Ocean of Storms: A Timeline of A Scientific America

Oh Powell... this kind of thing will get out and when it does, expect a shitshow.
How? This was specifically made up to NEVER appear. There are no orders for ops.... When anyone verifies digital and physical documents they will be finding "observation duties", "replacement of equipment" and other boring shit. You can't leak what doesn't existed in any express form.

The NSA will probably suffer several issues with the backup of several months of recordings and other data , having to replacing the whole HDD backups, with the protocol for replaced HDD from these locations ending straight on a smelter.

Moreover, certainly "Someone" will kick-start a chain of rumours about CIA Assassins being unleashed. What on most sites will be hoaxes and crap. It will probably make the crazies go nuts, and on several occasions cause captures of maniacs linked to the shootings and the Capitol strike.

I can imagine even Powell publicly or on a chat with press half joking that he WISHED to be the Russian President to be capable of do that, but to his annoyance, he had to follow the laws of the nation.
How? This was specifically made up to NEVER appear. There are no orders for ops.... When anyone verifies digital and physical documents they will be finding "observation duties", "replacement of equipment" and other boring shit. You can't leak what doesn't existed in any express form.

The NSA will probably suffer several issues with the backup of several months of recordings and other data , having to replacing the whole HDD backups, with the protocol for replaced HDD from these locations ending straight on a smelter.

Moreover, certainly "Someone" will kick-start a chain of rumours about CIA Assassins being unleashed. What on most sites will be hoaxes and crap. It will probably make the crazies go nuts, and on several occasions cause captures of maniacs linked to the shootings and the Capitol strike.

I can imagine even Powell publicly or on a chat with press half joking that he WISHED to be the Russian President to be capable of do that, but to his annoyance, he had to follow the laws of the nation.
The fact Powell humored the idea is the problem. The United States government is not supposed act this way domestically. We're supposed to be better than the terrorists. This action throws an affront to the Constitution of the United States, especially the Due Process Clause of the 5th and 14th Amendments.
And this kind of program always fucks up somehow.

Also there is no promise the IC will tell the next president. No orders, how would you feel if the guy before you had a program that he and a handful of people knew of and no one in congress knew of? If there is no paperwork, Congress is out of the loop. Also there is no promise this program will end with the Powell Presidency. If the next guy is a Democrat they may leave him out of the loop, could be the same for another Republican. And what happens if that guy is known to be against such covert actions that are flagrant violations of the law.

EDIT: And I will keep saying these two things, one of the assassins will talk and have evidence or more likely this program gets abused and used by the agencies involved to shut up domestic critics of the IC. Covert assassination domestically will only end in eventual political assassinations.
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EDIT: And I will keep saying these two things, one of the assassins will talk and have evidence or more likely this program gets abused and used by the agencies involved to shut up domestic critics of the IC. Covert assassination domestically will only end in eventual political assassinations.
In the end, it's the author's timeline, which has been really engrossing and brilliant. So really, it's a case of wait and see where the author takes us.

As an aside, the rest of the world has seen TTL's (and OTL's) US do some pretty shady things, so is it really a surprise the US Government will do this against its enemies both 'domestic' as well as 'foreign'?
In the end, it's the author's timeline, which has been really engrossing and brilliant. So really, it's a case of wait and see where the author takes us.

As an aside, the rest of the world has seen TTL's (and OTL's) US do some pretty shady things, so is it really a surprise the US Government will do this against its enemies both 'domestic' as well as 'foreign'?
Personally I would rather focused on space.
Okay, here we go. For the 5th time, Ocean of Storms has been nominated for a Turtledove.

Here's where you can vote.

Lots of good candidates this year. If you haven't, be sure to give them all a read. This website is home to a lot of great content.

Thanks to everyone for participating!
Finally up to date with this. Wow. Definitely interesting that post-9/11 America is over correcting ITL, reflecting OTL. I suspect some readers (especially with the previous trend of TTL's America being a better place than in OTL) assume that Orion is trying to paint this as a good thing, but I don't think so. Particularly the explicit comparison to the Soviet Union, and the inclusion of personal stories (particularly Clancy's, with his son) seems to me to portray it as 'yes these guys are bad, but it's definitely government overreach. Not to mention that 9/11 took out the statue of Freedom (symbolism?)
I hope America doesn't go down this road, and instead gets out of the turn lane so to speak.
But enough about politics. As for the space stuff, I really like it! I'm really happy with the choice of an 18 month stay, and the discoveries so far are tantalizing. A phobos landing in particular is really interesting. I remember, at Space Camp, there was some simulated Mars mission (still constellation/Ares-V based, since this was ~2014 and they didn't have an updated roadmap yet.) and it involved a phobos base that was really cool. I'm excited to go back this summer, in Space Academy Level II, but that's besides the point.
One thing I noticed, are the Farsight probes a reference to The Martian? I think I recall them being mentioned in the book. Wouldn't be the first of them, hehe.
One thing I noticed, are the Farsight probes a reference to The Martian? I think I recall them being mentioned in the book. Wouldn't be the first of them, hehe.
I'll admit, I'm not 100% sure where that name developed. To the best of my recollection, I've used "Farsight" as a name for my probes when playing Kerbal Space Program and I've been playing KSP since long before I read The Martian.

Having said that, I've always thought it a splendid name for a probe. It's possible Andy Weir had the same idea (I'm tempted to ask him). If anyone can find a reference to it elsewhere, I'd be curious to discover the source.
Hi everyone,
I know this isn't alternate history, but I've thrown enough NASCAR references into OOS that, at the least, we can call this research.

I ran 10 laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway yesterday. You can watch the video here.
LVIII: Mars, Air, Fire, Water
Mars, Air, Fire, Water

Phobos 2.png

7 June 2002

Lander Hall

Phobos Transfer Orbit

Altitude: 5700 mi

Alexei had the gauges; Laura kept her eyes on the window.

The engineers had only given her a small triangle, much like the old Apollo crews had. She stared out eagerly, searching for any details she could make out.

The exterior cameras were getting everything of course, and she could easily glance at the feed that was streaming in on the central monitor, but she wanted to see it with her own eyes. Geologists were a visual lot. She wanted to feel the photons bounce off this rubble pile and go right into her cortex. It was a visceral sensation. No one had ever been this close before. If they failed, no one might ever be this close again.

Alexei tended to revert to Russian when he was concentrating. It was just as well. She was near useless when it came to rendezvous procedures. And that’s what this was. Schoolchildren and reporters would call it a landing, but when your target had a gravitational pull that was best described with the term “micro” it wasn’t going to be much of a landing. The plan wasn’t so much to touch down as much as it was to latch on to the surface.

You could escape Phobos’s gravity with a ramp and a go-kart. When they split the Hall in two in a few days, the resultant push from the pyros would do much of that work. After that, the engines would get them back to Orion without much strain.

For having only one shipmate, she and Alexei really hadn’t bonded on this little road trip. Twenty-four hours ago, they’d departed from the Orion-Buran rendezvous in this dual-hulled spacecraft. The lab module, not much more than a tin can with a tool chest and an air lock, had served as Laura’s private residence on the way out. She’d spent the flight unpacking the stowed equipment and checking the two space suits.

The module itself would be left behind when they broke away at the end of the mission. There was no use in hauling everything back to Buran. And someday, there was a vague hope, the lab itself might serve some purpose if another Phobos mission was called for.

Alexei had stayed in the command module, sleeping in his chair so as never to be more than a meter away from the rendezvous radar. She felt it was overly cautious of him. The computers had plotted this trajectory months in advance, with further guidance from Orion’s radar readings taken as the big, lumbering cruiser had come in last week.

With the radar now indicating they were less than 20km out (a benefit of being away from the Americans was the use of metric for all ship’s systems), she had joined her crewmate on the flight deck, all the better to get a look at the biggest rock she’d ever lay claim to.

Her Russian was mostly conversational, and she hadn’t had much call to practice it thus far. It had been a lovely, uneventful half-year crossing the void. She stole a look at Alexei, the wisps of grey hair making inroads from his temples. When she turned back to the window and the cold surface of Phobos it made her wish that she’d studied up a few more Russian translations for words like “excitement” and “beautiful”.

The monolith wasn’t visible at this angle. She knew it wouldn’t be. Their trajectory had been plotted out long ago. She wouldn’t see the building-sized boulder until she opened the lab hatch tomorrow.

At five kilometers out, Alexei seemed to acknowledge the need for her input as he switched over to English. His accent, like their target, was gravelly and rough, but she took it as a kindness that he chose to do such critical work in a language she was more comfortable with.

“Laura, could you run diagnostics on the piton guns, please?” he said, nodding to the panel by her left hand.

Silently she pulled up the schematics and all systems shown green. “No issues. A, B, and C ready to fire on your command.”

“All good. Closure rate is coming past five meters per second and accelerating… slowly,” he gave a small grin. “We’ll fire the pitons at one hundred meters out. So nice not to have Star City chattering away all the time.”

“We’re still here with your telemetry data if you need it, Alexei,” came the voice of Jensen over the radio. Orion might be far away, but the radio link meant that they were in close communication the whole way.

She smirked, thinking that Alexei might have preferred to not have the reminder. He seemed to enjoy the deep isolation of space travel. She pulled a plastic-wrapped string cheese from the storage box and pushed it towards him. It tumbled through the air, and he snagged it with a thankful smile.

“Should be fine from here. Tell them what you see,” Alexei said. He keyed a switch that moved her microphone to VOX.

She pressed her face to the window and began to talk about anything that caught her attention. Pockmarks, boulders, craters, ridges. Anything was a potential new discovery. Every vista that she could see was an undiscovered country.

It hadn’t been all that long ago that serious people thought Phobos might be some sort of long-abandoned Martian space station. Before probes had put the theory to rest, the idea that Phobos’s light gravity might indicate a hollow core, perhaps with artifacts of long-dead Martians aboard, was a perfectly valid hypothesis. Mariner and Farsight had put those theories to rest decades ago, but, staring at the surface now, she was more and more convinced that this wasn’t so much a rock as it was a pile of pebbles.

They would have a good test of that theory in about ten minutes. They’d have proof by tomorrow.

“Arresting relative motion now,” Alexei said. She felt a small jolt from the engine bringing their closing velocity to zero.

Orion, Hall. We are in hover at one hundred meters. Preparing to fire the pitons.”

“Roger, Hall. Confirm your abort safeties are off before firing sequence commences, over.”

“Confirmed, Orion. Safeties off. Engines are functioning and we are at one-percent throttle.”

“Proceed with caution, over,” came Jensen’s voice again.

Alexei snorted and pulled his microphone away, “If we were the type to proceed with caution, this would have been a robotic probe.”

Laura smiled and nodded. “Ready to go?”

“If you would do the honors, comrade Winters,” Alexei said, indicating the firing station.

Laura felt a certain pride in being the one to hit the big red button. The trio of jolts from the exterior guns came at the same instant.

“Pitons fired,” she said. Before she could come up with something pithy to say there was a flash of black dust that spread from the top-left corner of the camera feed. A moment later, more filled the screen from the top-right and bottom-center.

“Impact!,” Alexei said. The spherical clouds of dust blossomed from the surface and began to disperse in a thinning haze.

“Okay, we’ve got dust pellets incoming,” she said.

“As expected. The shield will hold,” Alexei said.

His faith in Russian engineering notwithstanding, she flinched as the tic-tic-tic of dust particles hitting the forward section of the lab module reverberated through the spacecraft. None of the particles were large enough or fast enough for the rendezvous radar to identify them as a problem, but it was disconcerting nonetheless to know your spacecraft’s thin outer hull was being pelted with rocks.

In a moment, the danger had passed. No red lights, no leaks. No catastrophe. All was calm aboard the spacecraft Asaph Hall.

“Activating winches,” Alexei said.

Trading the sound of pelting for the slow churning of electric motors, the quiet cockpit of the Hall was filled with a low drone. The pitons, having dug into the surface of Phobos, now needed to hold long enough to draw in the spacecraft slowly.

“Slackening on B. We might have to refire it.” Laura said, responding to the yellow light on the screen in front of her.

“I think it will hold,” Alexei said.

“Steady and slow,” Laura admonished.

“Da,” Alexei said. His slip into Russian told her that he might be more nervous than he let on.

“Twenty meters from the surface,” she said.

With a slight bump, the forward shield of the lab module came to rest on a semi-flat bit of rock and dust. The spray of pellets made lazy arcs in the light gravity and as the gentle dance of dirt and spacecraft came to a conclusion, Laura realized that, for all the tension in her mind and the cables, the system had worked more or less as expected.

Orion, Hall, we are down safe on the surface. Thanks for all the help. We’ll let you know what we find.”

7 June 2002

Lander Hall


Monolith Base Camp

Calling this a moon was a bit of a stretch. Phobos, she was almost sure, was just a captured asteroid that had perchanced to swing by Mars’s orbit at just the right time. An oblong potato-shaped rock, it lacked all the features you’d want in a proper moon. No bright round face to light up the evening sky. No ancient lava seas, cooled down to make a nice flat spot for a base. No tales of its beauty that gave rise to ancestral lore.

Additionally, to call this a walk was something of a misnomer. What she was about to do was more like a spacewalk than a surface excursion. For practical purposes, she planned to maintain a feet-down orientation, but she was prepared to improvise if the need arose.

To keep the time as she waited for the air to cycle, she held up her hammer at eye-level, released it, and watched the gradual motion that it took towards the floor. It took twenty seconds to fall.

Standing in the small, one-person airlock she stole a glance at the camera over her head. Alexei would monitor her first steps from the command module. He was her lifeline to the rest of humanity, and it was hard not to think of him as the voice of God.

“Ready for egress,” she said. Somewhere back on Earth, masses were waiting with bated breath. She really didn’t care about that. They’d be gone in a few days. There was work to be done.

“Clear to proceed,” Alexei said. She saw the light go from red to white and slid the hatch door open.

The surface had a rusty brown color, mottled with splotches of black and white in random places. In the distance, just off to the left, was her monolith.

A massive boulder, the size of a football pitch, stood a quarter mile away. The shadow cut a hard line across her field of vision. The stone had the general color of every other patch of ground she could see, but one of her objectives was to discover if it was always here, or a piece of rock that had settled in this place after the general area was formed. She would take samples soon and begin the search for answers.

“You seeing me on the tele now, Alexei?” Laura asked.

“Da, take your step. Good to go,” Alexei responded.

Lifting a booted foot over the threshold, she planted it in the surface and snapped a photograph for posterity’s sake. She lifted her foot, saw a crisp print left in the surface, complete with the Union Jack that she’d asked for when they’d customized her spacesuit. Another photo to preserve the image and show the half-inch or so that the surface had given when she’d stepped out.

She smiled and bent down, careful to make slow movements in the dirt. Two feet and a knee on the ground, she brushed the dust with her fingertips, took a pinch of it and held it to the light.

There was time for geology aplenty, but she felt a bit of whimsy at this culmination of a life of rocks and rockets.

Back in Kensington, everyone she’d known as a girl leaned in close to see what she’d say.

Laura Winters deposited the first sample of Phobos into a plastic bag, sealed it up and stood. She looked around at the dusty deposits that surrounded her ship.

“Reminds me a bit of cinnamon. Maybe we thaw some out and have a go at a proper cuppa.”

8 June 2002

Lander Hall


Monolith Base Camp

It was easy to think of the monolith as something alien. It was an imposing presence, vaulting up from the ground, presenting a sharp angle and a flat surface. It would have seemed out of place almost anywhere.

She looked to her left and right, surveying the sharp line in the dust that marked the edge of the stone. “Orion, be advised. I’m going to climb up and see if I can spot any changes in detail.”

“Safety first, Laura,” Jensen said.

“Here goes nothing,” she said, springing up from her feet. A vertical leap that would have put Michael Jordan to shame. She flung herself off the surface and watched the striations of rock and stone sweep by her helmet as she rose. The shoulder-mounted camera would pick up everything as well as it could. She used her Cambridge-trained eye to look for anything noteworthy.

The cascade of layers in various earthtones was mesmerizing. She could see fissures and cracks in the surface. This monolith might be impressively odd, but it had no signs of artificiality. You could find rocks like this almost anywhere in the solar system. But, as she studied the face in front of her own, she was more and more convinced that the monolith was a visitor to this world, just like her. This rock hadn’t sprung up from the core of Phobos. It seemed to have arrived with a gentle touchdown… just as she had.

Sparing a glance at the summit, she gauged the safety of trying to land on it and take samples. Her knee-spring leap was only going to get her about halfway up, but it would be child’s play to land and take another jump that might reach even higher. Lacking that, she could arrest her motion with a hand or two at the apex of this current vault and haul herself up farther. This was only walking in an academic sense. She felt the freedom of motion that came from a spacewalk in low Earth orbit.

As her momentum paused, she reached out and gripped the rock in two spots, pausing and hovering there, with thirty meters of nothingness between her boots and the surface. Holding on with one hand, she withdrew a sample hammer from her belt and chiseled out a chunk of stone. Shards of rock brushed away and fell in agonizing slow motion to the surface far below. She watched, dazzled, as the slow physics led the pebbles through perfect kinematic arcs. This fun house of Newtonian motion would have been a lovely place to teach the principles of low-speed motion.

She twisted her new prize in the light and looked to see what she could glean from the outer surface. It certainly wasn’t the same stuff she found on the ground. The lack of dust was enough of an indication for that. She also saw some discolorations and a line that might be a vein of copper. It would certainly warrant more study. She would come back tomorrow and try to reach the summit. For now, she chipped off a few more samples, bagged them, and the released her grip for a featherlight descent.

She made the trudge back to Hall, kicking up dust with each step. It was unavoidable. She could look over her shoulder and see thinning domes of grime from each footstep she’d taken. Ahead of her, Alexei was bagging samples. She snapped a photo of him with the Hall as the background. It would make a great shot with the sun behind her shoulder.

She looked around to see if there were any unusual stones or regolith. Anything she would do well to pick up, examine, and collect. Truthfully, any of this was worth its weight in platinum.

Laura kicked the ground with her boot and watched the dust spray up in a wide arc between her and Alexei. It had the look of a blackened peacock plume, slowly collapsing outward.

She moved to help Alexei with some of the core samples he’d been gathering. The cosmonaut had been assigned the boring geology tasks while she’d gotten in a bit of rock climbing.

“Be advised, Orion. We are dirty. This is just dirt-dirty, at this point. Every step kicks up more dust. Alexei’s suit makes him look like he’s been dipped in a pile of soot. I’m betting mine looks similar,” Laura said.

“Confirm that, Orion,” Alexei said, taking a photograph of Laura from a few meters away.

Laura slung the bucket around gently and slid it into the airlock. She could see a thin layer of grime caked on the outer hull. It spread all the way up the side of the lab module. She brushed some off onto her gloved fingers.

“A loose pile of rubble that’s too stubborn to break apart and too isolated to become anything more,” Laura said.

“Sounds like my first marriage,” Charlie Hickory said over the radio.

Laura smirked. She hadn’t gotten much out of her roommate on the flight out, but clearly Charlie wasn’t the kind of woman who should have gotten married in the first place.

Hall, this is Orion. We are ready for you to begin closeout procedures on this EVA. You’re approaching your darkness limits. We want you to secure samples and prep for evening checklist tasks. Do you read, over?”

Laura replied for the both of them as she pushed a few more sample bags through the hatch, “Copy, Orion. We are preparing to close out. We’ll get cleaned, get dinner, and get some sleep and then be back at it in the morning.”

9 June 2002

Lander Hall


Monolith Base Camp

She woke to an angry hornet screaming in her ear. A red light illuminated the small, cramped cockpit and stirred her eyes with an intense demeanor.

As she returned to consciousness, she felt the one thing that an alarm was bound to evoke: fear.

Alexei came back to reality in more or less the same moment. She was glad to have his company as his side of the control panel had even more flashing lights and alerts than hers.

“What is happening?” she asked, eyes wide and reaching for the Master Alarm button. The angry hornet was silenced as she depressed the rounded square light.

Alexei was already into pilot mode and scanning the instruments. He rattled off some Russian that she didn’t catch and then said, “Lab module temperature has spiked. Over pressurization in the RCS lines. Oxygen sensors in the lab are offline. Internal pressure rising.”

“Oh, God,” Laura said as he analyzed this unfolding disaster.

“It’s a fire. Fire in the lab module,” Alexei said.

“Concur. Activate suppressors,” Laura said, reaching for the switch to her right.

“Nyet,” Alexei said with a commanding tone. “We’re already overpressured in the lab module. The CO2 purge will put us over the limit,” he said, pointing to a rising pressure gauge.

“We have to do something,” Laura said. She stole a glance down at the hatch that led into the lab module. There was no window to indicate the danger, but she could almost feel the heat rising from the cylinder below.

“We have to disengage,” Alexei said.

“We can’t leave!” Laura said.

“If the fire reaches the RCS lines, then we explode,” Alexei said.

“We’ve got samples down there!” Laura said.

“They’re lost,” Alexei said.

“Let’s try the CO2 purge,” Laura said. “If it blows the lab, we’re still sealed in here.”

“Too dangerous to our hull,” Alexei said.

“We can’t just abandon it to burn. If it holds, we can salvage what’s left. If it doesn’t, then it’ll crack along a seam and outgas.”

“Unless it fails at the hatch combing, then it’ll crack us like an egg!” Alexei said.

“It’s a calculated risk,” she said, reaching for the fire suppression button.

Alexei put a hand up between them, “Nyet! Too hot. We go!”

“Let me try,” she said, activating the button for the CO2 purge.

The rush of gases into the closed cylinder below them made a sinister hiss as it reverberated through the ship’s piping and plating.

With frozen breath they watched the gauges, keeping an eye on pressure and temperature together. Laura took a moment to steal a glance at the mission clock. Signal acquisition wasn’t for another twelve minutes. Until then, they were cut off from the rest of humanity, including their crewmates on Orion.

Alexei emitted a Russian curse and her attention snapped back. “Pressure is past the red line. RCS is reaching criticality. Temperature gauges below aren’t going down,” he sighed, trying to be gentle. “Laura… we have to go.”

She looked down at her feet, thinking of the fifty pounds of samples that were sitting in a bucket under her work bench. She spared a look at the box under her arm rest that held five rocks and eighteen vials of Phobos dust. It was a tragedy of immeasurable proportions to leave without every last rock they could haul. But it would be a bigger tragedy to never leave at all.

She nodded and wiped a tear out of her right eye.

“Launch,” she said.

Alexei began to activate the launch sequence. By the checklist, it took forty-eight seconds for the engine’s diagnostic checks to run. She spared a look out the window at the surface. She held up the digital camera and took a few final shots.

“Twenty seconds,” Alexei said.

Before she could ask him about the trajectory, there was a violent surge that threw her into the seat restraints.

“What was that?” she asked.

“Pressure drop. It failed. The lab cracked,” Alexei said.

The entire spacecraft lurched hard to the right. The outgassing from the lab module was leaking into space, acting as a massive, off-center thruster. The overpressure from the fire-seared gases and the excessive carbon dioxide was now on an eager mission to fill the void of the universe, one molecule at a time. The rush of kinetic energy on a fast-track out of the sealed can gave a hard shove to the lander in the opposite direction. The lurch turned into a twist.

“We’re tipping,” Alexei said.

“Blow it! Undock!” Laura said. Alexei reached for the switch, but Laura was faster. She pulled the latch down and a loud bang of explosive bolts fired a meter under their toes.

The twist became a slow tumble. Alexei took the controls and twisted to counter the motion. Hall’s engines ignited on their abort program and fired full for fifteen seconds. The motion carried them away from Phobos and easily through escape velocity.

Laura spared a look out the window and saw the remnants of the lab module below. One panel had blown out and twisted, curling into a truncated spiral as it had been blasted off its welded seams. She could see the vapors of cabin atmosphere rushing out into cold vacuum, crystals forming in their wake. The lab module kicked over onto its side and began to roll, like a barrel, for a few yards across the surface. The ragged edge dug into the dust, kicking up a small tsunami of black and brown particles. The spray engulfed her view of the lab module and she turned away.

“My God,” she said, appalled at the sudden and unfair loss of her samples and her mission. She turned to her crewmate, “Are we okay?”

Alexei frowned at the gauges and pulled up a schematic on the screen. Laura could see the computer chewing on a new orbital trajectory.

“The orbit… we launched at the wrong time,” Alexei said, more to himself than to Laura.

“We had to break away,” Laura said.

“We are on the wrong side of the planet. The rendezvous calculations were not designed for this separation at launch,” Alexei said.

“But we’re still in a similar orbit. Won’t we come around eventually to the right place?”

Alexei frowned and indicated the ellipse that marked their new orbit. The lowest edge skirted what the computer had marked as the upper Martian atmosphere.

Hall was not designed to fly in an atmosphere of any kind.

“I have to correct to raise our apogee,” Alexei said.

“Should we ask Earth for new numbers?” Laura said.

“Nyet. By the time we come around, we’ll be too low. I need to raise this now. Every second makes it harder,” Alexei said.

She nodded and let him work. Alexei input a few commands into the computer. She saw him consult a legal pad and scribble some calculations, then change the parameters on his program. A moment later the engines fired again. The cosmonaut frowned at the fuel gauge, but Laura saw that the ellipse now cleared the thick hazy circle that marked entry interface altitude.

“Are we okay?” she asked again.

“We won’t reenter. But we now lack the fuel to get back to Orion,” Alexei said. He looked very resignedly at the gauges in front of him.

A beat passed in silence. Laura looked out at the thin red crescent that marked the sunrise over Mars. Hall was slipping towards, it, getting ready to come back over the day side.

A few moments later, the radios crackled to life. Jake Jensen’s voice filled their ears, “Hall, this is Orion. Do you read? We’re seeing big changes from your telemetry since LOS. Can you confirm?”

She switched her headset mic to the mission channel and replied to the hail.

Orion, this is Hall. We have a serious problem.”

10 June 2002


Athena II

Flight Day 155

Jake ran a pen down the legal pad and looked at Charlie’s numbers again. He couldn’t find anything wrong with the figures. He sort of wished that he had. It would have been more comforting to discover a flaw, an error, something to correct.

Charlie had always been good with orbital mechanics. She was widely regarded as one of the best in the entire astronaut corps with navigation and trajectory calculations. If she hadn’t been an astronaut, she would have made an excellent computer. Her interpersonal skills were often a confirmation of that.

She was floating on the other side of the science module, eating peanut butter in a pita. She stared at him with the eyes of a professorial praying mantis.

“Cap, you’ve looked it over five times now. Are there parts of it you don’t understand?” she asked, chewing the last bite.

He sighed. When all your coworkers were geniuses, it was tough to tell the difference between confident and cocky. He really didn’t want to trust his entire life, legacy, mission, and crew to a blonde-haired savant from Nebraska, but such was the hand he’d been dealt.

“It’s not that I don’t trust you Charlie, but it’s such a big move,” he said.

“You wanted a solution. I gave you one. There’s no safe here. Look out the window,” she said, gesturing vaguely to Orion’s cockpit.

“Final margin of five percent?”

“More like three. You’re not gonna be able to play around on final descent.”

“We hit bingo before three hundred and that’s the end of…” he paused. Not quite sure whether his next words should be “the Athena program” or “NASA.” Either would have been a reasonable statement.

“If you’re worried about the final, I can take the stick,” she’d said. It wasn’t a power grab. To Charlie, this was simply a service she was offering.

“I’ll think about that on the way out,” he said.

“You’ll have about three hours to make that decision,” she replied. “I know this is your choice to make, but I think you’ll agree, it’s the only choice to make.”

He nodded. “My kingdom for a fuel tank,” he said.

“I’ll give you some privacy,” she said. With a push she floated away towards the service module.

“And there’s just no way to do this with Orion?” Jake asked, calling to her as she left.

Charlie poked her head back in, “She’s too big. We’d be cutting into safety margins for the trip home.”

He released the legal pad and tapped one corner of it. Watching it slowly tumble in the microgravity. The papers fluttered and fanned out in a pattern that was both mundane and pretty.

She’d spent three hours with the computer this morning, in an undisturbed frenzy of keystrokes and calculations. Houston hadn’t liked this idea, but they’d also been unable to present a better one. He swam through the hatch and looked out at Buran’s cargo bay. Buran’s docking hub was right out in front. To his left, he saw Aqsarniit docked, fully-fueled, and ready to go. He was about to put her through quite a ride. He stared out at the little cone and wondered if she had what it took to be the hero of this mission.

He sat in the chair and took a long breath, letting it out. Every commander he’d ever respected had had a moment like this. A choice between crew and mission. Between safety and sacrifice. It was the reason he had the left-hand seat. To assess the risks. To make the best decision for crew safety and mission success.

He had a duty to rescue Laura and Alexei, but he also had a duty not to endanger the rest of his crew. The burden of command was knowing the balance between those two forces. Now that it was in his hands on this grandest of moments, he felt thankful. It was so utterly clear. He thanked the gods and the cold equations for the clarity they’d bestowed upon him.

“Okay, Houston. We are now requesting authorization to proceed with the rescue-to-landing option on our next orbit. I know the authorization window will be tight, so, unless we hear otherwise, we’re going to assume your affirmation. We’re just not happy with the numbers we’re seeing from Hall. Not wild about waiting for three more orbits. Over.”

Jensen turned off his microphone and rubbed his eyes. That was arguably the most insubordinate he’d ever been since he walked into West Point thirty-two years ago. He tried to remember that he was in this seat to make hard decisions and to improvise, when necessary. It seemed very necessary now. Laura and Alexei did not have the fuel or air to wait for another day. Risking his entire crew on a rescue seemed dicey, but he’d be damned if he was going to abandon two of his people in a stranded orbit, and blowing the entire landing was just as distasteful.

He switched his microphone channel to the inter-ship circuit.

“Attention, crew of Athena II. Pack your bags and muster at the forward hatch in twenty minutes. We’re going.”

10 June 2002


Athena II

Flight Day 155

Laura and Alexei each peered out of their small, triangular windows. They could see Aqsarniit in the distance, slowly getting larger with each passing minute.

“Alexei, can you give me the closure ratings from your radar, please?” Charlie asked over the radio.

Alexei rattled off some figures in Russian and Charlie replied with an American-accented “Spasiba.”

Hall’s docking port was open and ready to accept her sister ship. The cylindrical Phobos-lander was about the same size as her Mars-bound counterpart. The universal docking latches, a staple of crewed spaceflight since the Soyuz-Skylab expedition of 1976, were going to save Laura and Alexei the indignity (and danger) of abandoning their lander through vacuum to try and join their crewmates in the Aurora-class capsule that was now closing in.

Space rescues did not have suited astronauts leaping off of crippled ships to reach for a savior with outstretched fingers. Tensed souls watching back on Earth would not gasp at the site of a flailing astronaut tumbling off into the void. Such things were white-scarved relics of science fiction.

Still, the next couple of hours would be scary.

Laura was able to wave at Commander Jensen through the windows of their ships as the distance closed to a few meters. The slight bump at the moment of capture was a testament to the skills of Charlie Hickory and her finely tuned calculations. The impact had all the violence and fury of a hummingbird landing.

The latches closed with a subtle grinding motion and ten minutes later, the hard seal was confirmed. Within thirty minutes, the crews were shaking hands and transferring samples over to Aqsarniit. They’d have to go up and down with the crew, and Laura cursed the fact that it would cost them some launch mass when Athena II departed Mars a year and a half from now. She also spared a thought for the fifty pounds of rocks that had been bagged, tagged, and left in the lab that lay wrecked back at their landing site.

Laura had tried to steal one last look at Phobos during their interminable wait, but the alignments and rotations of the ship, planet, and moon meant that she wasn’t able to spot the remains of their botched expedition. Assuming she survived that long, she would send a request to Goddard to have one of the Hubbles take a look.

There was something so raw and callous about finality. Whatever was to come, she could never get back the last few days. She was about to be the first woman to walk on four worlds, but she would invariably long for a few more minutes on the third. Without a trace of doubt, she knew that wistful desire would never leave her spirit. She took one last look around Hall’s command module, patted the control panel in thanks for its faithful service, then left it for dead.

Entering Aqsarniit, she found her empty seat and strapped in. There was nothing more for her to do now. In orbit, a geologist was a little more useful than a chihuahua.

“Charlie, what’s my clock now?” Jensen asked.

“Fourteen and counting on burn one,” Charlie said.

“Okay, I’m gonna transfer over. You have command until I’m back in this seat. If anything goes wrong with the burn…”

“Leave you behind, land the ship safely and continue the mission,” Charlie said, finishing his thought.

“What? No. Are you kidding me? Something goes wrong with the burn, you come and rescue me no matter what! What’s the matter with you?” he said, laughing as he unbuckled his harness.

Charlie laughed, “Wait, wait. Anyone got any trash he can take over?” she asked the crew.

“Trash?” Laura said, looking around the small, conical cabin.

“Anything we don’t need for the surface. We’re already toting a few Phobos samples and we’re coming in from higher than planned. Anything we can do to help the heat shield is found money,” Charlie said.

Alexei handed over a small bag with a few loose items. He grimaced as Jake carried it away. Laura looked at him questioningly.

“One of Sasha’s bears and Sergei’s toys,” he said, shrugging. “They’ll still reach Mars… in a few hundred years.”

She nodded. Keepsakes from home were not a thing to be discarded lightly. She had a greater grasp on the situation now.

“Commander, what do you think about leaving the bike?” Charlie asked.

“No. If you’re wrong then we’ll need it once we’re down,” Jake said.

“If I’m wrong, we’re not gonna get down,” Charlie said.

Jensen gave her a look that ended the conversation. Then he pushed off swam into Hall.

Brett was dogging the hatch that led to Hall and then he buckled himself into his seat again. Laura’s radio headset crackled again, and Jake’s voice came over the radio from a couple of meters away.

“Can we throttle up gradually or does it need to be full open?” Jake asked.

Charlie responded, “I’d rather give it all in a burst. It’ll make things easier with the math on the way down. It’s all going anyway. Are you worried about the connections?”

“I’m worried we’re about to mash two ships together that aren’t designed for that,” Jake said.

“Auroras are built to handle the push from Orion’s engines,” Charlie countered.

“This ship isn’t!” Jake said, from the spindly Hall lander.

Charlie winced and nodded inside her helmet, “Copy. But a gradual throttle up won’t be as much help. Acceptable risk.”

“Okay, space cowboy time,” Jensen said. “Give me the count, Hickory.”

“Twenty seconds to full burn,” Charlie said.

Laura shivered and braced herself.

The burst of acceleration wasn’t violent, but it was sudden. This rescue only worked with the use of every drop of Hall’s remaining fuel. There was no way to transfer the chemicals from Hall to Aqsarniit, so now Hall’s engine would burn one last time to kick the paired-up spacecraft into a particular periareion. The burn only lasted thirty-eight seconds, but it was all the little lander could give them.

Charlie furiously worked her fingers over the keyboard in front of her. Laura watched her face, looking for an answer amidst the eyebrows and lips and nose. None came.

“RCS dry?” Charlie asked over the radio. The hatch opened as she finished speaking.

“Burned with the mains. Lasted about eighteen seconds,” Jake said, swimming back through and reclaiming his seat. “How are we looking?”

“Heavy, fast, and high,” Charlie said.

“How bad?” Jake asked.

“Not bad. Not great,” Charlie said.

“Do we violate your reserve for short final?” Jake asked.

“Ask me after separation,” Charlie said.

“The atmo vent should give us a kick,” Jake said.

“Fly jumping on an elephant,” Charlie said.

“Beats nothing,” Jake said.

“Blow it,” Charlie said.

Jake reached up and, for the second time today, hit the button marked UNDOCK.

There was a whumph and a gentle stirring in the Aqsarniit as they released the dead husk of the Hall lander into a ridiculous, useless Martian orbit.

Charlie didn’t spare a glance out the window. She kept her eyes on her navigation screen. She hit a button and the numbers changed once more. She wrinkled her mouth.

“Survivable… probably,” she said.

An hour later, Aqsarniit sent its final call to Houston.

“Houston, Aqsarniit, we have entry interface. Expect to lose comm in just a bit. Thanks for everything. We’ll call you back after we’re down,” Jake said.

Immediately the Master Alarm began to blare. Charlie reached up and depressed the button to turn it off. Jake flashed her a look through his faceplate.

“What? We knew that was going to happen,” Charlie said.

The alarm had sounded because Aqsarniit was outside the recommended entry corridor. In order to slow the spacecraft down from an even higher orbit, they had to use more and more of the Martian atmosphere. The ship was already more than a hundred miles off-course and at an angle that threatened to skip right back out of the atmosphere. The only way Aqsarniit would reach a safe landing within a reasonable distance of Athena Base was to scream through the upper atmosphere, trading heat and energy with the whisps of Martian air.

The maneuver, which, if Charlie survived this, she planned to name after herself, was a fusion of aerobraking and EDL sequencing. She had spent many a happy hour pouring through the fine details of the Aurora lander specs, learning the full capabilities of her engines, heat shields and thrusters. She felt confident that the shield would hold up for this extended stay in the fires of ionized atmosphere, but she’d also felt confident that her first marriage would be forever.

For six minutes, all they could do was monitor the temperature gauges. It was hard to root for the heat, but Charlie had to remember that every bit of thermal energy meant a trade of kinetic energy. Good people had built that heat shield. Trust the engineering.

Aqsarniit, named for the Inuit word for an aurora, was doing honor to its namesake, sending a searing orange flame over the blackened Martian dawn. It was mid-afternoon at Athena Base and Charlie had every intention of eating dinner inside the HAB.

She watched with unblinking eyes as the digital needle on the temperature gauge reached its zenith, then began to wind back. That she was still seeing it was proof that the shield had done its job. She checked the clock. Things were as she expected. The timeline was holding.

“Max heating passed. Shield sep in forty-five,” she called out. Retreating to clipped aviation tones gave her a bit of calm in this midst of the firestorm two meters from her head.

“Copy,” Jake said, using the same uber-professional cadence.

“When we get back, we should really try this in the simulator,” Brett said from his chair.

“Shut up, Navy,” Jake called back.

“Okay, we’re approaching the corridor now. Pyros armed,” Charlie said. “Fire.”

Nothing happened.

“Oh c’mon,” Charlie said.

“Excess heat must have burned out the pyros,” Jake said.

“Or the circuitry,” Brett said.

“Kick the mother, Jake!” she said.

Jensen fired an index finger into the panel next to his control yoke. A low rumble filled the interior as the landing gear deployed early. There was a brief sound of grinding metal, a shrill squeak, and then a scratching swirl of noise as the Aqsarniit’s heat shield fell away.

“Shield loose! Radar lock! We’re still hot, but it’s workable,” Charlie said.

“I can live with that,” Jake said, taking in the new numbers from the radar. The ship lurched a bit as the drogue parachutes released, then lurched harder as the main chutes deployed.

“Okay, we’re still fast, but good chutes,” Charlie said.

The Master Alarm blared again. Charlie punched it before it could hit its second wail.

“401 again. I know we’re fast, dammit. It’s a thin atmo. Leave me alone,” she said, more to the computer system than her crewmates.

“HAB omni signal,” Brett said.

“Yeah, but our LPD is for laughs,” Jake said.

“We’re still on the program,” Charlie said.

“Charlie, I’ve got sixty-three percent in the tanks. Call the play,” Jake said.

“Cut the chute on my mark. Passing four-thousand,” she took a long breath and exhaled, “Mark!”

The sudden return of acceleration indicated the release of the parachutes. They’d done well, but the retro rockets were stronger and needed a clear sky above them to avoid any trouble.

“Canvas away,” Brett said.

“Hit it, Jake!” Charlie said.

Jensen squeezed the trigger on his control yoke with the fingers of his right hand and pressed the RCS purge with the fingers of his left. Aqsarniit’s engine trio fired everything at maximum thrust. All RCS fuel was depleted before the ship reached one-thousand feet. The slight off-vertical angle would have to be accepted. There was no fuel to spare for attitude control. The landing cam showed a cluster of rocks and sand approaching a bit too fast. There was no need to look though. Wherever she was aiming was where she would hit.

Her gear was down and her tanks were quickly evacuating. Aqsarniit had become a toasted marshmallow on entry. With any luck, she’d avoid becoming a smore.

“Brace, brace, brace!” Jake called. Again, a useless gesture. The physics would decide everything now.

The whirr of Aqsarniit’s engines ceased about fifty feet above the surface. Bingo fuel. Charlie had done all she could. So had Jake. So had Aqsarniit.

Impact with the Martian surface was around fifty-four miles per hour. The springs of an Aurora lander’s gear systems were officially designed to handle up to forty. Unofficially her engineers had calculated that forty-five could be endured if the ship was at an optimal angle.

There was nothing optimal about Aqsarniit’s landing.

Landing legs B and C sheared their springs on impact after a full compression. The springs on landing leg A were not as well-crafted. Nor was the anchor bolt that held leg A in place. The result of which was that the thick plate of material that separated the leg A housing from the sealed crew compartment above was compromised by a knee joint that had fractured in the initial impact.

The protection plate, thus compromised and now endowed with a sharpened protrusion, cut into the sealed crew cockpit. The plate and knee joint thrust upward into the chamber between seats three and four. The breach was quickly followed by a rapid outgassing of the spacecraft’s internal atmosphere.

Jake opened his eyes and felt pain in his back and jaw. He’d clenched hard at the last moment. It took his brain a moment to realize that he was still alive and well. Before he could find out about the rest of his crew, he could hear air leaking out of his ship.

Turning his head, he could see an angry, spindly mass of metal angles poking around where it had no business. As he discovered this intruder, he noticed that the floor under him was tilted at an improper degree. Anything that could have come loose had done so, including the seats that contained Brett Morrison and Henri Roussault. The pair seemed shaken, but alive. At least he could see the surprised movement of their arms.

An unmanly shriek had emanated from Morrison’s radio as he realized how close he’d come to being the first victim of impalement on the planet Mars. The shkurrr of outgassing didn’t bother him nearly as much as the frightful knowledge of his close call. Henri might have enjoyed a similar sentiment if he wasn’t too focused on the sudden ache he now felt coming on.

The crew had all survived a rear-impact that might have killed a highway driver. Speeds like this were survivable, but any paramedic on the scene would have demanded they get checked out for injuries both internal and external.

“Everyone okay? Sound off,” Jake said.

“Hickory good,” Charlie said.

“This is Alexei. I’m okay,” Alexei said.

“Morrison, green,” Brett said.

“Laura here. I’m all right,” Laura said.

A groan came over the radio, “Roussault. Clear,” came the call from the French biologist.

“Okay, keep your suits sealed. Check for leaks. We are outgassing and that’s poison right outside your face plate. Anyone got a leak?”

A series of “no” and “negative” filled the air at the same moment. Jake was satisfied.

Unbuckling the harness and sliding gingerly from his chair, Jake frowned at the garish hole that had been punched in his nice, clean spacecraft. Aqsarniit had given everything to keep her crew alive. Now she was a wreck.

“Charlie, before that thing freezes, can you tell me how far to HAB?” he asked, indicating the computer in front of her.

Charlie ran some numbers and breathed for a moment. Henri groaned and the radio mic caught it.

“You all right back there, Henri?” Jake asked.

“Pain in my back,” Henri said.

Charlie looked over the display and before she could speak, the screen went dead. Jake noticed the loss of the monitor.

“Did you get it?” he asked.

“Six miles west-southwest of HAB,” she said.

“Six miles?” Jake asked.

“Give or take a bit,” Charlie said, shrugging.

“We just fell from ten-thousand kilometers, you’re telling me we’re only six miles from our landing site?” Jake asked.

“We’re about seven miles from the landing site. We didn’t want to come down right on HAB,” Charlie said.

“Seven miles?” Jake asked.

“Yeah,” Charlie said, gesturing to the dead monitor.

“That’s…” Jake started, lacking the proper words to express his amazement.

“I’ll try to do better for you next time,” Charlie said.

10 June 2002


Athena II

Sol 0

Extricating themselves from a cracked and compromised lander took the better part of an hour. In contrast to the dignified egress that Athena I had taken, with their proper show of flags and footprints, the crew of Athena II crawled out over a hatch combing and more or less spilled out onto the surface, one-by-one, over the course of thirty minutes.

No television cameras recorded their first steps or first words. No crisp salutes accompanied the raising of another Old Glory. They had simply survived, which was, for the moment, enough.

Jensen stood in the red-orange sand, trying to get a bearing on Athena Base. He’d studied the maps and photographs of this place until he knew it as well as the face of his son. But, as the adage goes, the map is not the territory. From satellite photos, Mars told one story. From the ground, another.

He faced east, the sun over his shoulder as it sank inexorably lower in the sky. They needed to get to Athena Base before nightfall. Safety, heat, air; their suits were limited in the ability to provide all three. And the Aqsarniit had already passed out of her usefulness.

Charlie came around to where Jake was working. He was in a crouch, plotting a crude course in the sand using rocks that stood for HAB and their current position. He was attempting to make a map in miniature.

“We aren’t close enough to see the HAB. How sure are you of our position?” he asked as she came up from his flank.

“Best I could do before the computer died,” she said. “I’d say ninety-percent.”

“Confidence or arrogance?” he asked.

“What’s the difference?” she replied.

He snorted.

“What’s your best guess for a direction?”

She angled a forearm towards the horizon. Directly away from the sun, then swung it a few degrees north.

“You’re just dead reckoning now?”

“You asked,” she said.

“If we can’t get there by dark, we’ll need a conga line,” Jake said.

“What about the bike?” Charlie asked.

“I checked. Landing cracked the chassis. Now it’s just a pair of off-balanced unicycles,” Jake said.

“That was mass we could have used.”

“It was designed for a long landing, not a hard landing,” Jake said.

“Okay, conga line,” Charlie said, moving on with her day, “I’ll see if I can find some rope. I’ve got five hours of oh-two left. How about you?”

“A little less,” Jake said.

“Should be enough, but we need to leave now,” she said.

Jake rose from his squat, “Let’s get the…”

The radios crackled and a very loud voice filled their ears. “to the coordinates of your projected landing site. If you can read this, please respond immediately.”

Jake reached for the knob on his belt that controlled the radio volume and dialed it back.

Charlie pointed to the north-east. “Hey, look at that. Rover’s here.”

The rounded cylinder of the excursion rover crested the low ridge to their left. The pre-recorded message from Earth cycled through another enunciation.

“Athena II, this is Houston. We have sent the excursion rover to the coordinates of your projected landing site. If you can read this, please respond immediately. Repeat. Athena II, this is Houston. Athena II, this is Houston. Do you read? We have sent the excursion rover…”

13 June 2002

Athena Base

Athena II

Sol 3

They’d waited until Athena Base was up and running before putting on the movie. Jensen had liked that Cale Fletcher and Athena I had had a movie night to start off their surface operations and, to honor his absent friend, he was resolved to carry on the tradition.

Avoiding spoilers from folks back home had been a bit of a problem. He already knew that there was a glorious fight scene and a reference to the Death Star’s laser, but he was still going in relatively unspoiled.

The crew sat in a V formation around the dinner table, with the large screen on the far wall. He used his laptop to hit play and then shut it so as to avoid the light from the monitor ruining the image.

The lights of HAB 1 went dim as John Williams’s score swelled up. The brilliant yellow Star Wars logo receded into the void, followed by the bold letters Episode II: The Clone Blitz.

The opening scene was a spot-on tribute to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Watching an assassin droid run through a gauntlet of traps in the middle of an ancient Sith temple immediately brought to mind Harrison Ford and the old films of Jensen’s youth. It was a lovely bridge between past and future.

For the next two hours, he watched, enthralled as Heath Ledger brought a troubled dignity to the role of Anakin Skywalker. Seeing the young actor portray enthusiasm, ambition, and a bit of veiled wrath was an achievement in and of itself. He silently complimented George Lucas on the casting decision. The chemistry between Ledger and his costars, both Portman and McGregor, was palpable.

The return of Maul was a stunning moment. Seeing those robotic legs descend the ramp and invade the castle of Alderaan had caused audible gasps among the crew. When Maul had laid waste to the Jedi Academy, it was a visceral reminder of the horrors that gun-violence had wrought in schools. He felt relief that Congress had begun to seriously consider a Constitutional amendment to change the nation’s stance on gun possession.

The finale, on the ringed world of Geonosis, had been a culmination of everything he loved about the series. Watching Obi-Wan tangle with an assassin droid, seeing the narrow escape from Tarkin’s laser, the emotional conversation with Count Dooku, all of it felt earned. Then that horrific ending with Jedi dropping dead left and right. His chest clenched at the shock of it. The fade to black was a devastation. At least Mars would occupy his time as he waited for Episode III.

The rest of the crew wasn’t quite as taken by the film as their commander, but as they cleaned up popcorn and finished their evening activities, each had something more or less positive to say about the film. Henri had found it pedestrian, but entertaining (trust the French to be reliable in their criticisms). Charlie and Brett had matched Jake’s own enthusiasm but weren’t quite resolved about the “Force Virus” as a plot device. And Laura and Alexei seemed too exhausted from the week’s adventures to offer more than a smile and a nod before heading to their respective bunks.

Jake settled in for a good night’s sleep and began thinking about the checklist to prepare Clifford for the drive out to Site B. An hour later, unable to fall asleep, he pulled out his headphones and laptop and queued up the film one more time.

2 July 2002

Excursion Rover “Clifford” (60km NNW of Athena Base)

Athena II

Sol 23

For a variety of reasons, not the least of which was international status, Brett Morrison had operational command of the expedition to Site B.

Until IASA’s inflatable habitat was up and running, Site B was the official moniker for the area where Flat and Ortona had found the permafrost readings on Athena I. The data from the ground-penetrating radar and the survey robot that was left behind had been nothing short of tantalizing. Buried fifty meters under the surface, there seemed to be a large pocket of water-ice. The exact size and amount were subject to speculation, based on the readings that Athena I had brought back, but the general consensus was that this was now the most valuable patch of ground for a hundred-million kilometers in any direction.

Likely as not there were many other similar areas on the planet. This site didn’t seem to be geologically unique, but, until more aquifers were located, humanity was determined to suck this one dry and squeeze all the knowledge and resources that it could from this dusty chunk of ice.

Three days ago, Morrison, Winters, and Roussault had departed from Athena Base in the large expedition rover, Clifford. The plan was for them to locate the IHAB that had landed about a kilometer from Site B, tow it to the ideal location, prep it for operational use, and then acquire the first samples of the subsurface ice. If all went according to plan, Site B would become the second outpost on the planet and, potentially, a logistics hub for exploration throughout the region.

It all depended on what could be learned in the coming weeks.

With driving done for the day, Morrison and his team were just settling in for the evening meal. They each sat in a cramped bunk in the tight quarters of the expedition rover and talked about whatever came to mind. Tonight, the subject was the potential benefits and ethical downsides of terraforming. The one agreed-upon thought was that this was a conversation that would lack relevance for at least another half-century.

Morrison was using the water dispenser to wash his face and utensils when the main computer emitted a triple-beep through the cabin speakers.

“Downlink from Orion. Earth has something they want to tell us,” Morrison said. “Henri, can you plug in and patch it to the speakers?”

Henri connected a cable from the communications console to his laptop. After a long moment to boot up and sync the systems, the transmission played through the rover’s ceiling speakers.

“Expedition crew, this is Houston. We had a few items to share and wanted to talk to you before you bedded down.”

Morrison recognized the southern drawl of John Crichton who was clearly pulling CAPCOM duty back in Houston today.

“Analysis is still being done on telemetry data from the Hall lander. The leading theory at this point is that electrostatic dust from Phobos was able to enter the lab module either through the open airlock door or possibly through a faulty valve in the reaction control system. The build up of dust led to some unknown electrical variables which then compromised internal wiring within the lab module. As the onboard heaters drew more power, a small fire began. There was likely nothing that could be done to save the ship at that point.”

Crichton paused for effect. Henri and Brett both took a moment to look at Laura, who held a very British stiff upper lip.

Through the engineering-ese of official language, mixed with some Kentucky windage, the message translated to, “We don’t know what the heck happened. We’re blaming it on Phobos and saying it was no one’s fault.” Truthfully, all the finger-pointing on two worlds wouldn’t change what happened, nor would it get back the lost samples and lost surface time. Lacking sufficient evidence to the contrary, it would do no good to blame the only two explorers who had ever walked on four worlds. Laura and Alexei would not be denied their hero’s welcome when they got back to Earth.

Crichton’s voice continued, “All current data from the IHAB module looks good. We have no residuals for the surface deployment procedures. We do not anticipate diverting Athena III assets to you at this time.”

That had been a longshot. Athena III was set to land, three years from now, on the opposite side side of the planet, with the goal of exploring a totally new area. If Site B wound up being something truly extraordinary, then Athena III surface assets might be retasked to Site B in anticipation of establishing a larger outpost, but they’d need to find more than some subsurface ice to do that. Maybe a Martian microbe would do the trick, a fossil might be just as good. But more than likely, it’d take the equivalent of the Martian Library of Alexandria to get NASA to change its long-term plans.

Crichton’s voice seemed especially happy with that statement as he was on the prime crew for Athena III.

The recording continued, “We want to remind you that any and all discoveries which are made on Athena II are to be credited to the entire Athena team.”

The French biologist laughed, “You hear this, Brett? If we find Martians, you can’t name them after yourself.”

Brett smirked, “Okay, I can’t take credit. But if I learn to talk to them, can I lead them on a crusade back to Earth and go all ‘War of the Worlds’ on everybody?”

“I don’t see why not?” Henri said.

Laura rolled her eyes, “Are we not supposed to find an ape city or something?”

The men turned to look at her, surprised. She continued, “You saw that awful film last year. That man with the Boston accent gets away from the apes and then realizes that he was on Mars the whole time or something?”

“Yeah, I saw that movie, but I couldn’t follow it,” Brett said.

Henri countered, “The crime of what that man did to my fellow countryman’s novel.” He then emitted a few soft curses in French to condemn Wahlburg, Burton, and the entire enterprise of trying to remake the Planet of the Apes.

17 July 2002

IASA Outpost (120km NNW of Athena Base)

Athena II

Sol 39

A six day trek. Five days to set up the lab. Another three days to set up the drill. Then two more days to swap out the motor when the first one had a fault. And two more days again for the agonizingly careful process of cutting into the ice and making it ready for study.

So much for Martian Perrier.

It was time now. They were there. She deftly brought the microscope to the front of the glove box and angled it in front of her workstation. There was no way to look through the lens directly, but she had connected the camera to the lab monitor at the back of the habitat.

Even through the glovebox’s thick casing, she could still feel the cold seeping into her skin. This little outpost lacked all the amenities of Athena Base, and Athena Base wasn’t exactly a five-star kind of place. The thick canvas and minimal structure meant that the IHAB was only slightly more sophisticated than the emergency tent that Clifford could deploy. Still, now that they’d moved out the field equipment, it had more elbow room than any place on the planet.

Laura held the slide up to the light and checked for any problems. She found none. Then she placed it under the microscope. Henri and Brett each sat on a crate behind her and angled to look at the screen.

“Let’s see what we’ve found.”
A gentle reminder for those who came in late.

If you want to know about the Ocean of Storms version of the Star Wars prequels, see the Requel Trilogy that I wrote a while back. The link is in my signature below.
Gumdrop: Nightmare at 300,000 Feet
Gumdrop: Nightmare at 300,000 Feet

3 October 2002

AllenCorp Launch Facility

Outside Freer, TX

27° 49′ 2″ N 98° 59′ 50″ W

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. On behalf of AllenCorp, I’d like to welcome you to the first private orbital spaceflight.

“At seven p.m. tonight, local time, our ship, the Wahoo III, will launch from Pad 1A. Wahoo III will become the first private craft to achieve orbit around planet Earth. Our intrepid astronauts: NASA veterans Bob Wilson and John Valentine, will pilot the Wahoo to an altitude of more than two hundred miles. The Wahoo will make one complete orbit of Earth and will land at our runway at approximately eight-forty-two p.m. local time. GNN will be carrying live coverage of the flight, from launch to landing.

“We at AllenCorp are excited to begin the second phase of our space program. Tonight, the Wahoo’s mission will prove the viability of commercial orbital flight.

“After Wahoo’s safe touchdown, AllenSpace.com will be opening reservations for the first flights to our new orbital hotel, the Star Palace, which is expected to launch in November of 2005.

“Tonight’s single passenger, Justin Sanderson, will be appearing on GNN’s Sunrise tomorrow morning. Tomorrow at noon, Justin, John, and Bob will all be available for questions about this historic trip at AllenSpace’s headquarters in San Antonio.

“For those of you who haven’t gotten one yet, press packets will be distributed following this briefing.”

“Our countdown clock now reads T-minus nine hours, fifty-seven minutes. We hope you will all enjoy the show. Who’s got questions?”

Eight hours later, they were zipping him into the suit.

“Can you believe I actually signed up for this?”

Justin Sanderson was nervous. One week of training was nowhere near enough time for him to feel ready. That was part of the point. If you had to quit your job and spend six months in classrooms and simulators just to be a tourist, then space tourism was never going to get off the ground, as it were.

The technicians were all smiles as they sealed up his crisp, royal blue suit. The suit’s life support system (how he hated that name for it) was giving him plenty of air and keeping him cool. The helmet was giving him a touch of claustrophobia, but he’d worn it for a few hours on two different occasions now, and he knew that he could handle it.

The first time they’d put him in a vacuum chamber, just to show him some of the basic mechanics of the suit. He’d found it disconcerting to be within a few inches of nothing.

The second time there were a few emergency procedures they’d walked him through. It was somehow scarier to fumble with an oxygen bottle, knowing that doing it right could mean the difference between life and death. Mostly, his plan was to not touch anything, pretend like this was a flight to Hawaii, and look at the Earth.

That had been Bob and John’s advice. Forget everything but the beautiful view and try not to throw up.

Bob Wilson and John Valentine. He’d hated posing for photos with them. Both were these shining examples of American virility and swagger. Comparatively, he looked like the nerd that did their homework. And even that comparison was ludicrous because he’d sat with them as they walked him through the Wahoo’s subsystems and Justin knew that these guys had been valedictorians at whatever schools they went to.

Astronauts were, by design, chosen to be the most fit, the most intelligent, and the most unflappable representatives of humanity.

And Justin Sanderson had gotten here by winning a raffle.

Walking out to the van, striding between the two of them, he felt every inch the sidekick in this two-man show. The crowds cheered, but he couldn't imagine the cheers were meant for him. As they settled into the van for the ride out to the pad, he saw a few signs out there with his name on them. It was a nice touch.

The elevator that took him up allowed him to think about the three parts of this rocket on which his life depended.

The first stage, a lightly-flown, NASA-built, Pegasus rocket motor cluster, was at the base of this long cylindrical tank. Justin tried to think of it as “proven” rather than “used.”

Gone were the days of the Coke-bottle style rocket that had pushed that old retrofitted MiG up past the Karman line. The Wahoo I with its associated hardware sat two miles away on Pad 1. Now that they were doing orbital flights, it was doubtful the ship would be used again. Suborbital trips were so last year.

Justin rolled his eyes at the thought. He’d never have the kind of money to afford a chance like this, but if he had, he wouldn’t waste it on five minutes in vacuum and a quick glide back down to the desert. It was more than a blessing of chance that he’d won his seat on this flight. He would always think of this as his personal miracle.

Ascending higher, he looked at the second stage. The wisps of vapor escaping it in random swirls of white. The irony of this thin elevator car giving him a bit of vertigo was not lost on him. If he wasn’t happy at two-hundred feet, two-hundred thousand would be a bit much to ask. He steeled himself for this adventure. Whatever happened, the next two hours would be the first line of his obituary. He would savor every second of it.

Finally, and certainly the most beautiful of the elements, was the spacecraft itself. Wahoo III was a sleek, chrome butterfly. Its lovely delta wings would cut through the upper atmosphere like a hot knife.

He shook hands with Bob and John as they climbed up to the forward cockpit. To him, this handshake was almost meaningless compared to the one he hoped to give them both in a couple of hours, a few miles away at the runway facility.

The Wahoo’s small, cramped fuselage had six seats in total. He thought of three couples making their way inside two-by-two, lovingly holding hands for the ride up to an orbiting hotel. He’d seen some of the artist’s conceptions and was not overly impressed. Likely as not, the couples would spend most of their time looking out the window, or discreetly trying more amorous activities. The first orbiting hotel would lack almost every amenity offered by even the most rudimentary Best Western back on the ground.

That was someone else’s problem. He didn’t have a companion on this trip. At least not a living one. AllenCorp, eager to prove to a mathematical certainty that this flight posed no dangers, had put a complex dummy in the seat next to Justin. He could see various sensors and wires connected to a computer in the dummy’s midsection. It was a bit disconcerting to think that he might be little more than a guinea pig on this little jaunt. But there was no turning back now.

Inside the Wahoo’s main cabin, he was met by a friendly young technician.

“Hey there,” Justin said, trying to be as nonchalant about this as John and Bob were. “I’m Justin. What’s your name?”

“I’m Patrick,” Patrick said.

Justin climbed up over the left rear seat and sat himself down in the left-middle chair, across from the damned dummy. Patrick began to help him with the harness.

“Make it as tight as you can, Pat,” Justin said, “I don’t want to slip out of this mofo.”

The kid grinned at him and cinched the straps tighter. It felt like a warm hug in this precarious moment.

As his shoulders were being cinched, he realized that he’d forgotten to pull up the belt that hung between his legs. Out of modesty, the instructors had advised him to do that one himself. In all the excitement, it had slipped his mind.

“Would you mind getting that for me?” he asked.

“No trouble,” Patrick said.

“Thanks, Pat. I feel very close to you right now,” Justin said.

“Have a great flight,” Patrick said.

“Sure hope I see you again,” Justin said.

Patrick gave a polite laugh and a friendly faux-salute before twisting and maneuvering himself back down and out of the cabin. A moment later, the shaft of light that had illuminated the space behind him was extinguished. He was sealed up and alone now. John and Bob were behind a door that was six feet above him.

There was silence in his helmet. Just his own breathing. They’d been clear about this. For this little hop, there would be no radio for him. The general consensus was that he didn’t need to hear any updates. The launch would be obvious. Orbit would be achieved without his consent. And landing was a busy enough time without John and Bob updating him.

He also wasn’t expected to provide any commentary or useful discussion. At least not until after landing.

As John had said in the briefing, “In space, no one needs to hear you scream.”

AllenCorp had been kind enough to have a ticking clock in the front of the cabin. Big green numbers that counted down to the launch. He tried to relax as the clock ticked past 00:05:00. He was aware of the fact that at least three different cameras were watching him now. He correctly assumed that the less he did, the braver he would appear.

The anticipation rippled through his body in waves. As the countdown neared zero, he let the nervousness lock his muscles, tensed and primed. He was in a full body clench when the engines kicked to life far behind his back.

There was no particular urge to scream. He felt the kick and the constant push and the shudder. His seat and the cabin around vibrated in a semi-violent shudder. It was nerve-wracking, but he’d expected sheer terror. As it was, he could handle this. He’d ridden a few roller coasters that had shook him worse than this.

When the first stage gave out he flinched. The second stage was smaller, but seemed to be an overachiever. He gave a semi-delighted howl of laughter as he was pressed into the seat. Four minutes to orbit.

The night launch might have been an inadvertent blessing. He didn’t have the quick motion of clouds or ground out his window. The few traces of identifiable things he could see flitted past quickly. Wahoo III was ascending to infinite darkness while already submerged in the vast of night. Visually, the transition from sky to space would be smooth.

The second stage cut out and he could see the light of dawn as a brilliant arc far ahead. He reached into the pouch on his chest and pulled out the small toy spaceship that AllenCorp had provided him. They’d asked him if he would be okay playing with the toy a bit in zero gravity before the ship reached the dawn. He was happy to oblige.

The cabin lights came to full brightness and he spun the toy ship in the air. It tumbled in front of his face, drifting a bit forward. He reached out to snatch it before it fell out of his arm’s length. The darkness outside wasn’t of interest to him, so he could spare a few minutes to show off the zero gravity that he now enjoyed.

It was almost tempting to reach over and unbuckle his harness. In the future, passengers would be permitted to move around the cabin, but it was not advisable for this little ninety-minute hop. There would be no one to strap him back in if he got into trouble. And motion sickness tended to crop up when your head was free to turn in any direction, and any orientation.

The light of dawn began to creep into the cabin. Daylight meant that he would be able to see the full vista of the Earth out his window. He plucked the tiny silver toy from the air in front of him and stowed it back in its pouch. A wonderful souvenir.

As dawn approached he felt a strange vibration through his back. A rumble. They should be done with rumbles now. The rumble didn’t feel right. He didn’t know what right would feel like at this point, but no one in a potentially perilous situation could afford to ignore their instincts.

He took a deep breath and tried to put it out of his mind. Below him, dawn was coming to the African plains.

His eyes swept over the rich tans of the Sahara. They took in the darker mountain ranges and some of the grasslands. He could see the lights of cities dimming as the dawn swept over their citizens. Every instant was a visual masterpiece. In only a few moments, the deep azure of the Indian Ocean appeared out on the horizon.

Before he could spot Madagascar, the UFO came into view.

It was a saucer, the classic shape, with a central seam that united its two halves. He did not know who or what piloted the craft, but it seemed to hover at a range close enough to obscure some of his view. The sunlight glinted off of its silver surface and gave it an antiseptic look that did not instill him with confidence.

It might be time for that scream now.

He put his arms up, trying to flail a bit to get someone’s attention. The lack of a radio was especially troubling now. Surely John or Bob were seeing this just as he was. Weren’t they? Why didn’t they maneuver away? Whatever this thing was, it was far too close. It had to be a danger to the ship. This seemed an excellent time to fire the rocket and put some distance between the alien and the humans.

In horror, Justin watched the silver saucer fly even closer to the Wahoo. He could see no motors or thrusters, but the brightness of the ship may be the culprit there. In addition to the glinting sunlight, he could see various other lights embedded in the surface. Some white, some green. One angry red that seemed to be searching for him. Did it know he was there? Was it hunting? Was it hungry?

The flying saucer maneuvered towards the Wahoo’s wingtip. He began to pound on his armrest, desperate to make some noise and alert his pilots to this apparently unseen danger. If they were monitoring him, they made no show of it. Likely as not, they were so concerned with the internal workings of the ship that they had no sense of the attack that was taking place on the port-side wing.

He had to alert them. He began to reach for the buckle on his right shoulder. He had to get out of this chair. He had to do something.

He spared one more look at the alien craft before loosening his restraints. What he saw made him freeze.

The UFO was deploying an attacker.

While his head had been turned, the saucer had hovered over the port side wingtip. It split open along the underside. And from the aperture, a robotic spider emerged. The little creature stared at him with an unblinking black eye. It stood out so sharply against the silver wingtip. He wondered how it hadn’t been noticed by the astronauts. Surely this must be causing some imbalance. Some noticeable effect in the cockpit. Why were they not moving away? Were John and Bob distracted? Were they incapacitated?

With a sentinel gaze, he stared at the spider as it posed over the sleek surface. Up on two legs, like some kind of curious alien pet, it swept its gaze across the length of the ship. He was sure it was looking for a way inside. Could it see the hatch from here? Would it know how to unlock the mechanism?

He sensed that motion would be of interest to the creature. He stayed his hand from further movement. Fear was a paralytic and he let it chill his reaction. If he tried to move at this point, he might draw its attention, when what he wanted most was its departure.

His breathing quickened in his helmet. He felt the panic of hyperventilation. The fans responded to his biological needs and fed him more air. He gulped it in horror as he watched the spider make its way towards him.

Staying in place was a useless decision. The alien knew where he was. Indeed, it seemed to be heading for his window. He cursed his luck. If it had come through on the starboard side, he might have never known it was there. It might have lost interest looking at the damned dummy instead of a live, squishy human being.

Trying to avoid its interest, he slammed the window cover closed and faced forward, panting at the risk he’d just taken. No doubt the creature would have ascertained his position now. All he could do was hope that the slim plastic cover would provide some modicum of protection.

For a few moments, he stared at the clock ahead of him, begging it to speed up. When John and Bob began the reentry, surely this alien attacker would fall away under the intense heat. Right?

After a long moment, the waiting became intolerable. Not being able to see the spider was worse than knowing exactly where it was, even if the information went in both directions. By this point, the alien knew where he was sitting, but he realized that he no longer knew where it was located. If it had crawled along the surface to attack the cockpit, he would have no inkling of that development.

The window cover had to be opened.

With trembling fingers, Justin reached for the thin handle at the base of the cover. His gloved fingers shook as he pushed it up.

He was met with a massive, unblinking onyx eye. It stared at him, filling the glass that separated him from the rest of the universe.

Now was the time to scream.

Justin’s mouth formed a horrified shape and the alien unleashed its first attack. A blinding flash of light. The unprepared passenger, so pent up with terror and panic, simply overloaded and passed out before he could offer up a useful defense.

Justin woke slowly. The ship was rumbling again. He looked out the window. There was only darkness. It was not the onyx eye, but rather the cold black of night. He could see twinkling lights in the distance. The feeling in his stomach confirmed his suspicions. The Wahoo was coming down, fast.

The green numbers in front of him were moving through 90:00:00 as the ship slipped through the middle of the atmosphere. He took an educated guess that the lights he saw below might be the cities of southern California, but that was only a guess.

The Wahoo came to Earth with a lurch and a fresh rumble. The roar of the landing gear was familiar to anyone who had sat in a passenger plane. The screech and shudder of wheels on tarmac gave the ending a common feel.

He felt the puddles of sweat in his chest and down his back. There was no sign of the UFO, or its spidery attack bot. He was grateful that the fires of reentry separated him from whatever sinister intent the aliens must have had for him.

When the Wahoo rolled to a stop, he simply sank into his chair. He was too exhausted to move. This whole trip had started so wonderfully, then turned so suddenly.

The hatch opened a few minutes later. The young technician Patrick was the first through the door.

“You okay?” he asked.

Justin’s voice broke against the dryness of his throat. He swallowed and tried again. “Patrick. So glad to see you again,” he tried, gamely.

“How was the trip?” Patrick asked.

“Terrifying,” Justin said, as calmly as he could.

“I’ll bet,” Patrick said, not quite sure if this was another joke.

When they finally allowed him to egress, the first thing he did was look at the port side wing. He wanted to see if there was any sign of damage. Any trace of the alien spider as it had pecked its way up the airfoil. He could see nothing, but they hustled him away quickly.

In the van, he sat, buckled tightly once again. A few minutes later he was joined by Bob and John, who seemed totally unfazed by the close encounter.

Justin was not one to mince words.

“Why didn’t you fly away from that thing?” he asked the pair of them.

“What thing?” Bob asked, curious.

“What thing? The UFO! The saucer. That thing that tried to kill us. It sent that spider that tried to peck its way through my window!”

John looked at Bob. Bob looked back. They shared a questioning contortion of their mouths. After a beat, John’s eyebrows went up with realization. He turned back to Justin.

“It’s a camera-sat. We… they didn’t tell you about this? We release a camera satellite to trail us to the station. It’s shiny. Lights and it flies around. Helps ground control check the ship out and gives the press something to show on the news. Deploys a little robot for better views. They probably got a real good shot of you sitting in your seat.”

Bob chimed in, “Just a camera satellite, Justin. Nothing to worry about.”

Justin was too incensed to make any comment on this realization.

Bob broke the silence. “You didn’t freak out or anything, did you?”
Not that anyone will believe me, but I would like to state for all of my readers that the concept for this latest gumdrop was developed long before William Shatner was invited to fly into space.

Do with that information what you will.
Note for chapter LIX
The next chapter of Ocean of Storms is a bit different and requires a special introduction.

For starters, please be aware that the opening scenes of this next chapter may involve situations that are inappropriate for younger readers. If you are reading Ocean of Storms with someone who is not ready to hear about certain topics of a sexual nature, it may be advisable to skip certain sections of the upcoming chapter. I wish to offend no one with my work, but I reserve the right to use adult topics, adult situations, and adult language where I feel it is called for.

Now, on to the 2nd item of business.

In this upcoming chapter, the crew of Athena II will be confronted with a problem that needs to be solved. In this chapter, I have presented a single solution to the issue at hand.

Knowing that my readers often are technically inclined, I would like to invite those of you who enjoy a bit of engineering and problem-solving to tackle the situation at hand. To do this properly, I will present a single image at the end of this post, under a spoiler warning, that will state the problem as clearly as I can. (There may be elements that I have not considered, or not included. I invite open discussion on all of these topics.)

If you, as a reader, wish to challenge yourself with solving this particular problem, I invite you to view this slide AFTER you have reached the scene that ends with the phrase "Black Buck."

When you feel you are ready to see how the crew of Athena II deals with the challenge ahead, read on in the chapter.

I hope that my readers will view this challenge with an open and sharp mind and I look forward to lively discussions about the potential solutions to the situation. There may be untapped potentials that I have not explored and I welcome the exchange of ideas.

For the sake of clarity, I will follow the next chapter with a graphic that shows the solution that the crew uses.

For now, please enjoy chapter LIX: Shall Not Cease

The Clifford Problem.png
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LIX: Shall Not Cease
Shall Not Cease

25 February 2003

Excursion Rover “Clifford” (357 km W of Athena Base)

Athena II

Sol 253

“Harder,” she said.

He slapped her again. She shook her head.

“Harder!” she said, trying to get him to push past his inhibitions.

Again, his hand connected with her cheek. She groaned and rolled her eyes.

“C’mon you fucking truck, slap me like a bitch!”

That did it. Morrison brought his hand down across her face so hard that the sound of the slap echoed off the rover’s thin walls.

Her orgasm hit like the crashing of a wave. She felt her body roil and spasm. The ball of energy exploded through her core and rippled out through her curled toes. Somewhere in the haze, he finished as well. That wasn’t really a concern to her, but it was nice enough, she supposed.

Shoving him off of her hips, she rose and started to dress. Sunrise was in less than an hour and she wanted to get the most out of this day.

He gave her a semi-wounded look as she pushed past him to reach for a washcloth.

“What?” she asked.

“I mean…” he started.

“You did fine. Better than last time. Don’t overthink it,” she said, combing her short hair in the small mirror over the sink.

Brett Morrison put up his hands in surrender. “If you’re happy, I’m happy.”

She bent down to slide out the EVA undergarments and started pulling them up her legs. “You’re the first guy to have sex on Mars, Brett. Trust me, you’re happy.”

“Is that why we’re doing this?” he asked.

“It’s not the only reason,” she said. There was no reason to bait him now that she’d gotten what she needed. She looked over her shoulder at him sitting on his bunk.

“Look, pressure builds. It’s as dangerous in the human body as it in in a fuel tank. Sometimes you gotta blow off some steam. Decrease fluid levels, you know?” she said.

“Fluid levels?” he asked.

“More yours than mine,” she smirked. “Are you not having fun?” she asked.

“Just.. we could do a little emotional maintenance here,” he said, looking around for his pants.

“Mars ain’t the kind of place for romancin’, sweetie,” she said, trying to get him to join her in mutual nonchalance.

“In fact, it’s cold as hell,” she continued, carrying on the Elton John theme.

That got him to laugh. “Every time I think you’re a cylon,” he said, letting the thought hang.

“Cylon?” she asked.

“It’s a new show on Sci-Fi. They remade Battlestar Galactica. It’s not bad,” he said.

“Is that what you had Houston beam down the other day?” she asked, happy to change the subject.

He nodded, “I watch it after you fall asleep.”

She shrugged, “Cool. Suit up. Big day today.”

This was the most ambitious of the major expeditions that were planned for the Athena II mission. They’d taken Clifford farther out than ever before. The terrain here was still relatively flat, but it was the farthest they’d ever travelled away from Athena Base.

Following the advice of Gide, NASA had determined to lose sight of the shore, as it were. They were now heading into what was thought might be the deeper seabed of Mars’s great, long-dead Northern Ocean. The theory that a vast expanse of water had covered most of the Northern Hemisphere was well-regarded amongst the geologic set. Indeed, the first major aquifer had been found along the trail that led out from Ares Valles.

The plan to set Athena Base in an ancient river delta allowed NASA to plot expeditions into regions that may have once been ocean depths, or wetlands, assuming Mars had ever had that much water to begin with. Before the later Athena expeditions tackled the rocky highlands that might have once held Martian shorelines, Athena II would head in the easier direction and explore the relative flatlands that lay to the north and west.

These days, the six crewmembers of Athena II had split into three odd-couple pairings. Each had its own combination of mission and equipment to concern themselves with.

Charlie Hickory was not the best person to take a long-road trip with. But when her sole companion was quiet, competent, and sexually available, she found the confines of the expedition rover to be more than pleasant.

So far, this month-long jaunt hadn’t disappointed. Clifford carried on-board solar panels that were supplemented with stowable arrays. The trip had been divided into four-day stints. For each day of driving, three would be spent in a single location, soaking up solar power and charging the rover’s onboard batteries. With the water recycling systems operating at a high efficiency, the biggest source of hobbling was in on-board consumables. Limiting the expedition crew to two had given this expedition that much more range.

While Brett and Charlie were road-tripping, Henri and Laura were still occupying Fort Fletcher, determined to search every last drop of the aquifer for any trace of microscopic life that might lie dormant in the permafrost. They’d been searching for months now, but with no success. For Henri, it seemed to be a cruel twist of fate. Laura had found it very satisfying to get such grand access to subsurface samples.

Charlie didn’t envy them their living conditions. Without a second expedition rover, Laura and Henri were forced to sleep in the little runabout each night. The lack of supplies meant that they had to return to Athena Base once every four days. A three-hour trip, one way, all for a bit of water that was as dead as Julius Caesar.

And back home, Jake and Alexei, the two eldest crewmembers, tended to Athena Base and its assorted equipment like a pair of old ranch-hands in the Colorado wilderness of the nineteenth century.

The West Point man and the former Soviet cosmonaut now jointly monitored the MAV, repaired and maintained the HABs, and ran logistics, communications, and control for all of the surface operations. Charlie smiled thinking about the two of them working side-by-side. A model of the new peace that had followed on from the Cold War. Gene Roddenberry would have been proud.

Her boots crunched on the rust-red rocks as she exited the rover. They’d arrived here late yesterday afternoon. They’d done a short EVA to deploy the excess solar panels and scout a bit of the terrain. This spot had a couple of craters a few hundred yards away. Her first order of business was to gather some tools and sample bags, load up the trolley, and head out to do some digging.

While she did that, Brett would set up a weather monitoring station and deploy one of the mini-rovers, the last of the ones they had on-board.

A few hours later, with a sizable hole dug into the crater rim, a three-second tone came over her helmet radio.

“Incoming from Houston,” Brett said, unnecessarily.

Charlie listened to the downlink that had routed from Houston, to Orion, then down to Clifford. Athena Base was well beyond their horizon now, so their main line of communication was only accessible when Orion was in their line of sight.

“Lab rover, this is Houston. Lab rover, this is Houston. Giving you your sol 253 report. We have you at approximately two-hundred-and-twenty miles west of Athena Base. Again, we congratulate you on your record-setting expedition. Geology is patiently awaiting your initial report on Site 2-24. At your next convenience, we would like you to do a consumables check, especially CO2 scrubbers, EVA air, and, of course, total food. The flight surgeon is renewing, once again, his request that you not interrupt your downlink during evening hours. It’s a little disconcerting for you to go full quiet after dark. Mobile engineering still wants to know how Charlie managed to override their downlink controls for the internal cameras. We ask you to please not leave us in the dark again.”

Charlie rolled her eyes at the request. Even if she hadn’t been using her bunk recreationally, she still didn’t like Houston watching her sleep. Overriding the downlink had been child’s play. They just didn’t want to admit she knew more than the backroom guys when it came to Clifford’s onboard systems.

“Also, we’re receiving reports from Meteorology, supplemented by your weather stations, thank you very much. Meteorology is reporting a possible dust storm forming to the south. We’re uplinking new imagery from Orion down to you with this transmission. The storm seems to be heading your way, so we are directing you to limit the Site 2-24 explorations to this single sol. Charge your batteries as much as possible, and then make for 2-23B and route back east to Athena Base through the B-series of stops. Again, we congratulate you on your journey out, but we are ready for you to RTB starting tomorrow morning. Lab rover, this is Houston, signing off.”

“Oh, you gotta be kidding me,” Charlie said, tossing a shovel full of dirt behind her.

“They’re scrubbing us?” Brett said, in disbelief.

“We’re not even getting dust yet!” Charlie said. “Those little wusses!”

Brett reigned her in, “We got plenty of good stuff to bring back home.”

Charlie looked down at the new subsurface layer she’d just dug into. What she saw below was not the right color at all.

“Brett!” she said, somewhere between a call and a demand.

“What’s up?” he said.

“Come over here. I need you to crazy-check me on this. Right now,” she said.

Ten minutes later, she’d smoothed out a sizable area of rock and soil while he’d been trudging over. She waved him in with a gloved hand and uses the blade of her shovel to point out the anomaly.

“What does that look like to you?” she asked.

He crouched down, no easy task in the stiff suit, and peered into the exposed rock formation.

“That’s… is that opal?” he asked.

“That’s what I’m thinking,” she said, by way of confirmation.

“Oh, man,” Brett said.

“Yeah, we haven’t seen that so far,” Charlie said.

“No way. Nothing from Cale’s crew either. This is a first,” Brett said.

“How sure are you?” Charlie asked.

“I mean… there’s not much else I’d expect with that coloring,” he said, indicating the bright patches in the gravel.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but you can’t get opal without water, right?” she said, not quite rhetorically.

“Bingo,” he said, picking up traces of the gem with his gloved fingers.

“We gotta see how much is here. They can’t scrub us. This site just got important.”

Brett rose from his crouch, pulled a camera from his tool belt, and took a few photos. Charlie stood back to let him have a good field of view.

When he finished, she began to scoop the opal gems into a large sample bag. As she did, Brett stopped to take a photo of the horizon to the North.

“Let’s get some lunch and make sure we’re talking about what we’re talking about,” he said.

Together they loaded the trolley and walked back to Clifford.

Over peanut butter and powdered mashed potatoes, they checked the samples and more or less confirmed their initial suspicions.

Charlie swung her neck around to take a look at the rover clock. The countdown read 00:42:37, which meant they had the better part of an hour to wait before anyone would know what they found.

“I think we need to stay here at least the full three days,” she said. “We need to know what we’ve found. We need to leave a six-wheel behind to keep searching. This is the best place we’ve seen so far.”

Brett winced. “They’re gonna say let’s bail and leave it for the next shot. That opal’s been sitting there for a million years. It can wait ‘til Athena IV gets here.”

“Or Athena V,” Charlie said. “Or if they like what they see on the other side of the planet, it could be twenty years before someone comes back here,” she said. The ire in her voice rose a bit more. “It’s water, for Pete’s sake. You can’t have opal without water. We can’t just turn our back and run because it’s gonna get cloudy in a few days.”

“It’s gonna get cloudy on top of our solar panels. We lose power and we can’t run the heaters, the motors, the comms antennae...” Brett said.

“All the more reason for us to stay put. We’re low on battery as it is. We’ll only have forty percent in the batt when we leave in the morning. We should stick around and take what we can get tomorrow… and the next day,” she said.

Brett shook his head, “We leave in the morning, get ahead of the weather. Charge, drive, charge, drive. Keep doing that until we’ve got enough clear sky behind us to head home.”

Charlie shook her own head in return, “I’m telling you, they’ll abandon this and we’ll never really know what we’ve got here.”

Brett was starting to feel hemmed in, “I don’t like this any more than you do. But let’s not risk our necks over something that we don’t fully understand. We know where this place is. An hour from now, so will Earth. We did our jobs. Let’s go home.”

Charlie didn’t argue. She just rose and went back to the airlock.

“Tell Houston as much as you can. I’m not sitting here for half an hour when I’ve got something major out there to dig up.”

“Charlie! You can’t go out there alone,” he admonished.

“I’m second in command and Jake Jensen is about two-hundred miles that way,” she said, pointing a long, gloved finger towards the rear of the rover. “You want to file a complaint? Feel free. But this is my little corner of the universe for right now and I’m going to go do my job.”

Brett let her cycle the airlock without further complaint. He knew that the best cure for her anger was a problem to solve. He had no intention of getting between her and her objective unless he was wearing a helmet and pads. Better men than him had tried before. He assumed most of them lay at the bottom of Galveston Bay now.

With a half-hour before he could uplink to Orion, he resolved to use his time wisely. He connected his camera to his laptop and brought up the photos from the opal crater.

The last one was the first object of his focus. It was the shot of the northern horizon. The red rocks were offset by a pale pink sky. He put the image into an analysis program and then connected to Clifford’s internal software.

Atop the rover, Brett directed one of the object collision cameras to swing to the south. He took an image of the southern horizon and then put it on the screen in a new window.

The southern horizon was noticeably darker.

He tried to use his imaging program to get a sense of the difference in the shade of pink between north and south. After ten minutes, he gave up trying to get a single objective number, but it was obvious that this storm was having an effect on the southern skies.

He lost track of time until the three-second tone blared over the rover’s speakers. Houston was calling again.

“Lab rover, this is Houston. No changes from our last transmission. The dust storm is a little larger and a little faster than we’d previously seen. Updated images are coming to you now. Our revised plan is still on. We’ll have you charge up for the remainder of the day and then start back tomorrow morning. We’re sorry to cut you short, but it is the safest course of action under the circumstances.”

Charlie snorted over the radio, “If we were meant to be safe, we wouldn’t be on another damn planet.”

Brett reeled a bit. With her outside, he’d almost forgotten she was getting the same audio that he was. He decided to put his head in the dragon’s mouth.

“Charlie, we can’t argue with them. I mean literally. Orion’s orbit won’t cross again until tonight. I’m uploading the opal stuff to them, and I’ll tell them we want to stay, but if they scrub us after hearing that, I don’t think we have much choice.”

Charlie sighed over the radio. On the external cameras, he could see her trudging along with her trolley, heading back towards the crater with the opal.

“How about this? Instead of packing in the solar panels this afternoon, we leave them for morning. Do an EVA first thing. You pick up the panels and I’ll get more samples. We leave at lunch instead of breakfast. That’ll give me four more hours to play with.”

“You think four more hours will make a difference?” Brett asked.

“I know zero more hours won’t,” she said.

“I’ll put that in the recommendations. I’m not gonna go to war with Houston, but I’ll make the suggestion.”

“Copy that,” Charlie said.

As the sun set over Site 2-24, Charlie reflected on how easy it had been to get her own way. Asking permission was laughable with a million miles of void between you and authority. She was fine asking forgiveness from Jensen when they got back. He’d give it easily. After all, she was the only reason that he had six crewmembers alive and walking on Mars. Genius buys a lot.

After another round of dialog, Houston had acceded to her plan. Mostly because they simply hadn’t gathered the solar panels at the end of the afternoon EVA. Unless Houston wanted them to go get them in the dark, then there wasn’t much else to do.

In the meantime, she was sure this was now the most exciting place on Mars.

After a perfectly adequate round of sex with Brett, she tiptoed over to the drive controls. Plugging in her laptop, she gave a quick thought to whether this was worth her career. She had vague thoughts about being the first woman to return to Mars. She was young enough that she could potentially command Athena VI or VII if the schedules and her health held out.

She wasn’t the type to hold back on the off chance there would be a reward later. Legendary women had to blaze their own paths. And she had already blazed more than two-hundred miles of path. She wasn’t about to abandon it.

Strong women had to be bullshitters or bullfighters. She knew damn well which she intended to be.

The control subroutines could be commented out easily. But it took her about twenty minutes to install the password lock on the software access. Brett couldn’t be blamed. She’d done this alone. Technically her mandate as second-in-command was to take any action necessary for crew safety and mission success. She might not be safe, but she was damn sure going to be successful.

She looked over her shoulder at her slumbering source of sexual satisfaction. If he didn’t want a woman making decisions for him, he shouldn’t have signed on for this little field trip.

26 February 2003

Excursion Rover “Clifford” (357 km W of Athena Base)

Athena II

Sol 254

“Charlie, we gotta go. It’s time,” Brett said.

They’d already spent two hours at the opal crater. More samples and a deeper, richer vein under the surface. This place was a treasure trove.

“Brett… we’re not leaving,” she said.

“What are you talking about? I’m already packing up.” he said.

“Don’t bother. I’m making a command decision here. We’re staying. We’ll take our chances with the storm,” she said.

“Um… like hell,” Brett said. She admired his gumption, “We did the half-EVA jaunt back here. That was the deal. Let’s mount up and head out.”

“I’m not leaving this site until I know what we’ve got. Neither are you,” she said.

“Charlie, I know you think this is your legacy, but it’s not worth dying over,” he said.

“We’re not gonna die,” she said, rolling her eyes at his hyperbole.

“Charlie,” he said.

“Drag up all the solar panels you want, you’re not going anywhere. You might as well stay and help me dig this up,” she said.

“What are you talking about?” he asked.

“I locked the controls last night. Unless you know my password, that rover isn’t moving an inch unless I say so.”

“What?!?” he said. His voice was about three octaves higher than it had any right to be.

She pointed to the sample bags they’d been gathering for the last two hours. “There are pounds of opal in those bags. You can’t make opal without water. Where do you think all that water is?”

“Subsurface radar isn’t showing anything major,” Brett said.

“It’s not reaching deep enough. I’m telling you. We gotta stay. We gotta do a wider scan and we have to up the power.”

“We don’t have the time,” Brett said, pointing south. “And we’re not gonna have the power to up the power. This thing is gonna be here tonight!”

“Relax. We hunker down, let the storm slide past us. We’ll have enough juice to keep the systems going, but not to drive.”

“And you’re basing that on your ability to predict Martian weather?” he asked, incredulously.

“You wanna bet your next paycheck that I’m wrong?” she asked.

“I don’t wanna bet my life that you’re right!” he said.

“Look, do whatever you want, but you aren’t leaving without my say so. And the best thing you can do right now is to go get the GPR and sweep that area at full power,” she said, waving a hand towards the newly exposed opal veins they’d found this morning.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Brett said.

“Come to your senses,” Charlie said, digging in again.

“Now I know you’re kidding me,” he said. He lowered his tone, “Charlie…” trying one last appeal.

“This isn’t an argument. It’s not a debate. I’m in command. Do what I’m telling you,” she said.

“I’m calling Houston,” he said, turning to walk back to the rover.

“Oh, good luck with that. I’m sure they’ll send someone right out to arrest me and reboot the software. Triple-A should get here in about fifty years. You got your membership card ready?”

“Screw you, Charlie,” he said, storming off.

She let him go. By the time he made the walk back to Clifford, he’d know there was nothing to do but what she told him. You drove Brett like you drove a horse. Just block off his options and he’d go where you wanted.

She extended her EVA, using the reserve oxygen tanks to gain another two hours. It’s not like she was that worried about protocol at this point. Brett had joined her. In for a penny…

When they inevitably called it and walked back, she had a chance to look at the southern horizon. She admitted it was darker than she’d expected.

Overhead, the sky darkened a bit more. Charlie checked the solar panel output. Seventy-eight percent… and falling.

Not good.

“Charlie, I’m begging you,” Brett said, looking at the readout as he stood next to her. “We tell Houston we lost track of time. We got so excited by what we found that we didn’t want to waste time reporting in. Let’s eat and then get the panels back in and go. No one has to know you reprogrammed the rover.”

She bit her lip behind her face plate. He couldn’t see her expression, but if he did, he might have changed his tone.

“Charlie?” he said, calling her bet.

“A full EVA this afternoon. We won’t use the reserve tanks again, but we get a few more hours and gather the panels before we come back in. Head back at first light.”

“Damn you,” he said, with an eerie calm. “That was a decent compromise I put out. And this is a crappy way to make a living,” he said.

“Take it or leave it,” she said.

He put out an impotent howl of rage into the electronic frequencies that united them.

“Fine! Goddammit!” he said, exasperated.

“We’re gonna look at the subsurface scans and there’s gonna be an acre of permafrost down there. It’ll make Fort Fletcher look like a dry hole in the ground,” she said.

“And if you’re wrong?” he asked.

“List your options for me at this point,” she said.

“Ugh,” he said. “Even if we head out now, if we can’t clear this storm we’re going to freeze to death. It’s that simple.”

“You’re worried about the heaters?” she asked.

“I’m worried about everything,” he said. “These storms can last a lot longer than our food supply. We screw this up and we’ll drive straight to Hell at five miles per hour.”

“We know how to stay warm,” she said, giving him a playful smirk.

He rolled his eyes, then pointed to the samples, “What the hell is that opal even worth?”

She thought about it for a moment. “Nothing.”

He walked back to the rover. She kept looking at the bags and thought again.


27 February 2003

Excursion Rover “Clifford” (357 km W of Athena Base)

Athena II

Sol 255

“Through the unknown, remembered gate”

She typed the line into the computer and saw the software password access scan and clear. As soon as she was in, she brought up the drive controls and deleted the comment markers. A few moments later and there was no trace she’d ever been in the central software. She looked out the forward window.

As the sun rose to the east, she searched the skies overhead. Things were a bit dimmer than she’d hoped. The storm had made more progress in the night. That couldn’t be helped. Brett shot her a look that she ignored. She aimed Clifford’s front wheels straight at the sun and pulled out.

The battery power reading ticked down to 52%. For a night on the surface with minimal heaters and communications, they’d need at least 15%. And there were no guarantees how many nights they’d be in the storm, or how much power they’d be able to soak up tomorrow.

There was a mental agony in having a max speed of five miles per hour. Especially knowing that, in an emergency, she could push this bus to four times that speed. But the rover’s programming allowed the controls to be set for maximum efficiency. Charlie had long ago learned the advantages of patience. She set the cruising speed to preserve battery life and then pointedly took her feet off the pedals. She didn’t plan to use the brake today.

Over the course of the morning, the top-mounted solar panels did its best to soak in light and energy, but it was a losing battle. The skies got darker from right to left. Above them, the shade of heaven went from amber to ochre, and then that ochre burnt to a crisp as the dust storm enveloped them. The change was subtle, like watching a clock, but there wasn’t much else to look at.

When Brett went to refill their water bottles, she checked the efficiency of the top-mounted array. It was only getting about one-third of the usual sunlight. As they’d made progress, that number had fallen from two-thirds, but it fluctuated with the variations in the storm’s leading edge. With flat plains in front of her, she took a moment to think.

The urge to improvise was tempting. Driving east was helping a bit, but her instincts told her that it might be better to push north and try to get out of the path of the oncoming weather.

She had Brett pull up the latest photos from Orion. Skirting north would only delay the inevitable. Unless this storm abated all on its own, Clifford would need some sort of rescue. Every kilometer they could get closer to Athena Base would make that rescue easier. She held course due east.

At midday the battery reading fell below 25%. Charlie didn’t take lunch. She kept one eye on the forward window, the other on the power levels.

She didn’t look at a clock. There was enough on her mind as it was. But when the low-power light cast an angry red glare across her face, she realized that the day’s work might be over.

“Twenty percent,” Brett said.

“I’m not stopping,” Charlie said.

Brett had lost too many of these arguments to try and start a new one. Charlie had gambled with his life on several occasions now. Sometimes it had been voluntary, sometimes without his consent. If he kept quiet, he could at least pretend that he had some agency left in this little tragedy that was unfolding around him. Besides, he knew that this wouldn’t be his last chance to lose a fight with her.

Two miles later, she spoke without looking at him, “Go suit up. When we stop, we need to get those panels out as fast as we can. There’s still time to soak in some sunlight before dusk. Even if we only get a few percent, that’s better than nothing.”

Brett was happy to comply with that order. When he returned to the cockpit, he had everything on but the helmet. The battery reading fell by one more integer.

“Charlie, that’s thirteen. You’ve got to stop,” he said.

With a pained grimace she nodded and disengaged the drive. Clifford coasted to a stop many many miles east of nowhere.

She turned to him, with a look that shot dread into his stomach, “What are you doing? Get out there. Now!”

He scrambled to the airlock, sealing his helmet as he went. Five minutes later the rack of solar panels was sliding out from the storage bay. Half an hour later, the two of them had finished deploying the panels in neat lines on the ground.

It was hard to see his own shadow amidst all the dust. The deployed panels would have their work cut out for them.

“Let’s get back inside. All we’re doing now is blocking sunlight,” she said.

He agreed and joined her in the airlock. Hearing the cycling process start, he leaned back against the wall and asked the biggest question of the day.

“How far did we get?”

“About thirty miles,” Charlie said.

27 February 2003

Athena Base

Athena II

Sol 255

Decades of service had taught Jake Jensen to mask his emotions, but it was a constant battle.

A bit of blame had to fall on Houston. They shouldn’t have let this get so far out of hand. Meteorology would have done well to end Clifford’s mission as soon as they saw the storm swirling into existence, not after it was heading north. He’d never admit it, but there was a non-zero chance that some backroom hotshot secretly wanted to get readings from inside a dust storm. No doubt there was a long line of university professors back on Earth who were salivating at the chance to take direct readings from inside an extraterrestrial weather system, but none of those people would ever walk on Mars. Nor would they freeze to death if this didn’t work out.

Still, Houston could only give orders. There wasn’t much they could do if those orders weren’t followed.

Charlie. This whole fiasco had her name all over it. In his heart of hearts, he’d known that this day would come. There was a blazing trail of confident competence that lit her service record with an iridescent glow. If you could put her on a polygraph, Charlie would tell you that the only mistake she’d ever made had been saying “I do,” on a cold autumn night twelve years ago. After she said something that haughty, Jake felt confident the polygraph needle wouldn’t move.

Charlie believed in her own infallibility like she believed the sun would rise tomorrow. Is it arrogance if you really are that good? Does it count as overconfidence if you win?

There was a cracked lander a few miles away that could be seen as a testament to her recklessness, or her sheer ability to prevail, depending on the way one chose to look at it.

If you took Charlie off that polygraph and put Jake on in her place, he’d admit that much of his anger was at himself.

Asking her to be his second-in-command had been the most important decision of his professional life. He’d have plenty of time to second-guess it in the coming days.

Sending her and Brett over the horizon had been a gamble. He’d known all about their extracurricular activities. Laura thought she had revealed that delicate truth as a matter of full disclosure. Jake didn’t have the heart to tell her that he’d known for weeks.

It didn’t take much to perceive the changes in their patterns. Well, in Brett’s patterns, at least. Jake knew that, to Charlie, this was just a biological convenience. If Brett hadn’t been persuaded, she’d have likely gone after Alexei or Henri. He spared a thought about whether her fourth approach would have been aimed at himself, or Laura. Neither would have surprised him.

Truthfully, he did not care about what Charlie and Brett did when they weren’t working. The bunks were strong enough to hold two people and they were quiet enough not to keep anyone awake. Everything else was biochemistry and politics and he cared for neither.

The source of his internal strife came down to one simple calculation. This excursion was ambitious, bold, and required perfection. There was no one in the astronaut corps that embodied that more than Charlie Hickory.

Jake had already released his anger in private. Certain things you just didn’t do in front of the crew.

A perfectly good green t-shirt had been ripped in half after he listened to the report from Houston. With the shreds in the garbage, he came out to plan the next great Martian adventure.

Laura and Henri had already been on their way back from Fort Fletcher when the Mayday came in. He’d let them get their new water samples stowed and get some food in their bellies. In engineering, a full stomach could be as helpful as a decent calculator. Moreso, if your problem involved consumables.

After dinner, they stayed at the table. He called up the briefing on the main monitor. Houston had kept their statements calm and tempered. But anyone who knew the technical specifications of Athena hardware would know this was more than just a problem.

Taking a portable white board and a black marker in his hands, Jake collected their attentions and started in.

“What we have is this,” he began. “We are here,” he said, drawing a crude house on the right side of the board. “Clifford is here,” he said, drawing a box with two wheels on the left side.

He paused to indicate the line he drew between the two figures, “We have one-hundred and eighty-nine miles of distance to cover. And our runabout can only do one-fifty”.

Laura spoke up, “That’s burning a full tank of methane and a full battery charge. You can get seventy-five miles on a full tank. A full battery charge will get you another seventy-five miles.”

“So that means we can only send the runabout seventy-five miles before it has to turn back,” Henri said. “They’re more than twice that distance.”

“And that assumes flat ground, no major obstacles, no mechanical issues,” Laura said. She and Henri had been making a lot of trips out to Fort Fletcher. She knew what the runabout could do.

“Okay. Let’s talk about the pieces on the board. Good news first. Athena Base has plenty of everything. Better, we’ve got spare rover batteries, the big ones for Clifford and the smaller ones for the runabout. If we can get one of the big ones to Clifford, they ought to be able to drive out of the storm and clear the dust. At that point, Clifford can get home the old-fashioned way.”

“Assuming the storm doesn’t follow them,” Laura said.

“Assuming,” Jake confirmed. “We’ve also got a bunch of methane that Athena I was kind enough to leave behind. We can make more if we run out.”

“We won’t run out,” Alexei said.

“Obviously we’re going to need to haul some extra fuel for the runabout. Laura, Henri, I’m going to requisition your sample storage tank. The big one that you’re storing the Fletcher water samples in.”

Laura nodded, “I’m fine with that, but where will we put the water?”

“We’re going to use the empty fuel tanks from the old Aurora. We’ll keep your water in those tanks and pump it out after we’re done with this little operation,” Jake said.

“No problem,” Laura said.

“So, the tank is twenty gallons. The runabout’s internal tank holds ten,” Jake said.

“Is that not it?” Henri asked. “That effectively doubles its range. You could get all the way to the lab rover and most of the way back.”

“Yes, but not all the way back,” Alexei said.

Henri continued, “You carry the fuel tank and a spare battery for Clifford…”

Jake stopped him, “The runabout’s flatbed can’t carry the tank and a spare battery for Clifford. It’s a matter of cargo space.”

“Could we not augment the flatbed?” Henri asked.

Laura interjected, “There’s also the weight issue. If you augment the flatbed, that will add weight. Plus the weight of the fuel tank. Plus the weight of the rescue battery. The runabout is good, but it’s not that good. It can tow, it can run, but towing and running together, for more than twice its designed limits…”

She let the thought hang in the air.

A long moment’s silence fell over the quartet as they sat around the table. Laura had begun it, so she felt confident enough to break it.

She emitted a small hmmm. “It’s enough fuel to reach them without relying on the battery. If you could reach Clifford, could they not simply use the battery on the runabout and tow the runabout back behind them?”

Jake shook his head, “The batteries for the runabout are smaller than the ones for Clifford.”

“Doesn’t the runabout have two?” Alexei asked.

“Not really. The cockpit battery is just to run the internal systems. That won’t do a bit of good with powering the wheels. The drive battery is what gets you the seventy-five miles. But that’s seventy-five miles on the runabout. Clifford is three times its size.”

“Even the smaller drive battery is still power,” Laura said.

“I don’t like the idea of asking Clifford to haul itself out of a storm, towing another rover, without full sunlight, on a smaller battery. It’s risky.”

“You could leave the runabout behind,” Laura said.

Jake winced, “We’d never be able to go beyond walk-back distance again. Not even out to Fort Fletcher.”

“We may not have a choice if they don’t have enough solar to run their internal life support,” Laura said.

“For the moment, they do. Houston is getting their telemetry. They’re still running heaters and fans. If it comes to that, the suits can last them for a day or two as well.”

“The storm will get worse. We don’t know if they’ll have enough daylight to hold out,” Laura said.

“I agree, but I just don’t love the idea of sending out a rescue that will need to be rescued in turn. If something goes wrong, we could end up with three astronauts needing help and three more stuck here without a single working rover.”

“We’re already risking that,” Laura said.

“What about the counter to this?” Henri asked.

“What do you mean?” Jake asked.

“Are we sure they could not ride out the storm on a bare minimum of power? Shut down everything but heat and fans and simply wait?” Henri asked.

“Would you be willing to bet your own life on that?” Alexei asked.

“I’m just asking,” Henri said.

“We’re going to operate under the assumption that this will get worse before it gets better,” Jake said. He turned to Laura, “I’m not opposed to your idea if it comes down to a ticking clock, but I’m convinced we can come up with a plan that will have both rovers come back here under their own power.”

“What’s your plan?” Laura asked.

“I haven’t gotten it all figured out yet. I know we’ll need to convert the water tank into a fuel tank. I’m thinking about…”

He was cut off by three pings that echoed through the HAB module. The main viewing screen displayed a bright red screen with white letters.


Jake nodded to the communications station behind Laura. “Laura, not to turn you into Uhura, but do you mind?”

She nodded and turned, swiveling to activate the laptop at the station.

“It’s a downlink, from Orion,” Laura said.

“What is it?” Jake said.

“It’s data. Relayed in from Clifford,” Laura said, scanning the screen.

“Distress signal?” Henri asked.

“No, it’s image files. They’re coming in slowly. I’m sending them to the big screen. You should have them in just a moment,” Laura said.

“They must be sending their geology data. Maybe didn’t want to risk losing it if the computers freeze,” Jake said.

Laura shook her head, “I don’t think so. This data set doesn’t seem large enough for that.”

“Maybe they’re just sending the choicest bits,” Henri said. “They can’t spare power for a long transmission.”

The first file came up on the large screen. It was a photograph of Charlie, sitting at the desk in Clifford’s lab section. She was holding a legal pad. On the pad itself was a simple message.



“Charlie,” Jake said. The single word was really all he needed to say.

The next image downloaded, and Laura sent it to the screen.

It was a closeup of another page on the legal pad. There were some sketches, but what stood out the most were the words at the top of the page.

Jake was the first to react, “Of course she would give a code name to her own rescue mission.”

Laura frowned, “What’s ‘Operation Black Buck’?”

1 March 2003

Athena Base

Athena II

Sol 257

It had taken a day to prep.

Emptying the water sample storage tank. Carefully stowing the water in Aurora’s old tanks. Charging every battery straight from the solar farm. Alexei and Henri had been assigned to handle the methane from the old Athena I hardware. While that had been going on, Jake and Laura had pored over every inch of the runabout. They had swapped out the driver’s side forward wheel. They’d changed out three of the gears that had shown signs of wear. And they’d set up brackets to hold the twenty-gallon storage tank. The one that would hold the methane.

When the sun had set, everything was in place. The runabout had been hooked up to the charger all night. When dawn came over Athena Base, Jake was ready.

First order of business was a slow pre-flight check for the runabout. He’d been over every inch three times yesterday, but if this little road show proved anything it’s that you could never be too cautious.

The runabout had been dusted off and was as clean as it had ever been while on this planet. Its white cockpit looked like an oversized technological egg. The flatbed made the vehicle seem like a pickup truck for aliens. When you added the cylindrical twenty-gallon storage tank, now laid on its side and braced on two sets of legs, the whole thing seemed like it might be a logistical vehicle for some invading force of aliens.

From the perspective of a Martian, that’s exactly what it was.

Jake gave one last pat to the methane tank. On either side of it were three solar panels, six in total, which would be dropped off at what they were already calling Site B. He tightened the straps on the harness that held the panels. A pair of aluminum rods had been fashioned into makeshift flag poles. One of his own green t-shirts had been dragooned into use for this operation and wrapped around the poles on either end. He’d had it to spare. When all this was over, if he brought them home, the rags might make a very interesting museum piece.

Jake carried an airtight gym bag. Inside were two bottles of water, two turkey sandwiches, a CD player, and every Beatles CD available to the public at large.

He slid into the cockpit, sealed the hatch behind him, doffed his helmet, and connected his suit’s umbilical to the runabout’s armrest.

“Athena Base, this is the Red Runner. How copy, over?”

“Runner, this is Athena Base. Reading you five-by-five, over,” Laura’s perfectly accented English would guide him out, and, hopefully, back. Today might well be the toughest of the trips. If this ridiculous operation had any chance of success, it needed to be.

The center console had a simple toggle that converted the rover between battery power and methane power. He very carefully moved the toggle from BATT to CH4. Then waited for the tell-tale whirr that indicated the mechanical change in locomotion. The vehicle hadn’t moved an inch. He reported in.

“Runner on gas. Departing. Can I get a clock confirmation, please?”

“Runner, Athena. Clock confirmation is Sunrise plus thirty-four minutes over.”

“Confirmed, Athena. Setting mission clock to zero. Tripometer to zero. Pulling out.”

“Copy that, Runner. Good luck and safe travels. We’ll see you in about fourteen hours.”

Jake hit the buttons on the dashboard to reset the vehicle’s internal timer and individual trip odometer. When they both flashed to zero, he put the rover in gear.

Taking an S-turn around HAB 2 and the solar panel farm and then he was away. He aimed the vehicle due west. To do so relied on navigation data relayed from Orion and the few probes still in orbit. The rover’s internal navigation systems would have to be very precise for this to work. But the system had gotten Laura and Henri out and back to Fort Fletcher more than half a dozen times. He trusted it as much as could be expected.

When the rover was clear of Athena Base’s footprint, he locked the navigation and set the cruise control to the blistering speed of twenty-five miles per hour. For a man who hadn’t driven a proper car in more than a year, it felt like he was at the controls of a dragster on the salt flats of Bonneville.

“Athena, Runner. Max speed confirmed. Due West. Talk to me ‘til we lose comms, if you please.”

“Copy Jake. Congrats on breaking the Martian land speed record. Another for the history books. Trust the Americans to go to all the way to another planet just to drive fast.”

“Manifest Destiny, Athena,” Jake said.

The radio link would only work while he had line of sight to the base’s antenna. Even with the height of the HAB and the small radio tower, the total range was less than 10 miles. It wasn’t a matter of power, just line of sight. The Martian horizon was the big problem here and no amount of voltage could overcome it.

Relaying a signal off of Orion or one of the other birds was a matter of timing. They knew when the windows would open, but all the consultation in the world wouldn’t help him fix a broken axle or a short circuit.

For the next one-hundred and fifty miles, Jake Jensen would have only himself, a toolkit, and his trusty rover separating him from a death on the lone prairie.

He gave Athena one final thanks as the radio crackled into static. Then he broke out the CD player and started with Love Me Do.

In a little less than three hours, he’d arrive at Site A.

1 March 2003

Red Runner – Site A (120 km W of Athena Base)

Athena II

Sol 257

Figuring out the exact distance wasn’t really necessary. It would have helped and been psychologically satisfying, but the limitations of the hardware were the bigger factor.

The engine began to fade out as the methane ran dry. He turned off Twist and Shout to listen to the vehicle. The steady semi-audible pocketa-pocketa-pocketa began to fade, right on schedule, at about three hours into the drive. When the rover coasted to a stop, it’s primary fuel tank now dry as a bone, he turned off the systems and exited the vehicle.

“Welcome to Site A,” Jake said, to no one in particular.

He began with the methane tank. It was the biggest, bulkiest piece of equipment, and he wanted to deal it first in case his back decided to become an issue today.

Sliding the cumbersome tank off the back of the flatbed was more a matter of finesse than force. The Martian gravity helped quite a bit. He kept a firm grip on the tank’s makeshift legs as he brought it to the ground. From there, he pulled and cut a neat pair of furrows into the red soil under his feet. The thwump as the other legs fell a single meter to the surface was a bit jarring, but the tank was made of stern stuff and had survived the bump without a problem.

It was chilling to think that you were the only human around for seventy-five miles in any direction. That kind of isolation wasn’t known to many. He had time to think about that as he refilled the runner’s fuel tank from the big tank’s supply. It would take a few minutes to pump, and Jake used the time wisely.

As half of the methane transferred from the big tank to the smaller one, he took one of the aluminum poles from the flatbed and began to jam it into the ground. They’d sharpened one end of the rod into the red planet’s first man-made spear. The rod itself was light, but long. It didn’t have to be strong, just tall. The front half of the hunter green t-shirt at the top was emblazoned with a white A that had been hand-painted on the chest. All told, it towered over the flat ground that stretched for miles. The little flagpole, smaller than a backyard basketball goal, would mark the site for the next few days. The scrap of shirt hung limp from the top. The thin Martian air would never loft it as a proper flag, but, it was hoped, the stark contrast of green cotton against the red soil would stand out from a distance.

After the rover’s tank was full once more, Jake took a moment to survey the area. He took several photographs in every direction and a few of his handiwork with the tank and flagpole. Such records might be the difference between failure and success.

With the runner’s supply of fuel and battery power back to maximum, Jake reentered the little rover. Reverently, he reached for the toggle and flipped the runner to battery power. He could almost sense the electric hum coursing through the internal circuitry. He set off to chase the Western horizon.

It would be another three hours until he reached Site B. He couldn’t help but chuckle when Drive My Car came through the CD player’s speakers.

1 March 2003

Red Runner – Site B (240 km W of Athena Base)

Athena II

Sol 257

The first thing he did when the runner coasted to a stop was try the radio.

It was wishful thinking, little more than blind hope. Clifford was over the horizon and not very tall. He tried anyway, though his telemetry confirmed that Orion was on the opposite side of the planet and could be of no help.

“Clifford, this is the runabout. Do you read, over?”


He went to the back of the flatbed and began pulling down the solar panels. Unlike the big gas tank, they were much easier to handle, and it took less than twenty minutes to arrange and wire them.

“Clifford, this is the runabout. Transmitting in the blind. How copy, over?”


He sighed, “That would have made this easier,” he thought.

It was no simple matter to climb under the runabout’s chassis. There was little ground clearance, and it violated all his astronaut instincts to slide along the dirt, on his back, in an EVA suit. Still, there was nothing else for it. He carefully disengaged the runabout’s drive battery, slid it off its latches, and carried it over to his fledgling solar farm.

Looking up, the sky seemed bright enough. Off to the west, he could see dimmer skies and darker haze. Intellectually, he knew that he was already within the dust storm, but he could not bring himself to sense any danger. The panels he’d laid out were not seeing full sunlight, but the plan didn’t require them to. All was well here, if a bit overcast.

He triple-checked the wiring and confirmed that the solar panels were charging his runabout’s dead battery. There was no chance the battery would be able to charge fully before the sun went down. The next sol would, hopefully, supply it with enough juice to get to one hundred percent.

Either way, Jake couldn’t wait around for that to happen.

He planted the 2nd aluminum pole to mark his location as Site B, then boarded the rover once more.

As the systems hummed to life, he put the machine in gear. Nothing happened.

A flash of panic sent a chill down his spine.

It took a moment to remember the issue. He carefully pulled the console toggle from BATT to CH4. The runabout took a moment to switch over, and he confirmed a full tank of gas from his refueling back at Site A.

Then, he made the most interesting maneuver of this entire trip. A single U-turn that pointed him east. The afternoon sun was high and just over his shoulder.

The challenge now was to retrace his path and find Site A once more. There were enough tracks in the dirt that navigation was obvious, but the thin air would have three more hours to work while he drove.

1 March 2003

Red Runner – Site A (120 km W of Athena Base)

Athena II

Sol 257

The flag had been helpful, but not essential. The runner’s gas tank ran dry about fifty yards from where he’d parked it seven hours ago. He put the rover in neutral and pushed. The vehicle was much lighter with no battery and an empty fuel tank.

When he was close enough to reach the twenty-gallon tank, he stopped. The big tank sat, half full, right where he’d left it this morning.

It was an easy matter to transfer the remaining methane from the big storage tank to the rover’s internal fuel tank. After that, it was a little trickier to load up the dry storage tank back onto the flatbed. It wasn’t so much a matter of strength as, ironically, energy. He was tired from nine hours of driving and another two hours of manual labor. The sun was ahead of him now, racing for that horizon. There were three hours between him and home. He needed to move quickly if he wanted to reach Athena Base before dark.

As he settled into the runabout’s cockpit and headed east, he thought about the progress that had been made today.

Site B now was home to a small solar farm, only six panels, but better than nothing. The battery he’d left behind would have a full sol to charge up. And he’d left behind a flagpole to mark the location.

Still, Site B was a swirling maelstrom of activity compared to Site A. Site A’s only trace of his journey today was a few marks in the sand and the other flagpole.

He drove over his own tire tracks as he headed east. The more he could make that path distinctive, the easier this week would be.

Three hours later, Jake Jensen returned to Athena Base, five hundred yards shy of HAB 2. The sun was behind him, sinking under the horizon, as he trudged the last quarter mile on foot. He could feel the cold in his feet. The runabout had travelled three hundred miles on this sol, but it couldn’t get him the last little bit home.

He’d have to give the rover a good going over before he left again tomorrow.

2 March 2003

Athena Base

Athena II

Sol 258

Mercifully, Houston and the rest of the crew had let him sleep in. Today’s road trip wasn’t nearly as intensive.

On their own volition, Alexei and Laura had woken up at daybreak to handle the prep.

They’d pushed the runabout in from the quarter-mile distant parking spot where it had finally given out. With loving care, they filled its internal tank, and the big storage tank in the flatbed. Putting a new drive battery in place had been a bit difficult, but having two people made the work go a bit smoother.

By the time Jake had woken, breakfasted, and suited up, his chariot awaited.

Yesterday had been a long-haul journey, testing his nerve and his vehicle. By comparison, today’s trip was a milk run.

He still packed two sandwiches, but he only planned to eat one. The careful power conservation that yesterday’s trip had depended on was not necessary for this little out-and-back.

Jake sent a polite acknowledgement to Laura and the gang, then sped off west and headed back to Site A. The tracks he made yesterday were fresh enough to give him some reassurance. A pair of dark ruts against the rust-colored sand.

He’d chosen Ticket To Ride as his outbound send-off. The upbeat tone gave him a bit of a morale boost as Athena Base’s signal faded out.

Three hours to Site A.

Seven hours later, Laura Winters frowned at the console inside HAB 1.

“Runner, this is Base. Repeat, runner this is Base. How copy, over?”

The silence was troubling.

She was about to report to Houston that Jake was overdue when the little speakers blared to life.

“Base, this is Runner. Drop complete. I’m heading in now. Fuel tank is dry as a martini. Might need a push, over.”

Laura smiled wide at the radio set and acknowledged her mission commander.

“Runner, Athena. Good to hear from you. We were starting to get worried. You’re a bit tardy. Was there trouble?”

“Athena, Runner. Negative. I got the tank unloaded at A and then had lunch. Piled up a few rocks to support the flagpole. Just wasn’t in a hurry this time.”

“Copy, Runner. We got your ping from Orion when you were approaching Site A. That was the last we heard until now. Very glad to have you back.”

“Athena, Runner. Just ran out of gas. I’m about two-hundred yards from the HAB. Would you ask Henri and Alexei to come out here and push this thing back in? I’d like to get to a bathroom while I still have some dignity here.”

“Any trouble with the runner?” Laura asked.

“Not at all. This baby was good to the last drop.”

GNN Mars.png

2 March 2003

GNN NewsNight

“Doctor Musgrave, thank you for joining us tonight. What’s the latest on the rescue?”

“Good evening, Tamara. Things are going well. Commander Jensen has completed the first two runs of the five that will be required. At this point we have a battery for the runabout charging at Site B, and a full storage tank of methane at Site A. We are now in what we call a decision window. The engineering teams in Houston are monitoring all telemetry from Clifford and Orion tonight. Before tomorrow morning, we will decide whether to proceed with the original plan or if we can go ahead with a full resupply tomorrow.”

“What’s the determining factor, Dr. Musgrave?” O’Neil asked.

“The lab rover, Clifford, has been trying to make progress to get out of the storm. The problem is that the diminished sunlight isn’t providing much battery power. Over the last two days, Clifford has moved about two miles. That’s about eight miles short of where we need it to be to try the resupply without further trips.”

“Was there any progress today, doctor?”

“When I left the operations center, we were still analyzing the data. The last I saw, it looked like Clifford was moving, but we don’t know when or where it will stop.”

“Doctor Musgrave, could you shed some light on how we got to this point? Tell us about how this situation progressed.”

“First Tamara, I think it’s important to understand that the situation is very much under control. The plan to resupply the lab rover is working exactly as we’ve anticipated. At this time, we are able to say that astronauts Hickory and Morrison have everything they need to last for several days.

Tamara decided to cut through the haze a bit.

“Dr. Musgrave… Story, I understand that NASA is loathe to refer to these trips as a rescue mission, but is it fair to say that the situation got out of hand? Even if it was for reasons beyond anyone’s control?”

Story Musgrave conceded the point with a shrug and a nod, “I think we can acknowledge that the situation with the dust storm was unexpected. Martian weather forecasting is a science that is far younger than weather forecasting here on Earth. And I think we all know how reliable that is.”

Tamara allowed herself to be charmed by that response, “I don’t think anyone would say that NASA has intentionally allowed the situation to become untenable. I do think that we can describe this as a rescue operation without succumbing to melodrama. Now, could you tell us how we got here, Story?”

“Yes, ma’am. Hickory and Morrison were out on what we call a D3 excursion.”


“It’s short for drive, dig, and drop. Basically, we send out a team in a rover. They drive to the areas we’re interested in, dig for samples, and take other readings, then we deploy a rover and leave it at the site. The rovers are solar powered, and they stay behind, controlled either from Earth, or from Athena Base. It lets us maximize our science potential at places where we can’t linger for days on end. It’s what we do for places we want to explore at the edge of our driving capabilities.”

“But they’re very far out,” O’Neil said.

“Yes, in this case, we’re stringing together a series of D3 excursions. The idea is to maximize the amount of exploration we can get with limited consumables. The rover is packed with as many supplies as possible and that way we can do one big road trip as opposed to six or seven smaller ones. Stopping at each site for an extended period to recharge the batteries allows the team to go farther out.”

“But the problem is that Morrison and Hickory are beyond the runabout’s overall range. Was that not anticipated?” O’Neil said.

“Clifford is designed to be a long-haul rover. It’s designed to keep astronauts alive during long trips. This resupply is being done because we didn’t plan on a dust storm of this intensity. We haven’t seen one this bad in the last two decades of observation. I’m sure, from now on, such storms will be planned for.”

“Story, can you tell us a bit about the conditions onboard Clifford right now? What life like for Hickory and Morrison aboard the rover?”

“From what we’re getting from their telemetry, we know they have had enough power to run the heaters on minimal settings. They’ve conserved power to communications for the most part. All they are sending is the rover’s automated data. They have plenty of food and their water systems are more than adequate. I’d say the biggest problem they have now is boredom. We know from the data that they’ve been cycling the airlock, which means they are walking around a bit during the daytime, but they probably don’t go too far from the rover. Likely they are trying to do some geology work while they wait.”

“If we could talk to them right now, what do you think their biggest complaint would be?”

“From what we see of their telemetry, the nights have gotten pretty cold.”

2 March 2003

Excursion Rover “Clifford” (300 km W of Athena Base)

Athena II

Sol 258

When the battery hit fifteen percent, he’d shut down the drive motors. After that, there had been a quick EVA to deploy the solar panels yet again. They hadn’t made as much progress as Charlie had hoped. She’d already declared that these herky-jerky jaunts were a waste of power and effort.

As usual, she was right.

Brett stared at the empty bunk that waited for him. He was wrapped in three blankets. Fully dressed and still he shivered. Since the rover couldn’t take him any farther, he tried to travel in his mind.

He remembered home being so far away. Joshua trees and humidity. Those old damp shoes that were always uncomfortable.

Still, he’d have given anything to be back in Louisiana right now. Gators and mosquitos and oxygen. Any shade of green you liked could be found in the bayou.

He’d trade every red rock within three hundred miles for a gator filled swamp and a shitty beer from Castor’s Pub.

“We can either run the heater a little extra tonight and not have comms ‘til morning, or go minimal again and save the juice for the radio in case they call tonight,” he said.

“They know where we are. Run the heater,” Charlie said. She closed her sleeping bag and turned away.

The heater would be his only source of warmth tonight.

3 March 2003

Athena Base

Athena II

Sol 259

Houston had sent the confirmation at about three in the morning. It was the first thing he saw when he walked into the wardroom of the HAB.

Jake called up the message on the main monitor.

“Athena Base, this is Houston. We confirm your read of the situation. Clifford has not made enough progress and cannot be safely reached by the runabout with the current assets. We advise to continue with the original Black Buck plan. We will be in contact. Good luck today. Houston out.”

Jake nodded. Again, this was to be expected. Clifford’s batteries had barely enough juice to run its internal systems. Asking them to drive ten miles was not feasible. Charlie had built in the backup plan as a bonus; just in case things turned out better than they’d hoped.

He’d never bought in to that wishful thinking.

After breakfast, he and Alexei had loaded a fully charged runabout drive battery onto the flatbed. He dreaded another thirteen-hour excursion just to drop off a battery far beyond the horizon, but this was the business he’d chosen.

Ten years ago, if someone had offered him the chance to drive for thirteen hours on Mars, he’d have paid any price they could name.

“More Beatles today, Jake?” Laura asked over the radio as he mounted up.

“I heard it all over the last two days,” Jake said, honestly. It was no exaggeration. He’d spent eighteen hours in the rover over the last forty-eight.

“What are you putting on today? Don’t tell me you’re listening to classical,” Laura said.

“No way. Not that desperate,” he said, curving around the solar farm and heading west.

“What are you putting on then?” Laura asked.

“A bunch of stuff Molly sent up. Figured I’d see what the kids are listening to these days,” Jake said.

Laura listened to him moving things around in the cockpit. The clattering of a plastic case and a latch.

“Who’s first?”

“Somebody named John Mayer,” Jake said.

“I hear he’s good,” Laura said.

“I’ll let you know tonight,” Jake said.

3 March 2003

Red Runner – Site A (120 km W of Athena Base)

Athena II

Sol 259

Pulling into Site A, he was now seriously wondering what good it was to be on Mars.

Why blaze a trail for these younger generations who preferred Matchbox 20 and Blink 182 as opposed to the true classics?

What was the purpose of creating a better world for children that felt like Counting Crows were better than Van Morrison?

In all honesty, he’d have to admit, John Mayer could play a decent guitar.

Humming one of the catchier songs from Room For Squares, he refueled the runabout, just as he’d done two sols ago. The nice part was he didn’t have to unload the storage tank from the flatbed this time. It was already waiting for him on the ground.

He took a bit of pride that his flagpole was still standing as well.

In less than thirty minutes, he was on the road again.

Just as he had last time, he departed Site A with a full tank of gas. He headed for Site B on battery power. That was critical for the plan.

3 March 2003

Red Runner – Site B (240 km W of Athena Base)

Athena II

Sol 259

Leaving Site A, he’d been resolved to ride in silence rather than bear up against modern music. But an hour into the trip, the humming buzz of the fans had started to annoy him, so he decided to give the Counting Crows another shot.

Two hours later, he could admit that Mr. Jones was pretty good.

His little solar farm was busily soaking up what sunlight could reach the surface. He couldn’t be completely sure, but he felt like it was dimmer here than it had been two sols ago. Meteorology would confirm that, if he could raise Houston. Alas, the orbital gods had not smiled upon them. He had to do this bit of work in privacy.

Once again, he disengaged the now-drained drive battery from the runner’s chassis. He’d done it once already and it was simpler this time. He connected his dead battery to the little solar farm he’d constructed before, taking back the one he’d left behind on his first trip.

He plugged the newly recovered battery back into the runabout. He saw the little green bar brighten all the way and the digital readout said he had a full charge. It was very reassuring. This plan, for all its mousetrap tenuousness, was working perfectly.

Carefully, he removed the extra battery that had been stowed on the flatbed. It was already at full charge so there was no need to wire it up. He simply left it sitting beside the dead battery.

Now Site B boasted one fully charged runabout drive battery, one that would be fully charged in two sols. He would need both for the rescue trip two sols from now.

He didn’t bother to put in another useless hail to Clifford. He knew, with a calculated certainty, that it was beyond his horizon. This series of road trips would save Charlie and Brett, but not today.

Mounting up once more, he switched the rover to gas power, pulled a U-turn, and headed east.

3 March 2003

Red Runner – Site A (120 km W of Athena Base)

Athena II

Sol 259

The runner, unburdened by any cargo in the flatbed, got all the way to Site A with a few wisps of fuel to spare.

He greeted the big storage tank once again. Over the past few sols he’d had a love-hate relationship with this big twenty-gallon behemoth. When he finally was done with it, he’d be glad to never lug it around again. Give it back the water that had been so ungraciously taken from it and leave it alone forever.

For now, just as he already had two sols ago, he filled the runner with another tank of gas, loaded the empty storage tank into the flatbed, and headed for home, determined to beat the sunset.

He didn’t know which would feel better: the bathroom, the shower, or the bed. When he went to sleep tonight, Site B would have two drive batteries charging. Site A would just have the flagpole. And he would only have two more trips to make.

4 March 2003

Athena Base

Athena II

Sol 260

Compared to the long-haul trips, this was just a milk run. He was getting used to his confinement. The idea of being in solitary for six hours was downright enjoyable over the thirteen that he’d spent in the rover yesterday.

He’d learned from the last milk run. Packing two sandwiches was just wasteful. He set out from Athena Base with just one sandwich this time, but he did pack an extra bottle of water.

Again, the crew had been kind enough to handle the tank for him. When he walked out to the runabout, the storage tank was fully fueled and on its brackets.

After the ear-numbing disaster that was his daughter’s Creed album, he’d decided to let someone else pick his musical accompaniment for this quick out-and-back.

Laura had selected Rite of Spring and some Chopan. He shrugged when the orchestra came up.

By the time he reached Site A, he was a convert.

5 March 2003

Athena Base

Athena II

Sol 261

He was up early the next morning. He’d gone to bed early the previous night. This was the big day. He fought the urge to call it the final day. He was resolved that it would be many sols before he would step foot in a rover again. Either Clifford or the runabout. He’d had enough time in that little alien egg for a lifetime.

“You want to go over the plan before you’re out of range?” Laura said.

“You mean the plan we’ve spent the last week working up to? The one I’ve got written on four different cards here?” Jake asked, as he drove past the solar farm.

“Yes, that one,” Laura said, deadpan.

“Okay. I’m driving to Site A,” Jake said.

“On petrol power,” Laura said.

“Methane, but who’s counting?” Jake said.

“Continue,” Laura said.

“When I reach Site A, I’ll gas up. At that point the rover will have a full battery and a full tank. The storage tank at A will still be half full for when I get back there tonight,” Jake said.

“Good so far,” Laura said.

“I switch over to battery power for the trip to Site B,” Jake said.

“Very critical. Why is that?” Laura said, like an elementary school teacher going through a lesson.

“So that I’ve still got a full tank of gas at Site B,” Jake said.

“And what happens at Site B?” Laura said.

“Swap out my dead drive battery for one of the live ones at B,” Jake said. “Then drive this big honkin’ battery that I’ve got on my back now out to Clifford.”

“Where you’ll unload Clifford’s new ‘big honkin’ battery’ and they’ll pull themselves out of the storm,” Laura said.

“I gotta tell you, Winters. This whole thing was worth it just to hear ‘big honkin’ battery’ in your fancy British accent.”

“Damned colonists,” she said, wryly. “Tell me how your rebellious arse is going to get home again.”

“When I reach Clifford, I’ll give them the big battery. Then one of them will join me for the trip back.”

Henri piped in over the radio, “No way Charlie Hickory abandons that rover,” he said. “Brett will jump at the chance to come home.”

“Ten bucks says they’ll both want to stay,” Jake said.

“You’re on,” Henri said.

“Focus, you bloody Yank,” Laura said. “How are you getting to Clifford?”

“Battery power,” Jake said, “Pick up Brett or Charlie. Drop the big battery off. Switch over to gas power. Then drive back to Site B.”

“You’ll get there more or less on empty,” Laura said.

“Maybe. Depends on how hard it’ll be to find Clifford.”

“There’s a dust storm. It won’t be easy,” Laura said.

“We’ll see.”

“Don’t muck about with your margins. There’ll be no one there to push you in if you come up two miles short,” Laura said.

“I can always call Clifford if it comes to that. Whoever stays behind will be coming that way anyways.”

“What happens at Site B when you return?” Laura asked.

“Dump the dead drive battery. Load up the second spare that I dropped off two sols ago. Then head for Site A.”

“Where you’ll fill up with more petrol for the trip home,” Laura said.

“Fill up and bring back the empty storage tank,” Jake said. “Leave only footprints. Remember?”

“I do,” Laura said. “Whoever stays behind on Clifford will have to collect your abandoned solar farm at B.”

“If they can find it,” Jake said. “That’ll be a low priority for their return trip home.”

“Time will tell,” Laura paused as Jake neared the edge of radio range. “Do this perfectly.”

“You don’t ask much, do you?” Jake said.

“If all three of you Americans get lost out there, then the flight home will be one Brit in command of a Frenchman and a Russian cosmonaut,” Laura reminded him. “And you’ll be remembered forever as the American who let that happen.”

“A fate worse than death,” Jake said.

“You put me in command, and I’ll rename Orion after King George,” she said.

“Oh, that’s low,” Jake groaned.

“Rule Brittania,” Laura said.

“See you tonight,” Jake said.

5 March 2003

Excursion Rover “Clifford” (300 km W of Athena Base)

Athena II

Sol 261

Brett had to admire Charlie’s confidence.

They’d nearly frozen again last night. It was to the point where he was ready to sleep in his space suit just for the extra layers. She’d put on every bit of clothing she had, as well as half the blankets they’d carried. Now she looked like a futuristic Eskimo, sitting in the driver’s seat, waiting for their rescue.

She’d sent the plans in and had believed that they’d be carried out right on schedule. This was the first time she’d bothered monitoring the ground-based radio bands. She simply assumed that Athena Base had gotten her rescue plan, that it was approved by Houston, and that it had been carried out to perfection.

Because no one had ever died from hubris, right?

He shook his head. At this point, both their lives depended on this plan. He might as well root for the home team.

Wrapped up in his own blankets, he stood behind her chair and listened in on his headset.

“Clifford to runabout. Clifford to runabout. Do you read over?”

Nothing but silence in the earpiece. She’d been trying for five minutes now.

“Runabout, this is Clifford. Do you copy?”

She hadn’t been the most pleasant roommate since the storm had taken them. He wondered if she’d be harder to live with if her plan didn’t worked out. He wasn’t going to waste a prayer on that, but it gnawed at his mind.

“Runabout, this is Clifford. Do you read me?”

For all of her flaws, he still cared for her. Apparently much more than she cared for him. But that last part didn’t matter. He put a hand on her shoulder.

He wanted to say something that would be comforting.


“Clifford, this is the Runner. I have your roadside assistance package. Do you read me?” Jake’s voice filled their headsets.

Charlie lit up, brushing Brett’s hand off her shoulder, “We read you, Runner. Good to hear your voice!” she said. “What’s your status?”

“Green,” Jake said. “Got a drive battery at thirty-eight percent charge. My nav computer says I’m about six miles from your beacon.”

“That’s great to hear,” Charlie said. “What do you have for us?”

“You know damn well what I have for you,” Jake said.

“Tell me anyway,” Charlie said.

“I got a big honkin’ battery for you to haul your AWOL asses out of this storm,” Jake said.

Charlie’s smile lit up the cockpit. “That’s great!”

“I’m giving you a live battery; you’ll dump your dead one. Once we get the new battery in, Houston says one of you rides home with me, the other will drive Clifford back alone. I’d do it myself, but at this point, both of you have more driving experience with that thing than anyone alive,” Jensen said.

“I’ll stay,” both Charlie and Brett said together.

Jensen laughed, “Henri owes me ten bucks. Work it out amongst yourselves.”

“We’ll flip a coin,” Brett said, laughing giddily at this happy turn of fate.

“And I didn’t pack a lunch for whoever is joining me, so I’d eat hardy if I were you,” Jake said. The headset crackled again.

“We’re on it,” Charlie said.

“If you can spare the juice, in about ten minutes, flip on your overhead light. This storm is thick enough as it is and we’re losing the sunlight. I need all the help I can get to find you. I’ve got your beacon guiding me in, but I’m worried I’m gonna lose it if I have to detour around a boulder, or if this dust gets any thicker,” Jake said.

“We can spare the juice,” Brett replied.

“Whatever you dragged me out here for, I hope it was worth it,” Jake said.

Charlie looked over her shoulder at the sample bags piled up in the corner.

“It is.”

5 March 2003

Athena Base

Athena II

Sol 261

Charlie had lost the coin toss and rode back with him. He’d have to have a come-to-Jesus conversation with her at some point, but that could wait. He had relished watching her load up the empty storage tank at Site A. She’d made this mess, of that he was sure. He had no end of pleasure watching her help clean it up.

Brett was on his way home. More than a hundred and fifty miles back, but safe, warm, and moving. He’d be able to clear the storm and make the trek without any further assistance.

“Hey, before we get back, I wanted to ask, what the hell was ‘Black Buck’ anyway?” Jake asked.

Charlie spoke as if the answer was obvious, “Falkland Islands. The British needed to bomb that airstrip. The bombers couldn’t reach, even with the refueling tankers. So they sent up tankers to resupply the tankers. Built it up like a staircase. Tankers refueling tankers refueling tankers refueling bombers. All those supply runs. They were like the tanker sorties. It was the only way to get you out there and make sure you had a way back home.”

Jake looked askance at her, “The Falkland Islands?”

“I’m surprised Laura didn’t get the reference. I knew someone in Houston would if the image got through. I put it on the first card in case that was all that got through. I assumed they’d think of it the same way I did.”

He shook his head. Trust Charlie to pull some obscure bit of trivia out to save the day. Even if it was the day she’d almost ruined in the first place.

At this point, Jake knew when he was in radio range of the base. He’d done this every day for the past four days. There was a little rock, like a rounded pyramid, about half the height of one of the runabout’s wheels. About a hundred yards after he passed it, the little pigtail antenna would have line of sight to the two-meter radio tower on top of HAB 1.

As they came past that particular rock, he’d been regaling Charlie with Laura’s worry that she’d have to come home without the dumb Americans that had been lost on the dusty plains. Charlie was amused at her roommate’s worry.

He and Charlie were still close, despite the years and the miles that had tried their friendship. They chose to announce their return with typical American gusto.

“Base to runner. Base to runner. Do you read?” Laura’s voice came over the radio.

Jake gestured to the rover’s dashboard, inviting her to give the confirmation.

“Oh, bury me not, on the lone prairie…” Charlie sang.

6 March 2003

Athena Base

Athena II

Sol 261

The questions had been prerecorded. They would play one at a time, then Charlie would react to each in turn. It was the closest they could get to a live interview. It also gave the astronaut time to think and rethink each response. The public affairs office was a big fan of the speed of light.

Tamara O’Neil’s face came up when Charlie clicked the first of the recordings. She wore her signature charcoal grey suit. The GNN logo behind her was graced with the image of Mars, rather than the usual shot of Earth. GNN had made a point to be a leader in coverage of the Athena missions.

“Doctor Hickory, thank you so much for joining us tonight. We are eager to hear about your adventure and your exciting discovery,” Tamara said.

Charlie pondered for a moment and then hit the record button, speaking into the camera at the crest of the laptop.

“Thank you, Tamara. It sure feels good to be back home again. He won’t hear this for a while, but I want to send my thanks and good wishes to Brett Morrison, who is still out on the road. We expect he’ll be back next week, and I couldn’t have asked for a better shipmate out there.”

She went on, “We had quite a time on the road. Our stops were very productive. The mini-rovers we left behind are still in place, though they have been left dormant until the storm passes.”

“The last site we visited had our big surprise. We found deposits of opal, which, if you remember your old Earth science classes from middle school, is a gem that you only find when you have water. The fact that we found a seam of it would indicate that that there may be more water in that area. If that’s the case, it’ll be the second time we’ve found a significant source. That could mean we have much more water that can be accessed and used, which will help our long-term plans.”

As she spoke, Charlie held up a sample bag and the shiny opal shard glinted inside the rusty rock it was embedded within. Watching from the other side of the room, Jake wondered if it would show up well on camera.

Charlie fielded a few more questions about the rescue operation. Jake let her finish. The others were downstairs or outside. He hadn’t told them he needed privacy, but everyone just knew.

“Pretty rock,” he said, sitting down next to her, pointing to the bag that lay on the desk.

Charlie turned to face him. She didn’t speak. She didn’t need to.

“Charlie, you’ve got to stop this,” he said. “We’re living in tin cans. That’s no place for a loose cannon.”

She kept her face blank and her mouth shut. Jake was surprised.

“I talked to Darren back in Houston on a private loop. He’s pissed, but he understands. Everyone understands. I just didn’t want you to think that we all don’t know exactly what happened out there.”

Again, Charlie didn’t flinch.

“Communications were spotty. You had to make a call. You found the big science thing. Everyone prefers a hero to a mutineer. You’ll get away with this. You shouldn’t, but you will,” Jake said.

“Genius buys a lot,” Charlie said, impassively.

Jake didn’t take the bait.

“Charlie, I know you think you should have been left-seat for this. I know a lot of people back home think the same thing.”

“And you’re gonna tell me why I’m not?” Charlie asked.

“When I put a life at risk, it’s my own,” Jake said.

“Look, we’re all risking our lives here…” Charlie started.

“Shut up!” he yelled. Jake slammed a palm on the table. She wasn’t hearing him, and he needed her too. Maybe if he was louder.

His patience had been tested by more than five days of road trips and lost time. He’d be damned if she would logic her way out of this.

The outburst wasn’t helping. It was born of frustration. He reeled himself in.

He sighed and looked at her. There was a way to do this and a way not to. He had to find it. His voice became even and measured again.

“I’ve got more respect for drug users than drunk drivers,” he said, quietly.

She blinked, not quite sure what to do with that.

“A guy who shoots up heroin in his living room, he’s got his own problems. Victimless crime, I think they call it.”

Charlie nodded.

“That same guy shoots up and then goes out on the freeway, and now we’ve got a problem. Plenty of victims out there. Just a matter of time before he runs into someone. In his living room, he can only hurt himself. But out on the interstate, he could hit me, or my kid, or a bus full of kids. You get what I’m saying?”

Charlie nodded.

“You want to die for opal, I doubt I can stop you. I think it’s dumb, but I really can’t stop you. But you put Brett in danger and that’s not okay,” Jake said.

Charlie sat with that thought for a beat longer than she needed to.

“You also put the whole program in danger. If Brett doesn’t mean that much to you, maybe the future of spaceflight does.”

Charlie nodded.

“Are you gonna be punitive?” she asked.

“Like what? Put you in Mars jail?” he scoffed.

She shrugged.

He laid down the law, “From now on, we follow orders. We do not take undue risks. We are good little astronauts all the way back to Earth. Got it?”

Charlie nodded.

“Okay,” Jake said. And that was that, “Now, let’s get a plan together for when Brett gets back. I think we need a trip to do maintenance at the southern weather station…”

12 March 2003

Athena Base

Athena II

Sol 268

There had been a nice little celebration when Brett came back in. After the others had gone to bed, Jake broke into his private stash and joined his third-in-command for a quiet drink at the main table. Brett hadn’t told him the truth about what happened out there. That wasn’t as bad as Charlie’s thing, but it still needed to be dealt with.

“So, you came back,” Jake said.

“Yeah, Charlie was on the money. She always is,” Brett said.

“How long you think that’ll last?” Jake said. Brett gave him a look and he elaborated, “One day she’s going to be wrong.”

“Well, it’s not this day,” Brett said.

Jensen sighed, “She never loses. You really don’t want to lose for the first time on Mars.”

“She knows the risks. We all do,” Brett said.

“Of course she knows the risks. She’s the one making them. She knows the risks; she just doesn’t care. If she dies, she doesn’t care. If you die, she doesn’t care. She’d push you into a volcano just to learn how the lava splashes,” Jake said.

“Then why is she your right seat?” Brett asked.

“Because I knew, at some point, my crew would have their asses in the jackpot, and she’d get us out of it. And that’s exactly how that went down. But I trusted her once because I had to. And I wasn’t emotionally compromised about it. I’m telling you,” Jake paused, then rethought, “I’m advising you. Don’t trust her every single time and expect it’ll always work out. She’s not magic, she just thinks she is. And when she puts your life at risk you tell me. Got it? You report that. You don’t cover for her out of some misguided sense of loyalty.”

“Is this about her, or me and her?” Brett asked.

“Oh, I could not give one good goddamn that you two are doing whatever you’re doing. It’s not bothering anyone else and you two both seem to be happier for it. I need you to give me twelve hours of work each sol. What you do with the other twelve hours and thirty-eight minutes is up to you. But I will not tolerate one of my crew putting another in danger, nor will I tolerate the other one covering it up after the fact.”

“Why do you assume that’s what happened?” Brett asked.

“Why do you assume that I’m a moron?” Jake said.

Brett sat back, mildly appalled. Jake looked him in the eye.

“Charlie stopped us from leaving, even though Houston told us to get out of there,” Brett said.

“No kidding,” Jake said, flatly.

A beat passed between them. Jake reached out and patted Brett on the arm.

“See, that wasn’t so hard. Now go to bed,” Jake said.

Brett nodded, rose from the seat, and went towards his bunk.

“Brett?” Jake said, stopping him in his tracks.


“Good work out there.”

18 March 2003

Athena Base

Athena II

Sol 274

Twain had said there was no better way to know a person than to travel with them. By that token, the entire crew of Athena II ought to be the most closely-knit group in the history of two worlds.

With that being the case, Laura didn’t have to ask to know that Henri was deeply troubled. When he climbed up the ladder into the wardroom, the visage he carried was one of true shock.

If Mars had ghosts, she might have believed he’d seen one.

“Henri?” she said. Her tone got the attention of the others. The stricken French biologist mindlessly took a seat at the head of the table, the commander’s chair. The rest of the crew gathered around him. Laura went to the sink, filled a cup with water, and put it in front of him. Henri looked at it uncomprehendingly for a moment and returned it to the table, unused.

“What’s wrong?” Charlie asked, putting a hand on his shoulder.

“Are you hurt?” Brett asked.

Henri shook his head in silence. Laura pushed the cup of water towards him again.

This time he picked it up and threw it down his gullet, like it was a shot of bad whiskey. That wasn’t enough to settle him. Laura noticed how his hand shook as he returned it to the cold metal table.

Henri turned to Laura. They’d spent quite a bit of time together already and their rapport was a comfort to him now.

“I was looking at the water again. The permafrost samples we brought back. I was checking for contaminants. They’ve been stowed in the old tanks from Aurora, and I needed to know if the fuel compromised the water purity.”

“Of course,” Laura said. She’d helped put the water in the old fuel tanks and brought it back out again after the rescue was complete. The twenty-gallon storage tank now sat right outside the airlock, for quick access. Houston was considering ways to add the in-situ Martian water to Athena Base’s own supply, but that would only happen after all scientific research on it had concluded.

“The storage tank had been filled with methane, drained, filled again, drained again,” Henri said. His hand made lazy circles in the air around his shoulder to indicate the use of the tank during the rescue operations.

Henri’s eyes were unfocused. He was gazing into the middle-distance. “No matter what we did, there was bound to be traces of methane still left over. You can’t clean anything perfectly here. The dust, the water, the fuel. It’s impossible for anything to be totally pure. Life isn’t pure. We should have just sent robots,” he said.

“What’s wrong?” Laura asked, repeating Charlie’s question.

“I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t find any of it,” he said, with the weight of a great guilt in his voice.

“Couldn’t find what?” Laura asked.

“The methane!” Henri cried, “I thought it was a problem with the chemical analyzer. It had to be. There was no way. Simply no way to get every last trace of methane out after everything we’d done.”

“Take it easy, Henri,” Brett said.

“I loaded a few slides into the scope downstairs. I… I…” he struggled to form the next sentence. “There’s a structure. It’s… it’s very small. I don’t think I can really do it justice here. If I had a better setup. I need to be back on Earth,” he said. The thousand-yard stare broke as he grabbed Laura by the shoulders. He was in a state she’d never seen from him before.

“Henri?” Laura said, putting a hand on his shoulder.

“I put more methane into the sample. Not much. Just a test,” he said.

“Henri?” Laura said, trying to bring him back to the present.

“Laura… it was consumed. The methane. They’re methanogens. They’re alive,” Henri said.
Black Buck
For those who wish to view it, I present the technical plans for the Black Buck rescue.

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For a bit of history, the following image is a representation of the Operation: Black Buck which was undertaken by the British during the Falkland Islands War.
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