It should have been a moment of joy for the NASA scientists, but instead of giving their usual applause on a mission accomplished, the people sat quietly and stared at their screens, unsure of what was going on. Nothing seemed to happen. No sound came from Beagle 2, not even a jumbled static indicating there was a problem with their communication systems. The silence grew longer. Seconds became minutes, minutes became hours, but no one knew the answer to the question: What happened to Beagle 2 after it had been deployed?
Deep in the main building of Global Dynamics, in a top secret section that only a very few chosen ones knew of, another group of scientists was cheering and applauding. The first step of their project was a success; Beagle 2 had been launched according to plan and it had changed its course towards its goal, which was hiding in plain sight: a small asteroid aptly named 5261 Eureka.
Most scientists officially working on the Beagle project didn't know everything the small lander held inside. They didn't know that inside it, among all the electronics and mechanical parts meant for exploring the Martian ground, there was a small, inconspicuous compartment. Inside this compartment was a small module emitting a signal that the GD scientists could pick up with their sensitive, properly tuned sensors, and a solar-powered data storage that, once it settled down on the asteroid, would wait for a command that would activate it for the second part of its mission.
In the cold orbit, passing through quiet space, it waited.
* * *
About a decade later
It wasn't the best of days for Zane. His morning shower had been too cold and his morning coffee too hot, and for some reason Jo had decided to give him the silent treatment for something he couldn't even remember doing. Now at the office, holding a bowl of something in his hands, Fargo was reminding him of his promise to stay in longer than usual. Zane could already see the handgun pointed at him when he would finally get back home in the early hours of the morning. It didn't matter that the gun wasn't loaded. The disappointment in Jo's eyes made it feel more real than anything else ever could.
"Can't Derek stay instead?" he asked, knowing full well what the answer would be. "Never mind."
As if by telepathy, Derek chose that exact moment to step inside the office, holding a PDA and poking at it with a pen. Right behind him was Henry. Both of them were a familiar sight, but there was a third person accompanying them, a woman Zane didn't recognize. Judging by her uniform, she seemed important, and Zane immediately rose on his feet to greet her.
"Mr. Donovan, Mr. Fargo, meet Mrs. Eilerson. She wants you three to join a project, and I just know you'll be thrilled to know what it is."
The woman gave Henry a small smile before offering her hand first to Zane, then to Fargo. Her name was unfamiliar to Zane but the change in Fargo's posture indicated that this was a Very Important Person for one reason or another.
"Mrs. Eilerson and I expect you to join us for a meeting held in Section 8 at 1400. I don't need to remind you not to be late, do I?" Henry asked in a lightly amused tone, but his eyes looked stern. Serious business, indeed.
Just as quickly as they had entered the room, Henry and the woman left the room to continue their rounds at GD. Only Derek was left behind, and Fargo was all over him like a hawk, asking him one question after another. The secrecy and Fargo's eagerness were enough to pique Zane's interest, and he found the day had slightly improved from what it had been only a few moments earlier.
Fargo had heard rumours about it, but he had never found if there was any truth to them. He was absolutely certain that Larry knew something -- a fact that made him grit his teeth whenever the thought passed his mind. He had made careful inquiries around the subject to gather up any information he could, but all he got was a lapful of pointless comments and useless trivia. He knew that Mars was a planet, thank you very much, and he knew that mankind had tried to reach the planet for decades. What he actually wanted to know was if the goal had been reached, but it seemed that no one knew the exact answer.
On a regular Tuesday, after he had finished his bowl of tuna salad for lunch and he was faced with another long, boring day of office work, Fargo heard the words that sounded like a band of angels singing. He had always had a feeling about Derek and what Derek knew but wouldn't tell, and now he finally got his confirmation.
"She suggested you two herself. Your job with Lab 27 these past few years has apparently made a good impression on her. She also says her son is going to join us on the project."
Her son would be one Robert Eilerson, a world-renowned exobiologist and archaeologist. It didn't take a Nobel Prize winner to put two and two together. Douglas Fargo was destined to fly a space ship and meet the real Martians. Finally! Area 51 had nothing on Eureka once they found out Fargo and others had been to space and back.
He had to pinch himself to check if he was actually asleep. Despite the pain, a part of him remained worried that once the clock struck two, he would wake up and his world would be shattered.
"I think I'm gonna need a vincepresso. Make that two. No, actually, I think I need to go to the bathroom."
Derek gave him a strange look as he rushed to the door and disappeared into the corridors.
Looking at Fargo felt like looking at a kid with a room full of presents on Christmas morning -- Zane thought he looked positively mesmerized by both Eilersons, the mother and the son, and they had barely said two words so far.
"Seems we're all here," Henry said, standing at the end of the long table. Next to him stood Derek and the two Eilersons.
Around the table, there were only a handful of people. Zane, Fargo, Derek, and two women Zane knew only vaguely. Ellie Tucker had been working with Dr. Hood and was some sort of an expert on soil exploration and mobile vehicles. What Trish Finlay's expertise was, Zane had no idea. He had run into the woman a few times in various places, and it seemed like she knew a bit about everything but not everything about anything in specific. Apparently she knew enough, seeing as she was now sitting at the same table with the rest of them.
"Mrs. Eilerson and I have been going through some details for a good five months now," Henry continued. "Today's the day we'll be revealing the big project to you. First, I have to say that this meeting is to be kept completely secret. Speak a word of it to an outsider and you will regret it for the rest of your very short life."
Henry laughed, as if he had been joking, but Zane wasn't so sure it had been a joke. Not wanting to find out whether it was or wasn't, Zane made a mental note of turning off the part of his memory he was using for this project before going home to Jo. Without Henry's memory-wiping gadget and Zane's inclusion of an on/off switch to work with smaller sections of memory, his life would have become a lot more interesting after this meeting.
"Some of you may know that Derek has previously worked with NASA," Henry continued, and Zane turned to look at Derek.
He knew something about the guy's past, but it was mostly because Fargo had been insisting there was something shady going on with him no one was willing to talk about. Personally, he didn't have much interest in Derek. He seemed like a good guy and a good colleague, but outside work their thoughts and ideologies didn't really meet. After a few heated arguments over a beer, it had become evident the two of them should only spend time together if it was inside the GD walls, or they would both risk getting fired.
"You can all thank him for this project, as it was his and Mr. Eilerson's co-operation that lead to Mrs. Eilerson's interest in what our town has to offer."
Fargo was positively beaming as he looked at Derek like his new best friend. Zane had to admit that whatever the guy had done, it had certainly improved his week considerably. And if the excitement Henry seemed to show was any indication, the best was yet to come.
"Oh my God. Oh my God, Zane!" Fargo looked like he was about to start hyperventilating. "Did you hear that? Did you hear what Henry said?"
Fargo was walking around the office like he was high on speed, and while Zane was trying to calm him down, he had to admit the news had been more than he could have imagined.
"Yes, Fargo, I have these," he said, pointing to the sides of his head. "Looks like there's something Derek can do right."
Fargo kept walking around the room until he reached the door.
"I have to go tell Larry. He'll be so jealous he'll want to quit GD. Wait, damn, I can't tell him. But how am I ever going to gloat if I can't tell him?"
"You'll come up with something," Zane said, smiling. "I just wish I could tell Jo."
"Yeah. This sucks."
Fargo was silent for a moment, standing still.
"Say, you wouldn't mind going out for a beer? We so need to celebrate this."
For Zane, it sounded like a plan.
Fargo had never gotten used to only half knowing what was going to happen. This morning had begun with him having butterflies in his stomach, but he couldn't tell what the butterflies meant. He had been using his Memory Storage Unit at GD for several months now, and he knew that once he got back to work, he would remember everything he needed to remember. Yet he always felt like he was a little demented before and after work, and for a guy who considered himself a genius, it was a very unpleasant feeling. His only comfort was the knowledge that his memories were important enough to be stored away from any outsiders. He knew things even the President didn't know.
The few steps before entering the GD building were always the worst. He knew he would soon remember something, but he could never really tell if it was something good or bad. Now he had a strong feeling that the memories would be of something something and something extremely big. He pushed the MSU button and the images flowed into his brain like little glimpses of Heaven.
"Oh my God!"
He had to run to his office. Walking just wasn't fast enough. Zane was already there, with a big grin on his face, and next to him was Derek.
"Big day today," Derek said, offering him a mug of coffee. Fargo took a big gulp and he could feel the warmth go through his whole body.
"The biggest ever."
"It's almost eight. We'd better go."
The further they went, the more security measures they were faced with. They passed by one security officer after another, each of them guarding an encoded door looking more complex than the previous one. By the time they had been scanned so thoroughly that it would make any genealogist proud, they arrived to the Big Door. In front of Fargo's eyes, it glimmered like the Gates of Heaven, and he couldn't wait to step inside.
On the other side of the room stood Mrs. Eilerson who greeted him and the others like they were her own sons. Her real son wasn't around, which was to be expected. Trish and Derek were also no longer present. But Ellie was there, already concentrating on her job, as was Henry.
"What does it feel like to be so close to seeing another planet?" Mrs. Eilerson asked, and Fargo found himself lost for words. Mrs. Eilerson laughed, sounding like a twenty-year-old, and Fargo couldn't help blushing. This wasn't the time to act like a dork. This was supposed to be a moment of pure professionalism. But he was just so excited!
"I know the feeling," she said. "I can only imagine what it feels like for Robert and Trish."
Normally Fargo would have felt envious, but this moment was so special as it was that nothing could bring him down from his high. In the back of his mind, he thought of all those others who would have killed for an opportunity like this. He had beaten them. Nothing could take that away from him.
"They're getting ready," Henry said, and everyone in the room turned to look at the big monitors.
"Let's get to Mars," Fargo said to Zane, his heart pounding in his chest like never before.
Zane had seen pictures of Mars, but none of them had prepared him for what he was seeing now. The surface of the planet looked like it had been taken directly from a movie set -- a high-budget one, he had to admit -- but made even more realistic. On the monitors, he could see the red sand that was covering the ground as well as colouring the air. In the middle of that redness there stood a woman in blue, Trish, and she was walking along the sand-covered ground like she was on her Sunday walk with her boyfriend.
"Are you seeing this?" said a voice outside the picture, and Zane looked at one of the other monitors. There he saw Robert who was looking at them while standing next to the bigger of two vehicles. "Is the video link working properly?"
"We see you and hear you, Rob," Henry said. "Everything's perfect."
Zane turned to look at the monitor where Trish had been walking only a moment before, and she was now standing next to the two vehicles as well. Both Robert and Trish were now concentrating on these drillers and all the screens were broadcasting very similar images due to the holographic cameras being pointed in the same general direction.
"I'm ready to give Mini-Dee a try," Trish said, referring to the smaller vehicle they used to call Mini-Driller or Mini-Dee. It was a refined, lightweight version of the drilling vehicle Dr. Hood had used a few years earlier to prevent a large-scale disaster by an erupting volcano right under Eureka. Ellie was the one who had done most of the work with the help of Fargo and Zane, but Trish was the one who was chosen to control it. Putting Ellie in danger wasn't an option. Someone who really knew how the thing worked had to stay as the supervisor, and on a high-risk mission like this, the supervision had to be done from the safety of Earth.
The little car started to crawl on the sand and after a while, it started to extend a large cone-like drill that was surprisingly big compared to the car's small size.
"Here goes," Trish said, and the car started to dig through the sand, disappearing into the red dust and leaving no traces behind as if it had never even been there.
Mrs. Eilerson was typing something on one of the keyboards, and soon Zane saw two new images on one of the screens. One of them was the front view from the car, like he was aboard it himself, and one of them offered them a look of what it left behind. Since Mini-Dee was still digging through dust, Zane and the others couldn't see much of anything, but soon it reached a more solid soil and it was creating an actual tunnel.
"That has to be some sort of clay," Robert said, but the way he said it made it sound as if clay was made of diamonds. Zane decided that since it wasn't just any clay but Mars clay, it probably could've been just that. "I can't wait to get my hands on those samples."
The digger went deeper and deeper and the view changed.
"Okay, it's getting a bit chilly down there," Trish said, "Let's hope Mini-Dee's not going to freeze before she reaches her goal."
Calling solid layers of ice that had probably never been anything but ice was an understatement, but Zane knew Mini-Dee had been built to get through just about anything. As long as it wasn't nearing negative degrees Kelvin, which was hardly going to happen, it should do fine.
"That's hematite," Robert said. "Definitely hematite. Hey, woah, look at that colour. That's not hematite anymore. What is that?"
"I've no idea. You're the specialist of exothings around here, I'm just here to drive this thing," Trish said, smiling, while pushing a few buttons to ensure that Mini-Dee was taking as many samples of the yet unknown substance.
"Listen, she's starting to get a bit sluggish," she soon said. "I think we should bring her back up before something goes wrong."
Zane was following the exchange of words like was watching the world's most exciting soap opera set in space. He wanted Mini-Dee to go further, to see what else was down in the deeper layers of Mars, because not a single person had ever been this deep before, but he also knew that if the equipment was destroyed, it would be a disaster. There was simply too much money and effort involved for them to take any unnecessary risks.
"All right," Robert said, sighing, and Zane knew exactly how the man felt. "Let's get her back."
Trish and Robert treated the samples like they were made from the most delicate matter in the universe, setting them in one of the pods they were carrying with them. Trish uploaded all the data they could gather at this point and Mrs. Eilerson confirmed they had been received. The pod itself would have to be sent the traditional way, through space, so they could do hands-on testing on the samples. It would take longer than Robert wanted, but there was no quicker way. Holographic projection and electronic gathering of data could only do so much.
"Can you believe we're watching this?" Fargo said to Zane, and Zane realized he had forgotten Fargo was there as well. "We're actually seeing what it's like on Mars. Bet you Larry would die of envy if he ever found out."
"I wouldn't go field testing that theory."
"Yeah. I know. But I'm just so excited. I can believe I couldn't remember anything this morning. It shouldn't be physically possible to forget something like this."
Zane had to admit he and the others had done a good job. It really was rather eerie they could forget something like this just by pushing a button. He wondered if the MSU could handle this day's memories. It was bound to have some limits to what it could make a person forget.
"I'm ready for the big guns now," a voice said, and Zane looked at Trish's camera that was now pointed towards Robert. Robert was walking around the bigger of the vehicles, the real deal, the Tunneler. While Mini-Dee was a sample-gathering driller operated by remote control, the Tunneler was big enough to fit three people and a wide range of electronics.
Mrs. Eilerson and Henry had a short talk, and she soon gave Robert their permission.
"Mom, make sure you're recording this. This is going to be bigger than anything. Bigger than Einstein and Armstrong and all of Eureka combined."
Zane had a feeling Robert wasn't exaggerating all that much, and the thought was enough to give him the chills.
After all those years of being almost there, of almost knowing what the biggest secrets were, Fargo was finally there. He was finally witnessing something that was bigger than anything he had ever seen before. He had seen monsters and alien viruses, and he had been faced with deathly situations, coming out as the winner. He had solved dozens of scientific mysteries and he knew he could beat just about any scientist that was working outside Eureka -- even some working in Eureka -- and none of it was anything compared to this.
He was one of the few who got to see what Mars was really like. He could hardly ask for anything more, except maybe to be able to once feel the planet himself, in the flesh, without the help of holography. Due to the planet's rather hostile environment, it wasn't very likely going to happen in his lifetime, so this was as close to perfection as he could hope.
"He's my hero," he said to Zane, referring to Robert who was now shutting the doors of the Tunneler. "When he comes back, I'm going to proposition they make a statue of him."
"You're high on endorphins, Fargo," Zane said to him. "Need I remind you again that no one's going to find out about this for a long time?"
"Oh. Right. You know, that's totally unfair. He deserves a statue. Or at least a medal."
"Fargo," Henry said, apparently having been listening in on their little conversation. "I'm sure this mission in itself is worth more than any medal or statue you can think of."
Fargo thought about it and agreed.
"You have a point there."
"Come on, guys," Ellie said, sounding amused, "are you going to talk about medals or are you going to see what Rob's going to find? The Tunneler's a sturdy one, I should know. If Mini-Dee got him excited like that, this one is going to kill him."
"That's my son you're talking about," Mrs. Eilerson commented, and everyone in the room gave a small chuckle. It seemed like they were all getting a little jittery.
Like Mini-Dee, the Tunneler was also carrying cameras on it. Fargo had been afraid such delicate equipment would break during the landing, but Ellie had promised him that her equipment never broke unless she wanted it to break. And sure enough, by the time they had received confirmation that the equipment had landed on Mars and the third stage of their mission, the Holographic Visit, could commence, the equipment was almost as shiny as it had been the day it had been sent to its new work place.
Now this shiny vehicle was digging its way through the sandy layers of Mars, towards the more solid soil that was hiding underneath, and Fargo was able to see the results of his handiwork. He had had his part in building the cameras and they seemed to be working fine despite the extreme environment.
"That's the hematite layer," he said to Zane. "We're reaching new levels of the unknown soon. I can't wait. I think I need to go to the bathroom."
The sudden pressure in the pit of his stomach was unexpected and extremely unwelcome, and he tried his best to ignore the unpleasant feeling.
"You'll regret it," Zane said, and Fargo knew he couldn't have been more right. "Just bear it."
Whether it was his own strong will power or Zane's advice working as a great suggestion, he started feeling better. But, as soon as he was starting to get back into the suspense that was the video broadcast from the Holographic Visit, something happened. Two of the Tunneler's four cameras broke and the screens filled with static. There was a ear-screeching sound coming from one of the microphones inside the Tunneler, and over the noise came Robert's frantic voice.
"We've got a problem," he said. "There's something here. I don't know what it is but it's something huge."
"Robert, calm down," Henry said, and he stepped so close to the screens it was a wonder he could see anything. It was as if he was trying to step inside the Tunneler himself.
"Robert, what's wrong?" Mrs. Eilerson said, and she sounded more like a worried mother than an experienced scientist.
"There's something here. A cave-like structure," Robert explained, and his breathing was quick and clearly audible. "There's something here inside the cave."
"What, Robert? What is it!" Mrs. Eilerson shouted, and Henry put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her away from the screens.
"I'm not sure, Mom, but I think it might be alive."
Fargo couldn't believe what he was hearing. Something was alive on Mars? Oh, what he wouldn't give to be in Robert's place right now!
"Listen, Robert," Henry said in a low, calm voice. "Try and explain exactly what it is you're seeing. Your cameras are offline and we can't see anything but some sort of rock above your head and the tunnel behind you. Everything else is just static. What is it you're seeing? Why do you think it's alive?"
Robert was still breathing heavily, but it seemed to Fargo that he was starting to calm down.
"It's a light. It's coming from around the corner, I can't see what it is. I know I'm not supposed to feel anything when I'm just a holograph, but I swear I can feel heat and pressure. It's very unpleasant but not unbearable."
Henry gave Mrs. Eilerson a look, raising his eyebrows. She shook her head.
"Good, thanks Robert. We're not going to pull you out yet unless you want to leave. Do you want to leave?"
"Not on your life, Henry!" Robert said, and he was laughing now, and it sounded a little manic to Fargo's ears. It gave him the shivers. "I want to go and see what it is. If it's alive, it's going to be the first encounter between us and another culture. I am not going to give this opportunity anyone else. Sorry, Trish, but that includes you."
On one end, Trish was laughing, but the laugh sounded a little too high-pitched to be normal. Fargo could hear she was just as worried as the rest of them were.
"I'm going there now," Robert said, and Fargo and the others saw the Tunneler was moving forward.
"My God. What is that? It's beautiful."
"Please explain," Henry said.
"It's shining like nothing I've ever seen before. The light it casts on the walls is like liquid. I need to go and see it. I need to touch it."
"Wait! No touching," Henry said. "We have no idea what it is or what it does. I think you should leave now. We can come back later."
"No way. I am not turning back now."
The Tunneler went further into the cave and Fargo saw what Robert had been talking about. There was now a new kind of light on the walls of the caves. It was blue and -- Robert had actually been fairly accurate when he had described it -- looked like it was creating a small body of water on the ragged walls. Liquid light. Fargo had never seen anything like it before in his life.
"It's right behind the corner. I'm going to--"
There was a loud bang, and every camera was now sending out nothing but static. One of the microphones was still working, and Fargo heard a sound he swore he would never forget. It was the sound of someone who was dying of shock and pain, and there was nothing they could do.
"Derek, take him out!" Henry yelled, and everything around Fargo turned into chaos.
Robert looked like he was sleeping, but Fargo knew he wasn't. He wasn't even Robert anymore. Robert had stayed on Mars and only Trish had come back. Trish was sitting next to Robert's bed, holding his hand, but there was very little hope in her eyes. He had been in a catatonic state for three weeks now, and every doctor in and outside Eureka had given them their opinion; it was unlikely Robert was ever going to return to himself. It would be best if they just let him die.
Mrs. Eilerson was beyond devastated. The whole Mars project had come to a halt, but no one complained. They had made a major breakthrough by going there already, and they had a lot of material in their hands to work with as it was. Any further examination was totally unnecessary at this point.
"I can't believe something so beautiful could turn into something so ugly," Fargo said to Trish, and Trish gave him a sad smile.
"He got to fulfil his dream," she said. "At least there's that."
There was nothing Fargo could say to that.
It had been three weeks since the funeral. The service had been very lowkey and personal, the only attendants being those who had worked on the Mars project, and Robert's younger brother Matt. Everyone had agreed it had been a beautiful service, just the kind Robert would have appreciated. Matt had said that only playing Ziggy Stardust would have made it more perfect, but that Robert would have understood their choice of playing plain David Bowie.
Fargo was sitting by his desk, humming a melody that had somehow stuck to his head lately, and he was going through the video data from the Holographic Visit. He wanted to see if there was something they had overlooked, something that could explain what had happened to Robert; what it was he had seen. The first few times he had had the audio on, and each time he had heard Robert's cry at the end he had vomited. He now watched the video in silence, though he could never erase the memory of Robert's voice even if he tried. He had tried using the Memory Storage Unit, but it appeared that some memories were too strong to be taken away. He was going to have to live with this one whether he wanted to or not.
"Have you looked at this data?" Zane asked him, making him jump in his chair. "It's from the soil samples Trish and Robert took."
Fargo inserted the crystal to its dock and looked through the data running on his screen.
"What am I supposed to look at?"
"This bit here," Zane said, leaning forward and pointing at a line on the screen. "I've seen this before somewhere."
Fargo looked at the line of letters and numbers, the lines and the seemingly random numeric values given to each of the molecules. At first he couldn't understand what it was Zane was seeing, but then it started to dawn on him.
"It can't be," he said. "Have you shown this to Henry?"
"Not yet. I wanted to ask you first what you thought before I went to him to make a fool of myself."
"I don't know, I think you might be onto something," Fargo said. "Henry needs to see this now."
They were all standing around him in the small, dim room. Henry looked worried, as did Mrs. Eilerson, but neither one was stopping him. They all knew this was something they had to do. If Robert had still been there, he would have been the one to do it if no one else would. It was what he had already tried to do.
"This will hurt a bit and you will feel more than slightly disoriented," Derek said. "But I have a feeling the positives will win over the negatives so clearly you won't mind," Derek said with a big gun in his hand. For a brief moment Fargo felt a strong bout of regret, but the feeling passed quickly and was replaced with anxious expectation. He wanted this. He needed this.
"Just do it already," he said, closing his eyes and inhaling deep, holding his breath.
It felt like a small lightning had hit his throat, and he felt like something or someone was in his head, an awareness that both was and wasn't him -- it felt a little like he was everywhere at once, which sounded absolutely absurd, and he laughed at his own thoughts, even when there was nothing amusing about any of this.
An unfamiliar voice startled him and he opened his eyes. He wasn't looking at Derek anymore but Trish, and she was looking at his face while saying something. Out of sheer shock, Fargo took a step back and fell, but he wasn't greeted by a hard cold floor. Under him, he felt soft sand, softer than any sand on any beach -- if he hadn't known better, he would've said he was sitting on a thick cloud of dust.
"Am I really here?" he asked while Trish was helping him up. He looked around and saw vast planes of red all around him, with only dark boulders thrown across the ground, and Trish and a rover close by.
"You most certainly are," Trish said. "Come on, the Tunneler went down over here."
Fargo followed her, still dazed and disoriented, when he heard a sound from behind him, like someone had whispered into his ear. He turned around but saw no one. The whisper was there again, louder now, and he recognized the voice. It was Derek.
"Oh, it's you."
"Are you feeling all right?" Derek asked him, a disembodied voice echoing in his ears. Fargo knew that he wasn't really on a different planet. He knew he was in a dark chamber, sitting down in a chair, his body held in temporary paralysis to stop him from running into walls he couldn't see and hurting himself in the process.
"I'm fine," he said. "I wasn't expecting it to feel like this, but it's not that bad. I'm actually starting to enjoy this. It's like when you're dreaming you can fly."
"Yeah, well, don't try to fly just yet," came another voice. It was Henry.
"If you do, I'll strangle you myself," said Zane.
"I'll keep that in mind," Fargo replied, following Trish to the hole the Tunneler had left when it had dug its way under the sandy soil.
So, this is where Robert went. It felt scary to think that the man had deliberately wanted to go underground in that little vehicle they called the Tunneler. Fargo knew it was solid enough to hold a lot, but the idea of being trapped in sand wasn't appealing to him in the least. He was glad he didn't have to do that now. He thanked his lucky stars for Ellie's Mini-Dee. Without it, he wouldn't have even thought of coming here.
"Should we begin?" Trish asked him, and he nodded.
"That's what we're here for," he said, looking down at the little gadget that would start making its way towards the underground cave. "Henry, are you receiving video?"
"We are. Go when you're ready."
Mini-Dee started to roll on the sand, and soon it started digging its way down. Fargo was looking at the small monitor on his arm, but so far there was nothing but darkness on the screen. Just when he was starting to think the camera's had been broken, there was something lighter on the left upper corner of the screen, and only a few seconds later there was the familiar sight of the liquidy blue light. He felt a bout of nausea and swallowed hard. He had to do this. For Robert's sake.
"It's still there," he said. "The Tunneler looks perfectly intact."
"Try to get Mini-Dee closer to the source of the light," Henry said, and Trish followed his command. It was going smoothly at first, but then something happened. Mini-Dee stopped, like it had run out of batteries.
"I can't make her budge an inch," Trish said, apologetic. "I wonder if that light has something to do with it. After all, Mini-Dee's a lot smaller than the Tunneler, and it's obvious something happened to it before..."
Her voice trailed off.
"What do we do now?"
There was a silence as Henry and the others were considering their options.
"I think we'd better pull you back. You can't do much without the vehicles. We'll have to send a new pair and come up with a new plan."
Henry's words were the truth and Fargo knew it, but it still stung. He didn't want to just quit. Quitting meant he was too stupid to figure this out, and being stupid was something he feared more than anything. It meant he wasn't good enough, and not being good enough was the same as being a failure.
"Henry, what if we give her a moment and try again soon? Maybe the force field or whatever it is pulsates somehow. Maybe it gets weaker at some point and we can use that as a window of opportunity."
Fargo knew there was only a slim chance of that happening, but he wasn't ready to give up now.
"I'll give you three hours," Henry said after a while. "After that, you have to come back."
Fargo nodded, took the remote control from Trish and sat down. She sat down with him.
"Wish we had firewood," she said. "And marshmallows."
"I'd like a vincepresso right about now," Fargo said. "Though marshmallows would be nice, too."
There was a distant sound coming from somewhere, a sound Fargo couldn't recognize.
"You'd better come back now," said a voice Fargo hadn't expected. Zane sounded worried. "There's a storm heading your way, and it's big. Nothing you want to play with, believe me."
"We're holograms, Zane," Fargo said. "It can't do that much damage to us, can it?"
"I wouldn't be on it. Remember, there's more substance to you than just holographic light. Otherwise you wouldn't be able to hold that remote control in your hands. Who knows what the sand storms are going to do to you."
He had a fair point, and Trish stood up.
"Okay, we'll come back," she said, and after a few seconds Fargo saw her disappear, like she had been only a hallucination. It felt a little awkward, even when Fargo had expected it to be something like that.
"Fargo, just a moment," Zane said, the storm's causing a bit of a problem with the electric field. The Eureka asteroid may not have been the best idea for a midway station."
And now he told them that!
"Okay, I'll wait, but just for a minute or two. It really is getting windy here. I can feel the little pebbles of dust drilling their way through my holographic skin. Let me tell you, it's not a pleasant feeling at all."
At first Fargo thought this was what it felt like to be pulled back from his holographic body, but he soon understood that something else was happening to him. The ground under him gave way and he was engulfed in a huge cloud of dust. In the middle of the dust, there was something glimmering, right before it turned so bright Fargo thought it would burn his eyes into total blindness. Closing his eyes didn't seem to work at all -- it was as if the light wasn't even proper light but something that only pretended to be light but was something else completely, something bigger, something they weren't even meant to see because they weren't ready to understand it yet.
It's the light source. It's out. I'm going to die.
"Zane! Henry!" he tried to yell through the blindness and the dust but he could barely hear his own voice. "I don't want to die," he managed under his breath, feeling like speaking out loud was the hardest thing he could do. The overwhelming sensation of being pressed from every direction imaginable was almost too much to handle. A part of him wanted to let go but didn't know how, and another part of him wanted to stay where it was for the rest of his life.
Suddenly everything went black and cold, and he fell on the ground, feeling pain all over him. His eyes couldn't see, but there was a sound ringing in his ears, so loud and harsh he wanted to cover his ears, but his hands wouldn't move. After what felt like an eternity, he could make out the source of the sounds; they were words.
"Don't go anywhere near it!" the words said, and Fargo felt a surge of panic inside him. Was he dead? Was this Heaven or, God forbid, Hell?
"Leave it where it is!" the voice continued.
He blinked his eyes but he still couldn't see a thing. The sensation of his hands was slowly returning and he could feel he was no longer on Martian soil; the ground below him was smoother, better balanced. There was a whiff of something familiar in the air, and in his mind he saw a cup of black coffee. He realized he was lying down on the floor of the hologram room. He was back on Earth and very much alive. He wanted to cry but no sound came out.
There were hands all over him now, trying to pull him up, and he let them. People sounded concerned and angry. He recognized Zane and Trish, and he knew the new voice was also familiar, but he couldn't put a face on it.
"Kevin! What are you doing here?"
Henry's voice was sharp, and immediately Fargo knew whom the voice belonged to. But why would Kevin be here now?
Blinking rapidly and massaging his eyes, trying desperately to see what was going on around him, Fargo struggled to stand up. Zane was holding his arm around Fargo's waist, helping him keep his dignity.
"I know what that thing is," Kevin said. "You don't want to go anywhere near it unless you want to die a painful death."
"What are you talking about? How do you know about this?" Henry asked, and he sounded nervous. Kevin's words had struck a nerve and Fargo shared Henry's unease. The kid knew.
There was a small pause before Kevin spoke again.
"It told me you were looking for it," he finally said. "You shouldn't. You're not meant to find it. I am."
The blackness started turning lighter, and Fargo saw shapes in the light. One of the shapes was right in his line of vision, standing there like a solid rock, while all other shapes around it were moving around.
"Could someone please explain who this young man is?" Mrs. Eilerson asked. She sounded annoyed but also uncertain. Henry mentioned Allison Blake and it seemed to be enough of an explanation.
"Why are you here?" she asked Kevin.
"I know what that thing out there is. It belongs to the Artifact. It's going to make everything better."
There was a long silence, during which Fargo looked at the dark shapes around the room, trying to figure out who was who. Zane was still standing next to him, and now Fargo could almost make out his features. Sighing deep, he thanked his luck he was probably not going to stay blind, and at the very least he was going to be alive. There was still a slight ringing in his ears when Kevin continued.
"Don't tell Mom, but I think I know how to bring Dad back."