Chapter twenty-nine of Unknown North, a novel that will be published chapter-by-chapter until it’s done. All chapters so far: Unknown North.
There was little to do while they waited for the recon vehicles to arrive. Dr. Moore found himself watching General Rauchbach while the general watched Mars. They were sitting at the top of the cliff over the forest, cross-legged on the cracked and thirsty land, the main tiki a shadowed hump in the setting sun. On the other side of the vehicle the rest of the science team was busy taking samples of the same dirt over and over again. If Dr. Moore squinted really hard he could just make out the plumes of dust kicked up by the two-man recon vehicles (“recoes”) catching up with them.
“I hope it doesn’t go sub-zero when the sun sets,” the general said, more to himself than anything. “We’ll have to go home if that happens.”
His eyes scanned the forest. The purple twilit sky over it hadn’t seemed affected by the dying sunlight. It seemed to glow with its own luminescence.
“What happened to Admiral Thomas?” Dr. Moore suddenly blurted, as if the general’s comment had been an invitation to speak openly. General Rauchbach turned his stern gaze to the doctor, his expression saying everything by saying nothing.
“Admiral Thomas was removed from this project.”
Angelo ran his finger nervously through the dust in front of him. It was the last answer he had been expecting. Of course he’d seen the two men disagree, but… removed? Perhaps the news stung because it helped Angelo realize he wasn’t as in the loop as he’d hoped, considering he was sitting on the surface of Mars with the apparent head of Deep-Space Ops.
“Can I ask why?”
General Rauchbach sighed heavily.
“He had too many preconceived notions about what we’d find, and he was too intent on proving himself right.”
Angelo glanced at the general and got the distinct impression that he was talking more about someone else; a warning veiled as a story, it seemed.
“Then why am I here?” he asked, trying not to look nervous. He had to play the game, but he wasn’t sure he knew the rules. “I mean, we all know I had what I thought was a clear idea of what we’d find.”
“But Admiral Thomas let the pressure of being right affect his work, Dr. Moore. He could no longer function adequately on this project, so he was removed. It happens quite often in Deep-Space Ops.”
“We have learned to save extreme bias for war, not exploration,” the general concluded, his body language denoting that the conversation was over.
Dr. Moore decided not to push the issue. After all, he was sitting with the general because his own preconceived notions about Mars had been shattered to the point that he couldn’t rightly function with the rest of the science team, simply because he was afraid of what he would uncover.
“You are our spy,” the general added quietly. “In order to debunk the other side you have to know the other side without becoming it. The admiral had become his own worst enemy.”
“But I was wrong,” the doctor replied sheepishly. “Look around, General. This isn’t what I expected. A forest on Mars, for Christ’s sake?”
General Rauchbach smiled widely at Angelo.
“Exactly, Dr. Moore. The fact that you can’t believe your eyes says you still believe it to be impossible. We need that grounding, as I told you when I first asked you to join us. Only by being grounded can we be sure that what we’re seeing is true. If you can’t believe it and you still see it, then it must be there.”
Angelo Moore wasn’t entirely convinced by the logic, but the explanation did hold enough credence that he could let it go. For now.
“As an example, Dr. Moore, can you explain why the light over the forest isn’t changing, even as the rest of the sky we see is growing darker?”
“No, sir, I cannot.”
“And yet you agree that its relative illumination has remained constant since we first noticed it at dusk?”
“Then I suppose it must be real. Now, wouldn’t you like to find out why?”
“Very much so, sir.”
The general grinned widely again and stood up, brushing the dust from his pants.
“I better call the recoes and see what’s up.”
# # #
“No way I’d miss this!” Sophie whispered conspiratorially to Henry while the adults behind them needlessly revisited well-considered points.
Sophie could tell her mom was nervous and using tiny disagreements to ignore what was going on around them, and she assumed the other adults were also doing the same thing. She wished she could fill them all with the same sense of excitement that she felt; she hoped Henry, at least, was as excited.
“We’ve been there a hundred times before,” Henry replied dismissively.
He was still annoyed that their secret world had been crashed by PISA, though he’d never say as much out loud. They stopped a good distance away from the adults and turned to each other, waiting for the rest of the team to catch up. They’d been asked to lead the team to the temple in the forest and it was taking longer than either of them had expected. Apparently physical distance was longer than astral distance.
“But we haven’t been here before like this, Henry!” Sophie tried, her eyes wide and sparkling with pure joy. “We’ve only ever been here in dreams before. This is real! Don’t you like the idea of being here in person?”
Henry shrugged, not willing to commit to anything. Aside from feeling like his kids-only clubhouse had been uncovered, he was also starting to become concerned that if they were in the forest physically, that also meant they could get stuck. He smiled at Sophie, hoping to calm his own nerves.
“It’s a big step, Soph,” he admitted. “Dreams are one thing—you can just wake up and you’re home. But we can’t wake from this trip, can we?”
“Where’s your sense of adventure?” she teased. “Your mom seems pretty excited.”
Henry glanced back his mother, who stood far enough away from everyone else to not get underfoot, but still close enough to hear what they said. She was taking feverish notes on the whole mission. She looked calm, but Henry wondered if that was just because she was busy.
“My mom isn’t a good chess player,” he replied cryptically.
Sophie wrinkled her brow and grinned at him.
“What does that mean?”
“She never plans very far ahead. To be a good chess player, you have to be able to see and plan for multiple different outcomes. My mom plans for what she decides is the most likely outcome, and that’s usually just the outcome she wants to happen. Right now, she thinks everything is going to be okay.”
Sophie glanced at Henry’s mom to see if she could glean the same message, then squinted back at Henry.
“Don’t you think everything’s going to be okay?”
Henry shrugged again.
“It is the most likely outcome. But something could go wrong, that’s all I’m saying. And if it does, waking up won’t be an option.”
“Would you rather have stayed—”
“No,” Henry cut in adamantly, then softened his tone. “You don’t get to have all the fun. Besides, you’d be lonely up here without me.”
“That’s true,” she agreed.
“Looks like they’ve finally decided to catch up,” Henry said.
Sophie watched him walk back toward the group for a few seconds.
“Just the nerves talking,” she decided to herself, then hurried over to his side.