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Mars by Stealth

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Plan B

Victoria's team was sent to iron out the remaining problems and make the base camp fully functional for human habitation. The real stars of this exercise were a couple of months behind them. This is who this home away from home was all for.

Their ultimate aim was spectacularly audacious in comparison with anything so far. The team to come were the terraformers. They were top-flight environmental engineers, biologists, and chemical engineers. They would do the in the field research. They would set up the foundation mechanisms that would in time create global warming to raise the ambient temperature by fifty degrees and change the very make up of the atmosphere. They were coming to the planet named after the god of war in the spirit of peace and the advancement of life.
They were going to turn this frozen desert into a world where life could flourish. They couldn't be mucking around with house building and domestics.

Beginning the terraforming process was the reason to go to Mars. It was going to take a hundred years. The sooner they got started the sooner they would see some results. What Victoria wouldn't do to be on a team like that.

There had been many robotic missions and teams before Victoria's that had each done a six-month stint on mars to build up the infrastructure to a point where the terraformers could move in and do their stuff.

The oxygen for the whole base was generated organically in a greenhouse. The greenhouse was made out of bonded dust like the igloos but in the shape of a long above ground tunnel. It was this shape because every gram of glass had to be transported all the way from Earth. The tunnel design was part of a system devised to squeeze more sun through the smallest possible area of windows. This system collected the maximum available sunlight no matter where the sun was in the sky. It did this without the need for a single moving part. A trough shaped aluminium reflector sat on top of the greenhouse and ran its full length. End on, the tunnel and the reflectors looked like two horseshoes back to back. The long slot of windows was located where they joined. The reflector collected the sunlight and bounced it through the narrow slot of windows at the top of the greenhouse. The greenhouse ran exactly east west so it got as much as possible out of the sunlight no matter where it was in the sky. The longer the whole arrangement was the more sunlight it could catch when the sun was near the horizon.

The green house construction used the same 'dust-n-spit' constructions system as the igloo but the whole thing was tipped over at forty-five degrees. The bonding head built up the end of the tunnel by moving back and forth like a big windscreen wiper. From above the tunnel looked like a huge organ pipe. The base of this arm crept westward as each millimetre of new dust was bonded to the end of the tunnel.

A colony had in a way already started on Mars but the population was not human. They were fish. Once the vegetation was pumping out a substantial level of oxygen a human mission set up a large pool. A robotic mission then brought fish sperm and fish eggs and introduced them for the first time on Mars. They were left with fast breeding water bugs for a food supply and managed by remote control from Earth. After eating every meal out of a toothpaste tube all the crew had been thinking about those fish for a long time. The way things were going they would be thinking about them for a while longer.

It was Victoria and Keith's turn to carry the heat exchanger that drove the power generation system. When the heat exchanger was unrolled it was a few metres long, like a black cane mat. Victoria led holding one end of the rolled up mat behind her with Keith at the rear. Keith became preoccupied with the bow in the exchanger every time they took a step. The 'cane' of the exchanger was nearly a kilometre of very fine aluminium pipe. Keith new that if it became kinked or developed a leak it might disable the power supply. If this happened everything was over.

Victoria tried to calm him saying it was well built and quite strong. He complained that it wasn't designed to be carried for any great distance and that she could not see how much it was bowing. Finally he made her stop. The others kept going. Victoria and Keith would catch up. Keith said it would be better if they weren't carrying it by the ends. If they both had it under their arms it would give it better support. But Victoria's arms weren't long enough. It was much more awkward for her that way. Victoria suggested they go back and make a stretcher for the exchanger out of the wreckage from the crash. He said the habitat was too far behind them now. If they had rope they could tie handles on it. But they didn't have rope, it was all back at the habitat.

The others were leaving them further and further behind. Victoria and Keith decided to keep carrying the exchanger while they talked through the problem. They switched over to the person to person link so the others didn't have to endure their machinations. The cool analytical conversation slipped into an agitated argument. Victoria was getting pretty tired of this. Keith didn't seem to be making a lot of sense. She tried as diplomatically as possible to suggest to Keith that the situation they were in might be making him more anxious than he needed to be. The others carried it with no problem.
"Victoria, you have too much of a spring in your step." Keith said.

Victoria stopped in her tracks. Keith nearly doubled up over their load. Victoria very carefully put her end of the exchanger down. She walked off with her hands in the air in a way that told Keith to just leave her alone, at least for a while.
Keith heard the click in the communications system that told him she had switched him off and could no longer hear him.

Victoria did not care if Keith was right. The thing that upset her most was that in a situation where they normally worked so well together their usual rapport had vanished. This made her for the first time doubt that it had ever existed.

Keith knew the best thing was to give it a rest. He turned away to try and find something distracting. He couldn't have been more successful. An automated balloon cushion lander was coming in fast. It should have been coming down much closer to the main camp and had obviously been blown off course by the same jet stream. It was headed straight for Victoria. Keith ran as hard as he could to try and warn her.

Victoria knew something was up when she heard the dull thud of Keith's feet behind her. And a different thud she could feel through the ground. She turned expecting to be confronted by some annoying ploy from Keith trying for a resolution.

On the next bounce the lander came down right on top of her. When it bounced away she was gone, vanished, nowhere to be seen. Keith ran over to where she had been and furiously dug in the dirt thinking she had been buried. He looked up at the bouncing lander to see a pair of kicking legs poking out between the balloons. She had been jammed between the balloons and carried off. Victoria and the lander came to rest hundreds of metres away.

Victoria extracted herself from the balloon lander. It had delivered supplies for equipping the igloos such as windows, insulation, tools etc.

Victoria automatically went into the solo version of the Lederhosen hole-checking dance. But her dance was a slow and sad one. She was desperately unhappy about everything. What else could possibly go wrong? Before she could take three steps to make her way back she stumbled and fell down a hill.

She dug the edge of her boot down in search of something solid but there was only dust. She slid and slid and kept sliding for far too long. Finally coming to rest she looked back to see why the ground had refused to help her stop. There was a very long skid mark. Through the furrow in the dust she could see something white. What was something white doing on Mars? She boggled at it. Shiny and white. Flat and white. Slippery and white. She pushed the dust aside to feel the glistening flat slipperiness. It was ice. ICE? How could it be? Under a few centimetres of loose dust was solid pure ice. She wanted to dig her fingernails into it. All she could do was bash it with her fisted knuckles to be sure this was really ice.

She ended up on all fours pushing back more and more dust. It was hard work just to clear a small patch, but there seemed to be no limit to the ice. She looked up to realise how far this flat pan stretched for. It was a huge frozen lake. Ice on Mars. Now this is what Victoria called space exploration. Victoria lifted her head to try and take in the size of this Popsicle. She got to her feet but not without a few skitters.

This was obviously a meteor hit from a long time ago that had filled with water when Mars was wet. With the horizontal lake you could now get a strong sense of the gentle slope leading up to the top of the volcano. The prevailing wind kept sand dunes piled up against the high side of the crater disguising the flatness of the lake. This was why it had not been detected on any of the satellite surface mapping missions. Victoria just stood there and gawked at it. It was huge.

Keith was running as hard as he could to Victoria. Half way there he watched as Victoria danced on the spot like a mad, bubble headed rag doll. He thought she must have finally cracked.

It was such a relief for Victoria that this mission now had something it could be proud of. But there was something else. Yes! The ice might be the solution they needed. They might be eating dinner tonight after all.

She scrambled back up to the balloon lander. Very excited she rifled the various metal boxes until she found the right one. Victoria had stayed overnight once at a hotel in Finland. The hotel was made entirely of ice. Yes, this could really work.

Back down on the ice she dumped the box on the ground. As Keith approached she opened the box to pull out a back up chainsaw. Keith stopped in his tracks. He gestured and seemed to be saying something but she couldn't hear anything. Of course. She switched her communicator back on. She had never heard Keith be so nervous.
"Put the chainsaw down Victoria. Just put it down."
Then he noticed something.
"Oh my god. It's ice!"
"Yes." Said Victoria, "Isn't it fantastic?" I'm going to make a new habitat out of it."

The others watched from a distance. They had expected Keith to have brought Victoria back by now. Victoria and Keith were still on the personal channel so no one else could hear what was being said. All they could see was that they were arguing and gesturing in an animated fashion and that Victoria was holding a chainsaw.

Stewart and Brian hurried down to join Victoria and Keith. After a bout of street mime they all got on the same general channel.
"Victoria, what are you going to do with the chainsaw?"
Victoria looked at them with wild excitement.
"I'm going to solve all our problems."
Keith reassured them, "It's okay. It's okay. There's no problem."

Keith tried to be part of the conversation but he was still puzzling over Victoria's idea.
Stewart insisted. But what are you doing?"
"Oh my god. It's ice!" Said Brian.

Keith continued trying to sort things out with Victoria. "We should probably try to figure out how long it's going to take us", said Keith.
"We'll have it done before dark", Victoria said.
"WHAT?" Stewart barked.
"Victoria wants to carve a habitat out of the ice." Said Keith.

Stewart and Brian look down at the ice and considered this for a moment.
"How would we seal it?" Brian asked.
"With the airlock from the habitat we arrived in." Victoria replied.
Victoria watched the smile on Brian's face grow.
Anna came running down into the crater followed by Max.
"What's going on? We're wasting time."

When Anna saw the white stuff she tried to stop to get a good look at it. But she kept going and going until Brian caught her like a football.
"Oh my god…" Said Anna.
"It's ice." Everyone chorused.

Victoria slowed herself down and tried to demonstrate how well thought out her idea was by explaining it in small chunks that made sense to everyone. They would have a place to eat and recuperate before they struck out again for the main camp.

Keith thought it was a great idea and supported her all the way. Stewart wanted to stick to the simplest plan, which was the one they started with. Anna thought this made a lot of sense and supported Stewart. If they ran into any unforseen problems and had to abandon the idea they would be in even deeper trouble.

Victoria said they only needed a handful of days to set up the ice camp so they wouldn't be losing too much time off their schedule.

Stewart argued that it was not up to them to rewrite their mission. "It's been months in the planning. We can't re-do it in a couple of minutes." Brian argued that the circumstances were extra ordinary and that a major point of their training was to be creative in extraordinary circumstances. "If we go straight to base camp now we are going to be suffering from chronic dehydration and fatigue from lack of food. It will take us many days to recover from that. We might as well use those days at this end to set up an extra camp."

The argument went round and round as they explored every pro and con until Brian unzipped his breast pocket. He pulled something out and dumped it on the ice in the middle of the circle. It was a bar of chocolate he had brought to celebrate with when they had made it to the base camp. All of these highly trained professionals looked down at it like five-year olds who had been sent to their room without any pudding.

Victoria could see the argument was over. She looked to Stewart for approval. The other's looked to him with their big 'five year-old' eyes. He grudgingly nodded and walked off defeated. The chainsaw roared into life and its blade breached the surface of the ice.

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Copyright Peter Rasmussen 2001