Mars. The red planet. Imagine dust, rocks, sand, and wind. You’d be ninety-eight percent right.
‘Only ninety-eight percent?’ I hear you all asking.
If you’re wondering where you lost that two percent, don’t feel like you were docked points for thinking about canals. We’re not that cruel. Some of Earth’s greatest scientists believed in them. So you wouldn’t be in bad company if you had thought about canals. So now you’re all thinking ‘I didn’t lose two percent for canals. So what did I lose them for?’
Would you be surprised to discover we docked you points for not thinking of roads?
Not as surprised as we were to find them on Mars in the first place, I can tell you!
So there we were. The thousand adventurous souls who’d been chosen to make that one-way trip to the red planet.
At its closest, Mars is almost thirty-four million miles away from Earth. That’s not exactly what anyone calls near. Well, maybe astronomers. Those people think in light-years. However, thirty-four million miles is a long way. It’s not the kind of journey you want to have to make if you’ve gone and forgotten your damn library books.
And yes, we’ve got a library on Mars! We’ve even got all the best Martian books too. Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Wells’ War Of The Worlds. I’m pretty sure I saw a comic of Mars Attacks, last time I was there.
Anyway, I digress. We’d not long finished setting up the inflatable dome, a lovely geodesic structure which was fifty feet bigger than the actual dome we hoped to begin constructing as our permanent home here on Mars. Once the dome was inflated and secured into place, we began the laborious task of removing all the Martian dust from the ground.
Our builders had good sense, they wanted to anchor the actual dome into the base rock of Mars itself. So we started sucking up the surface dust. Which took a few days. Then the real work began. Digging through the Martian soil, to reach the rock below.
Only we didn’t find the rock.
“Say that again, Jim?”
“Black-top, Commander. God damned asphalt.”
“This is a joke, right, Jim? Someone’s asked you to put me on, haven’t they? Don’t tell me, it was Pasquale. He still hasn’t forgiven me for putting him on the first dust-hoovering detail. I told him and I’ll tell you, Jim, everyone will be doing it. Myself included. In fact, I’m scheduled to be on the very next shift.”
“It’s not a joke, sir. I’m standing on it right now. And it looks exactly like asphalt.”
“The black stuff they use to surface roads, Jim?”
“That’s just bitumen, sir, but yes, it looks like a road. Just like a road. Did you want us to keep digging until we hit the rock?”
Obviously, we had to send someone to go and check it out. When people tell you they’ve found what looks like a road on Mars, it’s rather difficult to believe them. You start wondering if they’ve been out in the sun too long. Far better to go and have a look for yourself. Or send an expert. That’s the next best thing. So that’s exactly what I did.
“It’s a road.”
“And that’s your official view, Max?”
“Listen, sir. I was in construction for fifteen years back on Earth, ten of those spent laying roads. So if you want my official view, it’s a road.”
“And off the record?”
“Sir. I’m almost certain that if your men kept on digging, you’d find a mixture similar to bitumen and aggregate. They’d hit base rock eventually. However, only God himself knows how deep that is. Or I could ask Earth for a laser reading?”
They don’t pick Mission Commanders for looks. No one on Mars looked like Gary Sinise. Mission Commanders were selected for their ability to make difficult decisions, the ones people never expected to arise.
So they cleared away the soil.
“It’s a road.”
“Commander? Am I to understand you’re reporting evidence of civilization on Mars?”
The Commander shook his head. Hard, to make it perfectly clear to those watching him via camera back on Earth that he hadn’t completely taken leave of his senses. “No, sir. I’m reporting a road. As you’re no doubt aware, one of our volunteers was a construction engineer back on Earth. He built roads for a living, sir. So when a professional road builder tells me I’m looking at a road, then I believe him.”
“I have no reason to doubt his veracity, sir. What does he have to gain by lying?”
That stumped them into silence for a while. “How far does the surface appear to extend, Commander?”
“We’ve only been clearing the area we planned to anchor the dome in, sir. And so far all we’ve hit below the soil level is a road. That’s a radius of roughly a hundred feet. And it appears to all be a road. If we don’t find an edge soon, I fear we’ll have to relocate our base to the secondary site.”
“Well, Commander. You’re the man on the ground. Make whatever decision you feel best suits your situation.”
That was a month ago.
Our Commander made the call four hours after killing the line to Earth.
Things have been going quite well for us since then. We cleared space for the new settlement. No one has told Earth we’re calling it Bradbury Station yet. That’ll be an interesting conversation to listen in on. We’ve got a group out digging possible well sites now. No one has hit any more roads yet. I’m quite looking forward to finding out what Martian water tastes like though.
“Patching you into the Commander now, go ahead, team!”
“Commander, you said to call in if we found anything odd? Well, about that?”
“What is it now, Schmitts?”
“The soil is extremely deep here, sir, as the survey suggested. We were following the line, as ordered.”
“It better not be another damn road, Schmitts!”
“It’s not a road, sir. So far we appear to have found some metal, and some glass.”
“Appears to be a window, sir. And whatever it’s a window to, the structure is hollow, sir. We knocked on it. No answer from inside though, in case you wondered.”
“Listen, Schmitts. Just keep digging until you find the ground level. Then report back. And I want pictures. Whatever it turns out to be!”
“So how many days has it been since they last radioed in, sir?”
The Commander had been sitting behind his desk, on the edge of grabbing a vehicle and going out to them himself. “Schmitts called just over a week ago, Max. I was thinking, perhaps you and I should go out there?”
The pictures landed on his desk an hour later.
“I can’t believe it, Max.”
“Is it? Is it really?”
“You’re the construction expert, Max. The professional road builder. You look at those pictures again. Tell me that’s not a tollbooth. Your last job was the Jersey Turnpike, right?”
Max nodded. “You know it was, sir.”
“I spoke to those archaeologists, Max. When we were living in caves before we’d even made fire. The Martians were building tollbooths. Damn tollbooths! There’s no evidence there were ever any cars, though!”
Max smiled. “Gee, Commander. I’d hate to be in your shoes for the next link to Earth.”
The Commander shrugged. “It ain’t that bad, Max. They wanted to know if there was life on Mars. Imagine what they’ll say now?”
“Here’s the kicker, sir. Too bad we can’t tell David Bowie. Forget life on Mars. We got roads… and freaking tollbooths!”
Edited by Lloyd Penney – Published by Amazing Stories, LLC.
Source: A Tollbooth On Mars by Ray Daley – FREE STORY