Ahead of me, somewhere in the jungle of tall, green bamboo-corn, a man’s life depended on how quickly I could reach him.
This was no virtual-reality computer simulation program, like the ones I’d practiced for years in the science lab. It was the real thing. I’d been given so little time to get ready that all I knew were the basic facts about my mission.
The man’s name was Timothy Neilson. He was a high-level medical tekkie—a technician who helped the scientists carry out their experiments. His job was to tend what we under the Mars Dome called the “cornfield,” a large patch located in a greenhouse outside the dome. Neilson’s emergency beeper had gone off fifteen minutes earlier, and it was a good thing I had already been in a practice rescue session, hooked up to the robot I was now controlling. That meant I could roll into action immediately. But I didn’t know if that was fast enough. Timothy Neilson wasn’t responding to radio communications, even though the computer link showed that his receiver and transmitter were both in perfect working order.
I knew one other thing about Timothy Neilson.
The emergency signal reaching the dome from a computer chip embedded in his space suit told us the suit was leaking oxygen and heat so badly that he now had less than ten minutes to live. If he was still alive.
The gigantic black shell of the dome was five minutes behind me across a stretch of hard-packed, red desert sand. That meant I’d have to find Timothy Neilson in five minutes and get him back to the dome in the remaining five minutes.
Two things would help me. First, I held a global positioning unit (g.p.u.) that allowed me to track the location of the signal chip in his space suit. Also, as I neared his body, I could switch to infrared vision and look for the heat escaping his space suit.
Even with the g.p.u. and infrared to help me, however, I was in trouble because of the bamboo-corn stretching high in all directions around me.
Although this was Mars, the stuff around me truly was as thick as any jungle. My mother is one of the scientists who has worked hard for fourteen years to genetically alter Earth plants that might survive on the surface of Mars. None can—so far—but these hybrids had come the closest. The stems of the plants were tall and thin and strong like bamboo plants, with wide, long leaves like those of corn plants. The entire field—a half-mile square of rows and rows of bamboo-corn—was enclosed by a huge greenhouse tent of clear, space-tech plastic sheeting that gave the plants the protection they needed to survive. With 100-mile-an-hour sandstorms that covered half the planet and an average temperature of minus twenty degrees Fahrenheit, life on Mars wasn’t easy. But the next generation of these plants, my mom believed, would be able to grow without the greenhouse. In addition to the oxygen given off by the plants, the Mars Project would begin pumping oxygen into the atmosphere. Eventually, scientists hoped humans would be able to live on Mars without being under the protection of the dome. And that would help solve one of Earth’s problems in the twenty-first century—overcrowding.
I was somewhere in the middle of this field, with four minutes now remaining to find Timothy Neilson.
Using my robot wheels, I rolled down a path between two rows of bamboo-corn. The leaves tickled like silk against my titanium shell. Above the rustling of those leaves, I heard the whistling of Martian wind as it found tiny gaps in the greenhouse tent. Unlike the dome, this wasn’t sealed perfectly. It didn’t need to be; the plan was to see if these plants could thrive with only some protection. If they lived, their seeds would be cross-bred and genetically changed again to make the next generation even hardier. I listened as the wind whistled and sand rattled against the plastic. . . .
I told myself I did not hear what I thought I was hearing: movement in the corn leaves, just out of sight. Like the noise of dozens of creatures slipping away among the stalks of bamboo-corn.
I swiveled the robot body, scanning around me. But only the silent, tall green stems surrounded me like prison bars.
Then I saw a darting movement. But it came and went so quickly, I told myself it was just my imagination. Aliens, I told myself firmly, do not exist.
I pushed forward, wondering if those nonexistent creatures were about to attack me.
My g.p.u. chirped. Loudly. I would have jumped if I hadn’t been on wheels. It chirped louder and louder, telling me I was getting close to Neilson.
Suddenly I came to broken plants, pushed over and sideways as if a man had crashed into them at a full run. I swerved and followed the crooked path.
It was easy to see footprints in the soil where the weight of the man’s feet had crushed the wide leaves at the base of the stems. I rolled forward. It was like tracking an animal that had run in full panic, not caring what it hit as it fled.
As I followed a twisting path through the bamboo-corn, I had no choice but to believe something I did not want to believe. Someone—or something—had chased Timothy Neilson.
Impossible, I told myself again. This was Mars. The scientists claimed there was nothing alive on this planet that could hurt us. And aliens simply did not exist.
I quickly scanned in all directions, but the bamboo-corn made it impossible to see beyond the reach of my titanium arms.
I switched to infrared vision, which let me see heat instead of light. The green outlines of the stems and leaves against the pink light of the Mars sky disappeared. In infrared vision, I saw a blur of warm orange (the plants) standing on a deeper, brighter orange (the warmer sun-soaked soil), surrounded by a very light orange color (the cooler air).
Beyond the warm orange of the plants, I tried to sense the red shapes of living creatures.
Then I told myself I was dumb. Even if aliens did exist, which I knew was impossible, why should I expect them to have the same kind of body heat as humans?
The chirping of the g.p.u. guided me forward. I rushed as quickly as I could.
Seconds later, my infrared located the red outline of a space suit that was bleeding body heat.
“Are you all right?” I asked in my deep robot voice.
I switched back to normal vision and focused on the white fabric of his space suit. He was lying on his stomach, his legs twisted beneath him where he had fallen in the middle of the bamboo-corn. His space helmet was hidden by the leaves of plants that had fallen on top of him.
I scooped him into my arms, grateful for the strength of titanium limbs. Without hesitation, I wheeled back toward the dome.
I now had six minutes and twenty-five seconds to get Timothy Neilson to medical help. If he was still alive. If I wasn’t attacked by whatever had attacked him.
Because if I could trust my eyes, it looked like teeth and claws had ripped the holes in his space suit.