1: The Thing at North Head City
The first human Main Colony Preparation Teams who made
their marks in the regolith of Mars were little more than well-paid transients
with no family ties. At least none they
admitted to when they signed the book.
Their cleverly worded contracts kept them on-planet for periods
averaging six E-years. The teams were
supposedly a cross section of Earthside society, but after peeling away the
outer layer, what remained was a seedy lot of malcontents, rebels, and misfits
working for a few Asian contractors and mining companies operating under the
EAC (Earth Allied Council) umbrella. The
people they hired were those who had not much to lose except their miserable
lives and a great deal to gain—if they survived. All of this followed on the metal heels of an
energetic program of robotic shelter construction and provisioning that
preceded them by sixty years, almost to the day, supplanting the old Temp
Colonies that had been landed on-planet when world leaders were a tiny bit more
imbued with ideals and had more than a few scruples.
The EAC, a stressed East/West co-op, managed to entice
a large number of their trapped temporary residents to take more dangerous deep
canyon and polar assignments by offering large bonuses and shorter on-planet
commitments. This part of the program
made it possible for the governments of the Eastern and Western Blocs to reduce
the cost of the overall project. Fewer
survivors meant less pay to hand out at the end of contract terms. Those who managed to live through the
experience—not many made it to the end of their commitment—went home after no
more than four E-years on planet, depending on favorable windows, with enough
credit to buy nice homes and plenty left in their pocket to invest in enviable
and substantial retirement packages in what few low density locales remained.
So it went, cycle after cycle, crews of eighty or so
replacing returning groups of twenty to thirty.
Amazingly, no one, during the entire process, ever counted on their
fingers and noticed the discrepancy between the number of people arriving
compared to those on their way out, or they mistakenly assumed that several out
of each group opted to remain on-planet.
There were some who did, but they were rare. Each new crew dug ever larger holes in the
escarpments and crisscrossing the labyrinth of lava tubes of Olympus Mons. Deeper and deeper they went, until the
architects and scientists who directed the program—and all cleverly remained
Earthside—declared the tunnel system ready to provide for a maintainable atmosphere. The on-planet workers sealed the ends of the
tunnel entries with massive double walls into which they built small and huge
outlocks to allow for the movement of large, heavy equipment, the proposed
railway and the passage of people into and out of the complex. The rails to the west and along the north and
south sides of Mariner’s Canyon reached completion shortly before the final
walls went into place.
These gargantuan tunnels and chambers amounted to
nothing more than the embryonic beginning; barely livable spaces for those who
made up the manifest of the first of the coming horde the MC (Mars Colony)
specialists on Earth predicted with great confidence.
The MC migration gurus maintained that thousands,
similar to the mass movement of people who flooded the North American Continent
a few centuries earlier, would take advantage of the opportunity to leave an
overpopulated Earth and carve out their niches in new ground. But no one saw the glitch in their calculations. The error in their prognostication proved
embarrassing to everyone. They had
predicted that mountains of humanity, fed up with eking out a living on an
Earth that teemed with too many sweating bodies—bodies that severely strained
her natural resources by trying to keep up with their ever increasing demands
on what remained of her bounty—would jump at the opportunity to leave for new
They simply failed to account for the fact that
ordinary people, contrary to appearances, were not all that stupid. It didn’t take much mental effort on the part
of the expected pioneers to see beyond the hype. To realize that the program generously
provided them with an opportunity to endure the rigor, danger, and accompanying
fear—fear that could easily turn to sheer terror—of a one-way voyage in unproven,
take-apart ships. Then, at the end of
the trip, if they made it, having the privilege of selecting one hundred
hectares of stubborn, barren land to set up housekeeping in a place less secure
than the ships that brought them. To top
all that off, their home, more often than not, wound up being the same small,
hemispherical pod they occupied during the trip out. The pod was then covered in a slurry of
finely ground regolith mixed with chemicals that turned it into a ruddy
The result of that myopic and inept planning—the
hallmarks of most politically controlled schemes—was a first Great Transfer of
four hundred and ten hardy malcontents with major attitude problems, and
program cost overruns in the high hundreds of millions of new and hard to come
One hundred E-years after that first Great Transfer,
things settled. The main colony at
Olympia grew. Its population numbered
about five hundred recently arrived squash-bodies. All of them were suffering varying degrees of
shock as they tried to come to grips with the stark realization that the ads
and MC hype had painted a grossly distorted picture of the reality with which
they were confronted. To obtain a return
to Earth permit required prodigious amounts of political pull that none of them
possessed. A contingent of four thousand
native Martians, the Mars-born, rounded out the population at Olympia—along
with three hundred aging squash-body survivors from more recent landings.
The outer settlements and stations, populated by another
three thousand Mars-born and a few hundred of the more experienced, adventurous
squash-bodies, plus those who opted for real pioneer status by setting up
closed farms in the deeps around Long Island in the Hebes Chasma and the far
western plains, brought the total census to just short of nine thousand. That’s when the thing arrived at North Head City.
Two men in stiff military uniforms stood at the edge
of a large pool fenced off from the remainder of a lagoon of subtle
blue-turquoise. The officer was talking
to a man bent down over the water with a wire in his hand while the other, a
member of Space Fleet Marine Guard, stood quietly by.
Dr. Michael Baird connected the wire to a recording
device on the pad, then looked up at the officer, his expression pained and
“Look, General Logan, you —”
It’s Admiral. Vice Admiral Logan,
Space Fleet Command.”
Logan—you have a problem and you want someone to solve it for you. Fine.
I can understand that, and I appreciate your position. But you must also understand that I am not
the person who’s going to do it for you.
My work here is—”
“But I think…I think you
are the one with the problem, Dr. Baird.
I took the liberty of having a few of my men break into and…well…let’s
just say they adjusted your encrypted files.
We have enough—”
“You did what?”
“You heard me.
We have all the information we need on what you’ve been doing here. Things like syphoning funds from your
government approved projects. Using
those funds to feed the trained fish in your aquarium and building playgrounds
for your super-smart monkeys. We have
enough damning evidence to bring you up on charges for fraud and the—What’s the
legalese for it?—oh, yes, misappropriation of government money for private
use. We can put you away for a very long
time, Dr. Baird. And who knows what
might happen to you in prison? Dangerous
places, you know—prisons are. I’ve heard
some tragic stories.”
“They are not trained fish—they’re cetaceans,
intelligent mammals—and it’s not an aquarium.
All of what I’m doing here is connected to the protocol side of the
Alien Contact and Communication Program.
The Cetacean Aquatic Center and Lesser Ape Education Institutes are both
under the umbrella of the grants we have received as intrinsic parts of the
same research project. As for leveling
charges against me, you have no grounds on which to base any charges. I have committed no crimes and I have taken
nothing out of the project funds for personal use. Besides, no one will believe you.”
“Oh, they’ll believe us all right. We have eyeball witnesses—real or fictitious
witnesses is unimportant, you understand—who have already testified to what we
will claim. Furthermore, what we will
charge you with exists in your own files.
We don’t need to bring the people in, or have them appear before a grand
jury under these circumstances. This is
a military program that rests under my jurisdiction. Is that simple enough for you to grasp? And all of your grant money comes directly
from the Department of System Security.
All we have to provide is documentation and identification, all of which
exists in quadruplicate. As I see it, you
have no choice in this matter, Dr. Baird.”
“Wait a minute.
No one ever told me this was a Department of System Security
program. What does the DOSS have to do
with alien contact protocol and this research?”
“A slight misunderstanding, I’m sure.”
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this. Charges?
Prison? Correct me if I’m wrong,
but you represent the World Federated Government’s military wing, right?”
“And, the last time I checked, I was still a civilian
with all my rights intact.”
“Then why are you strong-arming me by inventing crimes
that haven’t been committed and threatening me with what might happen to me in…in
“Dr. Baird, please, listen carefully to what we want
from you one more time, and think about it again—seriously. This is what you have been working for, what
you have been hoping for, and now you have a chance to be the first human being
to communicate with a genuine alien intelligence. Aliens, Dr. Baird, instead of playful fish
and human wannabe monkeys.”
“They’re not fish, they’re—oh, hell. What’s the use? Gen—Admiral, I’m not an astronaut. I don’t want to go into space, and less to
Mars. Significant advances in the
applied techniques to establish first contact communication with alien species
have been made here. We need to continue
that work—without interruption. I can
teach one of your real space people how to employ those techniques and—”
“Obviously you still don’t understand, Dr. Baird. The instant I told you about our…little
problem, you became part of our organization—our program. You are and have been living and working
under the DOSS organization’s protection and support, so to speak, with the
approval and understanding of the Earth Allied Council. The information you now have is critical to
System Security as the Earth Allied Council interprets it and that places you
in a delicate spot. You are considered a
part of—property—of the WFG and operating under the auspices of the DOSS and
EAC. You will not be allowed to return
to your—How can I say this?—business as usual.”
“This is insane.”
“Listen, Dr. Baird.
You will not enjoy the free access to the public you have had until the
situation out there is resolved, if you are given access at all. That will depend to a great extent on how
this all turns out and how much you cooperate.
Do you want to leave such a delicate matter to a mere trainee, instead
of a known expert, such as yourself? I
would hope not. Think of the damage that
could be done by an amateur. Now, is
that a little more clear to you?”
“Yes. But I
have no desire to be a part of your organization or to be associated with the
DOSS in any way, and I sure as hell don’t want to go into space. It is not what I do. I am a researcher, a ground based scientist,
not a space cowboy.”
“Dr. Baird, does the idea of going out there frighten
“Well, I…I—in a word, yes. Yes, it does.
A lot. I don’t even like flying.”
“Yet you do it anyway, correct?”
“Fly, Dr. Baird.”
“Well, yes, but I—”
“Going from here to there is no longer the dangerous
process it once was. People do it every
day. They climb aboard the El for a
pleasant ascent to Station One. Then
they get shuttled to Station Three or Four, depending on whether they are
moon-bound or on their way to Mars or points beyond. We’ve succeeded in getting the Mars voyage
down to just a couple of weeks to no more than a month, depending on the
available window. We have not lost a
passenger in sixty-five years…and the radiation problem was solved thirty years
ago. There is nothing for you to fear.”
“Maybe not, but I still don’t like the idea of—”
“Dr. Baird, we need an answer from you…now.”
“Now? You want
me to make that kind of decision now?”
“Yes. It is
quite possible that we do not have much time on our side. We have no concept of what the aliens’ plans
are nor how or when they intend to implement them. Suppose they represent an existential
threat. Do you want the consequences of
that on your hands?”
“My answer to all of this nonsense is unequivocally,
no. Absolutely not…and that’s final.”
“Suit yourself, Dr. Baird. Gunny, take this man into custody and contact
the ship for transport.”
At the time the thing at North Head City showed up,
the Clan Tamran held first and second chairs in Colony Council. As Science Director and Chief Areologist at
Ascraeus Station, the Council handed over the responsibility of the on-planet
investigation of the thing at North Head City to Tina Tamran. What that meant was that she knew much more
about what was happening out there in the eastern hinterlands than most. A couple of periods later, the World
Astronomical League of the Earth Allied Council, the somewhat retarded and
rattle-brained offspring of the old International Astronomical Union, jammed
its prying nose into her affairs.
Her duties changed overnight from actively studying
the thing at North Head City to maintaining as much control over a complicated
situation as possible, while keeping the recently arrived EAC representative
out of the loop to ensure the Council continued to have the edge in the
investigation. To do that she was to
feed the EAC man only the obvious—nothing more.
Stories edited or fabricated to suit the purpose; meager information
only was to pass to the rep. Nothing
more than a starvation diet of raw data feeds and fractured records were to
find their way into his hands and he was going crazy. Tina Tamran could see that…and she didn’t
care. To say that she felt uncomfortable
with his tagging along wherever she went would be a huge, blatant
understatement of what she really felt.
She was, well, ticked purple and babysitting a fresh squash was not in
her job description.
Tall, thin and pale, as third generation and beyond
Mars-born people tend to be, Tina Tamran moved with feline grace to the inner
door of Ascraeus Station’s Number Five outlock.
In her wake a wider than usual squash-body, whose darkened skin declared
he had been wandering around in the full glare of a too close sun not very long
ago, struggled to keep pace with her long, fluid stride. The squash checked his waggling gate too late
and bounced off the unyielding metal door.
Tamran expertly quashed a laugh that was racing to the surface.
Not even smart enough to know he
needs to compensate for the gravity and the lack of traction. Squashes.
What the hell am I doing here?
“Dr. Tamran, I—”
“Please, Baird, how many times must I tell you? We don’t use titles here. Well, except for the Guard forces,
anyway. It’s socially unacceptable and
rude. If you mean to be polite, call me
Tamran. If you want to be friendly, I’m
just Tina, but I would prefer you use Tamran.
Friends we are not.”
Her interruption would have represented a slap in the
face to any planet-born Martian.
Martians did not interrupt anyone except in rebuke or anger, a nuance
she knew went unnoticed by Baird.
Squashes commonly interfered in the comments of others—a most upsetting
bad habit of which she would break him before he did real damage, or someone
did damage to him elsewhere.
They loaded me down with an
unwashed, ignorant heathen. Why couldn’t
they have figured out some way to keep him at Olympia Station for a few periods
while I came up with a reasonable plan to handle this runt? I’m a scientist, not a politician or a social
Michael Baird, emissary from the Earth Allied Council
and the World Astronomical League, took a deep, cerebral breath. She recognized it by the way his face screwed
up tight and changed color. All newly
arrived squash-bodies did that until they grew accustomed to Martian ways. Ways quite alien to their experience.
In Baird’s case, Martian manners obviously needed
force-feeding. Tamran didn’t have the
luxury of time to deal with his education.
He appeared a bit recalcitrant, as if he didn’t relish the idea of
having his body being transported to Mars in the first place, like a Shanghaied
sailor, but time was short. It wouldn’t
be long before he would be interacting with others much less tolerant than she.
Tina Tamran felt the heat creep up her face. She was burning about the whole business and
he stood there as the only available target.
Baird, she believed, was there to usurp her authority in the
investigation of the thing near the far eastern town of North Head City, and as
any real Martian would, she resented the EAC’s meddling in what she saw as
strictly Martian business.
Baird rolled up on the balls of his feet and obviously
strained his neck to look her in the eye—then gave up. He made a frown…not quite contemptuous. She resented that, too. It was beginning to appear that Baird wouldn’t
make it to the science station by the crater without a few bruises added to his
“It’s starting to look like there are a lot of things
different about you people,” he said.
You people? Why, you little, compressed ass. She avoided backhanding him and smiled—a
“Indeed,” she said.
“I’m compelled to ask…Tamran, if you people are
certain the data you have on this purported structure are good?”
You people again.
Tamran briefly considered throwing him through the
outlock into no-press, and relented—only because it would solve nothing and
create more problems for her and the Martian Colonial Council.
“We may do things differently, but we’re not ignorant
savages, Baird. Info is info, and
science is science. That thing at North
Head City is not a purported
anything. It is a structure, and no one from anywhere we know about put
She hoped her tone would let Baird know he had started
his verbal dance with her out of synch with Martian music.
Their common roots could not be mistaken, though it
continued to be difficult for her to accept that squash-bodies were human,
too. Life on Mars, never easy and always
dangerous, brought about a new social order with different rules and mores, as
well as the more apparent physical changes.
There were also unique political priorities and ambitions that deepened
the rift separating them.
The strain that existed between the Martian Colonial
Council and Earth Allied Council grew with each passing sol and she was certain
it would not require much more time before a general collapse in relations
occurred. None of that helped the
situation of Tamran dealing with Baird, and she wondered if he would recognize
the true extent of the problem. From his
softened expression, and attempt to maintain proper eye contact, she concluded
that the basics were beginning to make a dent.
They’d better be sinking in.
“Please, Tamran, I merely suggest that there may be
some error in the instruments or analyses, perhaps both, that has, for whatever
reason, been overlooked. I didn’t mean
to imply you have done anything wrong, or unprofessional. I include anyone else involved in this as
well. We’re all after the same thing
We are? And what might that be?
He was trying, she had to give him that much, but she
just simply could not ignore Baird staring at her breasts. That was another thing squash-body men—and
women—did when they arrived in the colonies, with no exceptions. That is, until they got used to the full,
firm breasts of Martian women riding at or just above eye level because of the
squash’s hi-grav compressed stature. It
was another of the low gravity induced arrangements that turned into a theme
for a number of squash-body jokes at Martian expense. The Martians devised a few of their own jabs,
in very bad taste, about Earthside floppies (“How did she get that black eye?” The answer, “Jogging.”) that helped even the
score a little.
“No, Baird, absolutely not. We checked everything for any kind of error
or malfunction. We found nothing. All the raw data were screened in every
possible way. Again, nothing. Besides, all you have to do is look at the
thing and you’ll know it wasn’t built by us or anyone else in our
neighborhood. Naturally, we dispatched a
team to the site to run some—”
“You did what?” Baird shouted in a most disagreeable
She hated that.
His interruptions were bad enough, but his manner made things
worse. Particularly when it came from a
squash-body whose whole reason for intruding in their business was to take the
investigation of the thing out there from Council hands, not to mention
“You people were given specific instructions regarding
official contact strategies and you were told plainly not to approach it until
You people. You have a lot of nerve using language like
that, Baird. Especially when you’re
wandering empty handed behind enemy lines. And stop your childish squealing.
“Yes, Baird, and those instructions were followed to
the letter. They haven’t gone any closer
than the top of the crater’s rim. The
perimeter was sealed, too—just as the instructions called for—even though
ordinary people out here aren’t in the habit of going for casual drives in the
country. It’s not good for their
continued good health and life-span.”
Tamran turned to cast a quick glance through a slit
window placed too high for Baird, then, in a show of defiance, she continued
without giving him the Martian courtesy of eyes on.
“The North Head City Express is going to be later than
usual. That duster’s coming our way a
lot faster than predicted. Anyway,
everything our science staff was told to do was strictly passive. Seismic surveillance, spectroscopic analysis,
atmospherics and EMF detection. Nothing
“Why wasn’t I made aware of this before now?”
Tamran kept her hands clasped behind her and her gaze
on the empty Tharsis Mons Spur rail.
“And for what conceivable reason, Baird? Everyone out there is highly qualified and
they’re all cognizant of the WAL’s regulations and protocol on alien contact.”
After a brief silence, she turned to face him and
allowed the hint of a smile to show on her face—a face that could have launched
a thousand ships, if there were an ocean in which to launch them.
“It is my understanding that you are the man
responsible for most of what is in the WAL Accord on Alien Contact, am I right?”
Just the basic fundamentals. I
can’t take credit for authoring it, nor would I want to,” he said. She thought she caught a touch of bitterness
in his voice.
“I can’t say much of it makes any sense to me, but …
but I’m not an expert in such esoteric matters as communicating with
aliens. As for why you weren’t
contacted, the truth is, the first reports from our observers came in about the
time you started down from Deimos and I was advised to hold the information and
fill you in when you arrived here at Ascraeus Station.”
Okay, so it wasn’t the whole truth, but it was enough—for now. Tamran jerked her head toward the window she
had been looking through and her little smile broadened enough to reveal the
long canines the squash-bodies called fangs…even though they weren’t sharp. Well, most of them weren’t. Baird took an instinctive step back. They, the fangs, frightened the
squash-bodies. They reacted to Martian
smiles as if they’d come face to face with a true-to-life vampire. She thought she would smile at him more often.
“It’s a good thing they shuttled you directly to
Ascraeus Station. All air traffic has
been grounded and only the train is running on the surface because of the
duster that’s coming. It’s a long trip
from Olympia on the rail—particularly in a big storm. The Tharsis Mons Spur that runs through the
three montes here meets the express train from Olympia at the station on
Pavonis Mons’ southern slope. Our ride
to Pavonis was supposed to have arrived a little while ago—it’s still nowhere
“You’re saying we have no choice but the train to
North Head City?”
“Yes, Baird, that’s the way it is. There’s too much charged iron and grit flying
around, and it screws up electronic navigation as well as vision and
machinery. Of course, we could wait a
few sols for the dust to settle, if you’d like.”
“No. No, the
train will be fine. I’m anxious to see
this thing you have out there.”
for your briefing on the North Head City dome then?”