Chapter 9: Smoke

Daria emerged from inside the airlock. She pulled off her helmet and took a breath of the fresh air in the building. Sure it was created, recirculated, and constantly purified, but it was still better than breathing bottled air in the surface suit. At least now it also passed through an environment that included soil and plants, so there was a certain smell of life to it.

It had been a long day and she had even had to do some of the welding on the launch rail herself! There were a couple of welds that were just not suitable for what she had come to think of as her robot army. Each one was really good at its job, but even with advanced artificial intelligence there were limits. It was good to know that the old human hand and eye were still good for something! At least she had not become totally obsolete. As she finished putting the surface suit in the locker, Kara came up to her. Kara was the other welder and a mechanical engineer in the colony.

"Daria," Kara said excitedly, "You need to come quick to the auditorium! Julie told me that the World Walker has found something exciting. Nobody is saying anything other than this is significant."

Daria looked at Kara with her tired, bloodshot eyes and deadpanned, "Kara, this is Julie the geologist we are talking about. Rocks excite her! Goodness knows that a new type of mineral might drive her to an orgasm!"

Kara stared at Daria for just a moment. The corners of her mouth twitched. Her nose crinkled, and then she started to laugh. She laughed so hard she had to sit on one of the benches across from the lockers. It took her a minute, but she composed herself.

"Daria. The very picture of Julie having an orgasm is now one I can't get out of my head! I could probably make a comment about the shapes of rocks, but I will refrain. You probably have the driest sense of humor of anyone I know."

"Who said I was making a joke?" Daria quipped.

Julie laughed again. Then said, "Seriously, the command staff is asking everyone available to come to the theater. They are going to go over the day's video and point out what was found."

"Alright. I will come with you. But first let me send Tom a quick message. I need to let him know I am back inside."

"Sure," Kara said.

Daria activated her wristband. Dictated a short message to Tom and sent it. Then she turned back to Kara. "Shall we see what the World Walker hath wrot?"

Kara laughed again and the two women walked to the theater.

At the door of the theater a man was handing out goggles. They were lightweight and strapped on. Daria thought that virtual reality had come a long way in 35 years. The World Walker rover had a full stereo visual reality imaging set on a mast. This included sound pickups so that you could hear as well as see the world just as if your were there yourself. The only thing missing was the smell! Of course inside a surface suit there was not much to smell other than the bottle in the bottled air.

The World Walker was a mission to have a robot drive the entire circumference of Mars. It was designed not to need supply lines and it wouldn't die from exposure to radiation. While all of these problems could be solved for humans, nevertheless for a first look it was still best to send a robot rover. Also, you didn't have to worry about parts of a robot getting into a fight or not speaking with each other.

Daria and Kara walked toward the center of the room. Commander Ramirez was just coming to the microphone.

"OK everyone," the commander said matter-of-factly. "We have some very special video to show this evening. Please put your VR goggles on now."

Daria put her goggles on and it was just like she had suddenly stepped out onto the surface. The only difference was that she was not wearing a suit and could breathe! Still, it was fascinating to have the full 360 degree view and hear the light Martian wind passing around the camera mast. The landscape she saw was nothing particularly remarkable.

After giving everyone a moment to adjust to the view in their goggles the commander continued, "Now today's mission was scheduled to be a traverse through the hills you see in front of you. The World Walker was supposed to travel 12 km (7.4 miles). I am going to speed things up from the usual 2 kmh (1.2 mph) to make it look like we are going 36 kmh (22.3 mph). Keep an eye on the distance traveled indicator in the upper right hand corner of your view and then look front when we get to the 4.5 hour mark.

Daria stood and watched as the landscape moved past at a rate somewhat slower than you would drive through a residential neighborhood back on Earth. Still, it was a great deal faster than the rover's actual speed. At 15 minutes into the show Daria turned her attention straight ahead.

"That looks like smoke!" someone in the audience shouted.

"You're right!" said another.

Things came into focus for Daria. She could now clearly see what looked like smoke rising in the distance behind a hill. The only problem, of course, is that this is Mars. Nothing burns here out in the open. There is not sufficient oxygen in the atmosphere – not to mention how thin the atmosphere is to start with. Besides, it is mostly carbon dioxide. There simply should not be smoke or fire here!

Commander Ramirez said to the crowd in a more measured tone, "OK. Now I am going to switch views. I am launching the drone to go over and take a look at where the smoke is coming from. I am speeding this up as well."

The view in Daria's goggles changed and she felt as if she was flying as the drone launched off of the back of the World Walker. It too provided a 360 degree 3-dimensional view. The Martian terrain sped by quickly as the drone flew toward its target. If there were birds on Mars, then this is what they would see!

As the objective came into view, again one of the audience members blurted out, "Those are flames coming out! How is it that we are getting flames on Mars?"

The drone approached the object and there were several conclusions that could immediately be drawn. First, it was clearly not a natural object. Second, it was quite black. Third, the fire was most likely due to a ruptured oxygen tank, a ruptured fuel tank, and either the heat of atmospheric entry or hitting the ground caused a spark, which in turn ignited everything. The craft had no visible markings.

Daria watched with fascination as the drone made its way around the craft showing it from a variety of angles. The debris field was fairly large, which means either this was a large craft or it hit at an angle which really maximized the debris field. Still, there was a sizable central area. The big question was: Where did this thing come from?

After about a half-hour the drone left the wreckage site and started to fly back to the World Walker. At that point the view in Daria's goggles was turned off and she pulled them off of her face. She and everyone else looked at Commander Ramirez.

"So," Commander Ramirez began. Her tone was now very serious. "We have a situation here. We have a downed and burning craft of some type, which never showed up on our approach radar. We didn't track it on approach, entry, or even register the crash. What is it? Was there a crew? If so, are there survivors out there? We need answers to these questions."

"What I have ordered is that the drone return to the World Walker and speed charge. Then it will fly back to the wreckage and fly around it. After that it will take up a parked position about 300 meters away. The World Walker will start toward the site and continue even during the night. We have good maps of the area, so we should be able to make at least a kilometer (0.6 miles) per hour even after dark. That should get it to the site somewhat before dawn."

"Now my concern is that there might be a crew with survivors. We have no clue how long they might last. So, speed is of the essence. We have 2 prototype speed copters that we have been testing. Each carries 2 people. The challenge is that the crash site is about 500 km (310 miles) from here. Of course the copters' range is only just over 200 km. Oh, and there is the little problem of the mountain range between here and there."

Daria thought that the problems were certainly considerable. The speed copters were basically drones that carried two passengers each. They were developing these machines to help with their exploration mission. Since they were planting hooches at 100 km (62 miles) distances from each other, the copters would allow more rapid transfer of people. Hooches could be provisioned, so that would mean that longer and farther missions could be undertaken without as much use of the rovers. Still provisioning was supposed to be done using the rovers not the copters. In any event, the track that the World Walker was taking to drive the circumference of Mars was not one where they had been building hooches. The commander had some serious problems to overcome if they were going to get to the wreckage in any kind of timely manner.

Commander Ramirez stated, "What we are going to do is the following: First, I am sending 4 rovers out carrying extra fuel for the copters and themselves. These will be positioned at 200 and 400 km from Aries. Two of the rovers are being refitted to handle casualties and medical personnel will be onboard. The medical rovers will be stationed at 200 and 400 km from the crash site, respectively. The remaining rovers will carry people and equipment for rescue and analysis to the crash site. By timing the departure of the copters correctly, we can reach the crash site with copters in less than 9 hours assuming everything goes according to plan. It is the best we can do. "

"Second, One medical person will fly on a copter from the 400 km position to perform any needed triage. Once on-site we will then evacuate survivors by copter as fast as we can. Pilots will first take them to the 400 km position and if there are more survivors than can be handled there, then we will refuel the copters and send them on to the 200 km position. We will use the old habitat as quarantine and as an emergency room. A lesson we are learning here is that we are not well prepared for a long-distance rescue!"

"Once any evacuations are complete, I want as much of that craft as we can salvage. I am ordering the two rovers driving to the crash site to recover what they can. I am very disturbed that we were unable to detect this craft. Maybe we have a glitch or a failure. I am even more concerned about the possibility that this craft was intentionally sent and shielded from our detection. Why would someone on Earth send a craft to Mars and not want us to detect it? That points to a possible violation of the Mars exploration treaty."

"We need to get that thing back here and have a look at it so that we can determine its origin. In the meantime, I am going to keep Earth as much in the dark as possible." Commander Ramirez straightened up and adjusted her jacket. In what can best be called her 'command voice,' she told the assembled crowd, "As Commander of Aries I am ordering you not to divulge this situation to anyone on Earth. That especially includes family and friends. We need to keep it under wraps for a while until we figure this out. If you check your texts you will see that this order has been formally sent to you. Dismissed."

Daria turned in her VR goggles as she left the theater. Leaving Kara behind Daria began searching for Tom.

…..

Daria and Tom were just finishing their dinners when Commander Ramirez walked up and sat down at their table. She was not carrying food.

Almost breathless Commander Ramirez said, "I really want you two involved with this recovery. Daria, I need you to go over the video as it comes in. I especially want you to watch for any sign of writing on this craft. Take a look at the external pictures. Maybe once we get internals we will see something. Good archiving and indexing is also critical here. If I have to lodge a complaint I need to be able to access the materials efficiently." Turning to Tom she went on without skipping a beat, "Tom, I want you to lead the rover mission to recover what we can."

Tom replied immediately, "Sure. I can do that."

Looking at the commander Daria said with real empathy in her voice, "This is really disturbing you. Why? What are you concerned about?"

Commander Ramirez looked at Daria and at last her eyes seemed to relax for just a moment. Then in a low, tired, and even a worried voice she explained, "Think of the possibilities here. The best scenario is that we have a hidden flaw or failure somewhere in our sensors. We can probably find or fix that. All of the others feed off of the question – Why was this designed to avoid our sensors? If it is unmanned, then what were the makers trying to find out? If it was manned, then what was its mission here and in both cases why was this information not shared with either us or Mission Control on Earth? The worst case scenario is that this was or is an attempt to invade and take over the colony. At this point I can't see why anyone would want our colony, but people have started wars for dumber things in the past. Ironically, I still hope that this planet named after the Roman god of war will be a planet of peace."

Daria nodded as she listened. Then in a very measured voice she added, "And of course what you are not saying is the one additional possibility. That is that this craft is alien and didn't have its origin on Earth."

Commander Ramirez placed her hands flat on the table, looked at Daria and said very slowly, "That, Daria, is my greatest nightmare. If that is the case, then who or what is out there and what does it want? At least humans have much in common no matter their individual culture." With that the commander got up, looked at Daria and Tom and said, "Well, back to work." Then she walked off.

Daria sat and looked at her plate.

"Finish your dinner my love," Tom said as he reached over and held Daria's hand. "I have a feeling these next few days are going to be rough and there will be little sleep or time to eat. Not only do I plan to have dessert tonight, but I am going to get a tea with triple caffeine to go after that. You might want to do the same."

"Yeah," She replied. "I understand everything she said. Now we need to see what we can do."