Black Maw

The view shifted away from the active geysers and toward a desolate plain marred by patchy brown stripes.

“What’s so special about two-thirty-two?” Grace asked.

Richard pointed to the nav display. “Atomic mass. Look at what the wide-sweep lasers are reporting. Thorium.”

“Why are you looking for thorium?”

“The engine on the Essex used it,” Richard explained. “And I hope by following it—Wragg! Look at the levels in the geyser there.”

“Interesting,” Wragg said. “But it’s probable that storms blew the thorium until it collected at the bottom of the geyser—”

“No.” Richard shook his head. “If that were so, there would be some in every geyser nearby.”

“So you think the Essex landed down there?” Grace asked.

“Probably not landed,” Richard said. “Two decades ago, this geyser may have been active. Perhaps this is where they crashed.”

“Just keep in mind, Richard. This thorium trace could be all that’s left,” said Wragg.

A fleeting look of pain crossed Richard’s face.

“Yes, yes. I’m well aware.” Richard said. “Now launch a probe.”

The captain nodded and tapped the tactical screen.

“Probe primed,” said Wragg. “Ignition in two.”

A small rocket leaped from the bow of the Scout, then ignited. The white glow of the engine shrank as it flew ahead.

“Infrared shows no thermal activity,” Wragg said, as the probe’s data began to scroll in.

Grace considered the display. The probe had marked the midpoint of the geyser’s ragged mouth.

“Does that mean the geyser is extinct?”

“Or dormant,” said Wragg. “But she’s not going to blow anytime soon.”

Richard was looking through the data. “Type D geyser. Many galleries off the main shaft. And thorium. A lot of it.”

“Must have been a monster when it was alive,” Wragg said.

“Could have brought down the Essex,” Richard murmured.

“Easily,” agreed Wragg. “With no charts, or old ones. The sensors back then weren’t as good, either.”

“We need to enter that geyser,” Richard said.

“What?” Wragg grunted.

“We have to follow the thorium.”

“What about the probe?”


“Captain, take us into that geyser.”

Wragg muttered under his breath and took the controls. Grace smirked to herself. She knew Wragg. He talked caution, but he was just as hot to fly into that geyser as Richard.

The cruiser hovered directly above the geyser’s mouth.

“Down we go,” Richard said.

“Z minus ten,” Wragg added.

Grace’s ptenda pinged. It was Raj: What’s going on?

Adventure, Grace answered.

They descended, the rim of the geyser rising slowly up the viewport until the horizon vanished and they were in twilight.

“Grace, get us some light,” said Richard, peering into the darkness.

Grace tapped the exterior plasma controls. Lights flashed on, illuminating the brown rock of the geyser walls. The texture looked more lumpy than ragged, and Grace caught the twinkle of embedded crystal.

“Z minus thirty.”

Wragg angled the nose down, exposing the black maw of the pit below.

“Z minus fifty.”

The Scout fit easily down the throat of the geyser. As the ship slowly turned, Grace saw shadows turn into jagged tunnels that led horizontally off the main shaft.

“I’m reading a wide shelf at two hundred meters,” Richard said.

Wragg nodded, eyes intent on the screen before him. “I’ll try putting us down there.”

The wall of the geyser changed, growing rockier as it transitioned from dark brown to a deeper orange.

“Z minus one twenty.”

Wragg touched the screen and the Scout spun around. There was a large, flat shelf off the bow.

“Looks good,” Wragg said.

“Tactical shows the gallery extends nearly a kilometer,” Richard said.

“Is it solid?” Grace asked.

Wragg maneuvered the Scout until the craft hovered just above the ground.

“Let’s test it, shall we?” Wragg said, tapping on their underbelly thrusters. The craft eased down as gently as a feather.

Grace watched the seismic feedback. “Stable.”

Richard grinned. “Brilliant.”

Corey OstmanMars Descent