Monday, November 30, 2009

nano post 62

The night was long, and the hours blended together, marked only by the silent gradual movement of the stars across the sky. Dejah saw a few satellites blink their way across the field of stars, and once a dust devil whirled into brief existence a few meters away.

Dejah's stomach growled, and she ignored it. It would be at least another day before the air lift could get to her, and it wasn't worth thinking about food that wasn't available.

She kept up her intermittent comments to the Phoenix as she trudged through the star lit landscape. She checked her clock rarely, having discovered that an hour during the night felt much longer than an hour during the day. The far horizon was still hidden by the darkness of the night, but Dejah felt as though it was as far away as it had ever been.

The stars of the early evening had already set, and the later rising stars were already nearing the horizon. Almost imperceptibly, the sky began to brighten in one corner, off to Dejah's right and somewhat behind her. The sky lightened from a perfect black to a deep blue, then a rich purple, a bright lavender, and as the sun peeked over the edge of the world, the sky turned into the familiar salmon color, though the opposite horizon remained a pale violet.

Dejah paused to watch the sun rise slowly, edging up over the horizon bit by bit. Finally, when half of the disc was visible, she turned back to the north, and continued the journey.

The sun was at its zenith, a degree or two above the horizon, when Dejah decided to stop and rest for a few minutes. She spread out the blanket again, and lay down on it. “Can't fall asleep,” she muttered, struggling to keep her eyes open.

She stared up into the sky, letting the warm colors fill her vision. “I still love living on a red world,” she murmured, “a blue and green world would look too cold.”

Dust blew gently in the slight wind, and Dejah ran a gloved hand through the soil, feeling it slip between her fingers. She rolled over onto her side, ignoring the pain in her shoulders, and watched the dust blow along the surface of the ground. Mars looked different from the angle, she decided sleepily. This close to the ground, her eyes just a few inches from the surface, the dust was a mix of fine powder and larger grains. The rocks came in all sizes, from stones the size of her head, to tiny pebbles no larger than the head of a pin. They were scattered unevenly over the landscape, a virtual forest of rocks.

Dejah dug her hands into the soil even deeper, scraping it away. The dust fell back into the hole, but she kept scooping it out. Her fingers dragged easily through the dust, but the tips scraped agaisnt a harder surface below. She quickly scooped out the remaining dust, and looked into the hole. Below her gloved hand, she saw the bright white gleam of water ice, and smiled.

“Knew it was here,” she muttered. “Not that it does me any good, but it's here!” She scraped a few slivers of ice off, and put them in the palm of her glove. They steamed slightly, subliming away into the thin atmosphere.

The white ice patch stood out strongly against the red earth, and Dejah lay there looking at it for several minutes. Then she noticed that her shadow had moved several inches, and quickly got to her feet.

“Crap, I can't lose that much daylight,” she said, brushing the dust from her gloves. She packed away the blanket, and shouldered the pack again.

She checked her position again, and corrected her course slightly to the west. She was relieved to see that the small formations on the horizon seemed nearer than they had the day before, and felt energized by the short rest.

Dodging the ubiquitous rocks, she pushed ahead, determined to reach the Phoenix as soon as possible. Her comm beeped, and she answered, but didn't stop walking,

“Dej, it's Thomas,” she heard the voice echo in her helmet.

“Hey Thomas, what's up? You on your way?”

“Well, there's a team that's just about ready, we finally got the shuttle we needed, and the supplies are being loaded as I speak.” He cleared his throat, and Dejah could tell that he was nervous.

“So what's the problem, then?”

“We can't get there before nightfall, Dej. We asked, we did everything we could, but they simply won't let us get off the ground until tomorrow morning. They said that you took unnecessary risks by leaving the hab tent site, and that they won't risk more lives to get you out of there at night.”

Dejah chuckled, stepping over a large rock in her path. “So they're still playing it safe, huh? Can't say that I'm particularly surprised.”

“Dej, you've gone two days on just a couple of food packs, and you've already spent one night out there. I'm worried about you spending another one out there. You're burning up incredible amounts of energy just walking in that suit, and you're not taking in any fuel. You're heading further north every minute, and winter is still coming. Even with that blanket between you and the ground, it's going to be incredibly cold, and your body's already used up too much energy, it can't burn much more to keep you warm.”

“i know you're worried, Thomas,” Dejah replied, eyes fixed on the horizon ahead. “And i'm not going to pretend it isn't serious. But I want this. I want this chance to get to the Phoenix. I'm so close, I should hit the site tonight. Then I can mark it, maybe even do a little of the extrication work, so a lift team can come pick it up in the next week or two. We can still make this work, as long as I have time to get to the Phoenix. Don't worry about me, just get that team ready to fly first thing in the morning.”

There was silence on the other end for a minute, then she heard a chuckle. “Damn it, Dej, you are the most impossible person I have ever met. I'll let you go now, you need to focus on conserving as much energy as you can, not talking to me. Eduardo and Kruiser say hi, but they're out prepping the team right now.”

“Well, tell them hi for me, and to get their butts up here as soon as they can tomorrow morning.”

“you got it, Sorenson. Take care of yourself.”

“You, too. And don't worry about me. I can't think of anywhere else I would rather be right now.”

The comm went silent, and Dejah turned her eyes back to the far horizon. She judged it to be about twelve kilometers away; the Phoenix site was only ten kilometers distant.

She could feel her body hesitating as she moved forward. “Come on, Dej. You don't have any fuel for your system, but you're not going to let that stop you. Get your butt in gear.”

Her stomach had stopped growling a few hours ago, and knew that her body was now trying to burn fat for energy.

The sun was dipping back towards the horizon again, and Dejah picked up her pace. Easier to dodge rocks by daylight, she thought, stepping over another rock. Her knees ached from avoiding rocks, her ankles were stiff inside the boots, and her toes were bruised from tripping over some of the stones.

She forced her way through three more kilometers before the sun set below the horizon, turning the sky purple. The stars brightened into view, and Dejah stopped to rest again.

As she spread out the blanket, she felt herself moving more slowly than before. It took her nearly five minutes to unfold the blanket and get it spread out on a level area. She lowered herself into a sitting position on the blanket in a daze.

The horizon had disappeared into the black night again, and she felt like she was existing in a dream world. The stars moved slowly across the sky, and a satellite blinked in the distance.

Dejah leaned against the pack, staring at the horizon. “So close,” she muttered. “So to move.”

She could feel her eyelids getting heavier, and blinked, trying to wake up. “Have to get up now...have to get to the Phoenix, it's so close...”

Her eyes closed, and Dejah was asleep on the frozen surface of Mars.

She wandered over the grey Lunar landscape, wondering why she was there instead of in one of the colonial domes. The regolith was grainy and rough, and every footprint sunk deep into the lunar dust. The light was bright, and the sun looked bigger than it did on Mars, though not as warm. The sky was utterly black and she could see hundreds of stars.

Dejah wandered over the rough, pitted landscape, searching for some clue as to why she was there, and how she had gotten there. The craters were plentiful here, and very rough, not the eroded aged craters of Mars. The sun appeared to be at a strange angle, Dejah thought, and realized she must be near one of the poles.

She came upon a large crater wall, and felt herself drawn to it. She climbed it slowly, searching for handholds in the grainy dust. Finally, she reached the top of the crater wall, and looked down into the center. It was a deep crater, she realized, and the center was completely dark. With a shudder, she realized that it was one of the craters near the poles of the moon, whose interiors never saw the sun. some of the coldest places in the solar system, she remembered, colder even than the surface of distant Pluto. She had once flown over the south pole of the moon, and the craters had been the only thing on Luna that had ever terrified her. Something about the cold, she thought, and the never ending darkness inside.

She looked around for a way to get down, to get away from the darkness in the crater, but the walls of the crater had suddenly grown high and steep, too steep to climb down. Confused and frightened, Dejah balanced on the thin edge of the crater, and tried not to look at the center, but kept her eyes searching the outer walls for a way to get down.

Then her foot slipped on the dusty surface, and she felt herself lose her balance, falling down into the crater. She expected to hit the side of the crater, but found herself free falling, down into the dark center of the crater, into the cold frozen heart of the moon.

She woke up screaming, arms flailing to find something to hang on to. She scrabbled in the dust for a few minutes before realizing that it was no longer the grainy grey regolith of the Earth's moon, but the red dust of Mars, turned somewhat purple by the cold light of the stars overhead. She looked up, wildly glancing around, trying to reorient herself.

“A dream,” she gasped, “just a dream. It's ok, Dejah, just let it go. Let it go.” She pried her fingers away from the dirt, and settled back onto the thin blanket. She looked up at the stars, trying to figure out how long she had been asleep. No more than ten minutes, she thought, though she was stiff with cold.

Dejah carefully got to her feet, ignoring the pain of the muscles that had been overworked. She folded up the blanket again, no longer caring to pack it exactly, and stuffed it into the pack.

“Have to keep moving,” she muttered tiredly. “Have to stay warm. Keep moving.”

Step. Step. Step.

Dejah didn't notice the beeping of her comm at first. She put one foot in front of the other, walking with more determination than awareness, hardly noticing the landscape around her. The night was so long, she thought, so long now.

Finally, the beeping of the wristcomm caught her attention, and she checked the device. “Last known site approaching, five hundred meters.” She blinked, not sure she had read the information correctly, and looked again. The message was the same, and she punched a button to pull up the site map.

A satellite image popped up, and she saw a glowing red dot where the Phoenix had last been spotted. The blue dot indicating her own position was close, just south and west of the location.

She felt a burst of adrenaline, and began walking quickly over the ground, trying not to trip over rocks in the dim star light. She picked her way through the stone littered landscape, eyes scanning the way ahead, looking for any sign of the Phoenix. She pressed the button to activate the comm in her helmet.

“Bradbury Dome, this is Scout Sorenson reporting in. Is anyone awake over there?”

“You think we could sleep tonight with you out there on the surface,” said Thomas, his voice sounding tired but alert.

“Thomas! I just got the alert on my wristcomm, I'm nearing the last known location of the Phoenix! It's about...four hundred meters away now. Wish there was a little more light out here, but I don't want to turn on my helmet lamp until I get a little closer.” She squinted into the darkness, looking for any sign of the old Lander.

“Ok, Dej, you've got to keep calm. Don't make any stupid mistakes now, alright?” She could tell that Thomas was more awake now, and grinned as she realized that he was probably almost as excited as she was.

“Dej, if you get yourself killed now because you weren't paying attention, I swear I'm going to come up there and kick your ass myself!” Eduardo's voice joined Thomas' on the comm, and she couldn't help laughing.

“Eduardo! You're awake too? Geez, doesn't anybody sleep there anymore?”

“Well, we're heading out to come get you in about an hour, as soon as the sun rises here. We're getting prepped now, everything has already been loaded up. You just focus on staying alive. Don't you dare dig for the Phoenix by yourself, you don't have a shovel or any of the tools, and if there are sharp edges anywhere on that metal lander, you could rip your suit wide open.”

“Relax, I'm just going to see what the site is like, mark the lander with the gps, and see if I can scoop a little of the loose dirt away. I may be crazy, but I'm not stupid enough to think I can pull off a full extrication on my own.” She worked her way through a few large rocks, and turned her eyes back to the wristcomm. Three hundred meters.

The comm was quiet for a while as she made her way forward, eyes constantly looking for any sign of the lander. All she could see was a field of rocks and dust, but she kept pushing forward.

Two hundred meters. The stars kept moving slowly by overhead, and the night was cold. Dejah could feel the adrenaline rushing through her system, and determined to push as far as she could while the rush lasted. One hundred meters, and still no sign of the lander. Several times she thought she saw something that might have been the machine, but it always turned out to be an oddly shaped rock.

Eighty meters. She could feel herself growing tired again as the first rush of adrenaline wore off, and tried to move faster.

Fifty meters. “It says you're getting close, Dej,” she heard Eduardo comment over the comm. “Any signs yet?”

“Nothing that I can see,” she replied, scanning the ground again. So close, she thought, but where the hell is it?

Thirty meters. Still nothing.

Twenty meters.

And then she saw it.

It lay in a pile on the ground, dust half covering it. The camera assembly had snapped off, and lay a meter away, and the solar panels were nowhere to be seen; Dejah assumed that they would be buried under the thick layer of dust, probably in pieces.

She picked her way through the rocks, and approached the Lander.

“It's here,” she whispered. “It's here, but...”

“But what, Dej?”

“I just...didn't expect it to look like this.”

She blinked back tears. Even after all of Eduardo's extrication scenarios, with the Phoenix in various states of collapse, she had still pictured it as it was in the picture on her living room wall. She had still pictured herself coming on the Lander at sunset, with the old machine standing tall and proud, silhouetted against the sun. Seeing it like this, falling apart into the frozen dust, broke her heart.

“Pretty bad, then? Dej, I'm sorry, but you know that was what we expected. It's been there for thirty winters, we knew it would be in bad shape.”

She didn't respond. Her knees buckled, and she fell to the ground.

“Dejah!” she heard the shout in her comm. “Listen, we've got the satellite over you, and it's picking up your health readings. Your heart rate just dropped, and your oxygen intake isn't looking good. Are you alright?”

She propped herself up on her elbows, and took a deep breath. “No, I think i'm probably not.” Dejah pulled herself to her knees, and then to her feet again. “But i'm too close to stop.”

“No! Just wait where you are! The lift is taking off in thirty minutes, we'll be there in a few hours, you've got to conserve your energy! Just spread out the blanket, concentrate on staying awake, and wait for us.”

“No,” she muttered, taking a hesitant step forward, then another. “Too close.”

“Sorenson, sit down now! You've done your job, we can find and mark the Phoenix when we come get you, now stop it with the dramatics.” Thomas' voice was unusually high pitched, and she could hear the sound of the busy warehouse behind him.

“Sorry boys, but I'm not passing this up. Too late to be the first at much else. But I'm damn sure going to be the first one to touch the Phoenix.”

“Dej, the Dandelion higher ups are here, and they've ordered you to stop.”

“Well, you tell them that I only have one thing to say to that kind of talk: 'screw it.'” One meter to go. She could see the pitted surface of the Lander.

“Cut the act, Dejah! You've done it, alright? You've done what you set out to do, and gone far beyond the call of duty on this. You're already a hero. Why is touching the Lander so important to you? You can get your hands all over it when it comes back to the Dome, surely the museum folks will let you in during the restoration process.”

The ground around the lander, Dejah noticed, was covered with a thin layer of frost. The lander was coated in the familiar red dust, but The distant sun glinted sharply off several of its surfaces. She could no longer feel the heaters in the suit, and her skin was numb and cold.

“Eduardo, my grandmother was one of the people who used the original primitive network. She loved it. She had friends all over the world. She followed the progress of this one. She used to tell me stories, about how she would get excited to see what this machine was doing each day, to look at the pictures it sent from hundreds of millions of miles away. When she told about how it was settling in to freeze in 2008, and the messages that were posted about it…she still got tears in her eyes. It meant something to her.”

“You're not serious, you wouldn't push this hard just because your grandmother was a fan of the Phoenix. It's a damned machine, Dej, it can't tell that you're there. Your heart rate is dangerously low, and you can't fight off that cold much longer. You can't get yourself killed over a machine.”

Reaching out a hand, she brushed a bit of dust from the surface of the Phoenix, and felt an electric thrill as her gloved fingers came in contact with the ancient artifact. She smiled as she rested a hand on the cold, ancient metal. “You know what my grandmother used to say, Eduardo? She said the machine was only the place in which the human spirit, human curiosity, and human endeavor dwelt. Here they were, just learning to reach out to each other, but they still wanted the stars. Think of the time and learning and brilliance it took to put this here. And they flung it out into the stars, knowing it would cease, knowing it would die alone on a distant planet…and they did it anyway.”

She dropped to the ground beside the Lander, slumping against the old metal. “They did all that, just on the chance that they might find out something. How can I do any less?”

With a click, she silenced the communicator. She would deal with Bradbury Dome in a minute. She caressed the metal, and smiled.

“We came back for you, Phoenix.” She brushed more of the dust off of the Lander, and watched it fall to the ground, covering the frost with a layer of cinnamon.

“I guess we make a pretty crazy pair, huh?” she mumbled to the Lander, trying to keep herself awake, and still fighting the tears. “Here I pictured myself coming up over the horizon and finding you standing proud, just waiting. Instead, you're in a million pieces, I could barely even see you through the dust. And here I am, falling apart myself, legs cramping, back aching, shoulders burning, and I can't even dig you out, much less bring you home.”

She felt the tears beginning to slide down her cheeks, and tried to hold them back—the moisture filters in the helmet were equipped to deal with breath, but not tears.

“I wanted to be here more than anything,” she sobbed. “But I just didn't think it would look like this.”

She subsided into silence, and leaned against the cold metal of the lander, no longer caring if the cold chilled her through the suit.

In a daze, she checked her wristcomm. The clock read four tweny five; at least another six hours until the air lift team could come. She thought about just lying down on the dust and falling asleep, but a tiny flame of sheer determination still burned in her soul, and she struggled to stay upright and awake.

She finished brushing the dust from the surface of the Lander, and smiled as she swept the soil from the soil sample analyzer at the front of the Lander, and patted it affectionately. “Good old TEGA,” she murmured. She ran her gloved fingers over the container which she knew contained the names of a quarter million Terrans, fans of space exploration who had sent their names to Mars since they themselves had been earthbound. “Thanks for your faith in us,” she whispered. “We did get here in the end. Because you kept on dreaming, kept on trying.” She cleaned the area as best as she could, and attached the GPS signaller.

She found the robotic arm assembly; it seemed to be intact, but was locked in the frozen soil, and would need a full extrication effort to free it.

Dejah didn't have the energy to move to the far side of the Lander, but she tried to scoop away some of the loose dust from around the sides of the Phoenix. The dust was crusted with frost, but it broke away easily.

Finally, even that small effort was too much, and she let herself rest against the Phoenix. She punched the button to turn her comm back on.

“Sorry about that, but I just needed some time alone.”

There was silence on the other end of the comm.

“Is anyone still there?” she asked, wondering how many of the crew in the warehouse had gone on the flight to rescue her.

“Sorry, Sorenson,” came a familiar voice. “Took me a minute to get over here, I was trying to fix an engine on one of those damn rigs.”

“Kruiser! Where is everyone else?”

“They left a few hours ago, and let me tell you, you gave them a hell of a scare. Honestly, I think they're expecting to find you dead. If they do, I will track down your ghost and kick its ass, you got that?”

She couldn't help laughing, and nodded. “Do my best. Getting pretty sleepy though, I don't know how much longer I can stay awake.”

“Oh no you don't! That crew is on their way to you right now, and they have busted their asses to get you out alive. They gave you the chance to be a hero, to get to the Phoenix, and damn it, you did it! But now you'd rather just lay down and die after living your dream, and deny them the chance to be heroes, too? To hell with that! You hang on, and you give the chance to be the damn cavalry, and save the damn day. Now wake up!”

Dejah tried to hold her eyes open. “Ok, ok, I'll do my best. But it's getting awfully cold out here, and I haven't slept or eaten in two days, Kruiser. You gotta keep talking to me.”

She heard the clang of a tool in the background, and Kruiser muttered a curse. “Hell, Dej, I'm no good at talking. Besides, any of these official comms get recorded so I gotta try to keep it clean, you know? Especially now that you've gone and made it all historically important.”

“Just keep talking, Kruiser. Just keep going.” She stifled a yawn.

“Hey, none of that yawning! You've just got to hang on for three hours, and if you can't do that, I don't give a damn how much you did to get there. If you can't stay awake for a frakking three hours, that makes you a lightweight in my book.”

“Hey, now, that's not fair!”

“That's just the way it is, deal with it.”

“fine.” She tried to stand, but fell back to the ground. “Ouch. Ok, so standing didn't work. Just gonna have to sit here, I suppose.” She shifted herself back onto the blanket, and leaned against the lander. “it's not so bad here, you know, just me and the Phoenix.”

“Tell me what it's like there,” he said, “and remember this is for posterity, so be all fancy and everything.”

She laughed. “Damn, you know I'm no good with words. But it's pretty here. The sun isn't up yet, but I'll probably start seeing the sky get lighter in an hour. Right now the sky is all black, with thousands of stars. I could see jupiter earlier tonight, but it's under the horizon now. There's carbon frost all over everything, and it kind of sparkles, though there's not much light. Everything looks a little bit purple, instead of red, because of the starlight. All the shadows are a deep inky black, and I can't see the horizons at all.”

“What about the Lander itself? They said that you reported that it was in pretty bad condition.”

Dejah blinked again, feeling herself falling asleep again. “Um...yeah. It's pretty bad. The camera is snapped off, and the solar panels are gone, I think they're buried. I don't know what condition the legs are in, but they might be broken too. The Lander itself is half buried, and the robotic arm is completely frozen in the ground. It's all covered in dust and frost, and the surfaces are all pitted from wind and dust.”

Kruiser kept prodding her for information, describing the state of the Phoenix, and plotting extrication techniques that might be useful in retrieving the lander. Dejah occasionally nodded off, but a shout from Kruiser woke her again.

“the sun's coming up now,” she said sleepily. “There's a little patch of purple off to the southeast, and there's not as many stars there as there were before. It's pretty.”

“I bet it is. Just keep hanging on, Sorenson, that flight crew is on their way. Just hang on a little longer.”

“Do my best.”

The sun came up slowly, skidding across the horizon, and Dejah gasped as the light hit the carbon frost. The landscape glittered like gems had been sprinkled over the surface, the light catching every crystal of frost and making it shine.

“Wish you could see this, Kruiser,” she whispered, almost asleep. “Looks like the top of the biggest sugar cookie you ever saw.”

“Sounds tasty, but I think I'll pass. Wake up, Dejah!”

his shout barely roused her from her sleep, and her eyes began to close again. “Sorry, Kruiser...Did my best...Can't hold on any more.”

“No, damn it, you stay with me! You frakking stay with me!”

“Can't do it...really did try though...tell the boys they're heroes to me anyway...” Her eyes fluttered, and slowly closed.

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