Blair Thomas looked around at his fellow passengers. He sat on one of the side seats of the bus, which gave him a good opportunity to peruse each of them. On the six-month journey from Tranquility Base all the passengers had been asleep most of the time, so this was his first chance to study them.
In the back seat he saw three young airmen dressed in their maroon uniforms bearing the insignia of a pair of doves. They chatted among themselves, admiring the view outside. In front of them sat two ladies – one elderly with greying curls, a wrinkled face and a bit of a moustache over her top lip; the other, probably her daughter, was middle-aged with short fair hair. She carried a UV parasol which she played with nervously. Both ladies seemed sleepy and remained silent. In front of them sat a young man, about twenty. His shaven head danced to the beat of the music he listened to with his iPod. He wore a strange oriental-style coat. A bit of a weirdo, Blair thought. Directly opposite Blair, sat a smart young girl, about twenty-five years of age, with long dark hair and a dark complexion. She became aware of Blair looking at her and smiled. Blair’s interest in this young beauty was aroused. On one side of the bus near the front sat a middle-aged couple with a boy about ten. On the other side two gentlemen in their fifties, smartly dressed in suits and with laptops open, discussed some business together.
Blair glanced out of the window at the barren landscape. All around was red – red boulders and craters, some large and some small, and from time to time he noticed what appeared to be dry river beds, all covered with a fine red dust. Only the grey of the road on which they travelled broke the monotony of the red. Every fifty metres or so Blair noticed what appeared to extractor fans on either side of the road, and wondered what they were for. There were no trees, no signs of any vegetation, no houses or buildings of any type; nothing except the monotonous red. In the far distance he saw the tip of an enormous volcanic mountain towering high into the sky. This was Olympus Mons, rising more than twelve kilometres above mean-land level. Not mean sea-level – there’s no sea on Mars!
There were no clouds in the sky; only the unrelenting sun shining down through the thin atmosphere of carbon dioxide. The information screen at the front of the bus showed that the temperature outside was -57°C.
After a journey of about 30 minutes from the Richard M. Nixon landing strip, the monotony of the red landscape was suddenly broken when the bus approached the outskirts of a town. This was Tom Price, the capital city and only large settlement on Mars. The first thing Blair saw were vast areas of land covered with giant greenhouses, inside which food was grown – fruit, vegetables and grain. Blair later discovered that the glass was a special type that absorbed the harmful ultra-violet rays. He saw people and machines inside busily tending the crops. As the bus continued further, there was evidence of dwellings, but mostly hidden from view. Only the entrances to the houses could be seen above ground, some with vehicles parked outside. The rest of the structures were underground to give protection from the extreme cold, the low atmospheric pressure, the sun’s harmful ultra-violet rays, and the dust storms.
The bus came to rest outside the entrance to the Mars Hilton Hotel. A mobile corridor, similar to the ones used at airports on Earth, but sealed against the elements, was moved to engage with the door of the bus. Blair reached up to take his hand-luggage and became aware of the young girl looking in his direction. He turned and smiled. The passengers alighted and descended to the reception area of the hotel.
Blair checked in and took the elevator down to his room on the fourth floor below ground level. When he entered the room, he was surprised to see it was flooded with sunlight. Each of the rooms was fitted with a special periscope that was connected to the outside, with mirrors and lenses magnifying the light from the sun. The room was warm and well-ventilated, and in most respects indistinguishable from a hotel room anywhere on Earth. There was no live TV, of course, but five channels of continuously-running videos were enough to satisfy the needs of most guests.
After taking a shower and a nap, Blair decided it was time to explore the hotel, and then go for a drink before supper. He discovered that the Mars Hilton had all the amenities of most large hotels – a heated swimming pool, a sauna, conference rooms, shops, restaurants, and bars. He entered the Voyager Bar, sat at a table and ordered whisky on the rocks. After a few minutes, he saw the girl who had sat opposite him on the bus enter the bar. She looked stunning in a white two-piece suit. When she approached, he stood and asked if she would care to join him.
“Thank you very much,” the girl replied. “I’d love to.”
“My name’s Blair, Blair Thomas.”
“And I’m Chantal Dubois,” she replied.
“My father was French. My mother’s English. I was brought up in England.”
“Would you care for a drink?”
After the waiter had brought Chantal’s vodka and orange, they continued their conversation.
“Where are you from?” asked Chantal.
“And why are you here?”
“I’m on holiday. I’ve been saving up for this for a long time. How about you?”
She hesitated before she replied. “My ... my father died here.”
“Here on Mars?”
“Yes, he was one of the first astronauts to visit here in 2032. André Dubois. He was killed when Coloniser II exploded as it was taking off to return to the Moon.”
Blair shuddered as he recalled the event. He had been only nine years old at the time, but the catastrophe of Coloniser II’s destruction had been important news at the time, and it had set the Mars programme back by five years.
“I’m sorry,” he said feebly.
There was a long pause. Chantal took the opportunity to study the young man sitting opposite her. She noted that he was tall with auburn hair and a slightly freckly face. He’s a gentleman, she thought, and not bad looking. Undoubtedly of Welsh descent.
She broke the silence. “The old lady on the bus, that’s Mrs Devonshire, the widow of Mark Devonshire who was the commander of Coloniser II. The other one’s her daughter.”
Blair nodded as he recalled the name.
“She’s also come to the commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the disaster. I was only a few months old at the time. Since my Mum is too ill to make the journey and I’m the only child, I wanted to come to remember Dad.”
“Those three airmen sitting in the back of the bus, they’re here for the commemoration too, representing D.O.V.E.S.”
“The Directorate for the Outreach, Visitation and Exploration of Space.”
After they had dined together, they separated and went to their own rooms.
* * * * *
Three days later Chantal and Mrs and Miss Devonshire, together with the three airmen, attended a memorial service at St Christopher’s Cathedral. The service was conducted by Archbishop Cuthbertson, first Anglican Bishop of the See of Mars.
Blair did not attend the service. It was not that he was insensitive, but he was on holiday and hardly knew Chantal. He also had an excursion already booked for the next two days as part of his holiday package.
On the bus, he found himself seated next to the shaven-headed youth. They didn’t have a lot in common, but struck up a conversation. Blair discovered that the young man’s name was Rick, that he was Australian, and that he had come to Tom Price to work in the iron ore mines.
“You know why it’s called Tom Price?” Rick asked.
“No, I’ve no idea.”
“It’s named after Tom Price in W.A. - Western Australia. That’s the iron mining town in the Hamersley Range. I used to work there. Now I’ve come to make my fortune on Mars. The pay’s much better. I’m just having a few days seeing around the place before I start my new job.” He paused. “It’s the iron ore that makes the surface of Mars red, you know.”
“I see,” said Blair, although he was already well aware of this fact.
The highlights of the two day bus excursion were a visit to the slopes of Olympus Mons, a breathtaking view from the rim of the Valles Marineris – a chasm thirteen times as long as the Grand Canyon, and much deeper – and views of the ice cliffs and a ride on the snowmobile at the North Pole.
The tour guide explained that the South Pole of Mars is made up of dry ice – solid carbon dioxide, but the North Pole has frozen water. It was believed that at some time in the past the ice at the North Pole had melted, and the water had flowed as rivers on the planet’s surface – hence the appearance of dry river beds. If all the ice on Mars were to melt, the guide explained, it would cover the entire surface of the planet to a depth of three hundred metres!
They spent the night in a rest-house constructed in a cave inside one of a group of large boulders called The Olgas. The proprietor of the rest-house was an elderly Australian Aborigine named Noah. Noah had been one of the pioneer settlers on Mars and had lived alone for many years, apart from his dog, Rusty. He made a good living out of the tourists who stayed at his rest-house, which he named Dreamtime.
Of course, Dreamtime had been secured against the inhospitable elements of Mars, but was much more basic than the Hilton Mars Hotel. During the evening, Noah entertained Blair, Rick and the other guests with his didgeridoo while they sat in front of a roaring fire - inside the cave of course - and shared a few cans of beer.
Later, Noah told his guests many stories from the Australian Outback, but he saved the best story for last. “Back home, I was a carpenter by trade. A few years back I ordered a large quantity of timber and other materials to be shipped out from Earth so that I could build this place.”
“What do you do with your time when there are no guests?” Blair asked.
“Well, you see that cave over there?” He pointed to a cave a short distance to the south. “I’ve got another project going on in there. I work on it whenever I’m alone.”
“What sort of project?”
Noah put his right index finger to his nose. “That’s a closely guarded secret,” he said.
The party left the following morning for the return trip to Tom Price. On the way back, a fierce wind began to whip up the red dust and the travellers found themselves in the midst of a frightening sandstorm. The driver of the bus, an Irishman called Pat, stopped the bus and sought shelter between two large boulders. “’tis only a small storm, so it is,” he assured his passengers. “Betimes these storms are so violent they can go on for weeks at a time, sure they can.”
They had been sheltering for about eight hours when the storm subsided and Pat decided that it would be safe enough for them to continue back to Tom Price. Blair wondered how they would find their way since the road must surely have been covered by a thick layer of dust. But surprisingly the road was clear.
“’tis the blowers,” explained Pat. “Every time there’s a storm, the blowers are turned on automatically to blow the dust away, to be sure they are.”
Then Blair realised the purpose of the objects at the side of the road that he had mistaken for extractor fans.
They arrived back at the hotel well after dark. The Martian day being just over 24 hours 37 minutes, a visitor to Mars experiences very little difference from an Earth day.
It was too late that evening for Blair to renew his acquaintance with Chantal. However, the following morning when he entered the dining room for breakfast, he was pleased to see her already there eating.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked.
She smiled. “Yes of course, please do.”
Over the next few days, Blair and Chantal spent a lot of time together and got to know each other well. After two weeks, they realised they were becoming close and that they would continue their relationship back on Earth.
On the sixteenth day after their arrival, they were having lunch together when they were disturbed by a huge explosion outside. At the same time they felt the ground tremble like an earthquake. They rushed to one of the periscope windows. The crowd drew them to another window where they beheld a magnificent but frightening sight. Olympus Mons was erupting. Vast quantities of smoke were billowing from the crater, ash and rocks were being hurled into the air, and lava was beginning to spew from the rim of the crater. Everyone began to panic.
An announcement from the Manager over the intercom set their minds at rest. “Don’t panic,” he said. “Though it appears close, Olympus Mons is in fact 250 kilometres away. It has erupted frequently before, and always stops after a few hours. I repeat, don’t panic. Go on about your business and enjoy your holiday.”
But the volcano did not stop erupting after a few hours. For several days vast quantities of lava continued to flow down its slopes. The river of molten lava slowly made its way north towards the North Pole. The people in Tom Price did not realise it, but the hot lava began to melt the ice at the pole. Over a period of a few weeks the water began to flow, as it had done a few times before in the history of Mars. Waters once again began to course their way along the dry river valleys. Slowly but surely the trickle became a torrent and the torrent became a flood.
They began to realise that Tom Price was under threat, not from the volcano itself, but from the flood that relentlessly approached the town.
An emergency evacuation began. Buses and shuttle-craft started ferrying people to the spacecraft waiting to return to the Moon. But there was only a limited amount of space. The elderly and children were the first to go. Chantal said farewell to Mrs Devonshire and her daughter. They wished her luck. Blair, Chantal, Rick and the three airmen found themselves amongst the last to leave. They learned that they might have to wait a further three weeks for transport. Meanwhile the waters approached.
On the day the flood hit Tom Price, there were only about eighty people left in the town. They knew there was little chance of escape and braced themselves for the inevitable. There was still a strip of dry land outside the hotel, but it would soon be underwater. Blair and Chantal held each other and watched and waited at the hotel entrance.
Suddenly a small ship came sailing down the river. The ship was of a conventional wooden structure, but covered with a protective shield against the sun’s ultra-violet rays. Vast quantities of food had been stored in the hold of the ship, but it was occupied by just one man. When the ship got closer, the survivors saw a black man at the wheel, waving at them. Noah, the Aborigine, had come to rescue them. They put on their protective suits and rushed outside, racing towards the ship.
At that moment, the last shuttle-craft had just been launched. Blair looked up and saw the emblem on the side of the craft – two doves with olive branches in their mouths. He looked again at Noah’s ship and saw the name on its side – ‘Noah’s ark’.