Chapter 7: Hitting the Road

Daria had insisted that the person to help Tom exit the hooch was going to be her. They stood in the airlock wearing their surface suits. Tom had four ropes attached to his suit. The first was a rope to connect the hooch with Rover 1. The second was a much longer one to connect between the airlocks of the two rovers. The third would connect the airlock of Rover 2 with the hooch.

The fourth would connect Tom to each of the other ropes as he disconnected the umbilical lines between each rover and the hooch. While parked the batteries on each rover had been charged, the oxygen topped up, and the water in each was topped up as well. When the umbilical lines were stowed in the rovers he would then make his way back to the airlock. At least that was the plan.

"Hand me the first carabiner," Daria said.

Tom handed her the D-shaped metal device connected to a fused loop in the rope. With that in her hand Daria hit the cycle button on the airlock. There was a vague 'shwooshing' sound as the pressure and atmosphere equalized with the outside. Tom opened the outer door. The best way to describe the scene was as a wall of red. The storm winds were running about 200 kph (124 mph). Instead of a whiteout like one would see on Earth in the middle of a terrible blizzard, this was a redout of dust. Even with such strong winds, however, there was not the problem of being blown over. The thin atmosphere didn't pack much of a punch. To someone from Earth it felt like a breeze. Still, it whipped up the fine red dust and that filled the atmosphere.

Daria reached out and clipped the carabiner to the mount outside of the airlock. Tom checked it. Then he stepped out. Daria closed the door behind him and waited. She set the display in the airlock to show the readings from his surface suit.

The dust swirled around Tom and he was truly blind. He immediately felt his heart and respiration rates increase. Fear was definitely his top emotion right now and he had to control it. Even if he had not stepped into a storm with zero visibility, he would still be blind because dust immediately attached to his visor through all of the static electricity. It was a scary feeling being all alone in a red world with only the sounds of the functioning of his suit and what he could feel with his hands and feet providing him feedback. He momentarily thought of the stories of people dying just a couple of meters from their doorways in blizzards back in the days of settling the American frontier. Tom pushed that thought away immediately and focused on the tasks at hand.

Forcing himself to move forward perpendicular to the airlock, Tom knew that Rover 1 was parked 5.3 meters (17.5 ft) straight ahead. They had parked the rovers so that they would at least provide some shielding of the hooch's airlock from the dust kicked up by the storm. He placed one foot carefully ahead of the other attempting to move in a straight line. He counted his steps. If he reached 20, then he would know somehow he had missed the rover. He also held his right hand in front of him. He did not want to run smack into the rover. There was always the danger of a fall. His left hand was on the rope as it peeled out.

After what seemed like an eternity – in fact it was only step 15, which took all of two minutes – his right hand felt the side of Rover 1. "I've found Rover 1," Tom said over the radio. He had no idea if anyone could hear him or not. There was clearly radio interference due to the storm, but he did not know how much.

Tom's heart rate dropped a bit when he heard Daria answer, "Roger. Contact with Rover 1." At this close range it was loud and clear.

"Proceeding to Rover 1 airlock," Tom replied. He carefully felt his way along the side of the rover. Now instead of footstep-by-footstep he proceeded hand-by-hand along the smooth metal and glass of the rover. Again, it seemed to take forever, but in reality it took just 3 minutes to reach the end of the rover's side. Then he started to move to the rear airlock and feel around for the mounting point. At the end of 3 more minutes Tom was announcing over the radio, "I have locked the carabiner of line one to the airlock mounting point on Rover 1." He went on, "I have now placed the carabiner of line 2 onto the mounting point as well. I am ready to proceed to Rover 2."

Daria said over the radio, "Did you check that both carabiners are secure?"

"Roger that. I made the check," Tom responded. "I will check again." There was a brief silence. "Yes both are secure. I am moving on."

Walking to Rover 2 would be a bit more of a challenge. It was parked at an angle, but they had to leave a minimum of 3 meters (10 ft.) between the vehicles. Again he carefully put one foot in front of the other. This time, however, he got to 15 steps and had not encountered the rover. He had a very brief moment of panic, but got ahold of himself. Tom pulled the rope that was peeling out taught. He started carefully side stepping to his right. Holding the line and stepping he made an arc. Since he had gone well beyond where the rover should be, he should encounter it using this method. What he encountered was the side of the hooch.

"What is going on out there?" Daria asked over the radio.

"I just took a wrong turn. I must not have gone straight when leaving the back of Rover 1. I will retrace my steps and arc in the other direction. Hold on."

"Holding," Daria replied. She hoped that the other six people with them had completed everything needed to move out. Once this was all done she did not want to wait around.

Tom stepped sideways. He had to be careful to control his movements. He really just wanted to move sideways quickly and get this over with. That was not advisable, however. He did not want to fall out here. So, step-by-step he retraced his arc and then went the other direction. Finally, he felt his hand come into contact with Rover 2. At that point he let the rope start peeling out again. He felt his way along the side of the rover until he reached the end. Then it was just a short stretch to the airlock.

"I have locked the carabiner of line two to the airlock mounting point on Rover 2." He went on, "I have now placed the carabiner of line 3 onto the mounting point as well. I am ready to proceed to back to the airlock."

"Did you check both to make certain they are secure?," Daria asked.

"Yes. Now heading back to the airlock." Tom replied.

This time Tom decided to walk to the side of the hooch and follow it back to the airlock. He still couldn't see anything. Once again he peeled out rope behind him – at least until there was no rope left. Tom felt a slight pull, but the rope came out of his hand. "I have a problem," Tom said over the radio.

Daria could feel a rush of adrenaline at hearing those words. She answered as best she could, "What is the problem?"

"I've lost the rope. The carabiner for the third rope broke or let go and it went through my hand before I noticed it."

"Don't move," Daria ordered. "Are you able to feel around by your feet and tell if the rope is there."

"Just a minute," Tom answered. Tom turned in his current position, knelt and felt around for the rope. He felt nothing. "Nothing," He reported.

"Don't move. I am coming to get you," Daria stated with extreme conviction. "I have a 20 meter line here and I am coming."

"Roger," Tom responded. He felt really stupid. If something had gone wrong with the carabiner that was one thing, but he really should have been able to hold onto the rope.

Daria opened the airlock, fastened the line's carabiner to the mounting point and started along the side of the hooch. Over the radio she said to Tom, "Now what I am going to do is go to the end of this line, straighten it, and then slowly arc outward. When you feel it touch you, then grab it and tell me to stop. We can then both follow the line back to the airlock. Got that?"

"Understood," Tom replied.

Daria really did not like doing this. She just prayed that Tom was indeed somewhere between Rover 2 and the hooch. She kept the line tight and high as it peeled out. This line was nowhere near the diameter of the ropes. It was more like a sturdy twine. She just hoped it was sturdy enough to do the job. Given that it was actually a braided plastic, she was fairly certain it would be fine.

Finally, the line went taught and Daria began to move away from the wall of the hooch. Somewhere in the arc she was sweeping Tom was standing. It seemed like an eternity before she heard Tom over the radio say, "I have the line. Stop." At that point Daria started following the line back. It was only a few meters before she encountered Tom. Together they returned to the airlock.

….

There wasn't that much to load into the rovers. It was mostly sleeping gear and food. Daria stood at the door of the airlock and checked that everyone's carabiner was properly latched onto the rope. Rover 1 personnel, except her, made their way out to the rover, unhooked their carabiner, and stood in the rover's airlock. Tom was on the other end and made certain they got in.

It was pretty much the same for Rover 2, except that Tom made sure their carabiners transferred to the rope that led to Rover 2. There the rover driver made sure they got into the airlock. Finally he unhooked the carabiner holding the rope to his vehicle and went in himself. Tom hauled in the line and stowed it in Rover 1's airlock.

Finally it was Daria's turn. Tom had already loaded her things. She first went through the procedure to return the hooch to "idle." Then she closed the airlock door for the last time and made certain it was latched. Finally, she unhooked the carabiner and followed the rope to Rover 1. Tom was waiting there for her and gave her a little hug when she arrived. He directed her into the airlock as he took the coiled rope from her. He unhooked the carabiner on the rover and stowed the line. At long last he climbed into the airlock with Daria, closed the door, and pressed the button to cycle. When all was clear the two entered the cabin.

The moment he had his helmet off Tom asked, "Is everything stowed?"

The two other crew members answered, "Yes, Tom. Everything is put away."

"Good. Everybody have a seat and I will start the system and get Rover 2 on the line," Tom said as he slipped into the driver's seat. Daria came up and sat next to him. Reaching forward he pressed a large green button and the power systems immediately came to life. The display between him and Daria showed the status of all of the major systems. With a single swipe he could even see the status of the minor systems.

Looking forward through the narrow windows all that was visible was an impenetrable curtain of red. You couldn't see so much as a centimeter in front of the vehicle. That is when Tom pressed another button and the windows seemed to disappear. They were replaced with a full view of everything in front of them. It was like a clear day.

Tom remarked to no one in particular, "I am sure glad that these machines map and record every centimeter we travel in this thing." The system not only recorded visual images, but coordinates and distances as well. Tom could easily see the reflectors tracing the way back to Aries. He set his ground feature radar to comparative, which means that it would compare everything up to 10 meters (33 feet) in front of him to the image database. That would warn him if there were any significant change in the features. Tom then programmed the system to drive the rover home and stay 10 meters (33 feet) from the reflectors on his left.

"Rover 1 to Rover 2. Come in," Tom said.

The answer came right away, "Rover 2 here."

"I have the program laid in and I plan on keeping a speed of 10 kilometers per hour," (6 mph) Tom stated.

"I am programming my vehicle to follow yours. We will stay 6 meters (20 feet) behind you and match speed. That way we don't risk collision if you have to slow down."

Tom responded, "Roger that. Are you ready to go?"

"Affirmative. Let's get going."

"Roger. Out," Tom answered. He engaged the drive and watched his display start moving. Graphics on the view showed when the rover took radar readings from the reflectors and the route to the next measurement position. Tom had a view about 5 km (3 mi) ahead and the reflectors were already mapped on the display. He also had several displays he could choose from: forward, back, sides, and aerial. The aerial view could show him everything from right above the vehicle to a height of 500 meters (1650 feet). For the time being he just kept it on the forward view. Unlike when they drove out and he had to actively drive the rover, now there was little for Tom to do. He just sat and was vigilant about what was ahead and periodically checked the systems. All were nominal. In the unlikely event he had to intervene he was prepared. It was going to be a long 10 hours.

Daria spent the long drive assisting Tom as co-pilot, helping the others vacuum dust off of surface suits, or making entries to her personal log or the official log in order to document the trip as part of the history of the colony. Clearly this was the worst dust storm since the colony was created six years ago. If not for the technology and availability of the advanced rovers and the hooch, this trip could have turned deadly. Becoming disoriented lost, and running out of air or food was definitely a danger. Even with all of the support systems the limiting factor was food. They had carried enough for the mission plus a two day emergency supply. They had needed it. In fact, if it wasn't for the limited food supply they probably would have given the storm one or two more days to subside before venturing home. Oh, and the other limit was, of course, the amount that the rovers' waste tanks would hold. At the moment that did not seem to be a problem.

"Rover 2 to Rover 1," came the voice over the driver's speaker.

"Rover 1 here," Tom replied.

"We have a problem over here," the voice stated.

"What is your problem?" Tom said.

"It seems we have a wheel lock-up on our right side. It is the left rear."

Tom paused for a moment, pulled up a display and said, "We are just over an hour from base. Can you raise the wheel and finish on the remaining wheels?"

The voice answered, "Negative. It looks like the height adjustment is gone as well. We might be able to do it manually."

"That is not a simple task. It will take three of us to do that. Any chance you could just drag the when until we reach base?"

"Negative on that," he replied. "Part of the reason I am calling is that I have dragged the wheel for about the last 10 kilometers (6 miles). Unless we can stop the thing from dragging, the computer shows that I will not have enough power to reach base. It further estimates that if you try to tow us you will run out of power about a kilometer (0.6 miles) short of base. If we stop here, then we have up to 8 hours to get the wheel fixed and both have enough power to reach base."

Tom stated in a Daria like deadpan, "Who am I to argue with the computer? Get your surface suits on. I will have Jimmy suit up and come out to help you. Don't forget that you will need lines to follow. I will have Jimmy attach one from our rear to your front. I don't want him using the communications line to find you more than once. Then he can follow the vehicle side to your position. Let me know when you are about to go outside."

"Roger," Rover 2 replied.

Daria turned around in her seat and saw Jimmy already putting on his surface suit. With the break in the trip her mind wandered. She thought of riding in "The Tank" and winding up on the side of the road on the way to Alternapalooza. She smiled as she though about those days with Jane and Trent. Jane was such a great friend. Daria felt sorry for Trent, though. The last 10 years had really been hard on him and the last time she saw him he looked bad. Monique's death from a drug overdose had really shattered him. Even his kids did not seem to be able to pull him out of it.

Mystic Spiral had eventually done decently as a touring cover band. They had even had a song that got on the charts. It had risen to something like number 15 for few weeks. That had given Trent enough of a cash infusion that he could fix up the house in Lawndale and even put together a decent retirement plan. What he didn't know was that Monique had started using drugs again on their last tour. She died in their hotel room while Trent was away setting up for the evening's gig at a high end club. Trent found her on the bathroom floor. He just seemed unable to forgive himself for not being there. He never picked up an instrument again. Over and over he asked himself what signs he had missed. Jane moved back to Lawndale to help him through it, but after two years she returned to New York. She just couldn't let her art business or her husband Jim suffer any more.

Trent's daughter and her boyfriend moved back to Lawndale after Jane left. They had been there ever since. They lived in the house with him and he even had two grandchildren. Mostly he stayed in his room and listened to music. The remains of Mystic Spiral moldered in the basement – untouched. Somewhat ironically, despite playing rock all of their lives, the other members had moved to Nashville and were still doing backups for recordings. Max had even married a then rising country singer 20 years younger than himself. He was her drummer on tour and for her recordings.

Thinking again about Alternapalooza, Daria chuckled at the fact that it was unlikely anyone here would vomit on her feet. She remembered cleaning off her boots after that incident. Bump on the head, bee sting on her arm, and puke on her boots. Plus they never made it to the festival. The only redeeming part of the trip was her first chance to really get to know Trent. Jane had gone off with Jesse to get help. Not many people had cell phones back in those days, especially teenagers. Now she sat on another planet as the guys tried to fix a tire. Things just never truly change.

Daria could hear over the radio:

"Now lift."

"No, put your back into it. Look, we have to get this thing up higher."

"I still can't see a thing out here."

"No, you have to do it by feel."

"Ow! That was my hand!"

"Turn the thing already!"

The chatter went on for some time. About a half hour later she heard, "Rover 1 we have the wheel secured."

"Roger," Tom responded. "Get back inside and let me know when you are ready to roll again."

After another half hour they were moving again.

Daria just sat there for the remainder of the drive. The light was fading when they finally arrived in front of the vehicle airlock at Aries. She watched on the display as it showed the outer door opening. She remembered welding the hinges on that door! Then the two vehicles were able to move in side-by-side. The outer door closed and the air jets started. Controlling the Martian dust was a major task for the colony. First there were the air jets (which actually blew Martian atmosphere) to blow dust off of the vehicles. That was then suctioned though centrifugal filters to remove the dust. Next came the water jets. This made the airlock into a giant truck wash. The point was to get any remaining dust washed off of the vehicles. The water also went to a centrifugal filter and then was further filtered to remove any last tiny bits of dust. The final cleaning stage was to once again use atmosphere and air jets to dry and get any last bit of dust off. Once that was all done the atmosphere in the airlock was replaced by breathable air and the pressures equalized. Then the inner door opened and both vehicles were manually driven into their parking/maintenance spots.

As Daria stepped out of the vehicle she noticed that the base commander was standing nearby. Everyone went over to her and she overheard, "Glad to see everyone is back safe and sound. We were worried there for a little bit!"

Daria heard one of the crew respond, "The hooch really kept us safe. The main reason we had to get back was that we would have run out of food. Otherwise, we could have stayed out there for another week."

Daria thought, 'Only if you really want to see how ripe your comrades get after a week. There may have been a shower in the hooch, but we didn't have much more than a little bit of hand soap with us. That would have been gone in a day. One warm spell in there and we would have died in each other's stench.'

Daria dutifully shook hands with Commander Ramirez, accepted her good wishes and thanks for all of the hard work building the hooch, and then headed into the habitat. The one thing Daria was really looking for was a nice long shower, washing her hair and then bed.