Chapter 5: Martian Toast
Daria stood looking out over the rim of the crater recording video. The display in her helmet showed the view through the camera attached to her chest plate. Tom was standing next to her as they watched two geologists working on the side of the crater gathering rock samples. Daria didn't even really notice that she and Tom were holding hands. Right now her mind was wandering a bit. She was happy to be away from the welding robots and for that matter both welding and metal for a day. This was the part of her job here that she enjoyed – recording what happened in the colony and then turning it into a coherent narrative of the colony's life on Mars. This was why they needed an English literature professor. It was certainly not to run welding robots and inspect welds. One could certainly argue that things were a bit spartan in the colony, but they had everything they needed to survive and be reasonably comfortable so far from home.
Tom said over the radio, "We have 45 minutes of air left in our tanks. How are you two doing down there?"
Jason Bean, the colony's chief geologist, replied, "Just a couple of samples to go. It looks like this crater was both a meteor strike and a site of volcanic activity. It isn't often that you get both in the same place."
"That's great," Tom stated. "But you and Jenny need to finish up. Procedure says we should get in the airlock with no less than 15 minutes left in our tanks." Jenny was Jason's wife and noted for her expertise in volcanic rocks.
Daria was adjusting her posture and issuing orders to her camera, "Zoom in on the two people. Now focus on their hands." The picture showed the two handling rock samples and placing them almost lovingly in a collection sack.
As she was watching the picture, an alarm sounded in her helmet! It was a claxon followed by a broadcast from the control center. "Attention all Martians! Attention all Martians! This is a radiation alert! Repeat. This is a radiation alert! You have five minutes to get to shelter. Repeat. You have 5 minutes to get to shelter! This is not a drill! A major solar flare will result in high radiation levels on the Martian surface. This message will repeat in one minute." As soon as the message ended a countdown timer appeared in Daria's helmet. It showed 4 minutes and 40 seconds remaining. Tom immediately dropped Daria's hand and the two move to the rim's edge just above Jason and Jenny.
Tom's voice had the edge of being deadly serious, "C'mon you two. We have to go now. It is about a three minute walk back to the rover. Drop the sacks. We can come back for them after the radiation passes. After all they have been sitting out here for eons! Now move!" As driver of the rover Tom was in command of this expedition.
"We're coming," Jenny said as she carefully set down her bag of rocks and nudged Jason to get moving. Daria and Tom each extended their hands to help Jason and Jenny over the rim's edge.
The walk back to the rover seemed to take forever, though Daria new that it didn't really. She could see the countdown in her helmet. The hardscrabble ground didn't make walking especially easy. Daria was glad that the camera image was automatically stabilized, since it was still running. Twice on the way Jason tripped and nearly fell. The last thing they needed right now was to have to pick someone up off of the ground – not to mention the danger of a suit puncture.
With 90 seconds to go the rover was certainly within reach. Daria would compare it in size to a large inter-city bus, but it was more like a really big recreational vehicle – except that on Mars it had an airlock, four massive wheels on each side, and the rear third was shielded as a radiation shelter.
Tom was first inside the airlock and he helped the others get in. To say that it was tight would be an understatement. The airlock would normally be used with two people in full surface suits. Now they had to cram four inside. With 30 seconds remaining Tom sealed the door and pressed the button to pressurize the chamber. The chamber pressurized in 15 seconds. Tom then quickly opened the hatch on the other side and leaped to the roll down door. As he pulled it down the countdown showed: 4, 3, 2, 1. On "one" Tom had the door down and latched. It was only after Tom had secured the section of the rover that everyone was able to remove their helmets.
"Well that was exciting," Daria deadpanned. "It looks like we have successfully avoided toasted bone marrow today."
Jason and Jenny laughed nervously at Daria's comment. Jenny asked, "Would you turn on the radiation monitor, Tom?"
"Sure," Tom replied and switched on the monitor. The radiation monitor showed radiation levels in three areas: outside the rover, inside the rover at the driver's station, and inside the rover's shielded area. The scale used was simplified. It was a zero to ten scale. The numbers zero through four were green. The numbers five through seven were yellow. Red on the scale was eight to ten. After a few seconds the readings for outside of the rover were high in the yellow zone. At the driver's station it was low in the yellow zone and in the shielded area it was essentially zero. They were safe.
Tom turned to the others and said, "How about a good cold drink of water after all of that excitement?" He leaned over and opened a cabinet and took out their water bottles. He stood and filled each with the cold water generated by the rover's fuel cell. "Lemon anyone?" He asked. The others just nodded and he pulled out a small container of lemon juice and poured some in each bottle. After shaking each bottle he handed them to his thirsty passengers. Then he made his own and sat down.
"Well this is cozy," Daria finally said after drinking half of her water. She continued in total deadpan, "Here we are parked in one heavily shielded recreational vehicle – well a third of one anyway."
Jason laughed and it nearly sent lemon water through his nose! "Daria, I have never thought of our rovers that way, but you do have a point!"
Daria responded, "Well, when you think about it we drive these things out here ostensibly to collect samples or take some kind of observations. The part we don't mention is that on multi-day missions we are essentially camping. Admittedly, we don't make a camp fire or toast marshmallows. The Martian atmosphere has something to say about that. But still, we are spending out nights sleeping in cramped quarters and preparing meals on a tiny stove or in the microwave."
Jenny popped up with, "Well it certainly isn't like any camping trip I've ever been on."
Tom figured that getting a good conversation going would help keep morale up and everyone could relax a little bit. He said, "So, tell me about some of your camping experiences. As geologists you must have been to and camped in some interesting places."
Daria gave Tom a rueful look.
Jenny was the first to speak. "I think one of the most beautiful places we ever camped was in the painted desert. We were just out of graduate school and had our first faculty positions. We had received a grant to do some geological analyses in the Petrified Forest. It was May – just after school was out – and the temperature was not yet brutal during the day. In fact it still got rather cool at night." Looking at Jason she winked and went on, "I remember snuggling in our sleeping bags and then getting up to watch the sun rise. The colors were magnificent." Jenny reached over and grasped Jason's hand. "It's so hard to believe that 40 years have passed since that trip."
Jason chuckled, "I think we were more interested in each other than the work! I recall it being rather difficult to concentrate on finding and gathering the samples we needed." Looking at Jenny he smiled and said, "Things were so much more interesting in the tent – especially when it got dark!"
Jenny blushed at his comment.
Tom jumped in, "That is one thing Daria and I have not done in our marriage. We have not gone camping, unless you count some of the missions here."
"That's due to the memories I am still trying to suppress, dear," Daria deadpanned.
Tom pretended not to hear her remark. He continued, "I went on some camping trips as a Cub Scout. They were OK. I remember my last one. Lawndale is near the Appalachians, so I was camping in the mountains in a forest. I remember two things. The first was being eaten alive by mosquitos. Between the biting and the constant whine in my ears I was unable to sleep. Being dead tired made the hikes miserable. I finally fell soundly asleep on the last night. I was completely exhausted. That is when Billy Burdy decided it would be great fun to dip my hand in warm water while I slept. Needless to say my mother simply threw the sleeping bag away after that incident. It just wasn't worth cleaning. I haven't camped since."
Jason turned to Daria and asked, "What are your camping memories? You seem awfully reticent about discussing your experiences."
Daria was trying mightily not to roll her eyes. There was no reason to be rude to Jenny and Jason. She was a little irritated that Tom had chosen this particular topic of conversation. Camping was something that she utterly loathed, well tent camping anyway. "Let's just say that my outdoor experiences have not been very positive. One camping trip ended with evacuation by helicopter. Another we had to walk out in a blizzard. If we are going to experience the wild outdoors I much prefer the Sloane family lake house, where I can sleep on a bed and choose how much outdoor experience I want to endure. That is one thing about Mars. No bugs and no bears."
"No air," Jenny added.
"Precisely," Daria said. "Our life here may be somewhat spartan, but nothing is trying to eat me. I can live with everything on this planet trying to kill me. I have a suit and a nice pressurized habitat to sustain me. When we go out, we go out in these great recreational vehicles!"
Everyone had a good laugh at Daria's comments. Clearly the mood had lightened since having to hurriedly return to the rover. Tom said, "How about an old movie? I was just paging through what we have on board and we have 'The African Queen' with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn. Talk about adventure!"
Daria quipped, "Watching a movie beats sitting here and watching each other age."
Jason and Jenny nodded their heads in agreement. Tom put on the movie and they sat and watched. At one point Jason got up to use the restroom. Tom paused the movie. Then he did the same when Jason returned.
Jenny leaned over to Daria and whispered, "That is the problem with our men when they get old. They can't sit through a movie anymore!"
Daria whispered back, "No kidding. I told Tom once that I was thinking of getting him a big clothespin."
Jenny giggled almost uncontrollably. The picture in her mind was just too funny.
Turning to Tom, Daria said somewhat loudly, "Hey bartender. How about another round of that water?"
Jenny nearly lost it. It took her almost two minutes to compose herself.
Meantime Tom refilled everyone's water. As he handed Daria her bottle he quipped, "Well, at least I don't get hot flashes."
Daria couldn't figure out what else to say to him, so she stuck out her tongue at her husband.
After the movie ended Tom distributed dinner. Another of his jobs as driver was to handle rations and see that everyone was fed and maintained their hydration. Dinner on these missions wasn't fancy. Tonight is was potato soup, chicken salad wraps, and a custard cup. He once again refilled everyone's water bottles. Over dinner they discussed the movie. When they were done Tom stowed the utensils and containers.
Turning and looking at everyone Tom said, "Now that we have all relaxed and had something to eat, I want to talk about getting back to the habitat. Night will fall in about two hours and with that the radiation will subside. I think we can make it back to the habitat overnight and be safely inside before dawn. The main thing we need to get going is for the radiation level in the driver's area to drop well into the green zone. My suggestion is that we all get a couple hours of sleep before taking off."
Everyone sort of grunted their general agreement. Then the bunks were deployed and they all laid down for a short nap. There was no doubt it would be a long night. Tom cut all of the lights except a dim one on a console. There were no windows in this section, so the darkness was total.
Daria checked her suit and then brought up her displays. She also checked the lights on her suit, which she might need to see where she was going. The plan was that Jenny and Jason would retrieve their sample bags before they started driving back to the habitat. Daria would assist by directing Tom as he turned the rover around. Turning a nearly 15 meter (50 ft) long and 3 meter (10 ft) wide vehicle around on rocky ground was not an easy task. Ground clearance was good and the wheels were designed to drive over substantial rocks, but there was nevertheless a limit.
The airlock opened and Jenny and Jason headed out to the crater. Daria could hear Tom saying to them, "Get those samples and get back here right away. We need to get going." Daria stepped outside the airlock and closed it behind her. Tom had switched on the exterior vehicle lights. They lit the area around the rover like it was daytime. Now it was Daria's job to check for obstacles as Tom backed up. The goal was to make a simple three point turn.
As the backup lights flashed, Daria watched about 2 to 3 meters behind. She called, "Tom stop. There is a boulder that will go right under the airlock, except that I think it is too tall. Let me get a measurement."
"Roger," Tom replied and stopped the rover.
Daria walked over to the boulder. Her suit included a laser measuring device and she checked the size of the bolder. She then instructed her computer to do some calculations. "You have 6 mm (0.25 in) clearance under the belly of the rover if all of the instruments are retracted. On your current track you should not scrape a wheel."
"Roger. All instruments are retracted. Backing," Tom reported.
Daria watched as the rover continued backing up and passed over the boulder. She quickly walked to a point where she could see all of the illuminated space behind. It looked like the backing maneuver would be successful. When Tom had completed backing up, Daria walked to the front of the vehicle. The lighting was much more intense in front and illuminated a good 50 meters (165 ft) in front of the vehicle and nearly as wide. She positioned herself off to the side so that as the rover turned she would see any obstacles.
"Go Tom," Daria said.
Tom drove the rover slowly forward and brought it around to face 180 degrees from where he had started. At that point he set the fuel cells to idle and turned off the forward lighting and the lights on the side away from the crater. Jason and Jenny should be able to easily see their way back to the rover.
All Daria could hear was a scream over the radio. Inside the helmet it sounded like it was coming out of the center of her head. It wasn't, though she hit her virtual suit systems check button as she was trained to do. No, the voice in her head was Jenny.
"He's fallen. I think he is venting air!"
Daria hit her proximity display. It showed that Jason and Jenny were about 150 meters (495 ft) away and Tom was about 4 meters (13.5 ft) from her inside the rover. Jason's icon had turned red, which meant that there was a problem either with his suit or his vitals or both. Daria ordered over the radio, "Jenny! Get a grip on yourself. Time is survival."
Daria selected Jason's icon and it showed that his suit had powered up to keep survivable pressure inside. It had sealed around his waist and was pumping air into the top half and Martian atmosphere into the bottom half. These seals were not perfect, but they would keep you breathing until help was administered. It would be best if the tear was in his bottom half. The first priority was to administer an emergency patch to his suit.
"Feel for the tear. Roll him over if you have to," Daria stated, probably louder than was necessary. Jenny complied.
Daria waited for what seemed like an hour, but her emergency time counter showed that it was only a couple of minutes. Jenny shrieked, "Found it."
Daria started to walk her through what had been basic training back on Earth. "Now pull your patch kit off of the front of your suit. Open it and apply a patch to the tear. The area does not have to be clean."
"It's long enough I will need two patches," Jenny replied in a voice slightly less frantic then before."
Daria said, "I am walking over now. Once you have the patches on apply pressure to set the adhesive."
In her helmet Daria heard Jason shriek in pain as Jenny applied the pressure. That probably meant that he was sufficiently injured that he would need a stretcher. This time Daria heard Tom say, "I am on the way with a stretcher. We are going to have to carry him up the crater rim to get to the rover. I cannot drive down there."
Daria arrived first. She read Jason's suit status in her display and his vitals. He was still clearly scared and in a lot of pain. However, his suit was no longer leaking gas and the pressures were in the normal range. Daria sent a message to his suit that it should lower the internal pressure in the lower half by 138 millibars (2 psi). The suit complied. This would significantly reduce the stress on the patches while they moved him.
Shortly Tom arrived with the stretcher, which was really just a litter. As gently as possible they moved Jason onto it. They could all hear him groan and once even cry out in pain. Clearly they needed to get him back into the rover so that they could work on him. Jenny put the sample bag on Jason's stomach and took his hands. "Hold on to this and don't let go," she said. "I don't want this to be for nothing!"
The trip up the crater to the rover was pure torture for Jason. He was reasonably certain that his leg was broken and that there was a substantial cut on it. He believed that he could feel blood trickle along his leg perpendicular to the ground. Tom carried both handles at the front. Daria and Jenny each took one of the rear handles. The path was bumpy and they tried to avoid rocks. Once on the side of the crater Tom briefly lost his footing. He was able to regain it without hitting the ground. Still, it was enough to make Jason cry out.
Tom stated as they approached the rover, "I had to evacuate the air from the rover and open both the inner and outer airlock seals. I also set up the table so that we can get him onto it and get his suit off once we have brought air in the rover back to normal. I know this will be tough, but one more good heave and we will make our goal!"
Jenny took the sample bag off of Jason and set it next to the rover. Then Tom pulled and the women pushed to get Jason up and onto the table. He was still on the stretcher, but they let the sides just dangle over the edge of the table. Jenny retrieved the samples and Daria closed the inner and outer hatches of the airlock. Tom went up front to the control panel, where he evacuated the Martian atmosphere and restored the air that they could all breath. As soon as the pressure was back to normal the three standing crew members removed and stowed their helmets and packs. Now they could work on Jason.
Jenny began by removing Jason's helmet and releasing the straps on his backpack. Clearly Jason was in pain and he was pale. They slid his backpack out from under him so that he was lying flat. They would work on keeping him warm to prevent shock once he was out of the suit and his leg was addressed. Tom was working on removing his upper suit and Daria had started on his lower suit. There clearly was a bad cut on his leg. Jason had some frostbite around the wound as well. The 10 cm (4 inch) long wound was oozing blood, which at least indicated that an artery had not been severed.
Tom reached into the medical kit and grabbed a razor and started shaving Jason around his wound. Daria pulled out the medical scanner and started going over the wound. Tom finished shaving and grabbed the disinfectant. He irrigated the wound and the surrounding area. Jason screamed as Jenny tried to comfort him.
"The wound is over a centimeter deep," Daria stated. "Nothing major severed, but we need to close it. The scanner suggests using an adhesive sheet and then a bandage as a binding on top."
Stepping back Tom replied, "I had a hunch that would be what it recommended. Do it."
Daria reached into the medical kit and grabbed an adhesive sheet. Much like the sheets used to patch the tear on the suits, these sheets would hold a wound closed better than stitches. The sheets would also provide ongoing disinfectant. At the least it would be enough to get Jason back to the habitat to be seen by one of the doctors.
Tom and Jenny moved in and pushed the two sides of the wound together. Daria applied the sheet and held it until the adhesive had set. Then she pulled out a pressure bandage and placed it around Jason's leg over the sheet. Daria pulled a pre-loaded syringe from the medical kit and administered pain killer to Jason. Almost immediately he seemed to relax and his color began improving.
With Jason's immediate crisis over, Tom went forward and sat in the driver's seat. He began checking systems before they got started. "Rover 1. Run command level sequence."
"This is Rover 1. Speak or enter your command level sequence."
"Run diagnostic on MPS."
"Roger," the computer responded in a female voice with a slight British accent. After about 15 seconds it stated, "Mars Positioning System Unit failure. No output for any input. Do you have another command level sequence to enter?"
Tom quickly stated, "Yes. Run diagnostic on life-support system."
"Roger," the computer again responded. This time after just a few seconds it stated, "life-support systems nominal. Do you have another command level sequence to enter?"
Tom said, "Yes. Run diagnostic on drive systems."
"Roger," the computer replied. "Manual drive system nominal. Auto drive system failure. Wheel systems nominal. Obstruction detection system failure. Void detection system failure. Exterior lighting systems nominal. Camera system failure. Leveling system nominal. Propulsion system nominal. Power system nominal. Do you have another command level sequence to enter?"
Tom said, "Yes. Run diagnostic on radio systems."
The rover answered, "All radio systems nominal. However, a radio check indicates high levels of background interference. Neither digital nor analog signals will penetrate at this time. Possible connection if line-of-sight is established. Do you have another command sequence to enter?
"No," Tom replied.
"Returning to standby mode."
"Daria come up here please," Tom said with a strong tone of authority in his voice.
Daria left Jason, walked the length of the rover and sat in the passenger's seat. "What do you need?"
Tom said more quietly, "I need you in that chair being my eyes. We are going to have to drive back on full manual. So, I need you to watch for any boulders or other obstacles which might damage us. I will be trying to follow our tracks back to the habitat, but that means I will be focused just a few meters ahead. I need someone to watch farther out so that we don't hit anything. The solar storm seems to have knocked out all of the equipment mounted on the exterior which has the least shielding. At least the lights still work!"
"OK," Daria replied. "I know that you will get us home safe." She reached out and squeezed Tom's hand. "How about I get us each a bottle of water? Then we can get started."
"Sure," Tom said.
The drive back to the habitat was slow and tedious. They had to get there before morning. Depending on whether or not the radiation storm had passed, it would be easy to wind up spending another day in the rover. Jason needed medical treatment and so that was not an option. Daria kept careful watch for anything that they might hit, which would scrape the belly of the rover, or worse cause them to get stuck. The terrain ranged from hard, windblown rock, to gravelly surface, to open desert. All in all it took 6 hours to drive the 60 km (37 miles) back to the habitat.
When they were within about 4 km (2.5 miles) of the habitat Daria started trying to raise someone on the radio. "Rover 1 to base we have a medical emergency," Daria stated matter-of-factly into the microphone. Then she listened. Nothing. She started repeating her message every 3 minutes.
After repeating herself for the fifth time she heard, "Rover 1 state your emergency."
Even with an emergency on board it was good to hear a voice from home. "Base, Jason has a major cut to his leg. It was through the suit in open atmosphere. Suit was emergency patched. Patient has significant blood loss. Current state is sleeping. Skin patch was administered. Emergency pain killer was administered. Need a transport bag and emergency medical team."
"Roger Rover 1. We will be waiting for you. Upon arrival exit through the airlock and enter the habitat. Emergency team will extract patient and take him to the infirmary for diagnosis."
"Roger base. Rover 1 out." Daria ended the transmission. "Did everyone hear that?" Tom said yes and so did Jenny.
The final few thousand meters seemed to take an eternity. They were now on familiar ground and there were no obstacles to their forward progress. Daria just sat and waited as they approached and came to a stop outside habitat Airlock A. Tom, Daria, and Jenny all donned their surface suits and proceeded through the rover's airlock. Outside the emergency team was already waiting for them to leave.
Walking the short distance between airlocks Daria stopped for a moment and looked up at the sky. It was clearly getting lighter. Sunrise would be soon. She wondered about the current radiation count. The best course of action was clearly to get inside the habitat, where it would be safe. Daria walked into the habitat airlock while the emergency team entered the rover.
Once inside the habitat the three explorers removed their surface suits and hung them up. Cleaning surface suits was a specialty in and of itself. It seemed that the biggest problem on Mars was not the lower gravity nor was it the lower pressure, temperature or the radiation. No, the biggest problem was controlling the ever present dust. Even before removing your helmet in the habitat you went through a gentle misting station. It put just enough water on the suit that the dust would not fly off into the air to get caught in the filtration system. Even so, the filtration system came up with plenty of dust, despite the fact that it was all filtered through water.
The three stayed in the vestibule area after completing the entrance procedures. They were waiting for Jason. It didn't take long. About five minutes after they arrived the emergency medical team wheeled Jason past them. He was still in the clear transport bag. Jenny followed them.
Tom turned to Daria, "Why don't we go and get some breakfast. We can check on Jason afterward. Medical will want to go over him anyway. There is no point just standing around."
Daria sighed, "Yeah. You're probably right. I could use some pancakes about now. Comfort food. I could use some sleep as well. But, I don't want to totally throw off my schedule. Let's go."
Tom and Daria stopped at the Surface Operations Desk on their way to breakfast and checked in. It was a formality. There they decided that the post excursion meeting would be after lunch. That gave Tom and Daria time to eat, catch some sleep, and collect their thoughts. Then it was off to the dining hall for breakfast. Afterward they checked on Jason. He was resting comfortably and the prognosis was good. Jenny was with him and they told her about the meeting after lunch. After that short conversation they went to get some sleep.