There are two major differences between Martians and Earthlings.
The first, of course, is physical. To Earthling eyes, Martians would look tall, thin, and pale. They mostly have deep blue eyes, long, nimble fingers, and white hair, although some other colors show up from time to time. Martians are decidedly social and talkative, quite given to music, and will often play for hours while others nod along in silent, thoughtful enjoyment.
The second difference is one of memories. The Martians remember that their ancestors were Earthlings, while any terrestrial record of the colony ships are lost, along with so much else. The Martians remember when the transmissions from home stopped, when they realized that if they were to survive they were going to have to do so on their own.
And survive they had. They tightened their belts, rearranged their affairs to make sure nothing was lost or wasted, and had a few lucky breaks along the way, but over the centuries they had grown, their holdings and knowledge had expanded, and they were thriving, the healthiest human civilization in the solar system.
And they were still growing. From three domes to ten to one hundred to the first mega-enclosures, human holdings on Mars were ever expanding, and the red planet was turning green inside those enclosures, and the Martians dreamed of a day when mankind could live under an open Martian sky.
But not yet.
For now, Mars still needed people to wander out into the wild, take measurements, check readings, and just basically do all those things that fell under the heading of “exploring”. Gabriel was one of those people. By Martian standards his skin was dark and tan, although mostly around his face since an explorer spends most of their time in a vacuum-capable suit, just in case. He was quiet, deeply introverted, and one of the best at his job. Gabriel could find water where the scans had said there wasn’t any, and could read the face of the terrain like a book. His routes into the wild became the major transit routes after the domes and tents moved into the areas he mapped. He wasn’t always right; but he had one of the best records in the service, and people respected that.
Gabriel was four weeks out from the nearest dome; heading for a feature that held the promise of water, which would lead further exploration—and expansion—out into this area. Viewed from above and over the course of time-lapse photography, you could almost imagine people like Gabriel dragging a trail of civilization behind them, spreading and widening in fractal patterns as they reach for new and better sources of the things that humans needed to survive. Things like space, time and water. Everything else they created for themselves.
Gabriel didn’t think about it. He liked the quiet spaces, the orderly and precise rituals of exploration on a foreign world. He was fond of seeing new and quiet places, felt the thrill of discovering something that nobody else had seen, and even found something joyful in sending back reports of his progress.
The report he was going to send back today, however, left most of his stories in the dust.
Gabriel was driving along at a steady, distance-destroying hundred and fifty clicks, his buggy able to compensate for the terrain automatically. Lasers and scanners probed the sand ahead of him, looked for anomalies, rocks, pits, and anything that might throw the buggy off of its smooth, high speed course, and compensated by lifting slightly, or extending the material of the left wheel, or lowering the front right, or whatever. Gabriel just pointed the way, technology made sure he got there all right.
The moment he struck was one he would never remember. It was like waking from a dream, and it took a few seconds to sink in. Clearly he was in free-fall, but he didn’t remember falling. Looking down revealed the reason for that: he was falling sideways; in other words, flying. His buggy was below him, on a similar course. It was tumbling end over end, which explained his current trajectory. He’d been thrown clear when it hit something the tires couldn’t deal with. Lesser men would have wondered at how such an impossible thing had happened, with all the technology that was designed to stop it. Gabriel just made a commitment to find out what had happened and see if he could help stop it from reoccurring. But first things first; he was still traveling the better part of one hundred and fifty kilometers per hour, and his trajectory was decaying. In other words, he was about to hit the ground, and fast.
Fortunately the suit was designed to take this kind of thing into consideration. Without too much worry or trouble he pressed a button on his right shoulder, and one on his left simultaneously. Three beeps sounded in his helmet, and he pressed them again, as confirmation. A moment later a thin bundle of filaments played out sinuously behind him, then burst open into a monstrous parachute, nearly a tenth of an acre in surface area to make the most of the thin martian atmosphere, one molecule thick to fit into a small tight box on his back.
The chute lazily ballooned out, reducing his momentum, and he watched his buggy shoot ahead of him. He was still going to hit hard, but the airbags built elsewhere into his suit should help with that. He hoped briefly that the airbags on the buggy were still in good shape, and remembered with grim satisfaction that he’d inspected them two weeks earlier as part of his routine maintenance. Still, there were things to deal with right now. He curled up into a tight ball as the ground rushed up to meet him.
His suit, equally aware of what was going on, gauged its actions perfectly. The chute was cut free. Milliseconds later small capsules placed here and there around the suit suddenly burst and large balloons deployed to make Gabriel’s fall as painless as possible. He bounced and rolled, jolted and jarred along for a few more meters, and finally tumbled to a stop. The airbags deflated and he looked forward along his line of travel, just in time to see a large yellow ball burst open and hit the ground in a huge spray of red dust. He almost smiled; the buggy’s bags had worked fine. From the looks of it, the buggy was no more than three kilometers away, and had all his supplies on it. Time to get walking.
The buggy was fine… mostly. Whatever had launched it into the air had also taken out the front left wheel and bent the frame beyond what Gabriel could repair out in the field. He could get it to travel, but not quickly enough to make it back to civilization, and not steadily. It was time to make some choices.
First, of course, was to find out what he hit. He should be in range of —he checked the sky—Phobos base, which would have been signaled when he deployed his chute, and again when his airbags deployed, and again when the buggy’s airbags deployed. So they would be curious to know what happened.
“Gabriel here. Phobos base, come in.”
“Phobos here. What happened?”
“I don’t know yet. I hit something.”
“You’re not supposed to do that.”
This was all part of an old contest: the radio operators at the moon bases would say things to try to make Gabriel betray any emotion whatsoever, and Gabriel would avoid doing so.
“How’s your buggy? Pretty bunged up? We know the airbags fired, but were they actually working?”
“Of course. It’s fine, except for the wheel that struck..whatever it was. It won’t drive far, but I think I can get back to the crash site.”
“Because I’m going to be here a while while you try to get a tug down to me, and I want to know what wrecked my buggy.”
“We were hoping you didn’t know how long you’d be down there. It could be a month, you know.”
“You should have a tug that can come down in three weeks.”
“One of these days you’ll be wrong about something and they’ll make you come up here and do my job for a few years. Yeah, three weeks out. Do you need a supply drop?”
“I’ll set up my tent and tell you for sure, but I suspect I’ll need one in about ten days.”
“We’ll get one queued up. A good insertion window is coming up soon. Get set up and let us know.”
“And Gabriel, try not to hit anything else in that flat, empty, featureless plain out there. I know it’s a challenge, but we think you’re up to it.”
Gabriel just signed off. He nursed the buggy back along his track at a mere sixty clicks. Not only had his front wheel been destroyed, but his sensor array was messed up, and he had to drive on manual pilot the entire way back to the crash site, with the buggy whining and complaining about its missing sensors (the missing wheel it could cope with) the entire way.
Once he arrived back at the site he set up his tent. A martian explorer’s tent is a massive affair, a hermetically sealed geodesic dome with a circumference of ten meters, made of a transparent, insanely tough material that packs down tight and insulates better than anything that thin should be able to. The cabin heater was removed from the buggy and plugged into the tent, and Gabriel’s living quarters were quickly set up as he liked them. After a little thought, he had set his tent about six meters from whatever it was that had messed up his tires. He wanted to study it; indeed he’d have little else to do until the tug was able to come get him, but he didn’t really want to share a tent with it just yet. Instead he spent the night cataloging the things he’d need for an extended stay, sent his report up to Deimos base, and went to sleep.
The next morning Gabriel got was out of the tent early and brushing the dust away from the obstacle that had wrecked his buggy before the sun rise. The night before, as the sun was setting, he thought he saw a glint, something metallic, shining out of the wreckage. It was probably part of the buggy, but he’d lain awake all night thinking about it. As he brushed the dust away his suspicion was confirmed. This wasn’t part of his buggy at all. This…this was something big.
Slow, methodical, focused digging eventually showed him the device in its entirety. He looked at it steadily for a few minutes, pondered, then went back into the tent. He pulled up everything he could find on Martian exploration. A few more minutes of silent thought, then he pulled up his order for the supply drop and added a few things. As he suspected. The call came almost immediately.
“Gabriel, what’s with this order for a 3D printer and a crate of heavy metals? Are you planning on printing a new buggy and driving out of there?”
“I’m planning on repairing some damage. I could send you a part list and you could fabricate them up there, if you like.”
“Nah, you know I’m lazier than that. I’ll send them down, but people are going to ask questions.”
“I’ll answer them soon. I promise.”
“No hints for the guy who’s sticking his neck out for you?”
“You’ll be the first to know, don’t worry about that. Now, I’ve got to get back to work.”
“You know, a lot of guys use a break like this to put their feet up, read a few books, maybe stream a few movies.”
“Yes. I do know. But I’ve got to get back to work.”
The operator on Phobos sighed. “Can’t blame me for trying. Okay, Phobos Base out.”
Gabriel spent a few minutes after breaking the connection reading a few more pages on the Martian version of the Internet. There were only a few million pages on the ‘net, and only a handful had any bearing on what he was wanting to believe he had found out there. But at last he found what he was looking for. If Gabriel had been the sort to laugh and dance around, this would have been the time he would have chosen to do it. Instead, he nearly smiled as he headed back outside to carefully flip his find back onto its wheels.
Gabriel had read once that people on Earth used to make ships in a bottle; tiny, perfect replicas of sailing ships, with the added difficulty of assembling them in a seriously constrained environment. By the time you were done, you understood the ship, and the mastery that would have gone into making one far better than you could in any other way, short of actually building the real thing. It gave you respect for the glory of a past age, the craftsmanship that was needed to do things without modern tools.
His current project felt like that. He was using admittedly modern tools, but in a vacuum suit, and working on something that would have been a relic before the first true Martians were born, and was built using skills and ideologies that had died out before the first colonists had left Earth. Fortunately the majority of the Earth’s governments had uploaded the majority of their documents to the Martian base for safekeeping before the war, and after a few nights of searching Gabriel found what he needed.
Of course, that meant he had to teach himself to read and understand 20th century blueprints and schematics, but he was focused, dedicated, and (due to the effects of a few centuries of enforced Darwinism) at least thirty IQ points smarter than the most intelligent person alive when the device was built.
In the end, he fabricated some tools that would have been used in the original construction, and to his surprise found that his work went faster. From time to time he wondered if any other Martian alive had ever used a screw driver or a wrench, or a soldiering iron. Fortunately the device had suffered surprisingly little damage over the centuries, other than what he had caused a few days prior, and the needed repairs were minimal.
The harder part was figuring out the power system. The crude solar cells that covered the device were understandable enough, and he was pretty sure he could replace the old chemical battery with something that would be…well, considerably better than what was there originally, but it wouldn’t make a very big difference. He convinced himself that as long as the voltages and wattages (both terms had caused a large amount of research) were the same as what the device had expected he’d be on the right course, and he couldn’t be expected to re-create a lithium-ion battery out here, could he? Still, the non-authentic battery worried him.
Phobos and Deimos bases are more than logistical centers. They are even more than just communications stations. They have an array of sensors, reading every possible electromagnetic wavelength and frequency, listening for anything the galaxy may have to say. Which means that a sudden burst of very intense static on a radio signal, radio of all frequencies, was a source of some confusion. The beam was tightly focused and hard to pick up, but even a tight beam scatters and they were good at following things.
A few hours of intense interest, research, frantic calls between the two moons and a few other satellites revealed a couple of interesting facts: first: the transmission was aimed at Earth; and second: the beam originated on Mars.
A few minutes after this second revelation Gabriel got a call on his personal communicator.
“Tell us, my friend, what exactly are you working on down there?” the voice on the speaker was trying to sound nonchalant, but failing.
“What do you mean?”
“Something very close to you is trying to communicate with earth. We haven’t figured out the signal yet, but it’s transmitting a lot of data very quickly, and coming from somewhere close to you. Some of us are wondering if you have finally developed a sense of humor after all.”
“That’s a cruel thing to say, and you know it. Anyway, the signal isn’t mine, and I don’t really know what it contains either. But I do know where it’s coming from, and I have a good idea what it’s trying to communicate.”
“And what is that, pray tell.”
“Well, Spirit here has been out of service for a long time, and has a lot to tell NASA. Say hi, guys. She’s been doing this a lot longer than we have.”