Below is a free sample of The Music of Mars. It sets the stage for the two main character, Gretchen and Frank, to begin their adventure. For Frank, he sees the walls beginning to close in while Gretchen’s world begins to crumble from underneath her, prompting her to venture to Mars.
1 | Driving Desires
“That didn’t take long,” Frank muttered. The vidcomm’s chime had interrupted a gripping novel. He sighed… it was probably Sam, once again trying to cajole him into attending one of Mars City’s pre-concert parties. Or it could be Erin, attempting to salvage a friendship from their failed romance.
Frank squeezed his eyes closed. Her refusal of his proposal still stung. The seven domes comprising Mars City might cover a lot of area, but when avoiding her, they weren’t nearly enough.
It could be one of his engineers. He’d assigned himself the on-call duty while running a skeleton staff, so as many of his people as possible could attend the concert and parties. He craned his neck and glanced at the display.
As it turned out, all his guesses had been wrong.
He tapped the datapad screen to set a bookmark and took a seat in the comfortable chair before pressing the Connect button.
Under the MarsVantage logo, the screen displayed, ‘Communication negotiation underway. Please wait.’ The message remained longer than usual, prompting Frank to mutter, “Damn solar flares.” The Earther scientists still hadn’t devised a means to stabilize the communication system’s Morris-Thorne wormholes when the Sun was most active.
The reset seemed to take forever, but the on-screen clock indicated just twenty seconds for the M-T wormholes to realign and stabilize. The screen now displayed, ‘Encryption handshake underway.’ Frank opened the vidcomm’s maintenance panel, reached inside, and found the small device that he’d installed years earlier.
After pressing his thumb to it, the encrypted connection completed. A long-time Earth friend appeared on-screen and said, “Frank Brentford, you old Marsee.”
“Jonathan Bank, you old news hound. You’re the last person I was expecting to hear from.”
As always, Jonathan was nattily attired in the current Earth trend—a sports jacket and thin-collared check shirt. Out of habit and out of view of the vidcomm’s camera, Frank tugged the top of his steel gray jumpsuit to smooth it against his black t-shirt. On Mars, few people could afford to import the latest fashions. Regardless, he wanted to look his best.
In unison, they recited, “The knowledge I keep is true. I note the lies for what they are. I seek and safeguard information for prosperity, so humanity will never lose its knowledge, its history, or its essence. I do so, for a time when we’ll need it the most.”
Jonathan’s smile faded. “I don’t have all the pieces yet, but there’s something brewing with Peter Konklin Interplanetary.”
Jonathan didn’t request confidentiality, nor did Frank promise it; they were Knowledge Keepers—confidentiality was implied. “Interplanetary’s pushing for stricter shipping regulations.”
“They’ve been nibbling around that for years. They delay us, but we’ll get our fleet certified for interplanetary shipments.”
“Frank, they’re taking shark-sized bites. I’m hearing major safety changes are coming down. They commissioned a study and strong-armed the Earth-based shippers to upgrade preemptively. Those shippers are passing the cost along, naturally.”
“Of course. We’ll just buy and install the upgrades.”
“There’s talk about new import/export taxes and fees, perhaps a quarantine period for your exports. My congressional sources think this is the start of a big push by Interplanetary to reacquire MarsVantage.”
“What’s different from their maneuvers over the past decade?”
Jonathan paused and drew his eyebrows closer together. “The staffers quickly shut down whenever the subject of Mars or MarsVantage comes up. It reminds me of when MarsVantage was originally spun off from Interplanetary. It’s like they know what’s coming, and they’re just waiting for the paperwork.”
Frank harrumphed. “I always knew Interplanetary would move against us. Believe me, I haven’t been lulled into complacency by the dome they’re constructing nearby. It’s only an excuse for them to wander around Mars City to spy on us.”
“If I had to bet, I’d say Interplanetary plans to shift public opinion and lobby the government for MarsVantage’s return.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Frank said, setting his jaw.
“I know after all these years you still haven’t forgiven Konklin for what happened to Lori, but this is bigger than you. Interplanetary’s too powerful. You can’t take them on and win.”
Frank forced a smile. Thirteen years ago, his wife Lori had been one of twenty-three people killed in The Airlock Accident. While the entire Interplanetary management team was complicit, the founder and CEO, the Peter Konklin of Peter Konklin Interplanetary, held the most blame. Given Frank’s choice, he wouldn’t have merely spun off MarsVantage, he would’ve spaced Konklin.
“Don’t worry. I have an idea or two.”
“Be careful, Frank.”
Before disconnecting, they discussed other business, which, in comparison, was trivial. Rumor had it that a small band of archaeologists were investigating a boat buried in Antarctica. If true, it was a fascinating curiosity.
There were also whispers that an Australian scientist made strides in Heim theory. Numerous scientists had spent countless years trying to manipulate M-T wormholes for space travel, but they’d failed miserably. Now, a lone scientist working with a long-discredited theory might produce the breakthrough two worlds wanted. Good for her if she’s right.
Frank stared at the ceiling, imagining a Mars-Earth trip taking only a couple of days, instead of a month—assuming, of course, the scientist could pull it off. Unfortunately, the Knowledge Keepers didn’t have anyone close enough to either situation to get the details.
Frank looked back at the blank screen for a heartbeat. He’d been planning a project since shortly after his dad’s passing, and its timing was tricky. If Chuck—MarsVantage’s CEO—wasn’t desperate enough, he’d never agree to spend the money to successfully complete it. If Frank waited too long, its completion wouldn’t matter. Jonathan had never steered him wrong before.
Now was the right time.
At the wall next to his bathroom door, Frank tugged open the access panel to reveal a small combination safe nestled beside the pipes. He entered the eight-digit code, and the lock opened with an audible click. Within, he kept his encrypted Knowledge Keeper datapad and a few items that could make a huge difference to MarsVantage’s future. He grabbed a small cloth bag sitting atop his dad’s handwritten journal.
The bag contained a mineral fragment roughly the size of his thumb, designated Marsium121 by the Exploration and Mineral Rights Office. If he could access the cavern filled with Marsium121 stalactites and stalagmites, he’d solve MarsVantage’s nagging energy problem.
And there was only one way to get it. He needed to convince Chuck to spend money they could barely afford on a consultant with skills ridiculously out of place on Mars. They needed to hire an archaeologist.
* * *
“Gretchen, honey, how did I know you’d still be here? I bet you feel vindicated, don’t you?” Dr. Hawthorne, the expedition leader, asked from behind her.
Moments earlier, Gretchen Blake had heard the elevator motor’s hum and the car’s tell-tale creaking and squeaking as it descended fifteen feet into the carefully excavated Antarctic snow and ice illuminated by red floodlights. The night shift wasn’t due to start for thirty minutes, and her shift-mates were a hundred yards away, enjoying a hot supper at camp. There could be only one person who would come to join her.
After looking one last time at the crude hatchets and wooden bowls, she stood and forced a blank expression to cover her disgust at his latest example of arrogance and condescension. “Finding these artifacts was unexpected. And their distance from the boat is intriguing.”
“I’ll send the astronomers an email to verify that they didn’t disturb the boat.”
A year ago, astronomers had discovered a surprisingly large three-hull catamaran held together with intertwined vines while preparing for another southern sky survey. They were scientists and wouldn’t have tampered with it. And they certainly wouldn’t have moved the bowls and hatchets thirty-seven feet away and buried them under fifteen feet of snow and ice.
Hawthorne had to know all of that already. He was toying with her. Or was he experimenting with her—probing for a reaction to a stimulus?
“Assuming they didn’t, it’s possible that ancient South American people were on the boat and lived here for a time.” She didn’t point to the artifacts as proof of her hypothesis, although her gut insisted it was true. Instead, she presented a possibility, hoping that’d be enough to placate his enormous ego.
Hawthorne shook his head. “Without food and heat? I’d sooner believe little green men from Mars left the artifacts.”
“These artifacts may have become separated over time.” That was his position, and although possible, it was highly unlikely. Gretchen couldn’t imagine any natural process that could do so without scattering them about while shattering the boat. Yet, the hatchets and bowls had been found together, no more than five feet apart. She glanced across the excavation to the wooden hull, then focused on Hawthorne. “However, it’s possible the boat was manned. I think it’s worth investigating.”
He leaned in closer. “If so, then where are the bodies?”
“The hull’s been holed. If people came, they probably set out in multiple boats. They may have simply abandoned the damaged one and returned home on another.”
“How’d you graduate high school, let alone college, without learning Occam’s Razor? The simpler theory is the better one. The boat broke free and drifted here.”
As hard as Gretchen tried not to, she frowned. “I can’t argue that isn’t a possibility.”
A sickly, mocking smile formed on Hawthorne face. “You’re young, and you want to make a big discovery. I understand. The truth is that there aren’t any big discoveries left. Do yourself a favor and forget your pet hypothesis.”
Gretchen hadn’t expected such an explicit suggestion. He’d hinted that she should drop it, but he’d never said so outright. Until now. Ever since making a name for himself a couple of decades ago when he was about her age, Hawthorne somehow maintained an esteemed reputation without making another significant discovery. She’d always wondered how he’d managed it. And now it was clear—he bullied anyone attempting to capitalize on discoveries that had eluded him. “Sir, I still believe it’s worth investigating.”
“Do as you please, girl. I’m not wasting my time.” He turned and waddled toward the elevator. In his parka, he looked like an obese penguin scurrying toward its next meal.
Gretchen shook her head and brought a gloved hand to her mouth to keep from laughing at the bizarre sight.
Regardless of his prejudgments, she’d do the work, research the boat and artifacts, and she’d understand how they’d arrived in Antarctica. She’d discover the knowledge for herself, not merely accept his interpretation because he had a title and position of authority.
Perhaps, it really was as simple as the boat breaking free and drifting here. But if it was something else, she’d add to mankind’s understanding of South American inhabitants. Mankind would become more knowledgeable, due to her efforts.
The answers she sought weren’t here, though. She’d have to find them on her own time between expeditions. It might take months, but with any luck, she’d make progress before her next dig, whenever that was. She hadn’t heard anything from her inquiries yet, though several of her co-workers had already received offers.
A disturbing thought occurred to her. Hawthorne might have a hand in her not getting a new job, which would be a huge setback for her career. No, that couldn’t be it. There were probably three emails waiting. She mumbled, “Quit inventing problems for yourself.”
Gretchen forced her thoughts in a different direction. She should also have an email from her husband, Jimmy. She’d already sent two without a reply. By now, he should’ve been able to steal a few moments from covering the Socialist Republic of Kuristan’s first open election since its founding 192 years ago. She was ready for a few days at their favorite South Carolina beach together, and he would be, too. She only needed to confirm the dates before making reservations.
As the elevator car carrying Hawthorne reached ground level, Gretchen protected the artifacts with a thermal blanket before shuffling to the elevator and recalling the car. When it arrived, she entered, closing and latching both doors before hitting the Up button. She cinched her parka’s hood tighter as she rose above the dig area and turned her back to the never-ending wind, staring blankly at the stark, frozen emptiness of the crater. Although the scene was reminiscent of Hell, she hadn’t been warm since arriving three months ago. Her next job would be in a jungle or a rainforest, anywhere hot where she could work up a sweat. Regardless, she’d never sign on to a Hawthorne dig again.
Yet, questions intruded upon her daydream. Why was she the only one wanting to understand the mystery before her? Why couldn’t Hawthorne be troubled to do the work? Why couldn’t her teammates? Did anyone want the truth?
The Music of Mars is a Finalist in the 2018 Wishing Shelf Book Awards.