The Red Venus
by Antonio Bellomi
|Alla versione originale|
|part 1 of 2|
Miguel Gutiérrez turned abruptly, barely avoiding a rock outcrop that had suddenly appeared in front of him. He wiped away the drops of perspiration running down his brow. In the small cabin of the tractor, the heat was stifling, dense and oppressive like a palpable fog.
All of this had begun two days earlier when the comm system had broken down. Now, while outside the tractor in the Martian desert a man could instantly freeze, inside the cabin the heat was unbearable.
The blasted Hyksos! This was the name he had given to the unknown people who had inhabited Mars in ancient times and had crafted the wonderful little statue he had dug out from the bottom of a ravine. Now the Hyksos were hunting him. He felt them. He felt their hatred chasing him through the dreary deserts of Mars, while he drove madly to reach a shelter in the nearest Earth settlement. But he was not sure he would make it.
He knew them well, the Hyksos. Since he had recovered the statue, he had felt them coming out of the past, like reincarnated ghosts that wanted to destroy him and snatch the most precious thing he had ever recovered during his long career as a geologist.
The small statue.
He could still see it as it looked after he had dug it out from a heap of rubble and brushed away millennia-old dust that covered it. He had stared at it incredulously because of its similarity to the ancient Venus de Milo. A wonderful creation of carved red basalt.
Only a superior civilization and a sublime artist could have generated such a masterpiece. At first he had reacted with incredulity, because it was not certain that a civilization had once lived on Mars before the coming of the Earthmen. But the statue was the tangible proof that disproved the unbelievers.
Mars had hosted a civilization that created the Red Venus, the tiny statue that he lovingly clasped in his hands and called with this name because of its color. The wonderful perfection of that body carved in the basalt had enchanted him. His eyes had caressed, with the tenderness of a lover, the curves of those rich breasts, the belly promising delights and fecundity, the long slender legs...
He had felt an inexpressible feeling of euphoria, and the kaleidoscope of emotions that had swirled in his head for a moment had unsettled his synapses.
It was then he had realized that, when he had dug out the statue from the dust, he had recalled to life the mysterious people that had crafted it: cruel people, like the ancient Hyksos who did not want him to take the Red Venus among the Earthmen.
He had flown away, but he had felt he was being followed until he had decided to hide the statue.
He smiled sadly. He did not know if he could survive to reach an Earth base, but the Hyksos would never have the Venus back. He had hidden it where they would never find it, amidst the red sands of Mars.
The sun was dropping lower on the horizon, pale and cold, and the first shadows of night descended on the planet. He was tired and thought he should stop and take a rest, but the Hyksos could still reach him any moment. Better keep going.
But he had to do something before that. The Martian Venus should not vanish again for thousands of years in the sands of the red planet. Its place was in the Museum of Mars City, and it should be exhibited in the museums of Earth where everybody could admire it.
He killed the motor and stretched out. His limbs ached after the long hours he had spent in the close confines of the tractor cabin.
Then he took a paper and a pencil and pondered for a while. It was vital to leave a clue as to the place where he had hidden the statue if he wanted it to be retrieved someday, just in case the Hyksos could catch up with him and kill him. But it had to be a clue that only an Earthman could unravel. This idea made him smile. He found amusing the idea of deceiving his pursuers with such a crafty trick.
The solution came to him all of a sudden and he smiled again. It was so easy! After all he was professor Miguel Gutiérrez of Mars City University. No Hyksos could outsmart him. He painstakingly wrote down the clues that would allow only an Earthman to retrieve the statue. He was about to restart the engine when he thought that if the Hyksos reached him they could find the note and destroy it.
There was only one solution. He had discarded it at first, judging it too dangerous: transmit the message to the Martian Communication Center on Deimos.
It was true that the Hyksos could intercept it, and from the transmission they might even pinpoint his position. In this case he would be certainly killed, but the message with the key to recover the Red Venus would not be lost. One day the earthmen would retrieve the ancient artefact.
Just to be sure, he set the transmitter in a way to make it nearly impossible to pinpoint the place of emission, though the Hyksos might do it anyway. He knew their technology was much more advanced than the technology of Earth.
When he set off again he felt euphoric, but as he drove toward the nearest base, which was still far away, he realized he was getting discouraged. The Hyksos would catch up with him and he would die.
He was sure of this. He would never see his marvellous Red Venus being exhibited in the biggest museum of the red planet or in a museum of Earth.
* * *
“My dear Doctor Qeta, how glad I am to see you!” Zoltan Kun warmly received the planetologist who was peeping through the open door of his office. The director of the Big Martian Museum of Mars City was a short, plump man, with a half-bald head and a prominent pot belly.
His physical appearance was rather insignificant, but this impression was cancelled by his probing, intelligent eyes that explained why he was the biggest authority in the field of geological Martian finds.
Uriel Qeta went in shyly, but the director ran up to him as if he were an old friend, even they had met only once before, in passing, during a science meeting.
“Please, sit down!” said the director, pointing to a comfortable chair, after they had shaken hands. “As soon as I was told you were here in Mars City, I could not help but ask you to visit me.”
“And I was very glad to come,” Uriel Qeta said, letting himself down into the soft cushion of the chair. “I confess your message excited my curiosity.”
The director chuckled. “Oh, yes, I think I know how to tickle the attention of scholars by now,” he said with a disarming smile. “After so many years with them, I know their soft spots.”
“It’s our curiosity, isn’t it?” asked Uriel Qeta, who was still wondering about the real reason the director had wanted to see him.
The short man went back to his seat behind the desk. On his right, a wide crystal window offered a spectacular view of the red Martian desert. The walls of the office were covered with shelves cluttered with books and geological finds.
His desk, however, was absolutely clean, except for a big stone with a brass label that read Olympus Mons Peak. It meant the director had once climbed the highest and most famous mountain of Mars.
A date was engraved beneath it, but from where he sat, Uriel Qeta could not read it. It must have been many years ago, anyway.
“Would you like a cup of coffee? A soft drink... or a shot of Martian whisky?”
“Oh, no, thank you,” the planetologist said. “No need of it. By the way, I have not yet had the opportunity of visiting your museum, but from what I saw when I came in, I’d say it is an absolute must.”
Kun nodded energetically and his face lightened with childish satisfaction. “Oh, sure. I will be happy to take you for a tour myself. You’ll see it will not be a waste of time. But now I think you want to know why I asked you here.”
“I must confess you piqued my curiosity. Certainly, you didn’t invite me here just to offer me a glass of Martian whisky. Or am I wrong?”
“You are absolutely right,” the director said. “I’d better come to the point, then.”
After pondering a moment, Kun began: “This story began three years ago, when a noted Martian geologist, Professor Miguel Gutiérrez, left Mars City on a geological survey mission and never came back.
“After he left, we did not hear from him for several days, until we received a raving message, and nothing more after that. He never came back and we could not find him... until today.”
Uriel Qeta crossed his legs. “Did he leave alone?” he asked, a bit confused. “Aren’t these expeditions usually made by at least a two-person team?”
The director smiled sadly. “It is apparent you have never met Professor Gutiérrez. An eccentric man. He did not like to work with other people and he almost always went out on expeditions alone.”
Mr. Kun shrugged. “He did and undid as he liked, but he always came up with optimal results, and we let it be. What do we say in these cases? Never rule a genius.”
Uriel Qeta chuckled politely. “There is a point I don’t understand, though. If he drove out with a tractor, he can’t have gone very far. These vehicles have a very limited range. It should not have been so difficult to track him down within the range of the tractor.”
“Absolutely true,” the director said. “And we have made a search following this criterion. But we could not pinpoint him.”
“How can that be? It should be easy enough to find a tractor in the Martian desert. And there is also the transponder...”
“The on-board transponder had been deactivated,” Kun explained ruefully. “I will tell you why in a moment. And as for pinpointing the tractor, a very uncommon thing happened, which prevented us from finding the vehicle.”
Uriel Qeta’s attention was by now fully hooked. He was about to say something, when the office door opened and a female head with raven-black hair peeped in. “Did you call me, sir?”
Kun motioned the woman to come in. “Come in, please, Doctor Joska. I was waiting for you.”
Uriel Qeta rose to his feet. He knew Doctor Joska, a good-looking young woman, well enough, because he had often met her during scientific symposia. “What a pleasure to see you, Doctor Joska,”
She smiled at him and sat down in an easy chair at his side.
“I asked Doctor Joska to come because she works in the findings department, and at the time she conducted the search for Professor Gutiérrez.”
The director turned to her. “Please, tell Doctor Qeta why we could not pinpoint the Professor’s tractor.”
“It was because of a very rare Martian phenomenon,” she began, turning to the planetologist. “The tractor had been swallowed by a particular kind of sand, called ‘thin sand’.”
Uriel Qeta frowned. He was surprised. Thin sand was a rather unusual phenomenon on Mars. They were pockets of sand grains with a diameter considerably less than normal sand. Under these layers of thin sand, there were hollow cavities, not large, which supported the sand above because it had slightly solidified so as to form a sort of crust. Thanks to the absence of telluric activity, there were no vibrations that could damage the architectural balance of the crust. But if a vehicle weighing more than a couple of men drove on it, it was enough for the crust to crumble, swallowing the vehicle, just as quicksand would, on Earth.
“So Professor Gutiérrez’s tractor disappeared from our monitors and we never found it... till a week ago.”
Copyright © 2006 by Antonio Bellomi