The Evergreen wrenched itself painfully from the Martian atmosphere, hull vibrating with the throb of straining thrusters. LeSabre detested take-off. Holding her breath in the dark cockpit, she made a few adjustments to the controls. Lately, with every subsequent run, her ship struggled a little more each time that it left Mars. The vibrations increased in violence as the structural integrity of the old ship grew weaker.
"Come on " she whispered, augmenting the rich mixture of fuel to the atmospheric thrusters. Suddenly, the vibrations ceased. The Evergreen was free of the planet beneath her.
"Cruising engines engaged, thrusters off. We're on our way, sir." The co-pilot, Evering, stated.
LeSabre relaxed in her seat, unbuckling the harness. Wiping away tiny beads of perspiration from her forehead, she hoped that the crew hadn't noticed her nervousness. "Shanei?"
"I'm entering the co-ordinates now, sir." the navigator replied, deft fingers flying over the keyboard. "There, course laid in for Venus. We'll be landing at Beyrana City in exactly eighteen hours and forty-three minutes."
LeSabre glanced up at the monitor to see the rusty planet dwindle to the size of a pea. Would her ship make it through another launch? The feeling in the pit of her stomach told her not likely. The Evergreen was too old and worn after twelve years of by-weekly flights to Venus; she was on her last legs. The ship's engineer, Rick, could only patch the old transport up so many times. The transport company she worked for would have a new ship ready in a month or two, or so they said. They had been giving her the same line for eighteen months now. The Evergreen was supposed to have been scrapped two years ago, but, as usual, bribes given to the Martian Transport inspector had pushed back the ship's retirement.
That afternoon, before the launch, she had spent an hour convincing her boss that the passengers should be limited to lighten the load on the Evergreen. After a much heated discussion, he agreed to transfer fifty colonists and their personal belongings to the Utopia, a newer transport that was lifting off the next morning. The Evergreen was left with a total passenger count of three-hundred, and that was probably what got her safely away from Mars today. This run would be the last one for the old transport. Never would she bring wide-eyed eager colonists to Venus again. LeSabre made a mental note that once she returned to Mars, she would have to demand a new ship for her next flight. If the company refused, well, she would find a job elsewhere. It wasn't worth dying in a crash for, she told herself.
"Sir?" a voice crackled out over the ship's comm-link, pushing away her thoughts for the moment.
"We'll have to shut down the cruisers for about an hour or so."
"Why? What's up?"
"The launch weakened the fuel pumps. I rather switch the engines off now instead of taking the risk of the pumps burning out on us in mid-flight."
"Go ahead, I'll advise the passengers of the delay." LeSabre punched in the engine shut-off codes. The monitors flashed their green stand-by lights as the familiar throbbing of the Evergreen's engines ceased. Glancing over at Shanei, she nodded.
Shanei relayed a message to Beyrana City to inform the spaceport of their postponement. "Sir, Beyrana is out of communications range, we'll have to wait six hours for a window."
"We'll wait then. In the meantime, I'm going to advise the passengers. I'll head down to deck three to make the announcement. Evering?"
Evering seated himself in the pilot's chair to monitor the ship as LeSabre left the cockpit.
Moments later, LeSabre left the passenger deck, having spoken to the colonists. Entering the service elevator, she punched in the engine room's deck level. The lift trembled and dropped. With a sharp hiss, the panel slid into the floor, revealing the engineering department.
"Sir," he answered, working away at his console without glancing up. "I'm trying to locate the actual area of weakness in the pumps." His monitor flashed as a high-pitched whine filled the engineering department.
"There, you've found it."
Rick's brow furrowed as he viewed the screen. Running a hand through his graying hair, he looked up at LeSabre.
"What is it?"
"All six fuel pumps are affected."
"Sir, like I've mentioned a hundred times before, this ship is finished. The normal life span of a transport's fuel pumps are eight years."
"But all six ?" LeSabre repeated.
"The red areas here," Rick began, pointing to the pumps layout on the screen, "are the weakened relay switches. Since they're all constructed with identical circuitry, it's only normal that they'll expire about the same time."
"Will they last us to Venus?"
"No. At the rate that they're disintegrating, I predict another four hours of cruising speed will burn them out completely."
"Do what you can to get us to Venus, Rick." LeSabre sighed, leaving the engineer alone.
"I'll do what I can." Rick muttered listlessly, swiveling his chair back to the console.
LeSabre entered the cockpit a few moments later. Evering and Shanei watched her with expectant looks on their faces.
"Rick said that all six fuel pumps are nearly burned out. He's trying to find a way to patch them temporarily so that we can reach Venus."
Evering glanced down at his console, punching in a series of calculations . "With our present trajectory and speed, we should be reaching Earth's moon in about twenty minutes. We could safely land at station L-2. They may have the necessary equipment to temporarily repair the pumps."
LeSabre pressed the engine room com-link. "Rick?"
"Hold off on patching those pumps. We'll be landing at station L-2 in an about half an hour."
"All right. I'll isolate the circuits that need repairing."
Shanei made slight course corrections every few moments to compensate for the resistance created by space as it silently enveloped the transport ship. Gently, she nudged the Evergreen back onto course with the atmospheric thrusters.
"Sir." Evering said as they approached the lifeless, gray moon of Earth.
LeSabre sat down, strapping her harness into place. Slowly, she reversed the thrusters, slowing the ship down. The moon loomed closer, she could see craters and mountains etched in lived detail. "Shanei?"
"The co-ordinates for L-2 are on your screen, proceed."
LeSabre entered the co-ordinates into the ship's guidance system. The Evergreen silently glided over the lunar surface at an altitude of three hundred meters. The console flashed to warn the crew that they were in communications range of the station. Evering reversed the thrusters, bringing the ship to a complete halt as LeSabre took the landing controls.
Beneath the ship, lunar dust was agitated by the descent. LeSabre transmitted her ship's access code to the station, waiting impatiently for the landing bay doors to open. "Here we go." she said as the doors slid apart to allow them to land. Carefully, she maneuvered the Evergreen down into the launching corridor until she could feel the landing struts reverberate from coming into contact with the station platform.
Evering switched on the flood lights, powered down the thrusters and made sure that everything was secure before giving the ok for them to leave the ship. LeSabre peered out the cockpit portholes, observing the launching bay. The stark metallic walls glistened with icy condensation from the Evergreen's warm engines. Feeble lighting illuminated the area, enough for her to see that there was sufficient room to hold another ship. The Evergreen's forward floodlights reflected brightly off the metal walls, making it hard for her to see where the station's access doors were.
"Sir, everything is secure in the bay. The atmosphere is now adequately calibrated for us to leave the ship."
"Good Evering, and one more thing "
"I know." Her co-pilot said, switching on the comm-link to the passenger area.
LeSabre winked at him as he briefed the colonists on what was happening. Unbuckling her harness, she left the cockpit with Shanei in tow.
LeSabre sat, an hour later, sipping a lukewarm cup of coffee that she had made from the station's canteen stores. It tasted funny, but it was drinkable and it relaxed her. She was in the mess hall area, watching her passengers mill about in small groups. It was noisy, but she welcomed the din. The station was so stark and cold that it probably rarely ever greeted more than a few humans at one time let alone a whole transport ship full.
Snapping out of her reverie, she saw Rick standing before her. "How are things coming along?"
"I integrated some similar circuitry into the fuel pumps from the equipment that I found here. It should hold until we get to Venus."
"It's the best I can do. The material that I used to repair the pumps with are more modern than the original circuits on the Evergreen. I just hope that they'll hold out until we can get the genuine parts on Venus."
LeSabre grimaced. She didn't like the idea of travelling all the way to Venus with patched up fuel pumps. It was too dangerous, but she had no other choice than to follow through with her flight plan. "I'll round up the rest of the crew and passengers. Lift-off in thirty minutes." She said, gulping down the rest of her tepid coffee.
The Evergreen's cruise engines hummed smoothly as it pulled away effortlessly from the moon's weak gravity. Everything was going fine, no flashing engine consoles. LeSabre sighed, a great weight lifting off her shoulders. Evering smiled over at her, giving a thumb's up sign. Shanei made the same gesture, a wide grin splitting her normally taciturn features. LeSabre opened the comm-link to the engine room.
"Rick? How are the pumps doing?"
"Fine, sir. The circuits are holding, no signs of failure or weakness."
"Good. If something seems out of sync, I want to know right away, no matter how minor it is."
Leaning back in the pilot's chair, LeSabre stretched her tall frame. "Evering, the controls are all yours. Shanei, do we have a communications window?"
"No, sir, not yet. In about forty minutes we will."
Suddenly, the Evergreen jerked violently, sending alarms off. The cockpit was pitched into total darkness except for the flashing consoles. LeSabre hit the emergency light panel, flooding the area with infra-red lighting. Scanning the consoles, she realized that the engines were inoperative. Something was terribly wrong. She punched the engine room comm-link.
"Rick, what's going on?" she yelled into the microphone. All that she could hear was static and background noise. No one answered. "Rick, are you there?" still no answer. Whipping about, she undid her harness. "Shanei, keep the ship on course with the inertia. Evering, I want you to reassure the passengers. Tell them that we have a temporary setback. Don't alarm them, keep them calm, we don't need a riot. Warn the stewards to keep the people seated and buckled up until we know what's wrong. I'll be heading down to the engine room to check up on Rick. He might be injured " she was cut off in mid-sentence as the engine console flashed an angry shade of red.
"Damn, there's a fire down there!" Evering shouted above the din of the fire alarms.
"I'm going!" LeSabre yelled back, running for the service elevator.
Moments later, LeSabre burst into the smoke filled engineering department. Alarms blasted all about her as the chemical fire retardant system hissed into action. Covering her mouth and nose, she raced forward into the thick, choking black smoke. Her eyes streamed as she made her way to Rick's control center. Consoles flashed eerily through the fumes, but he wasn't at his station. Desperately, she searched for him, heart pounding painfully. The smoke had thinned enough for her to make out Rick's motionless body on the floor. He was near an opened crawlspace that contained the fuel pumps and their circuitry. Dense smoke poured out from the crawlspace now that the fire suppression system had eliminated the electrical fire. Dropping to the floor, she turned Rick over unto his back. His face was badly singed and blackened, yet his breathing appeared to be regular.
"Rick? she shouted, shaking him slightly. "How do you feel?"
He opened his eyes, momentarily disorientated. Focusing his gaze, he blinked rapidly, eyes wide. "There's a fire " he said weakly, trying to push himself up onto his elbows.
LeSabre gently eased him back to the floor. "The fire's out. Don't move, try to get your strength back. Is anything broken?"
"I don't think so."
"Do you remember what happened?"
"I recall being in the crawlspace and monitoring the circuitry over the fuel pumps. All at once there was a bright flash of light and here I am."
LeSabre lifted her brows in surprise. "That blast threw you all the way back here?"
"Seems like it." Rick groaned, pushing himself to a seating position. "We have to take care of this. I need to check the rest of the ship's functions. Can you help me sir?"
Aiding Rick, LeSabre guided him back to the console. The smoke had dissipated enough to make visible the damage done to the engines. Rick dropped himself heavily onto his chair. Switching off the screaming alarms, his fingers flew over the keyboard, diagnosing all the potential problems in the engineering circuitry. It was evident that the fuel pumps' explosion had killed the ship's main drive.
"Are all the pumps affected or do we have a few that can still work?
Rick shook his head, "No. The explosion originated in two of the new circuits that I had implanted. The blast destroyed and fused the remaining circuitry. Everything is useless, the pumps are finished. The thrusters are still operable because they're on a different drive, but they don't have the power needed to get us to Venus. If we use them for more than two hours straight, they'll burn out too."
"What do we do then? Just drift and wait for another ship to come by? We're already way off course." LeSabre felt the panic creeping into her voice. She steeled herself against the overwhelming emotions that flooded her body. She was in charge here. Her crew depended on her quick thinking to get them out of this mess.
"Rick shrugged his shoulders. "I suggest that we use the maneuvering thrusters to get us back on route and wait until another transport comes by."
"You're right. The Utopia is scheduled to fly by tomorrow morning. We'll wait for her." She gripped the older man's shoulder warmly, "I'll be heading back to flight control. Will you be all right, or do you want me to send Evering down?"
"I'll be fine, sir."
LeSabre smiled, leaving for the exit.
Entering the cockpit, LeSabre realized that the normal lighting was restored. "How are the passengers?"
"They're fine. Worried of course, but the stewards have them under control." Evering replied.
"Good. We don't need anyone panicking right now." She briefed them on Rick's situation. Relieved, the crew went back to work. Evering nudged the ship bit by bit with the thrusters back unto its original flight path. Shanei guided him with her console as she punched in the proper co-ordinates. LeSabre watched the Earth loom nearer and nearer. It was a little too close for her personal comfort. The large planet was dark and gray with sickly green-brown patches covering its ruined surface. She had never been this close to Earth before and it chilled her to the bone. It looked like a diseased, rotted fruit that someone had left for the summer at the bottom of a school locker.
"Sir!" Evering exclaimed urgently.
"What is it?"
"The thrusters aren't responding, they're bucking."
At that same moment, Rick's comm-line flashed.
"Sir, the thrusters are failing us. The explosion damaged their circuitry too. Hold off on using them, I'll try to see if I can re-route the energy flow temporarily."
"Make it quick. We're drifting a little too close for comfort to Earth's atmosphere." LeSabre said, irritation filling her voice.
They watched in silence as the Earth approached, the Evergreen drifting helplessly toward it.
"Shanei, how close are we?"
"Too close, sir. In about ten minutes, we'll be brushing the atmosphere."
"Damn." LeSabre mumbled beneath her breath. The minutes ticked by, four, three, two. She couldn't hold off any longer. "Rick? We have two minutes before hitting "
"I got the bypass in, go for it!" he yelled back.
LeSabre nodded to Evering. He eased the thrusters to full capacity. The Evergreen rumbled, pulling away sluggishly from the planet. Another explosion rocked the ship. LeSabre flew backwards, hitting her shoulder painfully on the cockpit bulkhead. Standing, she rushed for her chair, strapping herself in while motioning to Shanei and Evering to do the same.
"Sir!" Rick's voice called out over the crackling comm-link, "the thrusters are gone!"
"Rick, just strap yourself in, we're going down." LeSabre said confidently, taking the maneuvering controls. This was her domain and expertise, her mind calm and collected as she piloted the doomed ship. The Evergreen trembled and vibrated violently as it entered the atmosphere, the heavy gravity tugging without mercy on its already stressed hull. "Evering, order the passengers and stewards to buckle up, Shanei, get a distress call out now." she ordered, eyes never leaving the flight controls. Swiveling her chair to face the rear of the cockpit, she pulled down a small console from the ceiling, opened the keyboard and rapidly punched in a sequence of codes.
"Sir?" Evering queried, glancing up from his controls.
"This is an old ship, but we have a back-up system in case of an emergency like now. Hundreds of years ago, the Terrans used atmospheric ships called airplanes to travel all over their planet. These <planes> were equipped with wings and maneuvering flaps that function in the same manner as our thrusters. Actually, this ship is a cross between our modern ships and those planes." The ship trembled again, swerving slightly. "There, look out the starboard porthole. What do you see?"
Evering swiveled his chair, peering outside. His eyes widened with amazement as he watched a large wing slide out from the ship's side to extend over a hundred feet into the turbulence. Large flaps on the wings moved into action as LeSabre piloted the stricken transport.
"There, we're stable now and slowing down. This is what the ancient pilots called gliding." LeSabre said, keeping her hands firmly on the manual controls. "Shanei, find us a safe place to land."
Silently, the crew held their breaths as the Evergreen glided smoothly through the thermosphere. Land masses loomed nearer with every second of swift descent. Soon, the ship would touch down on a barren planet devoid of all life.
"Sir, I'm transferring you the following co-ordinates." Shanei said, fingers flying over her keyboard.
"Where are we heading to?"
"Australia. A massive continent once surrounded by water hundreds of years ago." Shanei replied. "The co-ordinates are those of the first launching runways to Mars. The computer states that they are still in fair condition and that we can safely land on them."
"Good. Now hold on, here we go!" LeSabre said cheerily, excitement gripping her as she piloted the ship towards the computer's co-ordinates. Luckily, they had the morning sun rising steadily over the horizon to guide them for the runway was barely visible beneath the sand dunes.
"Sir," Evering spoke quietly, "we can't use our landing gear like this."
"I know. We'll have to slide in on our belly. This old ship's hull is three feet thick." Gently, she eased the transport onto the runway. The ship rumbled violently as it touched the landing surface, sliding with an ear wrenching cacophony of scraping metal. It slid at breakneck speed for what seemed like an eternity, finally shuddering to a hissing halt. LeSabre wiped her brow, body trembling. Evering and Shanei whooped with joy, patting her on the back.
"You did it, Sir!" Evering exclaimed, "if it wasn't for those old wings of yours, we would have dropped like a rock and crashed."
"Now, here comes the hard part guys." LeSabre began, unbuckling her harness. "We have three hundred passengers with us, and we are responsible for each and every one of them." Standing wearily to her feet, she ran a hand through her short, damp hair. "Evering, what's it like outside?"
Evering studied the atmospheric read-outs flashing across his screen. "Actually, it's quite normal. There's hardly any sign of toxicity in the air. The carbon dioxide is slightly above normal, but otherwise, everything else is well within acceptable limits."
"Are you certain? The information that I've read about Earth states that this planet is too toxic to live on. The Terrans had polluted their atmosphere so badly that by the time they left for Mars, they had to wear suits and masks to protect them from the poisonous air."
"Well, the computer's analytical results are stating otherwise. The air is well oxygenated and breathable, even the ozone layer has re-established itself. "
"What about life? Plants, animals, water? Everything looks so desolate."
"Do you remember those greenish-brown spots that we saw on the surface?"
"I assume that's what's left of the oceans, covered in some sort of toxic algae scum."
"No sir, if the read-outs are exact, those spots are actually vegetation."
"Yes. The vegetation is composed of trees and ground covering plant life."
"I have to see this. Let's get off this ship."
Two hours later, the passengers and crew of the Evergreen were setting up camp on the plateau that they had landed on. In the distance, large mountains jutted up from the plains, while in the opposing direction, a massive greenish-brown sea of vegetation stretched like a stagnant swamp for as far as the eye could see. The temperature was warm and balmy, with a slight breeze that smelled faintly of brine and dead fish.
LeSabre and her crew walked to the edge of the plateau. Shanei carried a small portable console screen that was directly linked to the Evergreen's main computer; happening upon a large rock, she sat down to punch in questions and information on their new enviroment. Rick and Evering stared silently at the pastel-hued horizon.
LeSabre gazed in wonderment at the large expanse of forest before her. From the edge of the plateau, she could discern the towering trees that covered the floor of the extinct ocean basin whose waves had once crashed at her very feet. The trees and undergrowth were not the emerald green that she was accustomed to seeing on Venus, but more of a golden jade that she had never laid eyes on before. It was actually stunning to behold; the gently swaying trees shimmering like fine filaments of gold woven through an emerald blanket.
She turned away from the enthralling view, observing the crew's reactions. Evering, at a loss for words, regarded the Terran forest below him. Rick was seated on the edge of the plateau, his feet dangling over the edge, lost in a daydream. Shanei was still poring over the information on her screen, not having taken the time to inspect the breathtaking view beneath her. Two of the stewards had tagged along, a woman and an elderly man who gazed in open-mouthed amazement at the horizon.
LeSabre had spent a great deal of time explaining to the passengers what had happened to the Evergreen. Many of them had burst into tears of fright and nervousness, not knowing what awaited them on this desolate abandoned planet avoided like the plague for hundreds of years; but frustration and fear were quickly overcome upon the realization that the Earth was not how they imagined it would be. Shelters had been set up, search parties organized to find food and water before precious stores ran out. Over twenty men and women had already descended into the forest below, armed with canteens and weapons.
"Sir?" Shanei asked softly.
"This area was once, and still is, a desert. Below us, where the forest is now, was an ocean. The water disappeared after drastic global warming and increased tectonic activity dried up the seas and oceans."
"There must be water somewhere?"
"There is, and plenty of it. Beneath the forest floor, our geological instruments are detecting massive resevoirs of fresh and salt water. That's why we smell the sea salt on the breeze. The vegetation has actually adapted to the saltier water and transpires it though its leaves."
"So we have water. What about life?" LeSabre's voice could barely disguise her mounting excitement at the thought of discovering life on Earth.
"Our scanners are picking up the movement of small and medium sized animals in the forest; but, there's something strange here .below the forest floor, I'm receiving readouts of large metallic and stone structures that are not part of the subterranean rock." LeSabre kneeled down next to Shanei, watching the portable console intently. "Those are buildings. What are they doing here?"
"I don't know. They were probably left behind by the first colonists."
"I don't think so. Structures like that couldn't have been built beneath the ocean floor without the oceans having dried up first."
Rick joined them, gray eyes twinkling as he watched the console. "Those structures are fairly recent, sir. Look, this building here is standard Martian design, and these structures here are freshwater resevoirs, like the ones back home."
LeSabre stood slowly to her feet, brow creased with amazement. "There are Martians living on Earth? How ?" she began.
Evering joined in, removing his uniform jacket. "Sir, I suggest that we go beneath the forest floor and see if there are any humans down there. They're the only ones that can answer our questions, and possibly, even help us get off this planet."
"Good idea. But first, radio in all the search parties and we'll recruit a few volunteers to accompany us. Shanei, I want you and the stewards to remain at camp. Evering, Rick, follow me."
Half an hour later, LeSabre, Evering and Rick descended into the oceanic basin with seven colonists. Rick had brought along a portable energy field detector that he used regularly on the ship's engines. Slowly, he scanned within a radius of one kilometer, searching for any sign of electrical activity given off by a portal that wold lead them beneath the forest floor.
"There!" he exclaimed, scanner shrilling, "I got it. Over there, beneath that rocky overhang, there's a sealed doorway. The scanner detected the magnetic field generated by its electronic locks."
The group headed for the rubble of talus that lay scattered about over sixty meters away. Reaching the overhanging rock, the unmistakable outline of a massive metallic archway and sealed door cold be easily seen. Rick approached the door and studied the flashing console on the side of the arch.
"Standard Martian locks with a coded keypad of six numbers quite easily opened at that. It's the kind of lock that I use back home to secure my gardening tools."
The colonists chuckled at Rick's remark. LeSabre smiled at them and shrugged her shoulders.
"These people don't seem to feel threatened by anyone." She mentioned good-naturedly.
Rick accessed the code within moments, and with a hiss, the locks disengaged. The door slid open, re-locking itself once everyone had stepped through. It was well lit and cool inside, but the odor was that of sterile air that delicately feathered their faces No sounds penetrated into the interior. It was deathly quiet except for the shuffling of the group's shoes on the slick bedrock. A narrow metal staircase descended into the cavern below with only an occasional ceiling light or so illuminating the way. Silently, they filed down the stairs, not knowing what awaited them below.
After a long descent, they reached the floor of the massive cave, staring in wonderment at the scene before them. Large modern buildings and houses stretched in every direction for as far as the eye could see. The ceiling of the cavern was transparent, allowing sunlight to penetrate unto the small city. Trees and gardens flourished in the warm, humid air while small lakes and brooks trickled and sparkled in the distance.
"How did they do this?" Evering asked quietly.
Rick studied the area intently, his engineering experience telling him more than what the others could pick up on. "They use light and heat reflectors to distribute the sun's energy throughout the cavern. Even with the forest's dense growth, they can still maximize the solar output to their advantage. The air is purer down here, almost sterile due to those Terraformer generators over there. I wonder how long they've been here? The buildings and equipment are no more than ten to fifteen years old. "
"Hey!" a voice called out, startling the small group. They watched as two young men approached them on three wheel electric vehicles. The men were casually attired in natural fiber garments, faces and arms darkly tanned. "Are you Martians?" one of the two asked the group.
LeSabre stepped forward, outstretching her hand in greeting, "Hi, my name is lieutenant Jenni LeSabre of the transport ship Evergreen, and yes, we're from Mars."
The young man who had addressed them took LeSabre's hand, shaking it warmly. "My name is Kylin, and this is Sander. We are originally from Mars, but that seems so long ago that we consider ourselves New Terrans now." he said proudly, displaying even white teeth in a genuine smile. "It's nice to see strangers, but, enough talk, I want you to meet my father."
Kylin and Sander led the small group into the city. LeSabre found the streets and walkways devoid of people, only the sound of trickling fountains and singing birds interrupted the quiet hum of the generators in the background. Strolling up a narrow path made of crushed quartz the consistency of heavy sand, they entered a small split-level house constructed of white granite bricks and cream colored marble sheeting. They were greeted by a man in his late fifties who stood amongst a heavily computerized work station filled with numerous Terraforming instruments.
"Well, well. Visitors. You are the first ones in twelve years." He said dryly, wariness tingeing his voice.
"Dad, this is lieutenant LeSabre. She's the pilot of the ship that crashed." Kylin stated.
"We picked up your distress signal. I've been monitoring your movements ever since. Strange that you happened to land on the only continent where human life actually exists. Are you government spies?"
LeSabre was visibly taken aback by the direct question, "No, or course not. We had mechanical problems on our way to Venus, and happened to crash here. This runway was the only one in good enough condition to land upon."
"Hmmm. I see. I guess if you were really spies, you wouldn't be hauling around all those colonists with you."
"That's right, sir." she nodded, trying to get on the suspicious man's good side.
"Let me introduce myself lieutenant. I'm Dr. Derek Hallows. I was Mars' chief Terraforming engineer."
LeSabre felt as if she had been given a stinging slap in the face. This couldn't be not here of all places "I know you, I mean, I've heard so much about you, Dr. You made quite a stir back home when you disappeared in that Venetian jungle so many years ago with your son and a team of Mars finest Terraforming engineers."
"Fifteen years to be exact, lieutenant." the Dr. said bitterly. "We never reached Venus. We were all part of a top secret government project whose mission was to study Earth and the possibilities of Terraforming her to make it once again hospitable for human life. We left Mars fifteen years ago with eight transport ships loaded with the latest Terraforming generators and building equipment. Since the project was secret, we had no contact with anyone, not even our families. Government officials advised us that our friends and families had been told that we were on a Venetian expedition. Now, I find out that it was all a lie, but that doesn't surprise me at all."
"Dr., you mentioned that we are the first visitors?"
"That's right. Every six months during the first three years, government official flew in from Mars to monitor our progress. They brought us equipment, necessities and whatever we needed, except news from our loved ones."
"Why did they stop coming?"
"I can't say for sure, but I have a theory that it concerns my last report. Once they returned to Mars with my latest findings, we never saw them again. We had no communications equipment then. Months later, we finally succeeded in building a comm-link to Mars; but we realized that they had set a satellite in orbit to prevent our signal from getting through. So here we are, stranded since then."
"What did your last report contain?" LeSabre asked, curiosity itching away at her like a bad case of poison ivy. A chill suddenly enveloped her. The Martian government had surely received the Evergreen's distress call by now.
"I had concluded that after three years, the project was a success and that the Earth had regenerated itself remarkably well since man had left. I also mentioned that by Terraforming on a large scale, the planet would be ready for its first colonists in two to five years; triple the speed at which we had initially predicted."
"That's amazing, but why are you still underground instead of on the surface?"
"Our existing generators could only Terraform the extinct oceanic basin above us. It was only a pilot project."
"Before we crashed, we observed several areas of the planet covered in greenish-gold vegetation."
"Ahhh .the trees and plants have successfully propagated all over the glove as I had predicted. That's good. But, the heat is really too intense on the surface to live comfortably. Maybe in thirty to fifty years, the temperature will be cool enough for us to return above."
"I see. So tell me, Dr., where is the remainder of your team?" LeSabre queried as she stole a glance through the picture window to her right, searching for the missing engineers.
Dr. Hallows chuckled at her perplexed manner, "Scattered throughout the city, you certainly won't find them peeking through my windows. The nearest member of my team is over three blocks away. I'll round everyone up so that you can meet them personally. Then, we'll bring your colonists down and make them feel at home."
Dr. Hallows, you haven't elaborated on your theory concerning why the Martian government cut you off." Rick stated, bringing the Dr. back to the crucial fact of the matter at hand.
"True. I hypothesized that it was probably more profitable for the government to keep on sending colonists to Venus. It would have been much more difficult to convince Martian colonists to settle Earth instead of Venus. The government would of had to actually pay settlers to come here, so why take the financial risk? Why take such a gamble when thousands of paying colonists are ready to eagerly head for a new virgin planet like Venus? Since our youth, we've all been told those horror stories about Earth, so it's normal for us to be fearful of ever coming here."
"That makes sense, but it doesn't answer why you and your team are still here." Evering said.
The Dr. shrugged his square shoulders. "Maybe they didn't want us putting any ideas into the heads of the Martian population." Clapping his hands, he put an end to the conversation, "Enough talk, let's bring the colonists down."
Later that evening, the Evergreen's passengers and crew filled a park in the underground city to full capacity. The air was warm and balmy. Golden trees swayed in the moonlight over their heads as people walked about conversing. Music, piped out from the comm-systems, gave an air of festivity to the gathering.
LeSabre had spent the better part of the evening meeting with the Terraforming engineers. The Evergreen's colonists would be offered any uninhabited dwelling of their choice within the city. Everything needed to live comfortable was readily accessible, including food and fresh water. She was anxious to spread the news as she left with Dr. Hallows to meet with the colonists.
A unexpected trembling rocked the underground cavern, startling the people. It ceased almost immediately. The Dr.'s portable surface scanner began to beep.
"What is it?" LeSabre asked, "an earthquake?"
"I can't say for sure. There hasn't been any tectonic activity in this region for over six hundred years. I'll have to check my instruments first." he gestured for LeSabre to follow him back to his home.
Entering the dark house, they were confronted with an urgently flashing console. Dr. Hallows hurried to the screen, LeSabre at his side.
"It's your ship, lieutenant, look."
LeSabre stared at the image that the hidden video monitor transmitted to them. Stunned, she watched her ship burn up in a fiery inferno. Her stomach felt as if it would empty itself of her last meal. She swallowed hard, putting a mental lid on her churning insides.
"I'll reverse the recording. Just a moment there." He punched in a series of commands to the console. "That's what I thought. Look up here, you see that blur?"
LeSabre peered at the frozen image on the screen. "What is it?"
"I'll magnify and clear it up. Now, take a good look. Recognize it?"
LeSabre's heart twitched, making her wince. She recognized it all right. It was a government light class speeder equipped with laser canons. She watched, stupefied, as Dr. Hallows advanced the image slowly so that she could see the intruder fire in rapid succession upon the crippled transport. Her ship exploded in a curtain of cobalt blames, thick black smoke swirled up like a hungry tornado, filling the area for over fifty kilometers. Anyone in the vicinity of the ship would have been fried to a crisp or intoxicated by the poisonous fumes. Most of the colonist's dwellings were still erected about the transport. Luckily, they were devoid of any human life.
"Thank God. The colonists are safe." she whispered.
"The government received your distress signal."
"Why this? Don't they care about all these people?"
Dr. Hallows swiveled his chair about, looking up at LeSabre. "My girl, haven't you learned yet? They don't want the secret to get out that Earth is now habitable. This fact, coupled with the explanation of our so called disappearance, would throw Mars into turmoil. With another planet to govern besides Venus, Martian government officials would lose control. Who knows, maybe most of the Martian inhabitants would leave to return to the homeworld of their ancestors. It would be total chaos for the Martian government, never would its subjects trust it again."
LeSabre tuned out on the Dr.'s last sentence. "I have to tell the colonists and my crew."
Compassion filled the Dr.'s pale eyes. "Wait, I'll come with you. You'll need all the support that you can get. But, one day, there will come a time when the Martian population will know what has happened here. Then, I'm sure that Martians everywhere will return to their homeworld.
"I hope so, Dr. I'll be the first one to look forward to that day."
In silence, they left to bring a message of hope to the stranded colonists, a message of the rebirth of a new world that would change their lives forever.
About Karen D. Martel in her own words:
"Hi. I'm a 32 year old mom of a beautiful 9 month old baby. We live in Québec, Canada (and yes, I am perfectly bilingual..so if you speak French..feel free to e-mail me!) I quit a permanent government job in February 1997 (after ten years of loyal service!) to start my own business in Desktop Publishing and to launch a full time writing career. Right now, I'm working on a fantasy novel, I hope that some publisher out there will give me a chance, the story is good, I can feel it my bones! I'm creating my web site right now, and I'll let Aphelion know when the site becomes available. My interests include reading, writing, drawing/illustrating and stained glass artwork. You can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org"
Karen's webpage is at FantaPub Designs/a>
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