The Signal: Chapter One


Chapter One


 

Landon Walker gripped the handholds so tightly that his knuckles ached. Peering through the viewport of SpaceHab's weightless hub, he watched the court-ordered shuttle drift away from the wheel, toward the shimmering, blue sphere of Earth, a mere 35,000 kilometers away. It took a large part of his life with it, leaving behind...

Nothing but silence.

It was better this way. Better for everyone. For the baby. For his work. Still, someone else - the courts, not him - had decided to remove her, and that's what really gnawed at him. His own flesh and blood was as much out of his control as the rest of his life.

The sleek spaceplane reflected the Sun on its shiny siding, dwindling to a spark of light, then a flicker. And finally, nothing. Walker squinted hard at the empty spot where he'd last glimpsed the shuttle.

Gone. Everything that had ever really mattered...gone. He was spiraling toward a dead-end after all the promise he'd shown, the excitement he'd generated back at Port Lowell with his initial research.

"Dr. Walker?" An apologetic voice from behind disturbed his thoughts.

Walker stiffened. No one ever saw him with a slump to his spine. He hated feeling sorry for himself. He glanced over his shoulder and saw one of the young technicians from his lab. "Yes, what is it?"

The tech cringed slightly as if he'd caught a whiff of Walker's stale breath. "Excuse me, sir, but we thought you'd want to know right away." His face flushed, and he looked away.

Walker released the handhold and whisked fingers across his chin, badly in need of a shave. He straightened the belt of his khaki jumpsuit, rumpled from having slept in it. Upright, all night, beside the crib. Waiting for an opportunity to hold her, never certain how to hold anyone so little. So needy.

"Go ahead," Walker urged, turning around to give the tech his full attention.

"It's the lab, sir. Seems we've picked up an emission coming from the direction of Alpha Centauri."

"Uh-huh," Walker said, allowing only his cool exterior to show, while inside he wanted to explode. Just one kind of emission interested him. He swallowed hard. "What kind?"

"Tachyonic."

Walker whistled softly. "Anyone else report it? Port Lowell? Lunar Observatory? Van Pelt's group?"

"Not yet, sir."

"Damn," Walker muttered.

The kid's brow lifted, and Walker turned away from him, glanced once more at the empty spot on the viewport. "Let's go," he said finally, pushing off through weightlessness toward the tube leading to his laboratory. "We've got work to do."

* * * * *

Lieutenant Chico Torres eyed the shapely curves of the civilian passenger strapped into his co-pilot's seat. "Ready, ma'am?" He snapped his visor into place for the short hop over to Valles Marineris - the grandest canyon of the solar system, and it happened to be here on Mars.

The boss-lady administrator from personnel hesitated a fraction of a second too long to suit him. "Chico, I really appreciate your doing this on your time off. Especially on such short notice. I owe you one."

You sure as hell do, babe. But what he said was, "Forget it, ma'am. It's nothing." He couldn't afford to fuck up. Not now.

The slight vibration of the hydraulic system tickled through his spine and lifted the Thin Air Skimmer - this newest model of the TASK flyer - up from the warrens of base toward the bay door on the surface of Mars. Despite its name, Port Lowell did not face openly onto the sea of space where ships could freely come and go. It burrowed, instead, under the regolith, which was just a fancy word for dirt. All the same, it left Chico feeling smothered.

He wondered how his passenger had bent regulations for her impromptu holiday. Did her boyfriend know that she was about to join him over at the construction site? That was her business, and it was his business to make Ms. Administration happy.

The lift system clanked into place, nesting the cockpit of the two-person skimmer against sealed doors. They waited while air emptied into holding tanks, then the bay doors slid open. Glancing once more at his passenger, he waited for a last-minute change of her capricious mind. But it didn't come. She stared intently at the dark landscape ahead.

He followed her gaze. Nothing had changed. The backdrop still showed the cone outline of Olympus Mons sprawling above an otherwise empty horizon like a giant tit. A place like this made the plains of his Colorado homeland seem downright lush.

"TASK 411, you are cleared for exit."

"Roger." He looked again at his passenger. She nodded, and he set the controls to automatic. A gentle thrust rippled through the craft, then they slipped off the pad into a pre-dawn sky. The green read-out in his contact lens scrolled through numbers that matched their altitude.

He felt his heart soar as the skimmer lifted up into the chilly, thin atmosphere. This was what he was born to do. He'd known it as long ago as his twelfth birthday, when he'd built his first hang glider all by himself, then jumped off the butte near town. He could still hear the abuelita, his mother's mother, screech at him. "You want to kill me with your death, Chiquito?"

He pushed her voice and everything else from his mind as he concentrated on the flyer's union with the slim air currents. Of course he'd prefer to guide the light craft himself - he had the practiced hand of a lover - but regulations forbade manual control when civilian passengers were aboard.

Ironic, since she'd be safer with him in control than the automatic pilot. But he hadn't written the rules.

He wasn't even needed, but regulations required the presence of a pilot, in case something went wrong. On automatic, the skimmer maneuvered almost as well as he could do it. Flying in these diffuse, practically non-existent streams of air was tricky. They skirted the downdrafts sometimes encountered on the eastern side of the volcano and headed for the Valles Marineris.

His passenger nudged him and pointed at the bright star hanging above the eastern horizon. "Earth," she whispered.

"The morning star," he added.

"Do you ever want to go back there, Chico?"

He snorted. "Me? Hel - , that is, not at all, ma'am. I have nothing to go back to."

"I have to go back soon. My parents were re-located when the gulf coast washed away, and they need someone to look after them."

What this woman needs is a man to look after her. He grunted. It wasn't easy to keep his mouth shut.

His breath flipped the single black curl that always fell over his left eye. He'd learned long ago that obliging the right people and controlling his tongue would get him into places that would otherwise bar him. He could be just as agreeable as he had to be. But there were limits to how long he could behave.

Following the sight lines of the morning star, the skimmer sailed between the two southernmost volcanoes of the Tharsis threesome. The pock trio, he called them. They reminded him of the pocks that scarred Uncle Jota's ugly face. That son of a bitch had tried everything to prevent his illegitimate nephew from getting into the Academy, but it hadn't been enough. Chico had shown him.

Suddenly, the sun burst over the horizon, spilling a golden halo into the darkness. Earth flickered out, as if Dios had flipped the light switch, severing his connection to the homeland. As it should be.

Then the red came up. Shades of red in the rock-strewn, crater-pocked plains: red-brown, red-orange, red-pink. Everywhere, red invaded everything. Red soil, redder rocks. A wisp of a cloud high above gashed relief in a sky that looked like something out of a virtual world.

"Chico?"

Boss-lady cocked her head at him, and he realized with a wave of horror that his attention had drifted. Only for a moment, and what did it matter, anyway, being on automatic? But it had drifted nonetheless, suggesting to him the hint of a flaw. He was less of a pilot than he'd thought. He snapped back to attention.

"Is that canal up there the beginning of the rift system?" she asked.

He snorted at her mistake, but hell, she was Ms. Administrator. What was she supposed to know?

The chasm opened up ahead of them, making the Grand Canyon back home look like an arroyo. This channel with its jagged, red walls twisted ahead of them, stretching to the horizon and beyond. The craft swooped down into the Martian slash, and Chico felt a moment of light-headedness as the bottom dropped out from under them.

"What the hell?" Automatic pilot would never program a thrill ride, he thought, clutching the controls, punching them to manual.

"Chico!" Boss-lady screamed, bracing herself against the control panel.

The green lights in his lens suddenly blinked out, and along with them, the daylight reaching feebly into this canyon disappeared. Something doused all light, and he felt the pull of the craft as it dropped in altitude. Without the stat display, he had to use his instinct to determine their position, falling to the bottom with a speed and a heaviness that felt greater than the gravitational pull that should come from this lightweight planet. They spiraled down in a pit of black.

Where was the red, chingada planet?

"Chico, what's happening?"

He grunted in reply as he wrestled with the throttle, listened for a whine from the engines, evaluated his dizziness to determine their attitude, blinked to clear the fuzz from his vision. Then, as abruptly as the black shadow had taken them in a chokehold, the red, jagged walls of the canyon suddenly appeared, soaring dangerously up on either side of the craft. Now the throttle responded, and he brought the skimmer out of its spiraling fall and into a stable, horizontal swoop.

They'd had time. The bottomland wasn't that close beneath them. Still, he could see the details of its buckles, the slivers of rock formations thrusting upward as if to block their passage through the canyon.

"What happened?" Her voice still shrieked.

"Damned if I know. Er, that is, ma'am, we appeared to pass through a, uh, disturbance in the atmosphere. Yes, that's it. It's common to encounter a shift in the air currents when we enter the canyon."

Goddamn, that was some shift!

"411, come in!" The duty man at Port Lowell shouted over the com, at the same time that cool, green lights returned in his lens. "Torres, what the hell are you doing? Why'd you take your skimmer off automatic?"

"Switching back," Chico said in his monotonal pilot's voice, even though his heart was still hammering. "You have any information on that disturbance back there?"

"Disturbance? Negative on that."

Chico guessed that a team was already scrambling to investigate the echoes of whatever had nearly happened back there. Of course they'd deny any danger existed. They wouldn't want to alarm the passenger.

He glanced over at her. "Everything's under control," he said, trying his best to make his brusque words sound gentle.

"You did that, didn't you?" she said. "You get a perverse thrill out of trying to scare me?"

"No, I swear - "

"I've heard about you, you know. When are you going to grow up?"

"Listen, it wasn't me. Something took hold of us. Didn't you feel it?"

She cocked her head at him, and when she spoke again, the fire was gone from her voice. "Maybe coming here was a mistake." She looked around, as if searching for an exit.

"Take it easy, we're almost there."

She let out a long sigh and leaned back in her seat as the skimmer dipped and dove and swept along the whimsical curves of the ancient flow that had once carved this planet. For once, he was glad to turn over control of the craft to automatic.

"411." The voice from Port Lowell suddenly filled the tiny cockpit. "We've lost contact with Valles Marineris."

"Roger, copy. Will check it out from here." Chico flipped the channel to the science station, so new it was still under construction at the base of the solar system's greatest canyon. He tried them several times, but there was no response.

He tensed, peered ahead as the craft sliced through the red canyon, then made up his mind and switched to manual control. He didn't want to be taken by surprise again. He slowed their speed, but his mind stayed on alert for another... Not a disturbance. What could he call it? He felt a shudder pass silently through him.

Jesucristo.

Watching for more shadows, for anything that might take him unaware, he stared intently at their course through the arroyo. Nothing. Ahead, the canyon bent, and sunlight shafted into its depths. In the distance he could see Mylar glinting, a silvery parasite attached to a shadowy, red corner where walls met the canyon floor. He slowed the skimmer to a cautious drift on its final approach, then circled above the construction site of ISA's newest habitat.

"Doesn't look like they've made much progress," Boss-lady said, her voice breaking.

"That's not lack of progress, ma'am," Chico said, his fingers twitching. The Mylar bubbles should be inflated. Not shredded into a mound of rubble. "Looks like there's been an explosion."

Just then, a dust cloud mushroomed up from the debris, rising bullet fast toward the skimmer. Chico's bones vibrated. The craft rocked, and the bottom dropped out again. "Hang on!" he shouted as they plunged to the floor of the canyon.

* * * * *

Ziza Fonseca stood naked in the heart of the jungle. Her mother's crazy followers surrounded her, ogling her, oohing and ahhing. They reached for her, tickling her firm flesh, and the platform where they all crowded, dipped and tilted in the swampy waters.

Ziza had sworn that she would never come back home to Amazonas, and yet here she was. All because of the bonus Doctor Inez had promised in exchange for the secret recording.

Quick as a serpent, her mother grabbed Ziza's arm and pried open her fingers hiding the camera card. "What is this?"

"Nothing, Mãe," Ziza said, a stammering child once again. "It's...just my identification. From the city. That is all." Heat rose to her cheeks, whether from the lie or the overwhelming perfume of the moonrose, she couldn't tell.

Ziza felt her mother's grip tighten on her arm. She stood on tiptoes to put her face in Ziza's face. "You dishonor me. You, who ran away to the foreigners."

With a strength greater than her shriveled frame would indicate, Mãe wrenched the card from Ziza's fingers and flung it away from the platform. A distant plink told Ziza what her mother thought of her job with the foreigners. Good thing there was still a microphone planted in her navel.

"We will make everything right now," Mãe said with a grin that showed off her missing front teeth. With one hand she reached for the flask that was passing from woman to woman, and with the other, grabbed Ziza's long braid.

"No...what are you doing?" Ziza twisted, trying to shake off her mother's work, but she felt as powerless as the moonrose vine, hacked from the tree with a machete by one of the women.

"You thought you could run away from your dance of puberty, did you?" Mãe said, yanking her head back. She tipped the flask to Ziza's lips. Some of its contents dribbled down her chin. The drops that made it into her throat burned like hell.

Turpentine? She couldn't quite place it. She remembered days long past, days from her childhood in the shanty town downriver, watching the shaman at work in the market. A mish-mash of canvas canopy flapped over stacks of rotting, wooden crates that divided the place into a maze of stalls. That's where the shaman worked, dipping his fingers into partially-full barrels of the ingredients he needed to prepare the concoction for Mãe's Mundomba women. Pulverized teeth from unknown animals. Bark and roots and slimy leaves. He squirted drops and sprinkled powders into the brew, then chanted meaningless sounds over the bubbling froth. Finally, he stuffed the mixture into a gouged fish, bound it tightly in an anaconda's skin, and hung it up to ferment for three full moon cycles.

That brew was what Mãe forced down Ziza's throat. Ziza coughed it all back up. Her spray sent Mãe's women ducking.

The wooden platform began to rock. Or was it her imagination? She burned with the fire of the brew that had wormed its way inside. Women surrounding her writhed. Bare arms uplifted, glistening with sweat. Fingers twitched. With eyes closed, the women invoked the heavens. Their sing-song chant stirred the night prowlers to a background clamor.

A moan sliced through the crowd, as one of the women placed the high priestess's garland of fish skulls round Mãe's neck. Frenzy slipped away from the women as they fell back, forming a wide semi-circle around Mãe, their healer leader.

Mãe dropped her shriveled arms and stilled. Likewise, did her throng of followers. Insects missed a beat of their background samba, as if sensing a change in the air. The wood stopped shaking beneath Ziza's feet, but water continued to stir against the boards. She felt dizzy, floating, mesmerized like the others. Women's faces watched in the silvery light, waiting for the cue. Mãe's wrinkled flesh began rippling under shuddery waves. Then her eyes rolled back into her head, leaving only the whites exposed in a face more black than night.

With head laid back and whites of her eyes shining in the moonlight, Mãe the priestess reached blindly for the hacked vine of the moonrose, then wrapped the vine around her drooping bosom and uttered sing-song sounds in a raspy voice. The priestess sang, and the wailing, off-beat sound sent tingles rippling through Ziza. The cadence, the tone, the rhythm pulled at the women like a ceaseless undertow. Deep, sucking sounds rolled through them as time stopped around them. And with each gush came sounds that might've been words. Words Ziza had never heard, could not recognize, and she trembled with fever as the night wore on.

Vines tangled the shriveled body of the ageless woman, her mother, the priestess. The song she sang finally choked itself off, then Mãe unrolled her eyes, a signal for the end of the ritual. Silence fell heavy over the Mundomba women on the platform. Ziza, shrinking into a fetal ball at their feet, startled to see fingers of rosy light slipping through the holes in the jungle ceiling. The remains of the moonroses wilted into limp nubs, as finished as the night. And the women. Their energy spent, they lifted Ziza to her feet and patted her on the back.

With a sinking feeling of dread, Ziza knew. She was Mundomba now.

Something glimmered in the priestess's eyes and drool trickled from the corners of her mouth. Her knobby hands twitched, and she stumbled to her knees. Unblinking, she stared up at Ziza. Purple colored her face, and her toothless mouth gaped open.

"Mãe?" This ritual was over, Ziza thought, reaching for the old woman to give her a shake.

Her mother gasped, and someone else's voice spoke-sang through Mãe's mouth. "We are... Tititri. We... come..." She clawed at her bare throat and choked one last time, then crashed to a lifeless heap on the platform.

"Mãe!" Ziza screamed.