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Mars by Stealth

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Victoria was preparing for her morning ritual of clearing the dust off the roof of the habitat. Keith helped Victoria into her suit. They had all scrubbed the inside of their suits but they still were not pleasant to get into first thing.

Keith had a habit of giving her pants a yank to send her feet to the toes of the boots. Victoria snapped at him. He was taken completely by surprise.
She said, "Why do you keep doing that?"
"You asked me to."
"But I told you to stop. I've worn into the suit. It fits okay now."
"When did you tell me?"
"Last time. You don't listen."
"I don't think so."
Victoria was sure she had told him but she apologised and finished getting into her suit.

Victoria often referred to the two robots in the igloo constructions system as "The married couple." One would go round and round in endless circles home making while the other went out to be the bread winner or dust winner in this case. In the first half metre of construction a gap or cat flap had to be left in the wall. This was necessary because the dust collector needed continuous access to the base of the boom arm so it could regularly load up the hopper.

The little dust collector had fork lift tangs at one end. Every time the boom arm swung round to where this cat flap had to be, the dust collector, like a little gentleman would hold a lintel in place for the bonding head to cross the gap. Even if something went wrong and the bonding head fell into the gap it was possible for a remote operator to use the forklift to raise the head back up on the wall.

The way these two went automatically about their business and even helped each other from time to time without the slightest hint of consciousness or real awareness of each other reminded Victoria so much of her parents it made her shudder. There was no way Victoria was going to get stuck in that kind of marriage.

When they had been clearing out ice a room full at a time the simplest thing was to suit up and open both doors of the airlock. But now that they were just doing nips and tucks with the chainsaw they took the remaining ice out in small batches.

Keith packed ice into the airlock to the very top. He closed the inside door. After the depressurising procedure Brian opened the outer door of the airlock. The ice fell away to reveal Victoria.
"I feel like a tuna."
Oxygen was lost every time someone went through the air lock. To minimise this every time someone went outside they sent as much ice as possible out with them.

Victoria took up her hand made broom/scraper and cleared the new dust in long regular passes. It was pleasing to see how large their new habitat had become but the dust clearing was getting a bit old.

Victoria was astonished when Brian glided past her with a broom of his own. How the hell did he do that? She hailed him and summoned him for inspection. He zoomed over and came to a stop in front of her.
"Skates! When did you make those?" she said.
"Last night."
Brian took off again. His movements were natural and graceful in contradiction to the bulky space suit. He showed off some snappy turns and skated backwards. On returning he sprayed her boots with ice powder.

Victoria dumped her broom and insisted he show her his new footwear. He sat down and took one off so she could have a look. He had made a simple ice skate with metal from the crash. Nylon straps and buckles kept them firmly attached to his space boot.

She promptly ran off with the skate to copy the design for herself. His protests fell on a cut off communications system. Victoria had no qualms about this indulgence. It would make the dust clearing quicker and easier.

Brian took the other skate off and went back to clearing the dust on foot. By the time he had finished and was headed back inside Victoria was out and ready for action. She returned his skate in passing.

The job being finished was irrelevant. Now it was Victoria's turn to show off. She just included her broom in the performance. She showed Brian some of her best moves. Once he had his skates back on Brian skimmed a rock along the ice in Victoria's direction. Her school girl hocky training kicked in and the game was on. Brian was fast over distance but Victoria's reflexes were quick. Victoria was about to score a deciding goal when Captain Stewart 'Pooper' came on the comm and brought them back to Mars.

Inside the first room they had constructed Stewart switched off the little air pump on the Oxygen extractor. The silence was delicious. He announced that they were ready to go to the base camp now. All that had to be done was for Victoria to modify the suits.

Victoria was going through her tools to choose the bare essentials that might prove handy if anything broke down on the walk. Something made her stop. Something was not right. It took her a moment to realise what it was. Her wire-wrapping tool was in the wrong compartment. There was nothing crucial about where it went but Victoria had her habits and there was no way she had put it where it was now.

If she had not had the problem with the damaged spanner she would not have thought too much of it. But it felt very wrong. Everyone on the team knew how Victoria was about her tools and knew better than to go fishing around in her toolbox. They had no need to anyway. Everyone had the tools they needed for their allotted tasks. Most importantly there was no job anyone had done so far that required this particular tool. It was a specialised tool for wrapping the fine wires on delicate electronic circuit boards.

Something made her look at the serial number on the wire-wrapping tool. All of the tools had a unique serial number. The first block of digits in the number was the ID number of the NASA crew member the tool had been issued to. It was not Victoria's number.

Victoria had brought some of the more important replacement parts to the ice camp for safe keeping. Only a couple of these used the wire-wrap tool. She examined each of them externally. They all looked okay. Then she spotted something on one of the units. The housing was held on by a number of screws. There was a burr on one of these screws.

The burr had been formed in an anticlockwise direction, from the screw being undone. The housings for electronic equipment were not fitted until they had passed all the relevant tests.

This case was not supposed to have been opened since its construction. This was the replacement targeting system for the main radio dish. The targeting system kept the dish pointed at the communications satellite in orbit around Mars. The one currently installed at the main camp was well past its used-by date. It also was not equipped with the new communications protocols they were soon to switch over to. If the unit Victoria had in her hand was faulty it might make it impossible to communicate with Earth.

She connected it to her laptop to do a number of standard diagnostic tests and found nothing unusual. Then she tested the hunting routine. This kicked in in the event that the dish lost the satellite altogether. It systematically scanned the sky using things like its last position and likely position and so on. It failed this test dismally.

Victoria removed the housing and had a look. She checked the circuit diagram against the hard ware. It almost leapt out and bit her. Two wires had been swapped in the hunting circuit. This had been done with the wire-wrap tool.

Victoria used her laptop to look up the mission records. Everyone had a copy. This document had basic details on each of the crew including a brief curriculum Vitae. At the top of each CV was the crew members ID number. The wire-wrapping tool in Victoria's toolbox had been issued to Anna.

Victoria sat back and thought about this. She and Anna did not get on but was it really this deep seated? Anna had a temper but would she really go to this much trouble to make Victoria look bad? It occurred to Victoria that Anna might be jealous that she had discovered the ice. Even though the mission was improving Anna didn't have anything to brag about. If there was anything that was certain about Anna it was that she had an overwhelming need for something to brag about. How would Victoria explain this to the others without sounding like she was making excuses for herself?

Victoria and Keith went to Stewart to tell him they had reason to believe Anna might be endangering the safety of the mission. Stewart was sceptical. His immediate reaction was that everyone should be present to hear what Victoria had to say. Keith convinced him that he should hear the evidence first to figure out how to best handle this delicate situation.

Stewart gave Max and Anna a job to do outside. Once they were gone Victoria showed the evidence to Stewart and the others. She assured them that if anyone else could come up with a better explanation that she would be extremely eager to hear it. She went to great lengths to impress on them that she had no ill feelings toward Anna and had no reason to incriminate her.

Victoria then showed them the various bits of evidence she had collected.
"What should we make of this?" She said.

Keith suggested that the fairest thing was to confront her. But Brian said "If she denies it, where are we then?"
"What if she has done this?" Stewart said. "Do we lock her up? How? This is horrible."
Stewart was way out of his depth here and really wanted to consult with mission control on such a delicate matter. He had no way of doing this until they got back to the base camp where the communication dish was. If only they could put it off till then.

Victoria said "Anna is innocent until proven guilty, but who's going to do the many days walk up to the base camp with someone who might be disturbed? I mean, who we aren't sure of."
"She doesn't have to go." Said Brian.
"What am I supposed to say to her?" Said Stewart. "She's the best rover driver."

They seemed to be stuck. Victoria thought carefully before she spoke.
"I could botch her suit." Victoria said.
Victoria had everyone's undivided attention. She reminded them that she had yet to modify the suits with the drinking straw set up. She could deliberately blunder the job on Anna's suit just enough so it was unusable for the walk but not so bad that it could not be fixed once Stewart had worked out what he needed to do. Anna was too big for Victoria's suit and too small for any of the others. Anna would be stuck indoors until they came back with the rover.

In the morning Victoria started work modifying the space suits with the drinking system. She knelt in front of her anvil and methodically layed out the tools in the order she would be using them. She went through the procedure in her head. As she imagined each step she gestured slightly and her lips moved as she went through her instructions to herself. When she approached a delicate operation like this with such reverence Keith used to say all she needed was saffron robes and some incense to get a charming little cult going. She did an excellent job on her own suit and with Keith's, quite pleasing.

Now she had to face Anna's suit. She couldn't believe how hard it was to bring herself to deliberately damage a beautiful piece of equipment like this. She drilled the hole much too large. Victoria made sure they had no way of sealing it with anything in the ice camp.
Anna swallowed the story whole. She had no trouble believing Victoria could screw up a simple job like this one.

Victoria tried to explain to her that there was a complete, new rim assembly in spare parts at the main camp so Anna's suit could be fixed. Anna wasn't really interested she was concentrating on pouring hot, silent acid on Victoria.

Brian made a thin gazpacho to take on the long walk as Anna gave him last minute instructions on how to handle the rover. Once all the essential supplies had been gathered together Victoria, Keith and Brian set out on the long walk to the base camp.

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Copyright Peter Rasmussen 2001