Don’t get me wrong – I’d been out there a couple of times before. With friends, admittedly. And yes, they were boyfriends, and yes, they were trying to get into my pants (a bit difficult in a spacesuit, you would have thought, but man was born to strive).
This time, though, was different. For a start, I had no real idea whether the air tanks on the suit were fully charged or not. Even if they were, that only gave me thirty hours or so before I asphyxiated. That sounds like a lot when you’re safely at home leafing through a Cosmo, but it’s not so much when you’re stumbling along a dusty crater rim, trying to keep out of sight and avoiding falling in at the same time.
Then there was the nagging question of what I was doing out here in the first place. Mum would go spare if she knew! But then, she had other things on her mind at present, from what I could gather (he wasn’t sharing all the fruits of his research with me, that’s for sure … happy to receive information but not so keen to dish it out, that was my impression of our esteemed P.I. )
Which was one reason I wasn’t anxious to share with him my one and only lead. Not so much a lead as an indication, really. Among all the stuff I was reading about Ovid and his exile there’d been some references to a place called Otherworld.
It sounded like a virtual game environment to me, but the thing was that I’d heard of it before. One of the boys who'd taken me out exploring outside the dome had mentioned it, in fact.
He’d said there was a place called Otherworld within (extreme) walking distance of the dome. He’d never seen it, or met anyone who had, but it was a persistent rumour among the other kids. They all claimed to know little bits and pieces about it, but the funny thing was (he told me – I guess he was still trying to impress me, but by this stage I felt that he’d kind of forgotten about my even being there – that he was talking to himself, really – trying to sort a whole bunch of impressions into one coherent tale), the funny thing was that a lot of what they said seemed to be basically consistent, which made it seem a bit less like Cloud Cuckoo Land or the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
They said there was an old man who lived out there (most said a prospector, but others called him an explorer or even an astrogator off one of the big interstellar expeditions). What they all agreed on was that he was blind.
“He’s blind, but it’s like … he can see better than people with ordinary eyes. D’ you get what I mean?”
“You mean he’s got artificial sight lenses?”
“No. That’s what I thought they meant at first, too, but then I understood that they meant more than that. That he had some kind of insight into things. That he lived out there because he couldn’t stand to be with ordinary people – that he was too wise for everyday petty shit like we all waste our time on.”
“So he sits out there staring at rocks, does he?”
“I guess so, if he really is a prospector. I don’t know. Nobody does. Nobody I know has seen him or spoken to him, but he’s supposed to see things and think about things that nobody else has time for. It’s like he lives on a different time scale, you grok?”
“You mean he has no time for sex or drugs or anything like that?”
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not him. But I kind of got the impression that if he had sex with someone he’d already be seeing the child in the egg before he’d even had the orgasm. That the whole process would be clear to him from the get-go …”
“So he’s a kind of god.”
“Maybe. More like that than a guru, certainly. He doesn’t want to teach anybody anything. He just sits out there among the rocks and broods on stuff, cosmic stuff.”
“That idea really turns you on, doesn’t it? You’d like to be him, to live like that out in the cosmic wastes.”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Right now there’s too much I’m interested in here, but I can see the attraction, I guess.”
“So how do you reach him?”
“Why would you want to reach him?”
“Oh, you think that because I’m a chick I wouldn’t have anything I wanted to talk to him about? That we can’t be as otherworldly and mystical as the rest of you? That I’d want to redecorate his cave with wall hangings and rearrange the furniture?”
“No, I just wondered what you’d want to talk to him about.”
“I don’t know really – in any case, it’s never going to happen, so I guess it’s not really worth thinking about.”
“Not so fast. It could happen.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, I was thinking about it one day, and I started trying to imagine the logistics of keeping up a small base under the surface without anybody knowing – whether it could even be done or not: at least without attracting attention.”
“And could it?”
“Well, it wouldn’t be easy. It’d be damned expensive, for one thing. You’d have to get everything shipped out there, and I suspect people would start to get curious if they saw a bunch of supply trucks disappearing into the desert every few weeks.”
“It’s impossible, then. It must be bullshit.”
“Not so fast. You know that there are lots of old tunnels and watercourses under the surface?They run for hundreds of miles, some of them, and a lot of them have never been explored.”
“Yeah, I learnt that at school, too. They also told us that it’d be crazy to try and explore most of them, 'coz they’re far too dangerous and unstable.”
“Yeah, and I guess most of them are. But what if there are a few that are stable? What if there are some which actually lead to ground water?”
“You mean dry ice? Carbn dioxide vapour?”
“No, I mean water. What if there was actually water under there somewhere?”
“What if there were angels and demons? It’d be nice, but where’s your evidence?”
“That’s just the thing. There isn’t any. Why not? Because none of the prospectors have come back to report it. But how many prospectors have actually gone out and looked for it lately?”
“Thirteen, wasn’t it? The first thirteen?”
“Yes, and how many came back in all?”
“Three. But they saw how the others died.”
“Not all of them.”
“You mean those two who got separated, early on? What were their names?”
"Flint and Petrie."
"Yeah, the missing explorers. But weren’t their bodies found some time later?"
“No, some bodies were found, but nobody really knows how many people got lost in the hinterland before there were proper settlements here. It was more than a hundred miles from where they’d last been reported, and the bodies were crushed and mangled beyond recognition."
"So you think your man of mystery might be one of the missing two, that they – or he – found water on Mars and decided to stay beside it, to set up a hydroponics farm and just go native?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“And your evidence for this is …”
“Entirely circumstantial, yeah, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”
“It doesn’t mean you’re right, either. How come there are so many stories going around about your old man of the desert if no-one’s seen the lost explorers since?”
“Well, that’s just the point. Obviously someone has seen them – or him, rather. Perhaps only one of them is still alive.”
“He must be pretty old by now.”
“He’d be 110 or so. Still within the theoretical limits of gerontological drugs at the time they disappeared.”
“You’ve really made a study of this, haven’t you? This – what d'you call it – Otherworld?”
“ I have, yes. It really fascinates me, I don’t know why. I suppose you think it’s pretty stupid?”
“No, not at all, actually. In fact, I’m kind of impressed. Non-shallow thinking in guys is an evolutionary trait which I think every woman should encourage if possible.”
“Oh yeah, what about you chicks …”
“But just a second, before we go off onto something else. If I wanted to meet this guy, how would I go about it? You must have some ideas on the subject?”
“Well, obviously, if I knew, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you now, I’d be out there trying to talk to him.”
“Fair enough. I know you don’t actually know. I just want some kind of guess. You're way more familiar with this area than I am.”
“Well, they were last seen around the old water course east of here, so that's where all the searches to date have concentrated on.”
“Searches fifty years ago.”
“Yeah – and more recently. But what I’m thinking is that if they stumbled onto something, it would have been running north to south, the way the ancient water table did.”
“So south of here, then?”
“No. That’s just the point. I think they would have gone north. That’s the only direction where there’s the slightest chance of water still existing under the permasol.”
“In the direction of the pyramid, then?”
“In the direction of the pyramid.”