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Part I: The Fifth Day
"Sometimes I fancied it must be the devil, and reason joined in with me upon this supposition, for how should any other thing in human shape come into the place? Where was the vessel that brought them? What marks were there of any other footstep? And how was it possible a man should come there?"
-Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
Monday, March 16, 2015, 3:45 p.m., Mars Local Time
Water. Valkerie Jansen forced one foot in front of the other, a weary survivor on a death march across a dry and barren planet. Water. Valkerie's soul cried out for it. A patch of frost. A dark stain in the dust. Subterranean ice ...
Dry dust coated her visor—red streaks across a blur of powder-white scuffs. The grit was everywhere. Valkerie could taste it, acrid and dry in the filtered air she breathed. She could feel it grinding in the joints of her EVA * suit, eating deeper and deeper into the fragile seals that stood between her and death.
She plodded to the edge of a deep canyon and scanned the rocky walls below. Heavily shadowed grooves started at a point a hundred meters below her and snaked their way down the rocky walls, dividing into smaller and smaller subbranches. Weeping fissures. They looked so promising, so much like erosion gullies back on Earth. But where was the water? She and Lex had searched hundreds of fissures, but they were all dry. Dry as ... the rest of Mars.
"Okay, Lex. Here's another one." Valkerie bit into the butterfly valve of her water bag and took a reluctant swallow of sweat-sock-flavored water.
"How's it look?" Geologist Alexis Ohta's voice crackled over the comm speakers.
"Good enough. Pull the rover all the way up." Valkerie pointed to a line two meters back from the four-hundred-meter drop-off. The six-ton rover inched forward, climbing over rocks and small boulders like a monster truck at a redneck fair. Only in this case the rover was more of a monster minivan—with a laboratory, airlock, and bunks to sleep four. "Okay, that's good." Valkerie waved at the rover's gold-tinted windshield.
The rover shuddered to a halt and sank down on its hydraulic suspension. "I've got this one." Lex's voice sounded in Valkerie's helmet, followed by bumpings and thumpings as she made her way to the back of the rover. "Out in a second."
Valkerie flipped open an external storage hatch and pulled out a tool bag. The puttering of the compressor motors faded to nothing as Lex evacuated the airlock. Nine months on Mars and already the pump valves were wheezing. She'd have to mention that to Bob—
No. Valkerie took a deep breath. She could look at them herself. Bob had enough to worry about right now. The last thing he needed was more whining from her. She'd caused him enough pain already.
A gloved hand clasped Valkerie's shoulder. "You okay?"
Valkerie rocked back and forth in a slow nod. "Want the MoleBot?"
Lex shrugged. "Let's get it out, just in case."
The two women hoisted the badgerlike digging robot from its bin and eased it to the ground. On Earth, it weighed almost sixty pounds. Here on Mars, barely twenty. Lex strapped the winch controller to her wrist while Valkerie attached the cable to Lex's rappelling harness.
"Okay, go." Lex backed toward the drop-off, pulling the line from the rover's winch taut.
Valkerie flipped a switch and watched Lex disappear backward over the edge. She stayed by the winch controls, not bothering to watch Lex's progress. She would call if she needed anything.
Valkerie shifted her weight from one leg to the other and, using the mirror on her wrist, checked the gauge on her chest. One more hour and they'd call it a day. Then home for an obligatory evening of awkwardness and the whole thing would start back over again. Two hundred and ninety-six days to go. How was she ever going to make it? Bob was so ...
She stomped her foot to shake out a cramp. Didn't he know what he was doing to her? They were astronauts. They had a job to do. The whole world was watching. NASA hadn't paid fifty billion dollars so she could ... so she could let her guard down. What a—
"Val!" Lex's frantic voice blared in Valkerie's helmet.
Startled, Valkerie peered over the edge. "What's wrong? Hit another patch of—"
"Send down the mole! And a bigger pick!"
"What? Did you find something?" Valkerie squinted at her friend. "What is it? More sedimentary rock?"
"Salt deposits. I can't believe it! In a depression. This is ... I mean, it's a ledge, really. Not very big, but it's ... Val, I need the brush set and—"
"A depression?" Valkerie's heart slammed into overdrive. "At the top of the fissure?"
"It only goes back a couple of feet, but it's crusted with salt deposits and—Val, we don't have much time. Send down the tools."
Valkerie scrambled to the side of the rover and pulled out the remote control for the mole. She strapped it to her arm with trembling fingers and worked the miniature joysticks to guide the small robot to the edge of the canyon. A torch, a brush set, more sample bags ... She buckled them to her tool belt and attached lines to her harness ring and the mole. Guiding the robot over the edge, she hit the remote winch controls and followed it down.
"Val, what are you doing? You're supposed to stay with the rover. If Bob finds out—"
"Bob's not here." Valkerie maneuvered the mole alongside Lex and toggled off its winch control. She let herself continue down a few feet farther and stopped her descent. Lex moved aside to let Valkerie see. A small basaltic overhang overshadowed a scree-filled depression in the canyon wall. Thick, powdery deposits caked the rocks that filled the shallow groove. Layer upon layer of tan-and-rust-smeared white.
"Did you touch it?" Valkerie searched the deposits for evidence that they had been disturbed.
"I don't think so. Does it matter?"
"Probably not." Valkerie pulled the torch off her belt and heated a platinum scoop in its flame until its edges glowed a dull red. She waved it in the thin Martian atmosphere, waiting impatiently for it to cool.
Valkerie extended her arm to Lex. "Get the mole ready. We're running out of time."
"What channel is it on?" Lex unfastened the robot controller from Valkerie's arm and transferred it to her own.
"Three." Valkerie scooped up a sample of crust and slid it into a collection bottle, then snapped the pen cap off the back of the scoop handle and labeled the bottle. There wouldn't be anything alive out in the open, exposed to all the peroxide dust and UV radiation, but maybe back behind the loose rubble ... She worked her way back under the overhanging rock, collecting and labeling samples as she went.
"Ready to start digging?" Lex's voice sounded tense, eager.
"How much time?" Valkerie took the offered pick and started digging back into the loose gravel.
"Thirty-five minutes ... to zero ..."
And thirty minutes of reserve beyond that. Valkerie completed Lex's thought and swung the pick harder, pulling out the loose debris with her left hand. She scooped a sample into a vial and kept on digging. If there was anything interesting it would be deeper inside.
"We'll have to wait until tomorrow. There's not enough time." Lex's voice hung with an unspoken question.
Valkerie dug furiously through the rubble with her shovel. "We'll use the mole. We've got to get behind this regolith." She swung around on her tether and pulled the dangling robot toward the ledge. "More line."
Lex lowered the robot and helped Valkerie detach the winch line and position it on the edge. "Okay, stand clear." Lex flipped a switch on the remote control panel, and the robot churned forward, biting into the mound of loose gravel, pushing the debris backward between its heavy metal treads. Valkerie inched along after the robot, scooping out the rocks that mounded in its wake.
"It's going to take forever to—"
The robot surged forward and disappeared.
"Turn it off! Turn it off!" Valkerie yelled into her mike while Lex whooped in triumph. A cavity. It had to be. The MoleBot had broken through to some kind of cave. She aimed her light into the gloom. The walls and floor of the small tunnel were crusted with glittering white. She couldn't even see the back. "We've got to go in now while it's fresh. Help me dig out the opening. I've got to sterilize." Valkerie backed out and torched her pick and scoop while Lex dug furiously to enlarge the opening.
Valkerie looked at her watch. Eighteen minutes to zero. Forty-eight with their reserves. They didn't have much time. "That's enough. I've got to go in."
Lex raked aside two more scoops of scree and moved aside. "Val... ?"
"Okay, give me some line." Valkerie stretched out and wormed her way into the constricting tunnel, holding her flashlight and collection kit out in front of her. She took two quick scrapings and wriggled on her belly, working her backpack through the narrow passage.
When she came to the mole, she pushed it aside and pointed her flashlight down the dark vent. She sucked in her breath. Something had moved at the end of the tunnel. Something big.
"Val, what's wrong?"
Valkerie probed the darkness, training the trembling beam of light on the point where the passage curved out of view. Nothing. She held her breath, afraid to blink. What had she seen? A rolling rock? She raised the flashlight, and a dark shadow leaped down from a protruding rock.
"Val, are you okay? What's happening?"
"Sorry, I'm okay. Got spooked by a shadow, that's all." Valkerie forced a laugh.
"Well, you'd better hurry. We're running out of time. Fifteen minutes to reserves."
"Okay. Copy." Valkerie pushed the mole ahead of her and wormed her way forward. The best samples would be deeper. She swept the walls with her light, but her eyes kept darting back to the end of the vent. Then she saw it—milky pink striations on an outcropping of white, just beyond the overhanging rock. She tried to duck beneath the jagged protrusion, but her helmet was too big.
"Thirteen minutes, Val!"
"I found something. Just a little bit farther." Valkerie reached out, stretching as far as she could reach with her pick. Too far. She tried to back up and a surge of electric panic shot down her spine. Stuck! She pushed harder. Harder. "Lex!"
"Val, what's wrong?"
The alarm in Lex's voice shamed Valkerie to stillness. She squeezed her eyes tight and forced herself to take a deep breath. Then, undulating gently from side to side, she inched her way backward. Just enough to let her get a good shot at the stony spike that barred her way.
"Talk to me, Val. I want to hear you talking right now."
"It's okay now. I'm fine." Valkerie swung at the protrusion. Her pick only struck a glancing blow, but the rock seemed to move. Maybe it was loose. She swung again, this time higher up, where it disappeared into the ceiling. The pick embedded itself into soft dirt. She pried her fingers into the scar and pulled on the rock with all her might. It swung down reluctantly with a drizzle of dirt and sand.
Then, with a shudder, a shower of gravel pelted her body, pinning her to the ground.
She was trapped.
*Extra-Vehicular Activity Suit--NASA's term for a space suit