Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Nano post 68

Dejah sat listlessly in front of her computer, paging through messages that had piled up over the last few days. There were many emails from well wishers, fans, and friends, as well as a slew of offers from various corporations, offering her jobs as a spokesperson, or advocate, or representative.

She scrolled through the offers, hardly seeing them. She was about to turn away from the computer when a final message caught her eye; the subject line read, “An opportunity from SurfaceTech.”

Dejah hesitated, torn between opening the message and reading about yet another job that was now closed to her, and deleting the message unread and wondering forever about what she might have missed. With a sigh, she selected the message and opened it.

“Ms. Sorenson,” the message began, “I hope that you will excuse me for contacting you so soon after your return to Spirit City, but I trust that you will be interested in this opportunity. SurfaceTech is a select group of scientists, engineers, geologists, and other Aresians, who are dedicated to discovering new ways to take advantage of the natural resources of our world. We spend our time working very close to the surface in a small hab in the northern hemisphere, developing and testing new technologies that will help facilitate the progression of human life on Mars. We would like to offer you a permanent position as exploration consultant for SurfaceTech. This would involve moving to our hab and working directly with the engineers and scientists who create our technology, as well as soon testing of the equipment. I have attached a folder of pictures from our hab and some of our recent equipment tests. We would like to extend an invitation to you to come visit us here, and see for yourself what we are doing. Please get in touch with me if you are interested. Yours, Richard Jordan, SurfaceTech Industries.”

Intrigued, she opened the folder of photos and began paging through them. The hab was obviously very small, perhaps only a quarter of a kilometer across, and there were only a hundred or so people living there. The buildings were small and rough, and much of the life of the community seemed to focus around the laboratory and manufacturing facility in the middle of the town. Several of the photographs showed various teams in exploration suits on the Martian surface outside the hab, testing equipment and checking data.

As she paged through the pictures, she felt a faint tug of hope. Perhaps there was still a place for her on Mars, after all.

“So they want you to move there?” Nathan asked, and Dejah could hear a hint of nervousness in his voice. She sat at the table, flipping through a printout of the message and photos.

“If I took the job, yeah, it’d be a permanent thing. I mean, I guess I could go back and forth, particularly if Max gets that shipping company going.” She watched him move around the kitchen, chopping vegetables and tossing them into a small pan. He didn’t look happy, but seemed to be trying to keep his emotions in check.

“You know I couldn’t move there, Dej,” he said quietly. “I need to be in a larger Dome to visit the sites for the clients. Besides, in a small focused community like that, there’s no room for someone who is just along for the ride. Everyone has to give everything they have, and I couldn’t do that there.”

Dejah nodded, turning her eyes back to the photographs. “I know.”

Nathan stood by the stove, and watched her for a minute. She sat quietly at the table, paging through the information on the hab, with no expression on her face. He put a lid over the sautéing vegetables and turned off the heat under the pan, then pulled out a chair and sat down across the table from her.

“Dejah, I wonder sometimes if we did the right thing, getting married.”

She looked up, but didn’t respond.

“I’m sure you already know that I don’t want you to leave. I’ve always loved you, and always will. But do you know what I want even more than to see you stay?” He reached out and put his hand on hers. “I want to see you happy again, to see you excited and passionate and ready to risk everything. If the only way for that to happen is for you to leave, then you should go. I won’t fight it.”

Dejah squeezed his hand, and gave him a smile. “I don’t know yet. I just want to go look, that’s all.”

Max landed the Silver Hammer on the runway outside the hab, and quickly let it roll through the airlock and into the small hangar just inside the dome.

“These runway airlocks always make me nervous,” he muttered as they slowed to a halt. Dejah stepped out of the ship, and turned to see a young man walking toward her, hand extended.

“Ms. Sorenson! I’m so glad you could come, I’m Richard.” He shook her hand, and smiled. “Welcome to Shackleford Hab.”

“Thanks for inviting me. This is Maxwell Hamm, my old friend; he’s one of the best pilots in the business. Do you mind if he sees the hab, too?” Dejah asked.

“Oh, not at all! We love having people come and see what we’re doing here—we just don’t have the space to have most of them live here. Come on, I’ll show you around.”

They followed Richard out of the hangar, and out into the town. Dejah looked up, and smiled as she saw the roof of the dome, so much closer than any other she had ever seen. The walls of the dome were visible from any place in the town, and no effort had been made to hide them.

“This dome tends to make some visitors a little nervous,” Richard commented. “Most people aren’t used to seeing the walls of the dome, and the smallness of it makes them nervous. They say it makes them feel like it could collapse at any moment. Most of us actually prefer it that way, it doesn’t get in the way of the landscape so much.”

Dejah nodded, still smiling, and took a deep breath. “I like it, too.”

“We’re so honored that you considered our offer,” he continued. “When we heard about the incredible risks you took, it was the talk of the entire community. We want to find ways to make even greater things possible, and your help would mean so much to that effort.” He grinned. “Besides, you seemed like the sort of person who would be just crazy enough to move to a tiny habitat in the middle of nowhere on the off chance that you might find something interesting. Our sort of person.”

The town, though small, seemed to hum with activity, and it reminded Dejah of the buzz of Bradbury Dome. The buildings were mostly low one story constructs, with a few exceptions. The residential buildings were built from bricks fired from the red sand in the area, and Richard explained that the bricks helped lock in a lot of the sun’s heat.

He opened a door into one of the few two story buildings in the main complex at the center of the town. “This is our main area of activity; we have some exercise grounds, obstacle courses, and testing areas outside the dome, but this is where the labs are, along with our main construction and manufacturing lines. Of course, once we patent a design, we send it off to one of the larger Domes for mass production, but we make the prototypes here for testing. Gives us great flexibility in the design, more control over the whole process, and of course, a much faster turnaround time between different versions.”

In sharp contrast to the rough warm brick of the exterior, the inside of the building was clean and bright, with an almost surgical feel. A line of windows gave a view from the hallway into a large room that occupied half of the building. Inside, several people in clean coveralls worked at a variety of machines; sparks flew from a welding torch in one corner of the room, and Dejah could hear the high pitched whine of a metal saw.

“Right now, they’re working on a new kind of breather—we hope that incorporating our design into a helmet will make it not only more efficient, but a lot lighter and easier to wear,” Richard explained.

They wound through the building, Richard explaining things as they went. As they came out on the far side of the building, he turned to Dejah. “I know it’s a lot to take in at once, and really, there’s no way to fully grasp what life is like here without actually living here, day in and day out. We haven’t got much time left before the sun goes down, so would you like to take a quick tour of the area around the hab?”

Dejah grinned. “You have no idea how much I want to see this place from the outside.”

The trio headed back to the airlock, and Richard showed Max and Dejah were the exploration suits and helmets were kept. In a few minutes, they had suited up, and Richard started the engine on a large four seater rover and pulled into the airlock. “Helmets on, check your seals every one!” He pressed a remote to shut the inner door of the airlock, and Dejah heard the familiar sound of air being siphoned from the lock. Then the outer door opened, and the rover roared out into the thin air of Mars.

Dejah felt her spirits rise as the rover exited the airlock tube, and she ran her eyes along the ragged red horizon.

“There’s something that I’d like you to see here,” Richard said over the comm. “There’s some magnificent formations down here in the gully. We found them when we were doing some preliminary geological exploration, and it’s since become a favorite place for many of us to go.”

The road slowly wound through the landscape, and Dejah noticed that the path was sinking into the red dust, and small hills and cliffs were rising on either side of them. After a few minutes, the road had become the bottom of a gully, and the dusty hills sloped up around them, cutting off the horizon. At a sharp curve in the path, Richard pulled the rover to a halt.

There was a single dirt mountain rising from the inside curve of the gully, and the peak was dramatically silhouetted against the sky. A few meters away, the face of the cliff was broken by a tall narrow opening, like a keyhole leading back into the hills.

“It’s kind of narrow back in here, but you can make it. The walls are smooth so you don’t have any risk of snagging your suits.” He lead them back into the opening in the cliff.

Dejah took a step into the narrow passageway and was surprised to find that it twisted to the side almost at once. The thin opening was difficult to navigate in the thick exploration suit, but she pressed forward. She could hear Max behind her as he stumbled over an outcropping of rock, and swore quietly. The daylight was quickly blocked out by the numerous twists of the passage. They wound their way back into the cliff; after about ten meters, Dejah felt the walls peel back, and stepped into a wide open space.

“Richard?” she called tentatively. “Max?”

“I’m here, Dej,” she heard Max say as he stepped into the chamber.

“Just lean up against the wall for a minute,” Richard replied. “Give your eyes a few minutes to adjust, and then I’ll turn on a light.”

The silence in the cave was thick, and Dejah could feel a layer of extremely fine dust covering the floor of the cavern.

“Now try waving a hand in front of your face,” Richard said quietly.

Dejah lifted her hand and waved it, and let out a gasp. “I can see my fingers now!” She wiggled her gloved fingers, seeing faint black shapes moving against the background

“Hey, Dejah, look up there!” Max shouted, and Dejah looked up. Twenty five meters above her head was a faint oval of light.

“A skylight?” she asked.

“Yes,” Richard replied. “It’s a few meters off to the side, so we only see the reflected light, but it’s enough to give some light here inside the cavern. In the middle of the day, it gets light enough in here to see each other by.”

“Spectacular,” Max pronounced, and Dejah could hear the wonder in his voice.

“Most of these hills are hollow,” Richard explained, and Dejah could dimly see him walking around the far wall of the cavern. “We think it’s due to water ice subliming and leaving spaces behind that then get worn down from the wind, but we’re not entirely sure. This whole area is just hard packed dirt, not rock, and so it erodes relatively easily. Over the years, you can see subtle changes in here as the wind and ice wear away the dust. There’s a cavern near here that’s collapsed into a sort of slot canyon, and there’s another one that’s just beginning to open up. Another couple of decades, and we can probably even crawl through that one.”

They edged back out through the narrow path into the cavern, and came back into the open gully, blinking in the dim purple twilight.

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