"Well," Randle Higgins considered, running for his life, "those scientists and theorist all wanted to find--life, didn't they? Dumb bastards. Well, I found some." The face shield of his helmet was fogging up. I should quit talking out loud, he thought, but the sound of his own voice helped his urgency. "They're great at formulating 'maybes' unless it's their butt on the line, and it never is, is it?"
"Cripes!" He stumbled again. "Sonofabitch'," he swore, when the pain hit his brain. It hurt worse this time. His ankle was going to swell for sure. The surface footing was unpredictable. You planted a foot in that crappy red talc-sand and their always seemed to be a rounded stone beneath it causing your ankle to twist or your knee to buckle beneath you.
Turning to see behind him again, Randle was out-running the flying menace and knew why. The atmosphere was so thin, here, they couldn't fly as fast as some winged thing on earth. Still, they were much too close for his comfort.
The ship was in sight now, coming up over the canyon's rounded edge, red dust billowing on and around it. Dust devils swirled upward behind it, out on the smooth plain. "Boy does that look good," he wanted to shout, but kept it to a low mumble. They had lost communications since he'd gone into the canyon.
Activating his voice mic', Randle raised his vocals to Commander Mary Stiles, the officer in charge, hoping she was on line. Things were pretty casual between them.
"Mary! Open the outer hatch. Hey! Hurry. I need you right now. I'm being pursued and they aren't friendly. Open the outer hatch and grab the weapons from storage."
He knew she heard him. The hatch crept open and she was waiting for him inside. Moments later, as he jumped the five feet up off the surface and onto the platform, hurrying into the cabinet-like structure of the glass hatch, big enough for one person only and an EVA suit, he felt a great sense of relief to be home and safe. He hoped.
Thank Betsy Ross for these lighter materials, he told himself. With the lower gravity, he had a heck of a lot more power on Mars than on earth and with enough nimbleness to take advantage of it. The suits had been a new innovation on this trip. They were much thinner and body hugging. Way lighter, too. But Mary looked worried inside the module.
He quickly shut the outer door, waited for pressurization, and cracked open the inner hatch, quick-releasing his helmet.
"What is it? Life?" she demanded, now. "Those big butterflies you saw yesterday?" handing him a bead rifle.
"Yeah! But they're Martians," he explained, panting with excitement, and upon saying that, she went around him to look through the window. "They're human-like, intelligent beings, I tell ya," he continued. "Mostly machine, I think, and they have these wings that fold away in their backs. But they want to keep us. They think we're interesting. I got the distinct impression they wanted to put us on a table and cut us to pieces, or study us enough to make us part of their race, or just plain torture us. I'm not sure, but it didn't sound very nice, from what I could gather. That translator gadget skips over some things. It's good the engineers pushed to incorporate the translator into our computers, it helped, for sure. I'd be dead without it. Here they come."
They fluttered up near the Lander, twenty or so of them, their wings storing immediately into their backs, like insects. Soon they began looking the white landing module over, staring at the two inside with menacing looks, from time to time. They could see them all right.
"If they're mostly machines, how can they fly with those plastic fairy wings? There's not enough atmosphere out there to lift anything heavy."
"There must be enough. Not for us, no, but they can. Their bodies have to be constructed out of very light materials, however they're made. From what they told me, when their big moon left, the one they say that used to orbit Mars, and started loosing their magnetic field, the oceans started drying up, so they knew they had to adapt or die. They went underground and began experimenting with things that could help them survive."
"I found an entrance to one of their cavern systems, a small house-like front next to the canyon's bottom that led into the mountain above it. They have these weird six foot long caterpillar things they herd around for meat, outside. They take them back indoors at night. I have no idea what those things survive on, minerals, probably, but they were all over the place. The Martians met me at the entrance and escorted me inside, drilling me about this and that while I exchanged questions their way, too.
"Those women scared the hell out of me, though, with all their talk of how they differed from us. From what they say, they were human, once, just like us, and according to them they colonized earth. Wild idea, huh?"
Mary was dumbstruck. She kept looking through the windows of the module's hatch and back at him, trying to take it all in. It was a wild tale. The two inside could see them well enough on the big screen, behind them, but preferred the impact glass of the two door hatch.
They could see the Martians were curious, too, wondering what each little outer instrument was for, apparently, as they stood poking each other, outside, talking and pointing amongst themselves.
Randle and she could even hear them speaking. It sounded pleasant, like women at one of her mother's tea parties, Mary thought; Even though she half expected to hear deep throaty, baritone voices, or even base sounds from outside in all that carbon dioxide, but they seemed as normal as any voice on earth, but muffled, of course.
Observing them further, she asked, "Why are their only women?"
"I don't know. That's all I saw. Maybe there aren't that many men, or it's a matriarchal society."
"Hey! One of em's got a bow. She's pointing it at the window. Get away from the glass."
They both stood away from the hatch but kept looking--half way.
"Where'd they get wood for a bow?" the commander wanted to know.
"You can make a bow out of any kind of springy material, like pvc and metal."
"Duh! You're right," Mary said, but soon after, a dangerously loud whack collided with the outer hatches window and they both swore. It left a mark.
They heard a shout out almost immediately, almost as if it were an order from someone in charge.
"That bitch," the commander said, looking at the scratch in the window, trying to see outside. "She does that, again and I'm going out there and kick her fairy-winged ass."
"I wouldn't recommend doing that," Randle said. "That arrow sounded like it could go right through anything we've got. A suit of armor isn't on the inventory, is it?"
"I'm not going to give them another chance to mess up this ship. Get on the horn and let the orbiter know we're changing locations, and fire this thing up. There can't be that many of them out there. We're moving. We've still got a lot to do on this rock."
Just then a shadow appeared over the hatch and a dark woman appeared in front of the synthetic glass. She was striking as she stared in at them, as if demanding they explain themselves and come out of the safety of their craft.
Huh! Not likely, Mary thought.
Randle thought she was beautiful but Mary apparently didn't share his sentiment as he prepared the craft for flight.
"I'm checking to see if any area-disinfectant is still in the reservoir overhead?" Mary was saying, explaining to her shipmate what was going on as he readied the Lander for take off. "That stuff will probably sting the shit out of her if she has any real skin left. I want her off this can of ours," and then, elated, she said, "Hey, good. Over a liter."
Mary punched a button and a time released spray ejected out of the top of the craft. It came down in a mist all over the landing module and the nearby area. They could hear screams. Apparently the woman at the hatch wasn't the only one climbing all over their ship like an ant, but like ants under a magnifying glass, they soon ran for it.
"Ha, haaa..." Mary exclaimed, laughing cruelly as she watched them scatter.
"You got us ready to go, Higgins?"
"Then punch it. I want to get a hundred kilometers away from here."
"Piece of cake."
Randle took them up and slanted the Lander north east, while the Martians went tumbling off into their sand and rock from the force of their engines. It was funny, she thought.
As he thought about it, though, watching the gages and the laid out life forms on screen, Randle concluded; Yup! Scientific theorist were assholes, weren't they? They got almost everything backward and completely wrong.
"You what?" Huston wanted to know. "You left them behind?" They were incredulous. There was no longer a signal delay of twenty minutes anymore between Earth and Mars. Communications were almost instantaneous these days.
"Did you not hear that I said, they wanted to kill us," Mary Stiles tried to reason with those slow witted clowns back on earth. "Dissect us on a table. They started to fool around with the Lander, too, and actually attacked this ship. Think, for goodness sakes. Just what did you expect us to do, go out and shoot them?"
"We expect you to reestablish communications with them, Stiles. For god's sakes, commander, you've discovered life on Mars. Advanced life, and no matter what they tried to do, you've got the find out more about them. That's an order. Make something happen. Do what you have to do and somehow find a way to communicate."
"Well we're not going back there for a while. We're a hundred and forty clicks away from them now and having arrows shot at us is not what we're about. You want to send some cowboys up here in armor, then that's what you better get started on 'cause we're not going back. They-wanted-to-kill-us. Is that getting though to you?"
With that, Stiles flipped off the com' with those heads up their posteriors clowns back on comfy old earth.
"I'm in agreement with you, Mary. I don't think we're going to establish any rappor with those Martians. They don't want to be friendly, okay. We can continue to live with that. We're too far from home and too vulnerable to get into even a minor skirmish. The hell with home and the Martians both. Lets do what we came here to do and say audios to this rock.
Stiles was thoughtful. She knew her time at NASA was over. This was a career ender but better that than her life ending. Screw 'em.
"Thanks Randle. We better get ready to plant those Ice plants and sprinkle some lichens spores around on that rock formation out there. It's my turn, isn't it?"
"Yeah. It still looks like a nice day outside. It's calmer here than at the other location. You should have a good EVA experience."
Mary put on her gloves and tried to perk up. She loved flying and working in space. But she'd finish this one mission with style and committed herself to do her absolute best until it was complete.
She set out the trays of ice plants, readying them for transplant, pulling the trays from the climate controlled drawers and putting them on the floor. Randle helped. She slipped on her helmet, did an internal check and then he did his safety check. Everything was good and she was out the door and into the sunlight.
The spot they had chosen for planting the ice plant was as ideal as they could find. Decades ago, some university researched what if any plant life were to take hold on Mars, what would it be and came up with several varieties of ice plant.
In the U.S., Canada, and especially Mexico, most people used it as a decorative ground cover but because it stored its own water so well, better than cactus, even, and was so resistant to extremes, if was the ideal plant for this experiment, was the theory, and so the attempt at adding ground cover and the beginnings of an oxygen atmosphere were chosen. If it could withstand the damaging rays of the sun and survive beneath the weak magnetic field, here, it could be a real game changer with a bigger percentage of more oxygen and a warmer temperatures, in a hundred years, or so. They and the lichens both were growing in Antarctica, so it just might work on Mars. With all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, they should do well--in theory -- if they could manage the weather.
Mary was working hard out there, preparing the soil, planting the adult plants when she noticed movement out of the corner of her eye. She turned her head and gasped, briefly.
Randle heard and said, "What is it, Mary?"
"More of them?"
"It's just one. She seems a bit shy."
"Don't approach her."
"I'm not but I'm standing up. I want to be ready to run if I have to. She's waving."
"Wave back. Stay friendly. I'm looking at her and you both, now, with the binoculars. She does seem a bit hesitant."
"I'm turning on my translator program. I'm going to walk towards her."
"Yeah. Go ahead. I'm watching you. But be careful. I've got my helmet on and I'll come right out with a rifle if there's a problem."
"Okay. Don't scare her away, though. She looks awfully peaceful to me and there's just this one."
"I'll stay put unless you need me."