Space Art
Star Trek


Computer Science
Free VB Code


Science Fiction

Free 3D Models
Ben's Scale Models
of Planetary Systems

Who I Am
And Who I'm Not

Contact Me




Cover Illustration, Face on Mars, alien 

“Probability Points the Other Way”

by Ben Margolis

 Part One
Henry and Louis

I was just a child when it started. I really didn't understand any of it. All I remember was Mother gathering all of us and hurrying us to the lightship. I asked why and she didn't answer. Then workers grabbed me a put me in one of those liquid-filled pods that was supposed to protect me. They closed the lid and it was dark. I was just a child.  I really didn't understand any of it.


I wish that I knew then that I would never see Mother again. I wish that I had known then that the World was about to end.


:Cydonian Tablet 295a2


Louis stopped reading the translation screen, “It looks like this one’s another biography, Henry,” he said into his helmet radio as his thickly gloved hands removed the millimeter thin stone tablet from the scanner, carefully putting it back on the dust covered shelf with the others.

“Good, have Sara verify and cross reference that one next, then send it here.” Henry gestured at a handheld reader on the table. Despite Louis’ nickname, Henry did not look at all like a "Henry”, in fact, he wasn't even human. His real name was N’Rie and he was what people once called an alien.

N’Rie was about three and half feet tall, with blue-gray mottled skin. A puny little body supported an oversized ellipsoid head with giant black almond-shaped eyes that occupied a quarter of his face. But all in all, he really wasn't all that alien, either. He had two arms, two legs, two eyes, a nose and a mouth, and all in roughly the right places.

They had arrived slowly, in groups, starting about two hundred years ago. At first they watched and studied. Yes, there were abductions. And denials. The terrestrial superpowers at the time did their best to make the entire subject ridiculous and embarrassing, and it worked. Claims of alien contact were relegated to back pages, pulp novels, and second rate cable TV documentaries along with conspiracy theorists, ghost stories and Elvis sightings.

It wasn't until the late 21st Century that they finally made themselves publicly known. In a grand and well-scripted event they began transmitting peaceful messages while a very large spacecraft made its way in from the Outer Solar System. Finally, they docked at the ISS2 Space Colony and shook hands with the astronauts inside. It was a symbolic meeting of equals, just fellow spacemen floating in front of the video cameras. No one at the time wondered how an alien starship had an airlock that could make a seal with a decades-old, Russian-made space station hatch.

After press conferences and speeches (they spoke several of our languages), they landed at the UN building, of course, for more photo opportunities, and for diplomacy. The UNSA biologists at first called them "Astro-Sapiens" but American newscasters were not fond of five syllable words, and shortened it to Sapiens.

They explained that they were visiting. That that’s what Sapiens did. Their species did not colonize, and certainly did not invade, but rather traveled forever between the stars in massive spacecraft, ‘visiting’ interesting star systems that they found for decades or centuries at a time.

That was twenty years ago, an entire generation, it’s amazing how quickly people get used to things. Now they were common. They were our advisors, partners and consultants on dozens of projects, from medicine to fusion, computer technology, to the new science of "planetary archaeology" which was delving into the roots of mankind and ancient alien settlements in our solar system.

Here, on the northern plains of Mars, Louis, and his good friend N’Rie were part of just such an undertaking. The place had different names to different people. According to the UNSA administrators in charge, it was called Mars Surface Expedition 39. To the uninformed and ever-curious citizens discussing it on Earth's computer networks, it was The Cydonia Dig, and here, under "the Face that wasn't really a Face," they called it The Library.

Back in 1976, a previous Martian explorer, a US space probe called Viking I, was mapping the planet from orbit when it took a very interesting picture. On Earth, when the early computer technicians reassembled the blurry, noisy, low resolution, monochrome digital photo, they saw something they did not expect to see on the surface of an alien world. They saw a face.

It was a mountain or something, just over a mile long and half a mile wide, but in the picture it was clearly a face, staring straight up into space, lit from the side in the setting sun, as it was, one could easily make out an eye, a nose, a mouth, a chin and even something resembling a helmet.

An intense debate began, with NASA spokesmen on one side dismissing the entire issue as “a trick of light and shadow” and “ufologists” on the other comparing it to the Sphinx and immediately drawing an “Egypt-Mars Connection.” After all, the two places do look alike.

Decades later, the Americans finally sent more orbiters and took better pictures. Very quickly, NASA’s earthbound astronomers declared victory; again stating conclusively this time, that this oddly shaped rocky plateau was not a human face. And in truth, upon close examination the exposed rock looked no more like a person than any particular cumulous cloud might resemble a pelican on a bicycle wearing a hat. NASA pointed out a humorously arranged crater formation on the other side of Mars that they had accurately called “the smiley face.” And once again they succeeded in making the entire subject embarrassing and ridiculous.

Sapien scientists, however, saw nothing ridiculous or embarrassing about it. There were several other “oddly-shaped” rock formations in the solar system all of which were now the subjects of archaeological digs or other scientific investigations. What the twentieth century Earthlings had failed to realize was that the Face was unfinished, that it had been damaged by several million years of erosion, and that it was never meant to be a human face at all.

Like all of the terrestrial monuments of similar scale, this one started out as a geographic feature that looked something like what the local inhabitants wanted to sculpt, and people, of one kind or another, took tools, of one kind or another, and attempted to finish what nature had started. But just like the Crazy Horse Memorial and Mount Rushmore, The Monument at Cydonia was never completed.

But The Face however had certainly served its purpose. It was (at least once) bilaterally symmetrical and it was still full of right angles and one-hundred and eighty degree arcs that were obviously artificial, could easily be seen from orbit, and clearly demanded closer examination.

When the UNSA unmanned explorer balloon, Schiaparelli II hovered over the site for several days in 2088, its three-dimensional laser scanner and ground-penetrating radar found caverns under The Face, as well as several corridors, and one door.

Louis carefully placed the next tablet in the scanner and thumbed the button. He, N’Rie and a few others were working the Library. It was, in fact, a rather large hallway, a long hexagonal chamber cut out of the Martian bedrock, almost a kilometer underground directly underneath the Face.  Louis' team had brought down tables, chairs, scanners and all sorts of other equipment. The team worked in spacesuits. Even N’Rie, although his was of Sapien construction and was clearly more sophisticated.

Glow sticks on aluminum tripods cast a bluish light on the scene. The angled sepia stone walls were covered with a complex arrangement of stone shelves, which in turn were covered with stacks of thin stone tablets. And the tablets, besides being covered with dust, were each beautifully etched with a writing Louis and the team were only now beginning to understand.


It looked kind of like a cross between Kanji and hieroglyphics and it flowed back and forth and up and down across the tablets in is a style Louis had dubbed “intestinal layout.” Sometimes the strings of characters would branch. One sentence would have two endings, one wrapping side-to-side, the other up and down. This was assumed to be a printed form of hypertext.  But some tablets had very few of these word-glyphs on them at all. They were etchings of images. And these had been the most educational so far.

The Martians were tall, taller than Humans, twice the size of the Sapiens. But they were bipeds, like both. Their faces were neither Human, nor Sapien, but instead to Louis seemed almost monkey-like, with a wide and protruding mouth, a flat nose and a bit of eyebrow ridge. On the other hand, they were hairless, stood upright on long legs with narrow bodies that were in many other ways, very un-monkey-like and rather human.  The evidence was that they were on Mars about fifty or seventy million years ago. They had built at least one large city, factory complexes, mining operations, even farms. They were space-faring, too.  And, as Louis and his team were just learning, they were not really from Mars at all. According to the texts, they were colonists. There were many references about a journey from a planet with a name that they could only translate as “Home.”

N’Rie had three especially wide picture tablets spread out on a table. They were similar. Each had a large circle on one side and a thick line across the middle of the image with concentric arcs every few inches. Where an arc crossed the line there was a colorful circle and some small writing. Some of the circles had even smaller circles and dots around them. It was Louis who had first guessed that these were maps of star systems.

One of them was clearly the Solar System. Clear, at least, to Louis. It reminded him of an illustration in one of his elementary school textbooks. Jupiter was there with its Red Spot and Saturn was notable for its rings.

The second tablet seemed to be a different star system, with four large solid colored gas giants in the outer system and three blue and white terrestrial worlds closer in; the third one was labeled “Home.”

The other tablet was altogether confusing, it had many arcs wildly crisscrossing each other, dozens of black and brown dots represented planets. Lots of writing and something else was there too, math.

Martian math had proven to be more difficult to translate than their text. N’Rie had been working on that part. And so far, they had failed to even identify the basis of the numbering system. They had found seventeen individual digits to date, but when they had tried to add up equations they had found on the tablets using a base seventeen system it hadn't worked.

N’Rie spoke to Louis through the comm system, "I believe your air supply will soon be depleted."

With a beep in his other ear, Sara, back at the base, said the same thing, "Louie, time to pull the team out. The next shift is suiting up now."

Sara and Louis

When we arrived there was much excitement. The spacefarers had made the walls of the lightship transparent so we could see our New Home. It was white and blue and green and brown. The dark side of the planet was so very dark. There were no bright lights like Home. I realized that it was because there were no cities there. It looked like a very lonely place. I began to feel lonely then.

 I would feel lonely for the rest of my life.
:Cydonian Tablet 296a1

Sara was where she usually was; sitting in her underwear, cross-legged in the workstation chair in front of her panoramic arrangement of displays and keyboards, tucked away at one end a tube-shaped pressurized chamber buried under half a meter of Martian sand next to a cluster of antenna towers and air and water tanks.  This was the place they called "M.S.E. Three-Nine."

White walls were stained gray, cabinets and cubbyholes covered every bit of exposed surface. Seats were mounted to the floor, and tables sprang out of walls. The room had all the interior design style of a spacecraft cabin, which it once had been, before they had landed here and buried the thing in sand, standard UNSA procedure for a long-term surface expedition.

The mostly male team had long since gotten used to the small, athletic, young Asian-American woman walking around in her relatively modest UNSA-issued, blue-gray underwear. Truth was that the life support system never really could compensate for the 90 degree temperature shift between day and night, running at full capacity as it was. So it was often way too hot in the cramped quarters by mid-afternoon, and many of the men went around wearing less than she did. 

On one of her monitors Sara saw Louis and his team emerging from the dig, pulling themselves along orange rope leads that had been strung through the tunnels. A moment after that, half a dozen figures clad in clean fresh spacesuits drove up in a rover vehicle. Louis and crew took the rover as the second shift disappeared into the caverns.  Sara watched the shift-change from a dozen viewpoints at once; from helmet cams on the crew and autopilot cams on the rover, from the eyes of robots following the work crew down and from cams on the kilometer tall observation and comm tower that they had erected over the site.

In another part of her large curving arrangement of displays, the latest tablet images and automated translations were coming through from the scanners in the Library. And while the first shift was "de-suiting" she became thoroughly engrossed in one of the new biographies.

Louis came in behind her, still buckling his pants, the others filing in behind him.  He wasn’t a tall or a young man, but he was muscular, and broad shouldered. His face and forehead were wrinkled slightly from age and from responsibility. He wore a close-cropped and graying beard that was easier to maintain than a shaven face, and close-cropped and graying hair that was balding, a process that had been accelerated by the constant wearing of hats, caps, headsets, and helmets throughout his career.  He had a cheerful, competent air about him, and the team never questioned his authority. He strode up behind Sara, looking over her shoulder at the displays, checking on the status of the base, the team, the work assignments and examining the lasted additions the maintenance and communications logs.

"Have you seen this last bio?” she asked.

 “Relay it to Henry’s handheld. He wanted to read it after he finished with those star system maps we found." Louis was scrubbing the back of his neck with a hand towel. 

"Ever notice, he's working on the hard science all the time while he has us reading prose?" She pressed a couple of buttons, forwarding the message.

“Well, that is why he's here.” Louis put is hand on her shoulder, “And we are learning so much from those bios.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Sara agreed.

“No response from Berkley yet?”  he noted from the logs.

“Nope. We send them everything and they send back nothing!  They’re useless! I’m glad we have Henry to translate this stuff because if we were waiting for them…”

“Hey, hey, it’s me. Remember?”

“I’m sorry, I got bored so I sent them email. They sent back that they’d have something for us in a ‘couple of days’. Anyway, have you read this last bio? You only scanned the first part. It goes back much further than the others. This guy was on planet Home.”

“I saw. Didn't read the whole thing though.” His hand moved from her shoulder to gently stoke the side of her neck in a very unprofessional gesture. She smiled.

“He talks about the journey,” she was summarizing, “there must have been some sort of suspended animation, because he says there were at Mars in a matter of weeks, I think he means weeks, and then he describes Mars as 'white and blue'. Louie, he's talking about oceans. Surface water! He was here when Mars had oceans!”

“Nah, that can't be right,” Louis corrected, “we figure Mars lost its atmosphere three billion years ago, not sixty million.”

“Maybe we're wrong.” Sara's eyes blazed. She got very excited about things like that.

Louis smiled. “I'll read it later, in my cabin. I'm beat.”

“Your cabin?” Sara turned away from her displays her eyebrows raised.

Louis was suddenly embarrassed. “Yes, my cabin,” he said softly, glancing around to see if any of the men had noticed. They were all busy talking and eating. “I thought you were working.”

“I can work later.” She flirted.

A half an hour later Louis was lying in his quarters. The small room was vertically semicircular. The bed was built into the wall where the floor and ceiling were too narrow to allow standing. A desk and workstation were built into the end of the room. A bench seat protruded from the opposing wall. There was laundry scattered about and a few holoprints taped to the walls; his mother, his dog, and two of Sara. He had no choice about those. She had given him the prints and had asked when he hadn't put them up. Her face also appeared for a third time in the room. She was lying in the small bed with Louis.

“You know, the other guys are staring to complain to me about this,” he said softly.

“About what?” she asked, nuzzling his chest.

“The UNSA no-fraternization policy, remember?”

“Oh, that.” She chuckled, kissing lower. “So? They'll scold us when we get back.”

“I am Team Leader, it doesn't look good.” He stoked her hair.

“Yeah right, I'm only doing this because of your rank,” she laughed, opening his pants. She whispered, “Don't tell anyone, but I'm just bucking for a promotion,” her head lowered into his lap.

“If I could give you a promotion, my dear,” he sighed, “I most certainly would.” His eyes were closed. Suddenly the door opened. The couple squinted at the light streaming in from the hallway.

N’Rie was standing there, still in his spacesuit, his visor was open. The Sapien was out of breath. He had just walked all the way in from the dig, without a rover. “We have to go to Mariner Valley,” he said, panting.

“What?!” Louis was trying to understand his panicked friend and trying to ignore the intrusion.

“We have to go to Mariner Valley, immediately!” N’Rie shouted. Everyone in the Base turned their heads. None of them had ever heard a Sapien yell before.

Part Two

The Valley


The City was a wondrous place. As the lightship descended through the clouds we could the buildings spreading out beneath us. Fragile spires reached into the air all around. But they scarcely revealed the true size and beauty of the city. Because the real city was inside the planet. The lightship continued slowly downward, supported by beams of sunlight that came from an opening in the ground. We went through that opening, and inside, it was Home.

Light shined everywhere, I could see the curving smooth shapes of our residences sprawling to my sides, the wide flat constructs that were our factories clustered around the landing area, and somewhere far off I could sense the low hum of power reactors.

It was as if I had never left Home. We left the lightship and walked toward a doorway. The smells, colors, and vibrations remind me of Mother. The city was beautiful, it just like Home.

 Three days later, it would be destroyed, too.

:Cydonian Tablet 301c16

In 1896, on a cool dry night, at the tip of a mountain in southern Arizona, Percival Lowell studied Mars from the brand new observatory he had just finished building. He wanted to see the channels, the “canali,” that Giovanni Schiaparelli had discovered twenty years before.

With the smell of lumber and paint still thick in the air, he strained to see the surface of the Red Planet. Peering trough primitive glass lenses, thousands of kilometers of space and the atmospheres of two worlds, his findings were, to say the least, inaccurate.

Lowell saw his canals. And he saw much more. He saw a planet-wide irrigation system watering fields and at the intersections of the canals, he saw oases. And in those oases he went so far as to imagine cities.

Percival Lowell wrote three books on the subject of Mars, its canals and the “beings” who logically must have created them. He briefly entertained other explanations for what he saw but believed that “probability points the other way.”

By the late twentieth century Lowell's scientific reputation had been thoroughly trashed. The Mariner and Viking spacecraft had been to the Red Planet. Mars was a moon-like desert. There was no planet-wide system of canals; there were no oases, no irrigated fields, no cities, and needless to say, no beings.  But in 1969, America’s Mariner 9 space probe with its black and white TV camera did make one discovery that would have made Lowell and Schiaparelli proud. It found a channel. It was a rift, a canyon, and a very large one at that. Flight Control operators named the new geographic feature after its discoverer: Valles Marineris in Latin, in English: Mariner Valley.

American scientists said it was like the Grand Canyon, the largest canyon in the United States. The simile was ludicrous. Mariner Valley is a canyon the size of the United States. It's as wide as the state of Kansas, as deep at the Marianas Trench and would reach from New York to L.A if it were on Earth. But it's on Mars, and Mars is only half the size of Earth. Which means Mariner Valley stretches nearly a quarter of the way around the planet.

It's a gash, an immense scar on the face of Mars, as if the world had lost some sort of interplanetary knife fight. And Mars seems to have bled to both the east and to the west. The Valley flows outward at both ends, degenerating into mudflows and crisscrossing sub-canyons and riverbeds. Geologists had puzzled over this Greatest Mystery of Mars for almost a hundred and fifty years; they've always assumed the Valley was cut by water, by some sort of natural erosion, but they never have figured out where all that water came from, or for that matter, where it all went.

Mars Surface Expedition Twenty-Six had been working on the problem for almost two years. Unlike the archeologists, linguists, and paleontologists of MSE Three-Nine, this crew was mostly geologists who were literally trying to dig answers out of the Martian dirt. A handful of astro-biologists had arrived a few months ago, still searching in vain for a single remaining cell of Martian life. Their computer simulations had determined the bottom of Mariner Valley to be the next place they should look.

Nestled against the South Wall in the middle of the Valley, the base was much larger than MSE Three-Nine. Six cylindrical, sand-covered cabins had been arranged in a slanting, parallel fashion in front of a low, square, Mars-crete landing pad. The reddish-brown material was ninety percent Martian sand and ten percent polymer compounds from Earth. Laser etching on its surface spelled out “MSE 26” and “UNSA.”

Seven kilometers directly above that landing pad, Louis, N’Rie and Sara were slowly descending in a sphere-shaped transport vehicle. Carefully balanced over the exhaust jet of its single fluorine-hydrogen engine, the transport extended its landing gear, causing the thing to resemble a large-bodied spider lowering itself at the end of an invisible web over the Martian landscape.

The trajectory of the vehicle had been sub-orbital. At apogee, Louis could just make out the three widely-spaced, massive volcanic cones that were the Tharsis Mountain Range to the west, silhouetted in the dwindling sunlight, but they had long since disappeared behind the horizon. And now, at sunset, as the transport was settling into The Valley, the Martian plains to their left and right were cast in an eerie twilight. But the transport still had six kilometers to go; and far, far below, at the bottom of The Valley, it was already pitch-black night.

Artificial lights illuminated the pad and they were soon joined by the flickering blue-white candleflame of the transport's fluorine thruster. As the landing gear touched the pad, hydraulic and electromagnetic shock absorbers sighed under the weight. Then, from a recessed panel on the side of the transport, a hatch opened and the three space-suited occupants disembarked. Ignoring the ladder on the side of the leg, they jumped directly to the concrete-like surface and took a few long, low-gravity steps to the airlock. A hand-painted sign with a jury-rigged light above the hatch read: “Welcome to Fort Lowell.” Below that someone else had written “Percy was here.”

After the pressure cycled, the airlock's inner door opened as Louis and Sara removed their helmets. N’Rie's visor opened automatically as devices in his suit registered the appropriate levels of oxygen and nitrogen. The locker room was lined with spacesuits hanging from the walls. There were three benches in the middle of the room. Frank was a large, mustached man, Team Leader of MSE Two-Six, and he was sitting on the center bench, sipping coffee from a spill-proof mug, waiting for them.

“Sara,” he greeted without standing, “Henry, Lou, I got your message. What's this nonsense about an underground city? Here? We've been digging and scanning here for two years, you know what's under that dirt? Rocks. And you know what under the rocks? More dirt!” He chuckled alone at his own joke and drank more coffee.

“Nah, Frank,” Louis huffed, “you heard me wrong,” he turned to peer out of a small window and gaze out across the dark empty space that was The Valley. “I didn't say there is a city. I said there was a city.”

It was then that a door slid open and a small, boney, red-haired young man in a loose fitting UNSA jumpsuit scurried in the room with his right hand already extended. He was carrying a folder with oversized glossy color maps curling out from all sides. “You the guys from MSE Three-Nine?” He asked although large patches on their uniforms clearly identified them as precisely that.

“Percy, not now.” Frank said dismissively then sighed, sipped coffee and said, “Henry, Louie, Sara, I’d like you to meet Percival Lowell himself.”

“My name’s not…”

“Percy here,” Frank continued, “thinks the Valley out there was a canal ‘dug’ by your Ancient Martians and he thinks you’re here to prove him right.”

“I have good scientific reasons for that,” Percy protested as he produced one of the maps of the Valley with large red parallel lines drawn on it.

“They’ll look at all your maps tomorrow.” Frank’s tone was that of a parent trying to control an over exuberant child. But N’Rie stepped forward and took the printout from the young man, tracing the red line with a boney fish-skin covered finger.

“There.” The finger stopped. “Can we be there tomorrow morning?”

“Sure, what are we doing there?”

Louis answered him, “We’ll be digging. You got about a dozen ten centimeter core tubes?” He was referring to the sterile clear-plastic cylinders used to extract samples of dirt and ice.

“Yeah. Tell you what, you can have here Percy, too, he could use some experience with an autodrill. But what do think your going to find in soil cores out of the bottom of Rift?”

“Cesium,” Louis said briskly.

“Cesium?” Frank asked.

“Cesium.” Louis repeated.

 “Okay, why cesium?” Frank was becoming annoyed.

 “Because cesium doesn’t occur naturally on Mars. But it would have been a necessary ingredient in the nuclear reactors that powered The City. If we find traces of cesium where those tablets from the Library tell us to, well, that’s proof the tablets are accurate, that we’re reading them right, and that there was a city here. And its also proof that something removed that city.” He turned, “Something more powerful than water, Percy.

 “What’s even better than that, is that cesium decays at particularly constant rate. It will be very easy to figure out exactly how long it’s been there. And when that city was there.”

“Cesium.” Frank nodded.

“Cesium.” Louis agreed.



They knew The End was coming. But they did not know it soon enough.

They took as many of us as they could out of The City. Our vehicles were still in the air when it began. A Ribbon of Fire appeared in the sky above us. It sliced the heavens in two. Very slowly The Ribbon moved toward the ground. It was burning the air itself. The Spacefarers were trying to take us to safety. But the vehicles were just not fast enough.  

I did not see The Ribbon touch The City. But I saw what happened in the sky. We were past The Mountains when it happened. The Spacefarers thought there would be safety there.  

I did not see it when The Ribbon touched The City. But I could feel it, I could hear it and I did see what happened in the sky. I saw the sky explode. I heard the Great Thunder. I could see the ground, burning as it flew into space. The air was black, the horizon was glowing red. Fire and burning ground fell like rain all over the world. It was the falling, burning ground that took our vehicle from the sky.  

The last of the Spacefarers died then, when the vehicle fell, when it crashed, when it burned. The Spacefarers had been our teachers, but they would no longer be there to teach us. They had been our friends, but now we had no friends. We watched as they died, as they were trying to breathe. We could not help them. They could not breathe. We were alone then.  

We survived that day. But just that day. In the end, no one would live. No one at all. That was the day the World died.

:Cydonian Tablet 306c1


The transport pod kicked up a cloud of loose, dry, dead Martian dust as it settled on to the floor of the Great Rift Valley. Louis was at the controls, N’Rie was guiding him and Sara was busy talking with their new friend Percy.

“So this last biography we found is sooo much longer and more detailed than the rest,” she was saying excitedly. “This guy was on planet Home. This guy saw what happened when … whatever it was happened. And we think he’s one of the ones who built the Library.”

“And in this autobiography, this Librarian guy says the colony was here?” Percy was trying understand.

“Well, sort of.” Sara explained, “We have maps but they don’t really match up to modern geographic features. There’s no Tharsis Mountains, no Great Rift, and none of the major crater systems. So we think, the City might have been here. So I guess if we find cesium that means that the City was here. Right, Henry?”

Louis turned in his chair, “Alright everybody, seals. We’re ready to depressurize.” The Team began to put on their helmets and breathing systems.

N’Rie finally spoke. In a quiet voice he said, “We will require seven autodrills and seven core sample tubes.” He handed Percy one of his own maps. “I have marked the sites.”

“I’ll get the gear,” Percy said before he pulled on his helmet, and twisted it locked. So did everyone else. Air was drained from the spacecraft in a low pitched hiss that slowly faded from hearing. “Sara, will you get the hatch?” he said through his microphone.

The sun was high in the pink and white sky as the team disembarked. White spacesuits with color-coded bands across the shoulders and thighs hopped along the burgundy sand and rocks, kicking up small clouds of dust that were carried slowly away by the nascent wind. The garments were more accurately called Mars-suits. The differences were minor and technical; the environment of Mars was very close to that of space. The planet might have once had a rich atmosphere, but that was very long ago. Now the atmosphere was about one percent that of Earth’s.

Percy and Louis set up the “derricks.”  These were two-meter aluminum tripods that each supported small automated drilling apparatus. Once it was set up, the drillhead was placed in the sand and the appropriate depth was entered on a number pad. Then the astronauts stood back and watched the machines do the digging.  

“That will do it.” Louis said in his helmet.

“How long will the drilling take.” Percy asked.

“About twenty hours. But the machines will have to stop about an hour after sunset, when the ground hardens. They’ll pick up again as soon as some decent sunlight hits the shaft in the morning. They’ll be at it most of tomorrow. If we’re lucky, we’ll get the cores by sunset.”

“So what do we do now?” Percy inquired cluelessly.

“I say we go back to the base and eat lunch.” Sara suggested.

The mess hall at MSE Two-Six was much larger and better appointed than the small “common area” at Three-Nine. Louis looked about at rows of tables and the large kitchen, slightly jealous, wondering about bureaucrats and budgets, and why his (clearly more important) mission was so much smaller and under-funded and Frank’s base had room for vending machines.

Percy had taken advantage of the extra space by unrolling several of his large glossy maps of Mariner Valley, and was lecturing about his theories. As he prattled on, Louis began to understand why the rest of the team referred to him as Percival Lowell. “It’s a perfectly straight line!” he was repeating for a third time.

“I thought it was sort of s-shaped.” Sara sipped her coffee.

“That’s just the map projection.” Percy jumped in, “Any diagonal straight line will look s-shaped on a Mercator projection of a sphere, if the line’s long enough. Its just like an orbital track.” He pointed at a nearby computer screen where the orbits of several satellites were displayed as he had just described. “And the geologic evidence says that The Valley was created last, after all the cratering, after all the volcanic outflows from Tharsis and Olympus, after everything else, Mariner Valley just appears. A giant rift that reaches halfway around the world, just appears.”

“It only reaches a quarter of the way around the planet.” N’Rie was eating a bowl of rice to which he had added something from a small pouch he was carrying in his suit. “Your theories are,” he paused “entertaining at best. There is a great deal of evidence that the rift formation was created naturally.”

“Yeah? Just like The Face, huh?”  Percy scoffed.

Everyone stopped and looked at N’Rie. “The Face was, for the most part, created naturally,” he said patiently.  

“But, it wasn’t!” Percy pounced, “It wasn’t natural. It was artificial, and it just begged for further study. So Henry, if you guys have been here since World War II, why are you only now looking at Mars? Why are you only digging at Cydonia now? Did you not see the place for the last hundred and fifty years? Were you just waiting for us get here to do all the heavy lifting? What was it?”

“Our early surveys did not make note of the Monument at Cydonia,” N’Rie admitted, “Your people, it seems, have a genetic predisposition to noticing that particular shape. I mean it isn’t exactly my face now, is it?”

“No it isn’t, Henry.” Percy sat back and smiled, “It certainly isn’t.”

The next morning the data from Berkeley finally came in. The five terabyte interplanetary radio-feed download took most of the day, and by the time the team was suiting up to go retrieve the core samples, Louis was hunched over a display, reading and frowning. But mostly frowning.

“Louie,” Sara chimed as walked up behind him, “time to go.”

“Huh?” He was clearly distracted.

“Core samples? Cesium?  You know? Why were here.”

“Oh, yeah uh, why don’t you go without me. I have to read this.”

“We can’t. You’re the pilot.” Sara was concerned.

“Oh. Yeah. That’s right.” Louis seemed to snap out of it. He stood to go and then looked back at the screens, hesitating.

Sara rolled her eyes, then leaned forward and tapped a couple of keys. Then she grabbed a nearby handheld reader and shoved it at him, “Here, you can read it on the way.”

Louis smiled and took the device; he thought for a moment and then turned back to her, “I’ll need two of these.” 

Part Three
N’Rie and the Lies


The World was dead. Home was gone. And yet we survived. Those of us who were left had gathered here, in the north, on what was once the ocean floor. Now it is a desert. But there is water nearby. We could grow food here. We could build shelter here. But we could not leave, and even if we could, there was no place for us to go.

There are others of us, scattered about in the nearby heavens.  They are trying to gather on the third World and its large moon. They say they have a plan. But that World belongs to giant beasts, who will not surrender it easily.  And we are in no condition to fight.

:Cydonian Tablet 310d1


 Louis landed the transport pod hard and abruptly. He had deliberately cut the thruster while the craft was still meters off the ground. It was the act of an angry father taking out his aggressions on the family car. Sara was now quite concerned and stared at the back of his head inquisitively, but Louis didn’t turn around. He reached for his helmet, put it on, and then finally said into his microphone, “Go get the cores. I’ll wait here.”

As Sara and Percy shrugged at each other behind his back, Louis began pressing buttons on the two handheld readers he had brought. Then, having discharged his responsibility of piloting, Louis, now uncomfortably in a spacesuit and strapped in the command chair, resumed his previous activity of reading and frowning.

N’Rie didn’t seem to notice at all and the team slowly disembarked. The simple work of disassembling the derricks and retrieving the core samples would have gone much more easily if the team had been on earth, working in shirtsleeves. But wearing bulky radiation-proof spacesuits and hopping along in the low gravity, it took nearly an hour.

By the time the last payload door was latched, and the last of the gear was stowed, Louis had stropped reading and instead was now just sitting, and frowning.  The team piled into the pod, and Percy sealed the hatch, then told Louis that they were ready to re-pressurize and launch. Louis re-pressurized the cabin, but made no preparations to launch. Instead, he waited for the air pressure, then took off his helmet, reached down, unlocked his seat gimbals, and pivoted around to face Sara.

Sara, dear, our careers are over,” he said gently. “Back on Earth they’re laughing at us. They’re making jokes about our air supply,” he huffed. “It seems that all the translations we’re sending them are crap.” He smiled a resigned, ironic grin, “They’re laughing at us and do you know why that is, Sara?” He shifted to an angry glare at N’Rie. “It’s because of him.”

N’Rie’s only response was to tilt his head slightly. Sara jumped in, “What do you mean? It can’t be all that bad.” She reached and grabbed the reader from him.

“It can be, and it is.” Louis sighed. “This was a technically advanced, hell, an interstellar society, and we’re sending translations that sound like they were written by school children!”  Lois turned. “What is it Henry? What the hell did I do to you to deserve this?  You’ve ruined my career, you’ve ruined my scientific reputation. Fuck, you’ve ruined my entire life! I think I should at least get a goddamned explanation.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about.” The Sapien said calmly.

“Oh, please!” Louis shouted, “You don’t? huh? Let’s start with the math. You know, numbers! How long have you been working on the math Henry?” He didn’t wait for an answer, “Haven’t even figured out the basis of the numbering system? Seventeen digits? Right, Henry? Let me give you a hint, it’s a base ten number system! Sound familiar? It’s the same number of fingers I have! Hell, it’s the same number of fingers you have! And you know how the boys at Berkley figured that out?! Because of quote ‘vast similarities with the Astro-Sapien numeral system!!’”

N’Rie’s head tilted again. And then, silently, and in a manner completely unnoticed by the humans in the cabin, he messaged his superiors elsewhere in the solar system. 

Moments later, and in direct response to that message, a wide, silvery, disk-shaped spacecraft emerged from a hidden crater on Phobos, one of the two moons of Mars. It effortlessly, inertialessly, maneuvered out of the moon’s gravity, and toward the planet below. Then, completely undetected by UNSA observation satellites, it frictionlessly slipped through the Martian atmosphere, and began a rapid decent toward Mariner Valley.

“How about some of the most basic words,” Louis went on, “the ones we first translated. Like ‘mother’ and ‘father’ and ‘home.’ Berkley translates those symbols to be ‘doctor,’ ‘general,’ and something between planet and spacecraft they haven’t figured out yet. But I’d think that you, being the only member of the team that has actually traveled in fucking interstellar space, might have some kind of an insight on that, huh, Henry?!” Again, no response but the tilted head. Sara wasn’t paying attention, she was busy reading from the two handhelds she had grabbed from Louis, reading and frowning.

Louis sat back with a sigh, “What about the maps, Henry. You at least owe me that much. The three different maps of the different star systems. But when you can read the numbers, they look a little different don’t they? Three tablets, three maps, but only one star system, or should I say one Solar System.”

“Yes.” N’Rie finally broke his silence. “Three maps and one Solar System. Actually three time periods.  Before, during and after. It sure took you long enough.” His attitude was not apologetic. “It’s really quite amazing how blind you are,” he said dismissively, "You think you see, you think you understand, you think you are scientists. But you have yet to even master the simplest skills of observation. Look at me. You call me an alien. But why? Because of my size? Or my shape? Or is it the color or my skin?" Sara and Louis looked at each other. "You both have different shapes, sizes, and colors of skin. Aren't we more notable for our similarities, than our differences?  Aren't we more like you than any animal on your planet? We walk upright, we speak, we write, we use tools.  We have hands with fingers, and thumbs, we have small, clustered faces directly beneath large cranial vaults," he gestured at his head, “something that is completely unique to your one species on your world.  We have differences, but aren’t these racial differences rather than interstellar differences?"

"But your eyes…" Sara protested staring at the featureless black glass spheroids that were clearly the most alien thing about N’Rie’s face.

"What, these?" The Sapien reached up with two fingers and removed two large, dark, microthin, flexing lenses from his eyeballs, and looked back up at Sara, squinting slightly, with disturbingly large, but disturbingly human eyes. They had bulging corneas and black pupils, steel-gray irises that matched his skin, and wide clear whites with thin red veins and they began to tear a little as he squinted.

 "You see?  You have had sunglasses for two hundred years, you have contact lens technology, but you assumed these were my eyes. You assumed me to be alien.  Why do you make yourselves so very blind?"

“You mean you’re human?” Louis asked.

 “No, certainly not.” N’Rie scoffed. 

 “Then you’re one of the Spacefarers.” Sara murmured with a slacked jaw.

 “That’s right. We are what those tablets refer to as The Spacefarers, or we were. Sixty five million years ago, we had genetically engineered the people you are now calling the Martians. We had made them for this world and we were helping them colonize it when something terrible happened. It’s all there in what you are calling the third map. It’s really the second. The third one in sequence is the one that resembles your Solar System as it is now.”

 “I thought Sapiens didn’t colonize.” Percy jumped in.

N’Rie ignored him. “It all happened in one day. Our colony on this world, our WorldShip and several small moons were vaporized with what you would call anti-matter weapons fired from very, very far away.” He shook his head.

“But I thought Sapiens didn’t colonize.” Percy repeated.

 “The results scarred this star system forever. It shifted the orbits of most of the planets and created the ring systems around Saturn and Uranus. Your asteroid belt is the remains of our WorldShip. The Great Red Spot on Jupiter is what’s left of the drive system still melting and boiling away in the atmosphere. Here, of course, there is The Valley. Your entire solar system is littered with the evidence of the war, and you are, and always have been oblivious to it.

 “In the end, since this world had been destroyed, we decided to wipe out the dinosaurs, and to ‘terraform’ your planet by adding large amounts of oxygen to the atmosphere, and then to colonize that world with a different genetically modified version of ourselves; you.  Shame it didn’t work properly.”

“But I thought Sapiens didn’t colonize.” Percy said for a third time.


Percy and the Truth

           There is a mesa here, a plateau. It has great potential. It will become a beacon to all who are like us. It is there that we will build the Vault. It is there that we will record who we were, who they are, and who we all will be.

 On the planet Three, the Project is underway. The large indigenous animals are already extinct, and a new environment is already emerging. Still, planet Three is not perfect for us, not like Four was, it is a high-gravity planet and we will have to mutate again in order to colonize it. The mutation sequence is underway, but it will not be completed quickly enough.

They say the plan will work and that soon, on Planet Three a new species of us will emerge. They will be stronger, and they will rebuild our civilization, for we are weak and cannot. But it will not be soon enough, and we will all be dead before it happens. They are launching vehicles deep into space that will return to complete what we now begin.

That is why we sculpt The Face. That is why we build the Vault. That is why we write these Tablets.  It is for them. It is for us. So they will see and they will come, and they will read, and they will know who they are, and who we were, and they will know their friends from their enemies.

:Cydonian Tablet 324a2  (Berkley University Translation)


“I don’t get it, Henry.” Louis was still puzzled and angry.  “Why all the lies? Why not just say that this was your colony?”

 “You are not ready.” N’Rie said dismissively.

 “What do you mean. We’re intelligent. We have technology, spaceflight. We made it to Mars. The old Martians who built the Library must have thought we’d be ready.”

 “Perhaps, but your people still pray to gods.”

 “Most of us only believe in a single God.” Sara said. “Don’t Sapiens believe in a Superior Being?”

 Superior to what? Yourselves?”

“More insults, Henry?” Louis huffed.

 “I do not mean to insult, but let us face facts. We are superior. We predate your species by millions of years. We understand things about the nature of the universe that you, for some reason, flatly refuse to believe. We even ‘created’ you, and ‘in our own image’ so to speak. Your people would not handle these revelations easily. They would create entire new religions over this. Existing theologies would collapse. A certain number of your people would be unwilling to change, would perceive us as a threat to their ‘God’ regarding us as representatives of whatever devil they believe exists.

 “The crisis would be internal and entirely imaginary as far was we are concerned. But nonetheless holy wars would erupt on your planet between followers of the new faiths and the old. It would not be … helpful.”

Louis and Sara were slowly nodding. “We’re not ready.” She said to him softly.

“Just wait a minute.” Percy could no longer contain himself. “I thought that Sapiens didn’t colonize!”

 “We don’t, anymore.” N’Rie finally addressed him. “But that was a long time ago.”

“Perhaps,” Percy countered raising one eyebrow, “But if we’re talking about a ‘Sapien colony’ that was wiped out here, by that war, I can’t help but wonder who would have a motive to destroy a Sapien colony, except maybe for Sapiens who don’t colonize?” Louis and Sara looked at Percy and then at N’Rie, who just tilted his head, again. “There was a war here alright, Henry, the real question is; which side were your people on?”

 “It was a very long time ago…” the Sapien began.

“Yes it was,” Percy cut him off, “but not for you. Cruising around the galaxy at near-lightspeed, in a ‘WorldShip’ sixty-five million years must have passed…” he snapped his fingers, and then looking N’Rie right in the eyes, his nose crinkled into a sneer, “Or should I say, sixty-four million, three hundred and fifty-two thousand, eight hundred and twelve years!”

 N’Rie’s head tiled in an entirely new direction, and Sara looked down at her handheld reader, paging back, to see if she had missed something. Percy stood up, his chest out, he seemed taller that before. Then, still sneering, now down at the alien, “Your lies might have worked, N’Rie,” he used the real name in surprising fluent Sapien, “it might have worked, claiming that this was your colony, claiming to be the victim in all this. Except for one thing,” his voice dropped to a whisper, “we’re still here!”

 N’Rie’s face changed, noticeably this time into slacked-jawed horror, eyes bulging more that usual. Percy looked Louis and Sara, “Sorry for the deception, but ever since their kind arrived we have had be in hiding.”

 “What?” Sara stopped reading.

 “You’re one of the ancient Martians?” Louis asked with a furrowed brow.

 “Yes.  Well, a descendant thereof, anyway.” Percy smiled proudly. “So are you. The only difference is that I know it.” Sara was looking him up and down. “I’m thoroughly human I assure you,” Percy chuckled, “after all, we’re quite familiar with this genome. We designed it.”

 “But if you’re one of them,” Louis stammered, “how, why are you here?”

 “I was keeping an eye on him.” He pointed with his thumb at N’Rie. “And also, I was assigned here from UNSA Personnel in Houston,” he put his hand on Louis’ shoulder. “I attended Berkley.” He smiled, “Where some of my friends are helping you translate those Tablets.” He winked. “I couldn’t get assigned to MSE Three-Nine, so I applied for Two-Six. I knew he’d have to come to the Valley.”

 “Why would Henry need to come here?” Sara sat back, tossing the reader aside in the low gravity.

 “For those soil cores.” Percy explained.

 “For cesium?” Louis asked.

 “There’s no cesium.” Percy shook his head. “He finally found what he was looking for all this time in The Library, He finally found the instructions on where to dig.”

 “Dig for what?!” Sara was confused.

 “Tiny bits of our technology. We left them there for you. They’re very small, but they will help you understand new scientific principals. Very important ones. And in his attempt to steal them from you, he’s brought your attention to them, he might as well put a big red bow on them and handed them to you.”

 “But, have you’ve been here all along, for sixty-five million years? Sara rubbed her head.

 “Oh, no. We left, as best as we could anyway, the universe offers many ways to move forward in time, and our Project required millions of years. You see, they hadn’t managed to kill all of us, and we were definitely stranded here in this star system.” He glared at N’Rie, “But we weren’t stranded at that point in time. When we returned, a few thousand years ago, we expected that everything would be ‘fixed,’ but, I’m afraid, The Plan hadn’t worked. You see, you didn’t rebuild our civilization, you went and built your own, several of them actually. And you never did find the Library.”

 “But why didn’t you tell us who you where, and who we are?”

 “We tried. But N’Rie was right about this part, you weren’t ready. Every time we did, you started another religion. We were your Olympians, and Native American spirits, and the gods of every Eastern and Western culture you can name. Sometimes it worked, but eventually you started calling us witches, and then lunatics. And we decided it was better to help you quietly with ideas and science. To let you find your own way. You have been moving along quite rapidly ever since.

“Eventually, you would find your way to Mars, and find the Library, and convince yourselves of the truth. But before you had space travel, you came up with radio. If only you had figured out some kind of focused-light communication or just kept that radio thing in the longer wavelengths, the kind that stays within your magnetosphere. But no, your earliest radio systems broadcast on the entire EM spectrum at once. Wireless telegraph, you called it, Morse Code, simple rhythmic transmissions, hundreds, thousands of them overlapping and you started beaming all of that into space around 1890. It was sure to catch their attention.” He cocked his head at N’Rie.

“So we started hiding. When they showed up they had no idea who the hell you were.” He laughed. “I mean, the genetic and physical similarities were unmistakable but the culture, the language, the society, and the technology were all entirely different. You weren’t them, but weren’t us. That’s why they kept abducting your people. They were looking for us.”

 “All of this is academic.” N’Rie finally said. “Yes, we have been capturing research specimens, something you call ‘abducting people’ from your planet at will, completely undetected, for over a hundred and fifty years. Now, did you really think that we would be unable to make the three of you disappear from Mars without anyone noticing? Our interrogators will be especially eager to get hold of you,” he said to Percy.

 As N’Rie spoke a wide, silvery, disc-shaped spacecraft slowly descended silently over the Transport Pod. It raised no dust, and didn’t even reflect the surface of Mars in its mirror-finish hull. “I called for the ship several minutes ago. We’re going to make it look like the Transport Pod crashed. There will be wreckage here, but they will never find you.” N’Rie smiled a very human grin.

 Percy peered calmly out of the Pod’s upper window and let out a low whistle. “You really do rely on that mental communication device of yours don’t you,” he said to the glass. “Because there’s going to be an abduction alright, and there is a ship up there, a big one, too” he smiled, “but it’s not your ship, N’Rie. It’s ours.”

 N’Rie’s face went blank. “We intercepted your message, and blocked it.” Percy shifted his glare to N’Rie, “We have had a few million years to improve on your technology, you know. It’s our interrogators who will be especially eager to get their hands on you. We’ve been waiting for this for a very long time.”

 “You can’t…” N’Rie began.

 "Oh, yes we can. And we do. And we did.”  Percy interrupted, “When you killed everyone here, when you stranded us here to die, you gave us nothing. Nothing but time, but we’ve been using the time you gave us.”

 “Can’t MSE Two-Six see that thing?” Louis asked, gaping out of a window of his own.

 Percy shook his head, “Bending light, it’s not difficult.”

 “My people will come looking for me.” N’Rie protested.

 “No, they won’t.” Percy was certain. “Because we will crash the Transport Pod, and they will find wreckage and they’ll find those core tubes, and we’ll even arrange for them to find biological remains. But they’ll never find you, N’Rie.”

 The Sapien said nothing, but tilted his head, downward.

 “What will happen to us?” Sara but her hand to her throat.

“Oh, well I guess you two have a choice, you can go back to MSE Three-Nine. They can just find you among the wreckage, alive. We’d have to blank your memory, of course. No one can know that we’re here. But you two could go on with your lives.”

“And what’s the alternative?” Louis asked.

 “You could come with us.” Percy extended his hand, “I guarantee it will be more pleasant than anything he would have had in mind for you, and there’s so very much that we could teach you.”

“Could we ever come back? I mean, with our memory.” Sara was intrigued.

“Eventually, when your people are ready, it will be a long time for them, but not such a long time for you.” He smiled again. “I promise that you’ll like it.”  

Louis raised his eyebrows at Sara and this time she tilted her head.  

UNSA Public Information Release 05-3-658.a1

March 21, 2105

Tragedy at Mariner Valley

Three UNSA astronauts and one Sapien consultant were killed today in a tragic Transport Pod accident, on the floor of Mariner Valley about 350 kilometers from the site of Mars Surface Expedition 26.  Louis Robert DeAngelo, Sara Mei Wong and Hubert “Percival” Lowell were reported dead as well as one Sapien referred to as N’Rie Twelve.  

The Astro-Sapien Consulate and UN General Assembly today released a joint statement calling the incident a horrific setback in the exploration of Mars. Services for the fallen heroes will be held tomorrow at the UNSA Astronaut Memorial in Geneva.


Sara was holding Louis’ hand looking out through a transparent section of hull that far too large to be called a window. “Why does space look different?” she asked softly.

“That’s because of the speed were traveling.” Louis explained.

 “When do you think they’ll let us go back?”

 “Like Percy said, when our people are ready. I’m sure things will be different by the time we get there.” He ran his fingers through her hair.

 “I hope so,” she said as she rested her head on his shoulder and looked out at the stars. “I hope so.”



© 2009 Ben Margolis. All Rights Reserved.