Deborah Jackson

Monday, July 25, 2011

Mars Maze

The first chapter in Matt and Sarah's Misadventures

All new Time Meddlers adventures, in an abbreviated format and without all the extensive research, so don't expect them to be one hundred percent accurate.

Episode 1

"Now, we just have to slip on the helmet."

"I don't want to wear a helmet."

"If you don't, you know what will happen."

Sarah wanted to slap him. Of all the insane ideas.

"I know it's not exactly the safest place to rescue—"

"I thought dinosaurs were the ultimate in idiocy, but this, Matt?"

"It'll just be for a few minutes. Just enough time to catch hold of my dad."

"Or Nadine."

"Let's not get carried away."

"You're going to leave her in an unbreathable atmosphere, in freezing cold temperatures, with hurricane-force winds, and correct me if I'm wrong, but, where her blood might boil?"

"She left us in a cave in the 1600s with bears and people fighting wars all around us. She tried to shoot you."

"All right. Fine. Be as bad as her."

Matt winced. Finally it looked like she was getting through to him. Now if she could just convince him to send suits to his dad through that incredibly nauseating wormhole rather than try to rescue him on the red planet.

"Okay," he snapped. "I'll try to grab her too. And rip her hair out while I'm doing it," he added in a whisper.

She wasn't going to argue with that. Nadine at least deserved a little hair-ripping.

"All right. Let's go," he said.

He slammed the helmet over her head, sealed it shut and activated the pressure and oxygen gauge. Sarah screamed at him, but he probably couldn't hear her anymore.

Then he shoved, yes, he literally shoved her, (the miserable . . .) into the wormhole and leaped in afterward. The lab dissolved, she was crushed and they emerged in a gust of wind that yanked them off their feet and whipped them against some rock. Red rock. Hard, breath-snatching, unyielding red rock.

"Matt, I hate you," she said.

There was obviously some radio system embedded in the EMU suits (Extravehicular Mobility Units, not emu, although she did feel like a giant awkward bird in this suit), since he answered immediately.

"No, you don't."

"I don't like you very much right now."

"That's only because we're flattened against a rock wall."

"A rock wall that goes up and up . . ." She cranked her head upwards, peeling it from the wall, then realized it was sheer and smooth, polished by the wind, and if she pushed away she could almost turn around. The gale had subsided that much, at least.

The ground was a jumble of red rocks through what looked like a dry river bed and on the other side, another wall.

"I think we're in a canyon."

"I know exactly where we are," said Matt.

"Right," said. Sarah. "You always know exactly where we are, but you just don't know how to keep us alive."

She thought he might look a little hurt by her comment, if she could see through his helmet, but then he said, "You don't look very dead."

"How can you tell?" she asked. Plumped up in this oversized moonsuit, barely able to move and hidden behind sun-shielded Plexiglas helmets, who could tell?

"I can tell by your voice in my head. Unless you're dead and haunting me."

"I wish," she snapped. What was she saying?? "I mean . . ."

She could almost hear Matt grin. "That's okay, Sarah. I'd rather be haunted by you than anyone else."

Okay. How do you respond to that? Why did he always make her want to kick him and kiss him at the same time?

"Um, ah, where are we, exactly?"

"We're in a canyon."

"I get that."

"Near the equator, not too far from a group of volcanoes called the Tharsus Montes."

"And these volcanoes? They wouldn't be active, would they?"

"It's Mars," he said sarcastically.


"No. They're not active." He shook his head.

"I remember when you said, 'Those dinosaurs don't even look hungry,' or 'It's perfectly safe jumping out of an airplane.' The dinosaurs were starving and my ripcord didn't even work."

Matt grasped her by the shoulders and tipped his helmet against hers. "Mars is a dead planet. The volcanoes are extinct. It's just cold, and windy, and kind of dangerous if you take off your helmet. Now let's go find my dad."

He began to walk along the pebbly ground, taking enormous strides and bouncing into the air. Hmm. That was interesting. Sarah took a step and bounded forward, losing her balance and crashing to the ground, only to spring up again and fall backward. When she hit the rock surface, she instantly ricocheted upward. She felt like a blow-up clown, punched down again and again, but who kept springing back.

"Matt," she yelled.

"Grab for the wall to stop yourself," he said calmly, with just a hint of laughter in his voice. The jerk.

Sarah reached, struck, tilted, came to a stop, somewhat, against the wall.

"Walk slowly and carefully. There's only 1/3 of the gravity here compared to earth."

"Thanks for telling me ahead of time."

"Hey, Sarah. Aren't you supposed to be brilliant? Always working so hard at school, getting 90s and stuff. I thought you'd know there was lower gravity here."

Sarah bent down, slowly, carefully, plucked a rock from the rock-jammed ground, and hurled it at him. (Probably not the smartest thing to do, but he made her mad.) Because "hurled" is a relative term when you can't hardly balance, the rock sailed through the air like a balloon. But Matt sidestepped it like a sloth, because of his bulky suit, so it just missed him anyway.

"Hey," he said. "You could have smashed my helmet."

"Or it could have bounced off your helmet and came back to me."

He looked like he was trying to cross his arms in disgust, which wasn't working at all with his puffed-up sleeves. "Let's get moving," he snipped.

Sarah began moving, slowly and carefully, one monstrous step after another, bounding up and down and, after a while, actually enjoying the sensation of walking on a trampoline.

The only problem was, they kept coming to forks, branches in the canyon that led in different directions, and it seemed as if, by his hesitation, Matt didn't know which direction to take. Along the way the path itself twisted and turned, rose and fell like a roller coaster, and sometimes it felt as if they were heading back the same way they'd come.

"Do you have any idea where we're going?" she finally asked.

"Of course."

"Matt, this is a maze."

"A maze that will eventually lead us to the base of the volcano where Dad is supposed to land. I know where I'm going."

"Right," said Sarah.

Well, there was nothing to do but keep following Matt and keep . . . getting lost. But at least she was getting the hang of this "walking in low gravity" thing, and it made her feel airy and almost giddy.

"Hey, Matt," she said. "This is kind of fun."

"Yeah, I know," he replied, leaping forward, making football fields seem like tennis courts. "If you bend your knees you can go even farther and higher." He crouched down on the next step and sprang into the air, sailing forward, upward, into the pale pink sky and . . . disappearing over the rim of the canyon.

Oh no, she thought. Not now.

She screamed: "Matt, Matt, MATT!!"

But he didn't answer. Was he hurt, his helmet cracked or his suit torn, leaking precious pressure and oxygen? Was he dead?

And it would be just like him to lead her onto a deadly planet, through a maze with no end in sight, and then . . . die. If he wasn't dead, she was going to kill him!

"Matt," she called again. "Please don't be dead."

Episode 2

Okay, there had to be a way to do this. Crouch, spring, fly.

Up Sarah sailed, into the vast red-tinged sky, heading for the lip of the canyon. Except, the wind decided at that instant to careen through the inlets and outlets of the maze and send her crashing back to the surface of the gully.

"Not fair," she yelled at the gritty air, shaking her fist.

"Arrghhh," she heard someone moan inside her helmet. It could only be Matt.

"Matt? Are you there? Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm here, wherever here is. And no, I'm not okay."

"Where are you? I'll try to find you."

"Don't know. Arrghhh," he groaned again.

"Stay still. I know what to do. I'll just follow the sound . . . of your voice."

"Uh huh," said Matt. Despite the edge of pain in his voice, there was an audible smirk too.

Sarah waited for the wind to abate, somewhat. Then she crouched and sprang again. This time she reached the top of the canyon and grabbed for some rocks with her marshmallow gloves.

"Can you hear me, Sarah? Is my voice getting any louder?"

"Cut it out," she snapped, grappling and managing to scramble over the edge. Of course she heard him through some sort of radio system in her EMU suit, so his voice would stay at exactly the same volume, unless she cranked it higher. And she knew she'd given him more ammunition to tease her the minute she'd said it.

She bounced to her feet, nearly tipped back down, then shot out her arms to maintain some sort of Michelin Man balance. Now, to look for Matt. There was a thin haze in the air, almost like fog, and she couldn't see more than a metre to either side. Cautiously, she tramped forward, sending puffs of red dust into the air.

"I knew this was a mistake," she hissed under her breath. Even under her breath was loud enough to carry through the radio, though.

"Don't you think you're jumping the gun," said Matt. "I may be in pain, but . . . we're on Mars."

"Why is there fog, then?" She shuffled another two exaggerated steps.

"Oh, um, not sure. I thought I read something about water vapour in these canyons. They might have been old river beds."

"It's creepy."

Matt actually laughed. "Come on. It's not like it's a swamp, with snakes or alligators. It's not like there are vampires."

"How can you be so sure? If we're in another universe . . ."

"Some things may be different." He sucked in his breath. "Sorry, just tried to move my leg."

"D'you think it's broken?"

"Nah," he said. "Just a little banged up. Anyway, like I was saying, different, but not horror story different."

"How can you be so sure?" Sarah took another step. "What if the horror stories are based on something real? What if they came from people who'd travelled to other universes?"

"Now you're just being ridiculous."

"Now I'm taking logic one step further. We now know there are a lot more places to go than our own planet, or solar system, or universe. We could have made up legends because of our wild dreams and imaginations, but they could also be based on someone's real experience."

"Just keep following my voice," said Matt. He was so infuriating sometimes, not only dismissing her theory without even a discussion, but returning right back to her original blunder.

"I'm not stupid." She slammed her foot down and the impact rippled through her. This low gravity was becoming a nightmare.

"Never said you were. Smartest person I know. Just sometimes you get freaked out over nothing."

"I don't get freaked— Ahhhhhhh!" She tripped over a mound of . . . something and pounded into the ground.


"It's okay. I'm okay." She placed a hand over her fibrillating heart and looked back. The mist swept over the mound of human proportions. "I just tripped over you, I think."

"Hmm," said Matt. "Didn't see you. Didn't feel you. Don't think it was me."

Sarah's hair had fallen in front of her face. She raised her hand to sweep it back, and thwacked her fingers against the miserable helmet. This was getting frustrating. But at least it made her focus on getting the hair out of her eyes by tilting her head back and shaking it, rather than thinking too much about what Matt had said.

The strands fell away. The mist faded to curling white wisps. The mound on the ground became clearer.

It looked like a body in a suit, only the suit was bluish in colour instead of marble white, and the helmet was cracked, and the body inside wasn't a body at all, but an explosion of flesh and gristle.

Sarah began to scream.

"What? What? What?"

She couldn't stop.

"Calm down, Sarah. You've seen all kinds of bad things. You've even tricked a Nazi, survived snakes and scorpions in the desert. You can deal with this."

Sarah stopped screaming.

"What is it? Is it Nadine?"

"N-not f-funny," she said, but she couldn't contain a chuckle. How did he do it? How did he make her laugh when she was facing a scene from Alien?

"It's a body," she finally answered. "Not you, but similar."

"I take it that was an unkind comparison."

"It's exploded, inside a suit, but the helmet is cracked open. There's no face, just . . . pulp."

"Very unkind comparison."

"Matt, I—"

"Once again, this is Mars. Accidents can happen, and, you said it before, our blood will boil because of the thin atmosphere if we don't have the pressurized suits. Poor guy. You don't think—" His voice cracked. "Could it be my dad?"

"No," she said quickly. "I mean, I don't really know, but I don't think so." How could she know?

"Could it be Nadine?" He didn't sound quite as horrified.

"Seriously, Matt. I don't know." She inched closer, creeping over the pebbly surface, mist and red dust swirling around, blocking her view, then bringing her suddenly right beside the body, like a zoom lens projecting her in an instant somewhere she'd rather not be, ever.

The crinkly space suit seemed odd—not NASA-like at all. The helmet was rimed with frost and the interior becoming crystallized mush. A strange colour, though. Not red like blood or settled Martian dust, not green, definitely not green, but a pearly white colour. What looked like bone or cartilage, even a nose, projected from the middle, but it— Her heart skipped a beat. It seemed to be moving.

"Matt! It doesn't look alive, but something is moving." The nose-thing fragmented and fell to the side.

She jumped back and back, swinging her arms to try to keep her balance. Suddenly she was slipping over the edge of another canyon, or some deep void into the black hole of this red planet. She plunged downward, flinging her hands forward, until . . . some metres down, she managed to grasp the side. There she clung, arms quivering from the strain, tears streaming from the terror.

She looked below, but there was only mist. She looked beside and there was another body on a ledge. Would it be milky and messed-up too? Would it start falling apart in front of her?

"Sarah," said Matt. "I see you."

Or was it Matt?

"Hang on. I cracked my knee on the ground, and my elbow and my head, but I think I can get to you."

Her arms were vibrating like plucked guitar strings, she could feel her fingers slipping.

Matt crawled toward her, he shuffled along the ledge, he reached for her hands.

"Gottcha," he said, grabbing her plump gloved hands in his plump gloved hands. "Hey," he grunted. "That's interesting."

"I don't care . . . what's interesting," she said between gasps. "Just pull me up."

"No," he said.


"I think I'll let you go."

And he did.

"I'm going to kill— Oh." Her feet struck, no touched, solid ground. She looked up at him. She knew he was grinning. She would have punched in his helmet if she didn't already know what would happen if she did.

"I couldn't see, because of the mist."

"Yeah, yeah," he said.

Episode 3

"Okay, are you going to stop sulking and show me this body, or are we going to sit here all day?" said Matt.

"I thought you were injured," snapped Sarah, hunched over on a rock. A miserable red rock. "And I thought you were nice, too, but you never warned me before you dropped me into what could have been a kilometre-deep canyon."

"It was a 1½-metre crater. You were almost at the bottom. Well, maybe not quite."

"Was that a short joke? Because if it was—"

"Sarah," said Matt. "After all we've been through, do you think I would have let you get hurt?"

Sarah pondered his remark, thinking of all the crazy places he'd dragged her to and the even crazier situations, dinosaurs being the least of their near-death experiences. But then she thought of all the times he'd saved her. Hmm. There was the time they were ejected into the river in a canoe while being assailed by arrows. No, that was her saving him. Well, there was the time that Nazis nearly discovered them in a wagon and they were distracted by an uproar of farm animals. Yeah, her again. There was the time that Albertasauras nearly took . . . Matt's head off . . . and she dove on top of him. Okay, what about the time he pushed her out of the way of gunfire? Yeah, that was Matt saving her. Hmm. Was there only one?

"Matt, I'm starting to think that you're not as reliable as you make yourself out to be."

"Ouch," he said.

"I'm sorry, but you have to consider the dangers—"

"I wasn't saying 'ouch' because you don't trust me, although that is a little insulting. I was saying 'ouch' because I rolled about fifty times when I flew up from the canyon and I have bruises over ninety percent of my body."

Sarah eyed him. He was still encased in a rotund EMU suit that had at least twelve layers of padding. "I think you have bruises on ten percent of your body, if that."

He gazed at her through the oversized bubble on his head, pursed his lips, then abruptly changed the subject. "So where did you say this body was? I need to make sure it isn't Dad."

"Over there," she said, pointing to the north, near the lip of the canyon. The haze had grown thicker, like the clouds that engulfed Niagara Falls. They could see only a dim outline of a human shape. Well, not really human, because it was encased in a bulging suit, and was mostly mush.

"Matt, I thought your dad wouldn't have a suit. That's why you were so worried and wanted to yank him out of here before he . . . exploded."

"You're right. It can't be my dad." He scrambled to his feet anyway, teetering on his perhaps-a-little injured legs. "But that means there are people here, if it was a person? Do you think it was a person?"

Sarah shrugged. "What else would it be?"

He didn't answer.

"Matt, you're not suggesting it's an alien."

"Little green men," he said.

"Matt, the rovers didn't find any life, other than bacteria."

"In our universe. Weren't you the one who thought that our myths came from other universes? Maybe it's a vampire." He chuckled, and the urge to make his perhaps-a-little injured leg into a perhaps-you-need-a-cast injury rippled through her.

"Come on," she said. "Find out for yourself. Do some CSI investigating. Get your hands dirty." She'd love to see him cringe.

She grabbed his arm and yanked him toward the shape. But as they approached and the mist cleared away, her anger at Matt's teasing was replaced with appropriate heart-stopping fear. She'd seen enough movies to know you don't go investigate the strange sound, or approach the mysterious person, particularly if the mysterious person is dead and ripped apart and splintering in front your eyes. You run the other way.

Matt even seemed to be hesitating.

The body was just as she'd seen it, without a nose or eyes or a face. It looked like a mass of milk curds.

"Yeah, not a pretty picture. Don't think it's my dad. Looks like Nadine, though. The suit is weird, a lot thinner than what NASA makes. Maybe that's why he's dead. It ripped open on a rock, or he fell jumping out of a canyon and really banged up his body," he emphasized, massaging his leg with gloves that couldn't massage anything, "tearing open the suit that way. Or it could have been a micrometeorite, penetrating the helmet. Could have been anything."

"But who is he? Why is he here? We're not very far in the future."

"Isabelle didn't really specify which universe she was sending us to. Maybe the Mars Mission started way before our time in another universe."

"So this is an astronaut. But his skin, if it is skin, doesn't look the right colour. It looks like silvery scales over white stuff."

"Hmm," said Matt. "Fishy."

"Now you're just making fun of me again."

"No, it really does look weird. Maybe if we open the suit . . ." He stepped forward. Was he crazy?

"Matt, don't touch—"

He touched. The flesh flaked away but some white residue attached itself to his glove. "You know," she said, furious now, "I thought skydiving and interfering in history until you almost erase yourself was the ultimate in idiocy, but I think you just took the cake. What did I tell you they found on Mars?

"Huh?" He was still examining the sticky substance.

"Bacteria. That's what I said. Now you just touched what could be dangerous, flesh-eating bacteria."

"What if humans evolved differently?" he said, ignoring her while he pondered and studied and nearly killed himself, just like his dad. "What if they never made it out of the ocean in this universe, and became some sort of intelligent fish?"

"Fish that could build rockets and travel to Mars? Oh, what am I saying? Matt, did you hear a word? That could be deadly and you just touched it."

"Isabelle will fix me if I start getting sick."

That was his answer to everything. The darn computer can fix it. She can repair DNA, so who cares if we get shot, or trampled, or nearly eaten by lions. Who cares?

"She won't be able to repair that." She pointed at the body, or the remnants of what looked like it might be a body.

"You worry too much. We're in our suits."

Just then, the suit on the pseudo-body began pulsating. Sarah froze, her mind and body suddenly locked. Matt stepped back, pulling her with and touching her suit with the jelly-like stuff on his hand.

The Martian's suit split open down the middle and a torrent of fluid escaped. Fluid that was tinged blue and green, even in the red glow of the dust-smothered sun. The suit fragmented in various locations, the arms fell away and the legs disintegrated. The suit was dissolving.

"Matt," shrieked Sarah. She couldn't help it. I mean, she'd been through a lot and most of the time she didn't cry (well, maybe a little) or yell or scream (unless she was falling out of an airplane), but who could expect her not to shriek when confronted with a fragmenting fishy body on a blood-boiling planet that might or might not be predicting their fate.

"It's okay, Sarah," he said. "It's not going to bite. It's just decaying, I guess." He didn't sound nearly as reassuring as he was trying to be. Maybe because his teeth were chattering.

She looked at him. She looked at his fingers, which were bluish green, and didn't his gloves look thinner?

"Matt," she said. "I think your suit is dissolving."  

Episode 4

Now what? Matt had just touched what might be suit-devouring, flesh-eating bacteria. In order to escape this planet, they'd have to wait for the time machine's failsafe to activate and pull them back home. But what if the suits dissolved in the next few seconds and they couldn't breathe and their blood began boiling?

"Matt, we're going to end up like that fish-man," said Sarah.

"No," he stated, although his eyes seemed fixated on the disintegrating patch of fabric on his EMU suit. He was gazing at where he'd touched hers, too. "It won't get through the Kevlar."

"Kevlar?" Now what was he talking about?

"The same thing they use to make bulletproof vests. It's what one of the layers of our suits is made of, to keep micrometeorites from getting through and making us lose pressure. We'll be okay."

"How can you be so sure? We don't know what that stuff can do?" She pointed to the turquoise residue, her heart thumping like a chest-rattling drum solo.

"You're right," said Matt, crouching down suddenly and wiping the residue on the Mars dirt. Nothing came off. The dirt just clung to the substance, like sprinkles on a jelly donut. Something was glittering now, too, as if the residue had eaten away to the Kevlar layer. He sprang up, shook his hand in disgust, and snapped, "I think we should get moving."

"Moving where? We can't even think of rescuing your dad if we end up like him." She hated looking at him, so she pointed blindly.

Matt grasped her hand with his undamaged glove and moved it directly over the body. "Him, you mean?"

"You're joking? We're this close to becoming pulp and you're playing the comedian?"

"Where we should go," he said, ignoring her, "is the same place he came from. His ship. Because it's bound to be pressurized and then we might survive if this stuff dissolves our suits."

"What if it's an aquarium?" she shot back.

He shrugged. "Then we make a choice. Explode or drown."

"Very nice. This is just great. You know, we've faced pretty dangerous situations before, but we could always breathe."

"I thought you were good at holding your breath," he said, taking her hand and pulling her along the side of the canyon in a direction the astronaut might have come from. A canyon that was becoming so deep and wide, they couldn't see the bottom or the other side, even when the dust clouds subsided or the fog dissipated briefly. "Especially that day in the river when you saved my life."

"Holding your breath for a minute or two is a little different from what could be hours. And we're not supposed to hold our breath on Mars, I think."


"It has something to do with our lungs and exploding."

"Oh, you're right. I read about that somewhere. The pressure is so thin here, it would make our lungs expand too quickly and pop if we didn't breathe out. Of course there's too much carbon dioxide and not enough oxygen so we wouldn't be able to breathe anyway."

They walked for a while, or rather, bounded, without another word, their breathing the only sound chuffing through the radio. The wind swirled and whipped around them, over them, but most of the time, ploughed directly into them, forcing them to bound backward occasionally too. Sarah tried not to look at the widening circle on her arm, the retreating fibres, the impenetrable Kevlar that was becoming penetrable. She tried not to look at the canyon, that seemed deeper and blacker than the Mammoth caves, and where they could be blown into in an instant if the wind decided to change direction. But most of all, she tried not to look at Matt, because he made her mad, and he would probably die first, too.

Then she saw a spark on the horizon. The red dust dwindled to fine curling filaments that allowed for actual sight. An enormous mountain loomed over the dark cracks in the surface of the planet—the canyon maze. More sparks flew into the air and the ground beneath them shook, a series of convulsions that threw them off their feet.

"What? What?" she shrieked.

"A-rsia M-mons," said Matt, his voice stuttering with the vibrations. "The volcano."

Okay, this wasn't a time to get mad. This was a time to stay calm and focused and figure out how to survive. Sarah took a deep breath. "Of all the stupid, pig-headed, idiotic ideas in all the world! Let's go find my dad on Mars. We just need a couple of suits (which we had to steal from NASA!), we don't have to worry about life or anything, it's a dead planet, and there are certainly no active volcanoes!"

"Sarah, stop."

"What are we going to do now, Matt? Huh? Huh? Huh? What if lava and ash rain down on us? Do you think the Kevlar can stand up to that? Are we going to end up frozen mummies covered with ash just like at Mount Vesuvius? Or do you think this bacteria, or whatever it is, is going to eat us first?"

"Sarah, you're becoming hysterical."

"Hysterical? I'm becoming hysterical. Who wouldn't be hysterical in all of this? I don't want to ever listen to you again."

"Sarah, listen to me." He grabbed her by the shoulders.

"Okay," she huffed. "I'll listen one more time, because we probably only have minutes or seconds to live and the last thing I want to hear is you reassuring me we're going to be fine."

"We're going to be fine. And if we were going to die, the last thing I'd want to hear is your voice anyway."

Sarah sighed. Should she shake him now or try to kiss him through the double shields of their helmets?

"Stop being nice," she whispered. "How are we going to be fine?"

He turned her around and to the side of the volcano a glittering concoction of glass and steel confronted her eyes. A dome that was protection from the atmosphere and might be protection from an erupting volcano.

"The fish-people have been busy," said Matt.

Episode 5

Sarah gawked. Was it a dream? Could some incredibly strange-looking industrious people have created a biosphere on Mars? If it were real, they actually might not die.

Then an ash cloud belched from the volcano and she thought, But we probably will.

"Run!" screamed Matt. He ran forward, too fast, and fell and rolled and bounced into a crater. He somersaulted several meters down the quartz-crusted bowl until he finally jittered to a stop.

"Matt," she yelled, forgetting the volcano as she looked at him sprawled on the ground. Was he, perhaps, extremely injured now?

She carefully stepped down the slope, trying to take slow measured strides to keep from tumbling after him. But a glowing ball of pumice slammed into the ground only a metre to her side, sizzling into the earth, or so it appeared since the only thing she could hear was Matt's strained breathing.

She walked forward again, as another red-hot stone and then another fell into the crater. Soon the sky seemed clouded with balls and marbles and hailstones of the brightest orange, peppering the ground around her. One slammed into her helmet with a dull thud. Would it penetrate the Kevlar and burn right through her scalp? She shook her head and the stone fell to the ground, her helmet still intact. Wow, did she ever love those Kevlar-makers.

"Matt? Are you okay?"

He groaned and twitched, so at least he was alive.

"Matt, we're being rained on by lava bombs, I think they're called. We have to get out of here, to the dome, or whatever it is. Can you move?"

"I'm . . . just . . . fine," he said, although he sounded anything but fine.

Sarah shuffled to his side and knelt down. She grabbed him around the shoulders and propped him up. "Can you walk?"

"I feel kind of woozy." He nearly tipped back down.

Sarah caught him securely in the net of her arms as the glowing balls accompanied by a cloud of ash rained down on them. "This is no time to be woozy!" she yelled, although she probably shouldn't yell. She couldn't make him un-woozy by yelling.

"I haf ta get you out a this," said Matt, as he teetered again.

"Right," said Sarah. "Just like every other time."

What could she do? She could hear thunk, thunk, thunk, as they were bombarded. And this lovely Kevlar might work for a while, but it couldn't withstand an assault from the fiery depths of hell, which Mars was starting to look like. Plus, the milky substance on Matt's glove and her shoulder appeared to be doing what the lava hadn't yet. The suit was becoming threadbare.

"I'm going to carry you," she said.

"Too heavy," he protested, but his voice was so faint it sounded more like a squeak.

"Matt," she said. "For a guy who battles crocodiles and lions, you sound like a mouse." She couldn't help it.

"Not true," he squeaked and teetered and grabbed her arm.

Sarah tucked her head under his arm and hoisted him up. She wobbled, but she felt ten times stronger in this low gravity, or at least three times. The air was thick with red dust, gray ash, and tennis balls of lava. It was like walking through a bowl of Chunky soup. But she remembered, or at least she thought she did, where the protective dome was located. To the right, along the canyon, toward an erupting volcano.

Matt groaned and clung to her waist, his head bobbing against her back. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "I got us killed this time."

"We're not dead yet," she snapped. The terrain had levelled off, so they must have reached the top of the crater. Now to find shelter. She walked with Pierce-Brosnan determination toward the sparks of reflecting lava bombs. At least she hoped it was a reflection. If PB could row through an acid lake, drive over burning lava and escape a town-disintegrating eruption, she could do this, right? But he probably had a stunt man. She didn't have a stunt man.

She dodged a giant boulder that crashed into the ground, and staggered forward again.

"You shouldn't blame yourself," she muttered. "I always blame you when we nearly die, but I come with you. I might argue, but I do it anyway. Not because I believe we'll make it every time. I don't. It's because it isn't right to leave your dad trapped in the multiverse. He belongs with you. It's not even right to leave Nadine, even though she put him there to begin with. No one should end up where they don't belong."

"Or step on a butterfly," he said.

Normally, she would think it was the concussion talking, but she'd heard something about the butterfly effect.

"I think we've stepped on a hundred butterflies, Matt."

"And a few ants and mosquitoes too."

She kept traipsing forward, but she scrunched her face this time. Maybe it was a concussion.

"Not to mention some bears, skunks and chickens."

Sarah sighed. "And lots of people."

"But we didn't change anything for that fish-man. He was dead to begin with."

Sarah stopped. She saw herself, a glass partition that reflected her body and Matt's legs. They'd made it to the biodome. She could see inside, but the view seemed distorted. A man was walking by, or was he floating? Or was he a man?

"We're here," she said. "I just need to find the door. But, Matt?"


"I think I was right about the aquarium. I think it's all water in there."

"So what?" he said. "These suits are airtight and watertight. The astronauts train with them underwater."

"Oh," she said. "That's good." Why didn't it feel good, though?

She shuffled along the exterior of the dome, following the thick pane of glass and the waving fronds of seaweed on the other side of the glass. She witnessed a gaping creature with a scaly head of almost-human proportions and flipper-like arms swirl around and begin to trace her movements. Beyond the creature, other sea animals appeared. A scuttling crab, a flailing octopus, a hundred silvery flashing sardines. An ocean was being introduced, or maybe reintroduced to Mars. There seemed such promise in it, in this dry dusty world, especially when the oceans on earth were in such peril. Finally she found what looked like a door, or the framework for a door. She stopped again.

"Matt, what if we're going to introduce this bacteria into their aquarium and kill them all?"

"Oh," he said, as if his head was hurting. Hers was probably hurting more.

"We shouldn't go in."

"Hmm," he replied.


"Sarah. There's a huge stream of lava heading right for us."

Sarah looked and saw, despite soot-like ash clouds smothering the air, a ripple of berry-red and black-crusted lava creeping toward them.

The door swooshed open in front of them.

"We die, or we kill the fish-people."

"We're evil," said Sarah, prepared to step inside. But her heart squeezed in a painful contraction, and she just . . . couldn't.

"I guess it's time for it to end, Matt. I can't kill all those people just to save ourselves."

He groaned, but it sounded like a groan of agreement.

"Sarah, set me down," he said. "If we're going to die, I want to look at you."

Sarah set him on the ground. He gripped her hand and gave her one last intense gaze. The lava foamed at their back.

Suddenly arms grabbed them—long, steel mechanical arms—and propelled them into the dome. The door swooshed closed. They were in some kind of antechamber, like a secondary airlock for a spaceship. The chamber began to fill with water.

"Oh no," said Sarah. "They're too good for us. They wouldn't let us die."

"Maybe," said Matt, "it's disinfectant water."

"Maybe," she said, "you're dreaming."

"Maybe," he said, "water kills this type of bacteria."

"I doubt it. We have to warn them, Matt. We have to keep them from opening the door to the aquarium."

The chamber was filling rapidly. A group of fish-people stared at them through the glass partition, five, six, now maybe ten scaly bodies with noses rather than snouts and hands with opposable thumbs at the end of their flippers. An evolving race. They looked curious, but not hostile.

The lava pushed up against the dome, but it couldn't penetrate the glass, or whatever material it was. It must be mighty strong.

Matt peered at his hand where the residue seemed to be detaching from his glove. It floated into the water around them.

"I think water washes this off," he said. "But it might still hurt marine life." He pointed at the bacteria and looked at the fish people. He pantomimed coughing, choking, dying.

If they didn't grasp the meaning of the residue, Matt's acting ability seemed to do the trick, for they suddenly looked alarmed. Then a vibration rippled through the chamber and the water swirled, caught in some kind of vortex. Everything in the chamber began whirling around, including Matt and Sarah.

"Matt," she said. "I think we're being flushed."

"Never thought I'd see the day," he said.

"I'm not surprised," said Sarah. "It's exactly what we deserve, considering all the worlds we've meddled in."

They were tumbling head over heels, rushing through a tunnel lined with chipped rock. But a mysterious glow lit up the tunnel, somewhere in the distance.

"Matt," she gasped. "I think we're being flushed into a magma chamber."

"Hmm," he said. "Not good."

"Not good? Not good!"


"How can I relax when . . ."

A zap occurred, and then a contraction that squelched her lungs until they nearly imploded. They splashed to the floor, back in the lab.


"Sometimes you just need to relax," he commented.

Okay, so now they were safe. Okay, so now might be the ideal time to strangle him. But was everyone safe? "What about your dad?" she asked.

"Oh, Dad will be okay. Just before we left, I had Isabelle send him a suit in that weird lightning universe you didn't want to go to."

"Are you trying to tell me we didn't have to go to Mars in the first place?"

"N-no. He may not have used—"

"Matt, I'm going to kill . . ." She couldn't choke out the words. "And Nadine? Did you send a suit for Nadine?

He didn't answer.


"Nadine will blend right in with the fish-people."

"Matt, seriously?"

"Yeah, I sent one for her too. Isabelle made me."

Sarah sighed. At least he hadn't killed Nadine. She didn't want that on her conscience, even though the woman could still use a little hair-ripping.

"We're home," she murmured, her helmet filling with her resonant sigh. Not a thing in the world to worry about here.

Except . . . something was flapping against her suit. Something the fish-people may have decided to flush too. Something that might have acid for blood, or might just make a good pet.

Follow me on Twitter:

Join the Time Meddlers Club on Facebook:

Time Meddlers

Promote Your Page Too

No comments: