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Mars by Stealth

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What does that alarm mean again?

Max was in the last ice room they had cut, working to make it useable. He thought briefly about the three on their way to the base camp. He had been so happily occupied it only just now occurred to him that the days had passed and realised they would get there on the next day. Within hours they would return with the rover and they could all get back to the mission they had come for.

While clearing the floor Max noticed a dark section. He threw water on the floor to make it more transparent. There was a hollow under the ice. Not wanting it to collapse under him he carefully cut down at the edge of the dark patch. It turned out to be a large bubble in the ice. It wasn't a crevasse. The sides were smooth, smooth and glistening wet. But how could such a thing form? It was well worth taking advantage of the extra space.

Max knew the atmosphere in the ice cave was going to be mostly carbon dioxide but there was no danger to the existing habitat. Any effect it had on the air in the main area was going to be gradual and the wheat crop would soak it up pretty quickly. But for him to go down in there himself he would have to suit up.

The team on the way up to the main camp had made good time. The water and cold soup had sustained them well. They were only a few more hours from the base camp now but the sun had set and it was a few too many hours to manage that night. There would be no moonlight until the early morning. They had already walked a long way in the dark and the terrain was getting unpredictable.

Back at the ice camp Max was suited up and half way down into the ice cave. A rope secured him as he cut footholds down one side of it. It was getting dark enough that he needed to use the work light on his suit.

Anna entered the room above Max and looked at the rope that led down into the ice cave. She looked over the edge down into the darkness.

Victoria woke lying on her side. She just lay there for a moment to enjoy the abstract beauty of this alien landscape. Moonlight mixed with the blue haze on the horizon that announced the imminent arrival of the sun. She started on the awkward business of getting herself to her feet. Sleeping in a space suit with a heavy, unremovable life support backpack on is murder on the joints. Keith said the only advantage was that he could turn off Victoria's snoring. Only a few hours now and they would have all the simple comforts and security of the main camp. They could get the mission back on track, give mission control the good news about the ice and most importantly let their friends and family know they were still expected at the air base for hugs and kisses.

Victoria was barely half way to standing when something yanked her back down on her arse. What could she be snagged on? She felt around to where the resistance had come from. The oxygen refill tube was connected to her life support interface panel. Whose idea was this? She looked around. Keith was still asleep and Brian…

Brian was gone. She desperately scanned the horizon in every direction. He was nowhere to be seen. She punched Keith in the shoulder. He jumped awake.
As consciousness seeped into his brain pain registered on his face and he clutched his shoulder.
"Brian's run off." Victoria told him.
He looked at her blearily.
"He's left us stranded." she insisted.
Still he didn't register. When she realised what was going on she reached over and jabbed the comm button on his suit.
"What the hell?" he said.
"Brian's gone."
"What do you mean, he's gone?"
Keith fought the sleep to look around in search of Brian. Victoria grabbed him because he was in danger of ripping the air tube out of his life support panel. He was connected to the oxygen extractor in the same way she was. Brian had left them stranded and taken all of the reserve oxygen bottles.

When Victoria checked, her oxygen tanks were nearly on empty. Brian had let down their tires. He had bled most of the oxygen out when they were asleep. They were stuck with the extractor for now. It was putting out just enough oxygen to keep them going. For their tanks to refill they would have to wait for hours.

Keith found a note from Brian instructing them to wait there, that he would be back for them in the rover. It was completely out of character for Brian to leave them like this without having talked to them first. It made no sense. What was he doing? What reason did they have to believe he would really ever come back for them? Still joined they decided to lug the Oxygen extractor and its batteries between them the rest of the way to the base. There was just enough juice so they could leave the battery recharger behind.
Max felt some movement on the far end of the rope he was dangling from.
"Who's that?"
Stewart's voice came a bit too loud in his ear.
"What the hell are you doing?"

Stewart was pretty angry that Max had not talked to him first. Max apologised saying that his curiosity got the better of him. It wasn't intentional. He said they could make great use of the cave and said Stewart should come on down. Max was close to the floor of the ice cave. He thought it strange that the floor was not ice but rock. He disconnected himself from the rope and hopped down. The stony floor of the cave promptly gave way under him.

Victoria and Keith arrived at the downhill end of the greenhouse. They slipped passed the tunnel builder working on the end of the tunnel without disturbing it. Victoria couldn't help taking a glance to see what shape it was in.
"How is it?" asked Keith.
"Looks good." She replied.

The first sealed cell of the greenhouse was still a ways off up the tunnel. The tunnel builders worked very slowly. Airtight bulkheads were added as each hundred meters was completed. This way most of the greenhouse could be expanded into use while it continued to be lengthened and get more out of the sunlight.

Once they arrived at the first airlock they dumped the oxygen extractor and entered through the airlock. Once inside the sealed , working part of the greenhouse they shed their suits so they could travel faster. Now they just had a nine hundred metre up hill run to the base.

Max had been dropped into a small hollow in the Martian rock. He landed in a puddle of ice water. After convincing Stewart these caves were important enough for him to examine, Stewart put on his suit and went down to join Max.

They squeezed down through a narrow crack in the rock that opened out to a huge cavern. It was an extraordinarily large naturally formed tunnel that sloped steeply downward. Stewart was not a geologist but he recognised the elliptical shape of the tunnel immediately. It had to be a lava tube. He looked up at the roof of rock behind them that separated the ice from the lava tube. When the lava was hot a thick crust of rock had formed where it was in contact with the cold atmosphere. As the thermal activity subsided the molten rock receded leaving the hollow tube. The ice-lake was not in a meteor crater as they had first thought. It was a plug at the top of this old lava tube.

An alarm Max had never heard before sounded in his suit. He looked at his wrist display. A light was flashing. He just looked at it for a moment wondering how that light could be on. It had never come on during the training. Then he remembered it did get a mention in the suit specifications. Looking again he realised it was saying that the external atmosphere was too hot. With an equatorial maximum of zero degrees Celsius there was no call for a high temperature warning on Mars. The alarm was a left over from missions in Earth orbit where the external temperature gets high enough to be an issue.

Max worried about the main base being in the crater of the volcano. Stewart was not concerned. The heat was too far down. He knew that in the years they had been exploring Mars they had constantly been monitoring for seismic activity and never gotten so much as a murmur. Stewart was very pleased. The hot atmosphere was an indication that there was still thermal activity down below. Not only had this mission found ice but now it had found a high-density energy source. They were inside the biggest volcano in the solar system. It was reasonable to imagine there might be some residual heat that would be more than enough to take care of their energy needs for a very long time to come.

The ceiling of rock was the only thing that stopped the ice from being melted by the rising hot air. The excavation of the ice by explosion had obviously dislodged some small rocks and allowed some warm air to reach the ice. This is how the ice bubble Max had discovered was formed. If they wanted to keep the ice camp they would have to seal the hole up again to keep the hot air out.

As they left the lava tube and clambered back up through the craves into the ice bubble cave a rock slipped back under Max's foot. Other rocks came loose and it started an avalanche of rocks. Stewart pulled Max clear. They watched the entire ceiling of rock that separated the ice from the lava tube collapse and slide far below. They did not hang around waiting to hear the splash.

With the rock gone the ice was now totally exposed. The heat alarm on Stewart's suit now started up to make a duet with Max's.

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Copyright Peter Rasmussen 2001