In the Sand

I spot Dr. Peter Kensington as soon as I crest the final ridge. He’s standing beside his rover, coated in the reddish dust that gets into everything. As I park my rover I call him on the comm.

“Okay, Peter, what’s so important?”

“Not on the general comm, Sela. Switch to channel fourteen.”

Channel fourteen has a range of about a hundred meters, nowhere near long enough to make it back to the dome. It’s only used when too much chatter would cause distraction – or when something has to be kept secret. I switch over.

“Okay, Peter, why the cloak-and-dagger?”

“You wouldn’t believe me, not without the evidence. Come on.”

He leads me into a cleft in the rock with a pronounced downslope. After a couple of turns it opens into an underground chamber where he has a pair of tables set up. One of the tables is his writing desk, but the other one grabs my attention.

There are items on it that have absolutely no right to be here, two hundred million kilometers from home. I see a cracked bottle, a steel-and-glass lantern, a desiccated cloth bag, …and a book.

“What the fuck, Peter?”

“I got an anomalous reading from the scanner and stopped to check it out. I brought these up from the first chamber.”

“Does the book give any evidence of why this stuff is here?”

“We’ll have to get it back to the dome so I can do some radiocarbon…”

“Did you try reading it, Peter?”

“Reading? Why would I…” A look of dawning comprehension crosses his face. Man, scientists can be really dumb sometimes.

I open the cover of the book; the paper looks pretty fragile, but still flexes somewhat. It’s cumbersome trying to turn the pages with my gloves, but there’s no way I’m exposing my hands to the frigid near-vacuum that passes for an atmosphere here.

“It seems to be a journal. What language is this, Sela?”

“Middle English. And the date puts it in 1491. I can’t really read it, but I’ll try to get the sense of the text. We can have it properly translated later.”

“What does it say?”

“The writer is worried, something about the men being upset. They don’t think a westward passage to China exists and are frustrated after a month becalmed in the sea of weeds.”

“Sea of weeds?”

“The Sargasso, I’d guess. That would put them in the western Atlantic. They’d just got out and saw signs of a major storm blowing in. And that’s the last entry. So once again, Peter, what the fuck?”

“Maybe you’d better come see the rest.”

“The rest?”

He silently leads me down another passage; it’s steep, but the rough floor forms a natural staircase. We finally emerge into a dark space.

We both shine our torches ahead; the light isn’t very good, but the shape before us is obvious. It’s an old wooden sailing ship, half-buried in sand and naturally mummified in the frigid Martian air.