Story Excerpt

Not Far Enough

by Martin L. Shoemaker

 

Carver, Aames, and Smith have previously appeared in the pages of Analog in “Brigas Nunca Mais” (March 2015) and “Murder on the Aldrin Express” (September 2013).

 

1. Descent Stage

“Carver!” the captain shouted through the comm. Lander 2 bucked and dove in the Martian turbulence. A rumble like distant thunder sounded through the hull. “Pick that nose up. Fight that wind. Use some juice if you have to! I don’t want to scrape you all off of Mars.”

But it was Chief Maxwell who answered, safe in Control Bay 2 up on the Bradbury: “I’m on it.” I bounced against my seat and then up against my straps as the lander’s nose kicked upward. “Doppler says there’s a calm pocket behind this gust, we just have to slide over to it.”

The expedition had started fine. The eight-month trip on the Bradbury was routine for a crew of experienced spacers: maintenance, training, experiments, and briefings. Indoctrination sessions, really, but the brass were subtler than that. The System Initiative hired the best headshrinkers to make it subtle. That was all the fault of Masha Desney—my hero!—and Bennie Cooper.

I heard the captain’s sneer in his response. “Glad somebody is awake over there. Carver, open your damned eyes! Do you want another collision?”

That was unfair to Anson Carver—his Lieutenant Junior Grade bars still new—but “fair” doesn’t describe Captain Aames. He’ll push ’til he gets your best—or you break. Carver had had a collision during pilot training, and Aames brought it up when he wanted to push the man. Carver’s helmet monitor showed sweat on his dark brown forehead, but his eyes were focused and steely. Carver wouldn’t break, I was sure of that. He was doing great considering he had worries that Max didn’t. Our landers used the system invented by the First Bradbury crew: a pilot in a skinsuit on the lander paired with a copilot on the Bradbury, so they could share both views of the Martian approach. Carver hung from straps in the pilot pod, while Max did the same up in the ship; but though they used the same piloting gear, there was one key difference, an old bacon-and-eggs joke: The chicken is involved in breakfast, but the pig is committed. Carver played pig in the frying pan, and Maxwell was the chicken, wondering if we would fry.

Commander Cooper’s First team had devised this system to rescue Desney, his second-in-command, after she had violated mission rules and landed on Mars. They were supposed to teleoperate robots on the surface, preparing for future manned landings but with none approved for their mission; but the splintered crews on the First schemed to land on their own, all chasing national prestige and influence. Desney finally pulled it off, but she crashed in the landing. After Cooper united his crew to rescue her, the floodgates opened. They rewrote their mission plan, with multiple surface excursions and piles of samples and data returned.

The rumble outside continued. On Earth, wind whistles, but on Mars, the thin air only propagates long sound waves, and they don’t travel far. The deep sounds of wind were peaceful to terrestrial ears, but that was a deception. They could turn deadly in moments.

“All right there, Ensign Smith?” Lieutenant Gale called across the cabin.

“All right, Lieutenant.” I appreciated the concern, but not the tone: Poor girl, can you handle this stress? The whole flight, the British officer had been concerned with my welfare, and also with getting me into his bunk. Hah! If I were going to turn to men, it wouldn’t be for a snake like Horace Gale. He was a phony, a whole different person with the officers than with the enlisted. The Initiative chose him, and Captain Aames didn’t wash him out, so I trusted him. I even liked him, after a fashion: We were chosen for compatibility on a long mission, so even an asshole like Gale had good points. But I didn’t like him too far.

I smiled back at Shannon Lopez behind me, and she grinned. She had rebuffed Gale as well, and we had joked about it on occasions. Of course, she had rebuffed me, too. If she was involved with anyone, she was pretty discreet about it.

I rubbed my shoulder where the straps had caught me. There would be a bruise there, but it couldn’t wipe the grin from my face. We might die at any second, but I simply couldn’t believe it. After years of training and travel, I was going to land on Mars, just like the First!

I had watched reports from the First crew on the big screen in the Old Town. I had to know everything about them. The public on Earth and Luna couldn’t get enough of those brave explorers who conquered another planet. But it was a lousy career move. Behind the scenes there were shakeups across the national agencies. When those settled down, the administrators decided that the mission hadn’t been international enough. They formed the new System Initiative to manage joint exploration, and the Initiative hired a whole new crew.

The captain said, “Max, hold off on that clear pocket. We may need it for Lander 1. Weaver says that may be our only solution, and we don’t want you getting too close.” There were six of us on each lander, the ground teams who would gather data, run experiments, and build facilities on Mars. (On Mars! I still got a thrill from that.) Max, Weaver, Koertig, and Uribe remained on the Bradbury, running experiments, tending the hydroponics, and maintaining contact with Mission Control.

“Captain,” Carver answered, “A’s followed by two more. We can go with B or C, but C’s moving slower.” There was an implied question there, a lift in Carver’s voice. Bad mistake, Carver, I thought, never hesitate with him. With Captain Aames, it’s okay to not know, but say so!

The captain pounced. “Choose one, Carver! I’m busy. Max said you were a pilot, was he wrong?”

“No, sir!” Carver was smart enough not to argue, just go back to his piloting.

The First Bradbury Expedition was a dead end for its crew. They’re celebrities and heroes, but unofficially, they’re blackballed. None has ever served on an Initiative mission. The only work they can find is with transport companies and other private ventures. For the Second Bradbury Expedition, the Initiative didn’t want Mars experts; they wanted discipline and loyalty to the mission. We would follow the rules, and they would teach us what we needed to know about Mars. So none of us had any real experience with Mars landings.

Max came back on the comm. “Deece advises we go for C, Lieutenant.” Decision Consultant, or Deece, was the expedition’s AI. She ran simulations and models to advise us on our decisions. “We’ll need to boost to hit it without getting sucked into A.” I felt a push from behind as Carver applied thrust from the main engine.

“Keep an eye on that storm,” the captain said.

Gale cut in. “Deece’s model says it’ll miss us.”

“It’s not the model I’m worried about, Horace.” The captain used Gale’s first name any time the Lieutenant annoyed him—which was often. “The real storm’s not following the model. It’s already in Coprates quadrangle. It could turn our way at any time.” Our landing strips were in the heart of Coprates, in a fairly even stretch of Solis Planum. If the storm was in the quadrangle, Aames was smart to be concerned.

The Initiative wanted a commander who wouldn’t embarrass them again, so they had selected Captain Nick Aames. That was a gamble: He has a stubborn streak, and contempt for stupid rules if they endanger the mission; but he respects safety rules, established procedures, and chain of command as long as they serve the mission. His successful missions outnumbered his clashes with command, but it was close.

And he likes discipline to keep focus. He rode us until we knew our own specialties and had cross-trained in at least two others. He inspected every bolt in the ship, monthly, plus surprise inspections when he thought we were slacking off. His ass-chewing skills are legendary, and we learned to avoid them.

If he went too far, we turned to Chief Maxwell. Max had served with Aames on three missions before Mars. They understood each other. If you took a beef to Max, he made you see it the captain’s way, so the reprimand didn’t sting so much. If Max decided you were right, he could intercede with the captain. Sometimes. He had for Carver, convincing Captain Aames that the young programmer should cross-train as a pilot.

Suddenly the lander flipped up on its side. I hoped Max knew what he was doing. Otherwise Carver, Gale, our shipmates, and I would be spread across the Mars-scape. But before I could worry, the lander dropped rapidly and slid back to a level altitude, and the ride was smooth as a parking orbit. “Nicely done, Lieutenant,” Max said.

“Thanks, Chief. I think we have clear air from here.”

“This is Mars, lad. Never assume.” But Carver had it right: With Maxwell’s assistance, we rode that pocket down to landing altitudes. It was still a wild ride—not my wildest ever, someday I’ll tell you about a bull riding contest outside São Paulo—and the rumble never stopped; but Carver had it under control. Soon the red hills of Mars were everywhere outside the ports, and Max reported on the comm: “Beacons show Landing Strip A is three degrees starboard. Adjusting course.” The robots from First had constructed strips and ground facilities. Those were obscured by the blowing sands of Mars, but radar and radio beacons guided us down.

The captain said, “Lander 2, we caught an unexpected updraft. We’ll miss Strip B, and radar shows soft ground off the edge. I’m boosting out of this approach, and we’ll circle around for another try. Looks like you’ll beat us down. Weather permitting, we’ll rendezvous at your position.”

Max answered, “You have enough fuel for another pass, captain?”

“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be making the pass.” Even Max wasn’t immune to the famous Aames scorn.

“Chief!” Carver cut in. “I’m taking us down.”

“All green from here,” Max answered. “Seal helmets.” I dropped my faceplate and latched it into place. It would suck to survive a crash only to asphyxiate on Mars, so we landed with our suits sealed.

The helmet dulled the sound from outside, so I tapped on the external microphone. Then I heard high-pitched white noise as the flaps tore through the thin atmosphere. Next came clunking beneath us as landing gear dropped into place. Carver and Max called readings and adjustments back and forth as we swiftly descended to the red planet. Looking around Carver, I could see Lander Complex A out the front window: a landing strip, an automated propellant factory, a crawler garage, and some smaller structures. These had been constructed by the robots of the First expedition. Then after Masha Desney broke protocol and landed right where we would land, the First crew did a lot of the work themselves.

We continued our powered glide to the strip. There was brief panic as the port wing dropped, a jolt of adrenaline as Max compensated, and suddenly I felt three swift jolts as the lander touched down, bounced twice, and settled onto the runway. The lander filled with cheers as we sped down the concrete, brakes humming and flaps screaming. Max came on the comm: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Mars!”

The captain’s voice cut through the cheers. “Good flying, Lieutenant.” I saw a wide grin on Carver’s face, all white teeth, looking as if his face might split. A word of praise from Captain Aames was a rare treasure. But as quick as that, the moment was past, and the captain pushed again. “Gale, get your people unstrapped and out. I want that lander anchored down. I don’t like the long-range Doppler readings.”

“Yes, captain.” Gale reached for his strap.

A female voice cut in, steady and warm: “Do not unstrap. Model analysis in progress. Do not unstrap.”

“Yes, Deece.” Gale relaxed back into his seat. “Everyone remain seated.” D.C. was another consequence of the First expedition. The Initiative wanted oversight on every decision, but they couldn’t do that effectively with a twenty-plus-minute light speed delay. So they installed a high end Artificial Intelligence to do their overseeing. Deece monitored every action, fed it into her scenario model, and advised us whether it complied with the latest mission protocols; but she blurred the line between “advise” and “command.” We resented her (well, maybe not Gale, the suck-up), but we were stuck with her.

Not that I have anything against AIs. I’ve met some great ones back in Tycho, programmed by real pros; but they’re not human, and no amount of programming will change that. They don’t see things the way a human would. And Deece’s programmers weren’t real pros, if you ask me. She was a pain in the ass: too limited, unable to adapt to changes outside her training.

The captain was no happier than I was. “Damn it, Deece, that front could turn this way and toss that lander halfway to Valles Marineris!” Any lander light enough and with enough lift to land on Mars was light enough for a storm to carry it away. The runway had anchor pits where we could drive the lander in, anchor it down, and close the hatches.

Deece was unflappable as only an AI can get. “I have updated weather models from D.C., Captain. They show no immediate danger. Initiative protocols say the crew must remain ready for immediate liftoff in case of an unforeseen threat. I advise the crew to remain strapped in.”

Deece’s plan made sense, according to her protocols. Taking off from Mars is easier than landing. To take off, you just have to miss the ground, and keep missing no matter what the winds do. But to land, you have to miss it just barely; and then barely miss again and again until you hit on your terms, not Mars’s. With solid boosters, we could lift clear of the worst storms in under a minute, even in bad weather.

But Aames had no intention of running from Mars without a fight. “Fine, stay strapped for now. Carver, drive that bird to the anchor pit. Let’s not waste any time. Now I have my own landing, so stop chattering in my ear!”

The lander started taxiing. We were downstrip from the anchor pits, so Carver had to find a turnaround. The landing strips were half buried, so he had to navigate by pattern recognizers and deep radar. If it weren’t for Deece, we could’ve hoofed it over and prepared the pit. Instead we waited.

Carver was just pulling into the turnaround when Aames announced: “Lander 1 down on Strip B and heading for the anchor pit.”

Deece chose that moment to add: “Model suggests no urgent threats that would require immediate liftoff. Recommend crew prepare to anchor Lander 2.”

“We would’ve never figured that out, Deece.” The captain’s sarcasm was wasted on the AI. “Max, take the taxi. Carver, unstrap and be ready. That storm front’s picking up speed. I want all hands prepping the anchor pit.”

“Yes, Captain,” Gale said. He unstrapped and crouched near the floor hatch. “All hands, get ready and strap on your toolkits. Don’t waste a minute when we reach the pit.”

So there was a lack of ceremony when I set foot on the Red Planet: Gale opened the hatch as Max coasted to a stop, and one by one we dropped down to the runway. It was a slow drop, thanks to Mars’s low gravity. I had a moment to savor the feeling: I’m on Mars! Right where Masha took her first step! Then I bounced out of the way of the next spacer, just like in training.

In the open air of Mars, I heard yet another rumble, this time from wind scraping past my body suit and my helmet. Our leggings and sleeves were soft, pressurized tubes with gasket-fitted joints; but the body suits were hard, fitted shells, and the helmets were hard polymer bubbles. Both were good protection against hazards, but noisy as hell in that wind.

I weaved in the first real gravity I had experienced in months. The mactory deck of the Bradbury spun for low centrifugal gravity, and we exercised there daily; but weak as Mars’s gravity was, it was double what I had gotten used to. I leaned against the lander’s leg as I looked around to orient myself. Just east of the strip was the propellant factory, an egg-like dome that ran on wind and solar as it mined the Martian surface for perchlorates and other compounds that it shaped into propellant disks. These could be loaded into our booster tubes to help us escape Mars. On the other side was the crawler garage, and beside it an access turret concealed stairs down into the anchor pit. Between the garage and the factory were the two metal plates of the pit hatches.

Gale was already working on the latch. He ran a blower, clearing the hatches of sand, and I crouched to unhook the latch. The hatches were designed to open easily from above: two large metal covers on hinges, locked together by a circular compression latch. We had to unhook the pair of meter-long latch handles, lift them, and use them to turn the latch plate. Then we could lift the plates, and the lander could roll down the ramp and into the pit.

I unhooked the handles easily; but when I tried to pull the first one up, it wouldn’t budge more than half a centimeter. I tried the second handle: same thing. “Lieutenant, there’s sand in the shafts. They’re stuck.”

Gale nodded. “Cooper, van der Ven, Pagnotto, help her out.” My shipmates joined me, two on each handle. Elvio Pagnotto and I pried for all we were worth. Months in low G hadn’t weakened us, thanks to a ruthless exercise regimen, but raw strength wasn’t cutting it. I pulled with my arms and pushed with my legs.

Suddenly my grip slipped, and my leg strength threw me violently into the Martian air. The sky and the horizon spun crazily as I rose and fell, and I noticed more sand whipping by, moving faster. I wondered if I would damage anything when I crashed.

Fortunately Carver was on the ball. He loped after me, caught me, and set me down. “You all right, ensign?”

I smiled through my visor. “Except for my dignity. Lieutenant Gale, they’re stuck tight.”

Aames came on the line. “The latches are fine here. You’ll have to clear the housing from underneath. Move, people, move! That front is picking up speed!”

“The models—”

Aames shouted, “Screw the models, Horace! Look at the horizon!” I looked and saw a growing cloud of sand. “Move!”

Carver and I set to work on the access turret. The door was blocked by sand, but we pried it open. The space inside was five meters across, with the east half open into a shaft with a circular staircase made of tall steps—almost a ladder on Earth, with just a thin handrail. But on Mars, the steps were easy to descend, even with a suit, an environment pack, and tool kits. At the bottom was an open pressure door leading to a short, wide tunnel ending in another open door. The tunnel doubled as an airlock, but the doors had been left open, since neither end was under pressure.

Beyond lay the pit. Light panels in the ceiling automatically came on, showing us the artificial cavern with its ramp to the surface at the far east end.

“At least the solwind worked,” Carver said.

“Uh-huh,” I said. The panels, powered by a solar-wind generator station on the surface, illuminated the entire pit. A mechanical lift beside the ramp would let us reach the hatches. Supply cabinets lined the walls. A pressure door on the far side led to a shelter.

Immediately we saw another problem: the pit was ankle-deep in sand. “Lieutenant,” Carver called up, “the seals have failed. There’s a lot of sand down here. That’s probably how it got into the housings.”

“Can we get the lander down?”

“Yes, Lieutenant, but it’ll be messy.”

“Messy we can handle. Get to work.”

Trudging through the loose sand, we set to work on the hatches. The lift worked, raising us above the ramp and extending out so we stood under the hatches. Everything looked different from underneath, but Aames had drilled us on all of the First’s equipment. We knew how this system worked.

The handles below were much like the handles above, so Carver and I pushed while Van and Pagnotto pulled. No go. We had to clean and lube the shaft housings. Looking at them, I knew that would be impossible as they stood. “Lieutenant, push ’em down. We can’t fix them like this.”

So we changed direction, Van and Pagnotto pushing while Carver and I pulled. We had to hook our boots into the lift rails to avoid doing pull-ups in 0.38 g. We were panting and sweating, but we pulled the first handle down. We pulled the shafts apart, cleaned them, and applied lubricant from our toolkits. Then we put them back together, and Carver called up, “Handle one is done. Moving on to two.”

Aames answered, “No time! Gale, get your team down into that pit. Now!”

Deece’s soothing voice responded. “My model shows the storm strength will not reach the danger point for ten-point-three minutes.”

“Your model is wrong! Move!”

“Yes, Captain!” Gale answered. We saw light as the turret door opened and our shipmates scurried down amid billowing clouds of sand.

Gale was last into the turret, pulling the door shut behind him. The wind outside, though, grew louder than ever. Gale shouted over the noise. “Bloody hell, Carver, you weren’t kidding! There’s sand everywhere. Everyone look around, find that bad seal!”

We searched the pit, but we found nothing. Carver and I checked the hatch seals, and I heard clanking outside, low and loud like heavy metal boots stamping on a bass drum over and over. “What the hell’s that?”

Carver listened. “The landing gear shocks, bouncing up and down. Wind’s picking up.”

Shannon checked the turret. “Here it is, Lieutenant.” Gale climbed up to join her. Van and Pagnotto looked up from below. “It looks like something cracked the join between the carbon panels.”

Gale looked at the join. “There’s a quarter centimeter gap here. Good job, Lopez. Get some seal tape on that. When the storm passes, we’ll reweld that seal.” Gale came back down the steps.

Carver called across the pit. “Lieutenant, the lander’s bouncing. It won’t stay down long.”

“Damn! Deece, can you launch the lander, get it away from the storm?”

“Analyzing.” Deece paused. “There is time to boost above the front, but we would have to refuel at the orbiter.”

Aames broke in. “Gale, that model’s wrong. Look at the wind readings from the lander.”

Gale checked his comm. “Captain, they’re high, but in the safety margin. If we wait, they won’t be, and we’ll be down a lander. Deece, boost.”

“Gale!” the captain shouted. “Look at those winds! It’ll push—”

But his warning was lost in the subsonic rumble of the solid rocket boosters igniting. The hatch plates rattled, and I was glad the lander wasn’t any closer.

Carver looked at his own comm, and his eyes grew wide. He shouted something, but it was buried by the engines and the rattling hatches. Frantic, Carver pushed a warning to my heads-up display: GET UNDER LIFT! EXPLOSION! He scrambled for the edge. I leaped after him, and I saw that Gale and the rest were diving for cover as well.

The engine rumble had diminished, surely a sign that the lander was boosting skyward. I rolled up in a crouch just in time to see Shannon bolting down the stairs.

Then a much louder sound wave shook the entire pit, an explosion that deafened us. The ground shook, ceiling panels fell, and the turret collapsed upon Lopez. I tried to run to her, but Carver held me back. Then the ceiling fell in, and the lift dropped on us, and everything went dark.

And then I died in the mess.

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Copyright © 2017. Not Far Enough by Martin L. Shoemaker

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