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Mars by Stealth

 
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Really bad phlegm

Victoria and Keith arrived at the up hill end of the greenhouse where it connected to the main camp. But when Keith tried to turn the wheel shaped handle on the door it had been jammed with something on the other side. The only other way in was through a door at the far end of the camp. To get to it they would have to leave the greenhouse the way they came in, travel back along the outside and to the other end of the camp. That was a trip of about two kilometres. There was no guarantee that door wouldn't also be jammed. Doors to the outside were kept to a minimum to save on airlocks.

Was Brian crazy? What was he up to? What was he trying to do at the camp? Even if they could find a way through the hatch Victoria didn't like the thought of coming face to face with this unknown side of Brian without some idea of what he was doing and what state of mind he was in.

It occurred to Victoria there was a way they could get a peek inside the camp from where they were. She went down to the greenhouse management robot. She hooked up her laptop to the robot and set up a link to the communications backbone.

With this done she was able to access any of the cameras on the various robotic units. She cycled through all the cameras on all the robots but couldn't find Brian anywhere.

She selected the camera on a dust collection unit working in the courtyard at the far end of the camp. She set up her laptop so it could function as a remote control station for the collector and switched it over to manual. Now she had a camera she could guide and used it to take a look around. It was all quiet everywhere she looked. Then she found a footprint. It looked very fresh. It had to be Brian's. Any prints from the last mission would be full of dust.

As Victoria followed the footprints Keith drew a mud map on the greenhouse floor to get a clear idea of what Brian's activity had been. Victoria followed the footprints until they just stopped. No Brian no nothing. She turned the dust collector this way and that. It was like he went straight up. Then she saw the tire tracks. He must have climbed into the rover, which was now gone. For a moment they wondered if they had been too hasty. Maybe he really was coming back for them.

Victoria jumped when the big wheel of the rover filled the computer screen. She had to be quick to prevent the little dust collector from becoming road kill. It ended up under the rover. Looking out the back Victoria could see the rover was dragging something. It was dragged right up to the camera of the dust collector until the radioactive symbol on the side of it filled the screen. The only piece of equipment with this symbol was the radioisotope power supply. For a minute they thought the worst. Victoria figured it out. Everything had run down because the team had taken so long to get here. The only things still operating were those with independent power supplies like the robotic systems. Brian needed the isotope power supply to bring everything back on line.

Thinking quickly Victoria reversed the dust collector back under the rover and lined it up to where she knew the rover's hatch was. A pair of boots jumped down to the ground and went over to the isotope power supply. Brian dragged the power supply over to the main power access panel. He opened the panel and took heavy electrical cables from it that he connected to the power supply.

Victoria shadowed Brian with the dust collector like a detective. She kept her distance behind him and hid it behind corners and in dark places as she followed him. But then he got to a point where she could go no further. He entered the airlock. The little dust collector was stuck outside.

Again Victoria flicked through cameras on the inside of the camp to follow Brian and to try and figure out what he was doing. In one of the rooms she noticed a dust collector sitting on a workbench. She remembered one of the jobs low on her list was to fix the suction system on this dust collector. Being broken a previous technician had put it inside. But everything else on it was still working.

She invoked a wake up signal operators on Earth use when a unit has been shut down for a long time. It worked. She switched on its camera. Brian was in profile in one corner of the screen but she could not see what he was doing. If she moved this dust collector it would be a dead give away. In the same frame was the door they were locked out of. He had put a metal bar through the wheel handle. Next to the door was a plastic tube about a metre long. Victoria got an idea. She switched back to the first dust collector. She drove it over to the isotope power supply and jammed one of the forklift tangs onto the connectors to short them out. The screen turned to snow. That was the end of that unit.

Flipping quickly back to the dust collector on the workbench she could see Brian was really pissed off. He stormed outside to see what had gone wrong. Victoria did not have much time. While Brian was distracted out side she drove the dust collector off the workbench onto a box and then onto the ground. It survived the fall.

She drove it up to the plastic tube. She widened the forklift tangs and drove right up until they were on either side of the tube. She squeezed them together enough to get a tentative grip on it and pull its base a little way from the wall. This presented the dust collector with a slight gap between the bottom of the tube and the floor. She lowered the tangs and narrowed them to the width of the tube. With great care now she drove the tangs under the tube until it was vertical and balanced on the tangs.

Now at the slowest speed possible she drove the teetering tube over to the door they needed to enter. She had to tilt the camera straight up to see where the top of the tube was in relation to the door handle. She only had one go at this. She placed the tube under the metal bar that was through the spokes of the door handle and lifted it.

Keith pressed his ear against the metal door. He heard the metal bar slip out and hit the floor. He immediately opened the door only to be confronted by Brian, who grabbed him with both hands and pulled him inside.

Anna was completely startled when Max and Stewart burst in on her fully suited. She knew the control technique they were using on her was called the Callan Park Walk. This was a way two people could effectively move one person along with very little discussion.

They each had a firm grip on her wrists. The other hands were in her armpits where they also had a firm grip of the upper part of her arm. They carried just enough of her weight to keep her on her toes. In this way the three of them walked whether Anna wanted to or knew why.

Anna started to panic when she was steered toward the airlock. She started to scream when Stewart opened the door. Then Max picked up the chainsaw. They stuffed Anna in the airlock and sealed it. Stewart had to keep a firm grip on the handle to fight against Anna's desperate attempts to force it open. Max started cutting the airlock out of the wall. A jet of ice blasted out of the hole as the chainsaw broke through to the outside.

They felt the whole ice lake shudder. Down in the lava tube an iceberg-sized lump of ice broke away and slid down into the dark depths.

Victoria grabbed something heavy and blunt as she dove through the door after the two men.

Brian had a nail gun pressed against Keith's head. Not a wimpy pneumatic staple gun but a nail gun. These things took a twenty-two cartridge. Victoria had seen them used to nail five-millimetre steel plate to concrete. It had a shoe on the muzzle with a safety mechanism in it.
Brian smiled at Victoria and said, "There's a fine line between a tool and a weapon, Vicky."
"Don't call me Vicky."
He could see Victoria was wild enough to do something rash. He pressed the nail gun harder against Keith's head till he felt the safety click off.
"We just crossed that line."

Victoria dumped her weapon. Brian put them both in the next room and closed the door. He secured the handle and taped it up so it would not slip.

All Anna could see out of the little window in the airlock door was the sky. Max and Stewart were moving as fast as they could across the surface carrying the airlock between them. They took cover in a gully and dumped the airlock down with a thud. Stewart's face appeared in the porthole. He mouthed "Sorry" and "Relax. Everything's going to be okay."

He held up an oxygen bottle and tapped it against the airlock. Anna heard it being snapped onto the intake and then the hiss of fresh oxygen.

The airlock was then turned around to face the ice lake. She peeped out to see massive parts of the ice-lake break up and slide back into the lava tube. The air pressure blew the wheat crop and all their goods and chattels out the door like a giant sneeze from a whale with really bad phlegm.
 

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Copyright Peter Rasmussen 2001