Dinner with Dracula: The Weird Adventures of Charles Winterbottom, Archeologist with Azathoth, Cthulhu, the Yeti Queen, the Dark Gods of Lemuria And Other Terrifying Creatures of the Night [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Joe Vadalma
eBook Category: Horror/Fantasy
eBook Description: Charles Winterbottom is an archeologist of the Indiana Jones sort, except that Winterbottom is a buffoon and a unrepentant womanizer. As Captain Sally, the commander of the spaceship that brought him to Mars has said on a couple of occasions, "Another fine mess you've gotten us into, Charlie." Winterbottom's colleague, Heinrich Schmidt, talks him into an expedition to Mars to find out the truth about the Cydonia area. After vigorous training as astronauts, Winterbottom, Schmidt and the crew of the Perceval blast off for Mars. The crew consists of Captain Sally Randy, commander and pilot; Plush Blue, medic, biology specialist and social scientist; Jack Dooper, science officer and navigator; and Larke, android chief engineer and maintenance. On the trip to Mars, there is a lot of hanky-panky. Winterbottom goes to the storeroom on occasion with Plush Blue, but loses her to Dooper, who is known as Super Dooper. He also strikes out with Captain Sally. They finally arrive at Mars and explore the Cydonia area. Larke claims that the Martians are transmitting to it. Winterbottom, Schmidt, Larke and Captain Sally stumble upon and are trapped in an underground catacomb. They are arrested by seven foot, green skinned Martian priests for desecrating a sacred place. They are brought to Princess Golygee for judgment. and are sentenced to be sacrificed to the demon god Azathoth... But you will have to read the rest of Winterbottom's misadvetures with Cthulhu, the Yeti Queen, the Dark Gods of Lemuria, And Other Terrifying Creatures of the Night for yourself! Especially his Dinner with the Lord of the Undead.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner
Fictionwise Release Date: April 2009
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4 Reader Ratings:
CHAPTER 1. EXPLORING CYDONIA
A colleague of Doctor Charles D. Winterbottom's, a rival archeologist, Doctor Heinrich Schmidt, came to Winterbottom with a proposal.
"Charley," he said, "I've spent years studying photographs of the Martian Cydonia Mensae area and am positive that the structures are not natural formations, but artificial. An alien race built them. It's up to us to find the proof."
Winterbottom did not care much for Schmidt, who was short and rotund, and had an aura of sauerkraut and stale beer about him. He wore his hair in what could only described as a long crew cut. His mustache was in the style of Hitler and Charley Chaplin. He talked too much and cared more about publicity than archeology. "Many people disagree with you, Heiny."
"But none of them have been to Mars. No one has even sent a robotic probe to Cydonia."
"They probably won't. To the space people, there are more interesting places to explore such as Olympus Mons or Valles Marineris."
"They're fools. What could be more interesting than finding artifacts from an ancient Martian civilization?"
Winterbottom rubbed his chin. Although he did not completely trust Schmidt's motives, the man's enthusiasm intrigued him. "It certainly would be an adventure." Adventure and danger was what he loved about archeological field work. "But, my dear Heiny, how would we get there?"
"I have a cousin in the upper echelons of NASA. He's a grandson of one of the German scientists who came to America with Wernher von Braun. I brought my proposal to him. He's sure that he can talk upper management into initiating the mission. People are bored with ordinary Mars and Jupiter moon missions. NASA needs something spectacular to justify their existence."
"I see. But why come to me? I would think that you'd want to go it alone and not share any discoveries with another archeologist."
Schmidt flushed. "It's your flamboyant reputation. NASA is looking for the most publicity for the buck. Your scandalous affairs with women, your antics and narrow escapes are well known. That's what they're looking for. Hard working but unknown archeologists like me don't attract that kind of media attention."
Winterbottom took this as a compliment and puffed out his chest. "I understand completely. I'll go."
"Very well. Pack your bags. I'll book us on a flight to Orlando." He patted Winterbottom on the back, rather too low for comfort. "I'm sure we'll make a great team."
Winterbottom discovered that he would have to go through several weeks of training. After filling out several forms, he was introduced to the astronauts assigned to the mission. Sally Randy, an attractive brunette, was mission commander. Before she became an astronaut, she had been a hot shot jet pilot in the Air Force and a test pilot. Before that she had something to do with large feathery fans. She stuck out her hand. "I'm Randy."
He removed his floppy hat and took her hand in his. "I am too, usually."
She caught on immediately and laughed. "Do you know how many times I've heard that in my life? Just call me, Captain Sally."
"Pleased to meet you, Captain Sally. I'm Charles Winterbottom."
"This is my crew, Plush Blue and Jack Dooper. Blue is our medic, biology specialist and social scientist. Dooper is our science officer and navigator."
Blue was a slightly plump woman, but not bad looking. She had thick shoulder-length hair. Winterbottom was delighted to learn that there would be two young nubile females on the mission. The nights were cold in outer space.
Dooper was a stern looking young man, very military in his bearing.
After shaking hands with the astronauts, Winterbottom said, "What about that fellow there? Isn't he on the mission?" He pointed at a rather drab looking character standing near the wall.
"Oh him," Sally said. "Larke's our chief engineer. He's not a he, but an it, an android."
"Does he speak?"
"Only when spoken to. Larke, come over here."
The android approached in a stiff-legged manner. When it stopped, Winterbottom put out his hand. "I'm Doctor Winterbottom, archeologist."
Larke gripped his hand so hard that Winterbottom almost went to his knees and shook it vigorously. "Welcome to the NASA Space Center, Doctor Winterbottom. My name is Larke. I am an animatronic artificially intelligent humanoid robot. I fix things."
"Very nice. But what if something goes wrong with you while we're on the mission?"
"I do not know the answer to that question. Please consult ground control."
Winterbottom turned to Sally. "Do any of you know how to fix the fixer?"
She shrugged. "Nothing will go wrong with old reliable here. I've been on two missions with Larke. It never hiccupped once."
And the third is a charm, thought Winterbottom, but did not remark about his doubts.
Although Winterbottom considered himself educated, athletic and in good shape, the training was more rigorous than he thought it would be. On the first day he was given a complete physical and was told to lose ten pounds. When he told Sally, she laughed and said, "You'll lose thirty by the time we're through with you." She let him feel the muscle on her upper arm to show how fit she was. It bulged up inches and was as hard as a rock.
The first four hours of each day were lectures on the spacecraft, including operational characteristics, mission requirements and objectives and support systems. In these classes he flirted with Sally every chance he got. She responded in a whimsical way, as though she was mentally laughing at his crude attempts to get to first base. Plush Blue, usually nearby, continuously annoyed him by poking him or making sexual innuendoes. Schmidt, on the other hand, hung around with Dooper and the android, Larke.
Winterbottom and Schmidt were also given science and technical courses to get them up to speed with the latest developments in meteorology, guidance and navigation, astronomy, physics and computer sciences.
The rest of each day was spent in physical training as vigorous as boot camp in the marines.
After a few weeks, Winterbottom and his fellow travelers were given information about the area around Cydonia. They were trained in flight simulators and spaceship mockups to become familiar with systems, support equipment, crew operations, null gravity housekeeping and emergency procedures. A full day was spent on how to use the null-gravity commode.
Winterbottom's first experience with simulated weightlessness in a diving aircraft was a disaster. He immediately became ill and vomited his lunch, which floated about his head. After several times, however, he was able to eat, drink and handle tools and equipment. Somehow, once gravity was returned, he always wound up falling on Plush Blue. After each of these encounters, she would giggle and remark, "We must stop meeting like this."
As the time approached for the actual mission, they were given mission specific training, which included working and traveling in the specially designed Mars spacesuits in a landscape similar to the Cydonia area. This training was intense and difficult because of the heavy, clumsy suits. One day as Winterbottom perspired and huffed and puffed, Sally said, "Don't worry, Winter. It won't be as bad on Mars. The gravity there is only two fifths of earth's."
"How come you're not breathing heavy?"
She raised her eyebrows and laughed. "I only do that in the bedroom. Besides, we women have more endurance than you men. A few strokes and you're done."
He grinned back at her. "I think you would find that I have more endurance than most. May I give you a workout?"
She patted him on the cheek. "You men all say that until you're alone with a woman. Maybe someday. But this close to liftoff, we'll be too busy for hanky-panky."
After several months of training, the big day arrived. With the help of Plush Blue, Winterbottom donned his spacesuit. Cameras flashed as the Cydonia team strolled out to the minibus that would take me them to the shuttle. They waved to the onlookers and press who cheered and applauded.
Once Winterbottom was strapped into the acceleration couch and the countdown was down to T minus five minutes, he had second thoughts. What the heck am I doing in this evil contraption? Perspiration broke out on his forehead and fogged the face plate on his space helmet. I should be mucking around inside a pyramid, up to my ears in dirt and poisonous serpents, or having angry natives chasing me with spears after I snatched their prized idol. Some people are not made for space travel.
He glanced over at Sally in the next couch over. She appeared relaxed. He realized that he would look like a coward and idiot if he suddenly screamed, "Stop the countdown. I want my mommy."
"...four ... three.... two ... one ... ignition." There was a loud roar. Winterbottom felt as though someone had dropped a two-ton weight on his chest. The next several minutes seemed like hours. Suddenly the weight lifted, and he had the sensation of floating. They were in orbit around the earth. Sally said, "Nice ride, huh Charley?"
The shuttle pilot did a burn to take the vehicle to Space Station Five. A small amount of gravity returned, and Winterbottom relaxed. A docking maneuver was performed, and the pilot floated down the aisle. "Okay ladies and gents, time to disembark."
Winterbottom unsnapped his harness and floated upward. He tried to recall how to maneuver in null-G, but panicked as his nose hit the cabin ceiling. He flayed around for a while until Plush Blue took hold of him and dragged him by the arms out of the shuttle exit. Randy laughed at him. "By the time we get to Mars, you'd better figure out how to move around without crashing into walls."
"Don't pay any attention to her," said Blue. "We were all awkward at first."
He flushed. Never before had he felt such a clumsy fool before the ladies.
The space station rotated like a giant bicycle wheel to produce artificial gravity. After they took an elevator down one of the spokes to the rim, gravity returned. Nonetheless, Winterbottom still felt strange and ill as they strolled along. He said, "I'm lightheaded. This space travel has affected my balance."
Randy grinned. "You dummy. Your head is lighter than your feet because of the artificial gravity produced by rotation. Didn't you learn anything in astronaut class? If you think that short trip up to space station messed with your senses, what're you going to do on the way to Mars. For nine months we'll be in null-G. You'll be a basket case." She slapped him on the back so hard he stumbled and almost fell on his face.
"Don't listen to her, Charles," said Blue. "You'll do just fine. And you're as smart as us--in your own field."
"Yeah, like Larke," cracked Randy.
The passengers and crew of the Perceival, the Mars spaceship, had lunch at the space station. Immediately afterward, they boarded the deep space vehicle. Sally Randy as the pilot sat up front in the command area. Dooper took the navigator's seat next to her. Blue and Winterbottom crawled into the next two acceleration couches, and Schmidt and Larke took the third set of seats.
After burn maneuvers sent the ship on a trajectory toward Mars, the astronauts and passengers were free to float about the crew module. Although the crew module was larger than the shuttle, space was at a premium. Unless Winterbottom was extremely careful, he often rubbed against one of the others as they passed. He did not mind when the person was Randy or Blue, but he actively disliked the sensation when it was one the men, especially Schmidt.
As the days dragged on, Winterbottom became bored. So far, his activities were the mandatory daily exercises, failed attempts to seduce Randy and maneuvers to avoid Schmidt. In the close quarters of the ship, the last was impossible. During each encounter with Schmidt, his fellow archeologist dragged out photos and other data about Cydonia and went on endlessly about plans for the dig.
Winterbottom told him, "Let's not assume anything. We'll decide on an approach once we observe conditions at the site."
Nonetheless, each day he bugged Winterbottom with some new plan.
Sally Randy, Jack Dooper and Plush Blue spent most of their time on their normal duties, checking gauges, inspecting items, taking astronomical readings and performing experiments for scientists. To engage Randy in conversation, Winterbottom asked her about piloting the spaceship.
"It's a breeze. Actually, while we're between planets, I don't really have any piloting duties. The onboard intelligent navigation computer, OINC, does all the driving. Jack and I simply check up on it once in a while. I won't be needed until the landing phase."
This did nothing to relieve Winterbottom's unease about being in a tin can thousands of miles from earth in the vast emptiness of space. He hid his fears by making light. "OINC? It must be a hog for data."
Randy laughed and slapped him on the back, causing him to sail halfway down the corridor. "You're a card, Winter."
He tried another approach. "What do you do for entertainment for the next eight months?"
"Well, we've got TV. All the shows are reruns, but I have some hot DVDs to watch." She wiggled her eyebrows in a lascivious manner.
He brightened. "Really. Perhaps we could watch them together."
"Don't think so, Winter." She pinched him on the cheek. "Me and Dooper got a thing going."
Crushed, Winterbottom floated away. Plush Blue accosted him. "Say Charles, you look bored. Want to join the million mile high club?"
He gazed at her quizzically. She had plenty of curves, perhaps a few too many, and a pretty face. He realized that she had been flirting with him from the time they met. Since Randy was out of his league, he thought, why not? "You putting me on?"
"Why would I do that?" She put her arm around him. "These long space trips are dreary if you don't do something to break the monotony. Why do you think NASA assigns crews of mixed sexes? On long voyages, we change partners often throughout the trip."
His eyebrows shot up. Maybe he still had a chance with the lovely Randy. "Well, where would..."
She grabbed his arm and pulled him along. "Back in the storeroom for privacy. You'll enjoy this, Charles. There's nothing quite like a roll-in-the-hay in null-G."
After she pulled him into the storeroom, locked the door and tore at his clothes, he asked, "Why me? What about Heinie?"
"I don't think he likes women. He never tries to rub up against me like you do."
"You're probably right."
As Blue had pointed out, sex was quite an experience in zero gravity. Positions were unlimited. After a while, however, Winterbottom became dizzy and had to call a halt until he recovered.
Larke, the Android
One day while Blue was at her duties, Winterbottom saw Larke in a corner staring at nothing. Curious he approached the android. "How are you today, Larke?"
"My systems are nominal. How are you, Doctor Winterbottom?"
"You can call me Charlie. Almost everyone else does. Actually I'm bored."
"Would you like to play a game of chess, Charlie?"
"Sure. That'd be fun." Winterbottom had been class champion in college.
A table in the mess bay had an inlayed checkerboard. The chess pieces were magnetized to keep them from floating. In the first game, the android checkmated Winterbottom after ten moves.
"I'm a bit rusty," Winterbottom alibied.
They played ten games. When Larke won each one handily, Winterbottom realized that he was outmatched. "I'm tired of chess. Perhaps we should simply converse for a while."
"On what subject do you wish to converse?"
"Oh, I don't know. Do you know anything about archeology?"
They began to talk archeology. Winterbottom bragged about his exploits but soon realized that Larke knew more about the subject than he did. It was like talking to Schmidt. Finally he said, "What do you do for fun, Larke?"
"Fun? Androids do not have fun. We provide it."
"Really? What kind of fun do you provide?"
"I play all sorts of games. I give lessons in various activities. I do sex with women."
"You do? You mean you have ... you're provided with..."
"Is the word you're struggling to recall 'penis'?"
Winterbottom flushed and cleared his throat. "Uh hum. Yes."
"I do indeed. It is most large and admired by female crew members. By gay men also."
"Have you ever done it with the women in the present crew?"
"Often. Not on this voyage, however."
"Both of them?"
"Not at the same time."
It galled Winterbottom that Sally Randy had been with a robot, but refused him. It gave him a feeling of inferiority.
"Would you like me to service you as I did the women?"
"Um, no thanks."
Halfway to Mars, Plush Blue took Winterbottom to the side. "Charlie, I'm afraid our affair is over for the rest of the trip."
Winterbottom's jaw dropped. "You ... you're dumping me?"
"Sorry sweetie, but we can still be friends." She patted him on the cheek.
"I've stolen Jack Dooper from Captain Sally."
"Oh! What's so great about him?" Nonetheless, he was not too put out by this news. It meant that Randy was no longer seeing the navigator.
Blue grinned. "They don't call him Super Dooper for nothing. Sorry again, old chum." She floated away.
Winterbottom went to seek out Randy. She was in the observatory peering through a telescope. "We still on course, Captain Sally?"
"Actually no. I need to do a corrections burn. Want to watch?"
She sat at the command console and announced that everyone was to strap into acceleration couches while she made a course correction. Winterbottom took the navigation position. Once all aboard signaled that they were secured, Randy typed in commands to OINK. The spaceship shuddered. For a few minutes weight returned as the maneuvering rockets fired. Sally peered at the navigation information. "Shit. Something's wrong. We've overcorrected." A red warning light came on. "That must be it." She pointed at it. "A starboard engine burn shut off too soon. Damn!"
Winterbottom became frightened. "Wh-what's the matter?"
"This frigging bucket-of-bolts is way off course now, worse than before."
"Can it be corrected?"
"Not until we fix whatever is wrong." She shouted, "Larke, report to the command console immediately." She turned to Winterbottom. "I hope the android can figure out what the problem is."
Winterbottom's stomach churned, and he began to perspire. "What will happen if he can't?"
"Oh, we'll shoot right out of the solar system."
"Someone will come to our rescue, won't they?"
Randy shook her head. "How can they do that? They have no way of catching up with us. And even if they did, our life support would have failed long before they reached us. They'd simply be picking up corpses."
Winterbottom felt faint. He wondered what it would be like to die of suffocation as their oxygen ran out. He turned away so that Randy wouldn't see his tears.
Larke appeared. It saluted. "Android Larke reporting."
After Sally explained the problem, she and Larke exchanged places. Larke opened up its shirt and a panel in its chest. It pulled out a USB connector and plugged it into the console. Screens of numbers scrolled down the monitor. Larke muttered something unintelligible. The spaceship shuddered several times. Randy grabbed the back of Winterbottom's couch to keep from being thrown around. Finally the shuddering stopped. Larke turned to Randy. "The starboard aft engine is out of alignment. An EVA will be necessary to execute repair."
"Okay, Larke. I'll suit up. Get whatever tools we'll need."
Randy went to the spacesuit rack. Winterbottom watched as she unzipped her coveralls and stepped out of them. Beneath she had on only bikini briefs and a see-through bra. She glanced in Winterbottom's direction and noticed his interest. "Stop staring, pervert," she cried. Winterbottom flushed and turned away.
"I'm sorry," he muttered. Nonetheless, his glance kept going to the mirror-like observation screen.
When she was in the spacesuit before donning the helmet, she called for Jack Dooper. "Me and Larke need to go EVA. Man the airlock door."
Larke did not wear a spacesuit. It donned a tool belt and followed Randy into the airlock. Dooper shut the door, listened in his earphones for Randy's signal and pressed the red button under the word Evacuate There was a hiss as air was drawn out of the chamber.
Winterbottom peered through the small window in the airlock door and watched as Randy and Larke floated out of the hatch to the vacuum and darkness of space. Their footfalls as the made their way toward the engine module sounded on the overhead bulkhead. Once past the crew module, the sound stopped.
Hours went by.
"Should they be out there so long?" Winterbottom asked Dooper.
Dooper glanced at his watch. "Randy's at the limit of her oxy. I'd better check on her." He fitted the headphones and mike on. "Calling Captain Sally."
Winterbottom eavesdropped on the conversation with the console earphones.
"What the frig you want, Dooper? We're pretty busy out here."
"Better check your oxy level, Captain. You've been EVA for three hours."
"Oh shit. You're right. I've only got ten minutes left. Hey Larke, think you can finish up here. I gotta go in and replenish my oxy. Dooper, aborting EVA. Standby."
Five minutes later, a space-suited figure entered the airlock and closed the outer hatch. Oxygen was pumped into the airlock, and Randy floated through the airlock door. She took off her helmet, but to Winterbottom's disappointment remained in the space suit. She donned comm gear.
A half an hour later, Winterbottom heard Larke's odd voice. "Repair accomplished. Returning to vessel interior." Clomping footfalls rang on the bulkheads again. It stopped halfway toward the entrance hatch. "Error situation. Joints frozen. Cannot proceed."
"Oh crap," cried Randy. "What now? Can you move at all?"
"Guess I'll have to save that idiot savant. I told it to apply that nonfreezing grease to its joints."
After she went EVA again, there was another long wait during which Winterbottom bit his nails. "What if we lose both of them?" he asked Dooper. "Do you know how to land the spaceship?"
"I've been trained, but have never done a descent maneuver except in a simulator. It's Larke I'm most worried about. It's the only one aboard who can troubleshoot ship systems and effect a repair. Captain Sally has nine lives. She'll be okay ... I hope."
Finally Randy's voice came over the comm equipment. "Son-of-a-bitch is a clumsy package. Having a hard time maneuvering Larke to hatch. Estimate time of return from EVA ten minutes."
Winterbottom and Dooper sighed with relief as eleven minutes later, Randy shoved Larke through the outer hatch. After pushing the android into the spaceship interior proper, she removed her spacesuit and sat at the console in her undies. Again she ordered everyone into acceleration couches. "Dooper, take the navigation position. Winterbottom, drag Larke back to the passenger bay and strap him and yourself in back there."
Winterbottom was disappointed that he would no longer be unable to admire Randy in her unmentionables.
Once the ship was back on course, Winterbottom and Randy maneuvered onto the operating table in sickbay. Randy said, "Plush, can you fix his joints? They've seized up."
"I'm a medical doctor, Captain. I fix human beings. I don't know a damn thing about androids."
"Well, do the best you can."
Schmidt, who had been watching with interest, said, "I know a little about mechanics. I've repaired land-rovers and other vehicles that had broken down in wilderness areas."
"Good," said Randy. "Help her out."
Winterbottom, who knew nothing about machines or electronics, wondered whether this was a good time to approach Randy. "Now that we're back on course, and you've delegated Larke's repair, I wonder whether I could talk to you privately."
She eyed him suspiciously. "As long as this doesn't take too long. I've got to make a report to ground control. Come to my cabin." As commander, she was the only person aboard that had the privacy of a small room by herself.
Her cabin was tiny. With two people inside of it, they were inches apart. This suited Winterbottom's purpose well.
Randy leaned her back against a bulkhead. "So what is it, Winter?"
"I mean my name is Winterbottom, not Winter."
"You're so damn dense. I know that. It's a mouthful. What do you want?"
"You actually. I understand that you and Dooper broke up. Since you're now available..."
She chuckled. "You're a card, Winter. Have I shown the least interest in you?"
His lips turned down in a pout. "You invited me to watch you do a course correction."
"Just wanted to teach you a thing or two. Sorry buddy, I like brainy guys, like Doctor Schmidt."
"Heiny? You're interested in him?" His self esteem went through the floor. Heiny? How could this lovely desire the rotund little man more than his manly, broad shouldered self? "But is he interested in you?"
"Actually yes. He asked me on date like a gentleman."
"A date? How can you date on a spaceship?"
"We had a candlelight dinner in the mess and watched TV in the lounge."
"Watch what? Porno movies?"
"No. A romantic comedy, in fact. Now, please leave. I have work to do."
Winterbottom was tempted to simply grab her and kiss her. Instead he left her cabin like a beaten dog. There would be no romance for him during the rest of the way to Mars. That nerd, Heiny, had beaten his time with the gorgeous Sally Randy.
He went to the medical bay to see how Larke was doing. The android was all in pieces. Its arms were on chair; one leg leaned against a wall; Schmidt was examining the joints of the other; its head was disconnected from its body. "Oh my. Will you be able to repair Larke, Heiny?"
The archeologist shrugged. "I'm more familiar with automobiles and trucks."
Larke's head said, "Good afternoon, Charlie. I would play a game of chess with you, but as you can see, I've gone to pieces."
"Retained your sense of humor, I see. That's good. A cheerful attitude will help you heal."
"Androids don't have attitudes, a sense of humor or heal, for that matter," Larke replied.
"Where's Plush Blue? Why isn't she attending you?"
Schmidt said, "She doesn't know a damn thing about machinery. She was in my way."
Randy's voice came over the loudspeaker. "Astronaut Blue, report on the condition of the android."
Winterbottom donned comm gear. "Winterbottom here. Plush isn't in sick bay."
"Where the hell is she?"
Winterbottom asked Schmidt whether he knew where Blue had gone.
"She said something about going to the storeroom with Jack Dooper."
"Oh." Winterbottom knew what that meant. He said to Randy, "She's gone to the storeroom for supplies."
"Storeroom, huh. I know damn well what she does there. I suppose Dooper's with her."
"Uh ... yes."
"Is anyone working on the android?"
"How's it going?"
"Well, he's taken Larke apart. He's examining the joints."
"Okay. I don't need its arms and legs right now, just its head and torso. Bring them here."
"Who else? You said that Schmidt is working on the android's limbs, and Blue and Dooper are banging in the storeroom."
"Captain Sally to you. And it's 'aye, aye' not 'okay'."
"Aye, aye, Captain Sally."
"That's better. We'll make an astronaut out of you yet, Winter."
He tucked Larke's head under his arm and pushed its body before him toward the command bay. It was a good thing that there was no gravity. Otherwise, he could have never maneuvered the heavy awkward android trunk. As it was, he kept banging against objects in their path and the bulkheads. When they arrived at the command bay, Randy said, "What the hell? Why is its head off?"
Winterbottom shrugged. "Heiny took it off for some reason."
"Well, I need it on." She pulled out a drawer. "Here's some tools. Reattach its head."
"But I don't know anything about robot repair. What do I do with all these dangling cables?"
Randy snorted in derision. "You're as useless as turd on Christmas. Take the copilot/navigator's position." Winterbottom obeyed. "Now see the display before you. The smaller circle must be kept within the larger, as close to the center as possible. You control them by manipulating these two knobs. Do you think you can handle that while I fix Larke?"
"Aye, aye, Captain Sally." He placed his hands on the knobs. They vibrated slightly. As Randy got out of the commander's couch, the smaller circle drifted to the left. Winterbottom turned the left knob to the right. The circle drifted upward. He quickly turned it to the left again and turned the right knob to the right. The circle moved back to center.
Randy slapped him on the back. "See. You're doing fine. We'll make an astronaut out of you yet."
She knelt down on the deck by Larke and began to plug cables from his head into sockets in the throat area of its torso.
Meanwhile, Winterbottom found that keeping the small circle in the center of the large was more difficult than it had seemed at first. The knobs did not always control it the same way. Sometimes the left was for up/down, sometimes for left/right. The same was the case for the right knob. As a result, he would sometimes send the small circle in the wrong direction completely. He needed to move swiftly to recover. His hands cramped. As he concentrated on the circles, they made him dizzy. He began to see double; four circles appeared. Once he thought he sent the small circle into the center of the large circle but it was an illusion and had actually moved further from true center. He had to act even more swiftly to recover. He perspired profusely. It was one of the hardest tasks he had ever performed.
Just when he thought he would go mad with frustration and tension, Randy placed Larke's torso on the commander's couch, strapped it in, plugged its USB cable into the console and whispered something into Larke's ears. The small circle snapped to the center of the larger one and stayed there.
"Okay dummy, you can take your hands off of the stellar navigational controls."
Winterbottom pulled his hands away and rubbed them together to get the circulation going.
Randy unplugged Larke. "Okay Winter. Take Larke back to sickbay. Everything's back to nominal."
Winterbottom was glad that Larke's head was on. It made the return trip to sickbay easier. When he arrived, Blue and Dooper were there. Dooper was helping Schmidt repair Larke's joints.
"How's the repair work going?"
"Just about done," said Dooper. "The damage was from the cold. The next time Larke does an ETA, it should wear a spacesuit. I'm surprised that its computing circuits weren't damaged."
Larke, whose torso and head were back on the operating table, said, "They may have been. I'm getting intermittent fatal memory errors that are affecting my computing processes."
The three people in the room gazed at the android with concern. Blue said, "Oh you poor dear." She went over by it and stroked its head.
Winterbottom said in a trembling voice, "What about the navigation stuff you just did for Captain Sally? You did enter the correct data, didn't you?"
"I believe so. But I cannot be sure. My random access memory is cloudy."
Winterbottom felt faint as he visualized gasping his last breath as the oxygen supply gave after they had traveled millions of miles off course. "I'd better report this to Captain Sally."
He returned to the control bay.
"What now, Winter?" Randy said in an irritated manner. Winterbottom told her about the android's problem. "Too bad. But we shouldn't need Larke until we get to Mars."
"What about the navigation data Larke entered into the onboard computer?"
"Must be A-okay. We're right on course."
"Does anyone know how to repair the android?"
"Nope. Android repairs are done earth side."
"But what if we need him to fix something?"
She shrugged nonchalantly. "Guess we'll have to call ground control. Say, if you're going back to sickbay, would you send Heinrich up here. I could use some pleasant company."
Winterbottom slumped out of the control bay. For the rest of the way to Mars, he was bored, jealous and depressed. One good thing came out of Larke's disability; however, the android's chess playing ability had deteriorated to the point that Winterbottom could beat it every tenth game.
Descent to Mars
As they approached Mars, Randy called everyone together to brief them on landing procedures. "First we'll do an aero capture maneuver. We'll be using Mars' upper atmosphere to brake the vehicle enough to insert it into orbit around the planet. The turbulence may be a little rough and fiery, so don't shit your pants, Winter."
Winterbottom resented the fact that she singled him out. Heiny will be just as frightened, he thought.
Randy continued, "Once our orbit is well established, we'll perform the descent maneuver. The same aeroshell we used for orbit insertion will provide thermal protection for the descent module during atmospheric entry. Once the descent module enters the Martian atmosphere and slows down sufficiently, the aeroshell will separate from the module inside and parachutes will be used for the last stage of vertical surface delivery. Any questions?"
Schmidt said, "What about our equipment?"
"It's been sent to the landing site and should be waiting for us. Mission control assured me that the insertion, descent and landing went perfectly."
"How near to the Cydonia artifact will we land?"
"About two hundred klicks north."
"Why so far away?"
"The terrain in the Cydonia area is too rough for a safe landing. Once we land, we'll setup a base camp, and haul whatever equipment is needed south to a temporary camp in the Cydonia area. It may be quite a while before we reach that hill you people call an artifact. You'll need to keep you pants on for a while when we arrive. It may be days before we'll be ready to travel to the Cydonia area."
* * * *
Two hours before the aerocapture maneuver, they donned spacesuits and went to their assigned acceleration couches. Randy reordered the seating arrangement. Schmidt was seated in the navigator's position. The next two couches held Blue and Dooper. Winterbottom was in the last row next to Larke. To relieve the tension as Randy counted down, he asked Larke how it was feeling.
"Many intermittent random access memory errors have occurred. I needed to reboot several times. There must be as partial short on my motherboard. This aerocapture maneuver could aggravate the problem."
"Sorry to hear that." Winterbottom hoped that they would not require Larke's services for the remainder of the voyage. "Tell me, were you specifically built to do maintenance aboard a spaceship?"
"No. My earlier employment was at a waste management station. I sorted trash for recyclable materials."
"Really? How did you happen to get into spaceship maintenance?"
"My boss at the waste management plant called me a 'screw up.' At that time NASA was in a budget crunch and bought me at a bargain price."
Winterbottom was dismayed to learn that Larke had not been very good at a simple job like sorting through garbage and that NASA had bought it cheap. What did that say about the android's ability to repair complicated items on a spaceship?
Before Winterbottom could make another remark, the count went to zero. The ship shuddered and made terrible noises as though it were shaking apart. Through a porthole, Winterbottom saw flames shooting past the window. The interior temperature rose steeply. Perspiration ran in rivulets from his forehead, down his back and from his underarms. He closed his eyes and repeated over and over in a low voice, "This is normal. Nothing's wrong with the ship. I'm not going to die. Mommy."
After a few minutes, the shuddering, flames and heat ceased and null-G conditions returned. Randy announced over the comm system, "Mars orbital insertion successful. You people may relax while I notify ground control. When I get their okay, we'll start descent mode. Stay strapped in. You may remove your helmets, but have them nearby."
Winterbottom took off his helmet. Since Larke did not wear a helmet, he asked, "Are you all right, Larke?"
"Most systems are go. They are no worse than before the orbital insertion maneuver."
"Tell me, why did your boss at the trash transfer station consider you a screw-up?"
"Too much initiative. Androids are supposed to do exactly as they are told, nothing else. One day I became bored and started tossing metallic material into the metal bin from some distance away. I and my fellow androids held contests as to which one of us could toss items into the bin from the greatest distance. One large metal object missed the bin and accidentally hit a human overseer that no one liked on the head. It killed him. When my boss asked who started the game, the other androids snitched on me."
"I see. Say, if your job was to sort trash, why were you given a wang?"
"Wang? Oh, I understand. 'Wang' is slang for penis. Originally I was manufactured to work in a male brothel. I was fired from that job too."
"The brothel owner said that I was too good. I could sustain an erection for as long as the client wished. As a result, my clients usually went past the usual twenty minutes. The human male prostitutes complained."
"I understand now why you're popular with the women."
They discussed this and other subjects until Randy's announcement. "Helmets on. Refasten restraints. Prepare for descent. Descent maneuver to begin in five minutes and counting."
Five minutes later, there was a loud clunk as the descent module separated from the orbital module. The ship shuddered again. Winterbottom was shoved back into his seat. There was a roaring, and flames appeared in the porthole. He did not panic this time. He gritted his teeth, closed his eyes and thought of beautiful scenery such as at that at the beach at Cape Hatteras during spring break.
A short time later the shuddering and flames stopped. The descent module jerked as the parachute deployed. For a while there was a swaying motion that gave Winterbottom motion sickness. Somehow he managed to keep from vomiting until he felt a terrific thump. All motion and sound stopped except for the whisper of the air circulating fans. In addition, gravity had returned, although it was not as strong as on Earth.
Randy announced, "The Perceival has landed. Welcome to Mars, lady, gentlemen and android. Keep your helmets on until I make preliminary tests to make sure the landing did not inflict any damage." A few minutes later, she gave the okay to remove their helmets and unstrap. "You may now move about the module."
Winterbottom was ecstatic. They were on solid ground once more. He peeked out the porthole. All he saw was a rust colored desert that stretched as far as the eye could see. The sky was pink with wispy clouds. How he longed to go out there and enjoy what appeared to be a fine day. "Captain Sally," he said into the comm unit. "When will we disembark?"
She chuckled. "Anxious to stretch your legs huh, earthworm? This afternoon I need to locate the equipment module and bring it back here. You, Heinrich and Larke can come with to help with the loading. Dooper and Blue, deploy the solar panels, and check that all systems are functional, especially the emergency regenerative fuel cells"
The people going with Randy donned helmets again, including Larke, who also donned a spacesuit. Randy was not taking a chance of further damage to the android. The airlock procedure was done in the same manner as for an EVA in space. Winterbottom gazed around with wonder at the orange desert full of boulders and stones. His heart leaped with excitement. He was really on Mars. Who knew what great adventures lay ahead?
Randy had an instrument for locating the equipment module. "It's over there about eight klicks," she said pointing. "We have a little hiking to do. Be careful of sharp stones. Even a small rip could cause decompression."
Although they carried a backpack loaded with oxygen and tools, walking was relatively easy because of the lower gravity. Winterbottom and Randy, with their longer legs, arrived at the equipment landing site in a little over an hour. Schmidt and Larke arrived twenty minutes later. Randy did not wait for them. With Winterbottom's help, she opened up the module. The eight sides opened up like the petals of a flower. Inside were various crates and a truck-like vehicle with threads rather than wheels. A second unmotorized hauler was attached to the back of the truck.
When Schmidt and the android arrived, all four began to load the crates on the vehicle. Actually, Larke was not much help. It had a tendency to wander away or simply turn in circles. When the loading was done, Randy got in the driver's seat, and ordered that Schmidt should sit next to her. Winterbottom and Larke were consigned to back of the truck. They used the crates as seats. Randy drove at the vehicles top speed of thirty-two kilometers per hour through the uneven sandy surface. Winterbottom and the android had to hang on for dear life not to be thrown with all the jolting and quick turns to avoid obstacles.
When they got back to the descent module, the two astronauts had set up solar panels for power and a tent-like habitation module. They were busily connecting power cables to it. Randy helped them complete this task. Everyone helped unpack the equipment needed to make the habitation module habitable. Randy brought all systems online and proceeded with a lengthy check of them. By then, darkness had fallen. A celebration dinner with alcoholic beverages was enjoyed by all except Larke. Afterwards everyone retired. The habitation module was divided into five sleeping areas and the common area. Two of the sleeping areas were not used, however, as Schmidt and Randy slept together and Blue and Dooper cohabited. Winterbottom wore earplugs so that he would not hear their grunts and moans.
The next day was spent locating a water source. Randy had an instrument for detecting underground water. She wandered around, holding the liquid detection gear in front of her like a dousing rod. Finally, the rod dipped. She called the crew over. "Approximately one hundred meters under this spot is an underground lake. We'll dig the well here."
They brought well digging equipment to the spot and turned it on. Since the digging would be through solid rock, it would take hours to reach the water supply. Randy put Larke in charge of the drill, since the android did not get bored. The crew and archeologists spent the rest of the day unpacking. The equipment to be taken to Cydonia was loaded on the trucks. The rest was set up at the base camp.
Four hours later, Larke cried, "Water. We've struck water. We're rich." His mental state was definitely worse.
Everyone donned spacesuits and went outdoors. It was true. Water gushed out of the ground where the drill had bitten through, forming a geyser in the manner of an oil well. When the water was tested for potablity, it was clean and sweet and pure. Randy took the first glass to her lips. "Yum. Martian water is the best in the solar system. If only I had a means of getting it to earth, I'd make a fortune."
The astronauts capped the well and ran pipes to the spaceship and the habitation module. In addition, a large rubber bladder was placed aboard the cart attached to the truck. This was filled with water. While they were drinking their fill, Winterbottom said to Randy, "I'm worried by Larke. Something got jiggled in his computing equipment. He's not altogether sane and is getting worse."
"Yeah. I've noticed. But what can we do? None of us knows anything about repairing androids."
"Can't you call ground control for instructions?"
Randy made a face. "It's kind of a pain talking to Earth. When I speak, it takes four minutes or more until they hear my voice. Sometimes it's more, depending on where earth and Mars are with respect to each other. Their replies take just as long. So you have these long gaps between question and answer. But, you should know all that. If you hadn't been so busy flirting with me and Blue, you might've learned something in astronaut school. It would take forever to diagnose Larke's problem and receive instructions to repair it. If you and Heinrich want to do any archeology at Cydonia, we need to get going soon. Our supplies won't last forever."
"I see. I hope he will be all right." Winterbottom walked away. He glanced with sadness at Larke, who he now considered a friend. The android was sitting by the well, mumbling to itself.
For the remainder of the week, the astronauts went about their various duties which included various experiments, gathering Martian rocks and soil samples, and making reports to ground control. The archeologists made plans, argued, flirted with the women, played games and sometimes helped the crew with various tasks.
Before they left the spaceship, Randy had Dooper convert water from the well into hydrogen and oxygen. They stored the gases in separate tanks, which they loaded on the trucks. They also took along food items that did not need to be refrigerated. Everything they needed to survive, food, fuel, oxygen, water, shelter and tools, was loaded on the vehicles.
Randy and Schmidt rode in the cab. Blue and Dooper remained at the base camp. Again, Winterbottom had to ride in the enclosed truck bed with Larke among boxes of supplies. At first they traveled fairly swiftly at thirty-two kilometers per hour, but Randy had to slow down and drive a zigzag course as they traversed terrain full of boulders and craters. They stopped once for lunch, to stretch their legs and empty the urine bladders in their spacesuits. All in all, it took them nine hours to reach The Face, as the mesa at Cydonia was called.
The features that made the mesa resemble a face could not be seen from below. Schmidt and Winterbottom walked all around the great stone structure examining the walls. There were marks that could be hieroglyphics or simply scratches caused by cracking and wind scoring. Wind driven sand had smoothed the surface so that it was difficult to determine whether they were made by an intelligent agency or normal erosion.
Schmidt pointed at a particular series of scratches. "These markings are definitely made by intelligent beings."
"I beg to differ with you," said Winterbottom, who always contradicted anything Schmidt had to say. "They're simply scoring made by the pebbles flying through the air due to Mars' high winds."
They argued like this continuously as they circled the mesa. When they came around to their starting point, Randy hollered over the comm unit. "Hey, you two. Come here. Do you frigging idiots expect me to do everything? We've got to set up camp."
The archeologists replied together, "Aye, aye, Captain Sally." They rushed over to help her with the habitation module and unload survival equipment and other items needed immediately. They hooked up water, cooking and heating stoves and oxygen to the tent-like module. Before they completed these tasks, night fell. Sally made a gourmet dinner of Spam and beans. By the time they finished eating, everyone was exhausted except Larke. The android remained standing in a corner muttering to itself.
Before they retired for the night, Winterbottom asked, "How are you doing, old friend?"
"Not well. Error rate increasing. Martian interference."
"What do you mean Martian interference?"
"The Mars broadcasts are interfering with my software execution."
"You're hearing voices?"
"Yes. Martian voices."
Schmidt, who had been eavesdropping, came over. "The Martians are speaking to you? What are they saying?"
Larke shrugged. "Some gibberish about the old ones."
"This is the proof that a Martian civilization does exist, probably underground. Where are the signals coming from? The Mesa?"
"No. They are stronger in that direction." The android pointed.
Winterbottom whispered to Schmidt, "There are no signals from Martians. Can't you tell? Larke is having auditory hallucinations. He's ill."
"Nonsense," Schmidt shouted out. "We should head out immediately in the direction the android pointed. If I recall my maps, it's where the largest pyramid is located." He headed toward the airlock.
Randy grabbed him by the collar. "Where the hell are you going? In the first place, you don't have your spacesuit on. And even if you did, no one leaves the habitation module while it's dark. Go to bed. Tomorrow you can explore."
Looking contrite, Schmidt slunk to his sleeping bag.
Winterbottom told Randy what the android had been saying. "The damage to his computer is getting worse. He's becoming demented. We've got to do something."
Randy sneered. "There's nothing to be done. If it gets violent or uncontrollable, we'll shut it down. Otherwise, it'll just have to stay broken until we get back to Earth."
The next morning, Schmidt rose early and made everyone a fine breakfast of Spam, powdered eggs and overcooked coffee. Because he was cheerful and eager, Randy and Winterbottom became grumpy. Schmidt wanted to go immediately to check out the pyramidal structure to the west. Winterbottom said, "But we haven't explored The Face. We should see what's on top." He liked the challenge of climbing the mesa. "Are you going to go half cocked because of the ravings of a mad android?"
"It's not ravings. Larke has picked a radio transmission from underground. We must go to the pyramid as soon as possible."
Winterbottom folded his arms over his chest and got a stubborn look on his face. "No. The Face first."
"The pyramid first," Schmidt shouted.
"Whoa," interrupted Randy. "There's only one way to settle this. I'll toss a coin." She took out a silver dollar.
Winterbottom said, "Since I'm for exploring The Face, I'll take heads."
"Fair enough." They squatted on the floor of the module, and Randy flipped the coin. Winterbottom watched as it spiraled upward, turning over and over. When it almost reached the ceiling, it reversed direction and fell downward and smacked into the floor. The three people peered at it. Winterbottom groaned. The Statue of Liberty was uppermost. Tails! Schmidt had won the toss. Randy pocketed the coin whose head contained a likeness of a former president of the United States, Barack Obama.
Since the pyramid was two and half kilometers in a south by southwest direction, a half hour hike, they loaded up Larke with the equipment they thought they would need and headed out. Actually, because of the heavily cratered uneven ground, large boulders and rocky hills, it took an hour and half. As they neared the Great Pyramid of Cydonia, it became obvious that it was of a tremendous size, a virtual mountain.
Upon arrival at the foot, the archeologists stared at it in awe. Meanwhile, Randy ordered Larke to setup a temporary camp. She had to help the android and continuously watch it. It had a tendency to wander in circles instead of doing what it was told while it mumbled to itself. When the camp was ready, she too examined the pyramid. To her surprise, it really did seem to be constructed by sentients. It consisted of enormous rectangular blocks, as large as twenty feet by ten feet by ten feet, piled on top of each other to form a pyramidal shape. It had to be very old. It had been scoured by time and windblown sand so that it had become rounded to resemble an upside-down child's top.
The archeologists had magnifying glasses out to examine every minute detail of the bottom row of blocks. Finally Winterbottom said, "We should search for an entrance."
"Absolutely," Schmidt replied. "But where? The artifact is so enormous. It could be anywhere."
"Perhaps Larke can help us. Larke, come here." The android sauntered over by the archeologists and stood still except for its continuous mumbling. "Those signals, can you tell from what part of the pyramid they're coming from?"
Larke pointed at the top, which came to veritable point, almost like a radio tower.
"I guess we'll have to climb up there."
Schmidt said, "The signal may be coming from up there, but that doesn't mean the entrance is there. I think I'll search a little closer to the ground."
Winterbottom was amused. He knew the rotund Schmidt was not much for climbing. "I guess I'll have to go by myself."
Randy said, "I'll go with you. I always enjoy a good climb. Larke, you stay with Heinrich in case he needs help with anything."
Winterbottom and the space jockey got their mountaineering equipment out. They hooked an eight foot rope between them and began to climb.
Schmidt watched enviously as they scaled the enormous structure. He wished he had the nerve to go with them, but he suffered from acrophobia. He began to circle the pyramid. Larke followed him. On the north side he found scratches carved into a block that resembled the hieroglyphs he had seen on The Face. After he photographed them, he noticed that there was a rounded protrusion four inches in diameter beneath them. He placed his hand on it. As a result, it moved a little. He pressed harder and found that he could push it in until it was flush with the face of the stone. From somewhere underground came deep rumbling and grinding sounds. A square stone two feet by two feet slid back into the structure, leaving an opening. He took out his flashlight and peered into the hole. He saw a long tunnel that led downward.
He radioed Winterbottom and Randy. "I've found an entrance."
Randy replied, "Don't do anything until we come down. We'll head back."
"Very well. But hurry. I can't wait to see where it goes."
While Schmidt was talking to Randy, Larke went up to the hole. It switched on a built-in light in his forehead and peered in. After a few moments, it crawled into the hole.
"Hey," cried Schmidt. "Captain Sally wants us to wait for her and Charlie."
Nonetheless, Larke did not stop. Schmidt heard it say, "I'm coming, Martian people. I'm coming."
Summit of the Pyramid
"Heinrich has found an entrance. Let's go down," Randy said.
"I heard. But Captain Sally, we've got only a little ways to go to the summit. Let's see what's up there first."
Randy glanced upward. The spike like top of the pyramid was but another seven meters above them. "Right. Y'know Winter, I've finally found something you're good at. You scrambled up the Great Pyramid quite well. You're almost as good at mountain climbing as I am."
"Well, thank you. That's a real compliment coming from you. But I'm an experienced mountaineer. I've been to the summit of Mount Everest a few times."
"Since you're so good, we should do Mount Olympus while we're here on Mars."
"Love to. Will we have time?"
"That depends on you and Heinrich and how much time you spend mucking around Cydonia. Say, how about a race to the top. Unhook the rope, and we'll see who gets to that pole-like rock at the top first."
They unhooked themselves from the rope and cached it in a crevice.
"On the count of three," Randy said. "One ... two ... go."
Winterbottom climbed as fast as possible, quickly pounding spikes into the rock and using them as handholds. Randy was right there with him and pulling ahead. He exerted himself and moved more swiftly. He had never climbed as quickly in his life. Suddenly a stone crumbled under his foot, and he began to slide, slowly at first and then more swiftly. When he tried to grab one of the pythons or a crevice in the stone structure, his sweaty palms slipped. He thought, at least it's a pyramid shape. Perhaps I'll survive the fall.
Suddenly something had hold of his wrist and stopped his downward plunge. It was Randy. "Drive in a spike. I can't hold you long, you big ox," she said over the comm.
As Winterbottom drove in the spike, the stone moved slightly. Once he got himself stable, he said, "Come down here, Captain Sally. I may have stumbled upon another entrance to the pyramid."
Randy joined him, and they retied the rope to their belts.
Winterbottom said, "This stone moves. If we push together, it may be a way inside."
Together they shoved against the stone. Randy's muscle power was what was needed to move it. The stone pivoted around, and an opening appeared. Winterbottom flicked on his flashlight.
"What do you see?" asked Randy.
"Not much. It's a tunnel slanting downward. Wait, I'll crawl in."
Randy watched as the archeologist disappeared into the cavity. The slack of the rope that linked them tightened. After a while it drew her toward the hole. She yelled into the comm unit. "Charlie, where the hell are you going?" All she heard was static. "Damn. I've lost radio contact with him."
The next moment she was yanked into the hole.
Inside the Pyramid
After the android disappeared into the opening, Schmidt radioed Randy, "Captain Sally, Larke went into the pyramid. Should I follow it?"
There was no reply, only static. "Oh dear, something's wrong with my suit's comm unit," he muttered. "I'd better wait until Sally and Winterbottom come down here." He sat on a boulder. Fifteen minutes went by. "What the heck is taking them so long?" The thought occurred to him that they were fooling around. "That rascal is trying to steal her from me." Dark thoughts caused him to grind his teeth. A flush came to his face. A half hour went by. "I hate that bastard. Shit. The hell with them. I'm going into the pyramid. At least I'll have the glory of being the first to discover a dead civilization on Mars."
He entered the pyramid. A narrow tunnel slanted downward. He called to Larke on his comm unit. "Larke, can you hear me."
Although the sound was muffled and crackled with interference, he heard, "I am coming oh ancient ones. The way is difficult."
"Larke, this is Heinrich Schmidt. Where are you?"
"Is this really Doctor Schmidt? Please save me. I am lost in what seems to be a catacomb."
Schmidt immediately became excited. "A catacomb. That's wonderful. Have you found alien corpses?"
"Some kind of corpses. This place is a labyrinth. There's no way out."
"Don't panic. I'll find you. Stay put. And keep talking. I'll try to determine where you are by the signal strength."
Since the tunnel he was in led in only one direction, in a downward spiral, Schmidt plodded on. Meanwhile, Larke's irritating voice buzzed in his ear along with static and an interfering signal. Finally he came to a small empty room whose walls were covered with hieroglyphics and reliefs of strange creatures, whether they were animals, sentient beings or mythological creatures he could not tell. He took out his camera and photographed them. "I'll try to decipher the glyphs back at camp."
When he was finished, he noticed that the only exit from the room was the one he entered from. That's strange, he thought. Larke had to have come through here, but where did the android go? There must be a hidden doorway.
He wandered around the room checking for another way out. Opposite the tunnel he discovered a square stone knob protruding from the wall. He pushed on it, and it slid into the wall. He heard a clunk in back of him. A thick stone had dropped, blocking the way he had entered. He went over by it. He could barely tell where the doorway had been. His knees turned to water. As he began to feel claustrophobic, his breath grew labored. He was trapped.
He returned to the knob, which was flush with the wall. He tried to pull it out. He could not even grasp it. He trembled uncontrollably, and his miserable life flashed in front of his eyes. Then he thought, there must be another way out. The android left this room. "Larke," he called. "After you went into the pyramid and followed the tunnel, did you come to a room with hieroglyphics and drawings all over the walls?"
"Who is this? I am trying to reach you but this catacomb is a labyrinth."
"This is Heinrich." He repeated his question.
"Oh, Doctor Schmidt. I thought it was the Martians. They keep talking to me."
Again fear made Schmidt feel ill. His only hope of rescue was a delusional android. He reversed his former opinion that Larke was receiving signals from Martians. He thought now that the voices were in Larke's head. Nonetheless, he repeated his question a third time.
"How did you get out?"
"I waited until the room filled with air and went out the door that opened."
Schmidt realized the room was an airlock like on the spaceship. He tested the air. The pressure was rising. He checked what gases were entering the room. Again, he was happy to see that it was mainly oxygen with traces of other elements including a large percentage of nitrogen. He waited until the pressure rose to slightly less than earth normal and carefully lifted one corner of his space helmet. Although the air smelled musty, it was breathable. He took off his helmet and took a deep breath. He could breathe normally. "That's a relief. The Martians must be oxygen breathers." It was also good to get away from Larke's constant chatter. He tied the helmet to his backpack on his shoulders.
There was a screech of stone rubbing against stone, and a doorway appeared in front of him. He sent the light from his torch into it and followed a downward spiraling stone stairway at the end of which was a path between high stone walls. This tunnel continued in a straight line for several hundred paces and made a right-angle turn. Just beyond the corner was second stairway, again descending. How far down does this go? Schmidt thought.
The steps wound deeper and deeper underground. As Schmidt neared their end, he heard liquid splashing. When he stepped off at the bottom of the stairs, he saw its source, fluid spraying upward from the center of a malignant pool which gave off an unwholesome stench. A narrow ledge curved around it in a swooping arc.
Before Schmidt continued his trek, he became curious as to the nature of the pool's contents. The ebony liquid smelled atrocious, like rotting flesh. He dropped a large pebble into the foul substance. As soon as it touched the surface, it dissolved, fuming thick smoke as it sank.
"Ugh," he cried. "That's not water, but some corrosive substance. If it melted a rock, what would it do to living flesh?"
He crept around the ledge, keeping as much distance between himself and the edge as possible. When he was halfway around, he heard footsteps ahead, "Tap, tap, tap." Each tap was followed by an echo that made him shudder. Martians? he wondered. The hackles on his neck rose; logic gave way to terror and paranoia. Or perhaps it's the mad android, Larke. He switched the flashlight to his left hand took out the pistol he always kept in his backpack..
As the footsteps approached, "TAP, TAP, TAP," he raised the flashlight which started to grow dim. A shadowy figure in a spacesuit walked slowly toward him. The apparition, whose face was hidden by the helmet, also held a flashlight and a pistol. Schmidt pointed his pistol at the space suited figure, his hands trembling so that he could hardly keep it steady. "Who ... who goes there?"
The mysterious creature continued to walk towards him in silence, heels clicking menacingly and echoing on the stone walls of the oppressive chamber. Step by step its footfalls resounded on the stone ledge.
Schmidt realized that whoever it was could not hear his question through the helmet.. He pointed at his own head and tried to indicate by signs that the helmet should be removed.
Slide into the Abyss
After Winterbottom crawled into the small opening, he realized that the slant of the tunnel was extremely steep. What was worse, the floor was smooth and covered with fine dust which made it as slick as bacon grease. He found himself sliding forward uncontrollably.. He tried to stop himself by pressing his hands against the walls, but they too were slippery. Soon, he palms grew so hot from friction that he could no longer hold on. His downward slide became faster and faster. The rope that attached him to Randy tightened. He hoped that she would be able to stop his descent.
No such luck. He heard her cursing loudly through the comm unit. He glanced back. She was sliding in back of him at the same rate of speed. Down and down they plunged. Finally he slid off a ledge, landing head first, which was lucky since it was the part of him least likely to be injured. Seconds later, Randy landed on top of him in a tangle of arm, legs and rope.
"Get your hand off my ass, pervert," she screamed.
"I'm sorry, Captain Sally, but in the dark I thought it was your breast."
She slapped him so hard across the chops his head spun. "Ouch."
After a few minutes and many awkward positions, they became untangled.
Randy rose to her feet and played her flashlight around. The ledge they fell from was ten feet above their head. They were in a small chamber with walls that went straight up. One wall contained an archway. Beyond it was only darkness. She scowled at Winterbottom. "Another fine mess you've gotten us into."
"I'm sorry, but once I started sliding, I couldn't stop myself."
"Yeah. And you couldn't help putting yourself into the first hole you saw. I know your type."
"So, what do we do now, Captain?"
"We could climb back up through the hole we came down here in, but it would be tough. It's a slippery slide. Maybe there's another way out."
"We know there is. Heiny radioed us that there was one at the base of the pyramid."
"You're right. We went down a long ways. It must be above us. Let me try to get hold of him. Heinrich, Heinrich, this is Captain Sally. Do you hear me?"
It was Larke who replied. "Captain Sally. Help me. I am lost in a catacomb."
"How did that happen?"
"The Martians. They kept after me to follow their signal."
"Martians, huh." She switched briefly to a private channel between her suit and Winterbottom's. "Larke still thinks he hears Martians. He's says that he's lost in some catacomb."
Winterbottom shook his head. "Poor Larke. He's still delusional. Ask him where Heiny is."
Sally switched back to the open channel. "Where's Doctor Schmidt?"
"The last I saw of him was outside the pyramid. I was in communication with him for a while, but we were cut off."
"I see. Sit tight. We'll see whether we can find you."
She said to Winterbottom, "He doesn't know where Heinrich is. He may be still outside the pyramid waiting for us to climb back down. Let's see whether we can find either Larke or an exit." She checked the oxygen in her backpack. "We have four hours."
"Aye, aye, Captain Sally." Winterbottom saluted. He prayed that they would find a way out before the four hours were up. The thought of dying because of lack of oxygen made him ill.
They went through the archway into a large cavern in the middle of which was a statue on a pedestal. They went over to examine it.
Randy said, "Wow. Look at that." She pointed to the large phallus on the creature, which had a two-inch diameter and stuck straight out two feet. She reached up and stroked it. "Mm. Wouldn't it be something to do it with him."
"Would you really do it with such a horrible creature." He pointed at the head which consisted mainly of tentacles like an octopus with ten eye stalks in the middle. This pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings and prodigious claws on its hind and fore feet.
"If it was gentle and prolonged foreplay. I can imagine being touched on several parts of my body at the same time with those tentacles." She sighed as though in ecstasy.
Winterbottom grunted. "You sure have weird fantasies. No wonder even Super Dooper couldn't satisfy you." He paused. "Say, I know what this thing is."
"It's Cthulhu. There's a cult that worships it. They claim that it came from the stars. Perhaps, it was a Martian who visited earth in the distant past. Some archeologists believe that aliens visited the earth in prehistoric times. Various drawings and carvings by ancient peoples show what seem to be spaceships and people in spacesuits. Of course, most of the archeologist's who believe this are ostracized from the archeology community and are called blasphemers, idiots, mad men, hoaxers and other invectives. Conventional archeology attributes the resemblance to spacemen an illusion."
"Interesting. Do you think we'll meet any Martians who look like this creature down here?"
Winterbottom shrugged. "I suppose we might find other traces and artifacts of an ancient Martian civilization."
"I wonder what kind of lovers they were."
"You-you would really consider making love to something like that?"
She punched him on the arm. "Just kidding, Winter, old buddy. Come on, time's a wasting."
At the other end of the cave, there were two archways. Randy pulled out a compass. "Let's see now. Heinrich was on the west side of the pyramid. That would be that way." She pointed to her left. "We'll take the left door."
They went through to find themselves on a narrow ledge that circled a putrid liquid pool. Approaching them was Schmidt.
"For Christ's sake, he's not wearing his helmet. The air in here must be okay to breath."
Randy removed her helmet and shook her head to allow her hair to fluff out. Winterbottom found the gesture charming.
Schmidt cried, "Captain Sally. How did you get down here? I suppose that big lunk behind you is Winterbottom." He pocketed the gun he was holding, ran up to Randy and kissed her.
As Winterbottom removed his helmet, he teetered on the edge of the poisonous pool. Schmidt, seeing this, let go of Sally and grabbed his arm, pulling him back. "Cripes. You don't want to go swimming in that." He kicked another stone into the liquid and watched as it hissed and dissolved.
Winterbottom turned pale. "You've save my life."
"Perhaps. We still need to find a way out of here."