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Read Chapters 1 - 10 at: Deep Sky Stories
Chapter 10 (Part 2) - Many Questions To Answer...
Miss Vasquez finally turned and looked at Alex.
"Well", she said with a sigh, "this is definitely a surprise for me, but you couldn't have come here at a better time, Alex. My time here is growing short, I must leave very soon."
"What is this place?" he asked, still looking around in awe.
Teresa Vasquez looked up with a quiet smile at the gemstone sky of the beautiful dome with the central pillar rising up to meet it.
"This", she said with a sweeping gesture of the hand, "is a Martian Environment Biosphere, Alex…and Rainah, of course, is a Martian. She is also someone very, very special." Alex was still finding it difficult to comprehend the entirely unique and alien world that was unfolding before his eyes.
"Why is this place here", he said, “and why is Rainah here....how did she get here?" Teresa Vasquez had a faraway look in her eye for a few moments.
"The why is far more important than the how, Alex", she answered quietly. "Soon, something wonderful and frightful is going to happen." Miss Vee settled herself down on a small pedestal bench and motioned for him to come nearer. He noticed that there were several of the small round benches scattered about the spacious Biosphere Dome. Alex did as she asked and knelt down to look at something she was pointing to on the ground. It was one of the small, shriveled-looking greenish brown plants, growing out from amongst some pebbles which sheltered it as best they could from the harsh Martian environment.
"Did you know, Alex", she began, "that the seed from an ancient plant which would have been growing thousands of years ago can be found perfectly preserved today if it is in a dry and airless environment. Now, if that same seed is taken and planted and carefully nurtured, it will re-awaken after ages of being dormant and begin to grow again. “This is a plant from one such seed", she said with a look of quiet wonder in her eyes.
After a short pause, Teresa Vasquez said, "I am a botanist by profession, Alex." "I study and categorize various plants and search for new ones. I even try to preserve endangered plants by drying and storing their seeds for the benefit of future generations. There are thousands of different breeds of plants growing all over the world, some common mosses or ferns, others that are rare and exotic like orchids. All that vast treasure-trove of diverse plant-life share one common trait: they all originate here on Earth."
Alex could sense that Miss Vee was building up to something now that was far larger, but which had its genesis in the tiny bit of wrinkled greenery that peeked coyly out from among the dry rocks. He was right.
"Thirty years ago, Deep Sky Aerospace Corporation sent robotic Rovers to Mars, in search of signs of life in the past or present, no matter how faint. For some time the search seemed futile and clues of any sort were elusive and uncertain. Then, one day, quite by surprise, a tiny seed that had been dried and preserved beneath the cold Martian sand was uncovered by a Rover while digging for past signs of water. After a few more tests to confirm what it was, the data describing the astonishing find was beamed back to earth.
But then, something odd began to happen to the Rovers: one-by-one, they malfunctioned and ceased communicating back to Earth. The one common factor in all of this was Valles Marineris, the great rift valley on Mars where all the Rovers were operating. It all could just as easily have been explained away as malfunctions, software conflicts or dust-storms which caused them to shut down…except for what the last Rover saw.
It saw a robotic, insect-shaped creature nearby, just before it was destroyed. The jig was up then and the Manned Mars Space Program which was already well under way was accelerated considerably. A small base was soon established in the same region and it didn't take very long to find a group of The Others, as they became known as.
It was an amazing discovery and speculation ran rampant as to whether they were purely robotic or some form of half-biological living machines. They seemed quite friendly toward us at first but didn't communicate much, except when leading us to more of their own kind and asking for our help in repairing and reactivating them. I suppose someone should have figured out that we were being used but the excitement of finding these intelligent creatures was very intoxicating, as you can imagine. “Now here's the kicker, and where your father came into all this, Alex", she said so casually that Alex was caught off guard.
"My father?" he said with a start. So it was true, and Miss Vee finally put into words what Alex had been almost certain of: she did know him! "What was he like?" "Is he still alive?" "Where is my father now?" The questions spilled out one after the next, giving Miss Vee no time to reply.
"Calm down, calm down, please", she laughed, holding her hands up to stop the over-excited boy. Alex finally controlled himself as best he could but now sat tense and wide-eyed, gazing up at the deep blue 'Martian' sky with renewed longing. He felt that another step had just been taken, another clue revealed, he fairly shook with pent-up excitement. A big smile suddenly lit his face as renewed optimism took hold of him.
Alex sat beside old Miss Vee and listened some more while remaining as patient as he could.
"Deep Sky Aerospace needed help exploring Mars because now the pressure was on to explore and discover more unknown mysteries under the Martian sand and D.S.A. just couldn't do it alone.” "Your dad", she went on, "Mr. Brains, Mr. Know-it-all", she chuckled, "he had a brilliant idea - an invention, actually." "He'd made a spaceship of his own, you see, but a completely different kind with a much faster method for reaching Mars. The Time-Space Dimensional-Imbalance and State-Shift Drive, a remarkable breakthrough for space travel. It breaks – “
"It breaks the equilibrium of the four elements of Time and 3-Dimensional Space so that the Time factor "fizzes" or becomes “less dense", Alex interrupted enthusiastically. "The imbalance between Time and Space creates a dimensional vacuum which must be filled in order to regain their natural balance.” “This can only be accomplished by movement through space by the vessel that has created the state-shift or vacuum in Space-Time", he said, reciting from memory the old notes his dad had left hidden in his desk. "It is the uncanny properties of the rare gas, Parathagon which causes the state-shift when it flows through and energizes the state-shift coil.” “When that happens, the Dimensional-Imbalance Initiated Virtual Engine is created and that's what makes the spaceship move through space", he finished with a smile of triumph. Miss Vee stared at Alex, dumbfounded.
"How do you know about that", she finally asked in shock, "that's supposed to be top secret!"
"Oh...I just read a few books here and there", he said with a secretive grin.
"I see", said Miss Vee, eyeing him suspiciously, “there's more of your father in you than I realized...” "Well, as I was saying, he invented this revolutionary technique for traveling to the outer planets and beyond in a mere fraction of the time conventional rockets would take. He even sent an unmanned prototype to Mars.” “It lifted off so fast that it probably made a new crater somewhere, when it landed there”, she added with a laugh.
"The Others, the Flies, were helping John with his concept at that time, but do you think anyone at Deep Sky Aerospace would pay attention? No. The idea and design was too radical and unsafe, they said." "It's a shame but it just all seemed too good to be true for most people to comprehend. Such is the fate of a revolutionary way of thinking. The rest of the world may take a whole generation to finally catch up with him. In a nutshell, Alex, your father didn't give up, he gathered together a group of like-minded people, built a full-scale prototype of his engine and began testing it." To Alex, a lot of puzzle pieces were suddenly falling into place all at once, but the more he learned, the more questions he wanted answered as well.
"What about these Flies", he asked, "What do they want?" Teresa Vasquez let out a small, harsh laugh. "That is the irony in this whole story", she sighed. "People seem to think that to explore the world and now outer space is just some great, thrilling adventure to make new scientific discoveries and to further mankind's progress. There isn't much thought given to the possibility that something nasty, even evil might be found one day. Well, that's what they found and that's what The Others have always been...pure evil, and very cunning and deceitful, I might add."
Miss Vee shuddered unexpectedly in her spacesuit. A quiet beep came over their communicators and she jumped, a little startled. "Good heavens", she gasped, I've been talking so much I completely forgot about my air supply.” “That's my ten minute warning. Come along, Alex and we’ll continue our little chat in more comfortable surroundings." She got up and led Alex toward the glossy white elevator pillar which rose tall and slender to the high, domed ceiling and, apparently, sank below the surface of the Biosphere as well.
Walking now, directly into the center of this truly strange bubble of an artificial world beneath the ground, Alex finally had time to comprehend what a remarkable feat it must have been to build such a thing. A tingle of awe and wonder overcame him as he gazed up at the high, blue-lit, glowing cathedral ceiling arching over a vast, round area of sand and rocks. The artificial desert plain stretched out in all radii, from the central pillar to the near-distant, surrounding horizon-wall. As he approached the open doorway to the large elevator tube, Alex noticed one more interesting aspect of the little world he was in. Radiating outward, like huge spokes, from the central pillar were six well-worn foot-paths in the ground which fanned out to the horizon-wall and ended at circular doors identical to the one he and his friends had entered by. An educated guess meant that there were six more on the opposite side of the pillar, making twelve altogether. Who knew where those tunnels lead on the other side of each of those eleven new doors.
"Would you like to see something fantastic, Alex", Miss Vee said unexpectedly, breaking the spellbound distractions that the spacious dome offered everywhere he looked.
"Uh, sure...", he answered, not sure what could possibly be more amazing than what he was witnessing just then. They stepped into the elevator and when Miss Vee slid the door closed, something remarkable happened: the entire elevator and the tube it was in became invisible except for the round floor they stood on and an inner handrail which looped around them. Alex gasped as another breathtaking event happened: the elevator began to rise instead of sink as he had expected it to. And as it smoothly rose into the air, they began slowly turning in a spiraling, corkscrew motion as well. The effect was dizzying and spine-tingling all at once as Alex stared and stared with renewed wonder yet again.
"How can this be", he whispered as the turning ground fell quietly away below and now the overarching dome drew closer and closer. Alex looked up briefly but had to look away as the ceiling appeared to spin above him like a monstrous pinwheel. He clutched the handrail then as a fit of vertigo made him feel dizzy and lightheaded for a moment. The view quickly became more and more beautiful though as the unearthly ground fell away and Alex was able to see, like a bird flying overhead, what the small patch of "Mars" really looked like.
What he began to see then made him whistle with surprise, for the ground, from above, was not all desert and rock as he had at first believed. The twelve paths did lead to twelve round doors, that was true, but between each path, the long, narrow slices of pie that were the divided sections of Martian ground gradually changed in color. First there was the section of ground that he had walked on when he first entered the dome; it was the typical tanned desert sand color, but that soon began to change.
As he slowly spiraled upward, Alex saw that the next section was slightly greener than the first, and the section beside that one, even greener still. The rocky ground began to look like an odd, gigantic pizza pie with ever more and more green toppings on it as it went round. What is it that she’s growing in here, he thought with delicious curiosity, for it was obvious that the tiny, wrinkled dot of a plant that Miss Vee first had showed him was what was now growing in more and more abundance on each consecutive sector of ground beneath the huge, glowing dome.
"There, that's better", said Miss Vee beside him and Alex looked up to see that she had just removed her helmet and was shaking out her curly gray hair. "Don't worry, Alex, the air in the tube is quite normal, it acts like an airlock when we're inside it. Look, see." Miss Vee pointed down at the elevator floor which looked like the top of a large pepper shaker with hundreds of tiny holes. "The fresh air is pumped inside here after the door is closed so we can just step out when we get to the bottom without all this heavy stuff on." Alex decided to take a deep breath before taking his helmet off, just in case. He closed his eyes then carefully popped it off. Sure enough, he felt a cool breeze of air blowing up in his face from the floor holes and was able to breathe without any difficulty.
The elevator finally reached the top of the dome and stopped just short of the ceiling. It was a rather uncomfortable feeling to be floating two hundred feet above the ground without any visible means of support except for a floating round floor with a thin, circular handrail. It was the first thing Alex asked Miss Vee about, hoping she could give him some better reassurance that they weren't going to fall at any moment. In answer to this, Miss Vee reached over to an up-and-down button control panel and pushed a separate button which was white in color. Gradually, the white elevator walls materialized around them again, much to his relief.
"Sorry I frightened you with the Nano-Glass Tube, Alex, I'm so used to seeing everything around me in that way that I forgot how scary it can be to see everything vanish for the first time. The elevator is still around us, of course, it's just that the structure of the molecules in the tube can be altered slightly, from opaque to clear plastic. It's not a very complicated process but the effect is quite magical when you actually experience it."
Hesitantly, Alex reached out for the console and pushed a second, clear plastic button beside the white one and sure enough, the walls around him vanished again. But now that he knew what to expect, the moment of fright passed quickly and Alex started to enjoy the feeling of wide open freedom that the glass-clear tube wall provided.
Now that he was getting more comfortable with his surroundings, Alex noticed another detail about the great circle of the horizon-wall that now lay far below him. At each quarter section of the circle, there was a single colored light that winked off and on. Each of the four lights was fixed above one of the circular doors that ran in ninety-degree intervals around the dome, and each light had a different color: red, green, yellow and blue. The blinking blue light was, at that moment, directly ahead and below them. Looking down at the floor, Alex noticed that a corresponding blue light was also quietly winking up at him. Miss Vee noticed where he was looking and said, "We're in the middle of a giant compass, Alex, and that way is pointing directly north. The red light to our left is for west, the yellow light over there is for east and the green light, behind us is pointing south, of course." "The lights help us keep our bearings since we're underground and so I know which tunnel to take to different places beyond the greenhouse", she said.
Alex puzzled over this; if all the tunnels led to somewhere above the ground, then there must be at least eleven more entrance tunnels hidden either in his scrapyard or somewhere else. Who knew for how far or how deep those tunnels went through the ground. Miss Vee seemed to read his thoughts when she said, "These tunnels have a quality about them which I have never truly understood, Alex, yet there are gates which can be opened and pathways to travel through them…and if one is careful…well, I don’t have time for them anymore. Where you can go in them though is, perhaps something you’ll discover for yourself someday. Suffice it to say that there are new places I’ve traveled to and people that I have met… but, I’m too old for that now and besides, I have my garden here and that’s what is most important to me now. Every day can be an adventure in its own fashion, if you want it to be, my dear.”
"Every day is a day of school for me", he grumbled, "it was great having Rainah there today though. Where is she now, anyway?" Miss Vee kept smiling but there was a new look in her eyes, a soft, pitying look that was difficult to measure. Alex missed it though.
"We'll be seeing her soon", she said quietly. The elevator started to slowly descend just then and Miss Vee said with a happier tone, "Do you know what we're really trying to do here, Alex? We're trying to prepare for the day, quite soon, when Mars will wake from a very long sleep. The Mars that we all know about today is not the Mars that used to be. Do you know what an ellipse is, Alex", she asked unexpectedly.
"Sure, it's just a circle that has been stretched like an elastic", he answered simply.
"Exactly", she said, "all the planets orbit the sun in an elliptical manner of some sort. Mars, however, has a more obvious bulge in its orbit which is why its winter season is so extremely cold. Mars today is similar to Earth in some respects: Mars is a rocky planet like earth, although it is so cold today that any water it has is in the form of frozen ice-caps at the Polar Regions or slow-moving rivelets under its surface. It has days that are about twenty four hours long, but its year is a much longer six hundred eighty six days, which would mean that any being living there would grow up having fewer birthdays than you or I would, Alex. Mars is even tilted twenty five degrees on its axis, much the same way that Earth is, so Mars can have seasons too. It also has an atmosphere, though a thinner one at this time.
The drastic differences between Earth and Mars are that Mars is as cold as Antarctica. It is about half the size of Earth so it has less gravity; it is further away from the sun and its orbit is more elliptical as I said before. If you study Mars a little more, you'll notice that there even used to be liquid water flowing over it which eroded much of the great valley named Valles Marineris, the largest one in our solar system, I might add.
Now suppose...just suppose that Mars has one more very striking difference which makes it, by far, the most unique planet in our solar system. Suppose that, unlike earth, it periodically goes through long periods of time between orbits that are normal, then abnormal and back again. The two different orbits would also have a drastic effect on the planet’s environment, don’t you think." Alex pondered this new information as the Martian ground came slowly back up to meet him. How could a planet change its orbit? It seemed impossible and against Newton’s Laws of Motion. Unless... The elevator finally spiraled down to the floor of the biosphere and came to rest with a quiet thump. Miss Vee's voice then took on a dream-like tone as she again reached for the control console set in the wall.
"Imagine if you will a cold, Earth-sized wandering planet that drifts for billions of miles, far from the sun, into the dark, lonely depths of the Milky-way Galaxy. It may travel further than any of our least known comets but is still held weakly by the sun's far-reaching gravity. It may travel as far as a planet possibly could into the endless reaches of the cosmos, in an elliptical orbit that takes thousands of years to complete. But it has to come back someday, right."
She flipped a switch and Alex watched, awe-struck as the glowing Biosphere dome overhead, gradually darkened till it became as pitch black as a tomb. Suddenly a star winked on kindly above them, breaking the absolute darkness with a soft candle glow, then there appeared another and another. Alex gazed round and round in wonder unwilling to blink so he wouldn't miss a single instant of it all. Tiny, bright-tailed comets soon flashed overhead as well and falling stars streaked passed then died with only a few seconds life-span as they burned up high in the atmosphere. The surrounding wall of the greenhouse dome now became a horizon at night, and all around them the huge dome was transformed into a quietly twinkling, majestic planetarium!
Ingenious laser lights, mounted on the pillar itself and on the circular pedestal around it accurately projected each star and other heavenly body and simulated their slow, parade through the black domain of space.
"This is one of your father's more artistic achievements", Miss Vee said in the softly glowing twilight. "It breaks the monotony of that continuous deep blue Martian sky, plus it helps us keep track of our unexpected visitor. Now watch."
Another control was activated and the inner solar system of planets was projected above them, crawling round in their separate orbits around a fiercely burning sun. A small dial on the control console showed a chronology of hours and minutes ticking steadily by in an indication of real time. Miss Vee touched her finger on a digital sliding speed control, then moved a little pointer from a mid-point on the slider toward a ‘+’ sign which allowed time to speed up on the dome above. The effect was most startling indeed. The numbers on the chronometer ticked around much faster than usual, indicating that time was leaving the present and racing ahead into the future. The planets began to spin like a giant child’s toy tops and looped around in their orbits as if they were on a cosmic racetrack!
Little swift Mercury, named after the Greek messenger god, was the closest planet to the sun and was forever the fastest of all the solar worlds. Venus, the goddess planet of love was next. A cloud-shrouded globe of trapped, super-heated greenhouse gases and acid oceans, she was always running in second place in the race around the sun. Mother Earth, the cradle of all known life in their planetary realm, was a contented third place runner, and of all the inner circling worlds, Mars, the god of war, was the weirdest in its orbital travels.
Being the slowest of the three other rocky worlds, it also swung the farthest out from the sun in a much wider arc at one end of its orbit. This unusual arc happened during the winter months on Mars and caused an extreme drop in surface temperatures as well as some of the worst storms in the solar system. The four inner worlds continued their accelerated travels for a few more of their years around the sun in the same manner, with the little numbers of the chronometer ticking over in quick-time to keep up with them.
Then, without warning, something very odd and frightening happened. A dark object flashed downward, passing directly in front of Mars in the blink of an eye! The mysterious object flew by at a very sharp angle to the normal ecliptic or horizontal orbits that the other planets followed. Whatever it was flew within Mars’ orbit and passed so close to the red planet that it made Alex yell with fright to see it. For an instant, he feared a collision would surely happen. Mars itself even wobbled slightly as the dark planetoid passed by but then continued on in its usual journey around the sun.
Gradually though, over a period of roughly two more orbits, the normal elliptical or pear shaped path of Mars underwent a significant transformation, to that of a nearly perfect circle. Alex gazed up in wonder at the cosmic trick of nature that had just occurred before him, then looked over at Miss Vee for an explanation.
"Would you like to see that again, Alex", she said with that old mischievous twinkle in her eye.
"Oh…sure", he answered rather awkwardly. Teresa Vasquez again touched a different console control, this one having arrow indicators that pointed to the left and right (backward and forward). She slid the pointer on the slide control to the backward position and the planetarium display began running in reverse. Then she slowed everything down with the variable-speed slider control and Alex waited to see...whatever it was. Sure enough, as Mars came back around in reverse, the dark sphere of an unknown, larger planet intersected its orbit, floating in front of Mars at nearly a ninety degree angle. Miss Vee touched a stop button and the heavenly display above them froze with the new planet completely eclipsing Mars from view. She took a step back in the transparent elevator tube and let out a sigh of amazement.
"I've seen this happen countless times over the years and it still takes my breath away", she said with a quiet smile. "Yes, it's another planet, Alex", she said in response to his unspoken question. "It's what you could call a "Planet X", for lack of a proper name. There is no name for it yet because no one else knows it’s coming…yet. Our newcomer performs a single orbital cycle around the sun only once in roughly ten thousand of our years. What is even more remarkable is that it intersects Mars at this precise instant and position, without fail at each ten thousand year interval. We've been tracking Planet X for the last twenty years, with each observation only confirming our suspicions with greater accuracy.” “Within the next five Earth years", Miss Vee said with a tone of wonder, "the impossible is going to happen on Mars: climate change! Mars will start to become a warmer planet, and all because of a near-miss event with the new Earth-sized planet that is approaching.”
Next: Chapter 11 (Part 1) - Unpleasant Discoveries
As of 2017-04-17, Chapter 10 - (Part 2) is at: DeepSkyStories.com