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What would the first human on Mars say?  The words chosen will echo through history in the same way that Neil Armstrong’s famous line has.  That’s a lot of pressure for whomever is chosen to be the first person on the planet.  They’d better pick something profound!

The BBC has been asking people to contribute on Twitter, using the hashtag #BBCMARS, and in the comments of this article.  Here are some of the best (serious and otherwise):

hum “Mars, the Bringer of War” by Gustav Holst (@oz_penguin)

It was once said ‘a small step for man’ but today we make that giant leap 4 mankind (@welsh_steve25)

once again my dear friends we take a step into the unknown (@SirPhil1983)

‘Well, for this night we will repose us here: /To-morrow toward London back again’ Shakespeare 2H6 II.i. (@Shakes_Today)

Where’s the Mars bar? (@JohnnyReaction)

‘we step beyond the capability of man kind, yet again.’ (@caitlin_ent)

“It’s land, Jim, but not as we know it.” (@eridanus)

Here are my suggestions.  Bonus points for people who recognise the source of inspiration for the first few.

“Quick!  Get the Easy Listening music!”

“Dark is the suede that mows like the harvest.”

“Yesterday, the moon.  Today, Mars.  Tomorrow, the universe!  Mwa-ha-ha-ha-haaaa!”

“Hey, what are all these dead cats doing here?”

And, more seriously,

“That’s just one more step in mankind’s journey to the stars.”

What would you like the first person on Mars to say?  What would you say if it were you?

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Tzk’l scratched at his ar’dh with one forelimb.  He glanced at his podmates to see how they were reacting to what they had discovered.  Mrrk’l was frowning pensively, while Pyk’l was clearly upset, his ppdorth drooping in a most unattractive way.

“Why?  Why would anyone do that?”  Pyk’l moaned.  The damage to the first two experiments wasn’t too bad.  A trace of foreign contaminant, some lingering pressure holes.  The third experiment was ruined, the tkali structures set back decades in growth.  There was traces of fire damage, something which should have been impossible on the planet in question.  Four, five and six were fine, apart from traces of the same contaminant that tainted the first two, although the logs from the gravity generators on Five showed some unexpected readings.  It had taken many drrr to clean the contaminant from the atmospheres of the planets, and the podmates were frustrated.

The three podmates were approaching the seventh experimental planet, intent on discovering if there was any damage to this one.  They hoped not – Seven was the most promising of the experiments and it would be a shame if it were ruined.  It would decrease the un’k of their pod and require them to send one podmate to the home world for retraining.  However, given that the damage extended to all of the other planets in the system it was very likely that this one had also been ruined.

They slipped into orbit around the planet and within seconds a picture was building up of the surface.  Mrrk’l hissed, his ar’dh twitching uncontrollably.

“The experiment shows the same contaminant.  No damage detected yet, but analysis shows that if the contaminant remains for longer than one drrr there will be irredeemable changes to the biosphere.

“Begin the cleaning process,” instructed Pyk’l.

Tzk’l instructed the computer, and soon three rescue pods were racing towards the atmosphere.  When they touched the outer edge they slowed and began scrubbing the air to remove the contaminant, a polycarbon string molecule with nano-fibre attachments.

Tzk’l was watching the readouts closely, and he began to notice something odd.  The contaminant levels were not dropping as fast as they should be.  He released another rescue pod.  Perhaps one of the pods was not working as efficiently as it should.  The rate of cleansing increased, but it was still not as fast as it should be.  He frowned.

“Mrrk’l, what is the status of the surface scan?”

“It finished 2 ikkitz ago, why?”

“Is there a foreign body present?”

“You think the source of the contaminant is still present?” asked Pyk’l.

“The cleansing is not proceeding as fast as expected.  If more contaminant was being released it would explain it.”

“Hum.  You are correct.  The scan shows a foreign body present on the northern continent.  It is large – a spaceship, perhaps.  A smaller body is present also, emitting lower amounts of contaminant.”  Mrrk’l’s ar’dh was twitching at a ferocious rate.

“Can both be removed from orbit?”

“The smaller, perhaps, but the larger is too heavy for our tractors.  The smaller appears to be a life form, I’m not sure how it would react to being removed.”

“A spaceship and a life form?  Mrrk’l, are you sure?”  Pyk’l’s ppdorth stood tall, and his eyes were bright with excitement.  Mrrk’l was oblivious to the rising mood in the lab, however.  His voice still reflected anger.

“Yes, the scans are definitive.”

Tzk’l had caught on to what Pyk’l was implying.  “If we discovered alien life – just think how high our un’k would rise!  The ruination of this experiment would be forgotten.  We must go down there.”

Quickly, the shiplab was instructed to land next to the foreign contaminant.  The three podmates emerged with no regards for safety protocols or experimental contamination.  If they could not remove the alien life form the experiment was ruined anyway, and if they succeeded in removing it they could fix the experiment later.

The alien spaceship was sleek and shiny.  It was roughly half the size of the podmate shiplab.  There appeared to be no sign of dzuuzi engines, which led Tzk’l to believe that it was powered with some primitive burning compound.  How this race ever managed to get into space was a puzzle best left for another time.  He waved around his ar’dh and pointed towards a wooded area.

“The trail of contaminants leads in that direction.”

The three set off to hunt down the alien life form inhabiting their experiment.  Very quickly they were under the trees, dappled sunlight making ever-changing patterns on the leaf-covered ground.  The trail of contaminants led in a wide arc through the woods, and the three followed it for perhaps half a klkkk until they came to a clearing where the sunshine fell unhindered from above.  At the edge, leaning against a tree, was the life form.

It was bright white.  It seemed to consist of a long thin trunk with two high branches and two low branches.  The lower branches were horizontal, bent out to the side.  The trunk and upper branches were almost vertical, leaning against the tree.  There was a soft rasping sound coming from the figure, and Tzk’l wondered whether it was an attempt at communication.  The noise didn’t change when the podmates approached, through, so perhaps it was a natural sound emitted by the creature?

Mrrk’l hesitantly reached out and touched the top of the being.

“Hard, feels like synthetics.  Perhaps this is an outer shell?  Something protective like those who engage in dangerous experiments wear?”

“There is nothing dangerous here,” scoffed Pyk’l.

“There is nothing dangerous to us.  This creature may be different.”

“True.”

Pyk’l poked the lower branches of the creature.  “It is softer down here.”  The creature twitched slightly when touched, and began to squirm.  Suddenly it let out a loud scream, almost too high pitched for the podmates to feel.  It unfolded at a remarkable rate, becoming entirely vertical and causing the three podmates to leap backwards.  The lower branches were revealed to be a very effective locomotion system, and the podmates watched in astonishment as the figure disappeared into the distance at high speed.

A metal replica of the creature, until now unnoticed in the shade of the trees, whirred into motion and followed the creature at a slower pace.  The podmates followed it curiously, attempting to talk to it but getting no response.  It led them directly back to the alien spaceship, where it disappeared into a hatch.  The spaceship immediately started to emit huge quantities of the contaminant, and slowly began to rise into the air.  It gained speed quickly, emitting a horrible whine.  The podmates ran back to their shiplab and entered the control room.

Tzk’l commanded the rescue pods to continue their cleansing work while Mrrk’l set the shiplab to follow the alien.  They had left orbit and were well on the way to leaving the system when the alien ship suddenly shivered and then disappeared.  One moment it was there, and the next it was simply gone.

“Where did it go?”  Tzk’l asked.  The others shook their heads in shared bewilderment.

“That did not look like dzuuzi engine output.  The alien race must have found some other way to travel long distances.  We must examine the data before we can learn to track the spaceship.”

“It will be an interesting challenge.”

 

Goldie fired up the engines.  The gravity waves coming from the previous planet were still going strong, but they were pushing her away from the next planet in the system.  She began to cut across the gravity fields and eventually dropped into orbit around the planet.  Some preliminary surface scans showed a vast ocean, with hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of small islands.  Some of them were only centimetres across.  She brought up a more in-depth scan and studied the results.

The largest island was 45 metres wide, 60 metres long, and surrounded by waters deeper than they had any right to be.  Goldie couldn’t imagine the type of geological processes which caused that to happen.  Perhaps it had something to do with the gravity waves coming off the larger planet next door?

Whatever the reason, the fact remained that none of the islands were large enough for her to land the ship on, and the water was too deep to risk landing partially on an island.  She would have to skip this planet and move on to the seventh, and final planet in the system.

“Ah well,” she thought philosophically, “at least it gives me more time to work on my NaNoWriMo entry.”

 

Just kidding.

Here’s the real story:

 

Goldie fired up the engines.  The gravity waves coming from the previous planet were still going strong, but they were pushing her away from the next planet in the system.  She began to cut across the gravity fields and eventually dropped into orbit around the planet.  Some preliminary surface scans showed one massive super-continent covering most of the planet, and a vast array of different species of plant life.  The most exciting thing was a collection of buildings near the equator.  They seemed to be made of complex materials, mostly metal alloys.  Definitely constructed by intelligent hands!

This was the first true proof of alien life that Goldie had come across.  There were rumours of other explorers, other employees of the Company, who had encountered aliens.  Some claimed that if you met aliens the Company would take you away and question you, and you might never see daylight again.  Others claimed that finding aliens got you a huge reward, so large that you retired to live out your life in luxury.  Nobody really knew.  Goldie suspected that nobody had ever actually met aliens before.  Surely they wouldn’t be able to hide it?  Wouldn’t everyone know?

But here was proof of alien intelligence.

These buildings, on a planet which no human had ever set foot on, meant that the human race was no longer alone in the universe.  Provided, of course, that they were inhabited.  Suddenly anxious, Goldie re-examined the scan.  The buildings didn’t show any life signs, but they were, as far as she could tell, complete.  No crumbling edges or caved-in roofs, and the vegetation around them was well-controlled.  Perhaps they were still inhabited.

If that was the case, what should she do?  What if the aliens were primitives and thought she was a devil coming from the sky?  Or what if they were unfriendly?  She wasn’t trained in first contact – but then who was?  Humans had been out in the universe for hundreds of years now, and not encountered any other life forms, how could anyone be an expert in meeting aliens?

The chances were they wouldn’t even recognise her as a life-form.  Her sensors weren’t picking up life-signs from the planet, after all.  If they were that different their sensors probably wouldn’t pick her up either.

Maybe.

Enough dithering.  Her job was to explore the planets that she found, just a quick preliminary survey, and send the data back to the Company.  She couldn’t do it from up here.  Quickly, before she lost her nerve, she punched in a course for the computer to land the craft near the buildings.  While she was waiting she packaged up the data she had gathered so far and sent it off.  The Company didn’t like incomplete data sets like that, normally they insisted on a full system review before any reporting, but if there were aliens, and they were unfriendly, she wanted people to know about it.

The spaceship gently touched down a few hundred metres from the buildings.  Goldie pulled herself into her spacesuit and loaded the bot up with supplies.  Before she stepped out of the airlock she carefully checked the outside conditions.  Reasonable temperature, a nice, non-toxic atmosphere, and gravity well within the expected norms for this planet size.

“Looks like the aliens are all I need to worry about on this planet,” she said to the bot.  It looked at her, but didn’t say anything.  Once more she wished for a decent conversation-bot.  It would make the loneliness much easier to bear.

The airlock finished cycling, and she stepped out onto the planet.  Almost immediately the suit’s external microphone relayed a loud buzzing noise.  It sounded like… crickets?  Or maybe mosquitoes.  She always got those two muddled up in her classes at school.  It’s not like she encountered either of them very often out here.  The source of the buzzing seemed to be the buildings.  Maybe it was the sound of the alien language?  That could make communicating hard.  She set off to walk the short distance to the structures.

As she approached she examined them closely.  They were relatively small, obviously designed for individuals or small groups, rather than huge numbers of people.  The structure seemed to be mostly metal, with small amounts of some other substance mixed in.  She would have to look closely at it when she got there to find out what it was.  She drew closer, and more details began to emerge.  There was no sign of a door on this side of any of the structures, but there were small holes at various heights with a hazy field around them.

She arrived at the nearest structure moments later, and began to circle it slowly.  No matter which side she looked at, there was no sign of a door, or entrance of any sort.  There were only the small holes.  She looked closer at the hazy field and noticed that it was made up of millions of tiny particles, all moving around.  As she watched, she became convinced that there was some sort of purpose to the movement.  Some of the particles were going into the holes, and some emerging.  Every so often a group would go off around the building.  She followed one group and watched as they passed into another opening further around.

It was when a large group of the particles floated past with a small branch held in the midst of the group that she realised what she was seeing.  The particles were alive.  They were working together, somehow transporting things and, presumably, building these structures.  Amazing.

Amazing, yes, but there was no way she was able to do more than observe here.  There was no first contact to be had when she could barely see the creatures.  She couldn’t even say for certain if they were intelligent or not, although the presence of buildings seemed to indicate the possibility.  She took a cursory wander around the rest of the structures, finding them all the same, and then knelt to take some samples of the earth.  With luck there would be some dead creatures in the samples.  That would make the boys in the labs happy.

Disappointed, but slightly relieved that the burden of first contact wouldn’t be falling on her today, Goldie made her way back to the spaceship and left the planet.

 

The planet loomed large in Goldie’s viewscreen.  She zoomed out a little and sat back to study the latest adventure opportunity.  The planet was pretty big, especially compared to the other planets in the system.  She was puzzled – why were the orbits of the others not affected more by this planet?  How did they all manage to survive in the same orbit anyway?  Everything she had ever learnt about astrophysics told her this should not be possible.

Shrugging off the mystery for now, she brought up the sensor analysis of the planet.  The atmosphere was good, mostly oxygen and nitrogen.  A little thicker than she would expect, but nothing too unusual.  There was a smattering of plant matter, mostly small things, but the sensors couldn’t see any animal life.  Half the time the sensors couldn’t pick up animal life when she was over inhabited worlds, though, so that didn’t mean anything.

Idly she wondered when they were going to invent better sensors.  With all the advances they were making in other fields of science she couldn’t understand why sensor technology was so bad.

Well, she wasn’t going to find out anything more about the planet from up here.  She slid along the console to the flight controls and tapped in some commands.  The ship began to descend towards the planet.

When she was still a couple of miles off the surface, Goldie became aware of a strained whine coming from the speakers.  She glanced at the engine logs and noticed that they were straining slightly.  Ever since the 21st century and the advent of the electric car, people had known that engine noise was important.  Originally, it had been so that people noticed the near-silent vehicles, but pretty soon people had realised that the driver got a lot out of it too.  These days, engines made “noise” inside the control room of spaceships to give pilots another way of monitoring what was going on.  Goldie couldn’t remember how many times engine noise had caused her to find a problem that she wouldn’t otherwise have noticed.

The straining wasn’t too bad, though she would have to have a look at the engines before she tried to take off again.  It was probably just one of the drive pods drifting out of alignment again.

Soon she was setting down on the planet.  There hadn’t been any particular features to aim for on this one, so she was in the midst of a large open savannah.  She would take some samples and have a quick look around.  If none of the plants turned out to be toxic this might make a good planet for a colony.

Pulling on her spacesuit, Goldie checked that the bot was fully loaded with supplies.  Gesturing it to follow her, she stepped into the airlock and touched the controls.  Air began hissing out around her, and she stood briefly in a vacuum before the planet’s air began to fill the chamber.  When the cycle was complete she opened the outer door and stepped through.

As soon as she left the spaceship the artificial gravity fell away and she felt a crushing weight pushing down on her.  She staggered and her vision went a little grey around the edges.  The bot, less at the mercy of whimsical human biological responses, merely shifted its weight to compensate for the new circumstances.  After a moment she was able to stand up straight, but she could tell that she would be tiring quickly and the continued greying of her vision was a problem.

The high gravity worried her.  None of her scans had implied that there would be anything like this level of force at surface level.  The size of the planet meant it should be higher than Earth Standard, yes, but not this high.  She took some readings on her data slate.  4.6 times ES!  No wonder she was having trouble standing up.  She couldn’t stay here very long.  She was already going to have a whopping headache from this.  Considering her options, she gratefully decided to go back inside straight away.  She could send the bot out to get the samples.

Head spinning, she stepped back into the airlock and felt the blood rush back to her head.  Instructing the bot to leave most of its supplies in the airlock, she gave it the sampling kit and sent it with the instructions to walk a hundred metres before taking a sample of the earth and the vegetation.  As soon as it stepped outside of the airlock she started the cycle and was soon making her way back into the comfort of the main cabin.

After she stripped off her spacesuit, she focussed the viewscreen on the bot.  It was making slow but steady progress towards its target, so she decided to spend the time checking over the engines.  She headed out of the main cabin and into the bowels of the ship.  The engine room was right at the back, well away from the main cabin.  The door swished open as she approached and she surveyed the room.  Nothing appeared to be out of place, but the sounds she had heard on the descent were more consistent with small mis-alignments than large problems.  She was going to have to check each component individually.

Sighing, Goldie reached for the toolbox that was strapped to the wall by the door and set to work.

—-

Goldie sat back on her heels with a groan, rubbing the small of her back with one hand.  She had found and corrected two minor problems with the engines, but neither of them were large enough to have caused the pained whining from earlier.  She frowned thoughtfully while she put the tools away.

Back in the main cabin, the bot was standing by the airlock, having stopped there after it returned.  It was still holding the samples it had collected, and Goldie examined them carefully before storing them in the lab for later analysis.  For once, it seemed, the bot had done its task well.

Well, if she couldn’t go outside, there was nothing keeping her here.  Perhaps the next planet would be more hospitable and she could have a true adventure.  Slipping into the command chair, Goldie set a course to leave the atmosphere.

The ship slowly took off – more slowly than normal, she thought, and increased the power from the engines.  That whining was back, too.  She must have missed something when she did the inspection earlier.  Well, she couldn’t fix it while in flight, so it would just have to wait.

The whine increased in volume and when she glanced at the instruments she saw that the ship had slowed down again.  They were barely a mile off the ground, when they should have been ten by now.  Even as she watched the speed dropped another notch.  She boosted the power to the engines.

Now running at full speed, the engines were definitely complaining.  What on earth was going on?  She checked the controls again.  Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a red flashing numeral, and glanced at it.  What?

The gravitational force on the ship was now 10.3 ES and climbing.  How was that possible?  She spared a moment to thank whichever deities were listening that it hadn’t been that high while she was outside, then turned her attention back to the problem at hand.

If the gravity was fluctuating, that could be causing the problems with the engines.  They weren’t built to deal with gravity that was so strong.  She glanced at the gauge.  11.8 ES.

Briefly, she considered going back to the surface and waiting until the gravity went back to normal.  But what if it continued to increase?  The ship’s artificial gravity was only built to withstand 20 ES, and if it died she would be crushed like a bug. There hadn’t been any sign of strain while she was in orbit, so hopefully when she got back there whatever effect this was would stop and she would be free.  She was just going to have to push on.

Overriding some safety alerts, she pushed the engines to 110% of their normal maximum.  When the ship started to gain some height she pushed it further.  120%.  130%.  The whining was becoming louder, and she slammed the mute button.  At this point all it was telling her was that the engines were being pushed past their limits, which she knew.

The ship was, incredibly, slowing again.  She glanced at the gravity monitor and winced.  18.9 ES.  If this didn’t let up soon she was going to have problems.  Worse ones, anyway.  She watched with a kind of sick fascination as it ticked upwards.

Just as it reached 19.7 the ship lurched so much that she felt it, and rocketed away into space.  The gravity monitor was saying zero, and the engines were quickly winding down to normal levels.

Wait.  Zero?

Even in deep space there was always something going on, some star exerting force.  Had the exertions of the planet broken her sensors?

Even as she watched, the monitor went into negative figures and the ship began moving away from the planet.  Eyes wide, Goldie stared in disbelief.

Reaching a swift decision, she cut the engines off and allowed the gravitational forces to push the ship away.  She chuckled slightly when she noticed she was being pushed towards the next planet in the system, one of only two she had yet to explore.

Eyes on the controls, alert for any changes to the gravity waves, Goldie rode the storm towards her next adventure.

I haven’t managed to get this week’s installment finished yet, at least not to a state where I’m happy to share it.  Goldie will continue her adventures next week, however in the meantime, please accept this haiku in her place.  Warning: contains spoilers for next week’s episode!

One massive planet
We cannot escape the well
Too large for Goldie

Goldie manuevered the spaceship carefully.  She was aiming for a specific landing spot, near some excitingly human-looking structures.  Too close and she would destroy them before she got a chance to explore.  Too far and she would have to walk for hours and not have time to explore.  As she descended towards the planet the clouds parted around her, revealing the ground below.

It looked just like a scene from Old Earth, after they’d cleared out the northern continents and turned them into nature reserves.  The savannah spread into the distance, where it blended into a mountain range.  In the other direction a lake glinted in the sunshine.  Long grass undulated in a gentle breeze, giving the impression of movement to the ground.  It was perfect.

She slid lower, and pulled up the structures on the viewscreen.  The  nearest of them was like something out of an old movie – ahaybarn she thought it was called.  It was large – large enough to fit maybe two small houses in, with an opening on one end.

“I’ll park near there,” she thought.  “Have to be careful not to get too close, though, I don’t know what that thing is made of.”

She aimed towards her chosen spot and gently set the craft down.  Grinning happily at the thought of exploring something new, she quickly suited up and hopped into the airlock.  The bot followed on behind.

The first thing she noticed when she left the airlock was the ground.  It was soft and squelchy, every footstep she took filling with a thin layer of water as soon as she moved on.  Still, it wasn’t too bad.  She set off for the buildings.

The sun was gentle on her back, barely felt through the space suit, and the bobbing grass lulled her with its sameness.  It felt like she walked for hours and didn’t get anywhere, but when she checked her chrono she discovered it had only been twenty minutes.

The nearest of the buildings was set at the top of a slight rise.  As she climbed to it the ground changed from soft earth to hard rock, and the bobbing waving grasses gave way to shorter fronds of something that looked like a cross between grass and moss.  She stopped and took a sample.

The building itself was a disappointment.  As soon as she got close to it, she realised that it was only a shell.  The massive structure appeared to have been built and then left empty.  The ground inside was covered in the same short grass as the rest of the hill, but the walls were bare rock.  There was no sign, apart from the building itself, that there had ever been any intelligent life here.

She looked around a little, and explored the rest of the structures – all different shapes, but all empty.  Eventually she decided to give it up as a lost cause and head back to the ship.

The trip back was as soporific as the trip there, but a growing unease was making itself known in the back of her mind.  The ship looked… wrong.  She couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was something not quite right about the shape, or the placement, or… She quickened her pace.

Oh.

She stopped and stared at her spaceship.  Or rather, the top of her spaceship.  The entire thing had sunk a good six feet into the ground.  She rushed around to the airlock.  The top foot of it was visible – not enough to squeeze through in her suit, and the bot definitely wouldn’t make it.  She would have to dig it out before she could get inside and see about moving the ship.

The bot was carrying supplies, as it had for the past few trips.  She was grateful that she had thought to put a variety of pieces of equipment in its pack.  She fished out a spade and began to dig.

Almost immediately she encountered problems.  Every time she took a chunk of earth out the hole immediately filled with water.  She was digging blind, creating a pond next to her airlock.

It took a long while, but eventually she had dug down far enough to reach the controls.  She opened the door and watched as a rush of water filled the airlock.  She lowered the bot into the hole – it wasn’t great at climbing or jumping – and then slid in herself.  For a moment she was floating in the water, before she kicked the close button and started the airlock cycling.  It was just as good at expelling water as it was at clearing out the air, and soon she was standing on the floor watching the last of the water pumped out of the airlock.

The inner door opened, and she gratefully stripped off her soaking spacesuit.  They were really not designed for use underwater.

Now, to get out of here before the ship sank entirely under the earth.

She set the bot off cleaning up the mess with the spacesuit, and sat herself down at the controls.  She entered the commands for a vertical take off.  The engines strained but the ship did not seem to be moving.

Fighting down the rising panic, she thought about other things she could try.  She set the thrusters to go forwards and backwards, and began rocking the ship gently.  If she could make the hole bigger, perhaps she would be able to take off.

It took long minutes of effort, first straining forwards, then backwards, slowly increasing the force until finally she felt the ship move.  She wriggled it a few more times to be sure and then aimed for the sky.  And the ship soared.  She was free!

Read the previous parts:  Prologue / Too Hot / Too Cold

And now, Too Hard:

Goldie glanced over at the bot again.  It had recovered surprisingly well from its little adventure with freezing.  The only visible sign of the mishap was a slight limp where the frozen oil had damaged one of the components in its leg.  It had also developed an alarming tendency to stop in the middle of sentences for no apparent reason.  Still, it followed orders well enough.  She would have to get it properly serviced the next time she was in a space port.

At the moment the bot was checking space suits.  She had discovered a small tear in one of the spares during a routine check last night, so she’d set the bot checking all of them more thoroughly.

She returned her attention to the planet below.  She had arrived in orbit only a few minutes ago, and immediately turned on the scanners and viewscreens.  The planet appeared nice enough… in patches.  There were even oceans on this one, and plant life.  She searched for a good place to put the spaceship down.  Not too close to any large areas of plant matter, in case it harboured dangerous animals.  Obviously not on the ocean, so what did that leave?

Ah, right there.  A nice rocky ledge, not too far from a forest, but elevated slightly.  It would give a good view of what was going on under the trees.  Sliding over to the navigation console, she set the course and started to descend towards the planet.

The first thing she noticed when she stepped from the airlock was that the forest… wasn’t.  From the air the area had looked like a tangle of tree-like plants, but from ground level she could see that it was actually a complex rocky structure.  It looked like someone had taken two different types of rock, mixed them together until they resembled raspberry swirl icecream, and then somehow removed one of them without damaging the other.

Goldie had no idea how that could have been achieved, and decided to have a closer look.  She checked her air supply and ordered the bot to follow behind, and then set off for the rock forest.  The going was rough, and soon she was sweating in her space suit.  She wished she could take it off and wipe her face dry, but she wasn’t willing to take the risk of alien bugs, even if the atmosphere had been breatheable.

Once she was off the ledge she had landed on, the journey became easier.  She started to relax a little, and enjoy the walk.  Something moved in the corner of her vision, but when she looked there was nothing there.  Shaking her head, she continued on.

Almost without warning she realised she was entering the rock forest.  She paused to look up and marvel at the immense structure.  It seemed to go on for ever, from down here.  She could just barely see hints of sky peeking through between the branches.

Time to get some samples.  She took out her kit and started to pick at one of the rock “trees”.  It was very hard, harder than she had expected.  She had to upgrade to a diamond pick.  Eventually she managed to get a small chunk to come away from the rest, and scooped it up into her sample pot.  She dug around on the floor a little, but the surface appeared to be the same type of rock, so she didn’t take any more samples.

There was another little flicker at the corner of her vision.  She whipped her head around to look, and just managed to catch a glimpse of something small moving away into the forest.  She followed it, curious.  This was the first sign of life she had seen on any of the planets in this system, and she didn’t want to leave without getting a better look at it.

The creature was elusive.  It kept disappearing behind rocks and appearing some distance away.  Goldie continued to follow.  After a few minutes she realised she couldn’t see the edge of the forest any more.  Shrugging, she continued on.  What was the use in having a homing signal on her ship if she didn’t use it to find her way occasionally?

She glanced back and saw that the bot had fallen behind.  She paused for a moment to wait for it, leaning against a rock tree.  She closed her eyes for a moment and just listened to the sounds around her.

The skittering of the creature.

And… another sound, one more ominous.  A creaking, cracking sound.  Her eyes popped open and she looked around, trying to figure out where it came from.  A particularly loud crack brought her attention up just in time to see the huge rock branch falling towards her.

She dived out of the way.

Her frantic movement sent her crashing into a tree.  The tree vibrated, cracking.  Another branch fell, and then another and another.  Goldie dived from one side to another, desperately avoiding being crushed to death.  It was too much.  The fifth branch to fall caught her leg as she lay splayed out on the floor.

Pain.

Goldie lay very still and prayed desperately that nothing else would fall on her.  Long minutes (hours?) later, the crashing stopped and she opened her eyes.  She was still alive.  Quickly she took stock.  Her leg was painful, crushed beneath some rocks.  She couldn’t tell if it was broken or not.  Her spacesuit seemed to be intact, her air supply still good.  Now all she had to do was get out from under these trees.

She keyed the comm.

“E-560, status report.”

“E-560 in full working order.  Unable to follow previous orders.”

“Why not?”

“Route is blocked.”

“Bot, clear the path to me.  Use any means necesary.”

There was the sound of crashing and the fizzle of weapons discharge.  The bot was using its mining lasers to clear the route.  Goldie lay back to wait.  There wasn’t much else she could do.  The throbbing in her leg was clouding her thoughts.  She considered a pain killer, but anything strong enough to have an effect would cause her more problems than it solved.

The sounds the bot was making were coming closer.  Soon, she could see the gleam of its casing through a gap in the rocks.  It lifted the last rock from the path and came to her side.  It beeped gently to announce its presence.

“Bot, lift the rock from my leg and place it to one side.”

The bot complied.  Goldie gasped as the pain in her leg suddenly shot from throbbing ache to stabbing needles.  After a moment it subsided and she tried to stand.  Her leg was painful but apparently not broken.  That was good.  The problems came when she tried to put weight on it.  Tears came to her eyes.  Shaking her head, she gave up on the idea of walking back to the ship.

“Bot, carry me back to the ship.”

The bot picked her up and began walking back the way they had come.  Goldie was feeling very faint, her throbbing leg matched by the growing ache in her head.  She gave the bot instructions on what to do when they arrived back at the ship, and then allowed herself to fall into darkness.

Prologue

Too Hot

Goldie glanced at the readouts one more time.  There was nothing in the atmosphere that would cause her problems, of that she was sure.  She had checked five times already.  She shuddered at the thought of what might have happened on the previous planet, and checked again.

The planet she had just landed on was much nicer than the last one.  It even had a breathable atmosphere.  Not that she could take advantage of that, of course.  Not only did regulations state that she had to use her spacesuit for new planet falls, but it was also far too cold.  The suit would give her some protection against the weather.

Pulling on her gloves, she stepped into the airlock, the bot trundling with her.  She had strapped a box of emergency supplies to its back, and it was going with her wherever she went.  She felt a little silly, but nobody was here to mock her, and quite frankly she would take silly over dead any day.  The airlock cycled open, and she emerged onto the planet blinking in the harsh light.

The ice was blinding, a brilliant white and blue display.  There was no sign of any civilization – in fact there was no sign of life at all.  Just ice, for miles around, in some directions as far as the eye could see.  Goldie briefly considered moving the ship to another location, but the whole planet had looked pretty similar from space, and moving would take time. No, she would take samples of the ice and anything else she came across, and then leave.

Ordering the bot to keep up, she set off to walk a little.  It was important to get outside of the area affected by the fumes from her landing.

After a few hundred yards, she noticed that the bot was lagging behind.  She commed it with instructions to move faster, and for a while it seemed to be obeying.  Gradually, though, it slowed down, and eventually stopped.  Sighing in exasperation, Goldie walked back to where it was standing.

“E-560, why have you stopped?  Status report, please.”

The bot whirred and clunked.

“Sss… ssss… sst… ck.”

Great.  Not only was it not moving but it was also not making much sense.  Goldie was tempted to leave it and collect her samples, picking it up on the way back to the ship.  But the bot, irritating as it was, was her only companion out here, and if it broke she would no doubt go mad within a week.

Maybe not this week.  There were the planets to explore, after all.  But next week, when she was out in the black of space again, then she would surely lose her mind.

She opened up the panel in the back of the bot’s head and poked around a bit.  There didn’t seem to be any connectors loose.  There was a light film of something covering everything, though.  She scratched some away with a screwdriver and placed it in her mobile analyser.  A moment later the answer came back.

It’s just ice.  That shouldn’t be the problem.  Maybe it’s something to do with it’s mechanicals.  She pried loose the panel on one of the bot’s legs.  It all looked intact, but when she poked at it she knew immediately what the problem was.  The hydraulic fluids in the leg “muscles” were frozen solid.  Rated for all weather conditions, ha.  And I’m the queen of New England.  Why oh why could we not have had better bots?

There was nothing she could do for the bot out here, but at least she knew it would probably recover once she got it warmed up.  Sighing, she stood.  Patting the bot on the head, she left it behind.  It would still be here when she got back, and more cold probably wouldn’t damage it more than it already was.

A few hundred metres later she stopped and bent down.  The ice here looked pure and unblemished.  Time for some samples.  Quickly fishing her sample kit out of the bag on her back, she scraped some ice into the sample cases.  Then she dug around a little until she came up with a rock and tucked that away too.

Duty complete, she returned to her bot.  Now, how to get it back to the ship?  She checked her readouts.  There was plenty of air left, so she had no particular time pressures.  She rooted around in the pack of emergency supplies that the bot carried.  Spare air, pickaxe, laser cutter, aha!  Rope.  Quickly, a plan was formed.

She pulled the rope out and tied it around the bot.  The other end she tied around her waist.  She gave a yank, and the bot slowly toppled over.  Excellent.  If it had been stuck to the floor there’s no telling how long it would have taken to get it loose.

She began walking back towards the ship, the bot sliding easily over the ground behind her.  The ice might have caused this problem, but at least it made it easy to pull the weight.  Soon, she was back at the ship, and dragging the bot into the airlock with her.

As soon as the inner door opened she went to the environmental controls and turned up the heat.  She pushed the bot into a corner and left it, before going to get changed.  There was nothing she could do for it until it defrosted.  Then she would see what the damage was.

She just hoped it wasn’t too bad.  She might need its help on the next planet.

Goldie cautiously opened the outer door of the airlock.  She was well rested and well prepared.  Grudgingly, she admitted that the bot had been right.  Going out exploring in the state she was in last night would have been dumb.

Her space suit puffed around her as the outside atmosphere touched it.  She glanced at the readouts again.  Lots of methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen, at a balmy 130 degrees Celsius.  Lovely.  She wasn’t holding out much hope of finding anything interesting here.  Still, she had to at least look around.  Not only was it her job, it was also a lot of fun.

A few steps out onto the planet surface and she was reassessing her surroundings.  That pile of rocks over to the left looked suspiciously regular, and there, over to the right, was that a building?  She would definitely have to have a closer look at that.  She grinned under her helmet and set off for the distant structure.

As she walked she examined the surroundings.  Rocks were the main feature – red, brown, and blue the dominant colours.  She stopped by a particularly interesting one and scraped a sample into a container to examine later.  There was no vegetation, and there seemed to be no animal life either.  It was as if the entire area was abandoned.

That was what it felt like – abandoned, not dead.  Like the owners had simply upped and gone somewhere else.  It was odd, considering that there was no life.  Why shouldn’t it feel dead?  Perhaps there was life here, and she just hadn’t seen it yet.

Cautiously, she approached the structure.  Up close, she was even more convinced that it wasn’t natural.  It was made of rock, but the edges were smooth, vertical, and far taller than the rocks surrounding it.  She circled around to the left, examining it carefully as she went.  She had gone almost all of the way around when she found the opening.  There was no door, just a hole in the wall, so she stepped inside.  And then stopped, her mouth dropping open.  It was beautiful in here.  The walls glistened with reflected light, in as many colours as Goldie could imagine.  She touched the nearest one.  A slight vibration caused her to jerk her hand back slightly.  When nothing happened, she replaced her hand.  The walls were humming.  Wondering, she turned on the external microphones on her spacesuit, and listened.  The glorious sound filled her ears.

Goldie stood, entranced, and simply listened.  Eventually the humming grew dim and she became aware of her surroundings again.  The fading light was the first thing to register on her consciousness.  She glanced at her chrono.  Three hours!  She had been standing listening to the walls for three hours!  No wonder she was stiff.  She shook herself, irritated that she had wasted so much time, and glanced at her suit’s readouts.

 

What?

She should have had two hours of air left in this suit, even taking into account her… little moment of inattention.  The readout was showing 20 minutes.  Even as she watched, it dropped to 19.

It had taken 30 minutes to get out to the building she was in.

Cursing, she set off for her distant spaceship.  She glanced at her readouts again.  17.  She must be leaking air, there was no way it had been two minutes already.

She picked up the pace.  Soon she was jogging, trying to breathe steadily.  She vowed to do more exercise in the future.

12.

She wasn’t going to make it.  The rocks that she’d been so interested in on the way out passed her by.  All she could think about was getting to the ship.

6.

She was, perhaps, half way back to the ship.

The bot!  Why didn’t she think of that sooner?

“E-560, bring spacesuit-compatible emergency air canister to my location.”

She continued to run as her mind quickly did the calculations.  A minute to grab the canister and get to the airlock.  One minute thirty for the airlock cycle.  Damn it, what was the E-560’s top speed?  It was going to be tight.

3.

The bot was visible now, trundling towards her.  To her anxious brain it seemed to be in no hurry at all.  She put on a burst of speed.  The bot was closer to her than the ship, now.

1.

She skidded to a halt beside the bot and ripped the air canister from its grip.  The last of her air sputtered and leaked out into the alien atmosphere.  Without the pressure from inside, the leaks in her suit began to seep in the other direction.  A whiff of something unpleasant tickled her nose.   She held her breath.

Fumbling at the tubes, she eventually managed to connect the emergency air supply to her suit.  Immediately, the pressure stabilised.

Goldie cautiously took a breath.  There was a trace of the unpleasant smell lingering in her suit, but she could breathe.  She just hoped there was nothing toxic in the atmosphere.

Steadying her racing heart, she set out at a slightly more sedate pace.  The emergency air supply was four hours; even if she was still leaking she should make it in plenty of time.  The bot trundled by her side.

She puzzled as she walked.  Why was she losing air?  She’d checked the suit thoroughly yesterday and not found any leaks.  Was she attacked while she was listening to the walls?  Was there something in the atmosphere that was corroding her suit?  She shuddered, imagining what something like that would do to her body.

Must check the atmospherics better next time.  I’ve got complacent.

It was with a sense of relief that she allowed the airlock to swish shut behind her.  As the pumps worked, she checked her air supply.  Three hours remaining.  She’d used an hour’s air on the ten minute walk.  Unbelievable.

The inner door cycled open, and she stepped inside.  She pulled off her gloves and helmet, and her fingers brushed the outer edge.  She jerked her hand back, hissing.

“Bot, analyse helmet.  Identify unusual features.”

While the bot whirred happily, she quickly stripped off the rest of her suit, being careful not to touch the outside.  Her fingers were starting to go red.  She strode to the bathroom and washed her hands thoroughly, then fished out the first aid kit and hunted for a piece of  SkinCare the right size.  Slapping it on the red patch, she breathed a little easier as the pain faded.

The bot beeped, so she returned to the main cabin and asked for the report.

“Helmet temperature reads at 230 degrees celsius.  Foreign contaminants detected: unidentifiable compound, sulphuric acid…”

Goldie whistled.  That temperature was right on the top end of the limits of the suit.  She was surprised she hadn’t noticed the increase in temperature, although she supposed she had been a little distracted for a while there.

The unidentifiable compound worried her, but it was the sulphuric acid that she thought would have caused her problem.  The suit itself could cope with sulphuric at any temperature, according to the manufacturers.  The joints at knee and elbow, however, were more vulnerable.  The combination of acid and high temperatures would have begun eating away at the material as soon as she stepped outside.  Who knows what effect that unidentifiable would have had.

She shivered.

“Bot, place that suit in storage crate in cargo hold and get a new one ready for use.”

She made her way over to the control boards and set course for the next planet in the system.  This one was simply too hot.

The Goldilocks zone is the distance from the sun where liquid water can exist.  Not too hot, and not too cold.  It was previously thought that planets could only have liquid water (and therefore life) if they were in the goldilocks zone, but new theories suggest that if the planet is large enough and has the right kind of make-up, it could produce enough internal heat to have liquid water no matter how far from the sun it is.

In honour of this, I’m dedicating the next few Fridays to The Goldilocks Zone.

***

Goldie was bored.  She’d played solitaire about fifty times this week alone, and she’d been out on this journey for three weeks.  Not for the first time, she cursed the company for being too cheap to spring for a decent conversation bot.  There were only so many times you could talk to one of the E-560’s before you just had to lock them away to prevent yourself from ripping off your own arm and beating them with it.

The ET-790 would have been a much better model.

The computer displayed bouncing cards and fireworks.  She’d won again.  She didn’t even remember playing this game.  It was definitely time for a change of activity.

Mentally, Goldie flicked through the options.  More computer games, except that the ship didn’t have enough processing power spare for any of the really interesting ones, so that was out.  Read a book.  Well, sure, but she’d read a lot recently.  Scan the surroundings.  There was nothing there.  There was never anything there.  She was in the middle of nowhere.  Still, she was supposed to run the scans every day, and she’d skipped more than a couple of days recently.

She pushed her chair over to the navigation console, taking a childish delight in riding it as it went.  A touch of a few buttons and she was presented with a map of the surrounding star systems.  Blah, blah, bl… wait.  That wasn’t there last time she’d run the scan.

She zoomed in.  It was very close by, and she couldn’t understand why it hadn’t shown up in the previous scans.  The system consisted of a star and seven planets.  Bizarrely, all of the planets were in the same orbit, spinning lazily around the star at the exact same speed.  Was that even possible?

Goldie felt a shiver of excitement in the depths of her stomach. This was why she had gone into space exploration.  To find something new, to be the first to see things and discover their possibilities.

She set a new course on the computer.

The system was close, astronomically speaking, but it would still take most of the rest of the day to arrive there.  Now that she had a firm destination there was no way she could sit still, so she decided to check over the equipment.  The E-560 was very good at maintainance, but she never quite trusted it to be perfect.

***

Five hours later, she was happy.  Her checks were finished, and she was about to enter orbit around the first of the seven planets.  There was nothing stopping her from going out exploring right now.  Nothing that is, except the stupid E-560, which was currently standing in front of the door to the control room.

Without the control room, she couldn’t land the ship, and without landing she would have a hard time exploring the planet.

“Move.  That’s a direct order.”

The bot stayed still.

“My scans indicate extreme exhaustion.  You will sleep.”

“I’m fine.”

“You will sleep.”

Goldie threw her hands in the air.  This was like talking to a brick wall.  She knew from previous experience that trying to get past the bot would result in nothing more than a bruised ego.  She was just going to have to get some sleep and go exploring in the morning.

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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