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Authors: Gregory Benford

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BOOK: The Sunborn
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Julia smiled and walked Daphne through the controls of the pulser. Viktor showed one of the crew how to rig the electrical leads to the dark tan wedges of the diaphragm. The best place was along the thin fans, ribbed like the underside of a mushroom.

This was one of the big controversial issues, the subject of many Earthside review panels. Many biologists thought that any tampering with the mat was immoral. Certainly, they said, jolting it with currents could cause major damage.

But there was no other way to get into the inner chambers. From the start Viktor and Julia had used what worked. For two years they had held out at Gusev on their own, making several descents and setting the protocols followed in dozens of later descents. Julia had reasoned by analogy with some attractive little white sea urchins,
from which she had extracted eggs and sperm, back in grad school days. Back then she’d used a standard technique, running a small current through the water, stimulating the urchin’s topmost pore—which duly released its eggs or sperm. The urchins hadn’t seemed to mind, and neither did the mat, decades later.

Earthside howls of protest meant nothing to them. “Theory easy when your life not on the line,” Viktor had said in a public message at the time. There were demonstrations, people wearing Viktor masks, carrying signs saying
Martian Criminal, Mat Murderer.
When an interviewer asked about these, Viktor just laughed. They both published a
New York Times
opinion piece, reasoning that there were probably many chambers threading Mars, and the mat was large and robust—or else it could not have survived since the warm, wet era over 3 billion years ago.

Certainly current was better than squirting the valve with oxygen, as they had at first, in an emergency. That had caused visible damage, killing some of the mat, turning it dead gray. “Field trumps theory,” Viktor had said.

Viktor triggered the voltage impulse. A hushed silence, just the wheeze of breathing coming over the comm. Then the leathery folds slowly withdrew, inching back, contracting like muscles.

The capacitor was a bulky wedge on Daphne’s backpack; she was tall and muscular. She peered intently at her ammeter, careful not to over-stress the thickly interwoven tissues. Viktor changed the pattern of the pulser, looking for the best sequence. The folds showed no particular response, but they did sluggishly open. The diaphragm took several minutes to spread, forced by the current flow. A two-meter passage yawned. Pale vapor poured from the opening.

“Nineteen milliamps at 0.35 volts,” Daphne called crisply. Then in a different tone she whispered, looking at the slow withdrawal, “Wow…”

Julia remembered that this was Daphne’s first fresh vent. She had trained on Vent A, the “classic” entry where they discovered the mat system. She was doing a thesis on the mat’s reaction to repeated violations of its integrity by humans—oxygen exposure from leaks and exhalations from their early suits.

Though Daphne had been here a year, Julia did not know how the woman felt about the whole idea. After all, they were rupturing the mat’s system. Some biologists argued for a go-slow strategy, checking to see when a vent opened of its own accord and venturing in only then. They had tried that for a year and got in a grand total of two descents. On the second one they’d had to electrically trigger the diaphragm to get back out. Julia and Viktor had argued the issue in endless interviews and position memos. In their view it basically came down to whether they did any research or not, whether humanity ever learned more about the mat.

The United Nations had even gotten into the matter, solemnly instructing the Consortium to stop all mat activities. That got them headlines, but they had no way to enforce their words. Axelrod retaliated by declaring that either the U.N. back off or he would lay claim to Mars. He left ambiguous whether he meant the whole planet or just part. This Mexican standoff never got resolved. After a while the Consortium gave the nod to resume descents. The incident stimulated the founding of the International Space Agency, though the contributing nations carefully kept control away from the U.N., of course.

Only years later did the world discover that Julia and Viktor had conducted a dozen descents without telling anybody. When they published their results, there was a predictable furor, but that died away, too. Most biologists had decided that staying in perpetual high dudgeon over matters several hundred million kilometers away was pointless.

“Honor of first entry goes to…” Viktor played out the suspense for a moment, before bowing. “To Daphne.”

She was thrilled. The diaphragm was well clear of her body when she dropped down on her cable. She followed her endless drills and immediately mounted a belaying assembly on the wall below.

“It goes vertical again,” she called. “Come on through. I’m on a bare ledge, easy standing, no mat underfoot.”

The entire crew followed her and fitted their cables through the assembly so they would have a new, common descent point. All these procedures had been worked out by mountaineering experts Earthside and many trials Marside. They kept mechanical damage to the mat at a minimum. Already, overhead, the diaphragm started easing back together, trying to get a seal around their cables. It wouldn’t work, because the cables still needed to have free play.

Still, it was reassuring to see the mat here trying the same solutions that Julia had seen elsewhere. It wasn’t injured, or else it couldn’t respond so quickly. Plus, it was further evidence that the mat system exchanged information globally, or else had evolved this defense mechanism so long ago—against what?—that it was instinctive. Despite decades of wondering which explanation was right, she did not know.

Julia paused for a moment. Mars was
Whether this came from the unrelenting cold or the odd, pounding sunlight (even after the UV was screened out by faceplates), or the simple fact that human reflexes were not geared for 0.38 g, or some more subtle facet, nobody knew. But today she was feeling it. She and Viktor were nearly twenty years older than the rest of the team, and she wished for a moment that the Mars Effect would kick in right now.

Down into inky depths. They passed by lush mat. Gray sheets, angular spires, corkscrew formations of pale white. These stuck out into the upwelling gases and captured the richness. Some phosphoresced in pale blue and ivory. Other brown growths had earlike fans to catch moisture, a common feature. One spindly, fleshy growth looked like the fingers of a drowned corpse, drifting lazily in the currents… She got it all on vid.

The Mars-studies industry Earthside had classified all these types, coining terms like “extensors,” “fungoidal extrusions,” “asymmetriads,” “symmetriads,” and, inevitably, “mimoids” for the times when the mat copied something human. Usually the mat made a rough humanoid shape, as had happened in the second Vent A descent, in the first expedition. But now and then they were greeted with blocky copies of instruments, backpacks, tools. Somehow the mat could sense these, leading to a whole school of thought among biologists that the mat had optical sensors.

So far they hadn’t found any. That might be because, despite Viktor’s Mat Murderer image, he and Julia had not taken many samples. They respected the mat. Several scientists had died while studying it in the first expedition.

“Notice how large and complex the structures are,” she called to the crew. “Daphne, that’s a purple spore-thrower at your left.”

“Check. Big, multiple pods. Wow.”

This was half exploration, half a training exercise. Daphne was bright and quick, and Julia wanted to cultivate her as a long-term member of Gusev. She always needed more biologists than she had, especially for descents.

Giving a guided tour of a place she’d never been before felt a bit awkward, but she had been on dozens of descents, and training was essential. Most of the crew would return to Earth within a year or so, before the trial of returning to full g became too much. They had to learn and work before then. She could tell by their expressions that they were still in openmouthed awe, even though the others had several descents between them. Was she getting jaded? No, she reassured herself, just accomplished. An air of certainty calmed the others.

The harness and yoke under her arms was new and wonderfully flexible, giving her freedom. They worked their way around a protrusion. Daphne led the way—slow, steady, letting their eyes pick out telling details. The brown and gray mat was getting thicker on the slick, moist walls. The rest of the team followed, leading a new batch of climbing ’bots they’d use for recon later.

Julia was happy to leave that to others; her whole interest here was to sense a certain something she could never define. Call it
—the looming feel of the mat, the sensation of being inside its workings. Julia supported her weight easily with one hand on the cable grabber, while she guided down the rock wall with the other. She concentrated.
Every moment here will get rehashed a millionfold by every biologist on Earth…and the ones on Mars, too.

“Everybody ready for beams off?” Daphne called. She waited the full minute called for in the protocol. Then: “Switch off!”

All around them a pale ivory radiance seeped through the dark. Tapestries of dim gray luminosity. Julia knew the enzyme, something like Earth’s luciferase, an energy-requiring reaction she had done in a test tube during molecular bio lab, a few thousand years ago. She recalled as a girl watching in awe “glowworms”—really fly larvae—hanging in long strands in New Zealand caves, luring insect prey.

The mat grew ever larger and thicker on the rock walls as they went lower. Mat species covered most of the tube walls now, gray and brown and black, with occasional bursts of orange and blue. They stacked thickly on every available out-jut, then worked up the verticals.

Just ahead, thin sheets of mat hung like drapes. Wisps of mist stirred when they passed by. Unlike scuba gear, their suits did not vent exhaled gases, so they could not poison this colony of oxygen-haters. In the first explorations she and the others had done just that.

They reached a branching point and elected to go horizontally into the widest opening. Their beams cast moving shadows, deepening the sense of mystery. Within minutes they found orange spires, moist and slick. Beyond that were corkscrew formations of pale white that stuck out into the upwelling gases and captured the richness. More pale, thin membranes, flapping like slow-motion flags. The bigger ones were hinged to spread before the billowing vapor gale. Traceries of vapor showed the flow, probably still driven by their opening the diaphragm.

A few steps more and they were in a murky vault that stretched beyond view. As Daphne’s lamp swept around, vapors reflected back its glare. Perhaps fifty meters above, mat sheets hung from the ceiling of a vast cavern. Under their beams this grotto came alive with shimmering luminescence: burnt oranges, dapplings of vermilion, splashes of turquoise. A long silence.

“H-how big is this?” Daphne whispered.

Viktor said, “Can’t see the walls.”

Julia looked down, careful of her footing. “Or the floor, through this vapor.”

“Beams off in one minute,” Daphne called.

All around, a complex seethe of radiance. Julia knew that on Earth, mats of bacteria luminesced when they got thick enough. Quorum sensing, a technical term. A way for the bacteria to take roll. A lot of Earthside biologists thought that explained this phenomenon. But they had never stood in shadowy vaults like this—the thirteenth such large cavern found in over twenty years of exploration. To see the rich, textured ripples of luminosity that slowly worked across the ceiling and down the walls was to stand in the presence of mystery.

Another silence. Julia and Viktor knew this moment well, had experienced it in the company of many other crews who came and went through the decades.

Again Julia felt the churn of somber, slow luminosities stretching into the foggy darkness beyond their lamps’ ability to penetrate. There was a sense of silent vitality in the ponderous ferment of vapor and light, a language beyond knowing. As a field biologist she had learned to trust her feel for a place, and this hollow of light far beneath a dry world had an essence she had for decades tried to grasp, not with human ideas, but by opening herself to the experience.

They snapped out of it. She let the others work, keeping to the side. Sample taking, vids to shoot, measurements of distance and density and pressure; the usual. There was an advantage to standing apart and watching the humans grub about at the bottom of the vast grotto, their lights spiking here and there like fingers probing. At least they didn’t talk much.

A movement in the ceiling caught her eye. Pale tan strands came lacing through the mat, stretching like tendons. They made a mass that tilted and worked. Tubular stalks slid, fibers forked into layers, shaping, shaping. An outline seemed to bud up, shimmering and moist.

Julia’s heart thumped. Again. A palpable sense of struggle, of concentration into this one focus…

The others saw it. They froze. “My… God,” Daphne whispered. “I’ve read your accounts, seen the pictures, but…”

Julia had not seen the mat do this for several years. On the second descent of their first expedition the mat had made the same human outline, after two people had died of oxygen loss while exploring Vent A. She knew what to expect but found she was holding her breath. And here came that old prickly feeling again, washing over her skin.

Two rough protrusions sprouted at the top. At its base two more protrusions, slabs of dark mass extruding with aching effort into thicker tubes. At least three meters long, in all. And from the upper sides, above the two thickening tubes that now jutted from each side, a third blob, crusted as thick as tree bark, pulling itself out.

Viktor said it. “Human shape.”

No mistake. The mat was responding, as it had before, to their entry. No one had died on a descent since that first strange incident, so the intent could not be malicious.

Daphne said softly, “It’s so big…?”

BOOK: The Sunborn
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