Chapter 3: Warning
The next day, a young pilot named Altair flew with Antares and me out to that ridge where we had first met these "astronauts," as we later learned they called themselves. This time, all four were present. One that I had never seen before stepped forward and held out his right hand. Antares eventually stepped forward and held it in his. The human – the leader of these "astronauts" – moved his hand up and down, and then released Antares. I later learned that this was a human greeting ritual. Antares then moved to one of the explorers who was present last time, the one who drove the wheeled contraption, and conferred with him – I recognized some more math. Another astronaut, the one who fell down the ridge after me, waved his hand in the air. I assumed this to be another greeting ritual, and waved mine. I then decided to attempt to greet him in our custom: I leaned in close and waved my antennae over the large dome that covered his head. It smelled of plastic; it probably protected them from our planet's environment. We had no idea what their planet was like. We only knew that it was big and dim, with an atmosphere so thick that most of our probes burned up before reaching the ground. A few later ones had survived, but they were always gathered up by humans in dark suits and taken to places where we could not receive signals from them.
Anyway, after a moment, that explorer held his hands up near the top of his dome, and wiggled his fingers in the air over my head. The others looked at him with looks that I later learned signified amusement.
Antares turned to me. "I think we've gone over 'yes' and 'no'. I'm going to try to warn them about the canyons." Altair handed Antares a datapad containing a map of Mars, and the latter called up the map of our current area. He indicated the nearby ridge and its location on the map, to orient the astronauts. He then indicated a canyon – one where the Underlanders were known to live – and vigorously shook his head 'no'. The four explorers conferred amongst themselves, and the leader indicated himself and his friends, and then a spot on the map; presumably where they lived. Antares stared and showed me the point that they had designated. It was less than a mile away from the canyon. These explorers were within easy range of the Underlanders' forces.
We all saw the look of horror in the Martians' faces as soon as we showed them where we lived. It was too close to the canyon they didn't want us to enter. The lead Martian immediately showed us another spot on the map, and pointed to us. They wanted us to relocate. Mac shrugged helplessly. What could we do?
"Antares, they don't believe us," I sighed. Perhaps I could indicate through pantomime? I crouched and imitated an Underlander, firing imaginary weapons. The leader of the explorers nodded, and then pointed between his dome and the sky, and flapped his hand open and shut, the way they used the openings in their heads when they communicated. Obviously, he wished to contact his off-world superiors.
"So what do we tell Mission Control? 'Hey, we met some Martians the other day, and they tell us that some really nasty Martians live nearby so they want us to move!' Like that's going to work!"
Mac sighed. "We'll tell them that we have made contact with Martians, that they appear friendly, and that we think that they have warned us about something hostile in the canyon near our base. We'll contact them as soon as we get situated wherever they want us."
FROM: Roberts, Mac
TO: Mitchell, Stanley
RE: A series of unbelievable events
MSG: Yesterday, Bryan accidentally made first contact with a Martian. While exploring the ridge we dubbed the "Them Thar Hills," he fell down the slope on the opposite side of our camp and came face-to-face with a Martian. Dr. Edwards was sent to retrieve Bryan, believing him to be hallucinating from head trauma, but was surprised to see that Bryan had in fact encountered a Martian. The attached video file shows what happened subsequently; to make a long story short, Doc started communicating with a second Martian via mathematics. We have subsequently met with these two Martians and a third, and all seem to agree that our current encampment is too close to a canyon that has something dangerous in it – we think they are telling us that hostile Martians live there. In any case, we will follow them to what they believe is a safer site for us, and contact you upon arrival.
Please, for the Martians' sake, do NOT leak these events to the media. Tell them that we are moving to a more suitable location, but there must be no mention of the Martians until we can speak to one another. We're all walking on thin ice here, and they know it, too.
ATT: firstContact .mp8
I was later shown a video of what happened in Mission Control after they received Mac's message. It was pandemonium! Nobody had planned for this eventuality, and everybody had their own idea for how to resolve the issue. The Mission Director eventually swore everyone to secrecy regarding the Martians, and they cooked up a cover story – they said that we were moving to a place with more sunlight, so our solar panels would gather more power.
Anyway, they gave us the go-ahead, and the Martians looked relieved to finally see us packing up to leave.
At last, the humans started to move. We had spent the better part of an hour just waiting for their superiors to contact them, and for all we knew, the Underlanders could have been mobilizing to this site!
I guess I should explain the conflict here. Some centuries ago, our population split in two – about half of us placed settlements on top of mountain peaks and plateaus, so as to access sunlight for power, and the other half descended into the canyons to access the crystals and minerals found there. Over the generations, the two populations grew apart, both culturally and physiologically.
Atop the mesas, the spread-out environment favored those who could see and run the farthest; as such, we have very sharp long-range vision and our long legs and larger feet allow us to run long distances and sprint on terrain where others might sink into the dust. Our culture also developed along these lines: we tend to be rather competitive and focus on the future, sometimes at the expense of the present, and our martial arts emphasize mobility and speed, especially with quick kicks to rapidly disable opponents.
On the other hand, the environment in the canyons favored a more balanced body type to facilitate climbing ability. Their vision is strongest in conditions that we might consider too dim. Their hands and feet are built for gripping, and their bodies are stockier than ours. Their culture also reflects their environment: the harsher conditions in the canyons mean that they emphasize cooperation and resilience, and their construction tends to be much sturdier than a typical mesa-dweller's creation.
The one thing tying us together is biodium. In its natural form, as it is found in the canyons, biodium is a green crystal with a faint internal glow. It is pretty, but quite useless. On the other hand, when it is refined, it becomes fuel for our societies. Only we surface-dwellers possess the technology to refine biodium, and so we maintain an arms-length relationship with one another: they mine biodium from their canyons, and we refine it into a power source. It's tense at times, but it's generally worked.
Then we had a falling-out over this arrangement a couple of decades back. Many natural deposits of biodium had been mined out, resulting in prices rising and some talks about rationing refined biodium. All the while, people were grumbling on both sides – some of us argued that the canyon-dwellers were hoarding biodium to artificially increase prices, whereas some of them felt that we were looking for an excuse to restrict refined biodium exports. Things came to a head when some desperate canyon-dwellers mounted an attack on our largest refinery to try and steal the equipment used to refine biodium. They were foiled, but things almost erupted into a war before the discovery of a new vein of biodium, dropping prices and ending the crisis.
Most people put those events behind them, but some weren't willing to let go of the idea that one population should be more important than another, and the inhabitants of the canyon next to which the astronauts had crashed were particularly adamant in this regard. They steadfastly refused any attempts at negotiation, and even their own kind were now unwilling to deal with them because of the lives their actions have taken. This was all the more worrisome to everyone; most of the radical groups on both sides of the Martian surface dissolved after popular support for their supremacist goals evaporated, but the fact that this cell persisted despite their rejection suggested that they had something huge up their sleeves. The last thing that we wanted was for these human emissaries to be caught up in this feud.