The satellite linkups had been set up where they'd fallen, on the other side of the Alchemists' Quarter, and the first communications room had just been a habitat dragged to within cable's reach of the main dish. Nadia had run a cable from there to the barrel-vaults early on, and set up the line to Mission Control in one of the small living rooms. A throwback to the Ares, yes, where anyone might have been talking to Houston or Baikonur from their quarters, furtively; but there was no point in changing things. Phobos, at ten thousand klicks, was right in your ear, almost in your head; Earth was eight or ten or fifteen minutes away, too far to think about, let alone talk to. Some people watched news in various languages--or other things, soccer, you could have programs added to the digest Houston streamed to them--but that was furtive, too; just a cover for an hour of solitude, listening to voices one could send just as easily to the wrist or a lectern computer.
So when Frank--of all people--asked her to set up comms in the big dining room, it seemed pointless, uncharacteristically so. Did he imagine he could pull them back together with movie nights?
But for once, his motives were simpler than that. "We need to designate a frequency for Underhill itself. The common band should be for common announcements--we've got too many teams out in the outback, cluttering up the airwaves with messages that just need to get back to the base, not to every single person."
Maya was dismissive, out of reflex-- who would even think to use such a line? And besides anyone could patch in as many private bands on a call as they wanted, and how hard was it to ignore the common band chatter, certainly she never let it distract her--but Nadia thought Frank had a point; Underhill was their own Mission Control now, and it needed an address, an identity, separate from their hundred various selves. So she mounted a peripheral screen on the dining room wall and split the satellite feed cable again, and set up a little receiver on a dedicated channel, all easily done. Light work, that she could do even in a pressure cast.
And then she mostly forgot about it; the common band was still full of chatter. And when she returned from the North it seemed that everyone had forgotten about it--sometimes she'd pass through the dining room and the message index would be lit up all in red, and then she'd have to decide who it concerned that Gene was taking the rover for an extra day or that someone had seen a ghost by the farm habitat--or, more likely, mark the calls as heard and do nothing about them.
And so it took her by surprise when Ann's voice cut into her dinner, one night when Ann was still out with Simon, in the canyons. It was late--most people had already drifted down to the pool and their bedrooms--and there were only six or seven of them in the big vaulted space, Hiroko and Sax and some of the alchemists. "Underhill," Ann repeated, and Sax got up and switched on the camera at their end. "We've found--oh, it's you. Tell Nadia we've found a rover heading toward Ganges. Sighted from minus 4.0450 by 48.9844 West."
Ganges Chasma, then, and not the little Ganges Catena. "A rover?" said Nadia. She took her tray and walked into the camera's field. "But we're all accounted for." She'd just come from the garages, and all the vehicles except Ann's and Gene's and Samantha's and Edvard's had been in their berths.
Ann shook her head, dismissively. "Not one of ours."
And what could that even mean, not one of theirs? She looked around the room; Sax blinked and Spencer went so far as to shrug; Hiroko merely stood, straight-backed and attentive. "What do you mean," Nadia said, "not one of ours? What else is there?"
In answer, Ann's face vanished, replaced by a field of red on red. Too long a vista for Mars, much too long, the horizons too high at the periphery and seeming to rise in the distance--and then it resolved, all at once into a long, gentle declivity, impossibly long, the valley floor wrinkling as it fell and fell. Low peaks in ever-narrowing pairs broke the horizon--ridges and crests in the valley walls far below.
Too gentle, too small for Ganges-- Shalbatana Vallis, then, from somewhere near its southern origin.
"I don't see a rover," said Sax."
"Wait for it." The point of view moved, with the bobbing of a helmet-mounted camera, and stopped again, looking straight down a notch in what must be a fifty-klick vista. Sixty, even--vast indeed, for Mars! The picture went still again, unnaturally still. Maybe that was the source of Ann's affinity for rock, that stillness; or maybe it was Simon's camera.
They waited for it, and it came--a wink of silver, and another, far down the valley. The image blurred, zoomed until the glint resolved into a square with gleaming edges, and focused all the way down: A flat-topped platform on six squat wheels. Not one of theirs at all.
Perspective, and size, were impossible to judge, at first; but then it moved, in a familiar robotic jerk, and Nadia saw it was tiny, no more than a solar-powered skateboard.
"Sojourner," said Sax. "The Pathfinder rover. It's held up well."
"It's a long way from home," said Nadia, entering Ann's map coordinates into her wrist. Pathfinder had set down at the mouth of Ares Vallis, on the Chryse delta, twenty-five degrees to the north, more.
"Not really," said Sax. "Those first rovers had a top speed of about a centimeter per second--36 meters an hour. Even if it could only travel in daylight, once the battery failed, that's still over a hundred fifty kilometers in a year, for thirty-two years. It could have gotten most of the way around the planet by now, if the terrain were level. How did it look?"
Ann shrugged. "You saw."
"Well, go get it and let us see it again," said Nadia, crossly. "It's dark now; it can't have gone anywhere."
"No, but we have. We're camped at the rim of Ganges Chasma; I'm taking a spur down to the dunes first thing."
Nadia's cry of "You didn't bring it in?" was drowned out by John's "Oh, no." Someone had fetched him from the pool; Maya, too, they were both there in damp jumpers and wet hair.
"That's a bad idea, Ann," said John. "Not for a solo rover. Save it for when you've got a caravan, some backup."
"The route's safe enough," Ann said, gruffly, without switching away from the freeze-frame of the rover, and Nadia tuned out the rest of the argument; Ann would do whatever she wanted, and if it killed her, it would kill her. But in the meantime, the little dumb robot was still blundering up Shalbatana, or would be when the sun came back up, and finally she said as much, interrupting all of them.
"Does that matter?" Maya tossed her wet hair. "It's not as if we could get more than a day's worth of data out of it, at this point."
The familiar anger, but new and startling in its intensity: To dismiss so much work, thirty years' work at their own mission, so cavalierly! Even John wrinkled his forehead at that.
"Certainly we could," said Nadia. "There's more to learn from it than just what it's collected on its own. Weathering of the alloys in the casing, cosmic-ray damage to the electronics--fines accumulation in the aerogel!--I could learn as much about design for this climate in a day with that rover as I've learned in a year on the surface." That was an exaggeration, probably, and Maya's look said she knew as much. "At the very least, I can gather data I have no other way of obtaining without another thirty years of collection."
"We should pay our respects," said Hiroko. John wheeled like he hadn't even seen her. "Honor the toil that made a way for us." She stepped into the camera's field, model-graceful. "I will bring in the rover."
"Do what you like," said Ann, and broke the connection without showing her face.
"Well," said Nadia. Hiroko stood serenely, evidently not feeling like she needed to give any more details--not one of them knew how to end a conversation; even Sax was still staring at the screen and blinking, though it wasn't like him to notice rudeness. "I think I'll come with you," she said.
They took a rover, and sufficient supplies and tools to rescue Ann and Simon, if they needed rescuing. Hiroko's farm team were distressed to see her go, and rather to Nadia's surprise, so were her construction crews, though she'd done nothing but snap at them and call them twenty kinds of stupid since returning from the north. All the more reason to get away again, then: let people think you were indispensible, and they'd need your handholding to get anything done. Nadia said as much to Hiroko, who probably needed to hear it as much as any of them--it wasn't only the farm team who expected miracles of her; her official tasking, creating a self-sustaining ecosystem from the soil up, was miracle enough to demand of anyone. Hiroko nodded sagely, as though she'd come to the same conclusions herself. "But here we are now," she said, "out of the nest," with a gesture toward the window that somehow took in more than just what the narrow horizons framed.
And it was a good view. Hiroko had chosen the route: east five hundred kilometers, and southeast for eight hundred, making a jog around Juventae Chasma: this, they would pass on the northern side, where a ridge not much lower than the surrounding highlands separated the chasma from the narrow outflow channel of Maja Vallis.
The first day out the terrain was like Underhill--homelike, Nadia wanted to think, but of course it wasn't, yet. But familiar, yes, it was familiar, regolith cratered and strewn with rocks of every shape and size. Big Man's Zen garden. Nadia drove, and Hiroko dropped a transponder every few klicks: there was no eastward road yet.
Frank called late that afternoon: Ann had reported in. She and Simon had made the descent to the dunes safely; now--only now--she'd stated her intent to follow the Marineris system east, down Capri and Coprates Chasmas, up through Melas and Candor, and finally up another spur onto the plain at Candor Labes, between Candor and Ophir. "She says they surveyed it from the rim of Ophir," fumed Frank.
"But that's a hundred kilometers away."
"She says they sent up a balloon." Frank sighed into the comm; she could picture his heavy brows furrowing. "Anyone else would have detoured to pick the damn rover up herself."
"Anyone but Ann." Ochre-colored land rolled by; Nadia took a lazy swerve around a thermokarst--Big Man's mudbath--and Hiroko dropped a transponder to mark the jog.
"It's a two-day detour." Frank went on. "Marineris has been there two billion years; it's not going anywhere."
"Well, tell that to Ann, not to me," said Nadia, and broke the connection.
Arkady called her that evening, during her sunset walk. "What is this I hear, you are chasing down some little American probe? But why?"
Nadia and Hiroko had both put on walkers and gone out; now Nadia walked some little distance away, watching the sun set behind the rim of a little unnamed crater. There were clouds in the sky, a few mare's-tail whips of high cirrus, catching the red light like banners. An appropriate enough blazon for the man, she thought; though what she said, with some exasperation, was, "Well, we use so many of the same designs today, and the same materials--aerogel insulation, and so on. Find me a better longitudinal study."
"No, but to take it away and put it back in a museum somewhere-- this dumb little machine has kept wandering for thirty years, you should let keep on. Let it get there on its own!"
"To wherever it's going! It's already crossed the neck of Chryse, Tiu and Simud and so on, and crawled all the way up Shalbatana, it must be eager to get somewhere!"
Nadia snorted. "I would expect you to be the last person to ascribe a will, a soul, to a machine."
"No, no, but that is what we are ourselves, machines with souls! If we have free will, then why should not our creations have free will?" He was laughing now. "And we require the exercise of that freedom, then how can we deprive our machines of it?"
Nadia laughed, too. "What would your disciples on Earth think, if they heard you now? Poking fun at your philosophies?"
"They'd think whatever they liked, of course--why else be the disciple of anarchists? But, no, Sojourner--how did it get to be thirty years away from Pathfinder? It couldn't have had that degree of independence--I thought the rovers of that era all took their commands from the base lander, from Mission Control?"
"To set destinations, yes, but its route-finding algorithm was quite independent. If it got the notion it was bound for some point over the horizon--and cosmic ray damage could induce a hard fault in the destination module--it might well keep going.
"And remember, also, that the lander was informed that the rover was offline. It wouldn't be looking for it to signal it, even before the rover passed out of line-of-sight."
"And the rover wasn't informed?" said Arkady. "That it itself was offline?"
"Well, it missed some check-ins. But it was programmed for some self-maintenance; it probably finally succeeded in powering itself back up after Mission Control had given up." Nadia frowned; the sun had gone entirely down now, and the cold was beginning to burn in diamonds over her back and thighs. "Or perhaps its communication with the lander broke down, on one side or other. If the antenna went, Mission Control would only know about it if the lander could tell the difference."
"Ah," said Arkady gravely. "The conspiracy widens; I suspected as much. After you bring in Sojourner, maybe you should go and interrogate Pathfinder."
Nadia laughed, but the thought of continuing to drive, all the way across Xanthe and up into Chryse--and beyond, why not, into Arabia Terra and on through the cratered lowlands, Syrtis, Isidis, Elysium--made her heart leap, and her ghost finger throb.
They traded off driving for a shift the next day, skirting a small crater and then a big one. Nadia watched the horizon move--very close as the near rim of the crater loomed near, suddenly distant as Hiroko brought them shockingly close to the edge and the ground fell away--and thought about Ann.
Why hadn't she gone after the rover? Shalbatana might not be as dramatic a landscape as Marineris, but it had just as much of interest to the geologist: there were limnologic features there, ancient lakeshores and layered lakebed sediments, as well as the more familiar outflow channels carved when the lake had finally broken free. Why wasn't Ann as desperate to get to those as she was to see the rest of the planet?
She even called her and asked her, when they stopped at noon beneath a low massif pocked with the half-moon bays of weathered craters. It might have been the central prominence of large crater itself, she thought, and it was this question she called Ann with, snapping a picture of the narrow central rise with the small camera in her wrist.
Ann made a gruff noise; Nadia could almost see the shrug. "The shape could be coincidence--weathering; you can find ventrifacts in any shape if you look for them. Take some samples if you care."
For someone so unaware of social realities, Ann had an unerring instinct for laying verbal traps. No, Ann, I don't really care; and I'm still beating my wife, too. Nadia returned to bluntness; it was what they were both best at. "Ann, why didn't you go down into Shalbatana after the rover? It would have only been another two days."
"Three," she said. "I was out on foot when I found it, a long way from the rover."
"Yes, but even so, there are only the two of you; you can't have been economizing so hard on supplies."
"It's a long way up Marineris," said Ann. "And you're forgetting room for samples. Cores. Drilling equipment. We don't have a wide margin for error out here."
And the why of that would be a dissertation of an answer--if she asked Michel, that is; from Ann, she'd be lucky to get a monosyllable. She let it go, snapped a few more pictures as a peace offering and broke the connection.
But she could not let it alone; as they were heading back out, Nadia at the wheel again, she said to Hiroko, rhetorically she thought, "Why would she walk away from something like that?"
"From the only human presence in her whole landscape?" said Hiroko. "Besides Ann herself; if she counts herself."
And put that way, it was easy: the rover was something Ann ought to celebrate, would, if her attitude to the land was as pure as she wished: robot probes, remote areology, science and landscape unmarred by living humans. But of course her attitude--her love, it was love, she deserved that at least--for the land was not pure at all; it was sensory, sensual, a bodily love for landscape, for the physicality of stone, that had swallowed up her own body's sensuality. Finding the rover was a rebuke, a slap in her real, carnal face; a reminder that she did not need to be where she was--out among the rocks in person, her real flesh out in the middle of all that lifelessness, soaking up the rems--Oh, Ann! Just like that dogged, broken little machine. Oh, Ann.
"Put it that way," said Nadia, "and I suppose I should be lucky she even reported it in."
She turned her mind to the route; and then very shortly she was too busy driving to think about anything else. The ground sloped down, uneven and broken, down from the little massif, each fold steeper and rockier than the last, until at last the regolith gave out and they were driving over dust-swept bare stone, banded in every shade of red.
The little ridge was about twenty-five kilometers wide, wider than their horizons, if they had kept always in the middle of it. But the surest trail swerved across it: suddenly, the ground fell away to her right and there was Juventae Chasma, even the shallowest end of it torn up and terraced like a Siberian pit mine, red and gray gouges trailing down over the edge of the world with no sign of a far side. And then a few klicks later, the head of Maja Vallis appeared to her left, the same red and gray strata, but the slope of the jumbled land shallower, which made the unmistakable trails of watercourses show up as notches in the far horizon.
Eventually, a crater rim appeared ahead of them; the ground climbed steadily, their ridge pointed directly at the crater's center. "Are we on an ejecta ray, I wonder?" said Nadia.
"It's a possibility," Hiroko answered, startling Nadia; she'd been so quiet Nadia had forgotten she wasn't alone. "There is another ridge on the crater's northeast side, another radius of the same circle, though I think we will want to take the southern route around the rim." She spoke without referencing the map.
They were all day getting off the ridge and around the crater; just at dusk, Hiroko's promised ridge came into sight behind them in the camera view, and Nadia declared that they were done for the day. They watched the sun set behind the ridge and the crater rim, and heated their rations and ate companionably, though in near silence. Hiroko was a good person for silence, comfortable in it; one got the feeling that whatever was keeping to herself--and her silence was a choice, not like, say, Simon's-- was perfectly benign and unhurtful.
The last real obstacle between Juventae and Ganges was an unnamed highland, a hundred kilometers or so from where they camped by the crater rim. The main massif was south of their route, but a long ridge or dorsa rayed out to the northeast. It tapered off, about where a straight eastern route would take them, but their charts showed a steep and narrow valley--perhaps an old watercourse, or simply another of the Tharsis rifts, who could tell from the air?--twisting around its foot. Hiroko favored climbing the highland and crossing the dorsa at a gap, or pass, on the straight east-southeast line to the head of Shalbatana.
Hiroko's instincts, or else her ability to read the ground terrain from the chart, had been good so far. Nadia let her take the wheel--gratefully; she hadn't realized how difficult the drive over the saddle had been, but this morning her shoulders and back were sore with old tension--and settled back to enjoy the scenery.
It was dark bedrock and loose, paler regolith, nothing too exciting, with the horizons drawing even closer than ever as they went uphill. She dropped transponders, and spent some time playing with the map display watching their route take shape behind them. And so she missed the precise moment where the dark edge of the world tilted, but suddenly there it was: the horizon was askew, piling up on itself away to the right until the curve of the world was obscured, and the land simply dwindled away in a straight line; while off to the left, it curved even more steeply, plummeting downward as the sloped massif tapered off.
As they approached, the ridge became crenellated: to the south, at its highest, like a saw blade; in the center, like the crimped edges of a pie shell--that would be the ejecta rim of a substantial crater on the far side. Between the pie shell and the sudden drop-off to the north, she could just make out a notch that was the pass.
It was a strangely Earth-sized landscape: the highland and the ridge were not quite shaped like terrestrial mountains, but they reared up, especially from so close, just like mountains on Earth. And the pass, when they approached it, was about five kilometers wide at the bottom: the mountains on either side extended the horizons even as they cut them off, until it was like being back in the Dry Valleys.
And on the other side, they were looking down, and suddenly the views were gloriously long: terraced steps falling down and down and down, ochre ground shading back into gray and gray-black as the weathered sands from their basalt ridge collected downhill. They stopped at the mouth of the pass and ate their lunch looking out the front windows, pointing out the outlines of fissures, scablands, the eroded rims of old craters and the fresh ejecta rays of new ones. A weathered landscape, weather-beaten and simply beaten, unrolling like a blanket as far as the eye could see.
And not nearly as smooth a drive as on the other side. Nadia took the wheel after lunch, and even with Hiroko reading the map she couldn't keep them from jostling: there was simply no path that was free of rocks, tiny craters, pingoes, sudden cracks across otherwise level ground. The terraces that had looked so smooth from the top of the pass were sharp drop-offs, as tall as the rover or taller, and the switchbacks Nadia had to find were rarely over good terrain. Hiroko grimly dropped transponders, and Nadia knew she'd appreciate them on the way back--any known road was a good road, she'd learned that in Siberia.
They had brought no proper earthmoving equipment, having just the one rover. Nadia thought once or twice of breaking out the rescue equipment: winches, ropes, spiked mesh traction pads, lots of spare cable, some basic digging equipment, it was all down in the belly of the rover with the extra food and medical supplies. But the rover could take worse treatment than this--she'd put rovers through worse than this--while Sojourner... well, it had taken thirty-two years of self-imposed rough treatment, but it wouldn't take a four-kilometer drop into Ganges Chasma. How far from the lip of Shalbatana had it been when Ann found it? It had looked like a distance of kilometers, as many as five or six; Ann had implied it was that far or farther... but perspective was so tricky on Mars, and the camera image had been very sharp. And Ann wouldn't have gone any closer than she'd had to, once she'd seen it; she'd have turned and headed for the canyons the instant she could. The robot might only have been seven, eight days from the edge of Shalbatana, and grading a road as they went would double their travel time. Though so would dealing with a popped wheel housing--even as she thought it, she brought the rover across an uneven scatter of shocking white ejecta, and it gave a mighty whump and bounced her hard against her seatbelt. Hiroko, taller, almost whacked her head on the ceiling despite the restraint; though she had the presence of mind to drop a transponder even before they fell back into their seats.
But the rover rolled on, smoothly enough, and none of the idiot lights flashed. Good enough--she had faith in the rover's engineering, and she took the bumps with less worry after that, if also with a little less speed. The speed seemed to make no difference, though--the next big bump was even more extreme, the rover flexing in the middle and almost seeming to jump off the ground. "Martian gravity," she said to Hiroko, when they fell back in their seats. "When we bounce, we bounce!"
Hiroko grinned, gap-toothed and conspiratorial. "I wonder, if you worked up a little more speed on the ridges--"
"Jump them, you mean?"
She shrugged. "The switchbacks take time."
Nadia grinned back and gunned the ignition. They had a whole unbroken horizon ahead of them. The rover wouldn't top thirty km/hour on its own, but the long downhill gave them a nice boost, if they let it; and once they got going, cobbles and fissures and rubble were nothing, the big mesh wheels barely noticed, they just kept picking up speed. The next terrace flew out from under them-- Nadia swore she could see the world turning, scrolling by underneath them, before they hit ground--oh, and she'd have seatbelt bruises--and bounced, four or five times before the wheels finally gripped dirt again.
Nadia realized she was whooping aloud and shut her mouth, sheepishly; Hiroko was grinning madly and panting, and suddenly they were both laughing, cackling before they'd caught their breaths, until Nadia got a stitch in her side and had to hold her breath. Hiroko schooled her face, or tried to.
"So, maybe once is enough for that, yes?"
"Yes, yes," said Hiroko. "We'll call that a success."
They stopped in the middle of the plain at dusk, and Nadia suited up for her sunset walk. She got no farther than the rover: its aft cargo bay, where she'd stowed all the rescue equipment and extra supplies for Ann and Simon, stood open, the man-sized doors swinging loose below the rover body, dragging just above the rock like giant catflaps.
They were scored and abraded, the inner panels dented, and the door seals were worn away in places by friction against the ground. They'd been open at least since that last bounce--or during it, Nadia thought, shining a flashlight at the pitting of the cargo bay interior.
"Hold this." She gave the flashlight to Hiroko and went back to the passenger compartment for her toolbox; Hiroko took the torch with a contrite look, and held it silently while Nadia worked.
She had to replace the seals--there were still rolls of foam and aerogel in the fore cargo compartment, and spray cans of foam insulation--before the doors would even latch again, and hammer the edges back into true before she was sure they'd stay that way.
And as for the rest, the lost equipment--well. She didn't think about that until they had got back inside and unsuited, and heated trays of lasagna.
It would be all over Xanthe Terra by now, the rations and the cables and the traction mats and the bandages all scattered like so much ejecta, the trail of a very long impact event.
"Do you want to turn back?" Hiroko asked. She sounded dubious, and with reason: they'd lose a day at least, backtracking--more, given the time it would take to bring in what they found--and after all, it was her hurry to find the probe that had gotten them into this mess.
Nadia frowned. "Ann doesn't think she'll need any rescuing."
"She trusts the land," said Hiroko. "It will keep her as safe as she wants to be."
That didn't sound exactly reassuring. "Meaning?"
Hiroko smiled, still looking a little sheepish. "We pick it all up on the way back."
"Deal," said Nadia; and did the dishes, though it wasn't her turn. She'd been at the wheel; the speed derby had been her choice and her fault.
But she suited up again before bed and went back out to have another look at the hull. Just forward of the much-abused cargo doors was the small hatch from which they dropped the transponders. She inspected it carefully, but it seemed undamaged.
It was another three days to Shalbatana: Nadia kept the wheel, and she kept them to a much more sedate pace. Hiroko dropped the transponders, under Nadia's eye. They spent half or one day skirting a crater, the biggest they'd encountered yet. It was steep-sided, seventy-five kilometers across, and four straight down to the weathered and uneven floor. Nadia stopped the rover on the rim, right at noon when the shadows were shortest, and they both suited up and climbed the loose ejecta of the rim, gingerly, crawling the last meters on their bellies, and looked down.
The far side of the crater disappeared beneath the horizon. They looked into an endless downward that could not be told apart from horizontal distance: at the horizon, it faded into a haze framed by the arms of the ejecta rim, curving toward an invisible meeting beneath the edge of the world. The effect was of an amphitheater gouged out of the side of the planet. "The bite in Big Man's apple," said Nadia.
"This crater is one of thousands," Hiroko said, "in this region alone, one so insignificant that we have not yet even given it a name."
"That's what I meant," said Nadia, a little tartly--anyone could see it was amazing, it was huge and vast and mind-boggling, did she have to say it, too--come over all mystical like Hiroko, or fanatical like Ann? Or be like Maya, or, in a different way, Phyllis, and pretend it was nothing, pretend it did not awe her and terrify her?
But, "I know," said Hiroko, and smiled behind her helmet. "We are the spirits of this land; we enliven it through our selves, our work. It is work, the work of our hearts, to make the wild places holy; just as it is the work of our hands to make tame places, to make them home." She reached out and hefted a rock--the motion arrested Nadia with its familiarity--and tossed it down the scree slope. The air was too thin to hear its clatter, but Nadia could imagine it, a long trail of scattered stones and debris following it all the way down. Human ejecta.
She thought of Hiroko's hand on the rover dashboard, dropping a transponder--or touching some control--at the very moment of that first collision; and she looked up and met Hiroko's serene smile with one of her own. "We're not going to find any of that equipment on the way back, are we?"
Hiroko widened her eyes innocently. "Don't you think so? I say we will find some of it."
Nadia stood up and offered Hiroko her hand. "If you say so." But Hiroko took her gloved hand, and held it long enough for the clasp to be an agreement: Nadia wouldn't refrain from looking up who on the farm team had followed them out--but she wouldn't take it to John and Maya, either, as long as the rover doors were the last of the damage to her equipment.
It was a lot to convey in one handshake, but she thought Hiroko got it.
She hadn't thought she was angry at Hiroko--it was hard to be angry at her, not like Maya, who dared to think the worst of her or Ann who made you want to shake her sometimes. But when Arkady called, there it was, and she took it out on him. "How come I don't have any disciples?"
"Take mine!" he roared. "Who wants disciples anyway? What good would they do you? Just try to get a disciple to pick up a sledgehammer!"
"All right, yes, so they're useless. But it's not just you and Hiroko who have them. Sax has followers, advocates of his terraforming agenda, and Ann has a whole ecological movement growing on Earth in her name that she barely knows about. And Maya and Frank have their coteries at Baikonur and Washington, and Phyllis has hers in Houston--even Janet has fans."
"And you wonder what Nadezhda Francine and her amazing construction crew can do, in the face of so many self-appointed messiahs and all their followers, hm? Well, but what's your agenda? You must have one of your own, rubbing elbows with all these very important people."
"Oh, yes, my agenda. I came to Mars to drive a bulldozer and build things. Houses. Roads." She leaned against the cold frame of the rover, driving the diamond heating pattern into her skin. "Aqueducts. Cities."
"Worlds?" said Arkady, right in her ear.
She frowned into the sunset, trying to stay angry; the stars came out, all at once, sudden as anything else on Mars, and she couldn't, not at Hiroko or anyone.
"All right, all right, damn you, I have an agenda," she groused. "Satisfied?"
"No no-- you cannot make your agenda my problem. It is you who must be satisfied, you and your crew and your gallant little robot mascot--"
"Oh, no, if I have to have a mascot, so do you," she interrupted. "Nominate Alex. Or Roger. One of your disciples."
At the end of the sixth day, they camped at the rim of a pockmark crater, overlooking a shallow, gentle slope that their charts claimed was the very southern tip of Shalbatana Vallis. At dawn, they drove down it. The views lengthened before them as the valley's grade steepened, and abruptly, two hours on, the valley walls appeared to their sides: distant, at first, and hovering above the close and uneven horizons. But as they drove on, they unrolled higher and higher to their sides until they suddenly connected with the edge of the world; and just as suddenly, a second set of walls, much more distant and vastly higher, loomed beyond them, and there they were, in Ann's picture, like walking into a postcard.
They suited up and went out. From here, Nadia could see that the narrow valley they had followed down was a small watercourse down the center of a rift valley, one last fissured outpost of the great Marineris system; the looming walls to either side--thirty-five hundred meters above them, or more--were the highland they had crossed to come here, sheared in two and wrenched apart, as though the whole valley system, the arroyos with the braided streambeds and polished stones, spilling out in brilliant hematite shades below them, were just a model in a vast basalt-walled box, a child's project or a hydrologist's sand table. Big Man's Diorama. "Ann needs to see this," said Nadia. Hiroko cocked her head. "Really see it, I mean," she clarified, not that that was any sort of clarification. But Hiroko nodded all the same.
Nadia tuned her wrist unit to the Sojourner's frequency, just in case. It was a long shot; even assuming the robot's transmitter was still functional, Mars's weak ionosphere meant its range would be effectively be no wider than eyeshot. And finding the thing visually--Ann's pictures hadn't done justice to how the entire valley glittered! Rifting had exposed everything, layers and layers of crustal sediments and bedrock, and it had all been water-scoured, stones rolled and tumbled to a high gloss--and polished again by wind and sand, she thought, bending to pick up a ventrifact, a lump of basalt with a perfectly flat scoured face. Basalt polished like hematite, and hematite polished to a mirror sheen, and all the sands! Black sands, red, white, even olivine sands weathering away from the cliffsides, waterfalls of shocking green. A Faberge diorama; Hiroko's viriditas, counterfeited in cascades and rivers of gem-quality peridots.
"It's so lavish," said Nadia.
"Abundance is everywhere," Hiroko said. Agreement, or one of her non-sequiturs; Nadia took it as the first. "Even here--an abundance of spectacle; abundance of wonder."
"Of sparkle, you mean." There was no signal at all on her wrist; they would have to locate the Sojourner visually. "A pity all the weather balloons were in the aft cargo compartment."
They mounted the cameras from the spare helmets on survey poles and left them looking out over the valley; it wouldn't do to let the robot slip out behind them. Nadia set out up the northwest wall, and Hiroko up the southeast, keeping each other within view. The sun climbed up to noon, and the shadows shrank. Good for finding a stationary object-- especially a solar-powered one, that might have been hidden in a shadow since dusk--but a disadvantage, if the Sojourner were moving; the longer its own shadow, the more visible its movement would be.
But they kept searching, because what else could one do? The shadows began to lengthen again, and every slab of polished basalt looked like a solar panel from ten meters away. After the fourth false alarm, Nadia sat down, gingerly, on the sunniest rock she could see (and even that was cold). She sipped a little water from her drinking tube and contemplated hiking back to the rover so she could take her helmet off and eat; knowing that being hungry enough to wonder if she needed to eat meant her blood sugar was dropping enough to impair her performance.
Every bit of glitter looked the same. She'd have to drop a transponder to even find where she'd left off the search. She took one from a thigh pocket and bent down to plant it, carefully as a tulip bulb, and the robot heaved itself over a spray of pebbles and knocked it out of her hand.
Nadia sat back down, laughing hard enough to echo in her helmet. Sojourner's antennae were all bent double or sheared off entirely; a number of its solar cells were cracked and the whole chassis looked twisted a few degrees off-true. "Tried to squeeze through a crack, did you? Dumb little robot."
"Nadia?" Hiroko's voice buzzed in her ear; a fool she must look, from the opposite wall, bent double with her nose almost in the dirt.
"I've found it, Hiroko! Or it found me. It's still moving--it's going to go right over the ridge; come and see."
She followed it until Hiroko came. It did indeed climb right up the top of the ridge, and spun skidding halfway down--Nadia tensed, ready to leap to its rescue, but it finally dug in its wheels and oriented itself again, and crawled diagonally the rest of the way down, still aimed for the valley mouth. Its left middle wheel housing was bent, though it seemed to get on well enough with the other five. Nadia followed, timing its progress on her wrist. It was clunky and klugey and she could think of a dozen better ways to build it--fully retractable antennae just for a start--but here it was, still doing the thing it was designed for with no idea it had been superseded. There was good design in that: and she could see it, in the six-wheel chassis, the low center of gravity, the smooth solar carapace.
Hiroko arrived at a run, breathless and panting more than her helmet's defogger could keep up with. She stood watching it fumble across a spill of olivine sand. "Shall we let it follow on its own?" she said at last.
They didn't, in the end; they were both getting punchy with hunger, and the robot would be all day reaching the rover. But taking it along proved a challenge. Nadia simply bent down and picked it up by the edges of the panel at first, like carrying a tortoise across a road. But it spun its wheels--not only that, but kicked, extending each of the independently-sprung wheel mounts and stretching them in circles, searching for solid ground again; she could barely get around them to set it down again.
In the end, they covered the solar panels with the spare suit gloves from their ankle pockets, following the robot and nudging its unsecured cargo back into place until its little store of power ran down, and it sat dormant, piled with mittens like an abandoned sled. They strapped the gloves down with bungee cords, and Nadia carried it into the rover.
She kept it powered down, with a sheet of black insulation foam taped over its surface, for most of the next two days, while she stripped it down. Every joint was packed with fines--the aerogel layer was thick with them, red as pumice; half its puny board had been fried by cosmic rays; the cameras were a total loss; and the wheel housing was not only bent but worn almost through along the crease, ready to snap at any minute.
Its X-ray spectrometer was still perfectly functional. Sometimes the oddest things kept holding on.
After she stripped it and tested it, Nadia rebuilt it. New solar cells replacing the broken ones. New cameras, cannibalized from the spare helmets; a new radio transmitter-receiver, tuned to the frequency of the Underhill dining room, and telescoping antennae with little proximity sensors in the tips. A new magnesium-steel wheel housing: she worried about that; it was both stronger and a little less ductile than the original, but the joints she built seemed to have about the same tolerances as before. In any case, it was used to favoring that wheel by now; there was still a self-diagnostic ticking away in one corner of its much-compromised processor. She blew all the dust and fines out of the workings (saving it all for analysis back at Underhill) and replaced the aerogel layer with new insulation.
Hiroko watched her at work in the evenings; during daylight, she took long walks out in the vallis. She came back on the second day with a handful of polished pebbles, most of them flat-faced ventrifacts, from the valley floor. She poured them from her gloved hand to her bare one and offered them to Nadia. "Let it take something along with it. A remembrance of its journey."
It wasn't as if it was pristine--the new solar cells were blue, not black; the one new wheel housing gleamed a whiter silver, and the cameras and antennae did not match the original specs. Nadia epoxied rows of mirror hematite, peridot, anything in a color that stood out, over the outer struts and along the narrow edge of the solar panels. The result was as gaudy as Shalbatana--but, as she said to Hiroko, the next person would have a much easier time finding the thing.
They drove to the rim of Ganges to release it: it wouldn't find a safe route down without them, and in any case, how could they come this far and not see Ganges Chasma--a canyon fifteen hundred kilometers long and, at its steepest, six straight down! And that only a mere cul-de-sac of Marineris. They drove south another half-day, and without any warning, or any change in the land, the horizon stopped moving.
They kept driving, and when the edge of the world seemed like it could come no closer, they suited up and walked out, Nadia carrying the blinged-up, insulation-wrapped Sojourner.
To either side, as far as they could see, the canyon walls dropped endlessly down, a straight line that wrapped into a curve as it dropped below the horizons; Nadia could see, far to her left and right, the strata in the side of the rift. And below, the valley floor--so far down as to be invisible from even a few hundred meters--hung below them, a whole floating world. There were mountains, whole and entire with their peaks far below Nadia's feet! Continents and coastlines of stone, falling away until the red and ochre of rock merged with the red haze of sky--stone rivers and deserts, even, for one breathless instant, stone oceans, until the green-black billows resolved into Ann's dunes, dunes of the same olivine sand.
They walked, and got in the rover and drove a bit, and walked some more--they could not tear their eyes from the south--and camped on the rim and watched night rush into that submerged world, while the ground under their feet was still sunlit and glowing red. And on the next morning, they found Ann's spur, and the transponder road she had laid.
The tracks of her rover stretched as far as they could see, smooth, coiling in loops here and there as she detoured around boulders, or toward them, but unbroken. Nadia walked a little way down the rock shoulder and set Sojourner down in Ann's trail. She bent down and unsecured the carapace insulation. The little machine basked for a while, soaking in the sun. And then with no warning, it trundled off down the slope--not quite in Ann's path, but close to it; it was a narrow spur, and all the good paths overlapped. "Go catch her up," Nadia said. "You need to have words with her about Shalbatana." She spoke without turning on her radio; Hiroko didn't need to see Nadia going as crazy as she was. But when she could tear her eyes away from the little robot in the big landscape, she saw Hiroko's lips moving, silently, behind her faceplate; moving--speaking, chanting--even after Hiroko caught her eye, and winked.