Ancient Whispers from Tomorrow by J. Richard Jacobs

EXTRACT FOR
Ancient Whispers from Tomorrow

(J. Richard Jacobs)


Chapter 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 ground.
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 concrete.
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 by E-bucks.
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 taut.
“Look, General Logan, you —”
“Not General. It’s Admiral. Vice Admiral Logan, Space Fleet Command.”
“All right—Admiral 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?”
“That’s right.”
“And, the last time I checked, I was still a civilian with all my rights intact.”
“Right again.”
“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 prison?”
“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 you?”
“Well, I…I—in a word, yes. Yes, it does. A lot. I don’t even like flying.”
“Yet you do it anyway, correct?”
“Do what?”
“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 worker.
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 fragile ego.
“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 little.
“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 it there.”
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. Maybe.
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 here.”
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 tone.
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 replacing her.
“You people were given specific instructions regarding official contact strategies and you were told plainly not to approach it until I arrived.”
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 else.”
“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?”
“Foundationally, yes. 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 in sight.”
“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.”
“Good. Ready for your briefing on the North Head City dome then?”

Ancient Whispers from Tomorrow by J. Richard Jacobs

EXTRACT FOR
Ancient Whispers from Tomorrow

(J. Richard Jacobs)


Chapter 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 ground.
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 concrete.
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 by E-bucks.
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 taut.
“Look, General Logan, you —”
“Not General. It’s Admiral. Vice Admiral Logan, Space Fleet Command.”
“All right—Admiral 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?”
“That’s right.”
“And, the last time I checked, I was still a civilian with all my rights intact.”
“Right again.”
“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 prison?”
“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 you?”
“Well, I…I—in a word, yes. Yes, it does. A lot. I don’t even like flying.”
“Yet you do it anyway, correct?”
“Do what?”
“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 worker.
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 fragile ego.
“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 little.
“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 it there.”
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. Maybe.
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 here.”
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 tone.
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 replacing her.
“You people were given specific instructions regarding official contact strategies and you were told plainly not to approach it until I arrived.”
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 else.”
“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?”
“Foundationally, yes. 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 in sight.”
“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.”
“Good. Ready for your briefing on the North Head City dome then?”

EXTRACT FOR
Ancient Whispers from Tomorrow

(J. Richard Jacobs)


Chapter 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 ground.
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 concrete.
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 by E-bucks.
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 taut.
“Look, General Logan, you —”
“Not General. It’s Admiral. Vice Admiral Logan, Space Fleet Command.”
“All right—Admiral 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?”
“That’s right.”
“And, the last time I checked, I was still a civilian with all my rights intact.”
“Right again.”
“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 prison?”
“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 you?”
“Well, I…I—in a word, yes. Yes, it does. A lot. I don’t even like flying.”
“Yet you do it anyway, correct?”
“Do what?”
“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 worker.
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 fragile ego.
“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 little.
“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 it there.”
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. Maybe.
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 here.”
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 tone.
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 replacing her.
“You people were given specific instructions regarding official contact strategies and you were told plainly not to approach it until I arrived.”
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 else.”
“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?”
“Foundationally, yes. 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 in sight.”
“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.”
“Good. Ready for your briefing on the North Head City dome then?”