Entering short story writing contests is a great way for fiction writers to get started. As well as being the first short story I actually ever completed, The Magic of Mars is also my only Science Fiction piece. I wrote this just before I got started on FireDrakes and eventually submitted it to the Hidden Talents Short Story Contest. To my surprise, it won an Honourable Mention and was published in the 2005 anthology. As you can tell by the title, however, my heart was really into writing Fantasy.
The Magic Of Mars
What had she gotten herself into? At fifty-two, Felix was two decades past the company’s age limit for an off-world contract. She should be planning her retirement, not hurtling through space exposing herself to solar radiation and who knows what else, but for an opportunity to study evidence of an ancient civilization on Mars, she would have done just about anything. It would be the crowning jewel to an already stellar career.
The company had demonstrated such great faith in her abilities; even Felix had been convinced she was the only one for the job. Six months in space however, with little to do but think, had taken its toll on that conviction. Anxiety had nestled into the pit of her stomach ever since making Mars orbit. Transferring from the interplanetary transport, to one of the two small moons aboard a service pod wasn’t helping matters. The confines of the two-person craft bordered on claustrophobic.
To distract herself, Felix contemplated what real gravity would feel like after six months of artificial gravity onboard the transport. Then the tiny pod came to an abrupt, teeth chattering, stop. She tried to release the latch on her shoulder harness, but her gloves were too thick to allow for a decent grip. Just one more frustration to eat away at her already enervated confidence. The pilot’s voice crackled over the comm, “Sorry about the rough landing Ms Jones, haven’t done this before.”
Felix ceased her struggle with the latch. Well, I suppose it’s a good thing he didn’t mention that before we left. “I had assumed you did this all the time.”
The pilot turned his seat around. He looked far too young for such responsibility. Felix offered up a grateful smile in anticipation of much needed assistance with the harness. It was not forthcoming. The smirk on his face was plain to see even through the glare on his bubbled face shield. He obviously found her difficulties amusing.
“No, not at all,” he finally replied. “Company policy is to drop the hydrogen tanks to the surface first, and then dock a shuttle for passengers, but that won’t happen for another seventeen hours. Your departure was expedited. Someone high up must want you on the surface ASAP.”
“Okay, so how do I get to the planet from here.”
“They’ve been holding a shuttle for you here. It’s sitting thirty meters away. Just sit tight and someone will be along shortly.”
Felix renewed her struggle with the stubborn buckle until it finally popped. Free at last, she leaned forward in an effort to peer through the entry hatch view port. The perimeter around the pod was dimly illuminated by the navigation lights. They cast enough light to make out the moonlet’s grey pitted surface, but little else. It was an eerie sensation. She pushed herself back into her seat. “If we are on the surface of the moon, how come I still feel weightless?”
“Phobos basically has no gravity. Jump out that hatch and you would reach escape velocity. You’d either end up a grease spot on the planet surface or drift in orbit for all eternity.”
Felix swallowed down a lump in her throat. “Won’t we fall off,” she blurted out.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you,” the pilot replied, but the contempt in his voice screamed liar. “Super conducting magnets in the pod’s landing struts have locked onto iron particles in the moonlet’s surface, so don’t get your pressure up cause it’s not going anywhere.”
In response to a loud beep, the pilot spun his chair back to the pod’s console. “When the escort brings the safety line over from the shuttle, just make sure that you’re secured before you leave the pod. I don’t want to lose my first VIP, wouldn’t look good on my record.”
Felix bit down on her lip in frustration. She prided herself on being easy to get along with, but occasionally she came across an ego that just made it impossible. This was one of those times, but a loud clang outside prevented her from voicing her nasty thoughts. The metallic sound was followed by a hiss as the pod door swung up.
A cable floated in through the opening. It reminded Felix of a snake she had once seen in India. It was followed by a feminine voice on the comm, ”Attach yourself to this line.” Felix took the offered cable, clicked it onto her tether hook, and very carefully climbed through the narrow hatch. “I’m your escort,” the voice said, “just relax and follow my lead.”
Feeling a lot like a child’s balloon, Felix drifted along behind the escort as the woman reeled them both over to the shuttle. They left a swirling trail of moon dust in their wake. When they reached the waiting spacecraft, Felix chanced to glance up. Her breath caught in her throat. The sky was filled with the giant rust red Planet. “It’s so big,” she gasped.
“Impressive, isn’t it,” the escort replied. “We are only five thousand kilometres from the surface.” Felix felt a tug on the line. “Come on, you’ll get a chance to see it up close real soon.”
They entered through a hatch in the side of the shuttle. A hiss of air as the airlock pressurized, followed by two sharp beeps, and then the inner door slid open. When the escort removed her helmet, Felix was not surprised to learn she was as young as the pod pilot. She removed Felix’s helmet with the precision of someone who had done it a thousand times before, but her eyes went wide upon seeing Felix’s face for the first time without the glare of the face shield.
The young woman’s reaction was something Felix had grown accustomed to since leaving Earth. Yes, the age limit for a Mars contract was thirty, but her knowledge and skills could not be acquired overnight; it took decades of hard work, study and research, but she had grown tired of explaining all that. “Felix,” was all she said while offering her hand and flashing her best smile.
It seemed to work. The woman’s look of shock was replaced with a warm smile as she took the offered hand. “I’m Gwen, welcome aboard the Artemis.”
Exchanging her deep space suit for a Mars atmosphere unit was like shedding a medieval suit of armor in favor of cotton coveralls. Gwen led the way to the forward section of the shuttle and the last empty passenger seat. As Felix watched the young woman check the rest of her passengers on the way to the co-pilot’s seat, a large gloved hand appeared in front of her nose. It belonged to the passenger sitting next to her. “Hello,” he said in a thick Slavic accent the moment she made eye contact. “I am Victor Minoff.”
He was a handsome young man in his late twenties, with a wide rugged face, a square chin and lovely blue eyes. In her high school days she would have called him a hunk. He must have noticed her age, but had the grace not show it. She liked him right off. “Felix Jones,” she replied taking the offered hand. “Your name sounds Russian.”
A big toothy grin spread across Victor’s face. “Belarusian, from Minsk. You are American, yes?”
“Canadian actually. Just arrived on the transport.”
“Ah, you are going to Deuterium facility.”
“What,” Felix said a little confused.
“Your country is number one in deuterium production,” he replied. Felix didn’t have a clue of what he was talking about. “Heavy water for the CANDU reactor… You are nuclear physicist, yes?”
“No, I am an archeologist,” Felix said just as the shuttle lifted off. “I am heading for the caves at Nix Olympus.”
“Ah, The Caves,” Victor shouted over the roar of the thrusters. “I have heard rumors about that place. Requires very special security clearance. You have very interesting job, I think.”
This was news to Felix. Not that it was interesting of course, but she had not been aware of any special security requirements. “What about you,” she yelled back.
Victor tapped a thick thumb on his chest. “I am geologist transferring from asteroid mines to Nix Olympus platinum mine. Nine more months and I return for Minsk a rich man.”
“We’ll be returning on the same transport then,” Felix said.
Shock registered on Victor’s face. “You return in only one rotation! How will you pay transport fee.”
“The company has waved my fee.”
Victor’s eyes rose so high they almost blended into his thick blond hair. “I should have been archeologist,” he muttered as the shuttle penetrated the thin Martian atmosphere.
The Artemis landed at what Victor said was the company’s newest complex. Rover vehicles were waiting to take the passengers on to their final destinations. With some relief, Felix stepped out of the shuttle only to be stunned by the sight of the twenty-six kilometre high Nix Olympus Mountain. It literally filled the northern sky. She felt a heavy hand on her shoulder. Victor’s deep voice crackled over her headset. “Impressive, yes.”
“You know, I have been hearing that a lot lately, but yes it is. I have never seen anything like it.”
Victor wished her luck before leaving in one of the rovers. Felix watched as one after another the rovers drove away, until only one remained. She was about to step back into the shuttle when the rover’s door opened. “Get in,” a voice said on her comm. She walked over to the vehicle, got in, and closed the door. The driver turned to face her. He was a swarthy man, easily pushing thirty. An old timer by Mars standards.
The man smiled. “You must be Jones,” he said. “I’m Richard Perez, chief security officer for this sector, but you can call me Rickie. It’ll be a two-hour trip to The Caves. It’s a rough ride, so you’d better buckle up.”
As Felix reached for the harness, she noticed a transparent container of clear liquid hanging between the seats. “What’s the rover use for fuel?”
“Methane and oxygen like everything else around here, but the tank you’re looking at, that’s just water condensed from the rover’s exhaust. On Mars we can’t afford to waste anything, see.”
As soon as they were underway, Rickie embarked on a long lecture explaining the intricacies of Martian economy. It must have been his favorite subject.
“Mars imports just three things, see: hydrogen, food and people. We need the hydrogen to produce methane, oxygen, water and Deuterium. Fruits and vegetables we grow in pressurized carbon dioxide enriched greenhouses, but we can’t make enough protein. As for people, with a pay level twenty times higher than Earth, there’s a long lineup.”
Felix laughed. “Back on Earth they say Mars has a vein of pure gold a meter thick and two kilometres long.”
“That’s a fact,” Rickie replied. “But like once you factor in the transport costs, even gold won’t generate that much profit, see. The company’s Lunar helium-3 production has a lot more potential for profit, if the reactors can ever be brought on line. Lucky for us, they’ll need even more deuterium.”
“Yea, it’s true Mars exports like tons of gold and platinum every rotation,” Rickie said as the rover topped a rise, “but it’s the little things like refilling the hydrogen tanks with deuterium that make it profitable, see.”
It was time for Felix to change the subject. Commerce had never been of much interest to her, at least not unless it was a few thousand years old. “I was briefed before leaving Earth, and I must say I was shocked to hear what you’ve found here.”
Rickie looked sideways at Felix. She could see the wide smile he wore, even through his face shield. “What exactly did they tell you?”
“I was told that mining operations had uncovered artifacts which clearly indicated intelligent life once existed here.”
“Did anyone mention the hieroglyphs? I can tell by the look on your face that they didn’t, so like I know they didn’t tell you that we dated them, see.”
Felix’s mind was racing. Hieroglyphs on Mars. “How old?”
Rickie smiled. “Eleven thousand standard Earth years.” Felix was speechless. Rickie laughed. “You should see your face.”
Felix suddenly felt an affinity with a certain young blonde girl peering down a very dark rabbit hole. “What else haven’t I been told?”
“We’ve learned a lot since you left Earth, see. You can read the full report once we’re inside. The complex is just over the next rise.”
Felix had a million questions, but they would have to wait. Rickie’s supply of information had suddenly dried up. It was late afternoon by the time they arrived. Once inside, she was impressed with the resources the company had invested in sealing and pressurizing the caves. It sure felt good to be able to walk around without the cumbersome environmental suit.
Rickie guided Felix to the main chamber, where the sight of row after row of glyphs carved into the stone walls left her feeling light headed. She was introduced to John and Mark, two computer engineers assigned to the project. They were exactly what she would have expected, right down to their school tattoos, shaved heads and thick-rimmed glasses.
After slipping a reader into her hand, Rickie left Felix on her own. The first thing she did was to take a leisurely stroll around the chamber to examine the glyphs. More than once she stopped in awe to trace the symbols gently with her fingers. They were so well preserved; it was as if they had been carved only yesterday. Her initial curiosity satisfied, Felix found a chair and sat down to read.
After plodding through the rather lengthy report, Felix set the reader aside and closed her eyes. She couldn’t shake the feeling there was something important she had missed, but was too exhausted to think about it. How long it had been since she last slept anyway? Slowly, she drifting off. Then a strange voice whispered softly in her ear. “We have been waiting for you, Felix Jones.”
Felix’s eyelids snapped open. She leapt up in alarm looking quickly from side to side. Except for the two engineers at their terminals six meters away, the chamber was empty. John and Mark glanced up momentarily from their terminals, smiled, and then went back to work. Felix sat back down feeling a little more than foolish. Gotta chill out, it was just a dream.
With a sigh Felix picked up the reader and started once more from the beginning. Mars did not suffer from a shortage of scientists, or engineers, and every test that could be done, had been, but the information was overwhelmingly riddled with incongruities.
Martian technology was as advanced as it was alien. Even after six months, the engineers and scientists involved had been unable to explain it. Conflicting theories outstanding, the one thing they all agreed on, was that the Martians had been inter-planetary travelers for thousands years. Physically they were a reptilian humanoid hybrid with an average height of three meters. Computer simulations concluded it would not have been possible for them to walk under the weight of Earth’s gravity, even though the records clearly stated that they had. The primitive Earthlings they encountered had understandably mistaken them for gods. Martians had no such concepts. By the time they understood, the beliefs were too ingrained to dissuade.
Mars itself was a utopia; crimes, disease, hunger, poverty, were nonexistent. Then without warning, Lucifer, the fifth planet, exploded. The meteor storm that followed was catastrophic. After being struck repeatedly by deadly missiles from space the planet cracked, poisoning the air and boiling the rivers dry. Prior to this event, Mars had been a moonless planet. Phobos and Deimos are pieces of Lucifer captured by the gravity of Mars.
The surviving Martians used what resources were left to them to seal off the caves. Outside of their safe haven the temperature dropped drastically and almost overnight most of the atmosphere was lost. Their last hope was that rescue ships would return from earth, but the window came and went with no such ships.
Trapped in the caves, the Martians lived for a few more rotations until their food stores ran out. In that short time they recorded their history on the cave walls in the hope some day it would be found. Near the end, they began preparations for their final journey. This is where the report ended.
Exhausted, Felix set aside the reader. She studied the glyphs on a nearby wall. Parts of them were well known to her, having elements of ancient Egyptian, Mayan, Greek, Arabic and even Chinese, but they were all jumbled together in an incoherent mess. It was obvious the symbols had different meanings than what she had come to know on Earth. She finally decided to talk with the engineers. Perhaps they had more information to offer. She walked over to their station and leaned on the desk between them. “What are you doing?”
The two young men looked at each other as if she had spoken in a foreign language. Finally Mark spoke. “Well, you’re here, so I guess it’s all right.” He pointed to his screen. “We’re analyzing the holograms.”
“Holograms, what holograms.”
“From the crystals, of course.”
Felix did her best to hide her surprise. Crystals, there was no reference to crystals in the report. What’s going on here? “Okay, tell me what you know about the crystals.”
“Well they were embedded in the walls with the glyphs. See those round holes about every two meters. Security took them all after we digitized them. They are some kind of storage medium.”
“I would sure like to have seen one of those,” Felix muttered.
Mark looked at his co-worker. John shrugged, and then reached under his desk. He pulled out what looked like a plum sized diamond. “We call them crystals,” Mark said, ”but to tell you the truth, we aren’t really sure what they are.”
John handed it to Felix. “Here, take a look inside.”
Felix held the crystal up to her eye. She saw a three dimensional image of someone moving toward her. It was much more vivid than any hologram she’d seen before. Closer inspection of the person’s face revealed scaled skin. “Martians,” she gasped.
“We still don’t know how they’re encoded,” Mark said, ”but we were able to download the images onto the main computer’s hard drive through a video link.”
“So I can look at these images on a terminal,” Felix asked, still holding the crystal to her eye.
“Well, not exactly.”
Felix lowered the crystal. “Why not.”
“Well, when we first started downloading them we checked the images against the originals, and well, they are never the same.”
“Data loss,” Felix offered.
“No, I mean they are totally different. It’s like someone overwrote the crystals with new data. They’re still holographic images of Martians, but different ones that’s all.”
Felix looked at the crystal. “Mind if I keep this.”
Mark looked at John, who shrugged. “We aren’t supposed to have one, so don’t tell anyone where you got it, okay.”
Felix pretended to pull a zipper across her lips, winked, and then went back to her seat. After studying the crystal for while, she yawned, closed her eyes, and laid her head back. She needed to rest her eyes for a minute. Before she knew what was happening, the strange voice had returned. It whispered in her ear like a ghost. “Look into the portal, Felix Jones.”
An icy shiver ran down her spine. Felix looked around the now empty chamber. The engineers must have left for the night, but somehow she knew she was not alone. She took the crystal from her pocket and held it up to her eye. An alien face glared back at her. It’s thin lips moved. It was speaking to her. Then she smiled. “You’re just a recording,” she said.
“This is no recording, Felix Jones, my name is Jakarta.”
“Where are you,” Felix replied once she found her voice.
“Right here, standing before you.” Felix waved her hand through the empty space in front of her. She heard what sounded like a chuckle. “You cannot touch me,” the voice said, “I exist on another plain of reality. You can see me only through this dimensional portal. I have been awaiting your arrival for a long time.”
Was this some kind of joke? John and Mark were hiding around the corner playing her for a fool. Well, she was a good sport. She’d play along with the joke. “Why me,” she asked.
“You were selected long before you were born, but that is unimportant. I have a gift to bestow upon you.”
“And it’s not even my birthday. Okay, what is it.”
Felix collapsed back into her chair. It felt like icy fingers ran through her hair, and then she heard Jakarta’s ghost-like voice inside her head. Slowly, understanding came to her. She looked at the first row of glyphs on the wall. The meaning was clear to her. She closed her eyes and tried to relax but she was so excited it took a long time for her to calm down. She finally opened her eyes and looked at the next row of symbols. The Martian’s voice whispered again. Understanding came once more. Staying relaxed, she repeated the process again and again until at some point during the night exhaustion claimed her.
Felix was awakened roughly by Rickie who wanted to know if she had made any progress. Felix rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “It’s all in here,” she said, tapping her temple with her index finger. “In our minds. Latent abilities we’ve only dreamed of.”
“What are you talking about,” Rickie barked?
Felix stood up. “All matter consists mostly of space, right. Well, manipulating the bits in between is child’s play, once you know how.”
Rickie looked annoyed. “You’re not making any sense, Ms Jones.”
Felix took a deep breath. This was going to be even more difficult than she thought. “You’ve been unable to find a power source because there isn’t one. Martian technology was based on psychokinesis. Their ships were airtight shells constructed of simple rock and powered by pure thought. The pyramids on Earth were human attempts to imitate them.”
Rickie’s mouth hung open. He shut it like a trap. “You expect me to believe this,” he said turning toward the wall of glyphs. “I mean you’ve been here all of one whole day, and you say you understand all this.”
“I didn’t figure it out on my own, I had help. The crystals aren’t recorded history, they’re portals into another dimension.”
Rickie’s eyes narrowed. “Who told you about the crystals. You weren’t authorized to access that data.”
“It doesn’t matter. Listen. The Martians have just moved on to a place where the cataclysm had no effect. They are still here, all around us, just on another plain of existence, an alternate universe, the fourth dimension, another time, call it what you will.”
Fear registered on Rickie’s face as he looked around. “Just because I’m not a scientist doesn’t mean I’m stupid. What you are suggesting isn’t possible.”
“Don’t you see? It explains it all. They were giants from a planet with only two-fifths the gravity of Earth, but they could walk. Why? Because they used the energy from the subatomic particles around them to deflect the excess gravity. It’s all there,” Felix said pointing back at the glyphs. “They left behind complete instructions on how to do it.”
Rickie looked confused. “This is way over my head, Ms Jones. I need to talk to someone back on Earth. Like, just sit tight till I get back, see.” He turned and practically ran out of the chamber.
Once he was gone, Felix realized she hadn’t eaten since leaving the transport. She walked back to the food dispensers near the entrance to the complex. She selected synthetic eggs, toast and coffee. After wolfing down her meal, she headed back with a second cup of coffee in hand to continue her study of the glyphs.
After another look around the cave, Felix sat down and took a sip of her coffee. It was stone cold. She was about to make a trip back to the food dispensers to use the microwave, when she got a better idea. Setting the cup down on the table, she closed her eyes and remembered what Jakarta had told her. All you thought you knew about the universe was an illusion.
In her mind’s eye Felix could see the cup of coffee. She focused on visualizing the molecules and then went deeper, down to the atoms. Finally, she arrived at the subatomic level, the quanta. Her first attempts to control a single quantum particle failed. They were elusive, blinking in and out of existence. Then a single electron responded. Spurred on by her success, she extended her influence on an ever expanding group of quanta. A sizzling sound accompanied by the acrid smell of something burning forced her to open her eyes. The coffee cup was gone. In its place was a bubbling lump of grey plastic.
Felix clasped her hands to her cheeks in shock just as Jakarta whispered a word of warning in her ear. She turned to see Rickie standing a few meters away. He was flanked by two grim faced security men. “How long have you been there,” she asked.
“Long enough,” Rickie replied. Felix froze when she saw the pistol in his hand. “Sorry Ms Jones, but I’ve got my orders. You’ve spun a gear, or it’s all true, I don’t know which, and I don’t really care. I just can’t let you leave these caves alive, see.”
“I don’t understand. This discovery will solve all of Earth’s energy problems.”
Rickie rolled his eyes. “You just don’t get it, do you! The company has everything tied up in Mars, and it barely covers costs. We want a new energy source to make money, see. If anyone can produce their own by pulling it out of thin air, then where’s the profit. You would put us out of business.” He raised his weapon and pointed it at Felix’s head. “I really am sorry about this, Ms Jones. And I was just starting to like you, too.”
Felix looked at the hard faces of the other men. There would be no help there. “You won’t get away with this. It’s murder.”
Rickie shrugged. “What murder? The poor old gal was just too old for the rigors of Mars. They never should have sent her. Cause of death, heart failure. Body recycled as per company policy.” Felix could hear the condescending sneer in his voice.
Felix stepped back involuntarily. She was near panic, until Jakarta whispered in her ear. You are a part of everything and everything is a part of you. With a great effort she forced back the overwhelming urge to turn and run. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on the energy around her, drawing it to her like a human energy field, and then projecting it. The gun clicked twice but didn’t fire. Felix opened her eyes. Rickie was staring at his pistol in confusion. He didn’t know it, but the molecular structure of the explosive charges in the bullets had been altered; turned to harmless carbon and salt.
“It’s you who doesn’t get it, Rickie,” Felix said as she visualized the neural network of his brain. Rickie looked at her, his eyes glazed over, and then he crumpled to the ground. The other two men reached for their pistols but collapsed with the weapons only half out of their holsters.
Felix let out the breath she had been holding and felt for the dimensional portal in her pocket. She had a message to deliver to the people on Earth, but she was going to need help to do it. She thought of Victor and the shuttle pilot. People like them would help once she explained; for there was something she had neglected to tell Rickie. The Martians who had been on Earth when Lucifer was cast down from the heavens were still there, and she was going to find them.