Into the desert they went, driving the Chariot around sandy hills
and past giant sloping sheets of layered rock. In the distance, they saw spindly
columns of golden-brown stone and majestic, towering mesas. Maureen took note of
how the landscape had drastically changed in the hours since their departure.
Around the Jupiter 2, the land was sprinkled with thin, scraggy white-barked
trees, scrub grass and occasional clusters of wildflowers. Now, all they saw
through the windows of the Chariot was hard sand, hills and rocks. Not a plant
for miles. Not even cactus.
She opened a spiral-bound notebook she always kept close at
hand and jotted down some of her observations. During quiet times, Maureen
enjoyed looking through the pages of her journal, reliving past adventures. She
smiled, imagining how this trip might turn out. John had been acting quite
romantic lately, and she had decided to do everything she could to encourage his
behavior. As she wrote, the sunlight warmed her skin. She enjoyed the feeling
and looked over at John. These were times she treasured, being alone with him.
She felt content and happy. She smiled at John and he smiled back.
Sometime later, they stopped for lunch in the shade of a
tall outcropping of stone. Climbing out of the Chariot felt good after several
hours of driving. Maureen yawned and stretched her legs, taking in the scenery.
“This is a lovely spot,” she commented.
John looked around. “It sure is,” he said. “And we’ve got a
nice breeze here too. It’ll make for a pleasant lunch.” He spread a large
blanket on the ground as Maureen got the lunch Judy had packed for them.
They chatted as they ate, reminding each other of past
times with the children or something funny Dr. Smith had done. They joked,
laughed and gazed at each other.
“Oh, darling,” John suddenly said. “You’ve gotten a bit of
mustard on your face.” Maureen reached for a napkin, but he quickly took her
hand. “No,” he said. “I’ll take care of it.” He leaned over and lovingly wiped
her face with his own napkin.
“Why, thank you, dear,” Maureen quietly said.
“You’re welcome,” he whispered, leaning closer. He kissed
her in a soft, passionate manner. She accepted his embrace and wrapped her arms
around him, kissing him back. Overhead, thin wispy clouds drifted by.
Once they were on their way again, Maureen took over
driving. To avoid fatigue, they had decided to alternate driving every few
hours. John tried to keep busy, checking the radar scope and other equipment,
but after a while, the warmth of the day and the gentle rocking of the Chariot
made him drowsy. He nodded off, still holding a clipboard and a pen.
Maureen watched him as he slept. Seeing John like this made
her feel protective of him. She watched the trail ahead, avoiding any jarring
bumps that might awaken him. She smiled as he gently bounced in his seat,
totally asleep. He slowly lost his grip on the pen and it dropped quietly to the
Around twenty minutes later, John suddenly awoke. He looked
startled and confused, then regained his bearings. “Oh! I’m sorry darling,” he
muttered. “I must have fallen asleep.”
“That’s perfectly alright,” she said, grinning. “You didn’t
miss out on anything. The landscape’s been pretty much the same.”
John straightened up in the seat. “What time is it?” he
asked, looking at the clock in the driver’s control panel. “One fifty? Oh, it‘s
“You look like you really needed that nap,” she joked. “And
I must tell you that I really enjoyed the peace and quiet.”
He laughed and looked around. “Where’s that pen? I’ve got
to write that one down.”
After a few hours, the dusty ground began dropping
downward, leading into a wide valley. Maureen brought the Chariot to a bouncing
stop on the crest of a hill that overlooked a great expanse of the valley.
“That’s some view,” she said, killing the engine. “Come on. Let’s have a look.”
John helped her out of the Chariot and together they stood,
gazing into the vastness of the deserted valley. It seemed very dry and totally
devoid of life. Looking across the miles to the far side, they could see faint
lumpy bluish hills where the land rose up again. A minor blast of wind howled
past them, feeling warm against their skin. Maureen heard a small metallic tick
from the Chariot’s engine, but otherwise there was silence.
“You know, it’s amazing,” John said. “This entire valley
was once the southernmost tip of a gigantic inland sea. This whole area must
have been teeming with life. But look at it now. Every drop of water is dried
up. There’s no trace of anything. All that‘s left are mineral deposits and
perhaps some fossils.”
Impressed, Maureen said, “Time certainly leaves its mark on
“Maybe a little too much,” John said, looking at the floor
of the valley. “Look at the ground down there, darling,” he said pointing. “Am I
imagining things, or are those craters?”
Maureen looked. “They certainly look like it.”
John retrieved a set of binoculars from the Chariot and
took a closer look. “I don’t believe this!” he exclaimed. The ground was poc-marked
with hundreds of impact craters. They were so numerous, they covered the entire
floor of the long dead sea. The craters formed a strange, lacy pattern, often
overlapping one another like water rings on a busy dinner table.
As he handed her the binoculars, John said, “Either this
planet’s been bombarded by meteorites or someone’s been doing some blasting
Maureen focused on the craters. “Incredible!” she
“When Don and I came through here last year to set up the
weather station, this area was completely smooth. Not one crater. Now look at
“Do you think it could have been some kind of underground
“Probably not,” he said. “The sensors on the Jupiter would
have detected any seismic activity of this magnitude. Whatever happened here
came from above ground.”
Maureen looked grimly at the valley. “I don’t know if we
can make it across. It’s so broken up, it looks impassible,” she said. “Maybe we
should go around.”
John shook his head. “This is the narrowest point. It’s
only sixty miles across here. If we double back to go around, it’ll take us more
than three hundred miles out of our way.”
“John, it looks very rough,” she said. “And what if
there’s another blast while we’re crossing?”
He smiled and draped his arm across her shoulders. “Don’t
worry darling,” he said. “By the look of things, it’s been quiet down there for
months. And besides, the Chariot was designed for rugged terrain. Remember?”
“I know,” she said. “It just makes me nervous. I have this
feeling that something awful is going to happen down there.”
“That’s why I’ll be driving,” he said, laughing.
She laughed herself. “Oh, you!” she said, lightly slapping
Once they had started across the crater scarred valley,
John found himself wondering if they would make it after all. Above, the rock
formations, hills and mesas had provided a barrier against the wind. Here, the
wind raced unchecked across the barren ground, whipping loose sand into small,
powdery whirlwinds and rocking the slow moving Chariot with every blast. In
addition, the terrain was quite treacherous. The craters were much bigger than
John had at first thought. They appeared to be nearly 50 yards across and about
20 yards deep. Where they overlapped, which was almost everywhere, the land
dropped away at too steep an angle for the Chariot to traverse. Instead, they
searched for craters that came close to one another but did not touch. Here, the
ground had been formed into biconcave, unstable land bridges they could cross.
To make things worse, every so often huge boulders had been pushed to the
surface, creating formidable obstacles. In truth, it was like wandering through
a giant maze. Several times, John found himself driving the Chariot into a dead
end. He‘d stop, carefully turn the vehicle around, and head out again. He was
starting to think that Maureen‘s suggestion of going around the valley would
have saved them time.
“I don’t want to sound negative,” Maureen suddenly said.
“But it’ll be dark before we reach the other side. Maybe we could just stop
somewhere and sleep in our seats and then continue on in the morning.”
John glanced at the clock on the console. “It’s slow
going,” he admitted. “But I think we can make it.”
John realized the going might have been easier if they had
been able to follow their tracks from an earlier trek across the valley. He
wasn’t really surprised, though, when he couldn’t find any sign of their earlier
passing. The blasts that had created the craters had wiped out all traces of
their tracks. John wondered how long these craters would remain. For all he
knew, a future civilization might discover them and memorialize this dead sea as
“Crater Valley.” Would any sign of the Jupiter 2 be discovered in the future? He
had always dismissed the notion of ancient astronauts on Earth, but now he
grinned at the idea of being one himself.
“What’s so funny?” Maureen asked.
John looked at her. “Oh, nothing important,” he said. “I
was just thinking about what kind of beings might someday inhabit this planet.”
“Well, whoever they are, I hope they smooth out this valley
and build some decent roads,” she said. “We’re bouncing around so much I’m
starting to feel seasick!”
John glanced at the hills on the horizon. “We don’t have
much farther to go,” he said. “There’s an oasis just on the other side of this
valley. We can stop there for the night.”
“That sounds better than sleeping in our seats,” Maureen
admitted. “Hmmm... a romantic evening at a mysterious desert oasis.” She stroked
her chin, imagining the possibilities. “Maybe after dinner we could take a
relaxing dip in the pond.” She looked at John suddenly. “There is a pond, isn’t
“Oh, there’s a pond alright,” John said. “But the water’s
deadly. It would burn our skin off if we soaked in it.”
Maureen frowned. “Oh well,” she said. “So much for that
“Don’t worry, darling,” John said with a smile. “There’s
plenty of other things we can do to make ourselves comfortable.” He winked at
her just as the Chariot slammed across the top of a large rock that poked up
from the sand. The vehicle suddenly lurched upward, then crashed down hard onto
Maureen grabbed a handhold and shrieked. The force of the
impact knocked John back against his seat, his hands flying off the control
sticks. His left foot caught the port tread control, pulling it backward. The
gears in the engine strained and the vehicle suddenly began turning sharply to
the left. As he struggled to regain his bearings, John saw a tall jagged rock
looming in their path. “No!” he yelled, grabbing the controls and pulling. The
Chariot jerked and spun back to the right, avoiding the rock. The turn was so
sharp however, the driver’s side of the vehicle lifted off the ground.
“John!” Maureen screamed. “Watch out!” She was thrown
against the side of the Chariot, desperately reaching for something to hold
onto. Through the glass, she saw the ground looming closer and closer.
The Chariot wobbled and threatened to tip over, the engine
grinding in protest. John strained at the controls, but there was little he
could do. Either they were going to roll over or not; it was out of his control.
Finally, the left side of the Chariot came crashing down and John was able to
bring them to a bouncing halt.
John shut off the engine and they sat in silence for a
moment. He covered his eyes with his hands. “Are you all right darling?” he
“Yes,” she said quietly. “I’m just a little shaken up,
He lowered his hand and leaned back in his seat. “I almost
got us killed,” he said. “I should have been paying attention.”
Maureen shook her head. “You hit one rock out of all this,”
she said. “One rock! If you ask me, that’s pretty impressive driving.”
John wasn‘t as forgiving. “One rock is all it would take,”
he answered. “We could have gone over the edge into that crater.”
“John,” Maureen said, reaching for his hand. “This wasn‘t
your fault. It was an accident. You took your eyes off the road for an instant
and something happened. It doesn’t mean you were negligent. It just means you’re
human. You made a mistake. But we’re alright, so let’s just move on. That’s what
you’ve taught me over the years. We can’t let little mistakes keep us from
reaching our goals. Right now our goal is to get across this valley in one
piece. And if you ask me, you’ve done a stand up job of it so far.”
John’s face relaxed and he breathed deeply. “You always
know just the right thing to say,” he said. “That must be why I love you.”
“It is, indeed,” she said. “We should just be grateful Judy
wasn’t driving. Who knows what might have happened!”
He laughed out loud at that. “Ok, let’s see if we can get
this old workhorse going again.” He pressed the starter button and the Chariot
revved back to life. They both listened to the sound of the engine for a moment.
“Do you hear that?” she asked.
“Yes, a droning noise, as if the gears are a little slack.
I think it’ll be okay for now, but once we reach that oasis, I’ll see if I can
tighten them up a bit.”
They resumed their perilous journey across the sea bed. As
it turned out, Maureen’s prediction of night falling before they reached the
other side nearly came true. Just as the sun was setting, John drove the Chariot
up out of the valley and into an area of tall, sharp rock formations. All around
them were thin, crescent shaped rock walls that made natural shelters.
“Don called these rocks ‘the crowns,’” John said.
Maureen looked at the rocks in wonderment. “This is
amazing! They really do look like crowns. Tall, ribbed crowns! I can see
He had turned the headlights of the Chariot on and the
lights splashed across the rocks, casting shadows that fell like curtains on the
curved stone walls that surrounded them. They drove around the first, curving
wall of stone and found themselves at the edge of a lush oasis. The pond John
had spoken of was clearly visible and spread over most of the wide clearing. The
water on the surface sparkled in the early evening moonlight. Near the
shoreline, dark bushy plants grew wild. The vegetation expanded outward taking a
variety of forms. Because of the curved rock walls surrounding the clearing, the
oasis had the feel of a tropical courtyard.
“Oh John!” Maureen exclaimed. “This is beautiful!”
“I thought you’d like it,” he said. He brought the Chariot
to a stop near a tuft of palm trees. “As long as we stay out of the pond over
there, we’ll be fine.”
Maureen was already climbing out of her seat. “I have no
problem with that. I can’t wait to take a look around!” She swung open the side
door and jumped to the ground. John followed and together, they took a brief
tour of the oasis, examining different plants and trees. They walked to the edge
of the pond and gazed at the water.
“Deadly or not, this is one of the loveliest sights I‘ve
ever seen,” Maureen said. She wrapped an arm around John’s waist and leaned her
head against his shoulder. “You know, it’s moments like this that make all the
trouble we’ve gone through seem worthwhile.”
He looked down into her eyes and smiled. “Yes, darling,” he
said softly. “I know what you mean.” He lowered his head and kissed her. She
turned and let him take her in his arms, opening herself to his embrace.
As they strolled back to the Chariot, John took notice of
the craggy rock wall nearby. At irregular intervals, the stone seemed almost
broken and deep cracks could be seen running from the top of the formation
nearly to the ground. “I’ll have to take a closer look at that,” he commented,
pointing the cracks out to Maureen.
She made a face. “Be my guest,” she said. “I’ve seen enough
rock today to last a lifetime!” They both laughed. “I’ll set up for dinner and
then come up and join you in a few minutes.”
“Alright dear,” he said. They had reached the Chariot and
he grabbed a flashlight out of the vehicle. “I’ll see you shortly.” He kissed
her again and walked off toward a nearby crevice in the rock wall.
“Be careful,” she called after him. He just waved back at
her. She turned and pressed a button on the side of the Chariot and an awning
began unfolding from the top of the vehicle, forming a canopy. Recessed lamps in
the Chariot flashed on. Maureen pulled a folded table from a storage slot and
set it up beneath the canopy. She found herself humming an old song from when
she had first met John in college. The memory made her feel content and she
The crevice John had found was wide enough to climb up
into. To his surprise, not far inside was an natural tunnel that led to an
opening in the far side of the rock wall. Illuminating his way with the
flashlight, John climbed up and carefully stepped through the tunnel until he
came to the edge of the opening. When he got there, he nearly dropped the
flashlight from the shock of what he saw in the clearing beyond.
“My God!” he said in disbelief. He climbed down to the
clearing and looked up at what he saw. He stood before three massive golden
orbs, their metal skin gleaming dully in the moonlight. Each orb was sectioned
into quarters by two black metallic bands which crossed one another like a giant
X. A third band, perpendicular to the others, ran around each orb’s equator, and
divided the orbs into halves. As John crept closer, he estimated each orb to be
at least fifty feet in diameter.
A light breeze flowed through the clearing, but produced no
sound. The silence gave the orbs an eerie presence, as if they had somehow
always been here, waiting for someone to discover them. Were they eternal
sentinels, keeping a silent watch over the area, unaffected by the passing of
time? Their cold indifference gave no clue as to their origin.
John could only wonder if these orbs had some connection to
the craters in the valley they had just crossed. They were obviously machines of
some kind and were certainly large enough to have caused the devastation that
was spread across the dried up seabed. What was their function? Was there any
way of finding out? He cautiously reached out and felt the side of the nearest
orb. The golden metal was cool to the touch. John felt a light coating of dust,
but otherwise the surface was smooth.
A sudden movement to his left caught John’s attention. He
turned and saw a humanoid figure crouched some yards away. The figure seemed
tense, ready to attack. It wore a dark, skin-tight jumpsuit that appeared to be
torn in several places. The jumpsuit covered the being’s head, but it’s face was
concealed behind a bulging, opaque faceplate. Judging from the creature’s
physique, it was a male. In one hand, he held a primitive-looking spear.
The figure didn’t move or make a sound. John slowly turned
his head and saw a similar figure further to his left. He guessed that he was
surrounded by a number of these beings. No doubt, they were guarding the orbs.
He had innocently wandered into a restricted area and would probably have to
fight his way out.
He quickly turned, his back to the orbs, and saw a total of
four guards in a wide semi-circle around him. On some unheard signal, they
advanced, raising their spears. They didn’t seem to be interested in taking John
prisoner. His instincts told him they were out to kill. John’s only chance was
an assault on the nearest guard. If he could take his spear, he had a chance of
defending himself. He suddenly rushed the guard directly in front of him,
blocking the spear with his flashlight. He pounded a fist into the guard’s
midsection, making him double over. John grabbed the spear and whipped it
around, striking the man’s head. As he fell, the guard released his grip on the
spear and John spun around to face the others.
They attacked, thrusting their spears at John. He jumped
backward and fought off their advance, using his spear to ward off their blows.
Lashing out first to the left, then to the right, John kept the three guards at
bay. On several occasions during their time in space, John’s years on the
fencing team in college had saved his life. Now, he once again called upon his
experience to guide his actions as he fought the guards.
He let the fighter in him emerge and control his actions.
He could feel his senses sharpen, honing in on his attackers. Their movements
alerted his reflexes. His body seemed to operate automatically, instinctively
knowing where the guards were and when they were jabbing their spears at him.
Again and again, John swept his spear at the guards, now striking one in the
upper leg, now knocking the spear out of another’s hands. The guard he had first
struck had returned to the fight, but remained behind the others. John saw an
opening and swung his leg up, kicking one of the guards in the chest, driving
him backward onto the sand. If he could subdue them long enough for him to
escape, he could probably make it to the Chariot. Once there, he could use a
laser pistol to keep the guards away while he and Maureen drove off. He wasn’t
one to back down from a fight, and if truth be told, he was handling himself
surprisingly well against four attackers. But he was frightened for Maureen. If
there were guards here around the orbs, he could only imagine what she might be
encountering at the oasis.
These thoughts flickered through his mind like a montage of
images while he continued the battle. He was growing tired and could feel the
guards pressing forward, getting closer.
“Stop it!” someone screamed. It was Maureen, and her voice
rang out through the clearing like an alarm, startling everyone and temporarily
bringing the fight to a halt. Over the shoulders of his attackers, John saw her
standing just inside the clearing. She had followed him through the tunnel in
the rock wall. He felt a shock of dread when he realized that, like him, she had
not brought a pistol with her.
The guards lurched back into action, seizing John and
throwing his spear off to the side. They pushed him back against one of the orbs
and held their spears to his throat. He struggled against them, but their hold
was firm. Off to his far right, John saw another figure step into the clearing.
Whomever this was did not approach, but stood watching the situation. He had
clearly been alerted by the sound of Maureen’s voice.
“Maureen, run!” John shouted. “Get out of here!”
Before she could react, one of the guards turned to face
her. As he saw her, he uttered what sounded like a gasp and fell to his knees.
He bowed almost to the sand and held out his arms as if in worship.
The other guards, hearing his gasp, turned and looked at
Maureen. As they saw her, they too fell to their knees in the sand, bowing so
far over they were nearly lying flat on the ground. Now the man at the edge of
the clearing moved closer to see what was happening. He was dressed in a long
black robe belted with a wide, silver band. A large medallion hung from around
his neck. Suddenly he stopped dead in his tracks, staring at Maureen with an
expression of disbelief.
“The Queen has returned!” he cried.