bothering him. It was the whole enterprise; the plans he had allowed himself to be caught up in, the plans behind the plans. What would Carter think of him? Strangely, he realized that if things went too wrong, he could live with the ensuing mess, but he would feel guilty in front of Carter.

Copyright © 1997 by William K. Hartmann


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