trucks and heavy equipment: flood lamps, crates, tool boxes, drills, blast shields, industrial grade seismic units, robotic near-I mules and a small earth mover with a caged cab. All of it, bar the mules, was man-operated.
The left side of the cave was walled in by metal and plastic panels, more prefab work bolted together on site, joined to the rock with foamcrete. The base camp control centre. A window looked out over the chamber floor onto the stores, a standard airlock to its right, a large rolling door further to the right of that.
Holland looked at the sealed cave airlock. Behind that door lay what he had spent his entire life studying. Exobiology was a thriving discipline, what with the discovery of the creatures of the Europan oceans and the bizarre alkane life of Titan, not to mention the remnant ecosystems here on Mars, but the arduousness and expense of interplanetary flight meant that fieldtrips remained difficult. Once Holland went through that door, it would be his first encounter with alien life in its natural environment.
A stunning thought, genuinely stunning.
Maguire shut off the truck. “Sorry about the door, we had a hell of a time deciding to put it in. It interferes with the remnant ecosystem some, but we were stuck for places to put our mission base. We decided on the end of this tube, and that meant we had to block off the seasonal outgassings. You mightn’t think it, but there’s enough methane coming out of there at the height of summer to cause a real risk, especially at the tube entrance. Luckily, another tube extended into the cave, blocked about five clicks out, not far from the surface, so we opened that up to allow the processes to continue. That’s why we are where we are. I know, I know” – Maguire held up his hands – “it’s not a perfect solution, but we lost less than a fifth of a per cent of the biomass in there, and it hasn’t otherwise affected it. And it gives us access to study it properly.”
“Point two per cent is quite a lot, Dave,” said Holland. “There is not much Martian life left.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” said Maguire. “This was a solution that the board would accept, and that did the least damage. A fecking compromise, as per usual. The AIs said it was the best outcome. If we can catalogue this lot, we’ve a chance of preserving at least some of it. Most of these organisms are extremely intolerant to oxygen, and this depth is nowhere near enough to protect them, so the ones in the higher caves would die anyway. But that’s why you’re here, eh?”
Holland nodded. His eyes remained fixed on the door; a manmade artefact framed in red rock, framed in turn by the edge of his helmet, the bedrock of Mars squeezed by human pressures inside and out. The airlock across the tube was a threshold in time, demarking one age of life from another. On this side, the beginning of human Mars, on the other side, the last refuge of the ancient Martians.
A deep voice, melodiously Scandinavian, spoke into their helmets. “Good morning, gentlemen. If you would please hurry a little. I have the Panthers coming in at eleven-hundred, and I want to be sure that Dr Holland here is fully introduced to our safety measures before they arrive.”
Maguire raised his hands and turned to the window. “Come on, Frode, this is his first time! Let the man drink it in a little.”
Holland turned to where Maguire was looking. A tall man with thinning hair, a well-trimmed beard and a sombre expression stood in the window, leaning on the desk behind the window like a preacher.
“I have not got all day.” Frode turned away from the window and picked up a tablet.
“Okay! We’re coming in,” said Maguire. There was a click and Magurie whispered conspiratorially. “That’s Frode Jensen, our resident safety guru. He’s a miserable old sod and a pedant, but a safe pair of hands.”
Jensen turned back to the window. “Learn to use your comms equipment properly,