by Rick Kennett
Cadet Cy De Gerch bounced forward into the desert darkness, raised her arms in a defensive posture and, as best as a fourteen year could, barked, “Halt! Who goes there!”
There was no one there. There never was.
Cy jumped back, a slow leap in the low gravity, to her original position on the perimeter, her vacsuit moving easy like a second skin, to watch and wait and break the boredom as best she could until relieved. Out there was the desert she had trekked the past two years with her section of Martian Star Corps cadets. Out there was the countryside of Mars – cold and red and a billion years dead, littered with rocks, pocked with craters, filled with myths and ghost stories, most of which Cy didn’t really believe. Sergeant Kreeng – Old Get-It-Right – had known what he was doing when he’d set them perimeter guard duty consisting mostly of doing nothing. It was, she knew, a discipline of the mind.
Her watch arc was to the south, but occasionally she took long looks into the west. About five kilometres in that direction, according to her estimation, lay The City, one of the famous Cydonia formations. She’d been responsible for navigation on this leg of the exercise, a long trek up from Water Bore 36 at McLauglin Crater in the south. Despite having arrived long after dark, she was sure they were camped dead in the heart of Cydonia.
The night sky of Mars was deepest black, studded with vivid red blue orange yellow gleams, alien to the skies of Earth. Beneath these stars, Cy paced back and forth, trying to kill time by puzzling out a song about Cydonia, using what she knew, what she thought she knew. In short order she had:
Plateau north on Acidalia Plain
Pioneers there never seen again
The City and The Fortress and Monkey Face
An ape stone head staring into space
Let me tell you people it’s a weird shit place
Fruit Bowl Crater and Parallel Tracks
Natural forms or artifacts?
The Novak Group –
The lyrics faltered. What about the Novak Group? Were they the pioneers who had disappeared? Or did they just die, buried in a sand storm, uncovered in another? Too many stories, too many myths. She liked that line about ‘ape stone face staring into space’ but the rest didn’t seem to work.
Dissatisfied with her efforts, she scanned the desert again. Rust-red in the day, it lay now out to the horizon as black as the sky. Even the light-boost in her helmet visor revealed only grey rocks and grey sand. Nothing moved. Nothing showed on her scanner image.
Compelled by old instincts and empty fears, Cy turned and scanned inside the perimeter. Nothing was creeping up on her. Nothing could be. At her back were the ordered rows of inflated plastic tents, their interiors warm and full of air with a sleeping cadet in each. In another hour she’d be relieved and could crawl back into her own tent and for a while be outside of her suit, comfortably horizontal.
She stared out into the night. Nothing really ever to guard against. But don’t let old Get-It-Right catch you catching Zs as you watched the desert, red and dead a billion years, cluttered with rocks and myths and ghost stories not really believed. Just as she didn’t really believe the naked figure flickering out of the dark towards her.
Cy flinched, staring stupidly as the thing rushed in out of the grey middle distance of her light boost, narrow-bodied, red-tinted, hunched and running skipping jumping straight for her, a figure naked in this thin, freezing atmosphere.
All training, all thought fled. To either side of the oncoming vision her visor’s telemetry read-outs throbbed with sudden increases in heart and breathing. She didn’t see them, only the red figure, rushing at her in a flickering sprint, closer now, faster now, moving in a jerky series of still images, a thin leaping caricature of a human figure, now here, now there, to the left, to the right, chalk-line arms and legs red like the blowing sand swirling through its sketched-out body.
Brain and limbs came together at last, and Cy moved, jumped to intercept. Too late. The figure dodged past her in a stutter of movement, stepping, leaping, dancing, twisting in a rush of still poses, there and gone.
Catching nothing, falling forward in dream-like slow motion, she somersaulted. Landed on her feet. Turned. Just in time to see the figure flickering in and out between the tents as though moving through an intermittent existence.
Hitting the general frequency, Cy yelled words she thought she’d never hear herself say: “Guard Point South! Intruder alert! Intruder alert!”
The response from Sergeant Kreeng was instantaneous. “What do you see?”
Christ! Doesn’t he ever sleep? “De Gerch at point south. Someone just ran through the camp!” She fumbled with the scan replay.
“Ran? Can you identify?”
“Negative, Sarg. It was –“ She tried to stop herself, but the impossible word slipped out — “naked.”
“Negative, Sarg. No I.D.”
Soft scraping sounds, the odd grunt in her earpiece. Cy grimaced as she tried not to picture Kreeng in his skivvies donning his vacuum suit.
“Where’s your contact now?” he said.
She boosted gain on her visor, but could no longer see the figure among the tents, some of which were already depressurizing as the occupant prepared to emerge.
“Lost it, Sergeant. Last seen running north-east through the camp.”
Kreeng opened com links to the other three guards, north, east and west. None had seen anything.
“Cadet De Gerch, pump up your best image and jump it across to me.”
“Doing it now, Sergeant.”
“Good. I’ll make a starship officer of you yet.”
But the auto-select on Cy’s scanner was coming up blank. There was no image to select. At once she started a diagnoses check, but this also came up negative.
“I’m waiting, Cadet.”
“Sergeant … there’s nothing here.”
Even as she said this, checking the system again, she braced herself for the famous Get-It-Right bawling out that was sure to come. But all that came over the general frequency was the noise of thirty cadets, male and female, preparing to defend themselves: suits zipping, air sucking back into bottles, tents deflating, muffled cursing and bitching.
A moment more and the sergeant himself was beside her, his red vacsuit a head taller than hers and much more augmented. He said nothing but only peered into the south, although she’d plainly told him the figure had been heading north-east through the camp. Sergeant Kreeng prowled off around the perimeter, his helmet swinging left and right, calling the other three sentries again. He then ordered the rest of the section to spread out, crank up their visor light boosts and report any sightings.
Eventually he returned to Cy De Gerch and made the half-twist gesture with his hand to indicate use of immediate area channel.
“Why did you say you saw a naked figure?” he asked her, not in his usual growl but in an odd, softer tone.
“Did I say naked?”
“I can play it back if you want to deny it.”
“I’m not denying it, Sarg. I dunno … it was an impression, I suppose. I got an impression he was naked.”
“You said He.”
Cy shrugged, a gesture almost lost in her vacsuit. “It had no genitalia and there was no real body form to speak of.”
“So why did you call it He?”
Cy hesitated. “Perhaps it was the face.”
“I can’t, Sarg … not exactly. Just thought I glimpsed a face, you know, with a nose, a mouth, two little eyes. Sort of looked like a man, but more like a stick figure man come to life.”
“What colour was this stick figure man?”
“This is the one thing I’m positive about. Red. It was red. Same as the sand.”
A short silence, then Kreeng said, “How did it move?”
She told him as best she could, not expecting to be believed.
Whether or not she was, all Kreeng did was open the general frequency again.
“Belay scanning! Pack your tents and get ready to move. There’s a sand storm coming. The City formation at Cydonia will provide shelter. From there we can get air-lifted if need be.”
“But, Sarg, what did I see?” said Cy.
“Something I’ve seen myself long ago, Cadet. Now get moving before you get buried!”
Bouncing back to her tent lying deflated on the sand, Cy checked her vacsuit’s computer for weather information, downloaded frequently from satellites. Up until now there’d been no indication of an approaching sand storm. What the hell was Get-It-Right worried about?
The computer confirmed clear skies. Its latest reading, only minutes old, reported no storm activity over all of the north-west of the planet. The noonday temperature tomorrow at Cydonia was expected to be -25° Celsius. It was, after all, mid-Summer in the northern hemisphere.
Martian weather patterns had never been thoroughly understood, it was true, and what terraforming was doing to it could only be guessed at. But to suddenly announce a storm in the face of scans and satellite reports saying otherwise seemed to Cy wantonly contrary.
“Single file,” Sergeant Kreeng called. “Link up!”
Drawing tethers from their suits, each cadet attached themselves to the cadet in front – standard procedure in low visibility. With their helmet lights cutting through a clear night, the section loped due west in that odd Martian march between a step and a jump. Cy, stuffing her tent into her vacsuit backpack, hurried after them, clipping her tether cable onto the tail-end’s vacsuit.
“Who’s that?” Cy asked over the immediate area channel.
“Me.” The figure ahead of her turned half about so that the name Z. CHEPTEP stencilled on the helmet above the visor came into view. The helmet lit from within, showing the long cheek bone features, aquiline nose and dark eyes of another fourteen year old girl. She smiled, pulled a face and turned off her interior light.
“Hey, Zoe,” said Cy.
“So you saw the Sandman, did you?”
“The Sandman. There’s a storm coming.”
“There’s no storm,” said Cy, adding a little snappish, “And what the hell’s this Sandman? You having a dig at me for waking you all up on a false alarm?”
“Not if we avoid being buried in a storm. Ain’t you never heard of the Sandman?”
“No, I ain’t never heard of the Sandman.”
“The Sandman is the stalking red thing that brings the killer sand storms and is a harbinger of death.”
“And the Easter Bunny is the hopping furry thing that brings killer chocolate and is the harbinger of acne. Breeze it, Zoe! Sounds the sort of fable parents tell their kids to teach them survival habits.”
“Then what do you think you saw just now?”
“Kreeng seems to.”
“Yeah, but nothing recorded on my scanner. I reckon I was just staring out at the desert too long, and old Get-It-Right is just getting it wrong.”
“It’s Cydonia,” said Zoe significantly.
“What do you mean?”
“If weirdness exists anywhere on Mars it exists in Cydonia. If the Sandman lives anywhere on Mars he lives in Cydonia. It’s the living heart of this dead planet. This place with its pyramids and monuments is malignant – always has been since it claimed the Novak Expedition way back. Some people only feel that, but you see the Sandman. See the Sandman! Cydonia must like you. You’re simpatico, ya know? We’ll have to call you Cy of Cydonia. Like Rutland of Jutland.”
“Who was that?”
“Some guy named Rutland … at the Battle of Jutland.”
“What did he do?”
“I dunno … stuff. We’re not studying Jutland till next semester.”
“I don’t know why they teach us old naval battles. It’s two dimensional, nothing like the real battles we’ll be fighting one day in space.”
“Probably the same reason they make us do desert navigation exercises like this. Basics, right? The way I see it, they figure that if you’re gunna get lost in a 2D landscape there’s no way they’re letting you anywhere near a starship’s 5D astrogation suite.”
“And what if you start seeing little red men leaping out at you from the desert? What won’t they let you near then?”
“Everything but the psycho ward I should think. But don’t worry about that, Cy. Check your scan. What’s that at one-seventy degrees?”
Cy brought the scan image up onto her visor. About thirty kilometres to the south a fuzziness had appeared in the last few minutes, small but growing. A switch to the latest weather information reported sudden shifts in wind patterns to the south.
“Looks like we’ve got some weather coming, Cy. Convinced now?”
“Only of the unpredictability of Martian weather, not the Martian bogeyman.” She ranged her scan west and picked up the formation known as The City — shelter of a kind from the coming sand storm.
“It’s the –“ Zoe began, but was interrupted by Sergeant Kreeng cutting through on general frequency.
“Sand storm to the south. Coming up fast! Everybody keep a check on your heat exchanges. Don’t let ‘em get clogged or you’ll be cooked in your suits before you know it.”
Within minutes the storm swept up and engulfed them like a blood-red tsunami. Even at speeds in excess of 200 kilometres per hour, the thin winds of Mars hardly buffered their bodies, though sand rattled loud against face visors.
Cy could now only make out Zoe as a red blur, while those further up the line were no longer visible at all. Static charges of moving particles disrupted communications and smudged scan images to shifting blots and disjointed lines.
Barely glimpsed, Kreeng was there and gone, checking connections, shepherding them along.
“Get it right,” Cy muttered to herself. The storm grew in intensity. Everything outside her visor went dark red, then just dark as the sand smothered out the helmet light. She turned it off. “Zoe,” she called into the darkness. “Zoe, do you hear me?”
If her friend answered it was lost in a rising, faraway howl filling Cy’s phones, sounding like but couldn’t possibly be the wind. In this ghost of an atmosphere Martian winds blew forever silent.
Nothing outside but the dark, nothing to hear but the interminable scratching of sand against her visor and helmet, and that faraway hollow howling in her phones. Nothing of reality but her feet hitting the sand in long, rhythmic lopes.
Keep going, keep going.
A feeling of isolation, all claustrophobic and suffocating, bore down on her. Only the thought that shelter was nearby – just up ahead, just a few more steps – kept her going. She dared not look at her visor clock for fear of seeing that Time had stopped, that the universe had ceased to be. It was easy to think that way.
Keep going, keep going.
There was nothing but red static on her scan, yet she kept it focused ahead. Even in all this flying sand The City should soon reappear. The landscape there was sudden and large, a hodgepodge of monoliths literally erupting out of Cydonia, three times the size of the pyramids of Earthly Egypt.
Yet for long minutes nothing showed, and the wind blew on and on. Sand blind as she was, out of communication and with no way of telling how far they’d travelled, it wasn’t long before the thought came creeping that maybe they were lost. Despite rumours to the contrary among the cadets, Sergeant Kreeng was human and as liable as anyone to errors of judgement.
Even as these thoughts were born they died. On her visor a few steady diagonal lines began to appear in the chaotic scanner image. Gradually they grew more numerous and defined as the visual echo strengthened. A few minutes later Cy passed into the lee of a monolith, seen only as a chaos of echoes on her scan, and out of the direct violence of the wind. She switched on her light and could just make out her hand waved in front of her visor. On her vacsuit’s general frequency, however, the phantom wind still howled. All around her the sand, fine as sifting dust, swirled in the air. But further along it was bound to be clearer. Zoe Cheptep would soon re-emerge ahead of her and this howling in her ears end.
Deeper into the shelter of The City, the redness outside her visor began to fall away. Within a few loped steps it was only a thin haze.
The slanting walls of The City loomed in far rosy distance either side as far as her light could reach. Her scan showed a mile wide vista, a rock-strewn valley crooked with haphazard pyramids. But Kreeng, Zoe and the other cadets had disappeared.
A quick check of her vacsuit tether cable found it unbroken. Even the clip she’d hooked onto Zoe’s suit dangled undamaged and open at the end of it.
Cy stared down at that opened clip, puzzled, frightened. Calling on all frequencies, again and again, she heard only the howl of a wind that couldn’t be. Unbidden, the words of her song came again to mind:
The City and the Fortress and Monkey Face. An ape stone head staring into space. Let me tell you people it’s a weird shit place
Cy gazed about at the vast pyramids either side, the crooked valley they formed ahead of her. “No. There is a reason,” she told herself. “Don’t give in to fancies.” Her voice loud inside her helmet was somehow comforting, gave her mind something real to hang onto.
Somehow Zoe had lost the tether connection. That was it. Zoe and Sergeant Kreeng and the rest of the cadets were elsewhere in The City.
Had to be.
Yet that ‘somehow’ about the lost tether connection bothered her. Zoe’s suit hook could have broken … well, it could’ve. But she knew how unlikely it was.
Cy swept her helmet’s light into the darkness above as if seeking her lost comrades up there, seeing only the great rock sides soaring upward at angles of between 20 and 25 degrees. Around midway they were lost among the rushing red of the storm still blasting overhead, surging in her light beam like a crazy upside down sea, crimson and angry.
3D studies and virtual plug-ins didn’t begin to give the reality of Cydonia, nor the sense of insignificance engendered by standing there alone among these immense, ancient things. Up close and real Cy felt her convictions about Cydonia shake. She began to understand now why the 20th and 21st centuries had thought The City, the massive D&M Pyramid, the three-walled Fortess and the other formations of Cydonia might be an artificial complex of monuments and structures: they stood unnatural and sudden upon the Cydonia Plateau, their angles sharp, their sides so straight, their positions almost arranged.
An echo, small and discrete, appeared on her scan, appearing to have emerged out of nowhere about half a kilometre down the pyramidal valley.
Cy advanced in slow bounds, narrowing her light, focusing it on the scan target.
A vacsuited figure stood motionless in the beam.
“Zoe?” Cy called. “Zoe! Hey!” Not trusting radio to the static, she flashed her helmet light several times as well.
Wanting answers, needing society in this empty city of giants, Cy loped toward the distant figure. At the same instant Zoe began to move away. Taking small steps at first, but gradually increasing the stride.
“Zoe! Wait!” Lengthening her jumping steps, Cy was beginning to catch up when Zoe darted right and with several long leaps reached the base of the nearest pyramid and began to climb with spring-heeled agility.
Cy bounced to a stop, uncertain what to do. Shouldn’t she find Kreeng first? That would be the proper thing to do. Get it right. But that impossible wind still howled in her phones, and Zoe seemed very disorientated, ignoring her signals and scrambling up the pyramid in such frenzied fashion. Perhaps her heat exchange was clogged and her vacsuit, unable to radiate body heat away, was frying her brain, causing erratic behavior. In which case –
Keeping Zoe in her beam, Cy took off in pursuit, hitting the sloping side, boots and gloves gripping the rock. Part of the exercise to Cydonia was to explore its pyramids, so she was prepared.
Zoe was a good way ahead and above, still climbing steadily and only a few long steps now from the churning lower edge of the storm. Once Zoe reached that Cy knew she would lose her. The sand would smother the light and all would be darkness again. Still, this was no time for making excuses.
Zoe disappeared into the racing sand without slackening pace. Too long a time afterwards – twenty seconds or more – Cy followed her in. The storm closed in again and once more blinded her. The howling in her ears turned to a muted screech. Someone briefly took her hand in a tight grasp.
“Who’s that?” Cy shouted, pulling away. The grasp lifted from her hand and the radio howl gave no answer. She continued on.
A face appeared at her visor, a naked face pushing close into hers, there and gone.
She swung an arm into the storm, touching nothing, though for an instant something once more touched her.
Telemetry read-outs either side of her visor showed sudden spikes in blood pressure, heart and pulse which were already well above normal. Somewhere in her head a thin, colourless voice was insisting, runawayrunawayrunaway. As best she could she ignored it. As a Star Corps cadet, trained in Martian survival, she knew there was nothing to fear inside a Cydonian sand storm.
Wasn’t there? Wasn’t there?
Spurred on by courage born of fear, Cy continued the ascent.
Once more her hands and arms were plucked, once more the face came, staring in at her. Then another face and another, flashing out of the dark, pulling back into it. Cy tried to catch expressions, but they were too brief, too sketchy, like the face of the Sandman, rushing up at her out of the empty Martian night, the harbinger of the storm.
The red stalking thing, Zoe had said. A harbinger of death.
Presently the darkness took on a growing rosy hue. Cy’s heart gave a leap, a sudden jag on her telemetry. She was climbing through the upper reaches of the storm. At last it was clearing. And that glow … dawn was breaking over Cydonia.
She pushed out into sunlight, gasping a deep breath as if emerging from the drowning depths. The howl in her phones faded away. She flicked on her emergency beacon. Sergeant Kreeng would hear it as soon as he too cleared the storm.
Only metres above her the pyramid came to an abrupt top. Moments more and Cy stood in early morning light streaming red-tinted across a level space, almost a perfect square several metres on a side. The ragged remains of the storm were scudding away to the north. Spread out below lay the formations of the Cydonia Plateau, long shadowed in the dawn. Twenty kilometres to the south-east towered the D&M Pyramid, five flat sides, sharp angles, twice as big as anything in The City. Eastward at the same distance stood Novak Tholus, conical and peaked like a great witch’s hat, wrapped around with its enigmatic ramp to nowhere. North of Novak, likewise twenty kilometres from The City, lay The Face mesa with the sun rising red-yellow directly above it. Upon it Cy could make out the profile of something less simian, more human, evil and ugly. The forehead bulged with an abrupt hill and the deep ravine of the mouth was an eternal grimace.
Transfixed by the view, it took her a moment to spot the figure standing at the far side of the square, obscured in the glare of the rising sun.
“Zoe!” Cy called.
Still there was no response. The figure stood perfectly motionless. At once Cy feared that her friend was unconscious or even dead, standing upright and cooked alive in her suit. Yet Cy did not rush across but advanced cautiously for reasons she could not really explain to herself. Up close now she saw Zoe’s heat exchange, located above the backpack, was clear of sand.
“Zoe?” said Cy again, and touched her on the shoulder.
Zoe turned around easier than she should have, as if lighter than she should be.
- CHEPTEP showed on her helmet. Below it in the visor no long cheek bone features, no aquiline nose and no dark eyes looked back at her. The visor was filled with red churning sand slowly, endlessly blowing …
Hollow howling resounded in Cy’s phones, a sound loud and lost and faraway. The figure, no longer vacsuited reality but sketchy and half finished, dodged past her in a stutter of interrupted motion, stepping, leaping, dancing, twisting in a rush of still poses, there and gone: the far side, the opposite corner, almost within reach, by the edge, in the centre, there and there and there, twitching madly down the side of the pyramid.
“Zoe,” Cy whispered, watching her friend disappear into the Cydonian landscape below. The impossible wind was her only answer, and even this soon faded into silence.
How long later that silence was broken by the harshness of Sergeant Kreeng’s voice, she could not say. The sun was much further up the sky and Kreeng was telling her to “Hold on!” Then her view of sun and desert and enigmatic structures jerked as a line clipped to her vacsuit pulled her into the belly of a rescue craft she had not even noticed hovering above.
Where was Zoe Cheptep, they asked her.
Down there, was all Cy could say, and she pointed to a viewscreen image of Cydonia and its enigmatic structures.
From the higher elevation of the rescue ship The Face, forever staring up into space, looked to Cy even more evil and ugly. There in the deep ravine of the mouth … was it just shadow? Yes, surely just shadow. It couldn’t have really been the hint of a smile.
A search party of Star Corps Rangers assembled at the airlock to be briefed by Sergeant Kreeng before their drop to the surface. Naked of his helmet, he was a young man of twenty-five, an old man of experience with a look at once grim and vulnerable.
Down on Cydonia a second storm front was approaching, sweeping in from the south in two broad bands, east and west, engulfing the region like pincers. Somewhere down there Zoe Cheptep was still missing. Somewhere down there the Sandman skipped and jumped ahead of the new storm.
That this was so Cy De Gerch no longer doubted. What form did it now take? she wondered. What face did it now wear?