June 6, 2020

Free Fiction Friday: The Hunt for Beagle Part 3

Here’s this week’s installment of our Mars-spanning adventure set in the Solar Winds universe. Read it as a stand alone, or start back on Chapter I.  Or read The Hunt for Beagle in its entirety!

The Hunt for Beagle

Part III

by

David Dickinson

 

It wasn’t hard for her to summon up the time to approach Zeke between classes the next day. She slid coyly up to him as he munched on his sandwich.

“How’s things?” She said gamely. Zeke was taken back by her new found attention. The unspoken pattern between them was that he usually chased her, and then she chased whatever new unobtainable heart throb she currently fancied.

“Just another day in the ‘burg…” He said cryptically.

Andrea cut to the chase. “I’ve got a job, for you solider.”

Zeke drew back in a pause. If this was a comedy-vid, he would have spit out his sandwich, Andrea thought. She felt driven, on a quest.

“What’s chomping at you, kid?” He sensed excitement and desperation drawing near. Still, it was good to see Andrea out of her slump, back to her excited-about-the-universe self.

“Check this out…” She beamed her late night research to his visor-vid. He scanned through the first few seconds. It showed the familiar deep Martian desert, with an unfamiliar pile of wreckage, obviously simulated, strewn about. “Mars was a graveyard for early Earth probes,” the narration droned.

“Some old space junk, so what?” Zeke continued. “My Dad’s always bringing back pieces of the early Seeder Ships he finds on water prospecting runs.”

“Not one like this…” Andrea sped through the vid. A small lander spread out before them like a tiny metal flower. To Andrea, it looked like an ancient Earth pocket watch. “It’s the Beagle 2, and it disappeared in the early 21st century, before the Seeders. Before people.” She almost couldn’t catch her breath now. “And we’re going to recover it!”

“Excuse me; Miss Makati…didn’t most of those old unmanned probes wind up in Saganopolis Museum? Some of the restored rovers still even operate…”

Andrea cut him off. “Not this one. Its target site was only a few hundred klicks from here.”

Only a few hundred, Zeke thought. “What are we going to do, walk there during lunch?”

“That’s were I need you, buddy o’ mine,” Andrea began. She had worked out the details, or so she thought, many times over. “We’re going to borrow one of the Creepers from your dad’s garage and retrieve it. Just think, we’ll be famous, and I’ll pass Ancient Mars History!” And stay on the zero-grav gymnastics team, she almost added. The girl heroine has gotta earn a gold for Mars!

Andrea pressed on.

“If we found the Beagle Lander and brought it back, we’d be famous! Your Dad’s company, everybody would profit! No one has recovered one of those old Landers for over a century!”

“We’d be dead,” Zeke countered. “Sandstorm season’s coming.”

“But you can pilot a creeper, Zeke. I’ve seen you!” Andrea was desperate now.

“Not beyond the rim of Galle Crater. And certainly not way out in the Lowlands. My Dad would kill me if Mars doesn’t.”

“That’s why we need to go this weekend, during Settlement Days.”

Settlement Days was the biggest three-day holiday on Mars. They commemorated the first manned landing, and virtually every business function would be shut down. Plus, every adult —Andrea’s and Zeke’s parents included— would all be hung over from too much Viking Ale. A perfect time for them to slip out unnoticed for a day or two. Andrea planned to tell her Mom that she was going to her sister’s by the University to spend the night. She counted on the fact that her Mom would never check up on her. That is, if I’m not grounded for life yet…

“Adventure’s calling, pal o’ mine. Can I count you in?”

Zeke was both thrilled and terrified at the prospect. A weekend alone with Andrea. It was like a dream come true. He’d had a huge crush on her since the beginning of the year, but it seemed as if he was always chasing after her. No matter how many of her meets he faithfully attended, she always had her eye on someone unattainable. He felt thrilled that this connection suddenly made him worth considering.

“I can check my Dad’s maintenance dock. Odds are there’s a fresh Creeper stocked and ready to go out. At very least, there will be a search and rescue unit standing by.”

Andrea openly hugged him.

“You’re the greatest, big guy. I’ll bring the O2 and my crispest excursion suit to the party!

A girl approached them from the tubes. Jessica Sabbath. She was flanked by her usual acolytes, Andrea noticed.

“You two make a charming unit,” She chided, snapping a Virtual Vid. “This will make a wonderful addition to the class also-ran’s.”

“We’ve got you and your cronies beat this time, girlie,” Andrea shot back.

“Heard you’re getting bumped from the team, girlfriend,” Jessica said with a sneer.

“That’d be their loss, not mine,” Andrea shot back. She didn’t need her thought-trodes spun up for a cleaver reply. “Still getting your nano-roots installed at the lube factory?”

Jessica felt her followers snicker at that one for a micro-second. She couldn’t let her grip falter. She had her avatar feed her a dig. Its setting was specifically calculated to cause the most grief. Or so she hoped.

“I see that you’re getting a jump on hanging with your future summer school plebes.”

“Andrea’s gonna ace Planetary History,” Zeke shot back, “We’ve got a big find the deep desert. You’ll see after this weekend.”

Jessica shrugged wordlessly and moved on. Doubtless, she doesn’t want to be seen replying to an “underling”, Andrea realized. I hope I live to see her fat and married off to a Drone Miner.

“Well,” Andrea said to Zeke, winking, “The die is cast.”

 

They rolled well before dawn, with the deep pinks of the Martian skies just emerging on the faint horizon.

The diminished summer Sun glinted off of the forward windscreen. Zeke deftly maneuvered the creeper along the dunes, avoiding the larger rocks along the way. Andrea checked the virtual map against their proposed path; once out of Saganopolis and Galle crater, they would veer roughly northeastward out of the highlands. Andrea felt a slight knot in her stomach when she realized that she had never truly been into the largely uninhabited lowlands before. She had been hiking to Southern Pole cap with her sister once and outside the dome on a few school trips, but never on her own. Strange, she thought, despite the fact that she had been born off-world on Phobos.

“In a dozen klicks, we’re going to have to veer off road to avoid Legion check points,” Zeke called out. A row of thermal collectors whizzed by on their right. Slowly, the climate of Mars was changing. The minister of development once spoke at their school, telling them that their grandchildren would one day be able to breathe the atmosphere of a terra-formed Mars, just like the success story of Venus. But her grandfather balked at the idea. “Things are gonna get worse before they get better, lassie. Take the dust storms, for example…”

A jolt brought her back to reality. They were cruising along now, at a top speed of about 40 kilometres per hour. Doubtless, they would lose speed once they went off-road, but Andrea hoped they would make up for it once they were in the relatively flat lowlands. She powered up the comm. “MarsSat II is overhead; real-time weather looks clear, solar activity is holding at a minima…”

The crawler had minimal shielding. Once they were outside of the protective magnetic shield of Saganopolis, they were at the whim of the Sun. A flare would mean they would have to put in at one of the emergency shelters burrowed and scattered about Mars. The closest was currently a little more than 100 kilometres distant. And as for dust storms… Andrea hoped they wouldn’t be a problem. The season wasn’t due for another two weeks.

“Here is where the real fun begins…” Zeke veered hard to the right. The crawler jumped immediately.

“Won’t the Legion scouts be curious where we’ve gone to?”

“Curious thing about those automated check points,” Zeke continued, “They don’t always interface with the Terran scouts. My Dad does this when he’s running ‘special transactions’…”

“Don’t tell me your Dad’s the legendary Great White Martian smuggler…”

“He gets the job done. Now we just have to avoid roving aerial eyes…”

 

“We’ve got a mover, sir.”

The lieutenant leaned back from the finder scope. An automated sensor in orbit had pinged movement outside of normal corridors. After a time, it deemed the oddity deserved the scrutiny of a human —or at least semi-human— eye to possibly dissect its purpose.

The lieutenant called for his commander via cyber-comm. His built in Legion links enabled him to access the Legion sensors automatically.

“What do you have, lieutenant?” The commander called back from Mars Control. Traffic had been light this holiday weekend, and the patrols were bored. The commander imagined that even the local smugglers would be too drunk this fine Martian morning to be out making runs.

“Just a fragment, really,” he continued. “A blip off of the southwest tracking out of Saganopolis.”

“Do we have any expected traffic, ground or air?”

“None sir,” The lieutenant moved his head a bit to scroll through the system. “The local check stations are being accessed, but they’re less than co-operative…”

As usual, the commander thought. The colonial systems wouldn’t allow Terran Legion access until the local protocols were addressed. That could mean waking the traffic officer or the bloody mayor of Saganopolis himself for access permission. The commander was amazed that anything on Mars ever got done with all of the local bureaucracy.

But that may soon change…

“Dispatch a low altitude patrol; some of the new rotation is eager to hunt, no doubt.”

…to be continued…

Read more science fiction from David Dickinson.

 

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