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By James E. Davis
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2009 James E. Davis, M.D.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNOVEMBER 10, 2049
The wind picked up and dust obscured the Martian landscape. Brad Hoolihan and Jeremy Peterson were bouncing along the rocky terrain in their Martian Rover, weaving between giant boulders, which cast giant shadows when not obscured by the red dust. Even after thirteen years of continuous presence on Mars, life was a constant struggle with the environment. The temperature was frigid, light somewhat dim, and the wind played havoc with electronics, especially antennas. The fine Martian dust could travel in excess of 450 knots in a dust storm and become electrically charged and then attach to communication antennas with resultant static disrupting communications and navigation.
Brad and Jeremy bounced along in the Martian Rover on this blustery day searching for a new sight for a VOR, a navigation station used for direction finding on Mars. The very high frequency omnidirectional range (VOR) was once used on Earth for pilot navigation before GPS. Satellites had not yet been placed in Martian orbit for GPS so the twenty-three astronauts on Mars depended upon the VOR to keep them from getting lost when away from the station. The VOR tended to become inoperable in winds above 150 knots. Therefore, a new site was needed for the station. The site for the Mars Station was based on geography. Climateconsiderations were secondary. Now that was changing. The Rover measured the wind speed and direction in sites surrounding the base.
Brad drove too fast for the conditions. His helmet bounced against the roof of the Rover as he went over a Martian pothole. He glanced over at Jeremy whose helmet was fogging up. The station commander had a scowl on his face. Brad reached across the dash for Jeremy's climate control knob. Jeremy brushed his hand away.
"Drive the Rover and stop messing with my climate control," Jeremy barked.
"You're fogging up, Boss."
"And you're in a field of boulders and should be watching where you're going instead of watching me sweat over your driving."
"The wind is kicking up so much dust, I can't see those boulders until I'm right on them," Brad said. "I'm slowing down."
"We need to head back," Jeremy said. "I hope this isn't the start of a dust storm. Let's get out of here while we still can."
"I'm with you, Captain." Brad made a wide U-turn and slowed the Martian rover a little. "Hey, this wind has completely eliminated our tire tracks. I can't see where we've been."
"Take it slow and easy. We've got ten kilometers to get home. We'll be fine as long as we don't hit anything. Turn right!"
Brad turned hard right, fishtailing the Rover. "That was close," he said. "I didn't see that rock. Okay, I'm slowing down."
The rover meandered across the mostly flat landscape at 10-15 kilometers per hour. Darkness obscured the landscape, not because the sun was setting but because the dust had risen high enough to block out the sunlight. The wind sounded like static on TV against their helmets in the open vehicle. Red dust covered the solar roof panels so the vehicle's only source of power was the hydrogen and oxygen fuel cells.
"I can't believe this wind," Brad said. "Have you ever been out in one of these, Captain?"
"I've been up here for two years and fortunately haven't been out in a storm. We watched one from base soon after I arrived. It lasted for a week. Wind got up to 500 kilometers per hour. If we keep calm and proceed cautiously, we'll get through this. The VOR is still working and will guide us in."
"Visibility is down to ten meters," Brad said. "I'm slowing to a crawl and I still can't see through this shit. What should we do?"
"First, you stop driving like a maniac! Your idea of slow is still a wild ride at Disneyland. You just have to weave around the rocks at five or six kilometers per hour. The VOR indicates a heading of 240 degrees to base. It may take a couple of hours to get back, but we'll make it."
The rover hit something hard and stopped with a screech from the floor. "What did we hit?" Brad asked.
"I didn't see anything. I'll get out and look," Jeremy said.
Jeremy pushed open the rover's door and crawled out. He crouched down and walked to the front of the vehicle. Nothing was there. He got down on his hands and knees and looked under the rover. A boulder had high centered the vehicle under the front differential. Jeremy walked around to the back and found nothing more in the way. He pulled open the passenger door and climbed in.
"You're high centered on a rock under the front differential. Lock the differentials, put it in low range and back us out of here."
"Roger that, Boss." Brad spun the wheels. The rover did not move. He tried again. No luck.
"Try rocking it back and forth," Jeremy said.
The rover did not budge.
"Shit!" Brad yelled banging his fist on the horn. "We're screwed!"
Jeremy was on the radio to base. "Base, this is Jeremy. We are 8.8 kilometers northeast of you. The rover is high centered on a rock and cannot be freed. What's the weather look like?"
"Jeremy, this is Barbara Ann. We're looking at a big dust storm. Wind has been rising steadily and is at 350 knots. It's going to get worse. Standby five."
"Any ideas, Captain?" Brad said.
"We're going to sit tight and develop a plan. We've got three hours of oxygen in our personal tanks and we have another four hours each in the spare tank in the back. If we have to we can fill our personal tanks and walk back to base."
"Do you think we can find it in this shit?"
"I really don't know, Brad. I need to think."
The anemometer mounted on the roof of the rover indicated gusts of 400 knots with wind speed falling to 250 knots every 15-20 seconds. When the wind speed fell, visibility improved. The wind was not a problem to walk in because the air was too thin to have much force. Dust was collecting on the windshield of the rover and adhered firmly due to electrostatic charge.
Jeremy got into the back end of the rover and pulled a battery pack from the emergency kit. The VOR receiver was an add-on. He removed the mount from the dash and the power cord from the plug on the dash. He plugged it into the battery pack and saw that it still worked. He grabbed a flare from the emergency kit along with a roll of duct tape, a flashlight, and a fanny pack to put it all in. "This is a real Murphy Test," he thought. He tried to think of what more could go wrong. It would get dark before they could get back to base. It would be impossible to see the VOR receiver without the flashlight. Would the batteries hold out? Would the dust storm get worse? What would he do then? How could base help? This was all new territory and not covered in the manuals. The NASA manual for this situation just said, stay inside and do not go out in dust storms.
"Jeremy, this is Barbara Ann. You are going to have to come in on foot. You can take the VOR receiver from the rover and when you get close, you will see our beacon. Do you copy?"
"Roger, base. We copy. We'll walk to base."
"This whole thing sucks," Brad said. "They could have at least sent the other rover out here to get us."
"And get stuck just like we did. We're on our own. No one's coming out in this soup to rescue us. It's survival school all over again."
"Let's top-off the oxygen tanks and get going then," Brad said. "It'll be dark in an hour."
There was a flurry of activity as Brad and Jeremy struggled to connect hoses and fill tanks amid the swirl of red dust and poor visibility. Jeremy held the VOR receiver in front of him and adjusted his position to align the needle with his target, the base 8.8 kilometers straight ahead, as displayed on the data screen.
"Let's wait for the wind to die down, then hustle to make headway until the next gust drops the visibility and then wait again for it to improve," Jeremy said.
After twenty minutes the VOR indicated they had traveled one kilometer. "Another two and one half hours at this rate," Jeremy thought. But things were getting worse. The wind was blowing more steadily now. Visibility was not improving much when the wind gusts passed. Brad and Jeremy started tripping over rocks, mostly smaller ones, but occasionally larger ones that did not budge and threatened to make them tumble. The second kilometer took thirty minutes.
"I can't see shit!" Brad bellowed as he tripped and Jeremy grabbed his arm to keep him upright.
"Hold up," Jeremy said. He pulled a hand towel from his fanny pack and started wiping Brad's helmet faceplate.
"That's a lot better. Thanks."
Jeremy handed the cloth to Brad to get his faceplate cleaned. The dust came off in streaks but did not shake off the rag so by the time Brad was done; he was just moving the dust around. There was no way to get it off the towel.
"You got any more of these?" Brad asked.
"That's the only one. It will have to do. Let's stay a little closer together.
"Sure, Captain." Brad tripped over an immobile rock and caught himself with a few quick steps. "Shit!"
"Easy now. We've got six kilometers to go."
Without realizing it, Brad and Jeremy fell into a slow walk that did not stop for wind gusts but kept going, inching along at a slowing pace. Visibility was down to about ten meters. They had to go around a rock wall and did so holding on to the rock face. The ground was strewn with more rocks, all of them large.
"You know what I'm going to do when I get home?" Brad asked. "I'm going to take Tiffany up to Lake Tahoe and ask her to marry me. We've been going together for seven years. I haven't seen her in two years and it will be another year before I get back. God, I hope she'll wait for me. I think I'm finally ready for marriage, maybe -"
Jeremy was holding the VOR with both hands and turning a little to line up on the base. He did not see the boulder and crashed into it, going down headfirst. The half-meter diameter rock upended his feet and Jeremy dropped the VOR receiver as he tumbled over the rock. He broke his fall with his hands but was slow in getting up. He reached his hands and knees, then collapsed back down, helmet hitting the ground hard. Jeremy groaned and became silent. Brad rolled him over to see what was wrong. He took the towel from Jeremy's fanny pack and wiped it over Jeremy's faceplate. It was not cracked. He ran the towel over Jeremy's arms and found a tiny rip in the right glove. He reached into the fanny pack and removed a patch and applied it to the rip. He reinforced this with duct tape. He took the towel to the other arm and glove and found no more tears. He did the same with the knees. Everything looked good.
"Captain, Captain!" Brad shook Jeremy's shoulder. He lay unconscious. "Shit!" Brad looked around for the VOR. It was nowhere to be found. He rolled Jeremy over and found the instrument minus the faceplate under Jeremy. The display was blank. He banged it on his palm. It was dead. Brad could not tell if Jeremy was breathing. "He depressurized his suit but only for a minute," he thought.
"Base, this is Brad."
"Go ahead, Brad," Barbara Ann said.
"We have a problem. Jeremy fell and developed a small tear in his glove. I patched it. Jeremy's still unconscious. It's been five minutes now. I can't tell if he's still breathing."
"One minute, Brad, while I get Doc Parker."
"Brad, this is Bonnie Parker. How is he?"
"He's breathing. I can see his breath inside his helmet. He's still unconscious. Wait. He moved his arm and groaned. I think he's coming around."
"Make sure he doesn't have any more tears in his suit."
"I did. The suit is fine. He's moving his arms and legs but he's not fully conscious."
"Is he seizing?"
"No. I don't think so. It's more like he's having a nightmare."
"Brad, Jeremy may be having decompression sickness, the bends. He may have bubbles in his blood and he could have a stroke or worse. There is nothing you can do to help him there. You need to get him back to base. What's your location?
"That's a problem. The VOR receiver's broken. I think we're about five kilometers out. I think it would be a good idea if you sent a vehicle to pick us up."
Brad shook Jeremy and got a moan. He got to his feet and pulled Jeremy up into a fireman's carry. He could just barely do it. Brad was average height and weight whereas Jeremy was nearly two meters tall and ten kilograms heavier. Despite the reduced gravity of Mars, Jeremy was a really heavy load. He took a couple of steps and then lowered Jeremy to the ground. "Shit!"
"Brad, this is Barbara Ann. We have zero visibility. Sending a vehicle to you is not an option. Can you see our beacon?"
Brad stood up and realized he wasn't sure of what direction the base was. He looked out in the direction he thought the base was located and saw only darkness. He slowly turned 360 degrees and saw nothing. He was still breathing hard.
"I don't see it." Brad strained to see into the blackness. Dust was no longer discernible because darkness was now complete. He turned around and around. He bent down to check Jeremy and found the flashlight on the ground beside him. It was off but he flicked it on and could see his partner was still moving about in a stupor. He aligned his gaze with the direction Jeremy's body was heading. He looked into the blackness for about a minute.
"Brad, are you still there? Do you see the light?"
"I can't see anything. Wait! I think I see the light. Now it's gone. There it is again. It's very dim and comes and goes as the dust clears momentarily. I don't know if I'll be able to see the light much more because the wind's getting worse and the dust has really picked up a lot."
"You can make it, Brad. Just get going."
"For the record, I want you to know I think this is bull shit! I can't see shit. Jeremy is at death's door. We have three hours of oxygen left. Are you telling me you're leaving us out here to die? What happened to no man left behind?"
"I'm sorry, Brad. It's not my call. Listen, you need to leave Jeremy and save yourself. There's nothing more you can do for him. Find that light and get moving."
Brad stood up and looked for the light. Nothing. After about 3 minutes he saw a flicker and then nothing. He sat down beside Jeremy who was making more purposeful movements but did not open his eyes.
"What a shitty mess I got us into!" Brad yelled. "I got you into this mess, Captain, and I sure as hell am not going to abandon you now."
Brad hefted Jeremy over his shoulder and started moving in the direction he saw the light. After a minute he wondered if he was still heading in the right direction. He rose up for a moment and faintly saw another flicker of light. He kept going. He tripped and recovered and went on a little farther. Finally he put Jeremy back down. He stood up and stretched his back, gasping for breath. He wondered if his oxygen would hold out three hours at this rate. He heard the rush of thin air against his helmet. He saw another flicker of light in the distance and marked its position in his mind. Wanting to rest but knowing he could not, Brad began again, carrying Jeremy across his shoulder.
Brad ached all over and was gasping for breath. He thought if he could carry Jeremy 100 meters at a time, he would have 50 rest stops before reaching base. If each rest was one minute and each carry was one minute, he could make it, but just barely. He had no visibility and could barely see the beacon. He would trip and fall but he had to keep going.
"Brad, this is Barbara Ann. How're you doing?"
"I'm still alive, if that's what you want to know. I'm moving, but I'm a little short of breath and talking and walking is a little more than I can do right now, so let's keep this short. What do you have for me?"
"We estimate you have two hours oxygen left. We are all praying for you. Please make it home."
"Yeah, right. I've got an idea. How about you guys have a poll and bet on how far I get before I'm dead out here. I don't have time to talk, so I think I will sign off for now."
Excerpted from 2049 by James E. Davis Copyright © 2009 by James E. Davis, M.D.. Excerpted by permission.
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