Archer, Goddard and Rachel stepped out of the dark hatchway into the light of the tunnel that led up to the lifts.
‘You haven’t left me with much time,’ Archer said, ‘the suit is miles away from here. Just a few hours until the configuration is reached you say?’
‘Give or take a few days.’
‘That’s not funny. I could get one of the other members of my team to bring it down, but they wouldn’t get here for hours. Who knows how long it would take to get an idea of the workings of that bomb.’
Goddard’s face began to wrinkle into an expression of pleading, ‘It’s our only hope Archer. We have no other technology that is up to the task. You don’t realise how ahead of the game your little team is. The real innovation doesn’t germinate in the large corporations. It’s the little guys like you who do the pioneering stuff. That’s why the Foundation wants to sponsor you. We haven’t the time to deal with red tape. We need to start working right away.’
Archer nodded, ‘It’s funny to see you finally needing me after all these years. I bet you never thought you’d see the day when you had to beg me to help you. You are begging, aren’t you?’
‘Don’t be a stupid fool. You’re not doing me any favours. You’re doing your species a favour. This is bigger than both of us.’
‘You’re right of course,’ replied Archer, feeling a sense of quiet justice that he was in a position of power over his father for once, ‘Then I suppose I’d better start making arrangements. Maybe I can get close enough to that thing to…’ his voice trailed off as he heard distant running footsteps, and realised that someone was coming down the corridor towards them. A man in a loose blue shirt with rolled up sleeves and beige docker pants rounded the corner and bounded up to Goddard, sweat stained and out of breath.
‘Goddard, sir. Sorry to disturb you, but we’ve had a number of reports from the Mars Orbiter crew. They’ve been getting some strange electrical and magnetic disturbances from the surface. They don’t know what to make of it. They’re streaming the data back now.’
Goddard’s eyes quickly met Archers, ‘Mars!’ he whispered sharply. ‘Of course! Mars is between the asteroid belt and Earth. It’s Mars next.’
‘There’s your bloody domino effect,’ whispered Archer.
Against the scarred, reddish-orange backdrop of the planet’s surface, the Mars Orbiter ship cruised along its orbital path. The apparent calmness and serenity outside the small craft was juxtaposed by the frantic voices within.
‘The radiation levels have trebled in the last twenty minutes. The nephelometer reports a massive increase in particle density in the atmosphere. It’s like the whole planet is shaking itself apart. Maybe the Foundation can make something of it, because I sure as hell can’t.’
There was an almighty rumble that shook the Orbiter. Peering through the view-port one of the astronauts could see the northern hemisphere of the planet looming above them. Fissures began to appear in the rock. The planet began to dissolve in slow motion as explosions ruptured and distorted the Valles Marineris, the high cliffs collapsing into the huge rift. And Olympus Mons, the seventy-kilometre wide mountain, was sliding apart like it was nothing more than a child’s sandcastle.
A huge chunk of rock, tossed away from the planet by the huge blast was heading straight for the Orbiter.
They fired the thrusters to alter their trajectory, but the piece of the planet was too large to escape. It grew larger in the view-port, obscuring the remnants of the doomed world below. The crew of the Orbiter, and the ground staff at the Foundation all knew that it was impossible to be that close to an exploding planet and survive.
‘Davey,’ said Geek, ‘where are you, man? I can’t see you. Did you move?’
‘No, I didn’t move. I stayed right where I was. Isn’t this just the best!’
‘Fantastic! I knew I needed to polarize the upper-spectrum four times instead of three. There’s always some little technicality that just…’
The lights dimmed slightly. Geek said, ‘I think the generator’s failing.’
‘Should we stop the test? Something like that might…’
The lights went out. In the complete darkness the two men fell silent, all that could be heard was their breathing, and the stuttering of the electrical generator winding down outside the shack. Then a moment later the lights came on full. Bulbs began to pop and computer terminals blew. Davey faded back to visibility; the lenses in the suit lighting up like a Christmas tree. As he looked down at himself, small ripples of blue electric light began to course up and down the length of the suit.
Davey looked at Geek, ‘Is this meant to happen?’
Geek became frantic, ‘Get it off. It doesn’t have a surge suppressant yet. It’s going to explode. Get out of it now!’
‘What the hell would cause a surge?’ They both began to fumble with the suit, hurriedly pulling it off Davey. It was hot to the touch, and Geek knew that an explosion was imminent.
Once Davey was out of the suit, the two men threw it across the shack. It landed in the corner, a trail of wires scraping along the floor behind it. The suit popped and fizzed, then exploded in a blinding flash of blue light as it impacted with the side of the shack. Flames began to lick up the wall. Geek reached for a fire extinguisher, and doused the flames. Seconds later, the suit was nothing more than a smouldering pile of charred electronics.
There was a moment of disbelieving silence between the two men, punctuated by the rattle of rain on the tin roof, and an awful smell of burnt plastic.
Geek’s mobile phone began to ring.
They had returned to Goddard’s office. The old man was pacing back and forth near the window, one hand stroking his balding head, the other grasping his cane. Archer stared out at the dark city.
‘We’ve been hit with the electromagnetic effects. Surely there are gravitational implications for every planet in the solar system when one of its bodies is destroyed.’
There was a knock on the door and the scientist entered without waiting for permission.
‘Sir,’ he said resignedly, ‘we’ve lost the Orbiter.’
Goddard stopped pacing, but remained silent.
Archer spoke, ‘Mars was next in line. The Earth artifact is still armed. It’s protecting itself because it hasn’t delivered its payload yet. There’s going to be another artifact hidden somewhere in the new Martian asteroids. We need to find it, just like we did with Ceres, because without it we can’t calculate when Earth’s time is up.’
Goddard stared at Archer, ‘Then you must get the suit. Quickly.’
Archer left the Iceberg Building and tipped his head up to the sky, feeling the cool rain on his cheeks. He pulled his mobile phone from his jacket, he dialled Geek’s mobile.
When the call was answered, Archer said, ‘It’s me. I need you to prep the LDJ.’
‘What the hell for?’ said Geek at the other end.
‘Because tomorrow I have to save the world.’
There was a long pause on the line, ‘Geek, are you still there?’
‘Yes I’m here. Listen, can’t you do it next week?’
There was a beep on the line. Archer said, ‘Hold on Geek I’ve got another call coming through.’
Archer switched to the other call, ‘Archer speaking.’
‘It’s your father. I’ve just had a call from our office in Cape Town. Listen. There’s a diamond mine down there, near Pretoria. The Cullinan Diamond Mine. It’s the deepest shaft in the world. Two deaths were reported yesterday at the rock face.’
‘What’s that got to do with anything? Listen. I was thinking. Maybe we’re being taught a lesson here; a lesson about the destructive nature of man. Perhaps our race is finally getting a taste of its own medicine.’
‘Archer, listen to what I’m telling you, dammit! Save the speculation for later. Right now we have a bigger problem. They’ve found another artifact in South Africa. Don’t you see what that means?’
‘It means no matter what we do, Archer. Even if we are successful in using your suit to disarm this bomb, the damn things are buried in the rock. They could be anywhere and we don’t know how many there are. So, how will we really know if we got them all?’