He could still feel them inside him, oscillating through every muscle in his body. His insides were in constant flux. His tendons vibrating. Each organ screaming to be let out. He felt sick, but was no longer sure how to vomit. His insides were burning, yet cold and distinct. Everything was in turmoil, but his skin felt numb and inflamed. A memory coalesced in his mind.
He was cycling along a dusty track. A mountain pass. The sky was a deep ice blue untarnished by clouds and around him towered great pine trees with claw-like branches and spindle trunks. He was going fast. Others were with him. His old bike bouncing and shuddering over the uneven ground. Little stones clicked off the mudguard. A woodpecker dug for grubs. His hands were numb, clinging to the hard rubber of the handles. Holding on tight. His legs ached, his chest was leaden. His bike beneath him was a wild animal, trying to tear itself from his grasp.
He clenched his fists and felt the straps across his biceps as his arms tensed. The memory faded. The room around him fluttered and wavered before his eyes, as if he were looking up through an inch of clear water. Everything looked so temporary. The ceiling above him, pale silver crossed we dark black lines, danced before his eyes. He needed to be away from here, somewhere solid, somewhere safe. He needed trees; birds; people.
“Desert is a peculiar concept.” The voice came from his right shoulder, deep and monotone as if from an AM radio. He tried to turn to see its source, but the straps held his shoulders and when he moved his neck his vision swam further away from the surface and the world dissolved into an unfocused cloud of colour.
“It’s from the Latin desertum, literally meaning a thing that’s been abandoned. Not just a place devoid of people, but a place chosen to be left behind. Nature abhors a vacuum, but people can’t handle a nature untouched by themselves, and something being called a desert gives us the feeling of control over it. It’s not a place that doesn’t want us, it’s a place that we don’t want.”
The voice stopped and a shadow loomed into his vision. A face growing within the darkness, letting it take shape into familiar features. He knew that face. Those dancing, gleaming eyes.
“It’s the only reason we are here, you know? Because we can’t bear to think of our solar system being eternally lifeless apart from our one little planet. What does it really matter if this planet had once been infested by life? What difference would it really make to us?
“Some people have said it would satisfy our desire not to be alone in the universe, but it wouldn’t. We’d still be alone, but it would draw a line between life and the universe and put life in the driving seat. If aliens abandoned Mars, then they had control over it like we have control over our own deserts.
“Everything is about control, Hibbard. Every action we take is to thrust our will on the universe. It’s the point of us, it’s the point of life, and when we lose that control, we lose the point of our existence. If we become caged by walls or our own mind…”
He felt a sharp pin prick in his arm and the voice dispersed into the room. His back floated down through his mattress as the waves of the ceiling rippled into obscurity. The bike shuddered beneath him and the birds called to each other high up in the pine trees. Then they too fell silent.
The weak Martian light only filtered a few metres into the tunnel and it was not long until Dancer and Portillo could see only by their helmets’ LED torch. The gradient of the rock floor was gentle, but steep enough to slow them down. The confined space and limited head room made the loping stride they’d used on the plains impossible, and instead they walked with their hands scrabbling along the roof of the tunnel like monkeys swinging their way through a jungle canopy.
Portillo stopped every hundred metres and examined the rock walls, sometimes taking his chisel from his belt to collect another sample, other times simply running his hand along an exposed strata with the care of a blind man reading Braille. He could feel Dancer standing behind him. Looking over his shoulder. She never said a word, but her impatience pressed into his back.
It was not excitement or even curiosity that kept him stopping, it was the sense that as a geologist that is what he should be doing. As his unfeeling fingers traced the ancient lines of Mars, he hoped they would conjure up the same trembling feeling he had had when he had first got that call telling him Travis was not fit to fly. This was the culmination of his life’s work, this was the pinnacle of everything he had ever done, and yet it was like he was not really there. He felt like he was watching some other faceless explorer trudging down this tunnel into the belly of the mountain.
“Portillo, stop, what is that?” Dancer’s tone was hushed with excitement. Portillo scanned the tunnel before him with disinterested eyes for a sign of what she had seen. The tunnel continued its leisurely path for another six or so metres, but then, to their right was a shadow, darker than the ill lit rock around it. He looked at the formless shape for a moment, and then started to take small steps towards it, holding the rope tethered at his belt. As he drew closer, he could make out a jagged edge in the tunnel’s wall. The ground around it looked scraped and cut up, like the entrance to an animal’s burrow.
“It looks like a rock fall has opened up a gap into a cavern beyond.” he said as they edged still closer. “ I can’t see anything through it, the space beyond must be massive”
“It must be where Curiosity fell. You know what this means, Portillo? They must be in there. The Giant’s must be just beyond that hole.” He felt Dancer press against his back as she tried to look beyond him into the darkness. He could feel her body vibrating against him and her gloved hand pressed against his hip, urging him on. “This is it, Portillo. This is the moment.”
They crept closer to the edge until Portillo could put his hand on the corner of the rough rock wall. The tunnel carried on before them, deeper under the mountain, but there was an enormous space through the hole. Their torches groped for edges in the darkness and found none.
He stepped a little closer and looked down. The floor disappeared below him, a corrugated wall of rock dropped down to a floor about twenty metres below. At the bottom he saw a glint of metal amongst a dark black shape. It took him a moment to realise it was the battered carcase of Curiosity. It’s last resting place, the spot from which it had sent it’s final image. The Image of the Sharp Giants. He took another step closer and felt Dancer’s hand grip his shoulder.
“Let me put a fresh piton down.” said Dancer behind him. He heard a clunk as Dancer drove a new piton into the bedrock with her cylinder. The rope at his waist tugged a little as she attached it to the new steel bolt and tested it was secure. “I’ll stay up here until you reach the bottom.”
“I can see her.” Said Portillo, surprised at how his voice crackled in his throat. He could feel his senses waking up as a tiny knot of anticipation grew in his stomach. “I can see Curiosity. She’s down there.”
“Then let’s go say hello. I’ll see you down there. Good luck.”
He found the descent easy enough. He had sat down, dangling his legs over the edge of the subterranean cliff, before twisting himself round onto his stomach and lowering his weight onto the taut rope. It was then just a matter of walking down the strange undulating wall, using his hands to steady himself on the static vertical waves of rock.
“What can you see?” Said Dancer as soon as his feet touched the smooth bottom. He looked around, the light of his helmet sweeping over the small rocks that were littered across a floor of a darker harder stone.
“I think we’ve gone below the sedimentary layer. It looks like the floor is a type of igneous rock, most probably basalt. There is a lot of loose rocks too, the same type as the tunnel, presumably the debris from the collapse that opened up the hole into this chamber. Give me a moment.”
Amongst the stones were chunks of twisted metal and a large tire. Portillo stared at the black rubber. The tire lay casually against a large striped piece of rock like it had been discarded on a motorway siding rather than a distant planet. It looked so out of place that Portillo felt an unexpected wave of amusement sweep into him. He smiled. It was a piece of humanity. A small piece of home.
He cast around the floor for the rest of Curiosity. Most of her was a few metres from the edge of the wall, crumpled in a heap. Dancer said something to him, but he ignored her, and approached the smashed wreckage of the old rover. Her wheels, or at least the ones still connected to her body, were splayed out like the limbs of a squashed insect and her thermoelectric generator was smashed and lay separated away from the rest of her body.
Portillo knelt down before the dead rover and stroked a hand along one of her flanks in a way he had seen Dancer do many times before to Bertha. He’d never really understood why, until now. There was something about seeing this machine, this man made explorer, in such a battered state. He had spent years of his life studying the images and spectrographic data that Curiosity had sent back to Earth. He had spent hours of his life anticipating the next transmission or excitedly watching the data appear before him. It was this machine that had affected his life beyond anything else and here it was now, damaged beyond repair.
“It’s okay girl, we’re here now. We’ve come for you.” The words came out without him thinking and he patted her again, looking up towards her mast camera, miraculously still attached to her body. The single eye was looking back over his shoulder, with a wistful air of a dying relative full of regrets. It took him a full minute to realise what the camera was looking at. It couldn’t have moved since it had taken its final image.
Portillo stood up, keeping his eyes down on the floor as he turned around. He felt a tingle run down his spine and took a deep breath. Then, with the speed of a hydraulic lift, he raised his head, letting his helmet’s light beam swing slowly up into the centre of the cavern.
“Dancer. I can see it.”
“No, Dancer. I can see it.”
Before him, squatted on four trunk thick legs, was a Sharp Giant. There was no doubt what it was. No natural process could mould rock like this. It had been worked; built; stylized.
The statue stood about six metres high, a long cylindrical creature with four broad legs and two outstretched arms that ended in what looked like three fingered claws. At the rear, the body seemed to curl up around itself like the swirl of a snails shell, but Portillo could not see it properly beyond the bulk of its squatting torso.
Its legs spread out from the side of it’s body and were bent almost at right angles, but more acute, as if holding up the weight of it’s body was getting too much for them after their million year wait. Its body was smooth, with a blue tinge that did not look natural. Portillo guessed it must have been dyed or painted, but that was not what held his attention and caused his heart to beat ten times faster. It had a face.
Two dark round eyes looked directly forward from the end of its body, looking straight at him, and below them was a wide gaping mouth. With its arms up and eyes focused on him, Portillo felt like the Giant was about to pounce, as if time had been frozen just as the looming monster was about to jump and devour him. Its mouth though, rather than having rows of fangs waiting to tear into his tiny body, was filled with thin wispy branches, like hairs made of stone.
“What’s it like? Is it a natural formation?” Asked Dancer, sounding breathless as she made her own descent to the cavern’s floor.
“It’s not natural. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before, a bit like those pictures of sea monsters you get in old fantasy stories. A little like a lobster, but without pincers and with a large, strange mouth and legs as thick as an elephants. I can’t even tell you what it is made out of yet. I can’t… it’s incredible.”
Story continued in Part 9