Monday, November 30, 2009

nano post 60

The day passed in a dim red haze. Eduardo, after finally waking up, alternated between taking cat naps and reading his book. Once or twice he got up and stretched his arms and legs. Dejah had taken to pacing in the tiny space: from the seat to the sleeping space and back again. Finally Eduardo set his book down and grabbed her wrist.

“Will you just sit down and settle for a minute? You're making me nervous!”

She flopped into the driver's seat again, and rested her fingers on the wheel. “Sorry, I just hate being stuck like this! I need to be out and moving around, not stuck being unable to move. Hell, I can't even see out of the damn window!” She slammed a fist against the steering wheel. “It just drives me crazy, you know!”

“Hey, I get that. It's not exactly my idea of a great vacation, you know? But it is what it is. There's not a damn thing I can do about it, so I'm going to take advantage of the time, and get as much rest as I can.” He shifted his weight, and drifted back into sleep.

Dejah leaned over the instrument panel, and began punching buttons, calling up the latest satellite images. The connection was sporadic, often intererupted by the storm, and it took over an hour just to download the images. She paged through them restlessly, looking for a clue as to the storm's expected duration, knowing that it was usless.

The storm was a discolored blotch on the images, a shapeless mass draped over the landscape, moving with a mind of its own. She pulled up the last known position of the rigs, and laid the image over the storm pictures. The scale was slightly off, but she thought it looked like the rigs were near the center of the storm.

“Only halfway?” she muttered. “This thing could drag on for another two days if it doesn't dissipate. Two more days of this, and I really will go crazy.”

She checked her watch again. Three seventeen. The sky oustide was still dark with the dust.

The comm beeped. “Hey Dej, how's it going over there?”

“Fine, I guess, or at least as good as could be expected. Still going stir crazy, but Eduardo seems to be coping ok. Listen, I pulled up the satellite image of our last known position. I know it's a little off, since our transmitter only sends that information in bursts, but it's better than nothing. It looks like we may be only halfway through the storm now; if it doesn't break up, we may be in for another two days before it clears.”

He was silent for a moment. “That makes me a little bit worried about the engines, actually. No wonder kruiser was restless on the comm this morning, they must have told him not to say too much so we wouldn't worry.”

“What's wrong with the engines,” Dejah asked, feeling a slight twinge of fear.

“Well, even under the best of conditions, our engine seals aren't really meant to hold up in these circumstances. One day or two, average dust storm times, no problems. But not four days. And Kruiser was worried that the new seals weren't as good as the old kind, but I don't know if there's any truth to any of that.”

There was a brief gap in the dust, and Dejah could barely make out the other rig. It sat a few meters away, and she caught a glimpse of the lighted cabin before the curtain of dust closed in again.

“you know,” Dejah commented, settling back into the seat, “what I miss more than anything else, I think, is the people. It wouldn't be so bad if Eduardo didn't keep falling asleep, but I'm really not used to spending much time alone with my thoughts. It's not really my thing.”

Thomas laughed again, and Dejah was glad to hear the uniquely human sound.

“Man, I bet you're really loving this,” she said with a smile. “Several days, shut up in a space all your own, everyone else is only reachable by comm. I mean, come on, you don't even have to see anyone else!”

“Introverts need people, too, Dej. We just need them in different ways.” His voice was calm and steady, and Dejah felt some of her nervous energy slip away.

“Hey, you know, I never even asked you. Do you prefer to go by Oliver or Thomas? I just started calling you Thomas because Eduardo did, I never thought to ask.” dejah traced a meaningless pattern in the fine layer of red dust that had settled on the instrument panel. No matter how quickly one got out of the rigs and shut the doors, she thought, some of the dust was bound to get in.

“Either one is fine. My friends outside of work usually call me Oliver, but I've gotten pretty used to Thomas in the field.”

“that's good,” Dejah commented, “Because I think I would have the hardest time calling you Oliver at this point. I'd always have to stop and think about it, and then i'd get all tongue tied.”

“I didn't think extroverts ever got tongue tied,” he said, poking gentle fun at her.

“Oh, ha ha,” she said sarcastically, “very funny. Just because I like to talk doesn't mean that I don't get confused.”

“Well, if you need someone to talk to to keep you from going crazy for the next few days, I'm here.”

She peered through the windshield, trying to see the other rig again, but the dust was thick, and she couldn't see more than a few centimeters past the glass. “won't that drive you crazy, though?”

“Not really,” came the cheerful reply. “I've gotten a lot of silence for the last two days, so a little conversaiton is a good thing. And to be honest, I've had several decades of ecperience in tuning people out when I have to.”

“Oh. I guess that makes sense.” She settled back into the chair, and stretched her arms over the back of the seat. “So, Thomas, how long have you been on Mars?”

“Let me think...About ten years, I think. I came out when I was about thirty two, so that should be right.”

“What made you come out here? Did you grow up on Earth or in the colonies?”

“On Earth. I'm originally from Missouri. Grew up in a small town on the banks of a river. I miss the trees sometimes. I wish I could just one day be driving along in one of my rigs, and just there on the horizon would be a dark green patch. I'd drive closer and closer, and eventually be in the middle of a forest, surrounded by trees. I'd open the door of the rig, and be able to breathe. Clean, open air, you know, not the processed stuff of the Domes. It's better than it used to be, since they actually started planting some trees in the domes, but it's not the same as the open air. I'd get out and walk around, just breathing for a while. Then i'd probably kick my shoes off, and just dig my toes into the grass and the mud, feel that good soil under my feet instead of loose dust and gravel. Maybe even lay down on my back for a little while, look up at the sky. It wouldn't be that dry orange sky anymore, it would be a beautiful deep blue, like forget me nots. I'd just lie there for a while, listening to the sounds of the leaves waving softly in the breeze, and the funny sounds that the grass makes when there are insects creepingg through it. Eventually, I'd begin to realize that the plants weren't the only sounds in the area; there'd be the faintest hint of this other sound, and I'd get up to find it, and finally find myself beside a little stream. Have you ever noticed the way water smells when it flows over bare rocks? Probably not, I don't think even Spirit City has rivers, even synthetic ones. There might be one in Opportuinity Dome, but I doubt they could afford the water rates.”

He paused for a moment, then continued. “Water flowing over rocks has this incredible smell. It makes me think of gunpowder, even though they don't smell anything alike.”

“I don't know how gunpowder smells,” Dejah commented quietly. “No explosives allowed in the domes, the oxygen mix is too combustible.”

“That's a shame. Someday, if you ever visit Earth, set off some fireworks. There's no smell quite like that. It's wild, and a little bit metallic, and it smells a little bit like dirt, too. Anyway, that's what i'd smell, that wild stable smell of water on the rocks. I'd roll up the legs on my coveralls, and step into that water, feeling it tickling my ankles. It would be cold, so cold that it would hurt for a minute or two until I got used to it. The rocks would feel a little rough, but mostly slippery from the moss and algae that would be growing on them. I'd just stand there, in the water, for a while, enjoying the sights and smells, watching all that red dust wash off of my feet. I get so tired of red all the time, Dejah. It's everywhere: the ground, the sky, on eeveryone's clothes, on all the buildings, all of the machines. I just want to see some blue and green once in a while. I think I'd give almost anything for a green horizon again.”

Dejah didn't respond for a moment, lost in the picture he had painted with his words. “I wish I could say that I understand that, Thomas. I really do. But I can't even imagine it. I grew up in a lunar colony. It was a big one, with a lot of stuff, but the horizon was always either grey or black. Nothing there but dust and craters. Mars was everything I wanted. I never get tired of looking at that huge red horizon, stretching away forever in the distance.”

He chuckled quietly. “You know, they used to talk about the so called 'generation gap,' the disparity of experience between generations that made it difficult for them to really communicate. Well, the nets did away with a lot of that. Now I guess we've got the 'world of origin' gap. I don't know that a born Terran can ever really understand how a born Lunie feels. You talked about this huge Aresian horizon...but see, it always feels small to me. I always feel like if I walk too fast, I'm going to step over the edge of the world. Most Terrans up here feel the same way. You never quite get used to it. Things are too close, even the wide open spaces are too small.”

Silence fell for a minute, then Dejah asked, “So, if you miss so many things about Earth, why did you leave?”

He was quiet for a moment, and Dejah wondered if she'd asked something too personal. Then he answered, “It's complicated. Sometimes I'm not sure myself. I guess there's several answers. It was a lot easier ot get work out here. Back home I was just another truck driver, one of millions on the road at any time. Here, there are only a couple of hundred licensed rig drivers. Makes it a lot easier get paying work. And it seemed like a big adventure when I was younger. Not too many people were going over who weren't scientists then. Even the University was mostly taking on people who had already graduated from another school in the Earth system. They only started taking high school graduates recently.” He paused again, and sighed. “but that's not the real reason, of course. I was married when I was pretty young, just a little over twenty. Pretty girl, you know, my high school sweetheart. She had this incredibly curly brown hair. Loved her like crazy, but I never was any good at expressing it. The baby came, and she was so happy, and I was too, but she thought that I spent too much time at the garage and not enough time at home. I was always tired when I got home, and tended just to keep to myself. She got more and more frustrated, and I didn't know what she wanted me to do. I was bringing home money to keep her and the kid fed and clothed. If i'd just been able to explain to her...” Dejah heard his voice crack.

“Thomas, I'm sorry, you don't have to tell me, I didn't realize it was such a personal question. I'm always asking people to share things that are just too personal.” dejah shifted uncomfortably in her chair.

“No, it's ok. I'm actually able to talk about it now, though I wasn't there for a long time. Things got worse and worse; I'd work a twelve hour day, and come home too tired to even talk, and she'd meet me at the door with the baby crying, and get made when I wouldn't talk about my day. Finally, one day I came home, and it was dark outside, I'd been at the garage for almost sixteen hours, doing some extra work. I got home, and the house was dark inside. Our room was trashed, with things thrown everywhere—she must just have tossed things anywhere as she tried to pack up all of her stuff. But she was gone, and there was a note on the table. It just said, 'I'm finally going to give you what you always wanted and leave you alone. The house will be quieter now, and you'll have all of the privacy you want.' I called her mom, to see if she was there, but she wouldn't even talk to me, just told me never to contact her again. Even now, I don't know where Maggie is, or how Casey is doing. She'd be about thirteen now. Probably a mass of freckles and her mom's curly hair. I've still got her baby picture in my wallet, you know. I even wrote her a letter, trying to explain everything. It's with my will, and my lawyer's been instructed to find her and give her the letter if anyhting happens to me.”

“So you came up here to get away from the memories.”

“Pretty much. Again, there was work here, and land and houses were cheap, if you could afford the transport to get here in the first place. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Sometimes I really like it here, too; I shouldn't give you the impression that I'd hop the first transport back to Earth. I like the freedom out here, and there's some really exciting developments that have happened here. Besides, if I'd given up and gone back, I wouldn't be here now.”

Dejah laughed, “What, stuck in a Martian dust storm that might last for for days, without being able to see anything through the windshields?”

He joined in the laughter. “No, I mean, here on this mission. Recovering the Phoenix. Getting the chance to work with one of the greatest Aresian explorers to walk on the red planet.”

Dejah could feel herself blushing. “Hey, hey, that's going a little too far, now.”

“Actually, I don't think so.” Dejah could hear the seriousness in his voice, though he still spoke lightly. “If we do manage to pull this off, you'll be the explorer who led the mission to retrieve the last Earth probe. And this mission really is pretty difficult, when you compare it to some of the others. The Phoenix is hundreds of kilometers from any of the settlements, and it's farther north than any other lander or rover. Since it's been covered—we assume—it's tricky to find, and can't be recovered by airlifting someone in to attach a harness. Plus, the time line that Heritage needs is pretty crazy—we just had enough time to train to the level that the mission would require, and winter's coming up. I don't know of any mission that's done anything like that.”

Dejah shrugged, running a piece of paper under her fingernails to remove the red dust that always ended up caked there. “It's not nearly as amazing as being one of the first colonists. You know how much I would give to have been Audra Kerrigan, or Karin Oleson? Even Armstrong or Aldrin, just the first to see a new world!” She sighed, and tucked the paper into a small waste compactor unit in the instrumental panel. “The Phoenix is hot news now, but what about when we colonize Europa? I'm too late to be one of the first on Mars, and too early for Europa. When that happens, anything like the Phoenix mission will be swept away, into the trash compactor of history.”

“I bet those kids in California don't think so. Or the ones in India. Or any of the other classrooms who saw your recordings and wrote to you.”

“At any rate,” she said dismissively, “we'll have to get back with the Phoenix for any of us to be considered heroes. Let's not count our rockets before they ignite.”

He laughed, sensing that that topic of discussion was now off-limits, and remarked, “You Lunies, you always think you have to come up with new things. It's 'don't count your chickens before they hatch.'”

“But i've never seen a chicken hatch,” she protested. “Hell, Thomas, I've never seen a chicken, except for those little frozen patties that my mom would cook sometimes.”

“all the more reason for you not to count them.”

Dejah stood in the sleeping area, and stretched. The area was barely large enough for her to stand up straight, but she could stretch her legs. She slid into a slow split, wincing as her muscles stretched. “Oh man, I've been sitting in that seat for too long.” She held the pose for a minute, feeling the muscles slowly stretch and regain their elasticity. She got to her feet again, and bent over to touch her head to her knees, hamstrings burning in protest. She gritted her teeth and held the position for thirty seconds before straightening up.

She let herself drop into a sitting position and began to stretch her arms over her head.

Eduardo looked up from his book and watched her for a minute. “how much time have you actually spent relaxing, Dej?”

“too much,” she puffed, turning over onto her belly and beginning a series of push ups. “I'm way too stiff, and if I don't get a decent workout while I'm in here, it's only going to get worse. Besides, I have to do something! If I look at that red storm out there for one more minute, i'm liable to smash the windshield.”

He put his book back in his bag. “How often did you relax when we were in the dome? I don't think I ever saw you do anything that wasn't work.”

“Oh, I did,” she said, voice slightly muffled as it echoed off the floor. “Sometimes my friend Max would visit and we'd go out to eat, or I'd stop by the bookstore in town. I even took the Valkyrie out to the cliffs a time or two.”

“A time or two,” he repeated, “in two years? See, that's what I mean. You probably put in what, seventy, eighty hours a week at Dandelion?” He shook his head. “you always act like there's something that's gonna grab you if you slow down for even a second. That can't be healthy.”

“It got me this far, and I've done pretty well.”

“It got you this far, and you're going crazy now that you can't run anymore.” He draped an arm over the back of the seat, and asked, “So what is it that has you running this scared?”

She did a final push up, and rolled over, clasping her hands behind her head for sit ups. “Hey, make yourself useful, and I'll answer that. Hold my feet for me.”

Eduardo clambered out of the chair and held her feet down to the floor. She began her routine, and said, “I'm not afraid of anything. At least, not anything out here. I never was very fond of some of those lunar craters that never saw sunlight. You ever look at the pictures of those, those incredibly black spots on the map? Always gave me the willies.”

He shook his head. “Nah, I still think you're running from something here. Something that you just can't seem to shake, and you think you've got to keep yourself busy so it won't get you.”

“Just drop it, Eduardo.”

But he persisted. “I don't think you're afraid of dying. I've never known a Scout who was afraid of that, they've all got some kind of death wish to be in that kind of job. And you're one of the best Scouts I've seen, so that can't be it.”

“I'm not sure whether to thank you or punch you for that one.” She began to feel tired, but kept pushing herself.

He snapped his fingers, and leaned over the back of the seat. “I know what it is! You're afraid of being forgotten.”

Dejah glared at him and kept excersizing without responding.

“that's it, isn't it? You don't want to be forgotten. That's why you're pushing yourself so hard for this, and it's why you can't sit still. You think that you're losing time, that if you don't move as fast as possible to do something, that you'll never do anything. In fact, I'm willing to bet that you're as pragmatic about this as you are about everything else, and you're always trying to minimize your losses. You probably run from anything that you're not certain to succeed at, so that no one will know that you failed, and you can direct your efforts towards something more important to you.”

“Hey!” she shouted, jumping to her feet. “would you stop it already? You don't have any right to say that kinda crap to me, alright? Just leave me alone!”

She turned around in a tight circle, feeling the impulsive need to run, but there was nowhere to go. She finally threw herself into the driver's seat, and began trying to call up the latest satellite images, but the dust was too thick, and the signal kept dropping.

“Hey, Dej, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you, alright?” Eduardo looked over at her. “I just get interested in how people work, you know? I push that too far sometimes.”

Dejah breathed quietly for a moment, trying to settle her racing heart. “It's alright, Eduardo. We're all just stressed from being cooped up in here. I mean, it would be one thing if we could put on suits and just move around outside for a while, but that's a death warrant in a storm like that. You could get lost in three seconds flat, not to mention the damage any sand caught up in there could do to a suit.”

He nodded. “Yeah, i'm really ready to get out and do some walking. And some digging, when it comes to that. How many days travel do we have once we get moving again?”

She checked the maps again. “About four days, assuming top speeds most of the way there. It's still very doable.” She paused, and Eduardo looked up.


“Well, I'm just a little worried. You were sleeping when I was talking with Thomas earlier, but it seems there may be a problem with our engine seals.”

He groaned. “Oh, no, no way! Those were replaced right before we left!”

Dejah nodded. “And that might be the problem. It seems like the old seals were replaced with a newer model, a cheaper one. Kruiser wasn't real happy about trying the new kind, but it was the only one the accounting department would approve. If that wasn't enough, there have been rumors of a recall on the parts.”

The older man stared out the window at the driving dust. “so even when the storm is past, we may not be able to get moving.”

Dejah nodded again. “You got it. If the seals are busted, the engines will be toast, they'll have to go back for a complete clean. We'll have to call for one of those monster copters, and get the rigs lifted out and back to the base. It usually takes a while to get that kind of operation in gear, so I imagine we'd be stuck for another two, maybe three days after that. By the time we got back to the Dome, got another set of rigs and moved the supplies over, it would be at least a week, maybe ten days if things take a while to requisition.”

Eduardo rested a foot on frame of the rig. “Too late to start back out on the trip. We'd get there when winter was beginning to settle in.”


He looked troubled and a little angry, and Dejah decided to refrain from talking about the situation further.

Night came, and the three explorers took to their makeshift beds as they had for the past few evenings. Dejah tosses and turned, but could not seem to fall asleep as easily as she had before.

“Must be the workout from earlier,” she muttered, rolling over onto her back. She could see the windshield, which looked utterly black in the night. It was odd to have a night sky without stars, she thought. It seemed as strange as living on a blue planet.

Her mind wandered to the mission ahead. What if the seals were broken and the engines unuseable? The thought of staying in the rigs for another two days, waiting for an airlift back to the Dome, made her feel sick to her stomach, and her hands twitched involuntarily at the thought of more forced inactivity. She turned over onto her side, and thought of the rover in the back of the rig. It was capable of reaching the site in almost the same amount of time as the rigs, though it would be grueling to drive the distance in a vehicle like that. But it was equipped to carry a folded hab tent and several pounds of other assorted survival items. It might be possible...

She turned over once again, and slowly drifted into sleep, thinking of moving forward again, of rovers and red planets.

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