“Ah, here is box of tools we will need.” Dmitri Boronov had rifled through the contents of one workbench after another in the under-ground bunker. He looked up at his new colleague. “I must apologize. I am not usually so careless with equipment. I am some little off routine with your arrival.”
“No problem, Dmitri,” accepted Garrison O’Ryan. “I knew we would find the toolbox. Even Martian gravity is sufficient to keep things from floating off into—”
The junior astronaut was cut short by thick darkness, so complete that in looking all around him, he could make out nothing—not a scrap of light to be found anywhere.
“Dmitri, what happened?” called O’Ryan loudly, as if the sudden darkness had greatly increased the distance between the two astronauts. After a series of load clicks were heard, a faint blue-green light filled the room. Thankfully, O’Ryan’s companion, toolbox in hand, was still right by the workbench just a few feet away from him.
“We lose power,” Dmitri answered. “Emergency battery system has engaged, which is why the light is so dull now.”
“Dmitri,” Garrison’s voice cracked with concern. “How often does this happen?”
“Must be less than once every two years. I have not seen this happen since I come.”
“What could cause a power outage?”
“My guess is malfunction in power delivery grid.” He set the toolbox down. “This will likely put our gauge repair work on back burner.” He said this lightly and with a smile, hoping to ease the concern of his new comrade.
He placed the headset from his space helmet over his head and turned in on. “Mission Control, this is Boronov. We notice power failure in bunker at local time…” He looked down at his digital watch, which kept track of two different time zones. “…Local time: 17 hours, 21 minutes; central time 07 hours, 22 minutes. Please advise of repair work or maintenance procedure required.”
Boronov looked up at his companion. “We should hear from mission control in 10 minutes. Meantime, we go look at power array control panel.”
“Yeah, maybe it’s something simple that we’ll spot quickly, like a plug that fell out of an outlet?” He smiled in order to prompt Boronov on his joke. The Russian returned the smile and began walking back to the bunker entrance. As O’Ryan placed a firm grasp on the lever of the steel door connecting to the underground tunnel, Dmitri noticed a sensor panel next to the handle.
“Het!!!” shouted the Russian slipping into his native tongue, but the warning was too late.
With a click of the latch, the door flew outward and O’Ryan fell face first onto the concrete floor. Blood stained the spot where he landed, lacerating his forehead upon impact. He clawed at the ground, but found himself being dragged slowly on the surface by a gale force wind, as if a vacuum was sucking all of the oxygen out of the bunker. Boronov embraced a support beam on a workbench near to the door and gasped for oxygen as the rushing wind of the bunker replenished the depressurized tunnel. He shielded his face and head as best as he could, while small objects flew by. An assortment of hardware glanced off of the Russian’s body as they sped through the recent breach in the environment. Worried about his partner, he peeked under his arm to see the body pulled by the unseen force, a small trail of blood marking the straight trajectory of the body as it slid down the poorly lit tunnel.
As Garrison gasped for oxygen, he felt his lungs filling with more dust than air. Realizing how helpless he was during this violent turn of events, he attempted unsuccessfully to scream for Dmitri’s help just as everything stopped as abruptly as it began. He lay on the ground, drained of energy and choking in a mix of dust and blood that was trickling into his mouth. He looked up to see a pair of astronaut boots arrive.
“Garrison, you alright?” asked a voice in a thick Russian accent.
Coughing more than answering, O’Ryan rolled to his back, lifted his head and nodded. “I—think—so.”
Boronov collapsed to the ground and rested his back against the wall. Breathing heavily, the two astronauts took some time to recover in the dusty, dark tunnel. At last Boronov raised himself and ran down the tunnel towards the greenish hue where Garrison was standing at ease just a couple of minutes before. The sound of footsteps dimmed, faded away, and then quickly resounded their echo into the tunnel. Dmitri kneeled at the head of his colleague. Lifting his head with one hand, he slowly poured water into Garrison’s dry mouth with the other. As the liquid trickled down his throat, it had the effect of a life-giving elixir.
Raising up on his elbows, Garrison’s senses were returning. “Dmitri, what happened? What is going on here?”
Boronov took a deep breath. “When you went to open door, I remember environment sensor. Green light means environment on other side of door is safe. Red light is not safe.”
“So, the light on the sensor was red?”
“No, the light on the sensor was out. It had no power. On Mars, one must never assume environment is good.”
Garrison hung his head. “Dmitri, I’m so, so sorry. I—I—“
“Friend,” whispered Boronov. “It was easy mistake, with big lesson. At least we are both ok.”
As O’Ryan’s faculties slowly returned, he looked around him. The tunnel was too dark to see anything. He could only see the entrance with its green glow about 15 feet away along with a dark black streak marking the trace of blood left by his head as it was dragged down the tunnel. “Dmitri… if the atmosphere was depleted, then why didn’t all of the oxygen escape…” He lowered his voice, “…and continue to drag me unprotected to who knows where?”
Boronov answered by flashing a torch towards the dark end of the tunnel away from the bunker. Garrison looked around to see a steel door sealing off the tunnel about three feet from where he lay.
“I still don’t get it,” said O’Ryan shaking his head slowly. “What caused the breach in the environment if that door is closed?”
“There is mechanical pressure release on every door leading away from bunker. With sudden drop in bunker pressure, a latch releases the doors from ceiling, and closes off the breach.”
Garrison was trying to piece the puzzle together. “Ok, so when I opened the door, this tunnel was vacant of oxygen, the sudden change of pressure created a wind that felled me like a tree to the ground and dragged me here. Then, this huge door drops out of the sky and seals off the bunker and tunnel.”
“Do you realize that if the mechanism had released any later than it did…” Garrison gulped for more air. “…I’d either have been crushed by that door, or I’d be outside flopping around for air like a fish out of water?”
Dmitri did not need to answer that question.
“Come,” said Dmitri. “I help you up off floor. There is cot in bunker where you can rest.”
Dmitri helped his companion off the ground. O’Ryan’s head throbbed violently. Holding his forehead with one hand, he braced the other on Boronov’s shoulder as the two walked back into the bunker. The slow walk to the cot proved painfully long for O’Ryan, as his head continued to pound with each step. At last, he swooned onto a cot which, by comparison, felt more comfortable than any bed he had ever slept in. His eyes fell closed, blocking the blue-green light from view until Boronov returned with a first aid kit and dressed the wound. Garrison winced as Dmitri dabbed antiseptic all around his forehead. With the bandage in place, O’Ryan fell into a state of restful unconsciousness.
A voice echoed in the distance. “Boronov to Mission Control. I still have not received response. Please copy.”
Garrison O’Ryan opened the eye which was least swollen and at first saw nothing but a green hazy glow about him. Opening the other eye as far as he could, he focused and looked around to see racks of boxes. The perspective was not helpful, so he sat up to get a better look around. His rebellious head did not approve of the maneuver as a pain shot from his forehead to the back of his neck. Looking around again, he saw another cot across the way, identically to the one on that he was on. He saw a small stand next to his own bed with a tumbler of water and a dish with large round cracker-like bread. He suspected that Dmitri had set this down for him in order to nourish himself after his accident. Since his mouth was dry and throat parched, he first drained a few ounces of water from the glass and took a bite of bread. “Ah, yes.” He thought to himself. “A meal fit for an astronaut. How does NASA come up with this awfully engineered stuff? It’s like I’m back on the Mars shuttle again.”
Regardless of his disliking for the nutritive, he knew that his body needed the sustenance, so he methodically consumed the plate of bread, chewing only as fast as his head would allow without convulsing in pain.
Dmitri returned to check on his colleague and sat down on the edge of the cot opposite of Garrison’s, looking dejected, concerned.
“Dmitri,” called Garrison quietly as he looked up with his head askew and with eyes half open. “How long have I been sleeping?”
“About three hours.”
“Dmitri, about the door… I’m very sorry.”
“No need to worry. All is fine,” reassured the senior astronaut.
“What have you heard from Mission Control on this whole affair, Dmitri?”
O’Ryan paused to grasp the meaning of this short answer. “You mean they don’t know what has caused the power failure?”
“No, I mean I have not heard anything. It appears that along with power failure, there is comm failure too.”
“I would’ve hoped that communications were on battery backup.”
“They are supposed to be. The failure must be worse than we fear, since we have lost power and comm,” Boronov pointed out.
Garrison tried to stand up in anxiety for their welfare, but his head began to throb intensely as he did, so he laid back down on the bed with his hands clasping his temples.
“If we can’t communicate with Mission Control, then we must assess the situation and figure out what to do.”
“I agree,” said Boronov flatly. “As you have slept, I have been thinking of this too. The main thing we must do is assess why power failure has occurred. We must restore the power if we are to evacuate.”
“Evacuate?” inquired O’Ryan, sitting up to the edge of the bed again. “Well, you don’t think it is that dire, do you, Dmitiri?” I’m sure we can make repairs for anything that might have problems.”
“But, we will not be able to speak with Mission Control on repairs needed. We have some maintenance manuals here in bunker, but any difficult repair instructions need to come from experts on Earth.”
“Okay, but you just said that we’ll need to repair power to evacuate. Why do we need power, and more importantly, what if we are not able to repair the power or comm problems ourselves?”
Boronov weighed these questions, drew a deep breath and began to explain. “To answer first question, we need power to operate SAR pad. It requires much power, and cannot operate on battery backup. The SAR pad is necessary, because without it, we have just one parachute.”
Garrison strained to understand, but didn’t understand why a parachute was needed. He raised his eyebrows, and threw up his hands in the air.
“Garrison,” said the Russian leaning forward on his cot. “Iowa is only Mars Shuttle on site. You flew it here from Moon. It only carries one person. Without SAR pad, we cannot replicate other shuttle to carry both of us back to Earth.”
“Dmitri, I think we’re crossing bridges before we come to them. Let’s first go see if we can assess the problem with the power, and then we’ll start planning any contingencies that might be needed to solve our problem.”
“It is nighttime now,” pointed out Boronov. “I believe we must wait for daylight to venture above ground.”
“But what will we do if we can’t restore power?”
“Ah, yes. If that is case, you will become very familiar with this room, as we will remain here until rescue.”
“Wait, here? Until rescue? How long will that take?” Concern rang through O’Ryan’s voice.
“Do you not recall emergency procedure? In worst-case scenario, we must wait in here, as it will provide up to three months of nourishment, water, and oxygen.”
“Let me guess,” Garrison said rolling his open eye. “The CO2 scrubber doesn’t work on battery backup either, huh?”
“Yes, it does, but battery will not last forever, neither will food or water. Three months. We must hope rapid preparations are made on Earth if rescue should be required.”
“Is three months long enough to be rescued?”
“One piece of good fortune, my comrade, is that you just arrived. We both know that this means the distance from Earth to Mars is nearly at its closest proximity. Support vehicle carrying rescue crew travels slowly compared to Mars Shuttle, but three months will be enough time for them to arrive.”
After a few moments of reflection on the part of both astronauts, Garrison broke the silence with another question. “Dmitri, didn’t you say that the depressurization sealed us off with those steel doors?”
“We will not be able to exit through tunnel. We must take trap door, instead.”
“In back of bunker is emergency exit, complete with pressurization chamber. We can safely enter the chamber without risk of much loss of oxygen since chamber is very small. This chamber opens into tunnel which goes up to manhole cover, which we called ‘trap door’ if I recall correct from training.”
“Oh, yeah… I remember too now that you mention it. I’m a little slow right now with this head injury.” Dmitri looked up as if to see the wound on his forehead, and felt it with an index finger. It was well-dressed, but moistened with blood and needed to be changed. Knowingly, Dmitri picked up a first aid kit from the floor and placed it on O’Ryan’s side table.
“Thank you, Dmitri. I should redress this.”
“Yes, and then we must both try to rest until daylight there isn’t much else we can do for now, except…”
Dmitri stood and faced away from his companion, as if trying to hide something. He turned on his headset and spoke, “Boronov to Mission Control, do you receive communication? Please copy.”
He returned and sat back down, watching Garrison change the bandage on his forehead slowly, but thoroughly. As he did so, he counted the seven stitches that his companion must have given him while he was unconscious. Garrison looked up at the green cast lights, looked back down at his companion and began to chuckle lightly.
“What is funny?” Boronov asked with as much curiosity as irritation.
“In this room with its light, I can’t help thinking about how we must look like little green Martians in here.”
Boronov’s lips slowly curled upward as he snickered at the thought. “Yes, we must be an odd set of life forms in this universe… Anyway, we must lie down and rest now. Tomorrow we will need energy and good thinking to figure out what we need to do.”
As Dmitri lay on his cot and cover himself with a light weight blanket, O’Ryan sat for a while longer on the edge of his bed, but without conversation, found that he was feeling effects of extreme exhaustion, so he lay down and both astronauts fell into a restless sleep.
Garrison woke up feeling groggy and looked over to find his companion’s cot empty. He sat up and called out for Dmitri. At once, he heard the steps of boots on the concrete floor approaching.
“Garrison, how are you feeling?” Dmitri asked with concern in his voice.
“Better. Say, what time is it, Dmitri?”
“09 hours, 13 minutes,” answered Boronov, consulting his watch.
“We must go look at the power array.”
“Yes, yes, but you must eat first.” Boronov gave Garrison an energy bar and drink for breakfast. “I have already breakfasted this morning.”
Garrison smiled and shook his head knowingly at the nourishment. “Ah, yes. An astronaut’s manna, this. Still no cheese steak sandwich for me, eh, Dmitri?”
“I fear there will be no more for either of us, until we get this camp back in order.”
“Well, I guess if it worked for me on the ride in the shuttle for a couple of weeks, I can gag down a few more of these bars. I wonder how they compress the sawdust into such perfectly shaped rectangles.” He shrugged and accepted the nourishment. Standing slowly, he found that he was actually better on his feet than he expected. Suiting up took about ten minutes, while Boronov disappeared to do senior astronaut work, apparently. Placing his helmet under his arm, he ventured off, not knowing exactly where he was in this cavernous bunker in relation to the entrance the pair of astronauts had come through the night before. Wandering amidst stacks and stacks of well-supplied shelves, he studied his surroundings. At last, he heard a rustle somewhere to his left. He ventured down an aisle to follow the noise, and discovered Boronov working at a workbench.
“Right. You are ready, then?” asked Dmitri when he spotted his partner approaching.
“Yes,” said Garrison. “Let’s solve this problem and get back to the mission at hand.”
“I’m just packing some tools and manuals that we will want in our investigation of the system.” He patted the top of a large spiral bound manual.
Garrison looked at the cover. ‘Camp Mars: Power Subsystem.’
Dmitri closed the box and started away with determination. Garrison followed shortly behind as they ventured deep into the recesses of the bunker, until they came to a door, similar to the fateful door which O’Ryan will never forget opening in error.
“There’s no light on the panel, Dmitri.”
Nodding, he replied, “I expect that to be. We will chance this door, for two reasons. One, it is a small pressurization chamber. Very little oxygen will be lost. Two, we must trust that the containment door dropped on this passageway as well. It is a chance we must take.”
The pair placed and sealed their helmets, and Garrison deferred the job of opening the door to Dmitri this time, fearing that he should make another critical mistake. As the door opened, there was no rush of air. The environment on the other side was identical. O’Ryan peeked in to see another door just a couple of feet away. Boronov stepped inside and motioned for O’Ryan to do the same. Upon closing the door, Dmitri reached for a lever which opened a vent. The sound of rushing air reminded Garrison of the tour that he made with Ayman and Dmitri just the day before, when the garage of the workshop was depressurized in preparation for departure in the Mars Terrain Vehicle.
Dmitri grabbed the handle on the outer door of the pressurization room. “Nobody has stepped into this next tunnel,” stated Dmitri with an air of concern and suspense as he looked at his companion.
“But we must go on,” reassured Garrison. “What could you do so wrong, Dmitri, after seeing what I did to us last night?”
Encouraged, Dmitri pulled the lever release and opened the door without incident. Both astronauts leaned forward, gazing into the darkness. Dmitri lit his torch first and shined it into the tunnel. The beam of light shown through a haze of red dust particles. Garrison flicked on the beam of light from his torch and followed Dmitri into the narrow tunnel, barely tall enough to fit their statures comfortably. They walked for 50 yards until arriving at a stair well.
“Going up?” asked Dmitri playfully in an effort to release the tension.
“After you,” teased Garrison.
They climbed into a stairwell which seemed to go on for many stories of back-and-forth climbing. Neither astronaut counted the number of steps, but both were glad that they were doing this climb in the gravity of Mars and not Earth. At last, they arrived on a low landing where the concrete stairs ended abruptly. There was about four feet of distance from the floor to the ceiling, so both astronauts were kneeling here. Shining their torches upward revealed a yellow painted square which marked the boundary of the trap door. Reaching up, Dmitri felt for a release mechanism and found a handle with a trigger. With a click and a grunt which was audible through their helmet comm system, he tried to force the door open.
“Won’t budge?” asked Garrison.
“No,” grunted the Russian as he pushed upward with his arms and back, attempting to gain leverage on the door.
Garrison came to Dmitri’s side and assumed a similar position. As the two pushed together, they could feel the door give about an inch or two, and after several moments gave up the effort.
“It feels like there’s something blocking it,” pointed out Garrison.
“I can’t imagine that would be true. We do not have junk just lying around the crater.”
“Either way,” shrugged Garrison. “What are we going to do now, Dmitri. This door, as you have said, is our only hope to assessing the power failure at the array. But why can’t we go back through the main entrance. With the pressure door deployed, we can use it as a pressurization chamber.”
“We lose too much oxygen in main tunnel. We would risk not surviving a rescue effort, if this situation gets that far.”
“Well, we’ve got to get through there, Dmitri, somehow.”
“Do you have a crowbar in that tool box? Perhaps we could pry the hatch open?” Garrison brainstormed out loud.
“I didn’t bring crowbar. It didn’t make much sense for a power repair. But, it is good idea. I should return to get one. You wait here.” Dmitri began his descent into the bunker.
Dmitri turned, flashed his torch upward to look at Garrison.
“Is it a good idea for us to separate?”
“Perhaps not,” admitted Boronov. “But you are not at 100 percent health. I prefer you not to have to climb stairs again so soon. Our headsets will remain in range should we need to communicate.”
Garrison deferred his judgment to that of the senior astronaut and sat down on the landing with his back against the slab of concrete forming the wall of the tunnel. He turned off his torch to save battery, and watched as the dim light of Dmitri’s light descended deeper and deeper into the ground until it had disappeared completely from view.
Garrison was not sure how long Dmitri had been gone, as he nodded off in the quiet darkness of the tunnel, until his partner had arrived with the crowbar. The two worked with the crowbar for some minutes before having to admit defeat again.
“It’s budging farther with the crowbar,” admitted Garrison, “but we still can’t get it to open enough to exit. I don’t get it, Dmitri.”
“The hinges must be frozen from inactivity.”
“We really need to get out there and assess the situation.” Garrison lowered and shook his head, frustrated at the chain of events that was starting his mission so ominously.
“I have two ideas. First, we try light explosive.”
“Explosive?” asked O’Ryan.
“We have small charge which can blast the hinge without damaging tunnel.”
“I don’t know, Dmitri. If the explosive causes a cave in, then we cut ourselves off from our only exit. Let me hear your second idea.”
“Cutting torch. We cut through steel, but the torch will be difficult to bring way up here. It is big and heavy.”
“Then, we’ll take turns carrying it up,” offered Garrison. “The idea of an explosive… it sounds too risky.”
“You are not at full health,” pointed out Dmitri. “It would not be advised for you to carry the torch.”
“Dmitri, I’m well enough. We simply must get through that door. Besides, you have been exhausted walking up the stairs twice. You’ll need to do yet a third trip. That’s nearly 500 feet of stair climbing in one day.”
“Yes, but at a third of gravity, it’s more like 150 feet, or 15 flights of stairs. It is no problem, really.”
“But you pointed out that this next trip will be a bigger deal, dragging up a heavy cutting torch up—Dmitri, let’s not argue. I will come down and help you bring the torch up.”
The senior astronaut yielded to the persistence of his younger companion, and the two shared the job of hauling the torch up 500 feet of stairs, a task which proved less tiring since they were able to have periods of rest while the other grunted up the stairs.
Boronov did the cutting, which proved tedious because of the thickness of the door, and the fact that the work was entirely overhead. Since there was little room to work on the top landing of the stairwell, O’Ryan remained on the landing below to watch his companion work. Boronov began cutting by making four perforated straight cuts along each side, just next to the yellow lines marking the edge of the square door. Then he connected one perforated edge to another to form corners of cuts. He worked on connecting the corners closest to him, so that when the door finally gave on any remaining connected steel, it would drop down from the ceiling in such a manner as to swing away from him.
“Just two more cuts to go,” Dmitri called to his companion.
A hazy brown light from outside began to filter through the cracks where the cuts had been made. He set the torch to work on the second to last cut, and jumped back when he noticed a sudden increase in light indicating that the door was finally collapsing into the stairwell. The door swung away from Boronov as anticipated, but what he wasn’t expecting was the vast quantity of debris which came flowing into the tunnel as well. Broken chunks of concrete and asphalt mingled with Martian dirt rushed into the tunnel, forcefully knocking Dmitri to the concrete ground.
“Dmitri!” screamed Garrison shielding himself from a shower of rocks which were now bouncing down the stairs. He jumped away from the falling debris until the commotion ceased. Working past rubble on the landing and stairs, he was finally able to make his way to the upper landing. Obscured by dust, Garrison at first was having difficulty assessing the situation. “Dmitri! Are you okay? Can you hear me?”
There was no immediate response from Boronov, and O’Ryan feared that he might have been knocked unconscious from the blow. As the dust settled, he saw nothing but a pile of rubbish filling much of the upper landing. Boronov had been completely buried. Garrison furiously pulled chunks of concrete and asphalt off of the landing using nothing but his hands for tools. With each effort, the sound of rock and concrete bouncing down the stairs kept rhythm with O’Ryan’s effort to extricate his companion. After fifteen minutes of work, he felt a soft lump, which he quickly recognized as the spacesuit of Dmitri. Working harder, he continued to sweep the debris away, until he had removed his companion, who was able to sit up against the wall of the stairwell, still shaken from the incident. He looked up to see streams of light through the pile of debris.
“Dmitri! Can you hear me? Are you in pain?”
“What—happened?” Dmitri asked in a daze.
“When the trap door opened, a flood of debris came down on top of you. Are you in pain?”
“A little, but I do not think injuries are too bad,” Boronov stated. “I simply do not understand. There should be nothing blocking this emergency hatch. Camp is kept free of stuff like this, and yet it is clearly garbage from camp. Blocks of concrete, road asphalt? There is a landfill, but it is on east side of crater near SAR pad, where junk is recycled as material for SAR operation. This hatch should not lead us there.”
“Well, we will know where this came from once we can get above ground and see what it is and where we are at,” pointed out Garrison looking at the streams of ruddy light. “But that will have to wait. We must see to your injuries first. Do you think you can stand?”
Boronov nodded, and slowly, Garrison helped him to his feet with a few grunts and Russian words which O’Ryan assumed to be cursing.
“This is very frustrating, Garrison. All day long we have been just feet away from ground level and we just cannot seem to get there.” Dmitri looked at his watch. “17 hours 13 minutes. Even if we can clear this pile today, it will be dark again, and we will not be able to work on power array.”
“We must not work on it today,” insisted Garrison. “Your injuries must be tended to, and then we must rest and hopefully return to complete this stubborn job tomorrow.”
Defeated, the pair of damaged astronauts walked slowly and quietly back down the stairs, Garrison sulking in the misfortunes of the last 24 hours, and Dmitri hobbling on a swollen foot.
Through the slits in his eyes, Garrison saw the same green glow that had greeted him the morning before. He sat up, yawned, and saw his companion tightly wrapping his right ankle with a bandage.
“How is it, Dmitri?” asked Garrison. “The foot?”
“It is some swollen, but not so much as I feared. I can walk, and this bandage will help us with our day of work.”
“Well, let’s get packed.” Garrison stood on his feet and clapped his hands together. He felt optimistic about the day ahead of them. Besides, it couldn’t get any worse than the last couple of days, could it?
“I have packed some hand tools to help with debris,” Dmitri mentioned. “Hand shovel and small pick axe should get us through tunnel and onto Martian soil. But, do eat some breakfast first.”
Garrison was beginning to wonder if Dmitri ever slept. By the time he awoke in the mornings, his partner had already finished breakfast and began preparations for the day. He completed his meal while Dmitri was gone. By the time he was finished suiting up, Dmitri had returned and the two proceeded into the depressurization chamber and ensuing tunnel again. They climbed the stairs slowly, feeling the muscle fatigue of yesterday’s climbs as well as the pain from their respective injuries.
When they reached the top landing, they discovered that there was not enough room on the stairs for both to safely work, so Boronov began by removing debris from under the trap door and O’Ryan cleared a path off of the stairs, while trying to dodge rocks and dirt flying from his companion’s shovel. Every now and then, the pair would trade roles in order to catch a breather from the digging and shoveling, but later in the morning, they were able to extricate enough of the material to give an opening large enough for an astronaut to fit through.
“I think we might be able to make it now.” It was Garrison’s turn on the pile when he announced the opening to his partner.
Dmitri was a couple of flights down, spreading the debris evenly down the stair well in order to not create a barrier in their return to the bunker. “I will be there in one moment.”
As Dmitri made it to the pile, he saw a dust-filled chamber filtering an orange glow from the hole above, now adequately sized to allow the pair to climb out of the tunnel. Garrison was already scaling the remaining rocks and disappeared slowly through the hole.
“What do you see?” asked Dmitri. “Where are we, and why is this pile of junk here in first place?”
“I really can’t tell,” responded Garrison. “The visibility is simply awful. This must be one of those dust storms that they taught me in Martian Weather 101.”
“I come up and see too,” Dmitri replied with both curiosity and concern.
The curiosity and concern only deepened when he reached the surface, and saw a lot of dust in the air, and a lot of uneven debris on the ground.
“Well, it is dust storm, but it is not right.” Dmitri said sullenly.
“Little wind,” pointed out Dmitri matter-of-factly. “Dust storm of this nature requires much wind. Where is wind?”
“So, you haven’t seen this kind of activity before?”
“It is most unusual weather.”
“Let’s take a look around and see if we can find our way out of the landfill,” said Garrison.
“Garrison, this is not landfill.”
“But what about this pile of junk underneath us?”
“I don’t know, but I know what landfill looks like. There is too much concrete and rocks and… broken asphalt?” Dmitri wandered slowly through the uneven terrain and came to a section that consisted of more significant amounts of asphalt, which was only used on the road surfaces of Camp Mars. No road work had been redone during Dmitri’s mission, and there was none that he could recall at the landfill either.
“Dmitri, does it make sense to go to the power grid with all of this dust? Will we be able to see anything to make a diagnosis?”
“No, it does not make sense. Nothing makes sense right now.”
“Should we head over to the barracks, at least? We can wait out this dust storm there to make a better assessment.”
Dmitri was leaning down onto the pile of debris picking at the pile with the axe.
“Dmitri?” Garrison carefully stepped over rocks and jagged concrete to meet up with his companion. “Dmitri?”
“This is road, here.” Dmitri indicated with the end of his axe.
“The road goes here, under these rocks. The asphalt is largely broken up and tossed about, but here, I see asphalt, but over there it is just dirt.”
“I don’t understand.”
“This concrete,” Dmitri said as he sat on a rock and hefted a concrete chunk. “It is rounded. Based on the arc, I believe this is part of very large cylinder.”
He paused to see if Garrison understood.
“It is fuel tank, Garrison.”
“The fuel tank blew up, then, and left this pile of rubble here? But how does that relate to the pow—”. O’Ryan stopped in mid sentence as he was able to piece together a theory. “Shrapnel! Dmitri, shrapnel from the tank must have flown over the runway and landed on the solar array as well, or worse, all the way to the other side of the crater to the distribution subsystem. Oh, no… the communication array. Dmitri, this is a huge blow to our camp.”
Dmitri shook his head. “We must not draw hasty conclusion. “The atmosphere is not sufficient for that kind of explosion of fuel.”
“An earthquake, then?” suggested Garrison eager for answers.
“We would feel a marsquake in bunker. Besides, you know that Mars is not geologically active.”
“We must explore the camp and assess the extent of damage, Dmitri.”
“No,” said Dmitri quickly as he stood up. “We must not risk becoming lost in this dust storm. Remember… since Mars is one of few planets with no magnetic field, we only rely on visual landmarks, sky navigation, or vehicle navigation system.”
“Okay, so we can’t see landmarks, but we can see a faint bright circle through the dust that indicates the position of the Sun. We can use the Sun to help us reach the MTV and then drive around the camp to assess the extent of damage.”
“Too risky. We must first wait out dust storm.”
“Dmitri, why can’t we wait in the barracks instead of the bunker?”
Boronov’s voice raised slightly. “What if we find barracks damaged also, and then we grow disoriented and can’t find hole in the ground with this sea of debris around it? Too risky, Garrison.”
Garrison nodded, and turned around, straining to survey anything through the haze of dust. At last, he asked, “How long will the dust last, Dmitri? When will we be able to venture about and restore some sanity to this camp?”
“Winds are not strong. I am hopeful that tomorrow, we will have clear day to assess damage and make repairs.”
A frustrated sigh was audible to Dmitri.
“I’m sorry, comrade. We must return to bunker and wait.”
Dmitri lead the way back to the trap door. Pausing, he kneeled down and picked up an object that Garrison did not recognize.
“What is it, Dmitri?”
Boronov showed Garrison the contents of his hand. “It is fuel gauge that needed repair.”
Garrison hung his head and sighed. “Looks like it’s going to need more than repair now, my friend.”
Joram Anders sat upright in bed, his heart started by the sound of a telephone ringing next on a table next to his bed. He answered the phone.
“Joram, this is Professor Zimmer. Can you meet me in the common room?”
Joram looked at his clock. 11:25 AM. He just went to bed a couple of hours earlier after a third straight night of investigating the Martian dilemma. Rest had not come easily, either, as his body was struggling to cope with his sudden change of schedule. In fact, this was the first morning where he was able to quickly go to sleep, and even if it was Carlton Zimmer on the phone, he couldn’t help feeling agitated at being awoken from such a sound sleep.
“Um… Yes, professor… I’ll be there in just a minute.”
Joram’s room on Palomar observatory was smaller than a motel room. It held a twin size bed, night stand, and a small closet for a few changes of clothes and personal affects. He went into a tiny bathroom, washed his face in cold water, dabbed with a towel, and proceeded to put on a pair of clothes he had tossed in a corner.
When Joram entered the common room, which really was a library stocked with astronomy and science texts, he noticed that Zimmer was already conversing with Kath and Reyd. Spinning around towards the door, Zimmer clapped his hands. “Ah, right. Let’s head to the video conference room at the observatory, then.”
“What’s going on, Professor?” Joram prompted Zimmer for a briefing of their morning activity.
“Ravid called Dr. Gilroy a couple of hours ago. He is confident that we will get a visual of the camp during this Earthrise. We will be getting a live video feed from an observatory in Istanbul which is already focused on the eastern Martian horizon, waiting to get the first visual into our hands.”
As Zimmer led his trio out of the dorm facility, Joram buttoned up the wind breaker that he put on, due to a morning autumn wind which had deposited a light frost on the ground the night before. Reyd, likewise zipped up his jacket, and Kath embraced herself sporting a jacket and scarf, which was flowing freely in the wind. Zimmer, who was familiar with the weather on the mountain, wore a long sleeve dress shirt and tie.
As they entered the dimly lit room, the party of four took seats along a conference table closest to the large projected display which was already showing clear images of the Martian horizon. Long shadows filled the breach between night and day, cast by mountains and craters and were replaced by even longer shadows as the frigid surface rotated, groping for sunlight.
Zimmer dialed on the speaker phone in the center of the room.
“Dr. Gilroy, this is Professor Zimmer. I have my students with me here at Palomar Mountain.”
“Thanks for calling in, Professor! We know that your team has been working through some exhausting evenings, and we apologize to bring you back this morning. I have Ravid Avram on the phone in Israel, as well as Camp Mars specialists here at Johnson and Kennedy. The team at the Istanbul University Observatory is also online. We really hope that we can get a visual on the astronauts during this Earthrise and begin to establish a plan for their safety.”
After a brief pause, a different voice came over the phone. “Dr. Gilroy, do you plan to make an announcement about Ayman Hardy today?”
“We are not inclined to give up our efforts yet,” Gilroy replied.
“He has been non-communicant for more than 60 hours now, Doctor.”
“Yes, but as far as we know, his shuttle is carrying him as safely as ever back to the Moon, even without communication. The shuttle can sustain life for four weeks.”
“But you have also failed to make visual contact with the shuttle through either visual light or infrared which should detect the heat trail of the shuttle.”
“Understood,” Gilroy sounded annoyed. “We are guarded in our comments to the press, but we are also conveying realistic scenarios as well. We simply will not give up until the full two weeks have elapsed. If he does not arrive on the Moon in that time frame, then we will announce our fear of the worst.”
Joram looked across the table at Kath, who was staring down at the floor motionlessly. He returned his gaze to the projected image.
“Two minutes to visual, Dr. Gilroy,” announced a scientist who was calculating the estimated time of Earthrise on Camp Mars.
“Doctor, the edge of the crater is in view now,” said another voice that appeared to be in the same room as Gilroy.
“Thank you, Stan,” replied Gilroy, and then speaking into the phone gave instructions to all who were dialed in. “If you will all fix yourselves on the upper left corner of the horizon, you will see the edge of the crater, distinguished by its opening to the plains surrounding it. We should be able to start to see camp facilities in less than a minute now.”
Joram leaned forward in his chair. Kath looked up at the crater rim while manicuring the nail of an index finger with her teeth. Reyd straightened his eyeglasses to improve his vision. Professor Zimmer stood, muted the speakerphone, and paced towards the back of the room with hands folded behind his back.
“What do you expect to see, students?” asked Zimmer with his back to the projection.
All three turned in their chairs to look at Zimmer, but none gave a response.
“See for yourselves.” He wheeled around and gestured with his right hand. “This is what we’ve been anxious to see for three days now.”
The three turned back to the view. The phone was silent of any significant conversation, but indistinguishable mumbling could be heard from a couple of sources.
“Professor,” Kath was the first to speak. “I—I really don’t recognize anything. Are we too zoomed out to make out any structures?”
Zimmer shook his head and spoke softly. “There are no structures, Kath.”
Her eyes grew wide in recognition.
“Oh no,” gasped Joram as he stood and drew closer to the projected image. “It’s—It’s…”
“…a pile of rubble!” exclaimed Reyd. Leaping to his feet in horror, Reyd turned to the professor. “Professor Zimmer, what happened? How? How can this happen?”
Zimmer shook his head slowly. “I do not know, Mr. Eastman. It is an unspeakable tragedy. We have lost three astronauts.”
“Three, professor?” asked Kath in surprise. “Are you sure that the shuttle was destroyed also?”
“Ms. Mirabelle,” answered the professor carefully. “Whatever leveled Camp Mars also took out three of the four satellites. It also sent a flurry of unidentifiable radiation to our very own planet and caused a sudden flare of brightness on the Sun. Whatever force we are dealing with here, it is very powerful. That shuttle didn’t stand a chance.”
“But one satellite survived, Professor. Couldn’t the shuttle be safe as well?”
“That satellite survived, Kath, because it was sheltered from the destructive path that has left an indelible mark on our inner Solar System. However, the trajectory of the shuttle was not in the shadow.”
Kath did not understand. “In what shadow, Professor?”
“In the shadow of the yellow beam, Ms. Mirabelle. Mars protected that remaining satellite, as it sat in the shadow during that one fateful, destructive moment.”
The three students gasped.
“Professor?” Joram asked quietly. Deliberately, he phrased his questions. “Are you suggesting that the yellow beam is the source of the radiation?”
“Yes, Mr. Anders, I believe that is exactly the case.”
“Then, you know what this yellow beam is, then, right?”
Zimmer sighed heavily. “I have no clue, Mr. Anders. But you three are going to help me find out. Consider yourselves assigned to your graduate research here at CalTech.”