In the cramped confines of Pathfinder One, Lycurgus Burrell was ready to become the first man in space. For the first time he noticed the fresh tang of his own sweat. He was uncomfortably aware that he was sitting on top of enough kerosene and liquid oxygen to blow him all the way to the Moon. Once again he found himself staring out through the tiny window in front of him, which showed nothing but bright blue skies.
Outside, tinny loudspeakers proclaimed the countdown to be into the last three minutes and urged clearance of the launch area. In a short while, he'd see the inky blackness of space. In less than half an hour, he'd see the Moon go rushing past at three and a half miles per second.
An hour from now - assuming he wasn't dead - he'd be back on the ground. This was the culmination of a quarter of a century, during which he had been labelled variously as a visionary, a heretic - and a fool pure and simple.
And even he didn't know which was right...
Like a misshapen blood-orange, the Moon shot up above the western horizon. In less than a minute, its hue had faded to a leaden off-white. Lycurgus Burrell stared absent-mindedly at the shadows of the nearby line of trees, marching in step with the Moon's rapid progress across the heavens. Then the light dimmed, briefly attenuated as the Moon passed behind the sinister plume rising above Mount Erebus.
He could still faintly hear pop music and smell wood-smoke from the campsite, half a mile away.
"An archaeological dig led by a mad middle-aged hippie!" he said disgustedly. "What am I doing here?" But the disgust was directed at himself, and the question purely rhetorical.
Lycurgus stared up at the almost-full Moon. The enigmatic Face of Noah was well placed for observation, on the Moon’s eastern limb. Astronomers claimed there had once been a time when the whole of the feature could clearly be seen from Tellus, but changes in the Moon’s orbit were gradually carrying it out of view.
Why had it given rise to a Biblical story? Presumably because of a coincidental likeness to a human face. The idea that men had been to the Moon in Biblical times and carved the feature there was too ludicrous for words.
Dr. Auerbach wanted to go to the Moon for real in the here and now and he, Lycurgus Burrell, could have been a part of that quest. But he’d blown it big time.
“What a bloody mess!” he said aloud.
"Gus? Is that you?" said a voice behind him. It was that of Olwen Rees - the mad hippie herself.
Mildly curious, he turned round. "Professor?"
The tall square-jawed archaeologist favoured him with a sympathetic smile. The quartz crystal she wore as a pendant glinted in the moonlight. Doubtless news of his disastrous move for Catrina was all over the camp by now. Had she come looking for him? It was an oddly appealing thought, but the backpack she was wearing suggested some other agenda.
"Not partying?" she enquired.
"I'm not in a party mood," Lycurgus admitted. "You're going somewhere," he ventured.
"This modern pop's hardly my scene," Olwen said.
"Are you planning on getting so far away from the music you need a backpack, Professor?" Lycurgus persisted.
Olwen shrugged. "Dr. Potter's called me on the R/T. He reckons Erebus is about to blow its top. There'll be accompanying quakes and the works. The quake that opened the fissure was only a prelude."
"When’s this going to happen?"
"Any time within the next three days. Potter's getting his team out at first light and he strongly suggested we pull out too."
Lycurgus felt a glimmer of hope. "What are we going to do?"
"I'm taking Potter's advice."
Praise be, Lycurgus thought. Now he could go home and put this humiliating experience behind him. Maybe he could take up that placement with the NLIS after all.
"Why couldn't the bloody thing have waited another week?" Olwen bemoaned. "A few days at the site, just a few poxy days! That's all we'd have needed."
"Professor, if this is true, I don't think going to the site on your own is a particularly good idea."
"I've about eight hours before sunrise and it's only another couple of hours walk to the site. That'll give me four hours at the site - it's better than nothing."
"Are you crazy?" Lycurgus exclaimed.
"Gus, three days from now at most the Novacastra Diggings will have gone forever, and with it any chance to investigate what Potter's team claim they saw."
"They've got photographs, haven't they?" Lycurgus was surprised how keen he was to dissuade her from going.
But Olwen was unimpressed. "Potter and his team are geologists, not archaeologists. They wouldn't have a clue what to photograph. We can safely assume that anything they have got will be of little value."
Lycurgus found himself offering to accompany Olwen.
"T minus one minute," Robert Auerbach announced over the radio.
Burrell recalled the Catrina episode with wry amusement and the benefit of twenty-five years of hindsight. Even for a young man of 21 he had been spectacularly naive.
He'd always got on very well with Catrina, but assuming that her split with her boyfriend had left the way open for him had been unwarranted: her reply to his declaration of love entirely predictable.
"Switching over to internal power now," said Auerbach.
Catrina had never seen him as anything but a friend. To rub salt in the wounds she'd claimed she'd now become involved with somebody else.
As a second year Engineering student, he should have realised the folly of turning down Auerbach’s offer of a summer placement with the New London Interplanetary Society. He’d done so in order to join Catrina on the hastily assembled archaeological expedition. But his decisions at that time were generally testosterone-led. Come to think of it, would he have accompanied Olwen Rees that night if he hadn't fancied her?
Auerbach continued to intone the final stages of pre-flight liturgy. "T minus thirty seconds and counting. Vehicle is now on internal power. Umbilicals disconnected."
Not long to go now. Burrell’s heart began pound. He drew a deep breath. “Here we go,” he muttered. The countdown entered its final stage.
"- Ten – Nine – Eight - Seven - Six - Engine sequence commence - Five - Four - Three -" Auerbach intoned.
A distant rumble that grew to a thunderous roar.
"- Two - One - Zero. All engines running. Lift-off - we have lift-off."
"The clock is running," Burrell called.
"Lift-off of Pathfinder One at thirty-two minutes past the hour --"
"Spacecraft systems all go," Burrell reported.
He felt a terrible jarring motion, throwing him from side to side.
"Tower clear!" Auerbach announced.
The spacecraft rose in a fury of sound. Now Burrell felt a mounting pressure on his chest. Forty seconds after lift-off, the shuddering began to smooth out as Pathfinder One broke through the sound barrier. But the weight on his chest climbed remorselessly. His arms and legs felt like lead. The accelerometer read three gravities and continued to creep upwards.
"Lift-off AOK," Auerbach said reassuringly. "Pathfinder One, you're looking good."
Lycurgus and Olwen picked their way across the moonlit ruin of what had until a few days ago been a prosperous vineyard. The heavy smell of sulphur hung in the air.
Ahead of them the ground was riven as if by a gigantic meat-cleaver.
"That must be the fissure," Olwen said, excitement evident in her voice.
Olwen shone her torch down into the blackness. The fissure seemed to slope down reasonably gently.
"How deep is it?" Lycurgus cast an anxious glance at Mount Erebus. An ominous red glow could be seen at the summit.
"According to Potter, about 75 feet. The fissure is two miles long, 30 feet across at the widest point."
They started down, picking their way cautiously over the uneven ground.
"Do you think these remains really could be a thousand years older than Novacastra?" Lycurgus asked.
"Potter thinks so, based on geological evidence. Of course he couldn't comment from an archaeological perspective."
Olwen broke off as a rumble sounded from above. The ground trembled slightly.
"Uh-oh," Lycurgus said nervously.
Olwen was unperturbed. "According to Potter, it's been like this ever since the initial quake - the one that opened this fissure. It's when Erebus starts ejecting molten material that we need to worry."
"I hope he's right."
Lycurgus made no further comment as they continued on downwards, and presently they were at the bottom.
"It's only about another quarter of a mile," Olwen said, picking out the way ahead with her torch and striding confidently on.
Lycurgus followed, looking up at the narrow crack of starlit sky above. Erebus emitted another ominous rumble. As they continued, the fissure gradually widened, then after about five minutes, Olwen's torch picked out an almost buried house front.
"That is it!" she said triumphantly.
Together they stared into what looked like the front reception room of a small house. Traces of carpet were still visible on the floor, together with what might have been the remains of tables and chairs.
"Oh!" Lycurgus exclaimed as the torch beam fell upon a mummified human body.
"She seems to have collapsed and died while attempting to flee the building," Olwen said.
"She?" Lycurgus said doubtfully.
"These are the remains of a woman," Olwen said, a trifle testily. Surely you can see that!"
Lycurgus, whose lack of familiarity with the female form was a source of embarrassment to him - especially now - stammered "She must have been almost six feet tall."
"So? I'm 5ft11 myself."
"Yes, but in the Classical Era I thought even men were only around 5ft6 on average."
"Gus, this woman isn't from the Classical Era," Olwen said, stepping through what had been the front door of the house. "Come on, if Potter's correct you are in for another shock or two."
"Are you sure it's safe?" Lycurgus replied, but he followed Olwen anyway. She shone her torch along the hallway they had entered. Here and there, plaster had crumbled from the walls. "Professor, that's --" he started.
"Breeze-block, yes. And no, they didn't have that in the Classical Era either."
They entered the front room. Olwen knelt down beside the mummified woman and began to examine her left wrist.
"Is that a bracelet she's wearing?" Lycurgus enquired.
Olwen looked up. "No, Gus, it looks as if Potter was right about this too. She's wearing a wrist-watch."
"Dr. Potter told you about this?"
"Yes, hence my need to see it for myself, before it disappears under another 75 feet of pyroclastic flow," Olwen said, rising to her feet.
"It's clearly a hoax!" Lycurgus protested.
"No it's not," Olwen replied. She took off her backpack and brought out a camera and a flash-gun. "Unless you doubt Dr. Potter's integrity. Nobody else but he and his team have been here since the fissure opened up nine days ago."
"But how could there possibly have been a civilisation as advanced as ours five thousand years ago? And even if there were, how come we've found no trace of its elsewhere?"
Olwen began photographing the woman. “What we are seeing here,” she said, peering into the viewfinder of her camera, “is proof of my theory about the real origin of Mankind.”
Pathfinder One soared on upwards through the ever-thinning atmosphere. Eight gravities weighed down upon Burrell. He could hardly breathe, but he didn't care.
The clock showed two minutes, fifteen seconds. Right on cue came a slight diminishing of the weight on his chest followed by a shudder, as the solid fuel boosters cut out and dropped off.
"Twenty seconds to sustainer shut-down," announced Auerbach.
"Almost there," Burrell breathed.
Another shudder as the escape tower was jettisoned, followed a few seconds later by the lifting of the crushing weight from his chest as the sustainer shut down. Now his stomach seemed to be heading for the top of the cabin as the craft went into free-fall, moving purely under its own momentum. There came a dull thud as posigrade rockets separated the capsule from the booster.
Through the capsule's small rectangular window, the skies deepened from blue to indigo, then as the spacecraft exited the last fringes of atmosphere, it turned velvet black, and then the stars came out.
"Pathfinder One exiting the atmosphere now," he reported calmly.
"Confirm you are on course, Pathfinder One. Your time to the Moon is twenty-six minutes, forty seconds and counting," said Auerbach.
Twenty-six minutes! He was going to make it!
“Tell me, Gus, what do you know about the Theory of Evolution?" Olwen said.
Shocked at the reference to one of the most notorious religious controversies in centuries, Lycurgus was silent for a moment.
"It resulted in Octavian Rees being accused of heresy 150 years ago and forced to recant; the last such case before the Tellurian Inquisition was disbanded," he said eventually. "Wait a minute, Octavian Rees --"
"Yes - I am a direct descendant," Olwen said. "But what do you know of the theory itself?"
Feeling decidedly uncomfortable, Lycurgus trawled through his childhood memories of Scripture lessons.
"Only that the theory is wrong," he said.
Quoting reluctantly from Cardinal Cranfield's Creationism, Lycurgus said, "Man clearly hasn't evolved from any other life form on Tellus. Evolutionists point to fossils they claim are antecedent to animals living today as evidence for their theory - but they are unable to explain the complete absence from the so-called fossil record of creatures antecedent to Man. We should not be surprised, as the whole idea is absurd. How could something as complex as Man evolve by pure chance? Man has obviously been created by God."
"It is difficult to believe that unscientific rubbish like Cranfield is still legally required reading in schools across the Tellurian Commonwealth," Olwen said with a flash of anger. "Do you realise that radiometric methods have definitely established that Tellus has existed for at least two billion years, and probably much longer; and that life has certainly existed for hundreds of million years? Why would God wait all that time before creating Man, who has only been here for a few millennia?"
"I don't know," Lycurgus admitted, "but it doesn't alter the fact that Man clearly didn't evolve."
"Man clearly didn't evolve on Tellus,” Olwen said. “Neither, by the way, did any of our domestic animals - cattle, sheep, chickens, horses, cats, dogs, etc. But all other Tellurian life is consistent with the Theory of Evolution. The fossil record can only be explained in terms of gradual changes, occurring over millions of years. Now, Gus, what does that suggest to you?"
"That most animal life evolved first; then Man and the domestic animals were created by God later on?" Lycurgus suggested.
"Or that Man evolved somewhere else, on another planet, and only came to Tellus later - bringing his domestic animals with him."
"Are you saying man originally came to Tellus in a spaceship?" Lycurgus shook his head.
"With all due respect, Professor, that sounds a bit far-fetched to me. Though probably no more so than the idea of carving the Face of Noah on the Moon in Biblical times."
“Why,” Olwen retorted. “As you yourself have pointed out, liquid-fuelled rockets have already attained altitudes of several miles and there is no reason to suppose that manned spaceflight will not become a reality in our lifetimes.”
“But Professor,” Lycurgus said wearily, “there’s a bit of a difference between going to the planets and interstellar travel. The nearest solar system to our own is more than four light years away. And even if it were possible for our forbears to have travelled such a distance, what happened to this advanced civilisation and why have we found no trace of it elsewhere on Tellus?”
"These remains must be part of the original settlement established by the space travellers,” Olwen said, her face animated. “They hadn’t had time to expand beyond Novacastra before the settlement was destroyed by a major eruption. The survivors lapsed into barbarism before slowly climbing back up the long ladder to civilisation."
"Even if so, surely some record would remain, if only as a legend. Or are you going to tell me the story of Noah’s Ark is the clue?"
"Not the Ark,” Olwen said. “Are you aware that there are two versions of the story of Noah? There’s the widely-known version that occurs in the Tellurian Authorised Bible in which Noah builds the Ark, of course, but the story of the carving of the Face actually comes from the older Orthodox Version in which Noah and his family take shelter on Mount Ararat and –-“
Olwen broke off as the loudest rumble yet sounded from Mount Erebus. The ground began trembling, but this time it did not die away.
"Professor, I think perhaps we should get out of here," Lycurgus said.
"I think perhaps you might be right," Olwen replied. Hastily, she packed away her camera.
They ran for it. Above, the night sky was streaked with red-hot ejecta from Mount Erebus. The tremors became worse, the sound a continual roll of thunder broken by the occasional whistling as particularly large bolides passed overhead.
After what seemed like an eternity, but was in fact no more than a few minutes, they were rushing up the slope, and presently they were back at ground level.
Lycurgus paused briefly to get his breath back and look back at Mount Erebus. The whole top of the mountain was glowing red, and smoke and flames were pouring fourth.
"We must keep going," Olwen urged.
They resumed running. The sulphurous smell was overpowering, giving Lycurgus a constant urge to cough. The noise grew ever louder, even though they were running directly away from Erebus as fast as their legs could carry them. Despite being fifteen years older than he was, the long-legged Olwen Rees seemed to be rather fitter, Lycurgus noted ruefully.
Suddenly the skies were lit up, as if the Sun had risen directly behind them.
"Cover, we need cover!" Olwen shouted.
Lycurgus looked frantically round. "That hollow over there."
"It'll have to do."
Three or four feet deep, the rectangular depression might well have been the remains of one of the early excavations of the site, a century earlier. They dropped down into it and threw themselves down on the ground. Lycurgus landed painfully on a rocky outcrop.
There was a scything roar that sounded as if the Gates of Hell themselves had opened - was this a manifestation of God's displeasure? Lycurgus asked himself. A battering blast tore at him. The heat was stifling. He clung desperately to the outcrop as the merciless pummelling continued; but Olwen had nothing to hold on to. Lycurgus saw her hands claw desperately into the ground as she sought a handhold.
Now he felt as if the air was being sucked out of his lungs. Through a rising grey fog, he saw Olwen's grip fail. She was swept away and hurled bodily out of the hollow.
Lycurgus lost consciousness.
He had regained consciousness in hospital. His survival had been little short of a miracle. A rescue helicopter had spotted Olwen and himself and airlifted them to hospital. He had been suffering from shock and gas inhalation but had been otherwise unharmed. Olwen had not been so lucky; the explosion had thrown her nearly hundred yards from the hollow and she had suffered massive internal injuries.
Rescuers had located Dr. Potter and his team, but they were already dead: killed by inhalation of poisonous gases from Erebus.
Three days after the explosion, Olwen Rees died without ever regaining consciousness, leaving Lycurgus Burrell as the only living witness to what had been so briefly revealed at Novacastra. There was no evidence to support his story – Olwen’s camera had been smashed when she had been swept out of the hollow; and Dr. Potter’s had never been found. Nobody had believed him - except for Robert Auerbach.
It had taken twenty-five years to build a spacecraft capable of making the trip, twenty-five frustrating years of shoestring budgets, a sceptical public and a deeply-hostile Church. Even then the trip would have been impossible had he not been able to persuade the now-elderly Auerbach to abandon his plans to land on the Moon and opt instead for a flyby with a spacecraft fired out of the atmosphere on a sub-orbital ballistic trajectory.
Now Pathfinder One and its middle-aged pilot were less than two minutes away from rendezvous with the Moon, a grey potato dominating his view, growing every second. He switched on the targeting grid and the cameras.
The Face of Noah was clearly visible, no longer foreshortened by its proximity to the Moon's hidden side. Only Burrell was having difficulty seeing any resemblance to a human face.
For the first time he felt a pang of doubt.
"Mission Control, it's negative so far. You're going to have to get me closer. I want a trajectory that will get me to within ten miles."
"Pathfinder One, I don't have to remind you that that's extremely dangerous."
"So's being fired into space in a tin can. I'll need the correction burn at close approach minus one minute."
"Lycurgus, you'll have to accept the facts. Professor Rees was wrong - the Face of Noah is clearly a natural feature."
"Robert, I never told you what Olwen Rees said just before the explosion and what I think she was about to tell me - you'd have thought I was completely mad. It's not only the Face. Now get me closer or I'll do it myself."
As Pathfinder One approached the peak of its trajectory, so the whole of the Face was finally revealed to Burrell. Now he could clearly see that it was a perfectly normal crater whose resemblance to a human face was vague at best.
The cabin shuddered as the thrusters fired. The Moon's rate of approach increased. Desperately Burrell scanned for surface installations; for evidence that would support the theory - but there was none. Was the whole thing nonsense - had he flown to the Moon on a fool's errand? And was he going to get himself killed to boot? For it was beginning to look as if Auerbach had miscalculated and the burn had put Pathfinder One on a collision course.
He held his breath as the Moon came barrelling towards him... then he was soaring up above the lunar equator. He'd missed by no more than a couple of miles. The far side of the Moon, unseen from Tellus for thousands of years, came into view.
Then he saw it.
"Mission Control, I can see two identically-sized perfectly circular holes set into a large rectangular block. I think this is the evidence."
"Are you sure?"
"Pretty sure but the cameras will clinch it. I'm nearing peak altitude now - Oh MY GOD!"
"What is it?" Auerbach said anxiously.
Picked out in lights on the Moon's surface, still burning after thousands of years, were the words:
U.S.S. Ararat: 2260 A.D.
Per Ardua ad Astra
"Come in Pathfinder One. Lycurgus are you OK?" Auerbach called insistently.
"I'm fine, Robert. I've seen the conclusive proof. Olwen Rees was right. The clue is in the old Orthodox Version of the Bible and the story of Noah in which God hollowed out Mount Ararat to provide a floating haven for Noah, his family and the animals. But it was Man who hollowed out Ararat, which must have been an asteroid in his original home system."
"Are you saying the Moon is some kind of spaceship?" Auerbach said incredulously.
"Yes! It was fitted with engines - and turned into a gigantic spaceship to carry Mankind to Tellus."
"But what sort of power could move something that size through space?"
"I don't know," Burrell admitted. "But some scientists believe that enormous amounts of energy could be liberated by splitting atoms. Maybe our forbears mastered the technique."
The Moon was receding, and Pathfinder One was beginning its long fall back to Tellus. The voyage through space would have taken generations, maybe even centuries, and employed techniques that Man was only now beginning to rediscover.
"Pathfinder One, we have confirmed your new trajectory and revised point of landfall," Auerbach said. "Recovery crews advised accordingly."
He had to go back to the Moon, this time to land, explore and learn its secrets. With the evidence now at his disposal, the New London Interplanetary Society should have no problems in obtaining funding and even the Church might drop its opposition.
A sense of triumph and purpose filled Burrell as Pathfinder One approached the outer fringes of Tellus's atmosphere, and he braced himself for the rigours of re-entry.
© Christopher Seddon 2002, 2008