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Mars by Stealth

 
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Acknowledgements

That dull clanging sound

Considering Victoria and Anna did not get on very well it was curious how at-ease Victoria felt when Anna was in charge. On this occasion however this ease was short lived. It was very strange to hear surprise in Anna's voice but there it was. Looking at the control panel in front of Anna Victoria could see the wind shear indicator had leapt to the top of the dial.

The radio continued to deliver a description of a copybook landing as the real emergency unfolded. They descended into a furious wind that hurtled them along at great speed. It was a high altitude jet stream. The satellites were very good at keeping track of wind speed and storms on the ground because of the dust they picked up, but up here this wind was invisible.

Victoria could hear Anna's training kick in like the bolt action on a weapon. There was only one option left. They were much higher than they wanted to be for this but Anna punched the release to separate from the parachutes. Strangely breaking away from the chutes made this one of the quietest moments in the whole landing. Now they were a falling tin bucket. Anna had to do this early. Any later and walking to the colony would have been impossible. Anna had to judge the optimum point for her next action. Too late and the vessel would pick up too much speed. Too soon and they would run out of fuel. Bang! The engines fired. At least that was working.

Anna now not only had to slow their vertical descent, but reduce the horizontal speed they picked up from the jet stream. This of course swallowed up fuel well in excess of the designer's expectations. They hurtled over jagged terrain. The fuel ran out a few meters from the ground and they made a very hard landing. Victoria heard the landing legs tear away from their mounts. How did she know it was the landing legs? Because the end of one was sticking up through the floor. The vessel skidded for hundreds of metres down a sloping surface. The sickening screech of tearing metal could be heard even through their helmets. All this time the radio had been describing an orderly descent to a soft landing. That thankfully was cut off when the vessel ground to a halt up against a rough slope.

At first Victoria thought the deafening hiss was white noise from the radio. But what was left of the radio would never produce another noise ever again. The hiss was the oxygen escaping through the long jagged tear in the aluminium bulkhead of the habitat. They had landed and everyone seemed to be unhurt but for the moment they were stuck in their space suits.

By the time Stewart could unstrap himself and scramble over to the huge gash in the floor of the habitat all of the oxygen was gone. It was pointless anyway. The tear went the full width of the habitat. Being perched up on the sharp rocks you could see daylight through it. A sickening silence fell over everyone. This vessel had an additional purpose. It was more than just their transport here. It was also supposed to be added to the colony to function as an additional habitat.

Everyone remained very still where they were. The gravity of the situation wasn't the only thing that weighed down on them. After so long in zero gravity they each had the agility of a city town hall. Trying to keep everyone true to training Stewart started first. They did the scheduled micro callisthenics to get themselves ready to stand up and walk around. They looked like a bunch of geriatrics at a disco. Once they could stand there was nothing else to do but go outside.

One of the reasons Victoria was not so good at taking notes was because she had an astonishingly good memory. Without really trying she had memorised the schedule for the entire mission. If everything had gone to plan this would have saved her carrying a bit of paper around everywhere. Now she was constantly haunted by what they should be doing at any given time and by how far they were slipping behind their mission objective.

It was 0600 by Martian time. After patting themselves on the back and securing the habitat they would have breakfast. Two of them would set out on a walk of no more than an hour to the base camp where the pressurised rover was waiting. They would then drive it back and pick up the others along with the supplies. Not on this mission.

Stewart led the way out through the air lock. His first impulse was to close the door behind him and depressurise but then he remembered there was no pressure to release. It felt wrong to just open both doors. Everyone followed him outside.

Without thinking about it Keith and Victoria went through the routine to check for holes in their suits. This was usually done after a bad fall in the suits, but it made complete sense to do it after such a rough landing. They had practiced this procedure so many times it was a reflex. It was a strange slow dance as they checked from shins to wrists. They would slap each part they were checking and name it out loud as they did so. The slap was to knock off any dust that might be hiding a tear. The little puff of dust also helped to show up any wisps of escaping oxygen. The person being checked would turn around so the other could do the back. When it was Victoria's turn to check Keith she couldn't help doing it without a bit of rhythm and song. She called out the names in a German accent to turn it into a yodeling Lederhosen dance. At this time unfortunately no one else found this amusing.

They had done such an effective job of bottling up the building animosity on the trip here that now it all had to come out in one form or another. Once the dust had settled Anna chucked a mighty tantrum.
She kicked a rock and stubbed her toe.
"What a debacle!"
"But Anna, we made it…"
Victoria looked at the terrible state of their vessel.
"… In one piece. We are on Mars.
"I know, I was supposed to be going to Europa. This was supposed to be routine. I didn't do six years of university and eight years at NASA to become a janitor. I gave up a career in the air force for this. We aren't explorers. We aren't doing any great science. We're shit kickers. We're setting it all up so someone else can get the glory."

No one blamed Anna for not being able to handle the Jet stream. At least she got them down alive. But it was typical of her to force them to face how they all felt at the worst possible time. She just put it into words and body language and that dull clanging sound the habitat made when she banged her helmet against it.

Victoria knew Anna was speaking the truth. They'd been given the crappiest job in space and they couldn't even get that right. The jet stream was unusual but an 'A' team would have been able to handle it. If you're excited about what you're doing you take these things in your stride. You almost look forward to extra challenges for extra marks on the board.

Stewart, the captain tried to be a fair man but he and Victoria just didn't get on. Victoria had learned a long time ago that if you are unlucky enough to be working with someone with whom you have bad chemistry the only thing you can do is leave them alone. The harder you try to please them the more you give them the shits. The captain was very conservative. In the context of a mission like this he was almost a bureaucrat. No wonder he and Victoria didn't get on. He was so obsessed with keeping things tidy and according to plan it was almost more important to him than the success of the plan.

Stewart and Brian started talking scenarios to deal with their situation. Victoria used to try and get in on these conversations but she knew it was pointless until they had whittled it down to a handful of options. Before that, making suggestions was like trying to use an ashtray on a motor bike.

Victoria took a few steps away from the group to take in where she was and to try to forget about all the politics. It was the first time she had come here and it was very special. The feeling of the powder under her feet. The pink sky and the blue sunrise.

Victoria could never understand how people could ask, "Why go into space?" No one ever asked "why to go to the Olympics?" If people had the same attitude to space as they had to sport they'd be having the winter Olympics on Titan by now.

Victoria got a sense the captain and Brian were down to the handful of options and rejoined the group. To be honest there weren't really options just ways of making what they had to do as efficient as possible. There were only six people on the planet at the moment so there was no point in waiting where they were.

They had a virtually unlimited supply of oxygen. The system they used on the surface pulled oxygen out of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but the unit that did this was bulky and was not so much portable as lug-able. Oxygen wasn't a problem just an encumbrance. Food and water was the thing. They had plenty of both but they had no way to eat or drink. Bizarrely this gave Victoria an idea. It wouldn't be so hard to build a plastic drinking straw with a valve into an astronaut's suit for just such a situation. She should make a note of it for next time. Oh well.

Their geo positioning reader was still working. They knew exactly where they were and where the camp was. No matter how they mucked around with the scenarios they would be close to dying of thirst by the time they got to the camp. There would be some drinking water there so they only had to carry the oxygen unit. They could come back for the supplies in the pressurised rover.

The first part of the base camp they would arrive at was the greenhouse. Victoria had no doubt they would be drinking the slimy water straight out of the hydroponic trough when they got there. If they got there. The crop in the greenhouse was still hydroponic because water was still a rare commodity on Mars. Even though the soil in the greenhouse was warm there was no way you could afford to splash precious water into it. The trough that held the water was part of the thin skin that still separated them from this strange new land.

The Oxygen extractor was trapped in a cupboard in the wreck. Max unpacked a special chainsaw to cut open the cupboard. It turned out to be easier to do this from the outside through the hull.

The original purpose of the chainsaw was to cut a pit to bury a small radioisotope power supply. It was needed because the soil here was Permafrost and as tough as concrete. The power supply had been delivered on an automated mission and was waiting for them somewhere near the camp. It had to be buried in a pit to reduce the chances of radiation exposure.

Stewart and Brian attached nylon straps to the Oxygen extractor so one person could carry it. Watching their progress Victoria could see what they needed next. She found a fresh pack of duck tape, tore off the wrapper and handed it to Stewart, as he was about to look up and ask for it. You would think that would please most people. Not Stewart, not from Victoria anyway. Keith hailed Victoria on a private link between his suit and hers. "Victoria."
"What?"
"It's a new world. Don't litter."

Victoria looked down at the plastic wrapper she had dumped on the virgin Martian soil. She never ceased to be amazed at the times Keith could choose to be so anal. She picked up the plastic and threw it into the beaten up old tin can that used to be their home and transport. Anything to keep the peace.
 

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Copyright Peter Rasmussen 2001