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Arriving at Mars on a mission to rescue the crewmen of the Russian ship Lenin, American astronaut and Medical Officer Lauren Wagner, along with her crew, discovers that a horror worse than any she could have feared awaits her.
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Christopher Pike, the bestselling author of the Remember Me and The Last Vampire series, has more than fifty novels to his credit. His previous adult novels include Sati, The Season of Passage, and The Cold One. Pike lives in Santa Barbara, California.
"Don't touch me!" Lauren Wagner screamed. Still caught in the web of her nightmare, she shoved at the small hand that held her arm. Jennifer, her younger sister, fell to the ground atop a scattering of pine needles. But Jennifer quickly sprang to her feet and reached out once more.
"Jenny," Lauren said, disgusted when she saw what she had done. Her T-shirt was drenched with sweat and her heart was pounding. She gave Jennifer a quick hug. "Are you OK? I didn't mean to push you. I was having a nightmare."
"I'm fine," Jennifer said, more serious than startled.
"I'm sorry." Lauren busied her hands over her sister's clothes. She realized she was trembling, and had to make a conscious effort to stop. Jennifer watched her closely, her clear blue eyes alert.
"You called someone, Lauren," she said. "Whose name did you call?"
Lauren hugged her thirteen-year-old sister again, tighter this time, and buried her face in Jennifer's brilliant hair. The chair she had dozed off in rocked forward on the forest floor. "Was I talking in my sleep?" she asked. "I had the strangest dream."
Jennifer undid Lauren's hands and took a step back. Behind her, the orange light of the evening sun shone on the tops of the surrounding pine trees. Wash Lake, a hundred yards off to their left, was a deep blue, calm and clear in the quiet of the forest. The fragrance of wild dandelions and blooming sunflowers was in the air. Yet in that moment it seemed to Lauren that Jennifer was not standing in the beautiful mountains of Wyoming, but in another place, a place where there was little beauty, and no sweet smells. Jennifer's gaze was far away and troubled.
"Whose name did you call?" Jennifer repeated.
Lauren forced a laugh and squeezed Jennifer's shoulders. "You just startled me, is all. That's why I jumped. My dream--why, I can't even remember it. It was nothing. It was only a nightmare."
Jennifer looked doubtful. She gestured to stump near Terry's cabin. "I was reading a book. Then you called me."
Lauren wanted to change the subject. "What book are you reading?" She started to run her fingers through Jennifer's long blond hair, but Jennifer shook her head and stepped away.
"Just a story," she said. "It's nothing." Turning, she walked over to the stump and picked up her book. She sat down and began to read, without looking back up.
Lauren frowned. Jennifer was a paradox, she thought, full of joy one moment, troubled and serious the next. Sometimes she wondered if Jennifer spent too much time with her nose in books. It was not unusual for Jennifer to go through five novels a week, all kinds of novels: science fiction, fantasy, adventure books, and westerns. Lauren never censored them. She didn't understand why Jennifer hadn't answered her question.
But that reminded Lauren. She still had to read Terry's article. Terry Hayes was her fiancé, a newspaper reporter for the Houston Herald. Lauren picked up the paper from where it had fallen when she jumped up out of her nightmare. The front page was dominated by a color picture that Terry had taken of the crew members of America's first expedition to Mars. Lauren was in the middle, down in front.
It was odd--she had been looking at the picture when she had fallen asleep. She knew her nightmare had had something to do with Mars. She called over to Jennifer. "Terry wanted me to critique the second part of his article, but I've only got the first part. Didn't you tell me that boyfriend of yours could get me a copy of the Herald?"
Jennifer glanced up and blushed. "He's not my boyfriend."
"Then why were you holding his hand?"
"I didn't hold his hand. I didn't."
"I understand. He was holding your hand."
Jennifer had forgotten her book. "Were you spying on us?"
"I wouldn't dream of it."
"Right," Jennifer said sarcastically.
Lauren was thoughtful. "But I do seem to remember seeing him kiss you. Accidentally seeing you, that is. It was on the cheek."
"He never!" Jennifer said indignantly.
"On the cheek but not far from your lips. A very long kiss, if my memory serves me correctly."
Jennifer seemed about to make another sharp retort when she burst out laughing. "You're just jealous because he thinks I'm prettier than you."
Lauren blinked, surprised. "He said that?"
Jennifer nodded, smug. Of course, Lauren had to agree with the young man. Jennifer was an exceptional beauty, one of those children who could turn a dozen heads in a crowded mall. Her features showed an interesting play of contradictory genes. They were clearly defined, yet also delicate, waiflike. She spent many hours outdoors, and as a result always had a decent tan, which went well with her blue eyes. The latter possessed a cerulean clarity that was seldom found except in newborn babies. But it was her hair that was her crowning glory: long and curly, naturally blond to the point of looking bleached. On sunny days it swirled around her sleek shoulders like a protective aura. To look at Jennifer was to see something beautiful; it was as simple as that.
"You told me his name," Lauren said. "What is it? Dave?"
"I see, Daniel. Not Dan or Danny, but Daniel."
"I thought calling him by his proper name would make him feel more important." Jennifer explained.
"Did you read that in a book?"
Jennifer shook her head.
"Are you sure?" Lauren asked.
"No.Yes! I like that name, Daniel."
Lauren eyed her sister's discarded book. "What are you reading anyway?"
Jennifer bowed her head and touched the book's dull red cover. "Just something I found at the library."
"And it's a secret?"
Jennifer hesitated. "It's a love story."
Lauren laughed. "I bet Danny--Daniel told you to read it. I'm going to make sure Terry watches you closely the next two years." Instantly, Lauren regretted mentioning her leaving, although it was something they had talked about enough. She knew Jennifer preferred not to discuss the expedition to Mars while they were in Wyoming. It was strange--her sister had no trouble with the subject when they were in Houston. Lauren added. "Will Daniel be here soon?"
Jennifer brightened. "He said yesterday that he'd be here at six. He's going to show me one of his weapons."
"Sounds like a date to me." Lauren checked the position of the sun. "He should be here any minute. Do you want me to take a walk?"
"You don't have to," Jennifer said, although she quickly stood, like maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea. Lauren took the hint and got up, tucking Terry's newspaper in her white shorts. The air was warm and dry, and the feel of the sun on her bare legs was delicious.
"I need the exercise," Lauren said. "What did you mean, he's going to show you one of his weapons? Is he in the service?"
Jennifer giggled. "No. He's only fourteen. He collects weapons. He's part Indian."
Lauren nodded. "That explains it. Is he going to show you how to shoot a bow and arrow?"
"No. He's bringing an elephant rifle."
"Great. My little sister's chasing an Indian who hunts elephants in a pine forest." Jennifer thought that was funny. Lauren continued, "I bought some Cokes in town yesterday, if you want to give your friend a drink. And Jenny, if Terry comes, have Daniel give a blast on his gun."
"What if he doesn't bring any bullets?"
Lauren was already among the trees, the pine needles crackling under her bare feet. "Then have him send up smoke signals," she called.
Soon Lauren reached the shore of the lake, where she turned west, heading in the direction of the sun. It was not long before she entered the shallows and broke into a jog, and then began to run. She loved to race along the shore and feel the sand between her toes and the water splashing up her back. She ran for five hard minutes, and covered at least a mile--for she was in excellent shape, and had always been fast on her feet. She only stopped when she came to wide stream, which from experience she knew to have the slipperiest rocks in all of Wyoming. She had a tiny dent on the back of her skull courtesy of the stream.
She was hot, and the lake was tempting. Unfortunately, she didn't have her suit, and her shorts and T-shirt felt like lead weights when they were wet. Plus she was something of a celebrity these days, what with the launch date only a couple of weeks away. It wouldn't do to have one of NASA's leading public relations specimens to be photographed nude.
Then again, it might do wonders for their budget.
Lauren listened closely for a minute, scanning the beach in both directions and finding no one. What decided her in the end was the thought of not seeing any green or open water for two whole years. She had to embrace nature while she could, and if someone did snap her picture, at least she would look like she was having fun. She had her shorts and shirt off in five seconds, and was in water over her head in another ten. It was not merely cold, it was liquid ice, and she loved it. Wash Lake was a half mile across, and she swam strongly toward the center. Had it not been for her bare bottom, she would have tried to swim to the far shore.
But her run must have taken more out of her than she realized. Close to the middle of the lake, she found herself working hard, and decided to roll over on her back and take it easy. She drifted along for some time, paddling just enough to stay afloat. Out of the corners of her eyes, the trees looked ten times more distant than they really were, as they always did from surface level. The sky began to darken as the sun slipped behind a forested ridge, and the water temperature finally made itself felt on her muscles. After all the money NASA had invested in her training, it would be a bummer is she drowned. Yet it was with regret that she rolled onto her belly and began to swim toward the shore. She knew even then that she would remember this swim while she was walking across the sands of Mars.
Out of the water, Lauren plopped down on a boulder beside the stream and slipped back into her clothes. The evening air held the day's warmth--she didn't mind the damp material clinging to her skin. She had left the paper in the sand. She picked it up and flipped to Terry's article.
WAR OF THE WORLDS
By Terry Hayes, Reporter
Houston. On October 28, 2002, almost two years ago, two Russian spacecraft touched down on Mars, in the mountainous region known as Tharsis. The expedition was headed by Dmitri Maximov. For ten days his men explored the area, beaming to Earth incredible footage of the alien landscape. But then, on November 6, all contact with them was lost. Two days later, communication was also lost with Carl Bensk, the sole cosmonaut aboard the mother ship, in orbit around Mars. Since that time, neither the men on the planet, nor Carl Bensk, have been heard from. They are presumed dead.
What happened to them? Five major theories have been put forth to explain their disappearance: 1) mechanical failure; 2) natural calamity; 3) alien infection; 4) alien monsters; and 5) insanity.
Of these five theories, the first is thought most likely, but only in the improbable context of the others. The chance of both communication systems on board the landers failing simultaneously is astronomically small. Furthermore, the two craft landed almost a mile apart. If one had exploded during takeoff, the other would have been spared. For the mechanical theory to hold water, the mother ship would also have had to suffer a major system failure. The theory breaks down under even the most casual scrutiny.
A natural calamity? Mars is now known to have sandstorms, and earthquakes are much more common there than on Earth. It snowed often while the Russians were in communication. The Tharsis region is also volcanic, or at least it has been in the past. However, satellites circling Mars reported no unusual weather during the period in question, and no obvious eruptions. In either case, the orbiting ship should have been unaffected, and Carl Bensk should still have returned home.
Life has never been proven to exist on Mars. Nevertheless, a variety of microscopic organisms could be flourishing in the planet's atmosphere and soil undetected. Our investigation of Mars is still in its infant stages. As is well known, a human being exposed to a virus or a bacteria from an alien environment would have no natural defense. Skeptics of this theory, however, point out that such an infection would have had to strike at lightning speed to prevent the cosmonauts from radioing Earth. Given the harsh Martian environment, advanced forms of life are considered impossible. Plus, of course, none of the Russians saw anything that looked alive. But even if such creatures did exist, they would once again have had to kill at an incredible speed to prevent at least a warning from being sent to Earth. Certainly, no alien's arm could have reached all the way into space and murdered Carl Bensk, not unless the alien was part of an advanced civilization that had mastered the art of invisibility.
It must be clear by now that the fundamental criticism of all these theories centers on Mr. Bensk. That is, except for the fifth theory--insanity. The Russians...
* * *
Lauren dropped the paper with a start as a loud explosion echoed across the lake. Daniel must have brought bullets, she thought. Terry must have arrived. She jumped to her feet and raced down the sandy beach. She ran fast, as hard as she had on the run out, and was gasping for air by the time she caught sight of Jennifer and her friend.
But Terry hadn't arrived, after all. Daniel was simply target shooting, using the cans of Coke she had bought yesterday. A handsome boy, he was dark complexioned, and had a remarkably well developed physique for a fourteen-year-old. The rifle he had cocked to his shoulder looked as if it could blow the head off a dinosaur.
"I told him you would come if he shot the gun," Jennifer said with a laugh. "Lauren, this is Daniel. Daniel, this is my big sister, Lauren. She's going to Mars in a couple of weeks."
So what else is new, Lauren thought.
Daniel offered his hand. "I know that. I saw you on TV last week. That's great that you're going to Mars. I'd like to go there myself someday."
Lauren shook his hand. "Pleased to meet you, Daniel. You'll get to go. In another twenty years they'll probably have tourist flights to Mars."
"But Lauren's going to be one of the first there," Jennifer said.
"The Russians were the first ones," Daniel said. He added, "Of course, they didn't come back."
"No they didn't," Lauren agreed.
"That was a lousy way for me to say hello," Daniel said wisely. "Sorry."
"That's all right," Lauren said.
"It's pretty cold there, isn't it?" Daniel asked.
"Our suits will keep us warm," Lauren said. "At least, that's what NASA tells us."
"I tried on her helmer," Jennifer broke in.
"What was it like?" Daniel asked, interested.
"It didn't fit. It was like wearing a bowl over your head. It was fun, though."
"We'll see you on TV when you're there, won't we?" Daniel asked.
"Yes," Lauren said. "Except you'll see everything twenty minutes after it happens. Even traveling at the speed of light, out radio signals will take that long to reach Earth. You probably know all that stuff."
"Yeah," Daniel said. "Pretty long ways to travel. Jenny says yo...
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