A Fistful of Dust

fistfulSMALL

Phobos, fearful son of Mars. A moon often likened to a diseased potato…but is there more to the legends surrounding the satellite than mere rumour? Drawn to Mars as part of a covert mission, the team of the Esmeralda 2 are waylaid by Sir Henry Routledge, governor-general of Syrtis Major. Although at first reluctant to take on an additional mission — a search for a missing man — they change their minds upon hearing one Henry Barnsdale-Stevens has gone missing on Phobos, the mysterious moon of Mars that many say inspires fear.

The explorers set out for Phobos believing they may well find the minerals they’ve been looking for, and save a man’s life. Another myth calls to them — the strange monolith that rises from Phobos’ surface…but does it extend below? The team discovers this is not an ill-formed ‘bit of rock’, nor a remnant of the Stickney crater impact. It’s much more mysterious and marvelous, for there are words and drawings on the stone.

What secrets does the moon conceal, and why does it inspire dread? Will the team manage to survive long enough to find the answers? Their descent beneath the surface may lead to the most amazing discoveries yet.

Available now from Untreed Reads.

Excerpt:

“May I?” Nathaniel held out his hand. Highmore handed the stone over without further comment.

“What did the American want with Hat’Kaashteek’s people?” Annabelle stressed the Martian’s name, as though making a point of refusing to use Highmore’s condensed version of Hat.

“To trade. Supplies and liftwood.”

“This suggests they have a ship.” Annabelle’s mind was working several steps ahead. “Are you saying there are already men on Phobos?”

“Certainly. At least Henry that I’m sure of, his valet, and this American chap.”

The stone was suddenly a great deal more interesting. Annabelle turned her gaze on Nathaniel.

“You seem to have doubts,” Elizabeth said, her tone asking why.

“Phobos is a moon like any other as far as I am aware.” Annabelle spoke to the room, but her next sentence was aimed at Nathaniel. “The gravity will be low like Luna.”

“Indisputably. Maybe there is some degree of difference, but it is airless…on the surface. Perhaps it resembles Luna in other ways.”

“What do you mean?” Elizabeth leaned forward. “Airless? How then have we conquered Luna?”

“The moon is hardly conqueredand quite simply we have pressured suits for walking about on the surface. Beneath the crust, there are pockets of oxygen. No, the problem comes with manoeuvring an aether flyer in low gravity, specifically with landing. For that one needs a propeller governor such as we have fitted.” Nathaniel hesitated. “If there are mixed nationalities in the party and one is Russian…” He looked at Annabelle. “Is it possible?”

“That even now Tereshkov haunts us? I can think of no other explanation, although it leaves many questions.”

“Although I am at a loss to the subtext of your conversation, I take it that you accept it is entirely possible another flyer equipped to land on Phobos has done just that?” Highmore asked.

“Improbable, but possible.”

“But why would my dear Henry become involved with such ruffians as you describe?”

“My sweet Elizabeth, I said they were men of dubious repute. I did not call them ruffians.” Highmore said “sweet” as if it was a synonym for naive. Stone and Highmore exchanged a look, Highmore smiling slightly.

“I do not see how it fails to amount to the same thing.”

“Then I suggest you look to Earth’s politicians for your answer. Many of them are decidedly untrustworthyand of questionable character and yet we allow them to govern our society.”

“Joseph! Really. That’s a…”

“Terrible thing to say? Yes, indeed, it is, but many a true word is spoken in jest…though I was not jesting. As to why Henry may have fallen in with these types, he is not always the most prudent of men. Hence the reason I felt despondent concerning your engagement at first. Henry is a thoroughly decent sort. The best of men. I would go so far to say as he is what men should be before they are deigned worthy to enter the gates of heaven; however, he is intrepid to the point where he seeks to find how a thing can be done before he considers whether it should be done. That includes his safety and I would not wish to see you heartbroken.”

A moment of silence endured in which Elizabeth appeared to search for an argument before giving up, and the others looked at Highmore in a different light.

“I had assumed, if Mister Barnsdale-Stevens had reached Phobos at all that he had used a short-ranged battery-powered flyer.” Nathaniel considered the problem. “He has no experience with such machines?”

“None,” Highmore confirmed.

“Then, yes, a short-ranged flyer would have made sense. There’s no need continuously to align the boilerand there are few maintenance issues. Push the throttle and go.”

“Until the battery runs down?”

“Quite.”

“And the landing problems?”

“Yes. Precisely why I,” Nathaniel glanced at Elizabeth, “feared the worst. But if he has, as you say, gone to Phobos in the company of others with a fully equipped flyer then he has a better chance for survival.”

“If they have not turned on him?”

To that, Nathaniel had nothing to say. His expression was nothing to the one that now shadowed Elizabeth’s face.

“I’m sorry, dear sister, but I would rather you face the very real possibility that Henry is dead.”

Elizabeth’s hands fluttered for a moment, until she clasped them together in her lap. “No. No, you are right. There are no guarantees that we will find Henry, dead or alive, but we will do our best.”

Highmore smiled and stared at them all, looking once more the predator. His stare as good as challenged them to deny his sister, just as Sir Henry’s had. Nathaniel considered some sins were small in the grand scheme of things, and forgave him.

“It would seem we have a mission,” Folkard said. Nathaniel heard words the captain didn’t say. They had another mission in addition to their search for minerals.

“Do you mind if I…we study this?” Nathaniel asked, pausing to glance at Arnaud.

“You may.” Highmore took a breath, pinched the bridge of his nose, while squeezing his eyes shut. He chuckled as he opened them. “If you can make a diamond out of that, Stone, you’re most welcome to try.” He winked and smiled, looking from Stone to Fontaine.

It was only then that Nathaniel realised how they were sitting, Arnaud’s legs crossed, and his ankle looping over Nathaniel’s, gently brushing against his leg as he so slightly swayed his foot up and down. There appeared to be no animosity in Highmore’s wink, but suddenly Nathaniel felt something had gone wrong with the environmental systems. Perhaps he should check the solar boiler and make sure the sun’s rays were focused on the water tank. The steam created not only powered the ship’s turbine and generated electricity; it functioned to keep them all from freezing in the depths of space. Right now, Nathaniel seemed to be generating enough heat of his own. Was his face burning?

(c) Sharon Bidwell, all rights reserved.