Martian Summer: Comet Night by Stuart Atkinson

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SUMMARY: Decades after it sent its last picture back to Earth, a young, native martian girl follows in the footsteps - or wheeltracks - of the Mars Rover "Spirit", and has an encounter that brings back haunting memories from her past...

COMET NIGHT

"Come on Cass," Sarah called impatiently, looking over her shoulder, even though she knew it would make no difference; her words were being carried by radio waves, not vibrations through the thin air. "Come on... we're nearly there..." Behind her the black and white daggit'bot ignored her and, as it always did, just kept walking at its own pace, rejecting the boot-worn track the girl was taking, padding softly instead through the dust and stones that covered the steep hillside. After all, if they were nearly there, there was no rush, was there..?

Although the scenery around them was stunning, especially so late in the day, when the golden Sun was almost touching the rippling, purple mountain range that formed the distant crater wall, Sarah fixed her gaze on the summit just up ahead. As she walked, rejoicing in each deep breath and heavy step, she reflected on the day so far. It had been a wonderful walk up from her home, a good mile, and with a stunning sunset to enjoy in a few minutes – and the main event very soon after that - it wasn't over yet. Another couple of hundred steps or so, she estimated, and she would be there, at the summit of the hill.

Not just any hill though – The Hill. Her Hill: Husband Hill, the tallest of the Columbia Hills range that had dominated her life since – well, since as long as she could remember.

Rising up from the crater floor like the flanks of some enormous dragon, the hump-backed hills filled her home town's sky from north to south, blocking out daylight for half the day and the stars for half the night. In high summer, bathed in full sunlight, the Columbias' tan and biscuit-hued slopes shone like amber; each ridge, ledge and outcrop casting stark black-brown shadows behind and beneath them. From dawn to dusk, walkers - almost exclusively tourists in summer of course; techs and Beakers tended to come in spring or autumn, when their work was less likely to be interrupted by lost or camera-clutching sightseers – and their ‘bots formed lines up and down their slopes, reduced to white pin-pricks by the mountain's size as they followed The Trail up Husband Hill. In winter, no-one braved the Hills, conditions were too harsh, the terrain too dangerous in the low light. But even when abandoned by human and ‘bot alike, The Hill had a sublime, flinty beauty, its subtler features frequently hidden beneath cloaks of dust or even frost, and cruel, dusty winds spiked with stinging ice crystals howled down from its summit like tortured phantoms for sols on end.

But today the air was clear, the Sun was warm and the colours of the world bright, so, stepping around a large, wind- and time-sculpted boulder, Sarah smiled, thinking how, day or night, whether bathed in sunshine or twin moonlight, The Hill had been the overwhelming presence in her life since she was old enough to crawl. And as soon as she was able to walk into the settlement on her own she had persuaded – nagged – her father to take her to the top, to take her up Husband Hill's famous Spirit Trail like he took the tourists, so she could look down upon the world – and her own home - from its dizzy heights.

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