43hrs, 38mins, 16secs until arrival
'Alright everyone, listen up,' Captain Sila said, stepping into a commanding posture at the head of their long dining table. To Abigail he looked every bit the retired military officer, it was well known the U.N.S used former army and air force pilots on their space missions, and if anyone had any doubt about this rumour Sila's stocky shoulders and ugly short-back-and-sides hair cut soon dispelled them.
'Erm excuse me?' asked Alex, 'G.I.Joe? Could I get an aspirin shot? My head kills.'
'No.' dismissed Sila.
'Okay then.' whispered Alex, lowering his raised hand. Abigail put a gentle hand on his shoulder, Stasis Sickness was never a one size fits all sort of illness. Some people were completely unaffected; others could have symptoms for weeks after being revived.
'You all know who I am, so I'm not going to bother with the introductions. You've been in stasis for one hundred and ninety eight days and you have all been brought here for one very specific reason, you are all the leaders in your field.' said the Captain, locking his arms tightly behind his back and looking at each of them in turn. 'I was instructed to inform you of your mission upon the moment of your awakening so...'
'Oh come on Capteen',' muttered Professor Jacque Pickard, the laid back Frenchman leaning back onto the hind legs of his chair with his arms folded across his thin chest. 'Give us some credeet', we are not eedeuts'. You have an archeologeest',' he said pointing to Abigail. 'A thermogeologeest,' Alex. 'A Proffessorr of exteenct' ceeveelisations',' that time he gestured to Professor Elliot Manning, a slightly built Englishman with data-spectacles and a thin blade like nose. 'A Nobel prize weenneeng' biologeest,' Professor Isanov. 'A cosmologeest,' flicking his eyes to a dainty Chinese woman sitting across from Abigail the lady smiled awkwardly, brushing a strand of raven coloured hair from her obsidian eyes. 'And moi. A world renowned planetary scienteest. So tell us. What 'av you deescovered?'
The captain's eyes never stopped staring at the pompous Frenchman and his face never shifted from its vacant mask. His stare scared Abigail. Those eyes...those weren't the eyes of a man, they were tigers eyes. A hunter’s eye. 'Very well professor.' Sila said coldly. Striding over to a small data slate built into the wall the captain began keying in a set of instructions when Jacque turned around and stared at Abigail. Staring back at him the Frenchman half smiled, running his earthy brown eyes up and down her body with revolting slowness.
'Hey! Frog! Eyes front.' barked Alex from behind her. Bringing his eyes to her breasts Jacque eventually peeled them up to her eyes, staring so deep into them it made her skin crawl, before he turned with a soft chuckle back to face Sila. 'Douche bag.' whispered Alex.
'Ever since the first robotic rovers landed on Mars,' Sila began as the lights of the canteen dimmed. 'We have been looking for evidence of life. Of course we didn't find any. But when we colonised over a decade ago people began digging, looking for dead life rather than living.'
'Fossils.' said Abigail; she remembered reading a paper about interstellar-archaeology, to her knowledge though it had never been attempted.
'Correct Doctor Carter. Several teams were sent out on over a hundred expeditions but we never found anything. Then, eleven months ago, a residential team found this.' A holo-screen burst into existence in the space between the table and Sila.
'Mary mother of God.' whispered Gregory before continuing his blasphemies in broken Russian. On the screen was a single pict-image. Showing a gloved hand holding a large flat rock, the traditional muddy brown colour of the Martian surface. The rock was nothing special, but what was carved onto its face, was.
Alien, writings. Nothing but a sharp series of nicks and scratches to Abigail, but this...this changed everything! With a passion and vigour that defied his meek appearance Elliot rocketed from his seat. Knocking his chair backwards with the movement. Practically sprinting to get a better look at the pict-image. 'Oh my god...' he whispered, enhancing the zoom on his spectacles by pressing the small sensor pads on their arms.
'Incroyable...' whispered Jacque.
'As you can see. The value of this discovery is beyond comprehension.'
'Why fly us out here Captain Sila?' asked Ling, speaking perfect English without any hint of an accent. 'Why not just send the specimen to Earth?'
'Because if the press got hold of this discovery hell would break loose.' Sila stepped through the holographic image, giving it a backwards glance as he stepped into his original place at the head of the table. 'The Church is a very powerful ally for us Professor Tzu, their belief in a one true god and a one true life form is absolute. If this story broke on Earth the Church could be destabilised and our enemies could use it to their advantage.'
'Your enemies you mean,' whispered Elliot. His eyes still feverishly scanning the pict-image.
'Revolution, uprising, mass hysteria. Is that what you would like Professor Manning?' the Captain hissed at Elliot who didn't reply. 'On Earth there are spies everywhere, we control Mars Professor Tzu. We control who gets in and who gets out; we know exactly where all the population are and what they are doing at any given moment. Mars is a stronghold, and for now it is the safest place for the artefact.'
'So...why are we here exactly?' Abigail asked through the clouded soup that her mind was quickly becoming.
'Authentication. There are... discrepancies, with long standing scientific theory.'
'Science is nothing but dealing with discrepancies Captain,' grumbled Gregory, staring at the pict-image almost as intently as Elliot.
'What kind of discrepancies?' asked Abigail.
'Our carbon dating places the rock at roughly fifty million years old, give or take approximately seven million years.' said the Captain.
'That's...not possible.' muttered Alex, squinting and straining to try and comprehend what he had just heard. 'Mars lost its magnetic field one hundred million years ago; it’s been dead for one hundred million years. It's not possible for something to write that out fifty million years ago.'
'Hence, the discrepancies.' Sila said patronisingly.
'It's a fake.' conquered Alex.
'Because it was discovered in a previously, undiscovered subterranean tunnel system. Laser mapping shows the tunnels run for miles around the artefacts discovery point with no surface points, and those are just the parts we've mapped.' clicking his fingers the pict-image changed to a three dimensional map of Mars's upper hemisphere. Slicing the planet from pole to pole dozens of swirling red lines laced the planets crust. 'These red lines are the areas our drones have managed to map.'
'That's...that's one hundred miles worth of tunnels.' hushed Abigail. A strange tightness in her chest, she then realised she was holding her breath and was gripping onto the arms of her chair so tightly that her knuckles were turning white.
'Yes Doctor, and they keep going. One hundred miles is the radio range of our drones. I think now you can fully comprehend the seriousness of this discovery.' said Sila emotionlessly. Dropping into an empty chair beside Ling, Elliot put a trembling hand against his mouth, sweat beading on his brow and sliding down the sides of his angular face.
'Whoa whoa back the hell up!' said Alex strongly. 'You are not actually suggesting that there could still be life on Mars?' Sila didn't answer. He just stared straight through Alex. 'This is crazy, the planets dead, no microbes, no amino acids, no liquid water!'
'But zere' eez' Methane.' said Jacque. 'Plumes of the gas flare across the planets atmozphere' every few months. Methane eez' a bi-product of biological processes.'
'And a thousand other natural occurrences!' protested Alex.
'Not strictly true Professor,' said Ling. 'Methane is only produced through geological processes on Earth by phenomena like mud volcanoes and deep sea hydrothermal vents. Either way, biologically or geologically, something we thought we knew about this planet is very wrong.'
Abigail stood up as they bickered. Staring at the pict-image of the slowly pulsing red lines, burrowing through the upper hemisphere of the Martian crust like colossal worms hunting for food. Incredible. She thought, pressing a hand against the image, part of the projection warping across the back of her palm. Two thousand years of scientific discovery could be wiped out of the history books completely by one bit of rock...one tiny bit of rubble.
'Doctor!' Sila said strongly beside her. Jumping at his bark Abigail looked to him uneasily. 'I asked, what do you think about all this?'
It is dangerous to theorise without proper data, one inevitably begins to twist fact to suit theories instead of theories to suit fact. That quote from a Sherlock Holmes novel had stuck with her since childhood. It was her personal mantra, and the whole backdrop of her scientific career; she couldn't start jumping the gun now. No matter how much she wanted too. 'I don't know yet. I will want to examine the artefact first, and the tunnels. After that I'll start to theorise with the rest of you.'
'Well don't worry Doctor, you'll have over a year to study everything you like.' said the captain with an emotionless smile. 'I'll deliver your mission briefings to you upon arrival. We make planetfall in,' he checked his watch. 'Forty hours. I suggest you all get some sleep.' he said, walking off, out of the canteen. The doors swishing shut behind him.
'Yeah, like any of us are going to sleep now.' grumbled Alex.
He was right, none of them did.