A Cartographic Analysis of the Dream State by Pat Murphy



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Traveling across the Martian polar cap, the second TransPolar Expedition is tracing the shape of the hidden lands beneath the ice and snow. Sita, the expedition’s cartographer, has a talent for interpreting the shades and squiggles that the computer produces from satellite photos and sonic recordings. She takes ambiguous data and makes a clear and precise map of lands no one has ever seen.

But Sita knows that maps are black-and-white portraits of a world that exists in shades of gray and, like cartographers before her, she knows that dragons lurk beyond the edges of every map. At night, in the darkness of her dreams, she believes in the yeti, the messengers from the secret lands, the dark-eyed dream beasts that haunt the crevasses and move as softly as the blowing snow.

The world is not all that it seems on the surface. Beneath the polar ice lies danger and discovery.

A novelette.

Excerpt:

I rode in the second SnoCat with Nan. Our vehicle towed the living module. Maria and Yukiko lead the way in the SnoCat that towed the jumping truck.

The wind was blowing—the steady gale characterizes spring weather at the North Pole. In the relative warmth of spring (when the temperature rises to a balmy 144 Kelvins), the carbon dioxide that froze during the winter chill returns to the atmosphere and rushes south. In the low atmospheric pressure of Mars, the wind has little force, but it was strong enough to carry tiny ice crystals aloft and send them skittering across our windshield.

Nan drove, operating the vehicle with confidence that came from experience. She had been a researcher at Endurance Station for the past three summers. On the expedition, her primary responsibility was equipment maintenance.

“I’ll let you take a turn later,” Nan said. “Sightsee while you can. The scenery here is nothing compared to what we’ll see a few days in, but it’s still pretty spectacular.”

I stared through the windshield. Sunlight glittered on the plain of ice. This was a forbidding world of light and shadow: the relentless glare of the sun; whirlwinds of ice particles; the black shadow of the SnoCat, following us across the ice.

In the distance, massive cliffs rose from the plain. Shaped by the winds, the cliffs spiralled outward from the North Pole itself. The cliffs, like all the ice of the polar cap, contained the history of Mars. The ice had formed, layer by layer, over millions of years. Each winter, a layer of ice crystallized on the surface; each summer, dust storms covered the ice with reddish brown grit. Looking at the cliff was looking back in time: a thin layer of ice indicated a balmy winter thousands of years ago; a thick layer of dust indicated a time of intense volcanic activity or dust storms. These cliffs, recent by planetary standards, had formed over the last hundred thousand years or so. Looking at them across the plain, I felt very young.

A sudden gust of wind flung ice crystals at the windshield and made me flinch. The SnoCat rocked as it crossed a series of ripples in the ice. “You got to watch out for those,” Nan said. “Sastrugi, they call them. The wind makes them.” She glanced at me. “So what do you think of the scenery?”

“It’s so empty,” I said. “I’d seen photos, but I hadn’t realized….”

“You can’t realize how empty it is until you get here,” Nan said. “You can look at all the pictures you want, but it’s hard to take a picture of all this nothing and make it look as empty as it really is. A picture has a frame—it’s bounded, contained. But this…” She took a hand off the wheel and waved it at the window. “This just goes on and on. Can’t escape it. Can’t get used to it, either. Every time I come back, it takes me by surprise.”

“Why’d you decide to come back?”

“I like it here,” Nan said. “There’s time to think. Things are so much simpler than in the colonies. Just a few people and a whole lot of nothing.” She grinned, wrestling the wheel of the SnoCat to steer around an out-cropping of ice.

I turned in my seat and stared out the back window. I could just see the bright blue dome of Endurance Station dwindling in the distance. “The station’s almost out of sight,” I said.

“Goodbye, Endurance Station,” Nan said cheerfully. “Hello, Nothing.”

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