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Up From Mars' Centre

Up From Mars' Centre
Adrian Kleinbergen

12,485 words

Tom Ford was nearly finished as a weather observer on the Martian moon Phobos. Retirement awaited and he felt his life had been meaningless. That is, until the ruins of an ancient city were discovered on mars and he was the only one who could rescue the stricken exploration party that had gone to investigate.


On the surface of the red planet Mars, near the base of the mighty but extinct, snow-frosted volcanic peak of Olympus Mons, Tondelayo Botanical Developmental Station huddled beneath a pale pink sky. A weak sun peered over the dark horizon as silvery figures moved about on the surrounding plains, tending rows of carefully protected and cultivated vegetation. These plants, genetically modified for maximum oxygen production, basked in the tenuous sunlight underneath tough plastic domes. It was hoped that one day, these strains of plant-life would rejuvenate the wispy atmosphere of Mars, and make the planet fit for life once more.
There was always risk involved for those who dedicated their lives to this massive undertaking, and of them, the greatest risk was the devastating sand-storms that swept over the parched planet, eradicating all in their paths. In the early days of Martian exploration, many died as a result of heedless risk-taking and inability to cope with the savage weather. As a result, when the plans for a permanent installation were approved, great care was taken to find an effective weather surveillance system.
An observation complex stationed on Mars' largest moon, Phobos, became that system. This base, nestled amidst the frozen stone of Phobos' planetside face traversed the circumference of Mars every seven and one-half hours and proved itself the ideal weather satellite.
The Phobos Station constantly monitored the peculiar and ever-changing weather patterns of the Red Planet, searching carefully for the tell-tale signs that indicated dust-storm build up.

This cooperation between "Farmer" and "Weatherman" made possible the ambitious project that would one day make Mars a temperate paradise; a new world for Mankind.

The director of Phobos operations, Tom Ford, began his shift with the fluid efficiency forged by years of well-practiced experience. He recalibrated his instruments and prepared for another six hours of weather observation duty. Gazing out of the wide expanse of thick, transparent plastic that separated the control room from the icy vacuum of Phobos' surface, Ford overlooked the enormous ruddy orb of Mars.
The station was at the apex of its orbit, directly above the Tondelayo Complex, and the weather was exceptionally clear. Ford noticed that storm activity was at a seasonal low ebb on this hemisphere of the planet, and could easily imagine the diligent people of the Complex tending their precious seedlings. The giant monitor screen behind him on the far wall of the room projected an intricate tactical grid onto the magnified image of the Martian topography and was centred directly on the botanical station; here was where the vital work was done. Ford swivelled his seat and it slid towards the giant glass screen on a fixed track. Here he would inspect each quadrant on the map, process an involved array of tests, atmospheric analyses, and temperature readings that would add to the vast information mosaic that allowed the weather of Mars to be accurately charted and predicted. He sighed once before beginning a preliminary sweep, and then commenced his task.

As the fifth hour of his vigil approached, he noticed an irregularity in the ninth map sub-quadrant, far northwest of Tondelayo's position, near the upper point of the Tharsis Plateau. Even before he received a computer enhancement of the area, Ford knew what he was looking at - a dust storm, in its first stages of formation. The enhanced image scrolled over the low-resolution map image and confirmed Ford's judgement. He quickly keyed in the initiation code to scan the affected area and create a computer model of the storm's projected buildup and course.

Ford tapped his fingers impatiently, waiting for the hardcopy readout, never taking his eyes off the screen. The strip of printed plastic issued from its slot and he tore it off, quickly scanning the raw data. He tapped an button on his console and the computer animated a speeded-up projection of the storm's intended route. Ford scratched his chin as he stared at the unfolding scenario.
"It will miss Tondelayo by a fair margin but..."
He pressed another button on his chair-arm and spoke.
"John, can I have a word?" The unit crackled slightly and youngish voice answered.
"Right here, Tom. What's up?"
"I've got a storm brewing, Northwest sub-quad, upper Tharsis. Computer has it giving Tondelayo a wide berth but thought you'd like a look at it." Ford transferred the images to his assistant's console viewscreen. The voice whistled in appreciation.
"This could be a big one... I've seen these big systems change direction two or three times before they were played out... I would play safe and issue a Code Yellow to Tondelayo right away; give them some time to secure the base in case the front does change course." Ford smiled as his assistant spoke and replied.
"I think you're right, John; I'm impressed." Ford said with real pride. He had taught John Tracy well, he thought. Soon, the young man would be running this place.
"Not soon enough for me," he whispered to himself as he settled back into his chair. He ran his fingers through his thick, greying hair and contemplated what was certain to be his last year on Phobos. At thirty-nine, he could scarcely be called old, but as far as Space Corp operations was concerned, forty was retirement age; A regulation against which there was no appeal. He frowned as he considered his future: what would be open to him after the Corp revoked his Spacer's permit? A desk-bound advisory position back on Earth? Approving fuel appropriations for freight transport firms? Ford grimaced as he pondered the thought.
"I'm not going back to Earth... not after what happened to my grandfather..." Ford thought bitterly, remembering the incident that sent him away from Earth and kept him away for twenty-three years. He shook his head to clear away the grim memories and returned to his work.

"Ms. St. Germaine, will you establish contact with Tondelayo base, please," he said with more gruffness than he intended. She looked at him with a frown of concern then turned to her console. Moments later, Dr. Musgrove, a portly, balding man of thirty appeared on the screen.
"Yes, Mr. Ford?" Musgrove inquired with a preoccupied tone.
"I'm authorized to issue a Code Yellow alert to you, Dr Musgrove. There's a major storm front brewing in the northern sub-quadrant. Although the computer model indicates that it will miss you altogether, I'm urging you to batten down until it passes or breaks up," Ford said earnestly. Musgrove nodded brusquely.
"All right, Mr. Ford... Whatever." He signed off without any further word. Ford shook his head.
"No appreciation around here..." He muttered as St. Germaine and the rest of the crew tried to suppress smiles.
He turned from the communication console and stood, looking out of the great dome at the bright face of Mars. He absently raked his close-cropped hair once more as he stared, thinking.
What will I do when this is all over? He silently posed the question as he seated himself to complete the final hour of his shift.
Ford's shift ended, his eyes tired and framed with lines that bespoke of long hours studying viewscreens and computer monitors. He stretched, trying to shake off the fatigue that seemed to come more frequently and last longer with each shift. He stood slowly, and although still lean and wiry despite long years of low-grav environments, was stiff from confinement in his observation chair. As his relief arrived to take his place, Ford donned his jacket, a much worn neo-leather garment that had been his since he had enlisted. The fact that it still wore comfortably was proof of his determination not to let the years catch up with him.
He handed over the printout of the dust-storm's statistics, and explained the current situation with the man, who nodded in understanding, and Ford exited. He walked slowly with the long, gliding steps that were Phobos' trademark, toward the small gymnasium that he used regularly. In times of melancholy, physical training was the only solace that seemed to work. He was met by his Assistant Director, John Tracy in the tiny locker room, and the two men changed into workout gear.
"How's it going, Tom?" Tracy asked cheerfully. Ford looked up gloomily.

"The usual, John..."
"Hey, what is it? What's wrong?" Tracy's open face betrayed his concern.
"I... don't know." Ford sighed. "I guess I'm a little low. It's just occurred to me that in one more year, I'm out of here." He looked morose as he spoke. Tracy nodded.
"Have you made any plans as to what you want to do afterwards?" Tracy asked sympathetically.
"What is there to do? I'm a spacer... that's what I do. Even this job has gotten tedious. I've only logged thirty-two hours of flight in the last year and that's less that the year before. Once I'm forcibly retired at forty, I won't be acceptable in any way as far as the Space Corp is concerned. They'll send me back to Earth, and I vowed never to return." Ford's face reddened as he spoke and he abruptly stood and moved to a heavy punching bag tethered between the floor and ceiling. He slipped on a pair of weighted training mitts and started to belt and pummel the bag mercilessly. Tracy walked to a weight machine and strapped himself in. He grasped the twin handles and began to pump off set after set, thinking quietly. He wondered why Ford had been getting more and more depressed and moody in the last few months and knew he would have to tackle him about it eventually. He strained through his routine, determined to dig the truth out of his friend before it burned him out. In the background, the blows slapped and thumped against the hapless punching bag as Ford worked off his anger and frustration. Finally, he stopped, out of breath and flushed. He mopped his face with a towel and moved to a bench where Tracy was already seated, drinking water out of a plastic squeeze bottle. Ford sat and Tracy handed him the bottle which he accepted gratefully. Tracy tried to begin the conversation again, now that Ford had walloped some of the stress out of his system.
"You know, Tom... at least if you retire from the Space Corp, you'll still be comparatively young. I mean, as far as any other fields are concerned, you're still a young but experienced man."

"That's easy to say, John..." Ford said between gulps of water. "...for a man still in his twenties. There's still time for you to learn another trade, another skill. Me, I know no other life than what I can do out here." He gestured around the room. "I joined the Merchant Marine when I was sixteen; No remaining family, no ties to Earth, and full of adventurous ideas. By the time I realized just how dull and tedious the space business could be, it was too late to get out. So I endured, doing most of the mule work aboard a nearly-condemned wreck of a salvage freighter until all the romance and adventure I had been expecting had been scrubbed, overhauled and rewired out of my system." He paused, examining his gloved hands."Look... I'm not saying I regret the way my life has gone...I've seen things, incredible things, I've walked on Mars and Venus... I've had some truly exciting moments, but now that is seems to be grinding to a halt I feel that somehow I could have done more. None of what I have done in my life seems to have been of any importance... at least not any more." Ford breathed deeply. Tracy took in all of what he had said and tried hard to think of a suitable argument.
"I don't know what to say to you about this, Tom. The jobs you've done in the past were important. Just as important as the one you're doing here on Phobos. The people down there on the surface below are involved in one of the most important projects in history - terraforming Mars. You have a pivotal role in making sure that job is done in safety... safety from the harsh and often lethal weather. If that's not an important job then I don't know what is." Tracy said with conviction. Ford nodded, trying to erase the image of the preoccupied and brusque Dr. Musgrove from his memory and failing. He got to his feet, tightening the laces on his gloves and approached the bag once more. He turned to Tracy.
"I've run out of places to go, John. I'll finish my tour of duty here until I'm forty... then I'm out. Where to go from there, I don't know... but I won't go back to Earth." He faced the bag and began to batter it furiously as Tracy looked on with genuine dismay.

As the next day progressed, Ford returned to study the now titanic dust storm's movements on the giant screen. The dark red stain on the planet's face marked the expanse of the storm; It swept across the Tharsis Plains towards the equator, clearly missing the Tondelayo Complex by hundreds of miles. Ford studied the blood-coloured smear and his brow furrowed in puzzlement. He adjusted the tuning of the screen and enhanced the image. He blinked and rose from his seat, approaching the immense image to afford a better view. He stopped and stared at the image until his eyes ached from the concentration. He stood in amazed silence as he tried to absorb what he was seeing. In the centre of the turbulent storm area a pattern was forming... a series of concentric circles began to appear and grow more defined as the storm swept the planet's surface. Ford enhanced the image, zooming in as far as the screen cameras could get to make sure that this was not some illusion or trick of the light. When he was satisfied he called Tracy in to confer.
"John, can I see you in the control room please?" He said casually.
"Sure thing, Tom. What have you got?"
"Something... interesting," was all Ford would say.

Tracy entered the control room and was surprised to find no one at their duty stations. The entire crew were gathered around the front of the viewscreen, looking in awe at what lay revealed there.
"John, come here and take a look at this..." Ford's voice rang out. Tracy walked slowly towards the enraptured group , all the time staring at the impossible image that shone out from the huge expanse of viewer.
"Tom... what are we looking at?" Tracy's voice was filled with wonder. Ford turned towards the screen and spoke.
"I can't say for certain, yet... the computer has no opinion on the subject but I'm wagering that we're looking at the evidence of an artificial structure, the scale of which is staggering."
"Artificial...? Impossible." Tracy frowned as he studied the concentric ring pattern that became more clear with the waning of the storm. He shook his head slowly as the regularity of the rings and the straightness of the lines that radiated out the centre of the formation argued too strongly against a natural source for the phenomenon.
"This is beyond belief..." Tracy said as he stared.
"My guess is that the area had been buried for centuries... or even millennia. The passage of time and the scouring of dust storms eventually uncovered the area until now." Ford said neutrally.
" According to the scale at which we're viewing the formation, the diameter of the area is approximately 4,500 kilometres... if that is a city, then it's larger than every city on Earth put together." Said St. Germaine softly.

"Let's record what information we can and inform Tondelayo base. I think I can finally get Musgrove's attention with this." Ford laughed lightly. Lori St. Germaine smiled covertly as she recalibrated her sensing equipment the study the new enigma.
In three hours , just as they were beyond the range of the mystery, Ford contacted Musgrove and was not disappointed in his reaction.
"Yes, what is it, Mr.Ford. We're a little busy at the mo-"
"Oh, really? I'm sorry to hear that... I guess I'll have to pass on the new discovery to Earth Command . I'm sure they will be able to find someone who'll have the time to investigate the possibility of a ruined city on Mars... I imagine they will wonder why the administrator of the base closest to the site wasn't interested. Oh, well... I'll let you get back to your important tasks. I'll just contact Earth and-"
"Wait a minute! Hold on there, Ford! Now let's just calm down a discuss this civilly." Musgrove stammered, his eyes widening." Now what's all this about a ruined Martian city... there must be some mistake." Ford grinned at the man's sudden effusiveness.
"No one is sure what it is, Dr. Musgrove, but I'm ready to transmit everything we've seen to you for analysis. It's just beyond the curve for us to see it now but it will just be getting in range of the remote camera array on Deimos. I'll switch you over to that channel right now..." Ford signalled and St.Germaine linked up with the robot outpost on Deimos. Musgrove's intent face was replaced with the image of Mars' face going into shadow. Approaching the terminator, the circular signs of the mystery showed more distinctly as the growing shadows gave definition and dimension to the markings. Musgrove's voice spoke from the console with a tremble of amazement.
"This is ... extraordinary! When did this show up?"
"Just as the last storm ended a few hours ago... I'm sending all of the data we have so far. You should be receiving it in a few moments." Ford spoke easily.
"Ford...Mr.Ford... this is... I mean, I know that I haven't been... Mr. Ford... thank you." Musgrove appeared on the screen again and looked humbled.
"Not at all, Doctor. Always available to help a colleague. Let me know what you find out."
"Of course..."

"Ford out." He pressed a button, ending the transmission and the crew resumed their duties.
"I'd say Dr. Musgrove seems a lot more appreciative of our job here, don't you, Ms. St.Germaine?" Ford asked the young woman, who shared his mischievous smile.
"I would agree, Mr. Ford." She winked.

Ford met Tracy at the gym the next day, in the locker room. Ford whistled as he donned his exercise apparel and stopped when he noticed Tracy staring at him.
"What's wrong, John?
"That's what I asked you yesterday..."
Ford laughed lightly.
"Yes, I know. It seems I found something to renew my interest in this field after all. I won't try to deny that I felt that it was all over... " Ford absently laced his gloves." Finding this mystery on Mars' surface renewed all the wonder and adventure that I felt when I first joined the Corp long ago. It made me realize that we know so very little about what's in our own backyard." Ford began to punch the bag but without any of the savagery that he had put into it the day before. He stopped for a moment to emphasize his thoughts to a flushed and perspiring Tracy.
"I'm going to go down there... whatever it takes, I'm going to find a reason to go down to that city. Something inside me needs to set foot within those ruins... to know that it's real and that there is a reason to go on." Ford punctuated his statement with deft jabs at the bag.
Tracy grinned to see his friend in good spirits again. Little did anyone suspect that Ford's wish was to be granted... in a way he would never have suspected.

For the next few days, all went according to routine and there were no distractions. Musgrove, down at Tondelayo was in the middle of assembling an expedition to "Helium" as the area of ruins had been christened by Ford, to honour Edgar Rice Burroughs' immortal tales of Mars. The high resolution cameras of Deimos remote station did indeed confirm the status of the find and the grainy but distinct photographs revealed the existence of ruined but definitely artificial structures on the surface. Musgrove, who had always been brusque and off-hand in the past, now seemed almost obsequious whenever Ford reported some new finding to him. Musgrove was having a difficult time outfitting his expedition mainly because there weren't any personnel at Tondelayo who were qualified to investigate ancient ruins. After all, the last place anyone needed an archaeologist was on Mars... until now. The frazzled Director of Tondelayo managed to put together a group of nine individuals, all whose background included some minor archaeological experience or at least, volunteer time working at digs back on Earth. To send for an Earth team would have meant a month of waiting at least and no one, including Ford wanted to wait that long. So, although Earth was miffed that their team would not be the first to enter the ruins, they had to agree with Ford's advice to the effect that another dust storm might come around and bury the city all over again if everyone waited. For that, Musgrove was generous in his thanks.
"We will setting off in an hour, Mr. Ford. I just wanted to thank you again for your help and support. I will be leaving the base in the direction of Ms. Terry Reeve, my assistant. If I and my team need any help, we will be in direct contact with you through her. I would also like to count on your team's support weather-wise and you can make your reports directly to Ms. Reeve, who will give you the word when we lift off. That's about all, Mr. Ford. Wish us luck."
"Good hunting, Doctor." Ford said before he signed off.
It was at that moment that Ford experienced a weird feeling. He frowned and jabbed the comm button.
"Ford to Shuttle bay."
"Shuttle bay, Rolston here."
" Mr.Rolston, I'm coming down there. I need to plan something with you. I want the other pilots in attendance too."
"You got it, Mr. Ford. Rolston out." The connection broke and Ford sat pondering this move. He said nothing as he rose to make his way to the shuttle bay.

When the disaster struck, it was as unexpected as it could have been. It was during the late shift and John Tracy tried to keep from yawning as he made his log report.
"Tracy, John... log entry 23885-9... All climate systems are quiet tonight... no stormsign evident but there is a small squall north of the "Helium" site. It is not moving and does not seem a threat; will observe periodically. Tracy out." He shut off the recorder and eyed the door, waiting for his relief to arrive. Jodi Cantera, operating the comm unit started suddenly as a high-pitched beeping speared out of the speaker.
"Mr. Tracy... it's a Sierra Emergency Code coming from Tondelayo Base." She spoke, rattled by the sudden clamour.
"Put it through, Jodi." Tracy snapped to and moved to the comm unit screen.
"Tondelayo to Phobos weather station, come in. This is assistant-director Terry Reeve...we have an emergency!" Reeve's face looked strained and her eyes spoke of barely-controlled panic. Tracy took in the situation and spoke quietly but firmly.
"Jodi, condition red. Sound general quarters alert."
"What is your situation, Ms. Reeve?" Tracy tried to sound calm but he knew that there must be something terribly wrong for her to invoke Code Sierra. Reeve looked a little more controlled now that she had reached help. It was now a matter of time as to how much help they would be able to offer.
"We've lost all contact with Dr. Musgrove's expedition. They were making regular half hour reports, as per regulation, when they just stopped sending. It's been almost four hours since their last transmission. You weren't in range until just now. I don't have a contingency plan to handle this..." She looked close to breaking point and Tracy wasn't sure how to handle this situation. This was only a weather observation outpost. No one had ever faced an emergency like this here, or on Tondelayo. At that moment Ford arrived, looking a little rumpled from an abrupt awakening.
"Jodi, you can turn off that alarm, everyone's up now. Ms. Reeve, just hang on for a minute... we'll try to put things back together if we can. John, what's happened?" He addressed Tracy in a lower voice, almost a whisper.
"All contact has been lost with the Musgrove expedition at Helium- no word for four hours. What's our move going to be? I don't think this was covered in our training exercises." Ford nodded and turned to the screen.

"Ms.Reeve, can you send a vehicle over the site?" he asked hopefully.
"Not a chance, Mr. Ford. Dr. Musgrove was taking a chance when he requisitioned the glider-car that he took. Our only backup unit has been scavenged for parts since our budget was slashed last year. Even if we had another flyer we couldn't spare the crew to pilot it; we're understaffed right now as it is. We need all the people we have left to maintain the plants outside. We're out of options at this end," Reeve replied with emotion.
"I understand Ms.Reeve. I think we can work something out... stand by, I'll be in touch shortly." Ford disconnected and turned to face Tracy.
"Well, what do you think? He faced Tracy with an unreadable expression.
"I think we have a bad situation on our hands, Tom."
" John... I think we have no choice but to get down there and see what we can do. I've already selected a team in case something like this happened. I want you to keep things running smooth up here. I hope you don't mind." Ford looked a little guilty. Tracy looked accusingly at him.
"You were ready for this? How did you know something would happen?"
"I didn't - but Musgrove, for all his enthusiasm, is no wilderness explorer. I knew he had no experience with this sort of thing... he and his hastily assembled team of almost-experts; Murphy's law and all that. So I just assembled a little team of my own, you know, just in case."
Ford winked at Tracy who shook his head in disbelief.
"Try not to play too rough down there, Tom." Tracy said, gesturing with a thumbs-up. Ford walked out of the control room with the stride of a man twenty years younger.

Fifteen minutes later, Ford reviewed the procedures he had planned with Rolston earlier.
"Well, Mr. Ford; I didn't think we would employing this emergency plan so soon." Rolston said scratching his head.

" I guess that's why they're called emergency procedures, Mark. I want you to prep the ship and make sure the extra provisions are secure and especially the other items I've indicated."
"I'm on it." Rolston moved out and entered the Glider-car. Ford spoke to each of the eight men and three women he had selected for the team, making sure they were properly equipped and ready. When he was satisfied that they were fit to go, they all boarded the flyer as the ground crew disconnected the fuel and power cables.
Within the flyer, the crew secured their hardware and seated themselves. Ford moved to the fore of the ship and noticed Rolston in the co-pilot's seat.
"What's wrong Mr. Rolston? You're the chief pilot on Phobos." Ford queried.
"I though you might like to take us down, Mr, Ford. If you don't mind." Rolston smiled sheepishly. Ford smiled back, surprised but glad.
"It would be a pleasure. Thank you, Mark." Ford slipped into the pilot's chair with casual ease and began flipping switches automatically. The movements and procedures came back without a flutter and soon the ship was powered up and ready for takeoff. Outside, the airlock had been vacated and the atmosphere was being pumped out. The great airlock doors began to slide open slowly and Ford felt a lump in his throat as the clear, bright stars shone in the inky blackness that lay revealed beyond.
It's finally happening..! Ford thought as he pushed forward on the thrust control and released the restraining clamps that held the vessel firm. After a muffled clang, the ship sped towards the starry rectangle of the bay door and out into unfettered space. Tracy watched the small, silver-winged craft slide away from Phobos and dive down towards Mars' dusty face.
"Take care, my friend..." he said softly as the ship dwindled to a point and vanished in the tenuous atmosphere of an unconcerned Mars.

Ford smiled with satisfaction as he felt the resistance in the control rods, the feeling of being part of the ship, not just riding it. The vessel bucked and swerved as the upper atmosphere began to tug and grab at the smooth underside of the glider-car. A mournful howl began to penetrate the hull as the re-entry friction heated the wing edges to a searing red. the howl rose to a crescendo when Ford braked the craft and the speed lessened with their altitude. Ford banked the flyer and after consulting with Rolston, adjusted his flight plan to accommodate a short cut that he had found useful. Soon, Tondelayo appeared in the distance like a bright gem on the hazy horizon. Small and toy-like amidst the grim, unforgiving rock of the plateau that they were situated on, the Tondelayo station seemed fragile and tiny, almost too delicate to survive the mission for which it was planned Ford thought to himself as he swung around the base to scout a suitable landing site. He thought further and reminded himself that it was the people that made the station strong, not just the mere material it was constructed out of.
Ford picked a likely spot and set the vehicle down smoothly a midst a spray of fine dust and gravel. The car settled on its sturdy landing gear leaving Ford and Rolston to deactivate the controls.
"If I may say, sir... that was a beautiful ride."
Ford shrugged and clapped Rolston on the shoulder.
"Okay, people. Collect your gear and don your helmets. I want a show of hands when everyone is ready to move out."
When all had indicated their readiness, Ford blew the hatch and the figures, silvery effigies laden with equipment packs followed Ford's lead toward the big, circular airlock door that even now began to rotate open. They entered and stood within the confines of the large chamber, the big door sliding back in place with a low-pitched boom. A small hatch opened on the far end of the chamber and a small, lithe woman briskly entered with a small group of others trailing behind her.
Ford took off his helmet and tossed it to Rolston, who caught it deftly, and he moved forward to greet the woman.
Ms. Reeve, how are you holding up? Has there been any news?" Ford tried to sound cheerful as he gripped her hand.
"I'm fine, Mr. Ford but there's been no further contact." She looked rattled and seemed tired. Ford knew the feeling well. It was important that he make a show of confidence now more than ever. If things started to unravel now, the whole station was in jeopardy.

"I've come bearing gifts, Ms.Reeve - in the form of personnel to temporarily take over the unmanned positions left by Musgrove's expedition. When those positions are filled, I and my crew will investigate the Helium ruins and, I hope, we will find out what's going on out there."

Ford spoke silently and briefly to some of his people and they unzipped their suits and gathered their equipment.
"Ms. Reeve, I brought some of my staff to join you temporarily. They're experienced with the type of hardware you have down here and you should be able to put them to work right away on general station maintenance and any of the tasks that aren't botany related." Ford indicated the six men and women who awaited Reeve's order.
"Thank you, Mr. Ford. We certainly need the help. What are you going to do?" Suddenly a man ran into the chamber.
"Ms. Reeve! I've got a transmission from Helium!"
Reeve, Ford and the young man ran back towards the control room, leaving the rest of crew to await the outcome of the message.
They arrived at the control room with the crackle and static of the incoming message filling the air and everyone froze as the chilling words issued forth.
"Tondelayo... Phobos - anyone... come in! - can't last much - KKKXXXXX!" The message ended abruptly, but no one spoke.
"We've got to get out there!" Ford said finally."Ms.Reeve, I'll need the precise navigational vectors and coordinates that Dr. Musgrove was using when he flew out there." Ford then directed his attention to the comm officer.
"What's you name, son?" He asked .
"Davis, Mr. Ford."
"Davis, connect me to Phobos station right away."
Davis made the connection and Ford spoke to Tracy.
"John, things are as bad down here as I thought they would be. I'm going into Tharsis!"
"Good luck, Tom... stay in touch."
"That's part of my plan, John. I need you to keep an eye on the weather for me. I'll report in as often as I can. Keep your eyes open, John. Ford out."

Tracy turned to look out at the vast, ruddy sphere that was the planet Mars. As harsh a mistress as there ever was, thought Tracy as he slowly approached the impenetrable transparent dome that held in the precious atmosphere. He studied the pocks and rilles of the Martian orb and sighed.
"I hope you find what you're looking for old friend."

The ground blurred past the hull of the small glider-car as it sped on its way as Ford, in the pilot's seat, studied readouts on a small collapsible screen. He consulted his wristwatch and reached for the comm switch.
"We'll arrive at the target site in approximately one hour and forty minutes, people. This is a rescue mission, so let's everyone check his or her weapon and rescue gear now, not later when it might be critical. Dr. Korven, you do the same; the survivors we find may need attention as fast as you can give it to them. Check your restraints, we're going to get some chop in a minute. Ford out."
Ford kept his crew busy in this fashion for the rest of the journey, their minds occupied and not contemplating whatever awaited them on the Plains of Tharsis. He gripped the steering column and accepted the burden of worry himself.
An hour passed uneventfully with only a few moments of wind buffeting. The landscape swept past, unchanging and eternal until soon, subtle changes began to make themselves noticed. A strange regularity began to emerge from the discordant chaos of the natural contours on the surface. An eery artificiality was apparent in the too-regular stone masses that slowly rose from the rusty sand of the Martian desert. As the vessel closed in on its destination, towering blocks and cracked spires jutted into the pink sky all around them. Everyone was shocked into a stunned silence as the flew over stupendous fragmented ruins that pre-dated mankind... maybe all life on Earth. Ford looked on in awe and grinned with pleasure.
"This is amazing!" Ford said in a low voice."The ruins of a Martian city... this changes everything. All of our history will be rewritten because of this one moment."
Dr.Korven made his way to the cockpit and leaned over Ford's shoulder for a better look.

"Good Lord, this is incredible. Unbelievable! This is a staggering discovery. Musgrove must be ecstatic."
"If he's still alive..." Ford said quietly.
The ruins rose higher became more rambling as they tried to maintain course. Soon all four points of the compass were filled to the horizon with the corroded relics of prehistory. During the final forty minutes of the flight only one structure stood apart from the redundancy of shattered buildings; a stark white cathedral-like shape that looked almost new in spite of the crumbled desolation around it. It stood at a skewed angle and all its gaps and fissures were filled with red dust which blew off and on without showing any trace of erosion. Ford whistled in amazement as they swung around the oddity, but they could not stop. Dr. Korven lowered a small, intricate camera and nodded at Ford.
"I've got plenty of photos of the thing, Mr. Ford. I'll make a nice framed print for you when we get back." Ford laughed .
"Thank you Doctor. I appreciate that very much. Okay, it looks like were coming up on the automatic signal beacon. You had better get strapped in back there. This might be a rough landing."
Korven made his way back to his seat and secured his harness.
"It's a weak signal but I should be able to pinpoint it." Ford manipulated the controls and the glider-car smartly responded.
I'm almost on top of it now, people. Everyone ready to move?" The crew signalled their readiness and Ford nodded in satisfaction. Circling the area of signal emission, ford strained to see some sign of the downed expedition. Ford's heart nearly skipped a beat as he spotted the glint of metal... torn metal. Musgrove's glider-car, or rather, several rended chunks of it, came into view. The pieces lay twisted and torn, strewn about amidst fragments of undercarriage and snapped cables and - - small, silvery shapes that Ford did not like the look of. Ford watched the spectacle grimly and was silent. He circled the shattered derelict once more and finally settled his craft down in an open spot. Even before the dust had settled, the hatch of the vessel popped open and several pistol armed, silver-suited figures sprang out in combat stances. They made one cautious circuit of their ship and when they were certain that the area was secure, the rest of the crew filed out warily.

Ford made a brief inspection of the area and finally spoke through his suit radio.
"Benson, Simmons... I want you both to remain aboard and keep the ship prepped for immediate evac. I want the obs dome manned at all times; Simmons, you have the first watch. The rest of you come with me." The group spread out to a thin line with about fifteen feet between each individual and made a slow circle around the disaster area. The last person in line fired a perimeter sensor peg into the frozen ground every 30 metres until the entire area lay within a sensor web that Ford could access with a portable terminal. As the last peg was inserted Ford keyed in the code sequence to access the sensor net and he began to examine the events as they happened. The computer tied into the ship system for enhancement and Ford was soon able to piece together at least the rudimentary aspects of the incident.
"This is very strange... The fragmentation of the ship was not due to impact... the ground marks indicate a normal landing. The ship looks like it exploded... yet there's no carbonization or blast rending of the torn edges. It's more like the ship was ... torn apart slowly." Ford analyzed some of the shards with closer scrutiny and found what he had been afraid of... indentations of claws. He recalibrated the scanner for motion sensing and checked the area for signs of movement and found none.
" Ok people... we're going to move in. Pair up and keep an eye on each other. Simmons, I'm counting on you to keep us informed of any movement outside our perimeter."
Ford led the group into the centre of the disaster zone, their guns now drawn and primed. Ford and his crew examined the torn wreckage up close and confirmed the unpleasant fact that claws had indeed torn the metal. Ford stood and approached one of the puzzling silver shapes that he failed to identify with his scanner. His worst fears were realized when he recognized the helmet with the shattered faceplate and the silver material of the pressure suit. The figure within, however, was not to be recognized. Ford knelt by the pitiful shape and motioned Dr. Korven to join him as the rest of the team photographed and catalogued the sections of wreckage. Ford turned off his radio link and connected a telephone cable to Korven's helmet jack.
"Doc, what do you make of this?

"I don't know, Mr. Ford. I've never seen anything like this... My instruments indicate that this body is almost completely dehydrated. Exposure to the Martian atmosphere certainly isn't the cause of this effect. I just can't explain it."
Ford felt the icy tingle of fear as the realization of what they might be facing began to grow more manifest. He opened the cracked faceplate of the fallen astronaut and gazed in horror at what lay within. The victim's sex was hard to determine because the face was wrinkled, desiccated, absolutely mummified. The mouth was pulled into a rictus of pain or terror and the eyes, now just wrinkled raisins of tissue, stared sightlessly into Ford's grim face.
"Doc, what about these round marks on the face and neck?"
"Yes, I noticed those... I thought that mottling might be a result of the extreme cold, but I can't be sure." Korven's face betrayed him and Ford noticed.
"I don't think so, Doc. You've come to the same conclusion as I just have... those claw marks on the wreckage and these dead astronauts are cause and effect! There's something alive and dangerous here and we are all running out of time. If there are survivors here then we have to find them fast before whatever totalled this ship comes after us." Ford disconnected the telephone line and reactivated the radio link. He briefly related what he and Dr. Korven had discovered about the desiccated dead to the rest of the crew
"People, we're not going to find out anything else looking around here. It looks like this tragedy was caused by some dangerous, living thing somewhere in this area. We have to locate what survivors there may be and leave this place as soon as possible." Some of the crew looked at Ford with uncertainty and the beginnings of fear.
"Look, I know that this seems incredible but I can find no other explanation for the marks on the wreckage fragments or the... condition of the dead around us. We have to move now. I want everyone to deactivate your homing disks. My guess is that whoever survived the attack, probably made their way into the ruins nearby. We should be able to pick up their homing disks. Doc, would you deactivate the disks on the dead please.... all right. I'm picking up a faint signal... follow me."
The group moved slowly after Ford, keeping a careful watch around them, their guns drawn and ready.

"Simmons, what's your status?"
"No change, Mr. Ford. Ship is on stand-by and no movement detected."
"Very good. Keep me posted, Ford out."
The group approached a tall pile of rubble and noticed that there were several openings leading to the interior. Ford's eyes narrowed as he realized that the creatures they were trying to avoid might well be waiting within. He drew his own pistol and took a deep breath.
"It looks like what we're looking for is inside, people. Turn on your helmet lights and no shooting unless you can see a legitimate target. Okay, let's do it!"
They entered, following Ford and leaving the murky red day behind them. Ahead, a dank, dust-filled cavern yawned before them. One of the crew dabbed a fluorescent marker on the craggy wall every ten feet or so to allow for a quick getaway if needed. The passage gradually narrowed and they were forced to move single file through the rough-hewn stone corridor. The floor was often heaped high with rusty sand and the dust raised by their passage made vision difficult. The beams of their powerful torches cut bright swaths through the reddish billows and it was difficult to maintain their sense of direction. Time seemed to drag on and on and Ford had to keep consulting his timepiece to prevent disorientation.
"Keep up the pace, folks; we're getting closer."
Ford suddenly stopped and he cocked his head within his helmet.
"Hang on! I'm hearing something over the comm system. Everyone keep quiet!" Ford listened, straining his ears to hear a sound, any sound that might indicate survivors. For a few moments he felt certain that the sound had only been in his head but as he strained to listen, faint voices wafted in and out of range. Faint but not imagined.
"I hear them! They're almost beyond range but I can hear voices! C'mon, people, doubletime! Let's go!" Ford's heart lifted as he realized that they might be able to save some of the stricken crew. He ploughed through the obstructing dust, out of breath from effort but as he was nearly at the point of collapse, he saw a faint light at the end of the jagged corridor.

"The light at the end of the tunnel, people. We're nearly there. Just a little way to go." Ford opened the circuit in the hope that the survivors might still have a functioning comm unit.
"Ford to Musgrove party, come in. Do you read? I repeat, do you read?" Ford strained to listen for a reply.
He listened hard for what seemed like an eternity but was rewarded with an answer.
"Who's there? Ford? Who is this?" The voice was faint and weak with static but unmistakeable. Ford almost laughed out loud from relief.
"This is Tom Ford from Phobos Rescue Team. We're here to take you home."
"Ph-phobos rescue team? My God, I can't believe it! Where are you?" The voice was skating the edge of hysteria and with good reason. If there were injuries, Ford would have to move even faster to extract them. He knew that whatever had caused this tragedy would be only too happy to continue its carnage with he and his group.
Ford continued on and finally saw dim light in the tunnel ahead. His group entered a small chamber that terminated the tunnel and had been made into a cul de sac due to the other openings being choked with rubble. The survivors of Musgrove's original team of ten, now numbered only five and would soon number less if the two obviously injured figures lying still on the gritty floor were not seen to immediately. One's poorly sealed suit-rip was caked with frozen blood revealing the broken leg within and the others huddled around one remaining oxygen cylinder, sharing the last of the vital gas.
"Doc, take care of those two. The rest of you... who's here?" Ford looked around at the sparse survival gear and the dark areas of frozen blood that frosted the debris around them. One figure rose unsteadily and approached Ford warily.
"Mr. Ford, it's me, Dr. Musgrove. Please, we have to get out of here, there's -"
"I know about the creatures outside, Doctor. Please calm down. Everything's under control for the moment. As soon as Dr. Korven has your survivors prepped for transport, we'll meet our glider car for immediate extraction. We're all armed and ready." Ford hoped he sounded calm and competent. In truth, he was getting the creeps in this dark cavern. He would have rather taken his chances in the open air.

"Mr. Ford, let me regain my composure. I have to tell you what you are facing... it might help us get out of here alive."
"Go ahead, Doctor. It'll be a few minutes before your people can be moved."
"We had been making only cursory investigations of the ruins outside because there was so much to cover. We decided to fly overhead and land in areas that looked promising from the air. We knew that in-depth study would have to be carried out over a period of years so we thought it would be acceptable to examine some of the highlights first. We had been taking samples and photographs for the last week and only landed in this area because there were an abundance of complete structures close to a clear landing area." Musgrove stopped briefly to drink from the spigot in his helmet and continued.
"The attack began almost as soon as we landed; no warning whatsoever. We had vacated the ship and were setting up some tripods for our cameras when they came at us. Jim Argyle was the first... he never had a chance," Musgrove paused as the horror, still fresh in his mind, washed over him and he related the events as they happened from the moment of first contact .

"Jim! For God's sake, run!!" Musgrove broke out of the paralysis of shock and fear that had stunned him the moment he and the others first saw the incredible beings shambling out of the ruins. It was so unexpected that they just stood there, watching - until it was too late to do anything but watch. In that eldritch moment, everything changed. What had started as an noble, exciting adventure into the unknown had, in a few seconds changed into a waking nightmare. It was too late for Jim Argylle. He stiffened at the first caress of greasy black suckers that sprang from under the six inch claws that were already tearing the ship apart. The sticky palps smacked onto the surface of the silver spacesuit and Jim Argylle screamed and arched his back as the alien creatures consumed him. Musgrove now moved with speed he didn't know he had as he tried to gather his group together. Four of the luckless explorers fell almost immediately as the creatures advanced from all sides but their sacrifice bought enough time for Musgrove to send the survivors off in the direction of the ruins where he ordered them to hide and stay put until he could get help. As they ran, he watched them leave amidst the hellish carnage that was exploding around them and turned to face the horde. Clutching the only thing resembling a weapon that the team had, Musgrove prepared for the end; the grappling hook launcher felt puny in his hands as he trembled with fear and loathing. One of the creatures mewled in mild curiosity and suddenly charged. The grapnel gun fired in a blast of smoke and flame, punching a stainless steel hook into the leathery chest of the beast, who fell, screeching and clawing at the steel shaft that impaled it. Musgrove stood in hideous anticipation of his almost certain demise when the creature fell and a dozen of its fellows leapt upon its corpse, suckers fastening onto its thick hide in barbarous glee. He turned and ran then, dropping the now-useless launching-tube. He hurriedly activated his tracking unit and attempted to find his people only looking back once to see the now- shrivelled body of the creature dragged away by its horrific peers and the torn and scattered remains of the glider-car that had got them there.
Musgrove concluded his account and sat silently. He looked exhausted as well he might from his ordeal and sipped again from the spigot.. Ford knew that he had better get everyone moving now, before fear and fatigue set in and slowed them down so he continued to question Musgrove in order to keep him alert and occupied. By now, they had the injured survivors taped up and medicated and were carrying them along the corridor back towards the entrance. Ford led the way with his gun tightly gripped and the safety off as he scanned the dim path before them.
"What do you think those creatures are, Doctor?"
"An indigenous life-form to be sure. A true Martian. They must have been dormant or hibernating for all these untold centuries, buried by the age-old dust until the ruins were finally uncovered by that freak sand-storm. The increasing scarcity of water on Mars perhaps led evolution to fashion a sort of water-predator or vampire. If we survive this, the discovery of living Martians will be a tremendous revelation," Musgrove said speculatively.
"Now you're sounding like your old self, Doctor," Ford laughed in spite of the mounting tension,"Whatever those things may be, they certainly didn't build these ruins. Who those Martians were is a question that may never be answered- Hey! Everyone! I see a light up ahead. We're nearly clear of this tunnel."

Ford tension grew as they approached the tunnel's exit and weak, pink light began to filter in towards them. Ford moved ahead of the group and peered out at the wasteland beyond the crumbling egress, bracing for attack. Seeing nothing, he tapped his comm unit.
"Simmons! Benson! What's your status?" Ford spoke loudly as he continued to scan around him.
"Simmons here, Mr. Ford. All's well so far. Benson thinks he saw a flash of movement off our starboard side but I saw nothing. We're keeping an eye on that spot, though."
"Lift off immediately and home in on our signal. I don't want to risk another attack by strolling about in the open, especially now that we have injured. Do it, Mr. Simmons!"
With a roar and whoosh of jets the young pilot wasted no time in heaving the ship upward and away from that scene of grim carnage. The vessel skimmed low, occasionally swerving around pinnacles of shattered masonry, when Simmons located the group, now formed in a defensive circle in a rubble-strewn clearing. Simmons grimaced as he hovered the ship, now uncertain. He watched in helpless horror as he finally saw what now held the group at bay.

Ford had been surprised and he cursed himself for it. He had let his vigilance slip for just a moment and now they might all have to pay for it. He had concluded his orders to Simmons and then decided to lead the group out to a clearing large enough to accept the glider-car. He and his people had checked the surrounding boulder field and had found nothing so Ford chose to set out a triangle of marker flares to assist Simmons in locating them. He and his own co-pilot, Mark Rolston left the group momentarily to lay the markers. Ford had installed two of the flares which now crackled and hissed in blazing incandescence when he heard a scream from his comm unit. Ford drew his pistol and looked around him feverishly. His view was blocked at strategic intervals by shards of ruin now that he had left the clearing and he ran back to the group as fast he could navigate around the rubble. He reached the edge of the clearing when he saw Rolston brought down by three of the water-vampires. The moments that followed would be etched on Ford's soul forever as Rolston, still alive, tried to crawl away from the alien monsters only to be sucked lifeless by countless grasping, ravenous palps. Ford, his teeth clenched in a rictus of horror and terror, aimed his pistol and fired into the rapacious mass, the big gun bucking with heavy recoil. Ford squeezed the trigger, round after armour-piercing round blazing into the shambling killers. They fell back, roaring in pain and anger and were immediately set upon by their fellow creatures, now victims themselves. Ford glimpsed a fleeting shadow out of the corner of his eye and whirled just in time to fire his last three rounds into the chest of a towering grey monster that had tried to outflank him. He lowered his gun and ran back to his group slamming a fresh clip into the magazine of his gun.
At this point, he saw the silvery shape of the glider-car swoop around a shattered building and he raced to his companions.
By the time Ford rejoined the others, the creatures were slowly gaining ground, loping from behind shielding rubble only to seek refuge behind more closer by. The were encroaching carefully, now aware of the danger of exposure to the weapons of the little silver morsels. The monsters showed a cunning intelligence and Ford was left wondering if the original Martians may have fallen victim to these predators at some point long ago. He let loose a flurry of blasts that sent two of the creatures scurrying for cover and one to its grave. Geysers of rock shrapnel exploded from distant bullet impacts as the group tried to hold off the beings but it was soon apparent that water-lust would soon overpower self-preservation for most of the creatures and an all-out rush would soon be upon them all. Ford knew that they would all be doomed if that happened and that it was time to act.
"Simmons! Come down within our defensive circle. Don't touch down, just hover. Do it now!"
Simmons and Benson looked at each other with sweat-beaded faces and nodded. The glider-car gently lowered further and further down until it was within a foot of the ground and its door popped open. Ford, brandishing a heavy pistol in each hand, blasted away all around him like a crazed gunslinger as the survivors and his crew leapt or were carried aboard the ship. The creatures, now aware that they were soon to be deprived of a feast, immediately charged, mindless of Ford's barrage of gunfire. Ford looked with narrowed eyes at the oncoming horde and at the fragile vessel hovering gently.
"Simmons, take off! I repeat, take off now! "
"Mr.Ford, I-"

"Do it, man! They're almost upon you! Launch! Launch now!" Simmons looked stricken but hit the main thrust control and the glider car surged upward amidst a cloud of dust and propellant. Dr. Korven and the harried Dr. Musgrove looked at each other in sick disbelief as the vehicle circled once and sped away, climbing away from the fractured ruins that hid so much danger.

The crew sat in silence as the silver craft rose into the pink, cloudless sky. No one spoke as they contemplated what had just happened. After all that had occurred, it seemed unbelievably wrong to have lost -
"Simmons, do you read me? Come in." Simmons started in shock as he heard the voice and Korven and the rest leaned forward in their seats in mystified awe.
"Mr. Ford, is that you? Simmons whispered.
"Yes it's me, Simmons. Will you open the main hatch please? I won't be able to hang on to the landing strut for much longer."
"Yes sir!" Simmons almost laughed as Benson keyed the control. Dr. Korven reached out and caught Ford's outstretched hand and drew him in through the open hatch, wind whistling in.
A few moments later and Ford sat in the back of the glider-car, gratefully taking a pull from Korven's dented hip flask. The eyes of all aboard were silently resting on Ford's every move and he sensed it. He shook his head, not knowing what to say or do about it.
"Thanks Doc. That should steady the hands for a while. That was some nightmare out there. How are Dr. Musgrove and the rest of his people?"
I've administered a sedative to all of them. They're nearly exhausted and all of them were in deep shock. Even Dr.Musgrove was getting the shakes until I put him out. To be honest, I could use another shot from that flask if you don't mind." Ford smiled as he handed the battered silver bottle to the Doc who took a surreptitious swig before returning to the inspection of his patients. He took a moment to stretch and close his eyes for a moment before he returned to his place in the front when he, quite against his better judgement, nodded off to sleep. Korven made his way to the cockpit and told Simmons and Benson to continue on their way to Tondelayo and that he would inform the base of the Musgrove expedition's fate.

Ford was shaken from a pleasant dream to hard reality in the matter of a few seconds. He had been reunited with his grandfather and was enjoying a pleasant conversation with the only member of his family that he knew when the dream was shattered by a stomach-wrenching heave and blindingly painful impact with something hard. Stars swirled and collided for a small eternity when reality began to seep back in. Ford rubbed his eyes and the back of his head and looked around him. He heard yelling and radio static and the outside buffeting of high wind. He shook his head and unfastened his harness, grimly approaching the cockpit.
"Simmons, what's going on?" Ford said hoarsely, looking with narrowed eyes out the front ports.
"We've hit a wind squall of some kind, Mr. Ford. Benson was just going to contact Phobos and see if they could give us a path out of this."
"Proceed, Mr. Benson."
Simmons didn't sound worried but he looked it. Ford knew the man had little experience flying the high winds and was about to suggest they switch places when a scratchy contact was made with Phobos.
"Tr-cy to Ford re--cue party!KKKKXXXXXX Come in! You've got to get out of --ere! There's a major --orm front -oming in fro- the Tharsis Plateau KKKKKXXXXXX-irectly behin- you!"
Benson tried to filter the static but Ford knew the source of the static and it was useless. Communication would cut off altogether in a few minutes if a really big storm was under way and he would need the stats of that storm if they were going to get back to Tondelayo at all, let alone safely. Ford took the offered microphone from a pale Benson and pressed the 'send' button.
"Ford here, John. We read you but just barely. Can you relay the stats of that storm to us directly? If it catches us I want to be able to find a way out of it. We will attempt to push ahead of it and make it in before it gets too dicey." Ford tried not to look tense but it was difficult. These youngsters had no idea what lay ahead; no one had ever been caught in a Martian dust storm before. At least, no one had ever flown into the teeth of one and survived. Ford returned the microphone to Benson, nodding to himself as the readouts appeared on a small screen and then spoke quietly.

"Mr. Simmons, would you mind letting me take your place at the wheel? I think Dr.Korven could use some help in back there." Simmons tried not to sigh with relief when Ford replaced him and he gratefully went back to the passenger bay to assist Korven.
Ford settled into the seat and buckled his harness. Apart from the first violent outburst of buffeting, the ship rode smoothly and he hoped that would be the worst of it. Ford smiled in spite of himself as he thought about the recent turn of events; this was the type of incident that he had only experienced in his dreams. A daring rescue, a chance to fly again... a sense of true purpose once more. Ford's smile faded when he remembered the six who had died to provide this little enterprise for him. He swallowed audibly and felt a flush of shame. The true nature of this so-called adventure finally made itself plain to him: lives were the cost of adventuring... and it must never be forgotten. Ford, sobered by the cost of this mission, gripped the control wheel with unnecessary pressure and said nothing.
He touched a button and a small screen lit up on the panel in front of him. With some manipulation of knobs a grainy replica of the outside view appeared and Ford flipped a lever that would activate the rear-facing camera. At first, nothing seemed out of the ordinary but as the image brightened and sharpened, a thin but broad band of darkness stretched across the horizon. Ford had never seen it from this angle before, but his vast experience led him to conclude, with some measure of fascinated horror, that it was the pursuing dust-storm they had been warned about. Ford breathed a curse and braced himself for a rough ride. He didn't want to warn the others just yet - there was little they could do but hang on, anyway. He would say nothing until it could no longer be ignored. This might be the end for all of them, so why panic everyone prematurely? There was nothing but the soft roar of the engines and the muffled sound of conversation behind him when a voice from the back of the ship yelled out.
"My God, it's right behind us!" It was Simmons' voice.
"What is it? Speak up Simmons!" Ford shook his head grimly. "Here's where it begins..."
"It's a dust storm, Mr. Ford! The one we felt the outer edge of a few minutes ago. It's caught up with us. I can see it out the rear port."

"Strap yourselves in, everyone! I'm going to increase altitude and speed. We can't be more than ten minutes from Tondelayo Base now and I know we can make it!" Ford hoped that he wouldn't be held accountable in the next life for issuing promises he had no power of granting. Then he considered... maybe he did have the power to grant this one promise. He steeled himself and renewed the grip on the wheel. He dug deep into his vast experience of ship piloting and prepared for the worst. Already the howling and buffeting of the outside air was increasing and the small vessel was beginning to fight him for control. Ford risked a glance at the monitor and he watched in amazed horror as the dark, ominous dome of rusty sand rolled toward the fleeing craft with unbelievable speed. Bludgeoning fists of wind hammered at the hull of the small craft as Ford tried to angle the vehicle to ride with the storm and lessen the assault. He cringed as he heard the creaking and moaning of the contorted frame of the aircraft he realized that if they did not reach Tondelayo soon, they might never be found, much less survive. Ford scanned the land before him, trying to peer through the clouds of ruddy dust that had overtaken the ship. He looked frantically for the flash of an emergency beacon and after a few nerve-wracking moments, yelled out in triumph.
"I see it! I see it up ahead! Hold on, I'm taking her in!" Ford wrestled with the controls and managed to maintain course, the tiny silver dome of Tondelayo growing in size before them, its winking beacon beckoning them in. The little craft swung in low, just clearing the point of a transmission tower and made its final approach. The weathered and sand-pitted glider-car touched down and slid to a halt in a swirl of red dust and a scream of tortured metal. The ship settled down, its engines choked with sand when the grit-jammed hatch blew away with a crack of explosive bolts. A frantic group of silver-skinned figures, all joined by a thin cable, sought shelter behind the bulk of the downed glider-car, and watched the brightly flashing beacon that marked their deliverance. Ford, the last one to leave the now-derelict vessel, hoisted one of the injured survivors on his back and staggered through the threshold, taking one last glance at the interior of the valiant little ship that had given its all to save them.

"Thanks..." He said quietly as he patted the still-smooth metal of the hatch frame and then followed the others. When he left the half-buried ship he attached the cable to his belt and led the group towards the half-obscured but still visible beacon. At his signal, the group sprinted towards the light trying not to get disoriented by the confusing swirls and gusts. "Keep your eye on the beacon... don't look away from it. We're almost there!" Ford shouted to be heard above the howling din. They seemed to move in slow motion, the maelstrom of sand and wind stretching each minute into an hour. Ford's head ached and his legs began to feel wobbly with the strain of shuffling through this endless dust and the dead weight of the injured men on his back. His breath began to get ragged and his eyesight began to blur dangerously. He gritted his teeth with effort and frustration as the beacon seemed no closer than when they had started. The wind seemed even more violent now and Ford had the sinking feeling that they he was walking in circles and his people were following him to their doom. He had nearly convinced himself that this was the case when a huge, round object loomed in front of him. He resisted the urge to panic and forced himself to study the object until he realized with a whoop of delight, that it was the main airlock door of the Tondelayo Base. He approached with renewed vigour and slammed his fist onto the emergency 'open' control and the massive door slid open letting out a stream of golden light from within. Ford lowered the injured man from his back and motioned one of the others to take him inside while he counted and made sure all of the silver-suited figures made it in safely. Only then, did Ford himself finally enter. The door now closed slowly, thundering shut as mighty hydraulics grated past contaminating sand. With a boom more felt than heard, the hatch locked and air began to hiss inwards. A green light flashed over the small inner hatch and the door swung open as Terry Reeve and a makeshift team of medics stormed in and began to administer to the wounded. Ford unlatched his helmet and shrugged it off , his forehead drenched with perspiration and Reeve turned from greeting her colleague Musgrove approaching Ford hesitantly.
"You did a great job, Mr. Ford. I can't thank you enough." She smiled shyly and took Ford's hand in her own.
"I'm glad I could help, Ms. Reeve. I only wish there hadn't been so many casualties," Ford thought briefly about poor Mark Rolston and he just managed to suppress a shudder, "Ms. Reeve, would you help me with this suit?" Reeve smiled at the request and began to assist Ford in unfastening the belts and clasps of his suit as the flurry of activity went on around them.

Six hours after Ford had doffed his alumiskin suit, eaten a modest meal and washed up, he now stood at the observation port contemplating the bright point of light that was Phobos. He had spoken to John Tracy and had made arrangements to be shuttled back up and was now just marking time until he returned. A small sound made him turn around, disturbing his reverie.
"Hello Mr. Ford. I just wanted to see you before you went back to Phobos." Terry Reeve entered the nearly empty room to face him.
"Hello, Ms. Reeve. How are the wounded? Is Dr. Musgrove all right?" he smiled in reply.
"They're all doing fine." Reeve approached Ford and stood close to him, looking out of the thick port. "I was just talking to Dr. Musgrove and he wanted me to talk to you. He was very impressed with you and your team and wanted me to ask you if you had any plans for the future. If weather observing begins to get boring for you then we have a proposition for you. Now that it looks like there may be a lot of potential archaeology traffic in the future, our operations may have to expand to assist all the expeditions that may be mustered here. You're probably the most experienced man on Mars right now, and Dr. Musgrove feels that you should be on hand to brief expeditions as they embark from here. It would also be useful for the armed backup units that would escort each team." Reeve turned to look at Ford, who appeared thoughtful.
"I have ten months of duty left on Phobos, then I'm finished. Space Corp has an unbreakable rule concerning retirement; at age forty, it's over. No appeal, no argument. I'd love to take you up on this offer but I don't think I'll be allowed to." Ford looked sadly at Reeve and took her hand.
Reeve smiled at Ford and squeezed back.
"Dr. Musgrove has already made some preliminary inquiries and due to the enormity of your discovery and your major part in the rescue of the expedition, the Space Corp has rescinded their rule on retirement regulations as far as you're concerned." Ford looked incredulous.
"Are - are you serious? I - I don't know what to say... " Ford stared at Reeve, nearly speechless.

"Of course, there's all kinds of other things we could keep you busy with in between expedition briefings. I think we can teach you how to run a place like this in no time at all. What do you say? Can we turn an weatherman like you into a farmer?" Reeve looked appraisingly at Ford.
"I think you could... I really think you could." Ford laughed, a sound he had not made in a very long time. He put his arms around Reeve without thinking and held her close to him as she smiled, her eyes half closed. He stared out into purple sky and watched the bright star of Phobos set and thought about John Tracy, the rest of his crew and his previous life in Space Corp with all of the grubby, dirty tasks that came with it and he felt good. For the first time in his lengthy career he could truly say he was happy. How long that might last he could not say but for now, he didn't care.
He had a future again and that was all that mattered.

Completed Dec. 5, 1996


This is a promising start, I look forward to the "tighter" version that Jack recommended.

There were a few pieces of technology that seemed a bit odd to me. We already have WiFi and Bluetooth, but private communication between space suites requires a phone line? A switch that cam be flipped seems outdated as well. Finaly, suckers and claws? I had a hard time envisioning this biologically.


You're right about the out-dated tech. It gives a clue as to when this story was originally written. I do have a defense for the old-style systems though; hard wired communication and activator switches are less prone to electromagnetic interference and outside tampering. They are also a sign of design elements that were not updated as technology improved; an example is the primitive computer systems originally installed on the Space Shuttle that are now quite obsolete by current standards and are generally bypassed in favour of superior, portable units.
As for suckers and claws; claws at the ends of the digits, suckers at the base. At least, that's how I see it. I will attend to that bit of detail when I revise the story.

You have a story with

You have a story with characters, conflict, and a plot here. A very good start.

Suggestions for improvement: Find a way to cut this to under 7,000 words; under 5,000 if you can -- otherwise add more story. Try cutting out every other line of description or exposition and almost all of the beginning. Start the story with immediate conflict of some kind and introduce the backstory later in ways that reinforce plot points. Work on your sentence structure and use of commas (see 'Strunk and Whites' manual of style for help).