The Quietest Grave
a story by
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
Rodney sauntered morosely onto the balcony of his twenty-third-floor apartment, and spat disgustedly. Even Mars was ordinary!
I wonder, he thought, what it would be like, if I just stepped over the railing, and walked off.
It wouldn't matter. It would just be another ordinary suicide -- an ordinary end to an ordinary lifetime. No flowers would lean against his tombstone, no feet would rustle through the autumn leaves; his would be the quietest grave in history. He s tared for awhile down at the street, fascinated by the concrete and the asphalt and the passing cars. When he hit that pavement, he'd sink through it without a ripple -- metaphorically, if not physically. It wouldn't even make the papers. An ordinary man slapping an ordinary sidewalk in front of eight or ten ordinary eyewitnesses. That was the problem with life. It was ordinary.
JPL's Al Hibbs was in the living room, talking to Larry Niven on Channel 4. Behind them, through the magic of CSO, the burnt-orange sky and pale pink sand of Mars flowed toward and past the camera: coarse gravel, pebbles, little rocks here and the re, a solid, rocky wall to the left. Nothing you couldn't see anywhere in the American Southwest. Even Mars was ordinary.
"The problem, of course," Hibbs was explaining to America, "is that the Martian atmosphere is just too thin to use parachutes for a really soft landing -- the kind you need to get to the really interesting places. So, when we sent the Viking lande rs, well, of course, we sent them to the really boring -- but safe -- parts of the planet. It's mighty tough to learn anything conclusive about a planet from those places.
"There were also lots of things we'd seen from orbital probes that we really wanted to get a better look at, but couldn't land a Viking on -- because they were so darned interesting. It's a frustration, let me tell you!
"And that's why we built Rover."
"Rover's essentially a Viking on tank treads, isn't it, Al?" Asked Niven, who knew the answer, but knew that some significant fraction of America did not.
"Well, yes and no, Larry. We started with a Viking mainframe, but it's been a lot of years since we built Viking, and technology -- miniaturization especially -- had leapt so far beyond what was availlable to us at the time, that we built a device with all the capabilities of the original, including the treads and the guidance computer, for about two-thirds the price, and about half the space. so we upgraded some systems, and added a few more experiments -- the late Wolf Vishniac's 'Wolf Trap,' fo r example -- to the package. And that's Rover."
"And why is Rover headed for the plains of Elysium?"
"Well, Mariner 9 photographed the area, and saw what appeared to be pyramids. My friend Carl Sagan even published one of the photos in his book, Cosmos, and showed several in the TV series, and they pretty much sank without a ripple.
"Then about eight years ago, Ehrlin von Dikkensen saw them somewhere -- maybe on the show -- and republished them with some other photographs from the various Mars missions, and purported that they represented evidence of intelligent life on Mars , at some point in the not-too-distant past.
"You remember the public attention that raised. A lot of people were taking this whole thing awfully seriously, and demanding NASA go look for the Martians.
"Well, of course, none of us at JPL were awfully enthusiastic about sending a probe across some hundred million kilometers in search of little green Egyptians. I mean, there are so many good reasons to go to Mars -- who needs these ancient- astron aut fantasies?"
Rodney drifted back into the living room. Hibbs was looking dutifully at Niven, speaking to the nation.
"Well, apparently, the budget planners do, because they proposed the Rover mission to us, and specifically named the pyramids of Elysium as a target sight. We were pretty resistant to the idea, at first -- as I said, who wants to hunt little green Egyptians? -- But eventually, we realized that Mars is Mars: Certainly the pyramids of Elysium are an interesting enough phenomenon on their own to be worth exploring even if you're not going to see little green Egyptians. Just because the popular theory on a subject is a dumb one, that doesn't mean the subject itself shouldn't be explored."
"What? You mean... No little green Egyptians?"
"I'm afraid not, Larry."
Niven moved as if to stand. "Well, then! I'm leaving!" He started to stand, as Hibbs chuckled, then settled into his chair again. "Seriously, though, Al. You don't think they could possibly be artifacts?"
"The pyramids? Oh, no," said Hibbs, "of course not. I'm sure thet they're natural geological phenomena, caused by the same sort of forces we experience here on Earth. And it's geological phenomena and forces such as these that make a Rover such an important tool of exploration."
Rodney looked past them at the view of Martian landscape rolling by, made a momentary game of trying to prove it wasn't Death Valley seen through a slightly red filter. He couldn't.
"Pyramids, indeed," he muttered. He'd seen the Mariner 9 pictures. The shadowy forms seemed more nearly tetrahedral... but didn't look like much of anything. Which hadn't stopped the TV networks from hyping them to death.
He wandered back out onto the balcony again, leaned against the railing.
They said falling was like zero gravity: you floated, danced upon the air currents, did backflips if you wanted -- until you hit bottom, and then it was over before you knew it had begun.
And from this height, it was certain enough. He remembered his father, dangling from the ceiling pipes, choking and gasping until the pipes gave way, and dumped him, throat ruined, to the floor.
"According to our computers, Larry," Hibbs was saying, "we should be turning the corner and getting our first view of the pyramids any minute now. In fact, it's probably already happened to Rover, but, as you know, it takes the radio signal severa l minutes to reach us here on Earth."
Rodney drifted back toward the set. According to his -- possibly erroneous -- calculations, the big moment was less than five minutes away.
"Now if you'll look ahead along that rock wall to the left," Hibbs was saying, "you'll see the gap as a dark shadow, right about... Here."
He pointed carefully at a slightly darker area of the Rover's-eye-view expanding slowly past him. "As you know, satellite mapping showed this path, along the base of what seems to be the remains of the rim of a meteor crater, gave Rover a much smo other approach to the pyramids than would have been otherwise possible. But we paid for that safe ride: our first view of the pyramids will be a close one, much delayed."
"So your team will be assimilating a lot of data, very quickly."
"That's right. On the other hand, we can always stop Rover -- indeed, it's programmed to stop by itself if it sees certain interesting sorts of things, and await instructions from here -- to take the time to look at any given phenomenon: a luxury we were deprived of in, say, the Voyager planetary encounters." He looked over at the monitor screens. "And, as you can see, Rover has stopped to make its turn into the gap. While it's in the gap, we'll have a momentary loss of signal, as the walls will b lock the signal from the microwave antenna to the orbiting Teeders -- that's Tracking and Data Relay Satellites -- that relay the signals to us."
The CSO view disappeared into the shadows, then exploded into static, which was swiftly replaced by the standing color bars of a test pattern.
"And there we see LOS," Hibbs said, smiling at the camera, "exactly according to plans. We should be receiving the signal again -- probably a view of the pyramids themselves -- in just a couple of minutes."
"Tell me, Al," asked Niven: "I understand that, in the event that it sees something interesting, Rover will stop, and send a query to mission control, and wait for instructions. What happens if it sees something interesting during LOS? Will it sta nd there forever, waiting for a reply?"
"No, Larry, it won't. Our programmers worked out a neat solution to that sort of possibility. The moment Rover enters LOS, it loses the carrier wave broadcast by the Teeders satellites -- the same signal that helps it aim the microwave antenna -- and that triggers an on-board videocassette recorder not too different from the sort you might have at home, which records everything Rover sees during LOS. If it sees anything interesting, it will stop and look at it for two minutes, then continue on its way until it regains the carrier, and play the tape for us, on a special frequency, while still broadcasting live."
"Ah," said Niven. "That means you can tell it to go back for another look."
The test pattern flickered a bit behind them, and Hibbs leaned forward to look into his monitor screen. "And, I think we're regaining signal now, Larry."
Niven nodded, staring into his own.
Rodney glanced at the balcony door. I wish they'd get this over with, he thought, and thought about the empty, ordinary sidewalk, twenty-three stories below.
"All right, telemetry data first, as scheduled," said Hibbs "Rover is in a programmed halt, querying for instructions: that probably means it's looking at--"
And the test pattern jumped again, and was gone, replaced by the view from Rover's camera, which stared dispassionately across the sands of Mars, at the pyramids of Elysium.
Hibbs and Niven gasped in unison; someone else at mission control shouted, "Mother of God!" Rodney stared at his television set in amazement that bordered on disbelief. Thoughts of the sidewalk were gone and forgotten.
They were pyramids. Not mountains, not gigantic chrystalline structures, not remnants of impact craters, not any of the hundreds of reasonable possibilities reputable scientists had suggested. They were pyramids, pure and simple. Egyptian pyramids . Statues of Horus, Osiris, Anubis and others stood at slightly canted angles, their harsh lines softened somewhat by millenia of Martian sandstorms. A sphinx sat, erect and intent, atop a block of flat black metal, metal runneled and runed with heiroglyp hic cartouches.
"I love it!" crowed Niven. "I love it!"
The view stood, for a frozen moment of time, then started to slip sideways. An explosion of static, shouts and concerned looks from Hibbs and the folks at mission control, test pattern, a flicker, and a close-up view of a sandy escarpment.
"Ah," said Hibbs. "Ah. All right, I see, yes." He turned back to the camera. "Well, we seem to have had a couple of slight surprises. First, to explain the loss of picture: No, it wasn't death-rays from the pyramids. The programming I spoke about before, which automatically stops Rover to query for instructions should it see something interesting, has apparently done us dirty. On sighting the pyramids, which I think we'll grant are interesting, the computer stopped Rover at the edge of a sandy emb ankment, down which it promptly slipped, and this pulled the microwave antenna out of synch with Teeders. Immediately when the slippage stopped, the computer re-oriented the antenna."
"In short," said Niven, "Rover stopped to gape and fell in a hole."
"Exactly. There doesn't seem to be any damage, though, so Rover ought to be able to climb out again -- in a day or two. We want to be mighty sure of what we're doing before we try to move at this point."
He looked at someone behind the camera, nodded. "In the meantime, let's take another look at the tape shot by Rover."
Rodney stared, open-mouthed with amazement, as the previous image returned to the screen, stared at the statues, stared at the pyramids.
"I can't begin to describe," Hibbs said quietly, "How incredibly important a discovery this is: it is proof positive of the existance, at some point in time, of extra-terrestrial intelligences. More, the obviously derivitive design would seem to d ate it to between three and four thousand years ago. This is stunning, simply stunning."
"Egyptian pyramids," said Niven, still undisguisably delighted. "As you know, Al, the Egyptian pyramids were tombs, burial chambers for their greatest pharaohs, intended to thwart grave-robbers, to stand the test of eternity. They failed: every py ramid on earth has been opened and desecrated. Whosever tombs these are, they've succeeded. No-one's going to rob these graves for a long, long time to come."
"Well, Larry, I'd hate to jump to any conclusions about the purpose of these structures..." Rodney tuned out Hibbs's response, staring at the screen.
He'd been wrong. For millenia, those pyramids had stood sentinal over the Martian sands, unseen and undisturbed, unkown to the minds of man. No eye had traced their lines, no hand had disturbed their serenity. Beyond question or doubt, far beyond his meager suppositions, this was the quietest grave history had ever known, and Rodney doubted it would ever see quieter.
"...Haven't yet managed to translate the heiroglyphics," Hibbs was saying, "because, in putting together our scientific team, we neglected to include an Egyptologist."
"Shame on you, Al!" said Niven, and Hibbs smiled.
"Well, we're working on it." He looked off to one side slightly. "And, in fact, we now have, from Dr. Eugene Cruz-Uribe --" (He pronounced it Cruise-Ureebay) "-- of the Egyptology department of Brown University, a preliminary translation of the he iroglyphic message on the base of the sphinx."
He paused, looking thoughtfull, assimilating information through an earphone.
"Dr. Cruz-Uribe says the heiroglyphics seem to be very much simplified, a sort of ancient Egyptian pidgin.
"The message seems to read:
"Greetings. Apologies for not greeting in person. Emergency requires our presence on homeland. -- Dr. Cruz-Uribe tells us that this is not the heiroglyphic symbol for the word 'homeland,' but a joining of two symbols, 'home' and 'land.' perhaps 'H omeworld' would be more appropriate -- We leave this message in language and idiom of those most likely to find it. Hopes that you are still able to read it. Welcome to the Cosmos."
Rodney stood, shaking his head slowly, and wandered back out onto the balcony, sparing barely a glance for the pavement 23 stories below. Life was just too bizarre a show to walk out on.
Rodney looked through the city skyglow at the barely perceptible stars, and smiled...
The Author wishes to thank Drs. Larry Niven, Al Hibbs, and Eugene
Cruz-Uribe for their gracious co-operation in
The Author wishes to thank Drs. Larry Niven, Al Hibbs, and Eugene Cruz-Uribe for their gracious co-operation in this story.