This wasn't the first time sixteen-year-old Danny Long had found himself in a tight situation since coming to Mars two years ago, but it was definitely the most dangerous. His dad warned him about venturing outside the dome alone. Heck, it was practically Colony Order Number One. Don't Venture Outside the Dome Alone. He thought it was a stupid rule because what could happen to him on a dead planet like Mars? Except maybe his environment suit rupturing. He'd snuck outside the dome half a dozen times before, and nothing had happened to him. But, this was the first time he'd gone so far out.
And the first time he'd fallen into a sink-hole.
Danny rolled onto his back and groaned. His left arm ached where he hit the bottom of the hole. It was a weird feeling, falling so slowly. He remembered falling out of a tree back on Earth when he was ten. He fell fast and hard. He'd broken that arm, then. Here on Mars, with a gravity pull only a third or so Earth's, he almost felt like he had floated to the bottom of the hole.
Almost, but not quite. It still hurt when he hit.
He wiped his gloved hand over the faceplate of his helmet but only managed to smear it with red regolith, that weird Martian dirt on this part of the planet that was kind of like the moon's, but not exactly. At least his faceplate hadn't cracked when he hit the bottom. He'd be in a world of hurt, then, with his air leaking out and the cold seeping in.
A burst of static echoed in his earphones. He tapped the side of his helmet as if that would do anything.
"Hello?" he said. "Hello? Hello?"
No response. Not even another surge of static.
The end of his nose itched, and he wanted to scratch it so bad. Instead, he scrunched his nose and flared his nostrils a few times.
He checked the readouts on the forearm of his suit. He had enough air to last another two-and-a-half hours, at most. Plenty of time to get back to the dome and sneak back in through the utility airlock. Except the dome was up there. And he was down here.
He stood and looked up. The dim interior helmet light illuminated his face in a ghostly blue, and maybe a foot or so in front of him. He could see a sliver of salmon-colored sky above, but it was so far away. He groped around his side until he found the flashlight on his equipment belt. He thumbed it on and swung the beam around him. It was a narrow hole, nearly a vertical shaft. The fierce Martian winds had covered the mouth of the hole with regolith, but it hadn't been a solid covering. Once he'd stepped onto the loose dirt, his weight had broken through, and boom. There he was.
Danny felt his heart start to race. He swung the flashlight beam around the tight space, but all he saw were walls of dark dirt. He dug his fingers into the dirt, and it collapsed in his hands. No way he could scale those walls and climb out. They would collapse and bury him alive. His dad would never find his body.
Maybe that was a good thing, Danny thought. That would be better than being restricted to his habitat. Mars was boring enough, without being grounded on top of it.
He started to breathe fast and shallow. His chest hurt.
"Warning," his suit's internal monitor chimed. "Oxygen consumption erratic."
"No kidding," Danny snapped.
"Warning. Elevated heart rate."
"Discontinue warnings, you stupid suit."
"Warning — "
Danny tapped the Mute toggle on his forearm. The warnings stopped.
He closed his eyes and slowed his breathing, just like he learned to do in Mars Camp before leaving Earth. He felt better; at least the ache in his chest had gone away.
"Okay," he said aloud. Talking to himself when he was alone usually made him feel at ease. "Lake knows I'm out here. When I don't make it back at the time I said I would, she'll tell someone. I think. Although, she thought I was pretty stupid for going out in the first place, so maybe she's not waiting around. Maybe she wasn't going to be there when I got back, anyway… so then she wouldn't know it if I didn't make it back…."
Danny frowned. Even if she had told someone, they'd never find him down here in this hole. He needed a way to signal them, but he wasn't getting any radio reception. They'd have to be really close to hear him on the radio.
He swung the flashlight beam around the hole again. The light glistened off the regolith like it was a wall of rusty sequins, except for one small patch near the base. Danny brought the light back, scanned the area until… there. A dark shadow. No, not a shadow. A… rock? He knelt by the object. It looked to be embedded in the regolith. He reached out to touch it, and although he couldn't feel its texture through the thick, insulated gloves of his suit, he could tell it was solid. He dug his index finger into the regolith and traced the edge of the object. It popped out and fell into his hand. It wasn't heavy, but Danny didn't know if it really wasn't heavy or if it was the lighter gravity that made it seem that way. He held it up to his faceplate. It seemed smooth. It was a perfect rectangle, about the same size and thickness as a standard brick. And totally black. It didn't reflect light at all, it seemed to suck it up instead. He hadn't seen anything like it.
"Lake is going to love this," he said.
And again, he remembered where he was.
His heart started to race again. He took some deep breaths and tried his Mars Camp exercises. When they didn't work, he closed his eyes and thought about Lakisha Mackenzie. Eight months older than Danny, she was a freshman at the colony university. But he didn't care about that. He focused his thoughts on her face, skin blended from her father's fair complexion and her mother's dark. Large, chestnut eyes and ringlets of toffee-brown hair that smelled like butterscotch and graced her shoulders. And a smile that dimpled her cheeks. He loved her dimples.
He relaxed and dropped the object into his thigh pocket. Above him, the sky had darkened considerably.
"Okay, Danny Boy. How're you going to get out of this one?"
The flashlight beam refracted off the regolith as if in answer. He looked up again.
"Okay. Okay. If I can toss the flashlight out of this shaft, and it lands just right, the beam should be spotted by the rescue team. If there is a rescue team. That is if Lake…."
Danny tossed the flashlight up. It went straight up in a lazy, one-third G rise, then drifted straight back down in a lazy, one-third G fall.
He tried again, this time aiming closer to the edge of the opening. The light clipped the edge, then coasted back to his feet.
He tossed it again, this time, the flashlight tumbled end-over-end, cleared the opening, and disappeared over the edge.
"Yes!" He threw both arms in the air, like a referee declaring a touchdown.
His elation lasted only a few seconds. With the flashlight gone, his interior helmet light provided the only illumination, and that was so dim he couldn't even see the walls of the shaft. Now encased in darkness, he swallowed and eased himself to the uneven ground.
He tapped toggles on his forearm and accessed his music playlist. The electronica-metal music of his favorite band blared into his headphones. He pressed the radio transmit button and let his tunes play out over the radio. If they spotted his light, or were in the general vicinity, they should be able to pick up his music.
After each new song, Danny checked his air gauge. The reading dropped lower and lower until it was in the red, and he was breathing his reserves. His head felt light, his stomach queasy. The air from the reserve tank smelled like a tin can.
"Warning," his suit system chimed, overriding the mute toggle. "Oxygen level critical."
It hit him then, and any remaining bluster oozed away. They might not find me.
He lay flat on his back and stared at the sky, now so dark he couldn't tell where the edge of the shaft was. A deep ache developed in his chest, and each labored breath made his chest hurt even more. He tasted something sour in the back of his throat. His music still blared, but he couldn't focus on it. He thought about his dad and how mad he was going to be at Danny for getting lost. He thought about his mom back on Earth with his step-father. But, as Danny Long's vision blurred and his consciousness faded, it was Lake Mackenzie who drifted into the darkness with him.
Danny awoke slowly, the dark surrendering to the soft light that now surrounded him. He heard beeping instruments and hushed conversation nearby. A strong scent of disinfectant made his head ache. He opened his eyes a little, then clamped them shut at the glare from the ceiling fixture.
"Owww," he said.
"Danny?" The voice has deep and firm and official.
Danny winced and brought his arm up to cover his eyes. Only then did he open them. He peeked underneath his arm and saw the Chief of Colony Safety standing over him, arms crossed, chest puffed out, gold colony emblem gleaming on his burgundy and black uniform.
"What were you thinking, young man?"
"Hi, Dad," Danny said.
"I asked you a question."
Chief Jeremy Long's face was a chiseled marble sculpture. Like those statues Danny remembered seeing in the art museum back on Earth. The lines on his father's face made him look older than he actually was. So did the thick hair that used to be black as space but now showed brush strokes of gray. Danny always wished he had hair as dark as his dad's. Instead, he got his mom's golden blonde locks. And her height too. His father stood a few inches over six feet tall and towered over Danny by almost eight inches.
"How did… how did I get back here?"
"Miss Mackenzie reported your little adventure. I sent rovers out in the direction she said you headed. One of them spotted your flashlight and picked up your music. Your tanks were almost dry when they got to you."
"Pretty smart of me to — "
"Smart? Don't you mean reckless? First, you broke colony rules by going outside the dome alone. Second, you went outside without logging your excursion with Colony Safety. And third, you went out alone."
"You said that twice, Dad." Danny's head ached.
"Don't get smart with me, Daniel. I'll ask you again. What were you thinking?"
Danny looked away.
His father dropped his arms and sat on the edge of the bed. Danny looked back at him and saw the stone face soften. "Danny. You almost died. What could be so important?"
"I was going to take a selfie at the edge of the Valles Marineris. She didn't ask me to go out there, Dad. In fact, she told me it was a stupid idea."
Long patted his son's shoulder. "The doctor says you'll need to stay in the infirmary overnight." He stood and resumed his official demeanor. "Starting tomorrow and for the next six weeks, you'll be doing three hours of community service every day. And except for school, you're confined to our habitat."
"Dad — "
"You don't get it, Danny. You endangered yourself just to impress a girl. And if I were going to stress the point, I'd tell you how many man-hours and resources we expended searching for you. Plus, you put me in an awkward position. I have to report to the Colony Director what disciplinary steps I've taken with you, and you can bet she's going to make sure I don't give my son special treatment."
Danny crossed his arms, scowled, and looked away. He knew his dad was right. But Danny wasn't going to let him know that.
"I'll see you in the morning." When Danny didn't respond, he turned and left, the glass doors hissing closed behind him.
Six weeks of service and confined to the hab. Not fair.
A light tap-tap on the glass pulled his attention back to the door. The boy at the door flashed Danny a toothy smile and palmed the door actuator.
"Man, your dad is maaaaad," the boy said.
"You don't know the half of it, Mat," Danny said. "Come on in."
Mateo Chavez was a bit taller than Danny but lanky and thin. He had a dark complexion, not like Lake's creamy brown, but more of a sunbaked look folks from the southwestern portion of the United States tended to have. He wore his licorice-colored hair in a simple, scissors cut with bangs that fell across his forehead in a straight line. He and Danny shared the same birth month, though Danny was a few weeks older. Mateo didn't speak a lick of Spanish, but loved to brandish the words gringo and mierda around like he was fluent.
He stopped at Danny's bedside. "How you feeling, gringo?"
"Pissed. I'm grounded, and I have to do community service."
"You're lucky. I thought you'd get at least six months in the brig."
Danny sighed. "Funny. We don't have a brig."
"So, was Lakisha impressed or not?"
"I don't think so. I don't know. Last time I saw her was at the airlock."
"She hasn't come to see you?"
"Not that I know of. I just woke up."
Mat pulled a chair up to the bed and straddled it. "Look, Danny. You're my best friend. And we've done some pretty dumb things, but this..."
"Not you, too. Give me a break."
Mat shook his head. "I'm not on your case. It's just that I don't get why you had to do this. There are plenty of other ways you can get her attention. You're the smartest kid in school."
"Big deal. It's a small school."
"Okay, well, you're the smartest kid in the colony."
"No," Danny said. "Lake is the smartest kid in the colony."
"Man, you got it bad for her. Does her boyfriend know?"
"Justin Conner is not her boyfriend."
"Well, everyone thinks he is."
"He's an idiot."
"Yeah. A six-foot-tall idiot."
"He's a rock jock."
"He's a university geology tech."
Danny glared at Mat. "Yeah, well… why are you taking his side, anyway?"
"Okay. Didn't mean to piss you off." Mat got up and moved the chair back. "Get some rest. You look like mierda."
"Thanks a lot." Truth was, he really did felt like crap.
Mat grinned and headed for the door. "Hey, I'm glad you're okay, Danny."
Danny dimmed the overhead light and fisted his pillow into shape, then lay back. As he drifted off to sleep, his thoughts were already swirling around how he could get back out there.
The on-duty doctor released Danny at nine o'clock the next morning. His dad had stopped by to check on him earlier but hadn't relented on his punishment. Not that Danny thought he really would. It would have been a nice surprise, though. Once outside the infirmary, he made a bee-line for the Geology Department.
The colony had been constructed inside a small crater near Valles Marineris, the awful gash across the face of Mars. The dome covered the crater, sealing in heat and breathable air. Most of the colony was underground, with only a few science departments like Meteorology and Astronomy on the surface. Danny rode the elevator up from Sub-level Four, the Medical Deck, to the University Deck on Sub-level One, the first floor below the surface. He side-stepped through the slowly-opening elevator doors and trotted down the corridor, passing the Life Sciences, Astrophysics, and Chemistry departments. He heeled to a stop in front of the glass doors to the Geology Department.
He took a breath, checked his reflection in the glass, and pressed the actuator. The glass doors slid aside with a hiss of compression.
"Hi, Danny," one of the geology interns said as Danny passed her workstation. She was an amber-haired girl a bit taller than he was. And pretty. Danny had seen her around a few times but didn't remember her name.
He kept walking but turned his head in her direction. "Hi," he said to the girl and nearly ran right into Lake as she stepped out of her cubicle.
"Whoa," Danny said. "Sorry."
Lake juggled a tray of rocks and took a step back.
"Danny," she said. "So, you're out of the infirmary." Her voice was smooth and a bit lower in timbre than most girls he knew. It somehow made her seem even more appealing.
"Yeah, I…" He fumbled for words and wound up just standing there, breathing in the air around her and taking in the subtle scent of butterscotch from her hair.
"I'm still mad at you," she said.
"Why? Are you serious?"
Danny took a step closer. He was only an inch or two taller than she was, but he always felt small when he was near her. "Okay," he got his voice back. "Look, I'm sorry about putting you through that. You know, making you have to go Colony Safety and everything."
"What choice did I have? When you didn't come back, I had to. It was a stupid thing for you to do, Danny. Come on, a selfie? I thought you were smarter than that."
Danny didn't like it when Lake wasn't smiling. Her face lost its glow, and when she frowned, her dimples nearly disappeared. "I know," he said. "I don't know why I did it."
"What are you doing here?"
"I came to see you."
"Is there somewhere we can talk in private?"
"I'm very busy, Danny."
"It will just take a minute. I've got something to show you, and I think you're going to like it."
She eyed him for a moment, then nodded and turned back to her cubicle. Danny followed her in.
She set the tray of rocks on her desk. "What is it?"
Danny's face broke into a grin. He reached into his thigh pocket and pulled out the ebony artifact.
"What's this?" Lake asked.
"I don't know. I found it outside."
"You found this… out there?"
"Yep." He held it out to her.
Lake's eye's widened. Her lips parted and eased into a soft smile of wonder. She reached for the stone slowly, feathered her fingers over it as if reading braille. She took it delicately between thumb and forefinger and lifted it off his palm. She rotated it in front of her eyes, feeling its straight edges and smooth surface.
"I know I'm kind of new to this geology stuff," Danny said, "but I've never seen anything like that. Have you?"
"Never. It's almost too geometrically perfect to be natural. It must be man-made."
"I don't know, Lake. I found that at the bottom of a shaft. I think it might be…."
Lake looked at him over the stone. "What?"
"I think it's native."
"You mean you think it's Martian? Danny, this brick or stone or whatever has clearly been tooled."
"Soooo, you think it was tooled by little green men?"
"No. I don't know. But, I thought you might."
She turned the stone over and over.
"There might be more out there, Lake. Can you imagine? Finding the first artifacts of a Martian civilization? We have to go back out there."
"Slow down, Danny." Lake's dimples had softened again. "Let's not go around making wild statements like that. We'll be on the first clipper back to Earth."
He liked how she said we.
"All we have," she continued, "is a completely smooth, perfectly proportional rectangle of rock or metal of undetermined origin and composition."
"Agreed," Danny said. "So, let's go out there and look for some more."
"Some more what, Long?"
Crap, Danny thought. He turned and glared at Justin Conner, all six feet, hundred and eighty pounds of him of him, standing in the doorway of Lake's cubicle. "None of your business, Conner," Danny said.
"Oh, con-traire," Justin said with a snide grin. "If it's got to do with geology, of which I hold a degree, and you do not, then it's all about my business."
"Not likely," Danny countered. He turned toward Justin and squared off, having to look up to make eye contact. Danny would never admit it, but he admired Justin's college-boy good looks.
"Really?" Justin countered as he matched Danny's posture.
"Hey," Lake chimed in. "Both of you knock it off. You're in my workspace."
The two stared at each other for another few seconds, neither backing down nor moving.
"I said knock… it... off."
Danny turned to Lake a split second before Justin did. "You're right, Lake. I apologize." It was more a dig on Justin, taking the high road before he did than it was a sincere apology. Inwardly, Danny smiled.
"Whatever," Justin said. "Back to my original question. Some more what?"
Danny looked at Lake, widened his eyes, and gave his head a quick shake.
"Wait a minute, Danny," Lake said. "Think about it. Justin is on staff. I'm only an intern."
"So, if you want to go back out there, we should do it the right way. As a university-sponsored field trip. Justin can authorize that."
"And why would I want to do that?" Justin asked.
Lake cocked her head at Danny. Danny shook his head. Lake eased a smile on her face, and Danny saw her dimples form and her eyes twinkle and felt his heart accelerate. He succumbed to the glow.
"Okay. Fine. But he can't come with us."
"Sorry to disappoint you, Long. But a university staffer is required on all field trips. Like it or not, I'm going out there with you."
Danny didn't like it at all. He had hoped it would be just him and Lake going out. He certainly didn't want her boyfriend along for the ride. If he was her boyfriend. Didn't matter. He didn't want Justin Conner with them. But… that artifact. He was sure there were more out there. Maybe in the same sink-hole he fell into. His only other alternative was to sneak back out there, but if he did and he got caught, he was sure his father would put him under house arrest until their tour on Mars was over. Or worse. On the other hand… his dad had confined him to the hab unless he was doing his community service or he was at school. The university was certainly school. Though technically not his school until September.
And that idiot Conner. He didn't have a clue what they had found. He didn't even know what the field trip was all about. He just wanted to horn in on it to mess with Danny. Still, Danny knew if he didn't agree, he might never get back out there. Reluctantly, he gave in.
"Okay. Fine. Conner can go."
Justin flashed a victory smile. Danny seethed.
"Okay," Justin said. "Lake and I will handle the geology end of things. Long, you'll be the navigator and recorder. Now, we just need a driver."
"Mat Chavez," Danny said.
"Mateo?" Lake repeated.
"Sure. He's a licensed rover driver. Works in the maintenance garage. He knows the rover as well as any adult. And he's reliable."
"I know Chavez," Justin said. "He'll do. So. What's this all about?"
Danny and Lake exchanged looks. Reluctantly, Danny told him.
Danny's father was furious. Danny thought the lights in their habitat were flickering, but that must have been an illusion. His father wasn't really sucking the energy from them.
"But, you said except for school — "
"Don't play this game with me, Daniel. You're a smart kid. Otherwise, you wouldn't be here on Mars. You knew exactly what I meant."
Danny thought for a moment and decided he needed to come clean.
"Okay. Yeah, I understood you. But, going on this trip isn't just a way to mess with you, Dad. It's legit. I found something in that hole. A brick or something. I brought it back and gave it to the Geology Department. They've tested it and can't identify it. I think it's Martian."
"So, you find a rock on Mars, and you think it's Martian. And this warrants an expedition?"
"It's just a field trip, and yes. I mean, it's not just a Martian rock. It's perfectly proportional and smooth. It looks like it's been tooled."
"Yes! Wait… I don't know. But I think there may be more out there. If we can find evidence of an ancient civilization on Mars…."
"Look, Dad. I know it sounds bonkers. And maybe we won't find anymore. But, I want to do this."
"To impress young Miss Mackenzie again?"
Danny sighed. "I admitted it was stupid. And, yes. I still want to impress her. But, this is more than just that. Do you know why I wanted to come with you to Mars in the first place? Leave Mom and the ranch and blue skies and real air and most of my friends? For six whole years?"
His father cocked his head. "I assumed it was because you wanted to be with your old man."
"Well, yeah. But, not just that. Mars is like the greatest adventure there is. I mean, Earth is great and all that, but out here, this is how the old west used to be. Except with spacesuits. When I'm out there — "
"What do you mean when you're out there. How many times have you snuck out?"
Oh, crap. Danny winced. Well, the laundry's out of the basket now. "I'm not sure, Dad. A few. But, I've always followed the safety protocols."
"What I'm trying to say is, I came to Mars for the adventure of it. To be out here on the frontier."
"And, how many times have you told me Mars was boring?"
"Well, it is. In here. Under the dome. I mean, c'mon, Dad. What's there to do in here? The excitement is being out there."
His father shook his head and aimed for the door. "I have to get back to work." Before he actuated the door, he turned back to face Danny. "I haven't seen you this fired up about anything since you joined that rock climbing club back in Montana. Look, I'll have to clear it with the Director. If she approves, and that's a big if, then… all right. You can go. As long as it's university-sponsored and there is at least one staff member on the team."
"There is. Justin Conner is on staff."
"Conner? Isn't he Miss Mackenzie's boyfriend?"
Danny looked at his feet and grumbled. "He's not her boyfriend."
"Uh-huh. Make sure the excursion is properly logged with Colony Safety before you head out. And I want all safety protocols followed. Is that understood?"
"Every one of them, Dad. I promise. And, Dad…"
His father's face took on a strange look. It wasn't one Danny had seen before. It wasn't like his expression in the infirmary; this was different. Odd. But, it felt strangely warm. His father gave him a curt up-nod and marched off.
The field trip, properly logged with Colony Safety, pulled out of the east utility airlock at noon local time the next day. The rover's bulbous tires dug into the rusty regolith easily, on a straight course to the sink-hole Danny had fallen into. He had never made it to the Valles. He figured it to be a three-hour hike to the edge of the great chasm, which was about ten miles from the dome. But he'd only been out about two-and-a-half hours when he fell. In the rover at cruise speed, they would reach the spot in twenty minutes.
Mat sat behind the steering yoke on the left side of the cockpit. Danny sat in the right-side co-driver spot, although he wouldn't be doing any co-driving. Lake and Conner sat in side-by-side passenger seats in the rear passenger section. All four wore e-suits, as called for in the agreed-upon safety protocols, though their helmets and gloves were off.
"Man, I love getting out in this thing," Mat beamed.
"Yeah, me too." Danny smiled. Mat loved adventure as much as he did, which is why they got along so well. Except Danny couldn't get Mat to climb anything higher than a boulder.
Justin leaned forward between their seats. "Okay, Navigator. Show me."
Danny tapped a few membrane keys on the dashboard screen, and a relief map of the area was displayed. The image duplicated itself on screens built into the headrests of the front seats so that the rear seat passengers could follow along. Danny had hoped that Justin would sit back and look at his own screen, but that didn't happen. Instead, he leaned closer to Danny. Danny resisted the urge to drive his elbow into the geologist's nose.
"This is where Colony Safety found me," Danny said, pointing to a red dot on the screen. Map coordinates appeared beneath the dot.
"You mean rescued you," Justin said.
"Whatever," Danny said. "This is where the sink-hole is. It's eight and a quarter miles from the dome. That's where I found the artifact."
"You mean brick."
Danny clenched his jaw and readied his elbow.
"Stop it, Justin," Lake said, slapping his shoulder. "Let Danny speak."
Danny felt a warm lump of satisfaction swell in his chest. Justin sat back, and Danny rotated his seat to face them, hoping his elation wasn't showing. "I didn't have the tools to do any excavating, but I'm sure there are more… artifacts down there."
"Yeah. You're sure." Justin said. "You know, I had to do a song and dance with the head of the Geology Department to justify a field trip based on your hunch. Lucky for you, I was able to convince her of the academic value of this little excursion."
Lake smiled. "Nicely done, Justin."
Justin beamed back at her. "Thanks, Lake. But it was your summary that made the sale."
Danny felt the lump in his chest drop to the pit of his stomach.
Mat looked back at them. "Hey, when you gringos are finished extolling each other, can I have my navigator back?"
"Extolling?" Justin cocked his head at Mat.
Danny shook his head and rotated forward. "It means congratulate, genius."
"I know what it means, Long."
"Sit back, Justin," Lake said. "Let them get us there."
Mat glanced at Danny. "I'm on a straight heading for the coordinates Colony Safety recorded. But, I need you to make sure I don't stray off course."
"Sure," Danny said absently. He fiddled with the navigation display, but his thoughts weren't fixed on coordinates. They were focused on the girl behind him.
Twenty minutes later, the rover eased to a stop near the sink-hole Danny had fallen into.
"Okay," Justin said, unstrapping his safety harness and standing. His head grazed the rover's overhead plating. He rested his hands on the backs of the front seats and leaned in. "Per protocol, Chavez will stay inside the rover. Lake, Long, and I will suit up and locate the sink-hole. Once we do, we'll hook a line to the rover and lower ourselves down into the…."
The rover vibrated, then shook.
Mat turned back to the dashboard and checked instruments. "What was that?"
The shaking stopped. "Yes, what was that?" Lake asked.
Danny checked his own instruments. "I don't know. I'm not reading anything — "
The rover pitched forward, pushing Mat, Danny, and Lake into their harnesses. Justin fell forward between the seats and cracked his head on the dashboard. Mat let out a yelp as the ground beneath the rover collapsed. The rover's front end dropped away first. Then its back. Justin tumbled backward between the seats.
The rover plummeted into the dark.
It struck the bottom hard, splitting its rear axle. The cockpit windshield cracked. The interior lights sputtered, then went out. The rover teetered on two ruptured tires, then settled on all four.
"Lake!" Danny shouted into the dark.
"I'm here," she responded.
"Conner?" Danny repeated.
"Justin, are you all right?" Lake called.
Danny unstrapped his harness and groped under the dashboard until he found a hand-held emergency light. He flicked it on, and the cabin interior lit up in a low glow. Mat was already out of his harness and reaching for a second light. Lake undid her own straps. Justin Conner lay in an awkward position against the port side bulkhead. Unconscious. Blood oozed on his forehead. His right leg canted the wrong way.
"Justin," Lake whispered as she moved toward him.
Danny pulled a first aid kit from the bulkhead cabinet and handed it to her. "What happened, Mat?" he asked over his shoulder.
"I think we fell into another sink-hole. A big one."
"Are you kidding me?"
A sound, like the clink of fine china, drew their attention to the cockpit. Mat aimed his light at the windshield. The glass was a spiderweb of cracks. Another clink and a long crack lengthened even more.
"It's going to shatter," Danny said. "Suit up. Fast!"
Lake went for Justin's helmet. Danny grabbed it first. "I'll take care of him," Danny said. "Get suited up."
Lake nodded and found her own helmet.
Danny worked the helmet over Justin's head, snapped it onto the suit's neck ring, and twisted until the faceplate was forward and the ring clicked. He slipped a glove onto Conner's left hand and twisted the connector ring until it locked. He did the same for the right, then slapped the pressure actuator on the suit's chest panel. Warm air swished into the suit, slightly inflating it.
He reached for his own helmet, noticing Lake had hers on and had almost finished donning her gloves. He snapped his helmet into place.
Clink. Clink. Clink.
He wriggled his right hand into his glove and locked it into place. He grabbed his left glove.
The windshield exploded outward.
A rush of rapid depressurization pulled them off their feet. Loose paper blew out of the rover. Danny scrambled to get his left glove on, but the sudden drop in temperature and air pressure numbed his fingers. He couldn't work the glove. Couldn't get it on. The cold seeped through the open sleeve and crept up his arm. He held his breath. Felt lightheaded. Dizzy. The glove dropped.
Lake snatched the glove before it hit the deck. She deftly worked it onto Danny's hand and locked it into place. Mat slapped the actuator with the heel of his gloved hand. Warm air blew into Danny's suit, and he took a long, loud gulp of it. Then another.
"You all right in there, gringo?" Mat said.
Danny heard his voice in the helmet's ear speakers. He sucked in a few more deep breaths, then started breathing normally. He wriggled the fingers on his left hand. They felt thick and stiff. And they ached. He looked up at Mat and nodded.
"Danny…" Lake started.
He turned his head inside his helmet until he could see her. The interior light of her helmet made her face glimmer. He felt the familiar throbbing in his chest as his heart raced.
"That was a good thing you did. Taking care of Justin before yourself."
Danny felt his cheeks flush. He couldn't speak. He just looked at her, his face lax. His mouth probably open.
Lake smiled and leaned forward until their helmets touched. After a moment, she drew back and patted his arm, then turned back to Justin.
Mat knuckle-tapped on Danny's helmet until Danny looked at him. "Hello in there."
Annoyed, Danny reached out his hand. Mat grabbed it and pulled Danny to his feet. "Let's check on the damage," Danny said.
They angled their way past Lake and Justin and into the aft airlock. It was pointless to worry about cycling the air inside the lock, now that the windshield was gone and the inside of the vehicle was open to the thin, Martian atmosphere. They opened the exterior hatch, leaving the interior hatch ajar.
They weren't going anywhere in the rover. Aside from the cracked rear axle, all four tires had blown. Mat checked the port side for damage. Danny scanned the exterior hull on the starboard side, tracing conduits to an electrical junction box on the rover's stern. The box was crumpled along the edges, suggesting it was damaged in the fall. Danny pried the cover plate off and looked at a spaghetti mess of wiring.
"Mat," Danny said into his helmet mic.
Mat bounded up to Danny. "What's up?"
"Looks like the breaker box is shot."
Mat shined his light into the box. "Naw, I can fix this."
"Okay, go to work. I'm heading back inside to check on Conner."
"And maybe, Lake?" Mat chided.
"I heard that," Lake said into her own mic.
Danny made a scowling face. Mat chuckled and went to work.
Justin was conscious when Danny reentered the rover. "How're you doing?" he asked.
"Terrific," he grunted. "My head hurts, and I think I broke my leg."
Lake knelt near Justin and looked up at Danny. "I think it's a simple fracture. I can't tell while we're in the suits. But, we'll need to set and immobilize it."
"Aw, hell no," Justin grumbled.
"I'll set it," Lake said. "Danny, we'll need something to act as a splint."
"Okay." Danny moved off and scanned the interior of the rover's passenger compartment until he found something that would work in the field gear locker near the open airlock door — a pair of adjustable trekking poles like the hiking sticks he used to use back on Earth. He grabbed the poles, picked up a roll of duct tape, and turned around just as Lake tugged at Justin's leg.
Justin screamed and let loose a string of curse words.
"What the hell was that?" they heard Mat in their helmet speakers.
"Just a little first aid," Danny said. He handed the duct tape to Lake.
"J-J-Jeez…" Justin cried.
Danny adjusted the length of the poles and positioned one on each side of Justin's broken leg. Lake worked the duct tape underneath, securing the poles to the leg.
"There," Lake said. "That should so until we can get you back to the dome."
Justin gave a shaky nod inside his helmet.
"Mat," Danny said. "How are you doing?"
"Stand by… stand by… there."
The interior lights flickered, then came full-on.
"Nice job," Danny told him.
"On my way back in."
After a few minutes, all four were back in the rover. Danny addressed the group. "Okay. Now that we have some power, we can get on the radio and start sending a distress call, but when I fell into my sink-hole, I couldn't get a radio signal out, probably because of the regolith. Even though we have a stronger radio, we're deeper than I was. Way deeper. Colony Safety may not hear us. But, they will come looking for us if we don't check-in or report back when we were supposed to. So, we'll have to make sure we're still alive when they do. We have enough air in our suits for about five hours. If we can rig up a plastic tarp over the broken windshield with duct tape. Like they did in that old Matt Damon movie, we can get back on rover air which — "
"Won't work," Mat interrupted.
"Why not?" Danny asked.
"Normally, the air in the rover is recycled through the CO2 scrubbers, so we could theoretically live in the rover almost indefinitely if we had enough food and water. But the scrubbers were damaged in the fall. They're toast, and I can't fix them out here.
"But what about the rover's reserve tanks?" Lake asked.
Mat shook his head. "Both the primary and the reserve tanks ruptured when we hit. All the air bled out. We only have the air in our suits."
They looked at each other silently for a long moment.
"What do we do, Danny?" Lake asked.
"Hey," Justin said. "I'm in charge of this excursion."
Lake angled her body so she could see his face through her faceplate. "You're hurt, Justin. You're in pain and not thinking clearly. And Danny has been through this. But, you're right. You're in charge."
Justin looked at Danny and grimaced inside his helmet. "Yeah… so… okay, Long. You've been through this. What do you suggest we do?"
"Okay," Danny said, "we're going to need to see if we can find a way out of this hole. Mat and I will head out and see how big this pit is. Maybe we can find a way up to the surface and get a radio signal back to the dome. Lake…" he paused, not really wanting to say what he was about to say. "You're the most experienced medic of all of us. Stay with Justin. Keep transmitting and listening for a response."
"Okay, Danny," she said.
"Mat, before we head out, fire up the rover's headlights. Let's see what's out there."
"Okay." Mat took his seat in the cockpit. Danny and Lake stood behind the front seats. Mat thumbed the headlight actuator, and the scene in front of the rover illuminated.
"What the hell…"
"Oh, my God…"
"What?" Justin asked. "What's out there?"
The hole stretched out as far as they could see, the lights of the rover failing to reach the end. Rusty regolith coated the walls and the hard, level bottom. Patches of white and grey, flat and smooth, broke through the soil.
It was a tunnel. A long, long tunnel.
And from the looks of it, it was not a natural formation.
Danny and Mat looked back at the broken rover. The light from the rover's interior seeped out the shattered windshield, giving them no useful illumination, but did provide them a weak reference point to find their way back. Not that there were a lot of options on which way to go.
The sink-hole they fell into was a giant crevice. Flashing their lights up into it, they could see where the smooth ceiling of the tunnel, easily fifteen or twenty feet above them, had cracked wide open. Maybe from come ancient ground quake or whatever. Danny had no idea. Their flashlights barely illuminated the ragged rock walls that led to the surface.
From outside the rover, the tunnel's perspective changed. It was huge and reminded Danny of the old Lincoln Tunnel that ran under the Hudson River and connected New York to New Jersey. Except while the tunnel on Earth had walls covered with shiny, white tiles, the curved walls of the tunnel here on Mars were seamless, except where they met the arched ceiling and level floor. Regolith clung to the walls in spots, probably thrown up against them when the rover crashed. Danny wiped some off the wall with his gloved hand. The regolith seemed to hover in the thin air, then migrated back to the wall as if drawn there by a magnet.
"Whoa," he said. "Did you see that, Mat?"
Mat chuckled. "Wow. Hey, watch this." He crouched down, scooped up a handful of dirt from his feet, and underhanded it toward the wall. The mass hung in the air like a fog, then drifted to the wall and stuck there.
"There's some sort of electrical or magnetic connection between the regolith and the wall," Danny said.
Lake chimed in. "I'm sure you boys are having a great time. But can we focus?"
"Sure," Danny said. "Sorry."
"Just keep reporting what you s-see, Long," Justin said, his voice weaker than before. "We should at least have some data to bring… to bring back."
"Okay. We're proceeding down the tunnel. The farther away we get from the rover and where we fell in, the less regolith there is on the floor and the walls. The walls of the tunnel are smooth and white…"
They trudged on for half an hour, with Danny having nothing new to describe. Their helmet lights bounced with their footfalls, making the monotonous environment a disorienting and dizzy experience. More than once, they had to stop walking just to settle their stomachs. And the farther they walked, the scratchier the radio reception became.
"Wait a minute," Danny said, stopping.
"What's up?" Mat asked.
"Look." He pointed forward.
"I think we're coming to the end of the tunnel."
The tunnel sides no longer stretched endlessly onward, disappearing in the darkness. Ahead of them, maybe a quarter of a mile, the walls, and the ceiling and the floor ended, their edges jagged against black, open space.
They picked up their pace, nearly jogging in a hopscotch sort of way, and slid to a stop a few feet away from the edge of a cliff.
"What the hell…" Danny uttered.
Ahead of them was a giant chasm, so huge the other end could not be seen. It was as if the face of Mars had been split open, cleaving right through the tunnel. Danny shuffled closer to the edge.
"Careful…" Mat said.
"I think… I think this is the Valles Marineris."
"Yeah." Danny leaned over the edge just enough to look down. The bottom was out of sight, the walls rocky and uneven. He angled his body and craned his neck to look upward. Far above, he could see a sliver of salmon-colored sky and the precipice of the canyon disappearing into the horizon to his left and right. He leaned further out to get a better look.
The rock beneath his boots gave way.
Danny turned as he fell. His hands scrambled for the edge, his gloved fingers digging into the loose stone and broken material of the tunnel's flooring.
Mat dropped to his padded knees and grabbed Danny's suit at the neck ring.
Danny kicked at the chasm wall, dislodging stone and grit.
"Pull me up! Pull me up!"
"I'm trying," Mat grunted as he strained. "I can't get any leverage."
"I can't get a good grip!"
Danny thrashed and struggled for breath. He had no idea how deep the Valles was at this point. But even at one-third gravity, he wouldn't survive the fall. He knew that for sure. His vision narrowed. His heart pounded ferociously against his chest. And then, Lake's dimpled face eased into his mind. Her caramel skin. The sweet candy scent of her hair. The smooth hands he wanted to hold. He stopped squirming and remembered what he learned in his rock climbing club.
"Danny, I can't hold you much longer," Mat's voice cracked.
Danny tightened his finger-grip. He scanned his immediate area, hoping for a crack or a crevice he could wedge his feet into. He spotted a slight indentation near his right foot and slipped his boot toe into it. He transferred weight to that foot and looked to his left. He saw a knob of rock jutting out about shin height. He raised his left leg and rested his boot on the protrusion. The rock broke off and fell into the abyss.
"Hey, stop that," Mat shouted.
Danny left his left leg dangle while keeping his right foot firmly in the notch. "Sorry," he said. He looked up at Mat and saw his friend's grimaced face through his helmet.
And that's when Danny saw the artifact. Not the same one he had. That one was back in the rover. But another one, almost exactly like it. At least from what he could see of it. It was embedded in the floor material of the tunnel, which was exposed like a cutaway diagram. To the left of the artifact, he saw the shadow of another, this one also imbedded, but sticking out about an inch. Next to that one, yet another. It reminded him of steel rods that were added to concrete roads back on Earth to make the roads stronger. Except these were jet black and squared off. He suspected these, whatever they were, ran all through the flooring material and maybe through the walls and ceiling too.
He had an idea.
"Mat, listen to me. I want you to activate your mag boots."
"What the hell for? Whatever this tunnel is made of, it isn't metal."
"I know. Just do it."
"I'll have to let go of you for a second."
Danny tightened his fingers and leaned into his right leg. "I'm okay. Go ahead."
"Here I go." Mat came off his knees and set himself into a crouch, resting on the balls of his feet. He released his hold on Danny's neck ring, tapped a toggle switch on his left forearm. His boots vibrated, and his heels snapped tight to the floor. "Whoa." He regripped Danny's neck ring.
"I think that artifact I found is some sort of Martian lodestone or something. It looks like there's a bunch on them embedded in the floor, maybe all the way back to the rover."
"How should I know? Maybe it's part of a hovertrain system or something like that."
"Well, whatever it's for, it's holding me tight to the ground. I got leverage."
"Can you pull me up, now?"
Mat grunted as he straightened his legs into a standing position, pulling Danny up with him. Danny helped, pushing up with his fingers, then his hands and feet. When Danny's waist had cleared the edge, Mat started walking backward, dragging Danny back into the tunnel.
Mat let go and fell back onto his butt. Danny rolled over onto his back. Simultaneously, they let out a loud sigh and then broke into a duet of relieved laughter.
"Man, that was close, gringo," Mat said when they finally caught their breath.
"Don't I know it." Danny pushed himself to his feet and made his way back to the edge.
"Are you nuts? Get away from there!"
Instead of doing that, Danny tapped the toggle on his forearm that activated his own mag boots and felt his feet snap to the floor. He inched his way to the edge, went down on one knee, keeping one foot firmly planted, and leaned over. He brushed away loose rock and regolith from the ragged edge of the exposed tunnel floor. Without taking his eyes off the edge, he reached into his thigh pocket and removed his camera. He snapped several pictures of the cutaway floor and the exposed artifacts. Of the Valles from every angle, he could manage. And of the ragged edges of the walls and ceiling.
Finished, Danny returned the camera to his pocket, but before he backed away from the opening, he reached down and finger-gripped the artifact that was slightly sticking out. He twisted and pulled the artifact until it broke free of the floor material. Danny dusted it off and brought it up to eye level. It looked identical, in every detail, to the one he had previously found.
"Look at this," Danny said, standing.
"Yeah, well, why don't you just bring it over here? Away from the edge."
Danny grinned and deactivated his boots. He brought the artifact to where Mateo was standing. "It's identical to the other one."
"Wonderful. Terrific. Stupendous. What say we get moving."
Danny dropped the artifact into his thigh pocket. "Good idea. But we obviously aren't getting out this way. Back to the rover."
"Yeah. Maybe we can find a way out the other way."
They turned their back on the gaping Valles Marineris and began their long trek back to the rover.
Now that the euphoria of his rescue had faded, the reality of how close Danny came to plummeting to his death weighed heavily on him. He choked up once, hoping Mat hadn't heard it over his helmet speakers. The fall down the sink-hole was nothing compared to what a fall into the Valles would have been. He hadn't really been afraid then. Today, he had been scared out of his gourd.
Static in his helmet, speakers caught Danny's attention. He tapped the transmit button.
"Lake, this is Danny. Can you hear me?"
More static and broken bits of speech, garbled and distorted.
"Come in, Lake. This is Danny."
"Dan… hurr… Justin…"
"We have to get closer," Mat said.
"Let's go, then," Danny said.
They upped their pace to a bouncy jog. The closer they got to the rover, the clearer the radio signal became.
"Danny, this is Lake. Come in, Danny." Her voice seemed more stressed than Danny had ever heard it. He was used to her being all calm and collected.
Danny slowed to a brisk walk so he could talk. Mat fell in behind him.
"I hear you, Lake. What's wrong?"
"It's Justin. He's passed out. White as a ghost. The left leg of his suit is spongy and enlarged. Danny, I don't think it was a simple break anymore. I think he has a compound fracture, and he's bleeding out into his suit."
"Jeez," Mat said.
"What can you do for him?" Danny asked.
"I have to stop the bleeding, but I can't do anything for him while we're in environment suits."
"What about increasing the airflow in his suit," Mat suggested. "You know, give it more pressure. Wouldn't that stop the bleeding?"
"I already increased it slightly. It may have slowed it down, but the amount of pressure necessary to completely stop the bleeding would also cause his eardrums to implode or nitrogen bubbles to form in his blood."
"Tourniquet?" Danny suggested.
"I thought of that, but it's ineffective on a pressurized e-suit."
"Let me think," Danny said absently. His mind whirled around the inside of the rover. Envisioning the equipment. The seats. The lockers. The open airlock doors. The broken windshield. The first aid… Wait a minute.
"Mat," Danny stopped short and faced Mat.
"You said the rover's CO2 scrubber was damaged, and the cabin air tanks were ruptured."
"What about the airlock?"
"Yeah, the airlock. Doesn't it have its own air recycler? You know to suck the air out of the airlock before the outer door is opened and to put it back in when it's closed?"
"Well, yeah. But there's not enough air in its recycle tank for long-term use. Besides, the airlock recycler uses the main cabin CO2 scrubber to filter out the carbon dioxide every time it's used. And remember, the CO2 scrubber is toast. Without it, the air inside the recycler would just build up with carbon dioxide."
"Yeah, yeah. But, we only used the recycler once when we bled the lock to leave the rover. And we left the doors open, so we never put the air back in. It should still be in the airlock recycler tank and pretty clean. It'll be a tight squeeze, but she can get Conner's suit off and stop the bleeding."
Mat was quiet for a moment. "But…"
"But what?" Lake prompted.
"I never checked the airlock recycler tank for damage. Didn't think about it. I don't know if it's intact. The tank could be empty."
They said nothing for a few moments. Finally, Danny spoke up.
"Okay. One problem at a time. Lake, can you get drag Conner into the airlock by yourself?"
"I don't know. He's a big guy. No matter. I'll get him in there."
Danny and Mat started walking again.
"Lake," Mat said. "Once you get both of you in there, make sure you dog the inner door tight. The pressure gauges may or may not be damaged. You may not know whether you have air in the lock."
Danny said, "Let's be positive and assume they're working." He paused. "But, it's your call Lake."
"I'll take care of Justin. Just get back here, Danny."
Danny checked the digital readout on his forearm. "We're about fifteen minutes out."
"Okay," she said.
Danny and Mat sped up to their earlier pace. They listened to Lake's progress in their helmet speakers. They heard her grunts of exertion, the strain in her voice, the wheeze in her breathing as she dragged the unconscious body of Justin Conner across the rover's deck plating, past broken equipment and shattered glass. Danny checked his own air reserve. Of the five hours they estimated each had in their suits, two had passed. And the sound of Lake's efforts reminded him they were using their air up at a faster rate, which meant they probably had a lot less than three hours of breathable air remaining.
"I'm… I'm in."
"Great job, Lake," Danny said.
"Closing… the inner door. Closed. Secured. Activating the recycler."
They couldn't hear the sound of the recycler, of course. They could only hear Lake's rapid inhales and exhales. The seconds dragged on.
"The light didn't turn from red to green. I don't think it worked."
Mat said, "Take a look at the vent in the corner near the top of the lock. There should be a red ribbon tied to the vent."
"I see it."
"Is the ribbon moving? If the recycler is pushing air into the lock, the ribbon would be flapping."
"It's… it's twitching, but it's not… wait a second. It's flapping now. And the light just turned green."
"Okay," Mat said. "You should have air pressure."
"I'm removing my helmet."
Danny felt his lungs ache as if he were removing his own helmet in a vacuum. The seconds ticked by as he waited for Lake to tell them she was okay, that she was breathing air.
"Lake?" he said. "Lake, can you hear me? Lake?"
"Lakisha!" Danny shouted and started to run.
"Here," she said.
Danny almost fell as he skidded to a stop. "What took you so long?"
"Sorry. I had trouble putting on my radio headset."
"Don't scare me like that! We're almost there. A few minutes."
"Okay. I'm going to work."
Danny said nothing further, not wanting to distract her but also a little embarrassed about losing his cool. He put it aside and focused on the hike. After a few minutes, he saw the soft amber glow of the rover's interior lights bleeding through the shattered windshield.
"We see you, Lake. We're close."
"It was a compound fracture all right. I had to cut off the leg of his e-suit to get to it, but I managed to reset the bone and stop the bleeding. Don't freak out when you get here, but there's blood all over the deck."
"Freak out? Me?"
Mat chuckled. "Yeah, you, gringo. You remember that time back at Yellowstone, when — "
"Hey," Danny interrupted. "I was nine." He cocked his head at Mat and shot him a scowl. The sapphire blue of his internal helmet light made his expression look cartoonish.
Mat responded with a toothy smile.
Danny and Mat circled the rover. Danny climbed the ladder to the air lock's outer hatch and tapped on the thick window. Lake stood and came into view.
Danny took a breath. She was still wearing her e-suit, but her helmet and gloves were off. A wire communications headset ran from her ear to her mouth. Her creamy face glistened with sweat. Her damp hair clung to her head but frizzed out at the ends. The whites of her dark eyes were red, and Danny suspected she had been crying. Over Conner? A bubble of regret swelled within him, from deep in his stomach to his chest and throat.
"Hey," Danny whispered to her.
"Hey," she said softly.
"Hell-oohh," Mat added. "How's about you guys suiting up so Danny and I can come inside?"
"About that," Lake started.
"About that, what?" Mat countered.
Danny and Lake held each other's gaze through the window. "Lake had to cut Conner's suit open to stop the bleeding. They're stuck in the airlock."
Danny wanted to be inside, to be next to Lake even if Conner was there between them. But that wasn't going to happen. They would probably die apart, separated by glass and metal.
Mat climbed down the ladder and paced beside the rover. "Sure wish we had that hover train of yours, Danny boy."
Absently, his eyes still on Lake, Danny said, "Well, it wouldn't really be a hovertrain. It would be more like a mag-lev train. Like the ones in Japan and the one they're building from Chicago to Los Angeles."
"Yeah. The magnetic field the train generates pushes the train up, and along the track, so it looks like it's hovering but…"
"But, what?" Mat prompted.
Danny's face broke into a broad smile.
"What are you thinking?" Lake asked.
"Mag-lev. Magnetic levitation. Built inside the tunnel floor are bricks of that artifact I found. They produced a magnetic field when Mat and I used our mag boots, so even though the surface of the tunnel floor is like concrete, our boots stuck to it like it was metal."
"So, how does that help us?" Mat asked.
"Grade school stuff. What happens when you bring a negative magnetic charge and a positive magnetic charge together?"
"They attract each other."
"Like the regolith did to the walls and our boots did to the floor. So, what happens when you bring two of the same charges together? You know, positive to positive or negative to negative?"
"They repel each other," Lake answered.
"Prize to the pretty lady."
"Again," Mat interjected. "This helps us, how?"
"Well, if we reverse the polarity of our boots, it should repel us up and away from the tunnel floor. If might even be strong enough to push us all the way back to the surface."
"That's crazy," Mat said.
"Sure, it is, but we're running out of options. And air."
"It's worth a shot," Lake said. "At least you two will get out."
Danny put a gloved hand on the window. "If it works, we can get a radio signal to the dome. They can have a rescue winch here in half an hour."
"Let's test it out," Mat said.
Danny stared at Lake. She smiled softly and nodded. "Go."
Danny slid down the ladder's handrails, and both he and Mat strode to the front of the rover to a spot relatively free of regolith.
"Okay," Mat said, adjusting the polarity of his boots with the controls on his forearm. He did the same to Danny's. "So, now when we activate the boots, if your theory is right, we should be pushed off the floor instead of sticking to it."
"Let's do it. Three. Two. One."
They activated their boots at the same time. Both shot upward and hit the tunnel's ceiling with their helmets. Mat let out a hoot.
"I take it… you were successful?" Lake said, her words sluggish.
"We sure were," Danny said.
"But how do we get down?"
"Easy. Turn off the boots." They did. And dropped back to the tunnel floor.
"Danny," Lake slurred. "I'm getting… tired."
Mat said, "Carbon dioxide is already building up in the lock."
Danny and Mat started back to the rover. Danny said, "Lake, listen to me. You'll need to get back on your suit air. Conner too."
"But… his suit is compra… compra…"
"Compromised. I know. But you're starting to show signs of CO2 poisoning. You just need to stop breathing the air in the lock. Get your gloves and helmet on and start breathing in your suit."
"Okay. I'm… doing it. But… what about Justin?"
Danny climbed the front of the rover and ducked through the windshield frame. "I think if you take that pant leg, you know, the one you cut off. Tie that tight around his leg above the break. That should keep his suit air in the suit. Then get his helmet back on and his suit air flowing."
Lake took a couple of deep breaths and said. "Okay. I'm back in my suit. Feeling better already. Starting to work on Justin."
"Tie that pant leg as tight as you can, Lake," Danny said as he opened the field gear locker. "Even though you can't breathe the air, the lock is still pressurized, and that will help keep the air in Conner's suit, but I think some will still leak out, so we'll need to watch his tank level."
"Leg tied off. Securing his helmet. Secured. Starting his airflow."
Danny pulled on a climbing harness, stepping into the leg loops and tightening the waist belt. He slipped a hundred-foot coil of nylon rope over one shoulder and a bag of climbing tools over his other. He turned to the air lock's interior door and knocked on the glass window. Lake looked up and gave a brief wave. She showed him a sad smile. Danny felt his heart lurch.
"It's going to be okay, Lake. I promise."
"You shouldn't promise things that are out of your control, Danny. Just do your best."
They looked at each other for a moment, separated by steel and suits.
"Hell-oohh," Mat said.
"Coming," Danny said and turned from the airlock. He met Mat in front of the rover. "Okay," Danny said, looking up. "I have no idea how high we'll be repelled, but if we can get high enough and stay close to the wall of the crevice, we can climb the rest of the way."
"Not we, Danny. Just you."
Danny looked back at Mat. "What?"
"I'm not a climber, gringo. You know that. I'll just slow you down. You're our best chance of getting out of this mess."
"Mat — "
"He's right, Danny," Lake said.
"Get going. I'll stay back with Lake and the rock jock."
"Okay, I'm not going to argue."
"Good luck," Lake said softly.
Danny nodded but knew she couldn't see him. His throat ached with the effort of stifling his growing anxiety, and, at that moment, he couldn't trust his voice. He never had this kind of responsibility before. Not just his own life. But three other lives. The girl he wanted. His best friend. And his rival. They were all counting on him.
He positioned himself close to the crevice wall above him but far enough away so he wouldn't crash into it. Holding the coil of rope tight to his chest, he activated his mag boots. He shot up fast. Zoomed past the tunnel ceiling and immediately began to slow until he finally stopped moving upward altogether.
"Shit," he said through tight lips.
"I can't see you," Mat said.
Danny looked down and saw the faint blue oval of Mat's helmet light and a blur of amber from the rover. "I'm hovering about thirty or forty feet above you, I think. I'm just guessing."
"Can you reach the wall?" Mat asked.
"Yeah. I'm only a foot or two away from it. It looks like I've got about a hundred and fifty more feet to climb. Piece of cake."
Actually, it wasn't going to be a piece of cake at all. Danny hadn't climbed since he left Earth, and he had never ascended anything vertical. And in an environment suit? Not ever. He reached into the climbing bag and pulled out a piton-spike and small hammer. He found a small crack in the rock wall at eye level and hammered the piton into it. Once the serrated stake was securely embedded in the wall, he slipped the outer end of the climbing rope through the eye of the piton and tied it off. He pulled a carabiner clip from the bag, let out about ten feet of slack from the coil, and knotted the rope to the carabiner, then clipped the carabiner to a ring on his belt. The thickness of his gloves made the effort difficult and time-consuming. He was already breathing hard.
"Heads up, Mat," Danny said as he dropped the coil of rope. It unspooled as it fell.
"Hey, watch it. You almost clobbered me."
"Sorry about that. I'll be pulling the rope up as I go. Let me know when it's off the ground."
Danny checked his air reserve. The effort was causing him to go through his air supply fast. If he didn't try to control his breathing, he would run out of air long before Lake and the others. That wouldn't do them any good.
He reached above his helmet and felt the coarse, rocky wall until he found a protrusion he could grasp. He bent his leg at the knee and rubbed his boot across the surface until he found a notch big enough to fit the toe of his boot. Snug in the notch, Danny pushed up and reached with his free hand. Immediately, he felt the tug of the magnetic field dissipate, and he knew he was beyond its range.
He continued his slow, arduous ascent. Every ten feet or so, when the rope between the piton and his belt became taut, he drove in another piton, pulled up another ten feet free rope, knotted it around another carabiner clip, attached the clip with the slack to his belt, and transferred the carabiner with the taut rope to the new piton. It made for a slow climb, but if a piton broke loose, or a knot came undone, or if he just slipped and fell, he'd only fall as far as the last piton. At least, that was what he was taught. He never tested it out. And he hoped he wouldn't have to now.
It wasn't long before Mat told him the end of the rope was off the ground.
Sweat began to drip down his forehead. It stung his eyes, but all he could do with his helmet on was shake his head. The air in his suit became stale and foul-smelling, like an old gym sock. His breathing became labored. He was afraid to check his air supply, afraid he would see he wouldn't have enough to make the top.
His fingers ached from working in the padded gloves of his suit. His arms were on fire, his legs heavy as lead.
Every so often, Mat or Lake would check on him. His responses became less wordy until he was only grunting an "okay" or something like that.
He could see the pinkish sky through his tear and sweat-filled eyes. It was so close. And then, fifty feet from the top, he reached the end of the rope. He held it in his glove and stared at it as if it were something alien. It took him several moments through his foggy thoughts to realize his predicament. He had no more rope to secure him to the wall. His safety factor was gone, and he'd have to do something he'd never done before — make a free climb up a vertical rock face.
"Warning," his suit's internal monitor announced. "Elevated heart rate."
He screwed his eyes shut and leaned his forehead against the faceplate of his helmet, fighting the urge to cry. He thought back to the last time he was with his father. Snippets of conversation echoed in his head.
"Mars is like the greatest adventure there is.
"Out here, this is how the old west used to be. Except with spacesuits.
"I came to Mars for the adventure of it. To be out here on the frontier."
His mind drifted to Lake. To her hair, her eyes. Her dimpled cheeks. Images of her in the Geology lab. In the rover. In the airlock.
"That was a good thing you did. Taking care of Justin before yourself."
Her smile remained in his thoughts. He opened his eyes, squinted, and shook the burn away. He took a long, deep breath.
And unhooked from the safety rope.
He climbed deliberately. Testing each knob of rock, each toe-hold, and crack. His lungs burned as they tried to fuel his body with less and less available air.
"Warning. Oxygen consumption erratic."
Ten feet from the top, his foot slipped. He cried out. His body dangled. He clutched the rock in grips made strong by terror. His boots scraped the wall until they found support again. He hung there for a moment, his heart banging against his chest like someone who just woke up and found himself buried alive in a tight, pitch-black coffin.
"Warning. Recommended maximum heart rate exceeded."
He let his pulse and his ragged breathing settle before he started up again.
His gloved hands reached over the edge and clawed at the regolith, brushing it aside until he felt solid ground. He pushed up with his legs until his elbows cleared the lip of the crevice. He dug them in like hiking poles and walked his body forward while his legs continued to step him up. When his waist cleared the lip, he fell to his chest, gasping so fast and so loudly he couldn't think. He low-crawled the rest of the way out of the crevice.
He rolled onto his back. Help… he had to get help…
Danny toggled his transmit button. "May…mayday…" He tried to say the words, but they came out as garbled wheezes. Breathing seared his raw throat. His chest felt like a boulder pressed down on it.
"Warning. Oxygen level critical."
So… close, he thought. To get so close… Only one chance left.
He reached for the transmit button, locked it down. Cranked up his music playlist.
And promptly passed out.
The sound of his music gently morphed into the high, clinical beeping of medical instruments. His body was numb and felt bulky. Air pumped gently into his nostrils through tiny tubes that smelled like rubber. He struggled to open his eyes, but his lids were so heavy he could barely do it. When he finally did, his sight was blurry, and took a moment to focus. Instead of the pastel Martian sky, he saw coarse, white ceiling tiles.
"I think he's awake," came a voice at his side. He didn't immediately recognize it, but when he eased his head in that direction, his vision slow-focused on a medical technician.
"Danny." Danny's father marched up to the bed. Danny couldn't ever remember seeing him so ruffled. His uniform collar was undone, his normally groomed hair was ruffled, he looked like he hadn't shaved in a couple of days, and his eyes suggested he hadn't slept much in that time either. How long had he been out?
"D-dad?" Was that his own voice, Danny wondered. It sounded off.
His dad smiled and took Danny's hand. "How are you, son?"
Danny thought briefly that his father had been replaced by an imposter. He hadn't seen this kind of concern from him since Danny got sick with meningitis and almost died.
"Feeling… weird," Danny said.
His dad pulled up a chair and sat next to the bed. "It's the medication." He nodded to the IV bag hanging on a pole on the other side of the bed. Danny saw the tubing snake from the half-filled bag to a bandage taped to the top of his hand. Now that he knew it was there, he could feel the needle, and he didn't like it.
His thoughts began to clear, and with it came concern. He turned back to his father. "Lake? The others. Are they… alive?"
"They certainly are. Thanks to you."
"So, you got to them in time?"
"Yes, we did. Once we heard that noise you call music being broadcast, we deduced you were in trouble again. Fortunately, we had a good idea where you were, and that cut down the response time considerably."
"They're okay." The relief made his voice a whisper.
"Yes. That was quick thinking, Danny. I mean, it was all good, but the idea to get the Conner boy and the Mackenzie girl into the airlock probably saved both their lives. Those extra thirty minutes breathing the air in the lock before they went back on their suit tanks gave us the time we needed to tow your rover back to the dome. We wouldn't have been able to get Conner out safely down there."
His father chuckled. "I've always liked Mateo. He's as stubborn as you are. He refused to leave your rover. Said he was going to ride back with his team or not at all. We dropped him an auxiliary air tank, and sure enough, he stayed with your friends until they were inside the dome."
Danny fell back to his pillow and blew out a long breath.
"I'm proud of you, son."
At that, Danny felt his throat tighten.
"We've been reviewing the audio logs of your field trip. You stepped up and made some tough decisions. You showed leadership and courage. And you made an amazing discovery. One that has already changed the focus of this colony."
"You mean the Martian's train tunnel?"
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves. No one on staff or at the university is ready to concede this tunnel was built by an ancient race of Martians. At least not yet. But those artifacts you discovered and those photos you took have excited all the right people."
Danny smiled and thought that at least they're thinking about Martians.
"By the way," his father stood and moved the chair back. "I'm not the only one impressed by you. The colony director wants to see you as soon as you're released. It seems there is an open position with a new exploration department being formed. If you're interested."
"If I'm interested? Are you kidding me? Sign me up!"
"That's what I thought you'd say."
"Hey, does this mean that I'm off restriction?
"It certainly does not."
Danny brought his free hand up and cradled his head on the pillow. "That's okay. I guess I don't mind."
"By the way, your mother will want to talk to you. I'll schedule the call." He actuated the glass door
"And, it seems there are a few more people here to see you." Mat, Lake, and Justin came in as Danny's father left the room. Justin hobbled on crutches.
Justin Conner wore a thick bandage on his forehead and a limb immobilizer on his broken right leg. His color had returned, and he looked healthy enough. But Danny didn't pay much attention to Justin's condition. His main focus was on Lake. A vice of anguish squeezed his heart when he looked at her.
"How're do doing?" Mat asked.
"Good, I guess. I just woke up a few minutes ago. Haven't seen the doc yet."
Lake moved around Mat, so she was next to the bed. "That was an amazing thing you did, Danny. That climb. When they towed the rover out of the crevice, I saw just how deep we were. And how far you had to go."
He didn't reply. He wanted to say he would have climbed higher for her if he had to. But Justin was there with her. And he didn't want to make things difficult for her by expressing his feelings now. He just nodded.
Here it comes, Danny thought. "Yeah?"
"I just want to tell you… I just want to say… thanks."
"What, are you deaf? I said thanks. Look, you saved my skin. And… and you did a good job — "
"Justin…" Lake seemed to scold him.
"Okay, you did a great job on the trip. I…." He paused.
Lake folded her arms across his chest, her dimples disappearing in a frown.
"Okay, jeez," Justin said to Lake. To Danny, he said, "If the opportunity would come up, I would… bring you with on another field trip."
Danny felt his jaw drop.
"There," Justin said, pushing away from the bed with his crutches. "I said it. Now, I gotta go." He did a pivot dance with the crutches and hobbled to the glass doors. They parted at his touch, and he shambled out. As the doors closed, a tall, amber-haired girl came up to him, kissed him on the cheek, and walked out of sight with him, her hand on his shoulder.
"Who's that?" Danny asked. He remembered seeing her somewhere in the university.
Lake leaned to look through the glass. "Oh, that's Emily. She's an intern in the Geology Department."
Right. The Geology Department. That's where he'd seen her. "She's awfully chummy with him."
"Well, sure," Lake said casually. "They're a couple."
Danny felt his jaw drop again. And the blood drains from his face. "A couple? Like, his girlfriend?"
"Didn't you know?" she asked.
"I thought you were his…" The blood rushed right back to his face in a frenzy.
Mat burst out laughing.
"You thought I was his girlfriend?"
"Let me tell you something, Danny Long." She strode to the doors and hammered the actuator with the bottom of a closed fist. "You may be one of the smartest kids on this planet, but you're not very bright." She turned and marched out, the doors swishing closed behind her like a punctuation mark.
But, as she turned off, Danny saw the side of her face. Just a quick glimpse before he lost sight of her. And the deep dimples of her smile. He felt his blush fade, and the despair that had been leeching on his heart wither away.
The Planet Mars. Lakisha Mackenzie. Danny Long tucked his hand between his head and pillow and smiled at the turn of events and the promise of new possibilities.