Copyright © 2013 by Christian Bergman, All rights reserved.
All people, places, and events are fictional … except when they aren’t.
“A7A! That landing was harder than anything we trained for! Muhammed, Abdullah, Fatima, Ayesha are you OK?”
I listen for them to check in one by one:
“Na’am, Alhamdulillah!, Yes, Praise to God!”
I look over at Maria and she nods that she is OK. I check the gauges and indicators, then pull up the system diagnostics on the computer display. “Saidati wa sadati, ladies and gentlemen, Welcome to Mars!”
“What happened?” Muhammed asked.
“Yes,” Ayesha chimes in, “why did we land so hard?”
“It appears that we experienced premature end-of-burn on the number three de-orbit and landing thruster. We overshot New Masdar and crash-landed somewhere in Elysium Planitia. We are currently leaking cabin air at a rate of about six cubic centimetres per second. That gives us slightly more than seventy-two standard earth hours before the cabin fully depressurizes. We will pass out in half that time without our pressure suits. The only thing that kept us from being obliterated on impact were the external air bags. Praise to God.”
I unclasp my harness and pull myself out of the commander’s seat. Maria does the same from the pilot’s seat. We then begin to help the passengers out of their harnesses.
“I have enabled the emergency distress beacon. New Masdar landing control should try to contact us as soon as the telecommunications repeater on Phobos is over the horizon. Unfortunately Phobos set before our landing and it will be almost four hours before it rises again.”
“Why can’t we just contact Earth and have them relay to New Masdar?” Abdullah inquired.
“Earth is currently behind the Sun and won’t reappear for another week,” I responded.
“Yes, I remember now.” It was Muhammed. “The consensus was ‘Earth being behind the Sun would not be an issue unless there was a problem with the landing’. We were warned. Alhamdulillahi rabbil’alamin. Praise to God, Lord of the Universe.”
“We’ll be fine for the next few hours while we wait for Phobos to rise,” I replied, “in the mean time, let’s try to figure out exactly where we are.”
“Are we going to die?” Fatima finally spoke up.
“No, we are not going to die, Insha’Allah, God Willing. Once they know we are still alive and know our location, they should be able to fast-track survival supplies to us from New Masdar via cargo jumper. That should keep us alive until they can figure out a way to rescue us. I guess we could always walk back to New Masdar or perhaps they can send a crawler. My hope is that they will rescue us with a personnel jumper, Alhamdulillah.”
I look at their faces. They are scared. Truly scared. They had already braved a six month confinement on the way here. Now they face the very real possibility of never reaching New Masdar and dying out here, lost on the Plains of Elysium. I had to help them keep it together. Panic never helped anyone.
“While the sun is still up, we need to get outside and try to find any landmarks that might make it possible to pinpoint our location. We have three hours of daylight left. Let’s make the most of it. Maria, start recovering the cabin air and prepare for hatch opening. Everyone check your suits. Make sure they are pressurized, powered up, and that you have coolant and air flow.”
“Recovering cabin air now,” Maria replies, “full depressurization in fifteen minutes.”
I listen to the air compressors scream to life as they began transferring cabin air into the storage tanks. All we can do now is wait. Fifteen minutes is a long time to wait. The mind can contemplate many things in fifteen minutes. For example:
How the colonization of Mars came to be funded by a consortium of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Oman.
How Mashrou3 Al Mareekh (Project Mars) went from the dream of a Qatari futurist to the boldest undertaking mankind had ever attempted since the building of The Pyramids.
How New Masdar had already eclipsed Masdar as a pinnacle of self-sustaining technology.
As the cabin air pressure drops, the world slowly slips into silence. Now the only thing I can hear is my own breathing, the pumps and fans in my suit, and the voices on my com channel.
“Five minutes to full depressurization,” Maria announces.
“OK, when we get out there, we will each walk out in a different direction as far as possible while keeping the capsule in view. You each have Elysium Planitia uploaded into your datatabs, let’s find out were we are.”
I check the pressure gauge and decide to go ahead and vent the remaining air in order to get the hatch open. Psssssssssssssssssss. I can feel the sound of the air venting through my gloved finger tips.
“Everyone OK? I am opening the hatch now.”
I turn the handle unlocking the hatch and slowly swing the hatch open. In the late afternoon sun, I am amazed at how much the scene I am gazing upon reminds me of the Rub’ al Khali (Empty Quarter). I crawl through the hatchway and then begin helping the rest of the passengers out of the capsule.
“Maria, you go north, that way,” I gesture with my arm. “Fatima, you go south. Muhammed, you go west. Abdullah, you go east. Ayesha, see that hill back toward the north west.” I point to it with my arm. “Go there. I am going to go to that hill over there.” I point to the north east. “Stay in radio contact and visual range. We don’t want to get lost. Be careful. Allah ma’aakum. God be with you.”
I turn and begin briskly walking north east toward the slight rise on the horizon. The com channel is quiet as the new mareekheen (martians) march to their appointed locations. The similarity of Mars to the Rub’ al Khali is startling. There are only a few small dunes visible here and there, but otherwise the textures and colors are the same. It is no wonder that Al Mareekh was chosen for colonization.
I check the time readout on the wrist panel of my suit. An hour has already passed. Less than three hours until Phobos-rise; only two more hours of sunlight. I stop and turn back toward the landing capsule. It is now a small spec in the distance. We could surely use the APS-COM sats now.
Up until three months ago, Mars was ringed by an extensive network of APS-COM satellites (Ares Positioning System – the GPS of Mars, and COMmunications). Technically they are still there, silently orbiting Al Mareekh. Their electronics were fried by a chance CME (Coronal Mass Ejection, otherwise known as a solar flare). The CME of 2135 was the largest recorded CME since humanity began observing the Sun. As fate would have it, Mars was directly in its path. Despite the advanced warning time, there was nothing to be done. New Masdar and the Phobos telecommunications repeater were on the leeward side of Mars when the solar wind hit and were spared. Allahu Akbar. God is Great.
The orbiting satellites and the various U.S., Russian, Chinese, Indian, and Brazilian scientific stations on the windward side were not so lucky. So intense was the radiation that it destroyed even the radiation-hardened circuitry of the satellites. Mars’ lack of a magnetic field and lack of a dense atmosphere left the windward side settlements without protection. Even though the inhabitants were able to get to shielded “safe rooms”, the total destruction of all electronics left them hopeless. Within a week of the CME passing, they had all died due to the total failure of their life-support systems. New Masdar had tried to assist by sending supplies via ballistic jumpers, but was unable to provide sufficient air and water to keep them all alive. Many prayers were offered up to God that week.
We were still three months inbound to Al Mareekh, when it happened and, Alhamdulillah, we were out of the flight path of the CME as it approached Mars. Otherwise our silent tomb would have sailed past Mars to become just another chunk of debris orbiting the Sun. All we could do was listen and offer our words of comfort by radio link to the dying scientists. We wept when the transmissions finally went silent.
I look at the time again; only five minutes has passed. My destination appears no closer. I stop and turn back to face the capsule. It is barely visible. I select all-channel broadcast.
“Check in. Report status,” I transmit.
“Maria, here. OK. Still walking.”
“Ayesha, here. OK.”
“Muhammed checking in. Still walking toward target.”
“This is Abdullah. Same here.”
Silence. “Fatima, please check in.” Silence. “Fatima?” Silence. “Fatima, please respond.” Silence. “Has anyone heard from Fatima?” The other four report that no one has heard from Fatima. “Fatima? Fatima, can you hear me? Fatima? Attention everyone! Return to the capsule. We will regroup there and then search for Fatima. Quickly!”
I turn and begin walking back to the landing capsule as fast as possible without actually running. The pressure suit is cumbersome and it inhibits my motion but I am walking as fast as possible. No time for idle thoughts now. Look out for that rock. Watch your step. The capsule is slowly growing bigger on the horizon. I am breathing heavily now and sweating. The inside of my faceplate is beginning to fog up.
I stop to catch my breath. What time is it now? Almost two full hours have passed. My shadow is now noticeably longer. The sun has slipped much closer to the horizon. I strain to see either side of the landing capsule. I can barely make out two shapes closing on it from either side.
“Fatima, can you hear me? Fatima, please respond.” Still nothing.
I start walking again, this time even faster; almost running. I can see that the others are now closing in on the the capsule as well. “Maria, when you get there, turn on the outside flood lights and strobes. We may be returning in darkness. Oh and patch in the capsule’s com-link to our suits. We don’t want to miss New Masdar when they call.”
“Acknowledged,” Maria responds.
As I approach the capsule, the outside flood lights and strobes flicker on. The others have just arrived and Maria is climbing out of the hatchway. I walk south looking for Fatima’s trail on the ground. I see it.
“Everyone, come to me. I have found Fatima’s trail. Maria, Abdullah spread out to my right. Stay in visual contact with each other and me. Ayesha, Muhammed do the same on my left. Move quickly but be vigilant. Keep a sharp eye out. When I ask for a report, reply quickly. If you see something, anything, report. Let’s go. Allahu sa’edna. God help us.”
We begin walking briskly south. The sun now seems to be racing toward the horizon. I check the time; fifty minutes until sunset.
“Report!” I command.
I pick up the pace. Looking left and right as I walk. Shadows getting much longer now. Strong glare to my right from the setting sun. Forty minutes until sunset.
“Nothing to report.”
I can still see Fatima’s path as I walk, but the long shadows are making it difficult. The thin Martian air is getting hazy as the sun angle approaches the horizontal. I press on. Thirty minutes until sunset.
“STOP! This is Abdullah. I have found something. I am standing at the edge of a very deep crevasse. It appears to have opened up near my far right and continues to expand to the left toward the south east. It is a vertical cliff. Be careful, don’t fall in. I will begin walking toward you.”
“OK. Everyone be careful. Keep your eyes open.”
I look left, then right. We resume our walk.
“STOP!” It was Maria. “I am at the crevasse. It is very dangerous. I will begin following it toward you now.”
It is now twenty minutes until sunset. The long shadows have caused the visibility to be very poor. “Only twenty more minutes of sunlight.” I announce. “Fatima? Fatima? Can you hear me?” I start walking again, this time more cautiously.
I walk slowly. I look left, ahead, right. The setting sun makes it difficult to see anything clearly to my right. I can barely make out Maria to my right and a bit ahead of me. Farther away beyond Maria and behind her I see Abdullah. Suddenly directly in front of me – blackness. I stop dead still in my tracks. I look intently to the left and right. No sign of Fatima. “I am at the crevasse,” I announce. I check the time. Fifteen more minutes of sunlight. “Fatima, can you hear me?”
Maria and Abdullah arrive from my right side. “Her track ends here,” I state matter-of-factly. I turn on my helmet lamps. The bright LEDs cast a bright bluish-white light into the shadows. “Hold on to my feet,” I instruct Maria and Abdullah as I get down on my hands and knees and crawl toward the edge of the crevasse. I am now at the very edge of the crevasse, lying on my chest pulling my head over the edge of the cliff. I look down, staring into the stygian darkness. Something is glinting back at me in the distance. I instantly recognize it as the reflective marking tape on our pressure suits.
“I found her,” I yell. “Everyone come to me, stay well back from the lip of the crevasse. Fatima? Fatima? If you can hear me, move an arm or a leg.” The distant form at the bottom of the crevasse is motionless. I bring up my suit’s built in night-vision binoculars and study the lifeless form of Fatima. She is lying face down. Her arms and legs are twisted in an unnatural position, like a discarded child’s rag doll. Suddenly I see it. There is a long rip in the pressure garment near her right knee. Then I remember her prophetic question … “Are we going to die?” … It was God’s will. Allahu Akbar.
I crawl back away from the edge of the crevasse and I stand up. I turn to look to my right. “Sunset,” I announce. We all turn to watch the sun slip below the horizon. It is our first ever Martian sunset. It is a silent, somber moment.
Almost immediately it is pitch black. The stars are blazing in the night sky. The Martian atmosphere is too thin to provide more than a few seconds of twilight. “Turn on your helmet lamps. Maria, you lead the way back to the capsule. Ayesha, Abdullah, Muhammed you follow Maria. Stay close. I will bring up the rear.”
The flood lights and strobes on the landing capsule make it an impossibly bright beacon on the northern horizon. “Be careful. Watch your step. Take your time,” I admonish. We begin a somber procession back to the capsule; each of us quietly praying for Fatima. Yet, God has his way, we now know that our position is a few kilometres north of the western extent of a deep crevasse. That should make it easier for them to find us with the Mars-facing telescopes on Phobos.
The remaining five of us are now safely back at the capsule. I glance at the time. Phobos should be rising any minute now. Like the Earth’s Moon, Phobos always keeps the same side facing Mars. The autonomous telecommunication repeater is located near the Phobian equator on the Mars-facing side, approximately halfway between the eastern rim of Stickney crater and Opik crater. Because Phobos orbits Mars faster than Mars itself rotates, Phobos actually rises in the west and sets in the east twice every Martian day. From Phobos-rise it is approximately four hours and fifteen minutes until Phobos-set. Four hours and fifteen minutes to talk to New Masdar, twice a day.
Suddenly through our head sets, “Ard-Mareekh-Three-Oh-Seven, Earth-Mars-Three-Oh-Seven, this is New Masdar landing control do you copy?
“I repeat. Ard-Mareekh-Three-Oh-Seven, Ard-Mareekh-Three-Oh-Seven, this is New Masdar landing control do you copy? Over.
“We are receiving your distress beacon and should pin-point your location shortly. A cargo jumper with air, water, and food is being fueled and will launch as soon as we have established your coordinates.
“Ard-Mareekh-Three-Oh-Seven, this is New Masdar landing control do you copy? Over.”
I glance to the west just in time to see Phobos rising.