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Mars by Stealth

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Puzzling evidence

Brian took a tray full of wheat sprouts into a new room. The room had insulation on the walls and red Martian soil on the floor. He replanted the wheat sprouts from the tray into the soil.

Victoria and Keith looked in through the doorway at the wheat-covered floor. It couldn't be simpler. Victoria was staggered to think how many person hours had gone into designing and making the mechanical oxygen extractor and what the price tag must have been on it. They had just done much the same thing with a small bag of plain old wheat seeds. Even if something went wrong with the wheat crop it would not break down all of a sudden the way a machine does.

Stewart called Victoria over. She followed him to the newly excavated room.

Victoria was astonished to see that insulation she had hung up not more than an hour ago had fallen to the floor. She could not explain to him what had gone wrong. She said she used the same system as she had in all the other rooms. He told her to work it out and try again.
She knew she had done everything right but she still felt foolish.

Victoria examined all the elements to figure out what the problem was and to see if she could fix it or improve on the system some how. Hanging insulation on an ice wall was not anything the mission planners had anticipated so Victoria had used rivets with the pins still in them. When rivets are new there is a metal pin in them that the rivet gun attaches to. This pin is like a regular nail but a bit softer. Victoria had simply nailed the insulation to the ice wall with these pins. She used a washer on each one to make sure the insulation would not slip off the end. She could not make any sense of what had happened here. She hammered in a fresh pin to test the system. It worked fine. You could hang a side of beef on it. What could possibly have happened with the insulation? She looked at everything closely.

Then she found something very disturbing. She could see marks in the ice around the holes where the pins had gone in. She took a closer look at a spent pin. There too on its shaft were marks. They looked like marks from the jaws of pliers. Looking again at the ice there seemed to be no other explanation. The marks around the holes were clearly from the pliers being levered against it to pull the pins out. Who would do this? Why? Victoria took Polaroid pictures of the marks in the ice and put the old pins in a safe place.

The wind kept leaving dust on the roof and cutting down the light so a morning ritual became clearing it away. This was hard work with just a bit of straight metal in your hand so Keith helped Victoria put a long handle on it to make it like a broom. All the brooms were at the main camp so this would have to do for now.

A lot of their furniture was made from blocks of ice cut out in the excavations. Things like shelves and storage cabinets were cut straight into the wall. Victoria and Keith's workbench was a block of ice with a flat rock from outside to make a good working surface.

Keith held the long aluminium pipe steady while Victoria split the end with a hacksaw. She fanned it out to make a flange the head could be joined to. This was a delicate job. If you bent the aluminium back too sharply it would break right off. Seeing Victoria tapping methodically at the metal on the makeshift stone anvil made Keith smile. With perfect concentration she gently tapped with the rhythm of a wristwatch ticking. She moved the split end of the pipe back and forth under the hammer to form a smooth strong curve.
"Your great grandfather would be proud." He said.

This charmed Victoria. Keith knew her great grand father had been a blacksmith. She had shown him a family heirloom, which was a rose branch her great grandfather made when he was an apprentice. Made of steel, the various parts were attached by cold welding. Cold welding is basically hammering on two pieces of metal until they are fused together. Victoria tried this once with a couple of bits of scrap. She mangled them both out of shape without any sign they would ever be joined. So she was very impressed with the skill and art that had gone into making the rose branch. It had leaves and buds and open blossoms. Even the end that joined to the rest of the bush was curled as though it had been torn off.

The only feature missing was the thorns. Considering all the other details it seemed a strange omission. Victoria looked into Keith's warm handsome face. She wondered what it was about the women in her family that attracted them to men who tried to ignore the thorns.

Anna entered with a tray of freshly tin can brewed coffee and set it down on the floor. Anna prided herself on being able to make a great cup of coffee under the worst conditions.

Keith took up a tin cup and asked if Anna would pass him some whitener. As she went over to add some to his coffee she slipped on the uneven floor and had to steady herself on his shoulder. They both laughed briefly. That hand stayed there just a little too long. Then Anna noticed some whitener had splashed on to Keith's front. She made a little fuss about getting it off. Much too much of a fuss for Anna. Keith became self-conscious with Victoria right there and took the tissue off Anna to relieve her of duty.

What was Victoria looking at here? Was Anna flirting with her husband? Some people would say that flirtation is harmless but they only say that when they're doing it. Was she doing it because she wanted to attract Keith's attention or because she wanted to piss Victoria off? Most importantly was her husband flirting with Anna?

It surprised Victoria how much this idea hurt, but she could see Keith was uncomfortable with it and did her best to ignore it. It didn't feel like a good thing but it could even be argued to be another useful test for their marriage. She resigned herself to the idea that if that was what Keith wanted to do then that was the end of it.

After Anna left, the room had an uneasy silence. Keith searched for a topic to break it. He usually didn't care about such things but he just had to say it really was the best cup of coffee he had tasted for a long time. Bad choice.

They heard the familiar cry from Max. As a reflex they plugged their ears. Boom! Keith laughed saying Max really had been watching too many action films. It was only a short while before Victoria stopped what she was doing to listen.
"Shut up for a moment." Said Victoria.
"What is it?" Keith asked.
"What's that noise?" Victoria asked.
"That hissing sound."
Victoria looked up and spotted a crack to the outside atmosphere in the corner of the ceiling. The hiss was the air escaping. Victoria hurled her cup of coffee at it. They watched as the dark coffee was sucked in and froze, sealing the crack.

Anna entered to see Victoria and Keith pouring out cups of her coffee and hurling them at the ceiling. She turned on her heel and mumbled to herself, "I'm on Mars and I'm doing the damn dishes."

After the crack appeared they decided to stop the explosive excavation and go back to the chainsaw. They had pretty much as many rooms as they needed anyway.

All the wheat they needed was planted. It would be a few days before it had grown tall enough to start pushing out enough oxygen to replace the extractor.
So they used the time to make other improvements.

Anna and Max didn't mind the long walk to the crash site so they would go back whenever there were enough things needed from the old habitat to make it worth while.

On this occasion their return was awaited with more anticipation than usual. As they came in site of the ice camp they could hear the cheers of the others across their communication system.

Max held up the part of the cargo that was the star today and the cheering rose with it. It was the gravity toilet. How long had it been since they had used a normal toilet.

They had also retrieved an empty fuel tank in the hope it could be converted into a septic system. Ultimately this would return nourishment back to the wheat crop. Great care had to be taken so that disease was not transmitted from the septic system into the wheat. It was just a matter of adapting the techniques that were used at the main camp.

Victoria struggled to undo a nut on the fuel tank. The shifting spanner gave way so Victoria's knuckles were bashed against the frame the tank was mounted in.

Keith watched her, saying nothing. She barked at him protesting that she was not clumsy. He told her she did not have to defend herself with him.
"You always get a little clumsy when there's something bothering you. It's nothing to be ashamed of." he said.
"It's the spanner." Victoria insisted.
Keith just looked at her. She thrust the shifter at him. "You try to use it."
Keith looked the shifter over just to amuse Victoria.
"Well?" She said impatiently.
"It's broken."
Keith could see one side of the thumbscrew was gone.
"Well?" She insisted.
"You shouldn't be so hard on your tools. Take it easy."

Later she found a room where she could be alone and took the shifter apart. Victoria jammed her watchmaker's eyepiece into her eye-socket and examined the damage in detail. It wasn't wear. These tools were all issued new for the mission. It wasn't a metal fracture. Victoria had seen plenty of those to know the difference. The thumbscrew was made of high grade hardened steel. If this damage was deliberate a cold chisel had to have been used. She knew what she was looking for but was not happy about finding it. There it was. Through the eyepiece Victoria could see the smooth facet where the leading edge of the chisel had bitten into the metal. And there was the crust of something dried on the break. Victoria sniffed it. Super glue. The side of the thumbscrew had been glued back on so it would look and feel normal but fail as soon as any serious pressure was put on it. The only explanation Victoria could arrive at was that someone was going to a lot of trouble to make her look incompetent. To what end?

She tried to convince herself it was a harmless prank. So why was Victoria's stomach in a knot? A balanced person does not go to this much trouble for a prank. It was a fiddly job, done with great precision and care.

After Victoria calmed down she put the shifter away for safekeeping. Victoria was now convinced someone was working to make her look bad. But her evidence was a bit lean. Victoria decided she could carry this. She did not need to share her suspicions with anyone else. She would just have to double check everything and make sure she uncovered any new interference before it tripped her up. Hopefully who ever it was would just get over it. She was confident she could deal with the situation provided the game wasn't advanced to Sticks and stones.

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Copyright Peter Rasmussen 2001