While the two of them disappeared into the darkness with only the bobbing beams of their torches showing their position, the remaining trio carried on with the rest of their meal. The comfortable silence was broken by Professor Hill
“Why does Mister Hobbes call you ‘Miss Troy’?”
Ellie had just picked up a plastic wrapped packet of biscuits that the nice people at the base canteen had thought to include in their packed lunches. There was the slightest of pauses on its journey before Ellie used both hands to pull the foil apart.
“Well, he’s either mixing me up with Alicia or, more likely, he’s just assumed that I’m a Troy. Both of these happen fairly regularly.”
Ellie looked through the little selection of, mostly broken, biscuits.
“A Troy? Professor, I’ve changed my name so many times over the years. I sure may have used the name Troy at some point.”
Bodil got the message that she wasn’t going to get a straight answer to this. She glanced at Gregor. Gregor stared off into the darkness, paying no attention at all to the conversation between her and his boss. His face was a mask any poker player would be proud of. Bodil gave up and changed the subject.
“Poppy seems nice. You and Gregor seem very fond of her. Does she come…” The words ‘to Earth’ seemed too strange to say out loud. “… here often?”
Bingo, Bodil thought. Asking about Poppy brought a smile not only to Ellie’s face but Gregor’s too.
“No. You saw her on her first visit Professor. All that concrete though, not the best introduction to Earth was it?”
“I guess not. So, if she hasn’t been here before then…”
“Then yes, Gregor and I, and Alicia,” Ellie’s grin broadened. “And Victor, have all been into space.”
A tingle shimmied down Bodil’s spine. The next question was automatic.
“What is it like, in space?”
Ellie looked at Gregor and then laughed as the big man rolled his eyes. She turned back to Bodil.
“When you are in space and your home planet is turning above your head, so close that it seems you can reach out and touch it, space is incredibly beautiful. But, when you have nothing to look at but inky blackness for days on end, space is stunningly boring.”
Gregor’s low rumble made a rare addition to the conversation.
“It’s not so boring when your duties suddenly involve being nanny to Poppy while everyone else is locked away in secret meetings. I will show you the scars maybe.”
“Poppy adores Greggie. Unfortunately she is only a kit so she tends to show her love with careless claws.”
Bodil remembered the image of Poppy climbing all over Gregor until he got her under control. That suit was pretty much ruined by the time he plonked the struggling Poppy down on the table.
“So, where did you go?”
Ellie stared at the professor from behind her impenetrable dark glasses.
“Places you couldn’t imagine Professor… And somewhere you probably can.”
“The space station in orbit around Mars is over half built already. That by itself is an incredible sight. I hope you get to see it one day.”
The possibility that she might experience space flight for herself was something Bodil had not ever considered.”
“You think that would be possible?”
“I don’t see why not.” Ellie started to say something else but then paused, considering Professor Hill for a moment before a tiny smile signposted her decision. “Mars has archaeology too you know.”
Ellie’s words sent the archaeology professor’s tingles into overload but just then approaching torch beams signalled the return of Hobbes and Weis and a hand gesture from Ellie ended further conversation.
The archaeologist and the ranger came to a halt in front of Ellie.
“We think you should come and see this.” Hobbes said, his excitement showing.
Weis just stood cradling his rifle and sucking on his teeth.
Bodil looked from one to the other then back to Hobbes.
Hobbes put out his hands as if to stop any further questions.
“It, it might be nothing, but I can’t explain it any other way than to think that it might be linked to why you are here.”
Ellie and Gregor were already shovelling the remains of their meals back into their backpacks. Bodil quickly joined in. Weis, muttering under his breath did the same but with rather more reluctance. Hobbes, having scoffed down his food already just picked up his own pack and slung it over his shoulder. Then he waited, with remarkable patience Bodil thought, for an archaeologist who has just made a find.
When everyone was ready it was Ranger Weis who led them back towards the station office area. They passed by several derelict offices and other interesting looking rooms until Weis showed them into a steel-doored room with corroded electrical switch gear inside. Several square cabinets with dust covered dials, in some cases hanging by the last slivers of copper wire, broken lenses of long since faded indicator lights and large, serious looking levers that were the actual breakers themselves.
Ellie grabbed Hobbes by the arm.
“You’ve found where the cable comes out?” She looked puzzled. “But, it was running in the opposite direction.”
“No. Not at all. These circuit breakers are far too small to handle the voltages from a cable like that. No, these are much more domestic.”
Bodil examined the rusted switchgear understanding that, after so many centuries, everything would be fused into one solid lump of rust.
“Then what are we looking at Mister Hobbes?”
“Show the professor please Weis. You’re closest.”
“Ere Proff.” Weis said, squatting down in front of one of the bottom-most cabinets.
Bodil assumed the same squatting position next to Weis and added her light to the ranger’s. Whatever it was she still wasn’t seeing it. Just rust.
“Look.” Weis pointed, his finger hovering over the rusted base of the lever. “See? Around the lever bit the rust is darker.”
Bodil saw it. All around the bottom of the lever, like a bloom of blood around an arrow, the rust was darker than anywhere else. Weis rubbed at it with his already filthy finger and then held his finger in front of Bodil’s face.
“Sniff it Proff.”
Bodil tentatively sniffed at the finger. It was faint, but…
“Oil.” She slowly climbed to her feet. “And not seven hundred year old oil either because that would have evaporated long ago.” She turned to Ellie. “This has to have been done when whoever ‘they’ are were here.”
“Bugger still won’t move though.” Weis butted in. “Me ‘an Mister ‘Obbes both ‘ad a go. It’s stuck solid.”
Ellie folded her arms and smiled.
“Is it now? Greggie? Be a dear would you?”
Gregor pushed his way into the confined space and Weis and Bodil were both eased aside like flotsam on the bow wave of a ship. The giant looked at the lever, spat on his hands and bent his back. Then the whole lever disappeared into the fist of Gregor’s right hand. There was a second or two of rusty resistance and then the metal squealed as seventy something years of rust gave up trying to hold the switch mechanism in place. There was a bright spark, seen through the corrosion holes in the case, from inside the cabinet. Gregor released his hold and stood up, grinning. Everyone was grinning.
From outside came the distant, slowly climbing whine of motors followed by a long screech like a giant fingernail against a blackboard. The darkness outside the switch room slowly got brighter.
“Now that’s interesting.” Ellie said, quietly.
All eyes turned to look at her.
“Shall we go and see what it is?”