Yang Ping's sci-fi story explores the darker side of humanity's space ambitions
Zhao Gang held a large stone aloft with both hands. He came breezing into the room, urgently thrusting it 10 centimeters from my face.
“You see what I found under my bed?”
I looked at him, then turned to the object in his hands.
“Mhmm! But get this...I never put it there to begin with.”
He had a point. Nowhere on the stone was there a space agency logo.
I put down what I was holding, leaned back, and said, “the crux being you’ve experienced Cook’s Displacement.”
Zhao Gang nodded vigorously. Eyes burning, he flapped about like an idiot.
Cook’s Displacement is a strange and uniquely Martian phenomenon. On the third human mission to Mars, a surveyor named Cook discovered a stone had materialized from nowhere under his bed, after which a spate of similar events occurred. As a result, this fellow Cook, who was only ever concerned before with space-travel and women, had lent his name to a specialized term. Experts had attempted to research the principles underlying these unexplained stones, but nothing came of it. The final conclusion was that the stones had come from the surface of Mars. Utter nonsense!
Oddly enough, such displacement took place frequently within the observation base itself, but never outside. Some psychologists believed the explorers themselves had brought in these “Cook Stones” during spells of mental confusion. Insinuations of this nature lead to swift protest from the astronauts. Once, Cook chose to sarcastically declare at a meeting that such an explanation must have come out of one of their more drunken parties.
Zhao Gang opened the communication channel, reporting to base.
I got on with my own work.
A few keystrokes in, something flashed across my mind. I abruptly pushed the table aside, knocking into the shelf behind me.
“What’s the matter?” Zhao Gang asked, astonished.
I remained silent, gazing out the window.
Outside, Mars monopolized the view, distant and unfathomable. Upon finding a Cook Stone, protocol dictated we had to immediately pass it up the chain of command.
But I had other ideas...
“Control!” I patched in on the emergency communication channel, “I’d like to run a little experiment.”
“I have an intuition that the stones will undergo another displacement. Likely, there is a kind of force field, and whenever it changes, these stones experience spatial displacement. From what I can gather, it will manifest as a sudden disappearance.”
“But there’s no prior indication of stones having vanished. All of them were transported back to Earth fully intact.”
“Correct, but until now we’ve been removing them all from their original positions.”
Base went briefly silent, returning with: “Roger. A cogent observation. You two may proceed.”
I shut off the communicator, addressing a dazed Zhao Gang:
“Go put this thing back where you found it. In two hours, I’ll head off to bed. First, I’ll nap six hours while you’re on watch and keep an eye on the status of the stone. After that, I’ll take over from you.”
He gave a nod and turned to leave, but then something popped into his head, jerking it back to ask:
“Why aren’t you taking first shift?”
I eased into my chair, smiling faintly: “Rock, paper, scissors?”
Two hours later, I gave the equipment a once-over, and patted Zhao Gang on the shoulder:
“Eyes peeled, no drifting off. Did you place the transmitter inside?”
Zhao Gang nodded a confirmation without lifting his eyes.
I chuckled and made off for bed.
I was in a dream. There is dense red fog and swirling rubble. A voice comes from deep within the surrounding haze. Several oddly-shaped stones skitter before my eyes, a display of unchecked ferocity. Next they form a ring, and start spinning up a turmoil that blurs my vision.
“I feel as though I know this place,” I repeat to myself in the dream.
“Wake up! Jiang Hua!”
I regained consciousness just as my mind was dismissing the dream-world as illogical. Zhao Gang was bent over eying me, a trace of panic in his gaze.
“What in the world...?”
I glanced at my watch.
“Ugh, there’s still 3 hours left...”
Of the stones originally placed on the bed, all that remained was a small object with a golden luster. I recognized this to be the transmitter. The stones were nowhere to be found. It was as if they had vanished into thin air.
“Okay, at least we know the field has no effect on gold...”
I picked up the transmitter and looked at Zhao Gang, “How did it happen?”
Zhao Gang shot me an uncomfortable look. He had the jitters; it was written in his nervous smile.
“Were you sleeping when you shouldn’t have been?” I interrogated.
He tensed but said nothing.
“Ok, we’ll address that later. First, bring up the surveillance footage.”
From the surveillance footage the stones could be seen to flash a few times, then disappear. We slowed down the footage. First we saw the stones propped motionless on the bed, but then it was like a hibernating creature flickering to life. The frequency grew faster and faster. Much like the spokes on a bicycle wheel, you could make them out at first, but after that it was just a blur. In the sub-millisecond range, there was no way to be certain of the rate, and then the stones disappeared. The transmitter slowly, and most elegantly, sailed back down under the Martian gravity.
I watched the frame. A sudden sentimentality welled up in me.
I fell back into my chair, saying lightly, “Report to Base.”
Control showed keen interest in our experiment’s results and indicated we were to turn over all future video data for research, also hinting at a pay raise.
During our break, Zhao Gang and I engaged in a game of Go.
At first blush, the reasoning of those on Earth who lashed out against Mars exploration made sense: Almost half the time, exploration can be carried out without human participation. Computers in tandem with remote-operated robots suffice for whatever task is thrown at them. All that’s left for people to do the other half of the time is surveillance, and to try not to screw things up. Ordinarily speaking, Mars explorers don’t have it too hard. The opposition had a field day with the first published anthology of Mars poetry, seeing it as further proof of the explorers’ ineffectiveness.
Yet in reality, Mars explorers stare down calamity at every corner. On such a vast and alien planet, with such a complexity of interlocking systems, one small slip spells disaster. It means cutting one’s life short. The psychological burden is immense. Those ensconced on Earth with their fireplaces and horns of plenty—picking their teeth here and chatting away there—can hardly imagine.
As such, every explorer is compelled to have at least two amateur pastimes they can pursue on Mars. The space agency even made a point to stipulate in the regulations that each explorer is to carry three hobby items with them, and shared hobbies will be given due consideration during group assignment.
It’s a pity that the leadership of the agency couldn’t distinguish between “grade” and “rank.” As a result this third grade Go player must square off with the second ranked Zhao Gang. A handicap was unavoidable.
Zhao Gang picked at his fingernails again, complaining of nerves. In reality, by this point the white side clearly had the upper hand, and was occupying a great proportion of the lower half.
He’d take the board again...I stared out the window into the distance, saying nothing.
I suddenly broke into laughter. It was just too obvious. How did it take so long to click?
Registering my laughter, Zhao Gang lifted his head, fixing me with an indignant scowl.
“No! I wasn’t laughing at you!” I said, still laughing, as I explained. “I know what Base Control has in mind.”
He pushed aside the Go board, saying, “Alright, I can’t win anyway, so would you mind telling me what this is all about?”
“If my hunch about a field is correct,” I said amicably, “and judging from what we’ve seen, it can operate repeatedly within the same space, within which objects may pass through to another location via application of a certain wave. It’s teleportation!”
Thinking out loud Zhao Gang added, “But we’ve no idea how far, or even if the teleportation velocity exceeds the speed of light...”
I nodded in agreement. “This is precisely what Base Control fears! We’re confronting a technology that’s unprecedented in the history of humanity. A technology we’ve only ever dreamed of...Hey, I think we’re well beyond the question of a pay raise.”
We traded smiles. Without saying anything, we both knew the score.
“Did you feel that?” He asked suddenly.
The question threw me off-kilter. “What?”
“Just now I felt a tremor around us...an earthquake?”
I regarded him wryly, ready to needle him with a joke, when it hit me.
“Teleportation!” I shouted.
“The field’s acting again. Your bed! Let’s take a look at your bed!”
The two of us practically fell over each other, racing to the side of his bed.
Now there were two rocks, each relatively small, and separated by a distance of about 40 centimeters. As our four hands swooped in, without warning, a second group of rocks materialized next to them.
This time I felt the tremor too, and holding Zhao Gang back, I said:
“Hold up! There’s something funky going on here.”
This second group of stones formed an equilateral triangle. We then gazed over to the spot where we suspected a third group might appear.
Sure enough, after two minutes or so, our surroundings shook, and a trapezoid popped into existence.
My heart pumped wildly. Meaning! These three groups of stones conveyed meaning! Nature alone could not perform such feats of magic for us. But then I considered nervously just what that meaning might be.
I knew time was tight. The next group of stones would be here in no time and we had no clue when the show would be over. I had to seize this chance.
One obvious inference was this: That the next set (assuming there was one) would contain five stones. But what could this tell us? The three existing groups were all orientated in symmetrical patterns. Might it perhaps be useful to determine their axis of symmetry? Maybe if we were to extend the lines of the three axes, they would meet at one point? How about measuring the edge lengths? Which unit would I use?
“WE’RE CONFRONTING A TECHNOLOGY THAT’S UNPRECEDENTED IN THE HISTORY OF HUMANITY. A TECHNOLOGY WE’VE ONLY EVER DREAMED OF...”
My eyes swept over the stones in alarm.
Then the fourth lot appeared, forming a pentagon. But not all the sides were equal; it seemed only four of them were. I felt as if an idea was hatching.
Zhao Gang let out a snigger, snatched the transmitter, and positioned it among the fourth set of stones.
So that was it! And like that, it all fell into place.
The transmitter and the five other stones now composed a regular hexagon.
As if in reward for a correct answer, the four groups of stones flashed several times, then all simultaneously blinked out of existence.
I looked at Zhao Gang in delight.
I was at a complete loss. My mouth wore a stupid grin. It was all I could do to go on repeating:
“What splendid geometry, what splendid geometry...”
I put an arm around him, saying:
“Exquisite work, buddy!”
He hadn’t understood. I couldn’t furnish a ready explanation myself, so I hurried off to inform Base Control. This was a potentially explosive development.
The line wouldn’t connect.
I checked over the link again. Rebooted the device. It was no use.
I gazed out the window at the slice of dusk.
Then I approached the window. The outside world was completely detached from reality, as if covered by a gray gauze. It was daytime on Mars. Those rocks and hillsides ought to have been oxide red, but instead they stood there, gray.
Zhao Gang came over. He craned his neck to look out.
I walked back over to the bed by myself and sat down.
Evidently what we had witnessed was no mere natural phenomenon, but a deliberate action taken with clear purpose and meaning. Our counterparts had employed the universality of geometry as a simple means by which to establish contact, hoping to communicate. I realized now, truth be told, that they had been attempting to communicate with us all along. But previously their stones had all been carted off by researchers, until I’d had the funny idea of taking them and putting them back...
This intelligent species boasted the ability to teleport certain objects. If humanity could only grasp how...
Now the question was, what was their next move? That our communications were on the fritz surely had something to do with the strange phenomenon on the Martian surface, but what did it all mean? I thought of the aliens in science fiction stories, plotlines of kidnapped earthlings, and my hair stood on end.
IT WAS DAYTIME ON MARS. THOSE ROCKS AND HILLSIDES OUGHT TO HAVE BEEN OXIDE RED, BUT INSTEAD THEY STOOD THERE, GRAY
With their level of technology, surely they wouldn’t go for something like a kidnapping? However, it’s hard to say...In their eyes, we were probably nothing more than insects. But if so, why waste all that time attempting to communicate? Honestly, they really didn’t need to go to such elaborate lengths. Was it not possible to speak with us directly? Or use telepathy! No, that was the stuff of stories, how could it be real? Perhaps they hadn’t intended to communicate with us…No, no, that was more off-track...
Then my mind opened wide, and all sorts of notions went bouncing around it. And I wanted to pop off the top of my skull. I was struck dizzy and light-headed. I couldn’t help but fall back into the bed and curse those alien monsters to hell!
“What the hell!” cursed Zhao Gang all of a sudden.
It near well made me jump out of my skin. It seemed as if he had seen something. He took two steps back, then swung round and dashed for the airlock.
“What are you doing?” I shouted.
He gestured to the window, getting into his spacesuit in record speed.
What had him so worked up? I stared in wonder out the window, at the same ash colored sky and surface, nothing all that remarkable...
Gradually something came into view by the entrance of the observation station. Something of considerable size, but from inside it was difficult to tell. I switched on the outer surveillance feed and, in three seconds flat, could identify the object in frame, whereupon I scrambled over to Zhao Gang’s side and dashed into my spacesuit.
The outer airlock opened and we went out onto the Martian surface.
Things felt a little strange underfoot, but I couldn’t say for sure what it was.
Then I was right in front of it. Or to be more precise, them. Eight golden objects in a semi-circle, arrayed to face the entrance. Even though they cut a strange scene, I wasn’t all that shocked. You could say that by now I was stupefied—because these were all objects I recognized.
No Mars explorer would be unfamiliar with the outline of these eight spacecrafts, who had served as humanity’s first window onto the Red Planet. In successive missions throughout the 20th and 21st centuries—some overlooking the planet, a few touching down upon its desolate surface—they had transmitted large amounts of valuable information back to Earth.
After their missions had wrapped up, down to the last, they had all lost contact. This could be considered par for the course. The strange thing was that when humanity did set foot on Mars, they never found a trace of these early rovers. Every Mars explorer had seen photographs of them countless times, but none had ever laid eyes upon one.
Except for the two of us.
I gave them a careful look, recognizing the two Vikings, the Mars Observer, and Mars Pathfinder—all the big names were accounted for. From the looks of it, they hadn’t suffered from the neglect. Their surfaces remained undamaged. There was no loss of structural integrity.
I inched forward and stroked these relics from the last century. After all these years, they were still good as new, as if fresh from the factory. They were even clear of Martian dust. I imagined the hands of that strange race that had wiped them down and pondered their purpose.
I surveyed the scene on all sides. The striking mountain ranges and the gravel. Perhaps those mysterious intelligent beings were hiding there now, carefully noting our every movement.
“Zhao Gang!” I cried out.
“Relax, it’s all been recorded,” he answered from behind me. Say what you like about him, he was still the partner that understood me best.
Suddenly, a rock appeared in front of every rover. They were visible for a few seconds, then vanished, then were visible again in slightly altered positions.
I took a few steps back. Resembling determined insects, these rocks made their way toward the entrance of the observation station. I felt threatened. I retreated to the entrance, watching the stones as they slowly pressed on.
“Are they hoping to start the Star Wars?” Zhao Gang asked.
I was thoroughly unnerved, so much so I didn’t have it in me to smile.
PERHAPS THOSE MYSTERIOUS INTELLIGENT BEINGS WERE HIDING THERE NOW, CAREFULLY NOTING OUR EVERY MOVEMENT
The stones stopped two meters in front of me and gathered together. They then resumed their individual starting positions and once again started coming toward us.
After they repeated this twice, they stopped. They flashed in place a few times, then disappeared. They didn’t appear again.
“Done?” Zhao Gang ventured after 10 minutes.
I declined to comment, instead walking over to the closest rover.
I had only taken a few steps when a low rumble spread through the surrounding mountain ranges—the gravel, dust, sky...it all changed.
Someone was fiddling with the hue and saturation settings of the universe. Red. Pale blue. From a muddled and drab gray, the world familiar to me gradually surged forth again.
We rounded back on the observation station, our communicator already buzzing. We debriefed Base Control on everything that had happened. After that, we sat by the window and looked out at those ancient rovers that had met with a mysterious intelligent species, until we heard the droning of a human spaceship approaching.
I basically agree with the conclusion of the scientists that have undertaken every type of imaginable analysis of the matter: “This is the Martians’ warning to humanity.”
Consider a moment, that you had spent a good long while happy in your house. Then people tossed a stone in from outside, then another. And afterward, they even forced their way into your home: turning over everything, ripping up the floor, tossing rubbish everywhere, and so forth. What would you do about it? As a matter of fact, the Martians had been polite enough. They’d taken it upon themselves to tidy up these bits and pieces and lay them out for us—ready for us to remove.
However, every time I look up at the night sky at that impetuous god of war, Mars, I think: If the day comes when we finally meet with them, what would happen? They could teach us how to teleport, but what could we offer up in exchange? Perhaps we could teach them to play Go?
– Translated by Jesse Young
Author’s Note: This short story was written in late 1997, when the Aerospace magazine invited several Chinese sci-fi writers to contribute. I was just reading about the Mars Global Surveyor (NASA’s Mars probe launched in 1996), and decided to write a Mars-themed story. Whether there’s civilization, or ever was primeval civilization, on Mars has always been the intrigue of many sci-fi works. But with this story, I wanted to try something different: Rather than viewing Mars exploration from the perspective of humankind, what would “Martian civilization” think of the activity? How would they react? And how would humans understand such a reaction and deal with it? This story is also inspired by “The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke.
Author: Yang Ping (杨平）
Born in 1973, Yang Ping majored in astrophysics in university, and later became a science journalist. He started to write sci-fi in 1994, and published short stories in magazines like Science Fiction World, SF-King, and Chutzpah! His work has been translated into English, Japanese, German, and Italian, and has been published in Pathlight, the English edition of People’s Literature magazine. Yang is a two-time winner of the Galaxy Award, the highest literary award for Chinese sci-fi. He is a member of the Beijing Writers Association, and a member of the standing council of the China Science Writers Association.